On Wikipedia and “The Truth”

wikipedia logo I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Truth. The impetus was John Siracusa’s two podcasts about Wikipedia, in which he argues that Wikipedia is fundamentally flawed, and that its flaw prevents it from being as good a source of knowledge as it might otherwise be. The crux is Wikipedia’s insistence on verifiability for facts that it includes (not that this rule is rigorously enforced) over what Siracusa calls “the truth.”

These two podcasts are about the closest I’ve ever heard a “normal” discussion come to facing the fundamental questions of epistemology. In the second of the two episodes, Siracusa addresses complaints from the first episode, who repeatedly use the word “verify.” Siracusa’s understood this word from Wikipedia’s perspective, where it often means “to cite another authority.”

I think that the folks writing to Siracusa meant “verify” to mean simply “confirm.” Fundamentally, that’s the problem with first-person accounts—they’re unconfirmed. But, you might say, can’t two first-person accounts confirm each other? Siracusa suggests a system of persistent identities and a system like Stack Overflow’s reputation system. I’m not sure, but I believe that system works because the scope of the site is fairly limited. What if someone on a Wikipedia-like site of knowledge has a high “reputation” earned by writing about software, and suddenly edits an article about politics? And if first-person accounts are allowed, wouldn’t most of the site tend toward being first person accounts (since Siracusa’s whole reason for talking about this is that he wants first-person accounts to be left in)?

Let’s look at an example. I was just looking at the Wikipedia page for John Gruber. It cites an interview with Gruber, along with other sources, for facts that are general common knowledge. They’re common knowledge because Gruber’s website is widely read, and those facts have appeared there. Why not just cite the blog directly?

This gets exactly to the heart of what “truth” means. Siracusa kept saying “Wikipedia is not trying to get to the truth!” But I think that’s putting it too strongly. Wikipedia is after something like “the consensus of human knowledge,” which is a reasonable definition of “truth,” I think. Sirucasa is after the actual, out-there-in-the-universe version of truth. But the problem is that that truth is unknowable. Until Galileo discovered that the Earth is not the center of the universe, there was no way to know the truth about it. What’s more, even after he made the discovery, the truth was knowable only if you believed him. If you found his arguments persuasive. Two kinds of people would have found Galileo’s arguments persuasive: those who had an understanding of science enough to see why he was right, and those who are just inclined to believe bizarre or unusual things they hear: people with a low threshold for truth. The fact that people who understood the science and knew that Galileo was correct had a vested intrest in not saying so doesn’t change the fact that the only way for a member of the general public to come to believe Galileo was for the experts to come around and admit that he’d been right all along.

And so it is with all non-trivial truth: we rely on authoritative sources to tell us which sources to believe. Is global climate change real? The consensus of climatologists is that it is. Does government stimulus policy decrease the effects of recession? The consensus of economists deems it so. Are ruffles the new black? A consensus of fashionistas says yes. “The consensus of human knowledge” is by definition the closest we can get to “the truth” in areas of human knowledge where we’re not experts.

An objection to this is that any person has the theoretical potential to become an expert in any topic. If something is controversial, couldn’t Wikipedia include both sides of the controversy along with the arguments for each? Two reasons to think this might not be a good idea. First, the reason Wikipedia exists seems to me to be to provide general information for non-experts. We can expect Wikipedia to provide you with the basics of the science of climate change, for example. Seems a bit much to expect it to be able to turn you into an expert on the subject. Second, if Wikipedia contains not just what can be cited (“verified,” “confirmed”) but anything and everything that is true (read: anything and everything that might be true), its entries will have no check on their growth. For example, the article on 4chan has over 5000 words and 136 citations. How long would this article be if un-cited facts were allowed? Who’d want to read more than 5000 words about 4chan, and should the level of sort knowledge they’re after be collected, for all possible topics, in one place on the internet. Maybe.

I’m hinting at how it is I think the rules of Wikipedia might have come to be what they are. I think intelligent people got together and spent a lot of time thinking, discussing, and experimenting with these rules, and Wikipedia is the consensus on which they arrived as the best vehicle for arriving at The Truth. It’s, as Sirucasa said, the worst way for arriving at the truth except for all the others. Maybe. I think so, anyway.

