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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Wikipedia: treading the line between good faith and chaos

[Translation of Wikipedia: entre la buena fe y el caos by igor21 published in Kriptópolis on 15-May-2006.]

The Internet, like any human product, is a reflection of the contemporary society. One of the projects that most starkly reflects the contradictions of our time is Wikipedia.

According to its founders, Wikipedia is a “social experiment”. The question it seeks to answer is not only what happens if we create an encyclopedia to which everyone can contribute, but also what happens if all the authors have the same power. Wikipedia tries not to give any preference to any individual academic authority. Instead, a new idea has been introduced as a substitute; the effect known as the “Neutral point of view” (NPOV).

The NPOV, in its original definition, states that all those who edit articles also discuss the subjects until they have reached a consensus view. In the case where they do not reach a consensus, they draw up two versions: a majority version and an other, which is described under the heading, “Alternative theories”. No one is permitted to claim that they have a better knowledge of the subject than anyone else; instead they should put this better knowledge to use by convincing the others.

The intellectual environment surrounding this idea is very complex but its roots lie in the cultural relativism that guides modern thinking. Such thinking claims in a loud voice that western science is an opinion, but neither the only opinion, nor the best. The decline in the prestige of scientists is one of the unfortunate consequences of the twentieth century. However scientists are partly responsible for this decline owing to the string of disasters that have scarred the world. Currently, scientists as a group are under fire from various directions.

In the first place, although it would have been considered impossible only thirty years ago, extremist religions are reappearing and attacking what they consider to be the most important source of atheism. Their spokespeople argue against the idea that atheistic science is “the truth”, and want it to be considered as “another religion” without affording it any advantages at any level; some even condemn it as being the most false belief. As examples of this viewpoint we can take the recent letter of the Iranian president to Bush, the one where he calls for obedience to God as the most important corrective force in society, or the petition for “neutrality” in USA schools, to consider creationism as an alternative “theory” to evolution. The underlying reason for this trend is the inability of secular societies to provide a focal point around which people can come together, leaving the field free for the religions who attract the millions uncomfortable with uncertainty.

In the second place, a whole series of para-psychologies and pseudo-sciences that have always plagued academia have now found in the communication media a perfect instrument for social penetration. This has allowed them to influence large sectors of the population. The attack launched against medicine by a wide range of irrational beliefs, both new and old, has been especially pernicious. It is becoming increasingly difficult for a doctor to justify modern treatments because the high variability of human response coupled with the depersonalisation of mass medicine as it is practiced in large hospitals has created an atmosphere of fierce opposition to it in many people. Such people are both offended by modern medicine and believe in the efficacy of alternatives.

In he third and final place, there is a fierce individualism, born from anti-communist sentiment, which is shared by the founders of Wikipedia. This ideology, called objectivity, denies the existence of any collective intelligence and rejects the idea of the state, apart from some minimal functions that it performs. It was born in the 1980s around a monetarist ideology that hates taxes and now forms part of a very strong non-religious group that supports the republican government in the USA. It is a curious intellectual double-standard that considers science to be a product of the state, through regulated universities, and at the same time is against any kind of state intervention.

The result of throwing these ideas into the melting pot is the feeling that progress has stopped or slowed (which is also the product of the supposed evidence showing that everything is getting worse). The average person doubts that the world can be understood by human reason, and this feeling is strengthened by the cacophony that is perceived in the discussions between scientists. We have to go back to the 18th century to find so deep a pessimism about human ability and destiny.

So Wikipedia is not an isolated case, but a manifestation of something broader and more widespread. It is trying to test the viability of new ideas that are alternatives, not only to the model of post-war social capitalism, but also to the paradigm of “how do we know if something is true” that has been developing since the Enlightenment. This is an experiment that in no way lacks ambition.

The NPOV is being put forward as a kind of contract between free and sovereign people who, on their own account and risk, decide what is good and what is bad without being subject to any authority, especially to scientists in the pay of the state.

