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Humanist Archives: Jan. 27, 2019, 6:30 a.m. Humanist 32.389 - the question on Wikipedia

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 389.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Jim Rovira 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.387: the question on Wikipedia (14)

    [2]    From: Ken Friedman 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.387: the question on Wikipedia (191)

        Date: 2019-01-26 13:46:00+00:00
        From: Jim Rovira 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.387: the question on Wikipedia

I think we should perhaps think of Wikipedia articles as, ideally, striving to
present its information as thoroughly as possible at a high school level — or
maybe 100/200 level college — survey of the subjects. In terms of purpose,
that’s no different from a print encyclopedia, even though the process by which
it does this work is very different.

The only way to ensure that desired level of objectivity is through a peer
review board for each article made up of experts on the subject. Wikipedia would
have to be discriminating in terms of who gets final editorial say, and it’s
not. Final editorial say is more dependent on community standing than expertise.
But, then, would it still be a Wiki?

Jim R

        Date: 2019-01-26 10:41:29+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.387: the question on Wikipedia

Dear Bob, Tim, and All,

Thank you for your thoughts. I don't have much to add to what I've already
written. I do want to offer two minor footnotes.

1) Bob Kosovsky wrote,

> Wikipedia does
> not accept one's original research unless it has been published, and even
> then, there are obviously concerns as to whether one is promoting one's
> original research.


> themselves. And indeed, I've heard the heads of the Wikimedia Foundation
> articulate that Wikipedia is not supposed to be solely a passive
> interaction but is best when people feel empowered to edit.
> If one's response is "I don't have enough time" - then whose problem and
> responsibility are those weak articles?

My questions on Wikipedia emerged in response to the problems of a colleague who
did a good-faith effort to improve a few articles. While this took place in his
own research field, this was not original or new research. Every improvement was
a direct quote or a careful paraphrase from reliable published sources. The
additions were all published in peer-reviewed journals, with a few items from
books by university presses and academic presses. All quotes and comments were
attributed to the original authors, though a few mundane facts were simply
referenced. I described his experience in my long note.

This person took the time to carefully improve selected articles. All of his
edits were erased by a universal revert from the administrator who took issue
with his efforts on to add external links to a series of articles on the same
subject. While he queried the administrator on his talk page, the administrator
simply repeated his edict without addressing the questions. The administrator
stated that he would be blocked (banned) for life until he could somehow
persuade the administrator that he had learned from his mistake and would only
in the future make what the administrator deemed constructive edits.  My friend
*used to have time* for Wikipedia. He was disempowered by an administrator who
refuses to discuss his questions. He is not responsible for the future of
Wikipedia's weak articles in his field.

Tim Smithers discussed the issue of Wikiality quoting a Wikipedia article that
mentions Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, and Michael Polanyi on truth by consensus.
According to the article

>    "In philosophy, truth by consensus is the process of taking
>    statements to be true simply because people generally agree
>    upon them.  Imre Lakatos characterizes it as a "watered
>    down" form of provable truth propounded by some
>    sociologists of knowledge, particularly Thomas Kuhn and
>    Michael Polanyi."

Tim goes on to state

> In other words, 'Wikiality' is just the Common version of the
> Posh term 'Truth by consensus.'  Lakatos, Kuhn, and Polanyi,
> are widely accepted, I think, as having done good Posh
> scholarship, no?  I'm sure the known-to-be-reliable Great
> Britannica will tell us this.

According to the Wikipedia article, it seems to be the case that Wikiality is a
version of truth by consensus. And it is certainly true that Lakatos, Kuhn, and
Polanyi were major scholars in the philosophy of science.

But it is not the case that any of these three argued in favour of truth by
consensus. All of them recognised that consensus plays a role in the development
of how any group of people see things -- but that is not the same as saying
that consensus is a reliable index of truth.

Polanyi, Kuhn, and Lakatos each had his own set of views on the philosophy of
knowledge and the philosophy science. Their views differed, and each of these
three developed and stated his views on difficult and subtle issue in a wide
range of articles and books, along with talks, seminars, and conference papers.

Polanyi was a working scientist in chemistry and physical chemistry. Many
scientists regarded his work as brilliant, and he was nominated for the Nobel
Prize, twice in chemistry, once in physics. Many believe that he would have won
the prize if he had not switched fields to focus on philosophy and the social
sciences. (Two of Polany's doctoral students went on to win the Nobel Prize,
as did his son.)

