Friday, May 27, 2011

Can crowdsourcing make all articles excellent?

Ex-climate scientist William Connolley questions the logic of an earlier post, saying that

I'm not really sure exactly what claim about crowdsourcing you are calling false. If the claim is, crowdsourcing makes all wikipedia articles excellent, then it is trivially false. If the claim is, crowdsourcing is capable of creating excellent articles, then it is trivially true. Probably you mean something else, but what?
Well, as to exactly what claim of crowdsourcing I was originally calling false, in this post I cited the articles on Durandus  and Roscellinus as evidence against the claim that crowdsourcing makes Wikipedia "instantly responsive to new developments". The fact that these articles are entirely plagiarised or 'copied' from the 1913 Catholic Enyclopedia and Britannica 1911 suggests that Wikipedia is somewhat sluggish on the 'new development' front.

On the other possible claims that William mentions, I disagree that "crowdsourcing makes all wikipedia articles excellent" is trivially false. Since we agree it is false, it follows that crowdsourcing fails to make certain articles excellent, and it is an interesting, and therefore non-trivial, question whether there are certain types of article, or certain types of information that crowdsourcing fails to make excellent, and if so why.

I don't propose to answer these non-trivial questions here - I merely point out that they are obviously non-trivial. I have made suggestions in the past.  I suggested that "crowdsourcers are typically shy of deleting material, so articles tend to grow to the point of being unreadable. Second, they have no sense of where material ought to go. So the article tends to lose any basic thread it once had. Third, they have no sense of which facts to include, and which to leave out. What facts about Aristotle would you include in a three page article?". I have also observed that, as a general rules, Wikipedia's coverage of subjects like Boron and set theory is pretty good. On the arts and humanities it is a complete disaster. As Vaknin says, "they are replete with nonsense, plagiarism, falsities, and propaganda".

So it's an interesting question as to whether the poor quality of arts subjects is simply a matter of accident, and could have been the other way round. Another interesting (and therefore non-trivial) question is whether crowdsourcing is better at 'low culture' than 'high culture'. My view is that it is pretty good at articles like this, but really dreadful at articles like this. More later.


William M. Connolley said...

I think that from the context of the claim ( that "It is instantly responsive to new developments" you can tell they aren't thinking of backwaters (sorry) like Roscellinus. They are thinking of things like, say, global warming. Or royal weddings.

But as for your "3 suggestions" I agree; those are big problems.

There is another, which is the issue of contested material. Without a strong authority (which doesn't exist), there is a tendency for articles to accrete material that fits an editors POV. That material may be undue weight, or unbalanced, but as long as it is citable to a "reliable source" (and wikipedias version of RS is badly broken) it is difficult to remove; and if the editor defends it strongly, others are quite likely to go elsewhere and leave it.

As to Vaknin: he appears not to really understand. He says, apparently with amazement, ( "I threatened to initiate a class action lawsuit against Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, and Wikimedia. Immediately afterwards, I was removed as a user". Well, duh. Read WP:NLT, bozo (that refers to V, not you). Vaknin just looks like he is miffed and is grinding his axe - do you really take him seriously? If you want to diss the humanities articles, you'll need a better source.

Edward Ockham said...

Well my own limited expertise in philosophy suggests nearly all the philosophy articles are in terrible shape (see my post on Derrida a few days back).

But then you will reply that academic philosophy, and probably 'high culture' generally is a 'backwater', and there we get to the difficult issue of the whole distinction between 'high' and 'low'. The classic and now outmoded view, accepted by both conservatives and liberals until the 1960s, was that the masses had poor taste generally and that they needed educating. The liberal or Marxist take was that the masses live in 'false consciousness', having been tricked by the capitalist and establishment mass media. I.e. crowds can easily be fooled.

That view is now thoroughly outmoded, of course. There is no 'high' or 'low' culture, there is just what people like, taken as a whole. Since they like Royal Weddings, articles on porn stars, articles on Dr Who, that by definition is 'culture'. That Roscellinus is a mere backwater is a reflection on Roscellinus, not on crowdsourcing. The crowd knows best.

Moulton said...

See Sam Vaknin's insightful commentary here:

Theochlocracy and Narcissism, in which he characterizes the noxious mixture of theocracy and ochlocracy (mob-rule, such as is found in Wikipedia).

Note that on the occasion of her fourth anniversary as a WP admin, Alison Cassidy commented, "Wikipedia is like some evil cult. Once you're initiated in the inner workings, they never let you leave alive."

skholiast said...

Jaron Lanier opines that Wikip is great for pop culture and hard science and pretty seriously problematic for everything else.

Edward Ockham said...

>>Jaron Lanier opines that Wikip is great for pop culture and hard science and pretty seriously problematic for everything else.

Thanks - I Googled this but couldn't find. Do you have a link?