Libertarianism, slightly deconstructed

This is the old libertarian saw, stated by P.J. O’Rourke like this (only longer, better, and funnier): If your grandmother doesn’t pay her taxes, she’ll be fined. If she doesn’t pay her fine, she’ll eventually be put in jail. If she tries to escape from jail, she’ll be shot. So!: Anything that you agree the government should do, you should be willing to put a gun to your grandmother’s head and threaten to shoot her for. Something like that.

This is a pretty old libertarian saw (contrary to the folks who posted the video above, libertarianism doesn’t argue for a completely stateless society, just for a minimal state): the government should do the minimum amount necessary to keep a society functioning, and no more. This means enforcing minimal laws against harming others, and a small national defense system. Everything else, the argument goes, is better privatized. I’ve been a registered Libertarian since the day I registered to vote, so I’ve given these arguments some thought.

One day the libertarians may go off and create their dream society, maybe on a floating island. In the meantime, we have Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991.

So here’s the solution, and it has more than a little to do with game theory. Stuff that the government does is not like forcing some one individual to contribute to something. There’s a whole range of things that, if we weren’t all contributing, it wouldn’t make sense for an individual to give any money towards. Let’s start with the Libertarian’s example of national defense. It makes sense to have a national defense system only if everyone contributes. But it ends up that there are lots of things that directly or indirectly help everyone in a society. And while there are ways that a lot of these things could be accomplished by groups of private individuals, it makes sense for the government to do them. Would you shoot your grandmother for the interstate highway system? Probably not. But the highways unquestionably help our society in ways that a privatly-funded and tolled highway system would not.

The welfare system, public education, food safety inspections, drone strikes in foreign countries, eviction of protesters from public spaces, public healthcare, air traffic control. You probably agree that some of these things are good, and that some are bad. That’s not the point, though. The point is that they’re all things that a central government is in a unique position to provide, and that arguments exist that they are a net benefit. Once we’ve agreed to create the structure of the government, we’re all in it together, and we all need to decide together what we think are appropriate roles for that government.

It’s not that we need a system to make George help Oliver. It’s that we’re all better off if there’s a system that helps all those that need help, not just those that can find someone willing to help them.

Václav Havel: a casual rememberence

vaclav havel “Tidy yourself up! We might be Czechs, but we don’t have to let the rest of the world know.” This is apparently one of the lingeringly popular jokes from The Good Soldier Švejk, one of the resounding classics of Czech literature. The fact that I don’t find it any funnier than you will tell you what you need to know about my embarrassingly sparse connection to Czech literature (if the fact that I had to Google it didn’t tip you off). With that serving as a pre-emptive appology, let me tell you as best as I can why Václav Havel was important (without any more Googling, I promise).

At the end of World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill sold my people out to Stalin at Yalta, and the big ‘ol Iron Curtain fell on us. And while it was a light-sneeze version of the Stalinist/Totalitarian sort of thing that they’re, for example, still living up in North Korea to this day, it was still a very different lifestyle from ordinary poverty. There’s an extremely real paranoia that exists, because even if you’ve never gone before the officials on charges that were made against you buy anonymous spies, you know that it happens all the time. Also, this: you can join “The Communist Party” or not. YOUR CHOICE. If you don’t join, the government and others in positions of power won’t trust you. You’ll be denied perks, career advancement, and safety. If you do join, you’ll loose the respect and trust of all your friends. Unless they’re all Party members too. But those are the people with sticks up their ass, right? You either sacrifice your integrity or you sacrifice your prosperity and comfort.

Remember too that Communism is a failed system. And however incompletely it got a hold of then-Czechoslovakia, it was enough that it did a lot of damage. Poverty sucks, but it sucks even more when the accepted way of getting around it is a system of “who you know” and official and unofficial bribes. (Here’s the cool part: those systems existed both outside and inside the party.) The only blessing in all of this is that the totalitarianism was incomplete. They left, to the contrast with say the miserable North Korean dictatorship, enough breathing room for dissidents to function.

And that’s what the people with integrity did. Through the 50s, the 60s (1968 brought a big crackdown from the Russians that put even more of a damper on things), the 70s, and the 80s, they did whatever they could to resist the system. They refused to participate in the dumb rules the Bolsheviks tried to force on the population. They published essays in underground newspapers. They started subversive rock bands (this’d be a great place for a link, but I said I was writing this without Google, remember? … You can look up the Plastic People of the Universe as well as I can). Whenever possible, they staged protests.