I don't want to hide the fact that I completely disagree with these ideas. I believe that scientific thinking can explain the existence of religions and the characteristics of each, which therefore puts it on a higher epistemological plane. I believe that the state cannot be larger than its ideal size and any attempt to treat it like an individual or group of individuals will result in social disaster. And I believe that the twentieth century has shown not that progressive ideologies are bad, but that fanaticism and fundamentalism, however they are dressed up, are the route to oppression and the slaughter of millions. I mention this because my analysis of what is happening with Wikipedia is guided by these prejudices and to be rigorous I feel I have to disclose them.

For me, having eliminated academic authority, there is no way of coming to a serious conclusion in Wikipedia. If someone starts saying that UFOs exist and the governments of the world are hiding this fact, there is no way of stopping them because you have to start your logical reasoning from the beginning. If all the users were epistemological experts and were intellectually honest on every point, then it would be theoretically possible to demonstrate that anyone who proposed the existence of UFOs was wrong. As these conditions are far from being realised, the user who believes in UFOs can argue ad nauseam without ever being convinced otherwise. And it is the same with each and every one of the ideas of human knowledge. The same applies to the decision about whether or not to include a topic. If someone wants his cousin's music group to appear in Wikipedia, he can write the article; to remove it requires a vote following the formulation of justifiable reasons.

Under these conditions, Wikipedia should not have lasted even a week. Fortunately, Wikipedia was not created in a vacuum and its users are normal people, a large proportion of which have doctorates, degrees or are students. For them the idea that any crackpot idea can appear as unquestionable truth in an encyclopedia is repugnant. They spontaneously set up procedures so that the utopia where “the value of every person's opinion is the same” is never realized.

Wikipedia has librarians who have powers that new users do not have. Amongst the librarians there is an even large proportion of people who have some academic training and they use their authority to maintain a certain degree of order in the system and who expel people who don't follow the rules. However, these librarians go further because they have some personal standards about what an encyclopedia is and what it “is not”. They ensure that the academic point of view is privileged and that things that would be considered as rubbish in a university have a difficult and trouble life in Wikipedia.

A believer in UFOs will see that at the beginning his point of view is discussed sympathetically, but without allowing him to set up his ideas as if they were the truth. If he insists, he will see how the situation becomes more tense, and if he persists, it is probable that will be end up “blocked” (banned for a time).

The problem is that the librarians act like this without being supported by the Wikipedia philosophy and users with divergent ideas often form pressure groups and can harass anyone who dares to oppose them for weeks. Claiming NPOV, such groups can checkmate everyone because there is no way of telling them to stop talking nonsense without violating their rights to hold their own opinions.

In spite of these difficulties, scientific thinking normally comes out on top. When there is a coherent set of knowledge and when it is shared by the majority of users, it survives better than religions and para-sciences that are fragmented and in conflict. In addition, the religions and para-sciences lack opinions about many subjects (e.g. the Hubble constant, the specific heat of lead or mitochondrial metabolism) and cannot offer anything other than an irritating quarrel but never presenting a strategic or structured alternative. The only thing that saves them is that the NPOV always obliges the scientists to admit that there is an open question on many issues. The librarians try to arrive at a compromise, if they can, so that any article that explains the truth may have a small section titled, “Other theories” where crackpot ideas can be aired.

However, there are sections where Wikipedia fails to live up to its rules, however hard some heroic librarians try to impose them. Recently Spanish users succeeded in winning a vote so that the computer mouse (“ratón” in Spanish) is called “mouse” instead of by its Spanish term on the grounds that the English term is used more frequently. Language purists had tried to prevent this manifestation of “Spanglish” only to be subject to mockery and fun. Calling up the authority of the Real Academia de Lengua (Royal Language Academy) or Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas (Panhispanic dictionary of Questions) did not survive the appeal to NPOV as these are only “other opinions” that have the same value as the opinion of an adolescent in Miami.

