Theodicius

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A Fundamental Flaw

Posted on by arlen

Stopped in for a while ay Wikkipedia (There’s no link because it’s not worth it).

Here’s the basic concept, see if you can spot the flaw: Everyone is an expert on something, so everyone is welcome to write/edit an entry in this conglomeration. That way we can take advantage of the collective knowledge of the entire net.

OK, did you spot the flaw? There’s no process by which it is determined you are indeed an expert, or even moderately knowledgeable, about the topic you’re writing about. Need I make it clearer? OK, let’s try.

Imagine the set of all people who are an expert on topic x. Got that set in mind? OK, now imagine the set of all people who honestly and sincerely believe they are an expert on topic x. The two sets are not identical. Some people who are experts will not believe themselves to be experts (either out of humility or low self-image) and others who are clearly not experts will believe themselves to be so (we’ve all met our share of Cliff Clavens in life, haven’t we).

Since the set of article writers/editors involved in wikkipedia is self-selected, you will miss out on people who are experts, and get the viewpoints of people who think they are experts. In fact, as has happened on it before, a real expert will edit an entry, correcting the mistakes, and a self-proclaimed expert will come along later and return the errors to the article.

It’s really impossible for such a system to approximate truth, no matter how long you let it operate. Talk about a complete waste of time.

9 Responses to A Fundamental Flaw

  1. Yes, I understand your logic, but you see, the thing is, I’ve used Wikipedia and it has been very helpful to me.

    Conclusions concluded in theory don’t matter. Results matter.

    As long as I personally keep getting good results in my own estimation, I’ll keep loving wikipedia and I’ll be using it despite any apparent logic.

    Also, I usually check multiple sources before I come to conclusions about something. From the checking and comparing I’ve done with wikipedia, from my own use, it has been damn good on some subjects. I don’t know why.

    But I think even this cross-checking is mostly irrelavant.

    What is true? What is true is what is true for you.

    ‘least that’s what I’ve found true for me.

  2. “As long as I personally keep getting good results in my own estimation, I’ll keep loving wikipedia and I’ll be using it despite any apparent logic.”

    As you yourself note, you don’t rely on the information in wikkipedia. I heartily recommend that attitude. And, since the results need to be checked against other sources, what’s the point in checking wikkipedia? I’d rather see the primary sources any day. They’re the ones that matter.

    “From the checking and comparing I’ve done with wikipedia, from my own use, it has been damn good on some subjects. I don’t know why.”

    I can guess. Some subjects are just too cut and dried for there to be room for speculation. I’d expect the wikkipedia entry on 2+2, to propose a simplistic and non-existent example, to be 4. I’d expect a wikkipedia entry on world war one, however, to be quite a bit less useful. Beyond that, there’s always randomness to account for it. Even a stopped clock shows the correct time, twice a day (unless it’s a 24-hr clock, that is). Trouble is, unless you already know, or at least suspect, the answer, you never know when you’re reading crap or when you’ve got ahold of the good stuff. Which brings up one final way you can percieve wikkipedia to be right: it may agree with you. Note this does not address the question of accuracy. It can give an answer you agree with to the smallest detail, and still be wrong. Truth, unfortunately, is not a democracy. At one time everyone knew the world was flat; that didn’t make it so. Truth is what it is; it needs to be discovered, not voted on. Its “true-ness” isn’t subject to popular whim.

    I can give you an example of the silliness at the root of wikkipedia that a friend just pointed me to a while ago. Harlan Ellison corrected the information in his biographical entry on wikkipedia. His entry was then quickly “re-corrected” back to the erroneous state he’d found it in. I take it there’s been a long discussion thread on Ellison’s web site over it. I haven’t had the time to locate it and read it all, so take that example with a grain of salt if you like. Or have a peep at the discussion thread. Me, I’ll get around to it later, when there’s less work to do. (It appears to begin here and continue on for quite some time, which I why I haven’t read it, yet.)

    When I find bad information, such as in the entry on the Dead Sea Scrolls (you’d think that if you want to mention some of the wilder specualtions of Eisenman, for example, it would be germane to the point to note that Eisenman himself has repudiated those speculations, saying they aren’t consistent with the internal evidence of the scrolls, but that’s not the case according to the wikkipedia posters) I have to say your “results matter” line simply supports my point. If, indeed, results matter, then I know I can’t trust what I read there.