Václav Havel was a pivotal figure in this movement, in these protests. But he was also a symbol of the fact that, unlike so many other protests, this one was led by artists. I started with a joke from Švejk, which I haven’t read. I’ve also not read a lot of Havel. It’d be silly of me to blame that on anything but my enduring laziness — I can read Czech well enough to be able to get through it if I really wanted to, and in any case there are English translations around — but another thing is that his writing is in some sense a version of that you-had-to-be-there joke. It’s absurdism I suppose in the vein of Kafka and Beckett, with lots and lots of inspiration from the insanity, the paranoia, and the maddening dumbness of living under totalitarianism, and infused with that ultra-dry, uniquely Czech humor.

So anyway, in 1989 we had the Velvet Revolution, named in part because for once nobody died and in part for the Velvet Underground, of whom Havel and others in the movement were fans (factoid: Lou Reed interviewed Havel during his presidency). And through some unknown combination of pure charisma, actual leadership, and no doubt the usual back-channel maneuvers, Havel became president of Czechoslovakia (which promptly split into the Czech and Slovak republics, so please stop calling it that).

He became shades of something like a Desmond Tutu or the Dali Lama there for awhile — a world figure who could make things happen just with his calm presence. And he led the Czechs through an extremely tumultuous transition, avoiding barbaric reprisals against members of the previous regime, backsliding into comfortable habits, and economic collapse. The latter is particularly remarkable when compared to some of the surrounding countries around that time (and less remarkable when you see how well the Czech Republic was able to brand itself as an inexpensive and effulgent tourist destination (Also worth pointing out here is the distinction in European governments between the President and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the more powerful of the two positions. The President is, to some degree, an honorary position, and leads mostly by persuasion. It’s about halfway between the US President and the Queen of England.))

The point is that he was equal parts a symbol, a great writer, and a great leader. He surely deserved — though never received — the Nobel Peace Prize. And the world is diminished by his absence. The poet and playwright turned dissident turned world leader. Not something you’ll see again to soon, I fear.

Cross-posted at THL, home of things better than you’ll generally find here

Ain’t no such thing: the Higgs Boson particle

higgs bison You know, I love advanced physics. It’s given us satellite navigation, GPS, and fancy medical imaging, and that’s just the theory of relativity, which when Einstein cooked it up seemed like the height of quasi-fictional abstraction. Physicists study the most basic level of reality, the stuff that’s a whole conceptual level below chemistry, so they’re the closest to understanding what the hell reality actually is. Great for them, great for us.

But I’m not sure about where they’ve been going for the last couple of decades. If you talk to a theoretical physicist today, almost any one of them will tell you with almost absolute certainty that existence has exactly eleven dimensions. And the thing is, most of us will never understand why they think it’s so, however many NOVA specials we watch, because when physicists talk to one another they talk almost completely in math. 99% of the physics information is controlled by 1%, etc.

So, they just awarded the Nobel Prize to some physicists who discovered—over a decade ago—that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. They were sure that the expansion was slowing, and were trying to measure the rate, when they discovered the opposite. They measure the rate, by the way, by looking for redshift — a little bit of a red haze that’s caused by light traveling over millions of light years through space. The amount of redshift indicates how fast something is moving away from us. When you look at the redshift for everything we can measure, you get that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. So, that’s pretty indirect, but I’m willing to go along with it.

The problem is that they’ve got no way to explain why the universe is expanding. It doesn’t make sense according to the currently otherwise perfectly functioning laws of physics. The best explanation that physicists have come up with (and again, they did this by plugging the results into mathematical equations, not by sitting around philosopher-like thinking about it) is dark matter: STUFF that exists but cannot be measured by any device or process known to science. And here’s my favorite part: this dark matter makes up roughly 70% of all the matter in the universe. That’s right: you, me, our planet, it’s sun, our galaxy, and all the other galaxies … it all accounts for only 30% or so of everything that exists.

At this point you’ve got to ask: IS IT POSSIBLE THERE’S A MISTAKE IN THE MATH GUYS?????? Well, you’ll not get a good answer. Well, a few years ago they built the Large Hadron Collider, an $8 billion device(!) that was supposed to prove the existence of the Higgs bison particle, which is the stuff this dark matter is made up of. Now, the Large Hadron Collider is near and dear to my heart, because it was built around the time I started this blog, and some of the first posts here, back around 2008, were about it. Cool thing! But here’s the problem: they haven’t found shit. They haven’t found the Higgs Bison! Oh sure, there are tantalizing signs that it’s there, but so far — over three years later — no proof. Ouch, man. Ouch.

