Monday, January 30, 2006


I'm sympathetic to the basic ideal behind Wikipedia, but have similar concerns to Mr. Magnus of Footnotes on Epicycles. There's a lot of un-reviewed dross at the place. Ideally, other readers engage in a collective re-editing of each entry, and I like that ideal as a kind of Peircean community of inquirers. But entries full of false information can settle in and become collective wisdom unless others with a better grasp of the entry's subject spend the time to edit it. It's a classic problem, one Peirce faced. He ultimately understood that there had to be qualifications for participation in the community of inquiry. I'm all for the outsider to academic frames contributing to readjusting those frames to fit broader perspectives. But what happens when those perspectives are false or, to use a technical philosophical term, whacked out? As Magnus says, this can enter the standard assumptions about certain subjects and turn them into a Lego construction of falsities, however consistent those falsities.

It's an idea worth pursuing. But it's also one that needs readjusting. And the balance between good information and public participation is a classic dilemma at the heart of not only much of the communications that pass through the internet but also the idea of democratic participation itself.


See P.D. Magnus' nice discussion of Peirce in response to my link to him. I'd add that Dewey's Logic could also provide fruitful for going further with the Wikipedia analysis.
The mononymous Helmut blogs about my discussion of the wikipedia. He writes: "Ideally, other readers engage in a collective re-editing of each entry, and I like that ideal as a kind of Peircean community of inquirers." As he notes, the ideal, Peircean community doesn't include just anyone. It is open to anybody doing science, but they have to be doing science. People relying primarily on methods of tenacity or authority don't count.

There are serious criticisms of Peirce's claim that the scientific community will eventually come up with the truth. Browsing through recent issues of the Transactions, I can point to a solid paper by Ilya Farber [PDF] and another by Robert Meyers-- and that is only counting the papers authored by friends of mine. It is rarely noted, however, that his claim that the community' opinion will converge on the truth is only about the community for contingent reasons. Scientists need to work together because each human scientist is finite: not enough attention, not enough time. If there were a single inquirer with time and resources enough, then she could converge on the truth as well as an arbitrarily large community.

In this respect, Peirce thinks of scientific methods as definable in terms of a single individual. A scientific community is one in which each member considered individually employs those methods. Contrawise, real epistemic communities are as much defined by the structure of their social networks as by the individuals considered each in isolation.

The issue arises with respect to the wikipedia: Does the structure allow people who do know more to correct for people who know less, or does error swamp wisdom?


Neil Shakespeare said...

Seems apt, somehow, in this day and age of suspect 'information'.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this?

Yes, EB outscored Wikipedia, but for crying out loud, they've had well over two centuries to get the bugs out.

In the meantime, traditional encyclopedias don't come even close to doing what Wikipedia does.

MT said...

Error swamps wisdom on topics that aren't obscure. If the topic is covered in a course for freshmen, god help you. Wikipedia is famously expert-unfriendly--famously, because an early founder (Larry Sanger?) jumped ship while stating that as his reason. Rather than "error and wisdom" I think of "selection and drift" ala biological evolution or population genetics. There's a lot of drift when everybody has reason to think themselves expert. There's no finish line either, so an article is liable to drift forever.