    An experiment I may perform when I have the time: use Google or DogPile or (insert name of favorite search engine here) and see how much better (in terms of completeness and accuracy) the search engine is.

    “What is true is what is true for you.” Hmmm. So, if I happen to run into you with my car because I sincerely believe that red means go, you wouldn’t mind at all? Somehow I suspect you’d be more than a little ticked at me. It’s a great statement, it just isn’t logically sustainable.

    Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a universal truth. To deny that claim is to assert it. (Think it through: when you say “There is no universal truth” you are actually saying “It is universally true that there is no universal truth.” It’s like the old saw, “This statement is false.” It’s logically inconsistent, and once you waive the law of non-contradiction, all communication becomes impossible.)

    Since universal truth exists we have two choices. We can try to ignore it, and act as if it doesn’t exist, or we can try and find it. If we do the former, we run the risk of running into it, good and hard, right when it’s the most inconvenient (reality has a habit of picking times like that). So we’re better off doing the latter.

    So we search. And in that search, why would anyone want to rely on a source where accuracy is simply co-incidental?

  3. You have some good points and made some things clearer to me.

    I just want to clarify a couple things:

    “… since the results need to be checked against other sources, what’s the point in checking wikkipedia?”

    It works two ways. I check wikipedia to verify other sources, as I check other sources to verify wikipedia. If both sources or more are saying the same thing, then there is a higher probablity that the data is correct. If they are saying different things then I know that perhaps I should research further.

    I don’t check multiple sources just for verification of accuracy, but also for additional data that I might be interested in. From my limited use of wikipedia I’ve noticed that it provides an abundance of information on things that I look up — like an encyclopedia, which I really like.

    “I’d rather see the primary sources any day. They’re the ones that matter.”

    Your absolutely right. Why not just go to the source of the information instead of wikipedia? Maybe your right about that.

    An advantage of wikipedia is that it is a single interface for finding information. It depends but sometimes its easier to find and work with information in a single standard way instead of having to have to figure out multiple websites and other possible complications. Also, how to find certain information, even with search engines, is not always readily apparent.

    Looking at all this, I realize that I agree with you about wikipedia’s fundamental flaw.

    Wikipedia is not meant to be an authoritative reference. Every tool has its correct and best uses, so does wikipedia. In some cases, I think you are right, wikipedia is worthless or even destructive.

    Though I could imagine (as I don’t really know) that wikipedia probably reaches far out, into little nooks and crannies, providing accurate information (cross-checkable, but without which you’d never be clued into at all) not available in more traditional reference sources — and probably not picked up nearly as fast.

    “What is true is what is true for you. Hmmm. So, if I happen to run into you with my car because I sincerely believe that red means go, you wouldn’t mind at all? Somehow I suspect you’d be more than a little ticked at me. It’s a great statement, it just isn’t logically sustainable.”

    I didn’t say I agree with or will put up with what some people would find true for themselves.

    Sometimes you can look at information and know how trustworthy it is based on various factors. Let’s say information on a subject says that the subject is controversial. That’s a flag right there that the information you are reading may contain incorrect information on the subject because the subject is “controversial”.

    When you read something, you can compare the information with your own personal experience and with other data you have confidence in. You sort out for yourself the validity of data by considering these different factors. This is evaluating data.

    It of course depends, but perhaps after a lot of research, or a little, after some personal experience, after being hit by a car because you thought the red hand meant walk, maybe after you ask your mother, you can come to a conclusion about what is true. And that is your conclusion. That is true for you right then. It may not be true in the physical universe, but it may be. It may not be true for others, but it may be.

    Maybe you decide to change what is true for you based off of new information, or decide to change because it doesn’t work in the physical universe very well, and you want it to work in the physical universe.

    Maybe there is universal truth — I sure can’t deny it, like you state, which is really interesting. But that doesn’t change the validity of and the operation of relative truth.

    In my original posting I said the cross-checking is mostly irrelevant. Maybe it isn’t irrelevant at all. It depends. It’s kind of irrelevant for me because I already know about what I’m looking up on wikipedia most of the time and can spot and sort out sketchy information pretty easily. So my orginal posting is true for me, not necessarily true for others, which maybe I should have stated originally.