On these subjects where the man in the street does not have an opinion or where his opinion is the same as that of the academics, Wikipedia functions reasonably well. On those subjects where there are large groups with “mistaken” ideas (the quote marks are paying lip service to the NPOV), there is no alternative to letting them have their head. And on those subjects where the majority are totally and completely “mistaken”, the defenders of orthodoxy are harassed and made fun of.

The social environment that is created by such situations also merits a mention. In order to do their work, the librarians have to be strong and efficient. The continual interaction with trolls, eccentrics and vandals is very stressful, especially when some other librarian supports their ideas and makes banning them difficult. In addition, obsessions and phobias mixed with dynamic personalities make for very confused discussions.

As a side product of these tensions, new users are given the boot at the slightest suspicion that they are not going to follow the rules. Usually the librarians support each other to survive in this hostile environment. At any moment one of them could be under fire from a sect, an offended adolescent or a pressure group who begin to vandalize the pages and fill the forums with complaints about dictatorship (remember the aversion that adolescents have to authority). When, for whatever reason, the librarians disagree, then the situation becomes quite unpleasant and there appears to be no clear way forward. The rules are a mixture of ambiguities and can be interpreted by each person in any way they want. The solution is often a vote, but the lack of planning and the charged atmosphere often cause make the storm worse.

The reality is, as stated by the only article of the rules that makes universal sense, that without a lot of good faith on the part of everyone, the system will collapse. It is the typical paradox of the person who does not throw litter: if he is the only person that doesn't throw litter, then his effort is wasted, but if he does throw litter then the situation is worse.

All this makes a Wikipedia landscape that resembles a city in which anyone can build. Tall buildings will be normal because the people who know how to build them share common ideas. Small buildings will be like a outlandish shanty town because anyone can do whatever they want. And everywhere irate people will be causing destruction while they complain that they are being persecuted by those who attempt to prevent them.

My conclusions about the experiment are clear. In the first place, scientific thinking has some intrinsic quality that helps it survive even without the benefit of authority. In the second place, most people don't care a fig for science and prefer to write about Star Trek, Madonna or football. In the third place, “constructive” people tend to group together and help each other while the nihilists often remain alone. In the fourth place it illustrates a whole gamut of sociological and psychological characteristics: that leaders are often odious characters but are necessary, that people love them and hate them at the same time, that one can't survive without the affection of others, that routine and sustained effort is more powerful than the spark of genius and great ideas, that the masses amuse themselves by lynching and jeering, but sometimes they applaud virtue with the same enthusiasm, that each person considers his ideas and anxieties to be the centre of the universe, etc... all these things have been that way since the stone age.

I will add here a conclusion of mine that I came to before I became a user of Wikipedia: that the power of authority as a guarantee of common purpose cannot be replaced by extreme democracy. In the latter case, what is achieved is a bistable state that oscillates between chaos and dictatorship.

Lastly, I will give some advice to those who want to collaborate with Wikipedia. Avoid controversial subjects or current affairs where you will only experience frustrations as anyone can argue with you and the discussions will be interminable. It is better to write articles about subjects that the man in the street has no opinion about and where those who do have an opinion are informed. This is much more satisfying than trying to convince someone that the events of 11th March (multiple train bombings in Madrid) were not the work of extraterrestrials or that telepathy is not on the point of being demonstrated to be the sixth sense. Dedicate yourself to subjects like Chandresakar or the syntax of the Klingon language and you will see that your experience is much more satisfactory.

[Translator's note. I believe the decline of the authority of academia, described in the article above, is due to the forgetting of the purpose of education. In my view, education is for teaching people how to think and be creative. Governments all over the world have responded to the requirement for objectivity in testing and the idea that students should be provided with knowledge and skills that will be useful to a future employer by re-defining education as filling the students' heads with facts that they have to regurgitate in exams. Some of these facts are clearly mistaken, and as people have realised this, they have unfortunately lost their faith in all academia. However, the opinions of someone who has spent years studying a subject and has tested them in discussions with peers should always carry greater weight than those of someone who is new to the subject. The only problem now is the “verification” of that scholarship. It is a bit like the problem of verifying one's digital identity.]


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