Thursday, February 10, 2011

General semantics and general nonsense

I have been blocked again, and my changes to the article about Martin Gardner’s best known book reverted. This is all part of a long-running battle I have had with nonsense and junk science in Wikipedia for over three years. I fear that junk science is beginning to win.

I had corrected two claims in the article about Martin Gardner's excellent Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Gardner does not give ‘five common characteristics’ of cranks, as the article said, but only two (although he lists five ways in which the second charateristic – paranoia – is made manifest). And he certainly does not claim, as the article suggested, that we can judge a theory according to the psychological characteristics of its author. On the contrary, Gardner explicitly restricts himself ('except in a few cases') to theories so close to 'almost certainly false' that there is no reasonable doubt about their worthlessness. Thus, Velikovksy’s impossible theory of planetary motion, the flat earth theory, Atlantis, and of course ‘General Semantics’. He is not giving criteria to detemine the correctness of a scientific theory. Rather, he is taking theories that are generally recognized as bunk, and making observations about the people who promote them.

The series of articles on and around ‘General Semantics’ illustrates very well how easy it is for junk science to spread its tentacles through Wikipedia, creating the appearance of a coherent, well-sourced alternative scientific system, even when the reality is general nonsense. The article on General Semantics (not to be confused with actual semantics, please) does not represent the subject for what it is - a poorly organised, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric theraphy, according to Gardner (p. 281). Apart from a small 'criticism' section at the end, it is presented as though it were a serious academic discipline. There are many links to and from the article. For example, from Non-Aristotelian logic, although Korzybski’s rambling have very little to do with anything written by Łukasiewicz’s. From Semantic differential and Structural differential and (naturally) Neurolinguistic programming. Not to forget Map-territory relation and Institute of General Semantics. There is even a whole category for the subject.

Some of these articles are about genuine scientific subjects, with links inserted to give credibility to the junk. Others are just junk. Who can tell the difference?

Gardner, writing in 1952 , had a serious concern about the abandonment of ‘science ethics’ by American publishers in the mid-1950s. What difference did it make if the general public was misled? Gardner replied that it is not at all amusing when people are misled by nonsense and lies masquerading as science. “Thousands of neurotics desperately in need of trained psychiatric care are seriously retarding their therapy by dalliance with crank cults. Already a frightening number of cases have come to light of suicides and mental crack-ups among patients undergoing these dubious cures. No reputable publisher would think of releasing a book describing a treatment for cancer if it were written by a doctor universally considered a quack by his peers".

In 1952 his target was popular publishing. Today we have Wikipedia, an internet publication accessible to billions of readers, regarded by many of them (and by most of the popular media) as a reliable reference source. What would Gardner be doing about it if he were alive now? And who will take his place?

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