  4. The quality of a source is less critical when you’re fairly certain of the answer before you look for it. If that’s the case, almost any source will do. The crucial test of an information source is when you’re learning something new. And that’s the test wikkipedia fails.

    Just for grins, because of a discussion I was having in another context but about a similar topic, I googled a term. The immediate result was to be presented with several sources of information on that term, all of which had better info than WP (all except for one, which had seemed to copy the WP entry verbatim). So I was able to get better information from a search engine; when I look at the question, I come to see WP as a useless appendage of the net which perhaps was necessary before efficient search engines, but now serves no useful purpose.

    Your definition of “relative truth” is what I would call “opinion.” The statement “it’s true for me” seems to equate to “That’s my opinion.” The reason I resist and react to statements like that is because I consider truth too precious of a commodity to devalue its name by applying it to things which are not necessary true.

  5. Just to throw in my two cents here (and let’s face it, that’s what people who contribute to Wikkipedia are doing also ), I don’t see Wikkipedia as being unique. It’s just one example of the best/worst thing about the web: anyone can write anything–and pass it off as definitive and authoritative . 😉 A quick browse of Wikkipedia and it makes me think of a bad version of a discussion board. Bad because one user overwrites the comments of another and also bad because nowhere on an entry’s page do I see authorship.

    That’s one advantage discussion boards have: you can often weed out the wanna-bees by checking their profile and website; you can see if they have anything in their background that makes them qualified to pontificate on a subject and be taken seriously. Likewise, it’s usually pretty obvious if a website on a subject is written by a crackpot or someone with an ax to grind. Their prejudices are pretty obvious.

    I’ve posted questions on technical discussion boards and sometimes gotten three very different answers. I usually figure out who’s right by asking more questions and extending the discussion longer. The truly clueless trip up. Also I check the profiles of the people replying.

    With Wikkipedia there’s no way to question something you are dubious about to get clarification and no accountability regarding authorship. If an entry on phytoplankton was credited to three professors of marine biology, then I’d know who the source was; I’d know who I was dealing with. If, on the other hand, the author was some guy named “Ocean Gazer” whose main claim to fame is doing nude yoga on the beach at sunrise, I’d rightly regard his opinions on plankton with some skepticism.

    There is a staggering amount of information on the web and a staggering amount of it is wrong. I repeat: Wikkipedia is not unique in dishing out a soup of correct, incorrect and quasi-correct information. The thing that makes it problematic is that its presentation appears so reasonable and expert—and there is no way of evaluating the sources…or even knowing who they are!

    For that reason alone it can’t be considered “one-stop shopping” for info. If I’m going to research something online, a search engine is going to give me more info and better results than Wikkipedia. Even the “bad” search results are better because they have an author and a context in which they can be evaluated.

    I hadn’t been to Wikkipedia before now. I see no reason to bookmark it for a return visit. It’s nothing special. The idea of building a knowledge base this way really only works if authorship is limited to knowledgeable people. A wikki on a special subject generated by a group of specialists would be the ideal. The limitation of Wikkipedia is (ironically) being “everything written by everybody”.

  6. Arlen, earlier you said this:

    “Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a universal truth. To deny that claim is to assert it. (Think it through: when you say “There is no universal truth? you are actually saying “It is universally true that there is no universal truth.? It’s like the old saw, “This statement is false.? It’s logically inconsistent, and once you waive the law of non-contradiction, all communication becomes impossible.)”

    The statements that there is no universal truth or there is a universal truth, are both incomplete statements. That there is no universal truth is true, and that there are universal truths is true too (Can I say that universal truths make up the universal truth?). That there are and that there aren’t universal truths is not contradiction because it depends on context, which is what we have been omitting.

    We are actually dealing with two different things, two different contexts. One of the contexts is the physical universe. The other context is thought.

    Talking about universal truth is the same thing as talking about absolutes. An absolute is a universal truth, so I’m going to use them interchangably.

    There are no absolute truths in the physical universe. However, absolutes, or universal truths can exist in thought, in ideas. So I can say without contradiction that there is no universal truth if I add “in the physical universe.”

    Here’s some examples of what I mean. When we say or think of the idea of the color white, we are thinking an absolute truth, white is white and that is what it is.