Art Basel: the obligatory ‘winners and losers’ post

art basel winners and losers

Win: At Basel, the Art Kabinett booths were almost all good. Elmgreen & Dragset created a sort of virtual art gym, with lockers and whatnot, and this sculpture, which was taller than me and for all I know had real blood.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Tracy Emin, who was in town and appeared on two of the Art Conversation panels (the video is online), was not at all well represented in the fair. There was a 5-part piece in one booth that included memorabilia from her abortion, a letter, and a couple of watercolors.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Mac Premo, The Dumpster Project, at Pulse. This was not just a “create clutter, pile crap on top of crap until the effect is overwhelming” type of thing, eh? This was a craftsmanly constructed Rauschenbergian space.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Crap like this. Mostly at Art Miami. It’s the “another artist got successful making something like this, so let’s make something similar but easier to collect, and rake in the buxxx.”

art basel winners and losers

Win: Olafur Eliasson. In addition to the two pieces I had on the Atlantic piece, there was this beauty.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Tables of Basel. This year it was all tasteful mid-century modern wood stuff. One or two notable exceptions, especially this one, proved the rule.

art basel winners and losers

(Oh right, also this one.)

art basel winners and losers

Win: David Rohn set himself up as a fortune-telling automatron just inside the entrance to Scope. A long line formed, with no visible activity. I thought the joke was just to get people to stand there while nothing happened, but in fact — he was writing these lengthy full-page fortunes for them.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Glenn Kaino’s outdoor performance, part of the official Basel program, had him inviting passers-by to help hold up a large vessel “for all of Basel if we can.” He seemed like such a nice guy, but by Saturday morning the thing was smashed and abandoned.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Collectors. (But then, they always win.) In this panel, a couple of them (I think it was Norman Braman, video here) claimed credit for getting Basel to come to Miami 10 years ago. In the Q&A, someone asked their opinion about the MAM renaming. The question got completely shut down by Bonnie Clearwater, “I don’t think we want to get into that.” Bizarre, because I for one most certainly DID want them to get into that.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Gabriel Orozco. Well, maybe not: he also spoke at one of the Art Conversations, and I’m a huge fan of his photography and his more recent work. But this World Trade Center painting, done in a machine-made Seurat-type style, seemed gratuitous.

art basel winners and losers

Win: The Barry McGee Rule says that if you bring a whole van to Basel, anything else you do is gravy. Over in Art Positions, Paulo Nazareth took that shit to heart.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Ana Mendieta. The turkeys at Galerie Leong took it upon themselves to take this piece, meant to be displayed outdoors, and show it on sod they dragged into the convention center. You’ve just made it about the fact that you brought sod indoors, dude. NOT I think what she had in mind.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Whoever made this painting at Mihai Nicodium Gallery at NADA. Damn, dude.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Design Miami. For me it’s a waste of a half-hour. For the people who get tricked into paying admission (when you buy tickets to Basel they offer a package deal for $55, vs. the regular $40 Basel-only price, which may sound like a good deal if you don’t know better) it’s a damn shame. It’s (1) only a few booths, actually, and (2) NOT ART. Snooze. And that’s from someone who does design for a living.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Taking photos at Art Basel. Used to be verboten, and I felt extra lucky for having journo credentials for hauling around a camera. But lately they’ve sort of given up, and everyone’s walking around with iPhones and pocket Canons. How else can you remember what you liked?

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Dicks. They’re around every year, but this year they were in force. WHAT. EVER.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Teresa Diehl. Her installation kicked ass at Pulse.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Wynwood. I got there 10-ish on Thursday and everything was shutting down already. Came back earlier and most of the good galleries hadn’t even bothered to open. Mostly just skeezers everywhere.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Me. There were signs, and two BIG guys, very much not permitting photos of Miru Kim’s performance. I asked for permission, and was told that NOBODY was getting to take photos. Woke up the next day to find photos at the Herald’s site and the New Times site. Boo.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Photography and video art. You literally could not throw a rock and hit a piece of video art at the Convention Center, that’s how much less of it there was than past years. This photo, by Alain Delorme, was at Pulse.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Gerhard Richter. Just KIDDING, Richter is always winning. This painting, from 1984, probably looked like it had aged very poorly by 1988. But it came early enough that I guess you could call it one of the spearheads of the terrible 80’s Ab-Ex painting excesses. I SO wish I’d asked what this was selling for.