Polanyi's view of personal knowledge -- and of truth -- states that our
personal commitments and position affect our scientific practices and theories.
But this is different to the notion that participating in a consensus
establishes what is true.

Thomas Kuhn began his career as a physicist before moving over to the history
and philosophy of science. He acknowledged the role that consensus plays in
establishing scientific paradigms and the role of changing consensus in shifting
those paradigms. His views changed several times over the years, but I would say
that he generally described truth by consensus as a social process. That said,
he seems to have used the word "paradigm" in several dozen different ways,
so it is occasionally difficult to know what he meant.

Lakatos was a mathematician and physicist who didn't seem to practice science,
though he taught it. He moved over to the philosophy of sciences becoming an
influential figure when he moved to the UK. I've only dipped into Lakatos's
work, so I can't say what he felt about truth by consensus.

Polanyi and Kuhn recognised consensus as a social phenomenon, but they would
have disagreed with the notions of Wikiality and truthiness as useful
approximations to truth.

Britannica has a short biographical article on Kuhn but none on Lakatos or
Polanyi. Wikipedia has articles on all three. The Wikipedia articles aren't
bad. Even so, they could be better. The Polanyi article was flagged for
improvements in 2011: "This article needs additional citations for
verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable
sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (April 2011)" I
have a fairly large collection of work on Polanyi. If I had any confidence that
investing the time to make these improvements would result in lasting change,
I'd spend the time to do it. Having been repeatedly reverted some years ago
despite making cited edits based on reliable sources, I too am a discouraged
contributor who will no longer take the time.

For me the question is not the "posh" Britannica versus the "common"
Wikipedia. It's only the question of hoping that Wikipedia might find a way to
hold and improve responsible edits that follow Wikipedia rules rather than
subject thoughtful contributions to endless churn -- including reversion by
editors and administrators whose primary interest seems to be Wikilawyering and
the incorrect enforcement of Wikipedia policies. Most folks who take the time to
contribute and even those who will explain their contributions on the talk pages
don't have the time or patience required to move through the endless rounds of
argumentation and appeals once an administrator takes a dislike to them.

If you don't mind a suggestion, the continued application of the terms
"posh" and "common" may not reflect the true nature of Wikipedia. I'm
not arguing for Britannica as the best possible encyclopaedia: I'm arguing
that the articles comparing Wikipedia and Britannica have been poorly
constructed and unfair.

In contrast to an encyclopaedia written by selected authors and subject to
careful fact-checking, anyone may write a Wikipedia entry. But not everyone can
decide who will be blocked and banned. To me, the Wikipedia system has its own
posh hierarchy, comparable to the class of British administrators who governed
India after sailing port out and starboard home. It did not matter to them that
they knew nothing of the actual conditions over which they presided, and it
didn't matter whether they actually interpreted the laws correctly: they had
the power to make whatever decisions they wished to make.

Since the continual reference to a "posh" class against a "common" class
has come up here again, I'm going to say that I see the Wikipedia
administrator  squirearchy as a posh class.

It's hard to say what Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, or Imre Lakatos would have
thought about Wikipedia. I think that Polanyi would have been fascinated --
perhaps he would have suggested ways to improve the Wikipedia system that might
have been able to make a difference. No way to know about Kuhn. On one hand, he
was interested in the great currents of his time, and Wikipedia is one of the
great currents of our time. On the other, Kuhn could be extremely narrow in his
interests. My guess is that Lakatos would not have cared at all. He seems to
have been an intellectual elitist. He began as a Stalinist, though he later
became an interesting and apparently charming teacher at the London School of
Economics. His main interest was in speaking with his peers and students, so I
doubt that he would have had an opinion on Wikipedia except to say that he found
it deficient.

At this point, I have nothing left to add about Wikipedia, so I won't
contribute further.

Once again, I use Wikipedia. I'd like it to be more reliable. In a perfect
world, there would be some way to govern Wikipedia so that responsible edits
took on cumulative weight for a better online encyclopaedia than is now the
case. I do not see Encyclopaedia Britannica as an ideal encyclopaedia: I do see
it as carefully edited and reliable with respect to the far more narrow range of
articles that it offers. My personal favourites among online encyclopaedias are
the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for philosophy, and the free online
edition of The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1907-1912) for theology and medieval

Thanks to you all for sharing your thoughts -- including those who disagree
with me, and from whose disagreements I learned a great deal.



Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The
Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in
Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation
| Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Email ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com |
Academia http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I


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