    But something in the physical universe that we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands etc. will never be universally or absolutely white. No matter how white a wall is, a piece of paper, the energy of light, anything in the physical universe, if we take a closer at it, it isn’t 100 percent white. If we take a piece of paper that is very white and look at part of it under a microscope we will see shades of grey in it — it isn’t really white! No matter what our first perceptions and the perceptions after that, we can always look closer and find that what we perceived wasn’t entirely so. You could say that division devides forever in the physical universe.

    We can assign absolute concepts to things. You can hold an apple in your hand and say that you are holding an apple in your hand. What you are doing is assigning words and absolute concepts to what you are doing and what you have in your hand. These words and concepts are not the same thing as what is actually there. The apple you have in your hand may have a very minute trace of orange in it because the tree the apple came from was right next to an orange tree and they mixed roots. So it isn’t entirely an apple, since it has a beyond-imagination-small amount of orange in it. But in thought it can be an absolute and we can communicate it as an absolute.

    Numbers are a good example. 5 is an absolute concept. It means five things that are exactly alike, or 5 things of the same class of thing. There can never be five apples that are exactly the same, and there can never be 5 apples that are exactly the same class of thing.

  7. “Talking about universal truth is the same thing as talking about absolutes. An absolute is a universal truth, so I’m going to use them interchangably.”

    Completely agreed, Nick.

    “There are no absolute truths in the physical universe. However, absolutes, or universal truths can exist in thought, in ideas. So I can say without contradiction that there is no universal truth if I add “in the physical universe.?”

    Ummm, no. You can’t. Because you are saying that it is universally true in the physical universe that nothing is universally true in the physical universe. A statement about a domain necessarily takes part in that domain. Let’s take your “apple” example:

    “We can assign absolute concepts to things. You can hold an apple in your hand and say that you are holding an apple in your hand. What you are doing is assigning words and absolute concepts to what you are doing and what you have in your hand.”

    Not really. When I say I have an apple in my hand, I’m saying that the physical object I am holding in my hand has the physical qualities of an apple. It’s a particular species of fruit with a particular cell structure and particular physical properties, including DNA. That there are other differences, such as the total number of cells or a difference between varieties, doesn’t matter, because they are not a part of the phycial properties that define “apple.” Therefore I’m not referring to some abstract idea, Plato notwithstanding, when I refer to an apple. I’m referring to an object which displays a specific set of physical properties.

    “Apples are red,” is therefore not a true statement, because color is not one of the essential physical properties. “Apples grow on trees,” however, is a true statement, because that is one of the physical properties of an apple. (Of course, then you have to go in to the definition of a tree, etc.)

    You’re confusing precision with truth; any scientist will tell you that’s a dangerous thing to do. Gravity is true; in the physical world objects exert attraction to other objects. Our precision when calculating this attraction is not very good, probably because there are still parts of it we don’t fully understand, but this lack of precision doesn’t make gravity any less true, and any less a universal truth of the physical universe.

    “These words and concepts are not the same thing as what is actually there.”

    Of course they aren’t. Unlike God, I cannot speak an apple into existence. But that doesn’t build the wall between them you think it does. Because there are variances and tolerances in every manufactured part doesn’t prevent them from being interchangeable.

    “Any headlight with a part number 9004 will fit my car” is a truth about the physical world, even though any particular headlight with that part number I select will be slightly different from every other headlight on the rack. The differences between them are enveloped by the part number.

    “So it isn’t entirely an apple, since it has a beyond-imagination-small amount of orange in it.”

    But that’s the function of categories. to group like things together and to define how much alike “like things” have to be. For a statement to be true about a category, it must be true of everything within the category.

    “Numbers are a good example. 5 is an absolute concept. It means five things that are exactly alike, or 5 things of the same class of thing. There can never be five apples that are exactly the same, and there can never be 5 apples that are exactly the same class of thing.”

    Poppycock! There can always be 5 apples that are exactly the same class of thing. Your own statement proves it. If there cannot be 5 apples that are precisely the same class (“apple”) then the statement is senseless, because the phrase “5 apples” has no referent.

    There isn’t this solid wall between words and objects you appear to believe in. Objects create words (the first time a particular object is encountered forces us to create something to refer to the object by) and words create objects (the first time an object is created, the words for it have already been born, and in fact were an intimate part of the creation process). Behavioral psychologists will tell you that words even create people; apply a label to a person long enough and the person will become that label.

    Words are not objects, yes. But that has no bearing on the truth content of words pertaining to objects. If, as you seem to be saying, there can never be a correlation between words and objects, then there’s no point in conversation, because there is no referent for the terms we use and therefore no communication is possible.

    (BTW, sorry it took so long to clear the comment. I’ve put the blog on moderation because I can’t be visiting all the time to clean out the spam. I need to update the filters here, and I will as soon as the rest of my life calms down, probably in a couple of weeks. I’m just in an abnormally busy period at the moment.)

  8. Reality is a consensual hallucination. People just seem to get pissed off about wikipedia because it brings this to light. Now anyone can publish articles whether or not they are a “journalist” with a degree. Newspapers went nuts over that. They claimed that “journalistic integrity” and all this other hoopla wouldn’t be upheld! Oh no! Too bad they didn’t mention that most of their own articles are littered with spelling mistakes and are for the most part just trashy entertainment anyway.

    There are alot of experts who are technically amatuers because they have no degrees and the jobs and worlds we create exclude people like that. So Professor A can make a statement and I (an amatuer) can make the same exact statement about anthroplogy and the professor’s statement is a hypothesis, but my statement is just an opinion! Even though I might know more than him about anthropology. Quite frankly that’s bullshit. Why are we still believing that the old methodologies of social selection (i.e., college) prove or disprove a person’s knowledge 100% of the time? IT’S WAY PAST TIME TO COME UP WITH SOMETHING BETTER.

    How about proposing an alternative to the ivory towers — something where you and I can get involved and act and do research. Wikipedia certainly has some issues, but it’s on us to come up with something better that IS inclusive. In my opinion the problem with wikipedia is that it assumes one topic has one category. So you get a structure which is based on a series of 1-1 relationships. That makess sense since that is how databases are normalized and it makes the presentation layer quite simple. But when you or I want to get involved in learning something is the process really a 1-1 situation? It’s more like some weird dodecahedron or something if you mapped it out. You learn about brewing beer, then yeast, then yeasts have been studied for remediation — so maybe you start getting into bioremediation and learn about mycology, then maybe you go into something else.

    Then you got the social selection of who is or who is not an expert. The bulletin board example by Scheherazade is worth noting. You can read hundreds of very accurate posts by a few people on a board and know that these people are respected by this niche community and that they know what they’re talking about. So somehow you gotta bring that into a system that allows alot of people to participate.

  9. You make some good points, Josh. Most of them aren’t particularly relevant to anything I’ve written, however.

    My definition of “expert” certainly doesn’t contain any reference at all to college or university. Considering the fact that I walked out on college because it was a waste of my time and money, it’d be rather asinine of me to maintain that any sort of degree was an essential ingredient for an expert. I do, however, consider knowledge to be an essential ingredient, which wikipedia and its host of imitators do not.

    I refuse to accept that any randomly person motivated to post on a topic should be considered an expert. I think there needs to be a screening or vetting process in place; otherwise you’re simply asking for trouble.

    Anyone can read, anyone can study, anyone can acquire knowledge. I’ve never once maintained that the ivy-covered walls of any institution were necessary to that process.

    “Why are we still believing that the old methodologies of social selection (i.e., college) prove or disprove a person’s knowledge 100% of the time?” Stated simply, Josh, I don’t. I never said I did. I do, however believe that some form gatekeeping must be done on a project like this. Anything I could write on the subject of quarks, to take one example, will be inferior to Greg Benford writing on the same subject. A repository of knowledge which takes itself seriously should never let me post on that subject, and should most certainly never let me change anything someone else posts on that subject, at least without the change being reviewed for accuracy by someone more knowledgeable than I.

    “Wikipedia certainly has some issues, but it’s on us to come up with something better that IS inclusive.”

    Hogwash! If someone makes a hammer, and it doesn’t work, it’s not up to me to make a better hammer. Especially when, as in the case of wikipedia, there are other tools available, in this particular case, the primary sources.

    Truth, by its very nature, *isn’t* inclusive. The truth, for example, that I weigh 300 pounds excludes any idea that at 6 feet tall I am fit and trim. The reality that a 2-ton weight dropping on my head as I type this would kill me is certainly *not* a “consensual hallucination.”

    But, of course, someone can type that into wikipedia. Would that make it true?

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