Gossiping in the echo chamber 
More ruminations about the reliability of the wikipedia; cf. my earlier post Reliability on Wikipedia.

Meandering off-task this morning, I was browsing the wikipedia entry for Aldous Huxley. It claims that he wrote the original screenplay for Disney's Alice in Wonderland. The entry for Alice does not corroborate this, so I searched more broadly. About.com's encyclopedia makes a similar claim. Another website describes it as an uncredited contribution.

About.com's encyclopedia is covered by the GNU free document license. It is, for all appearances, a cut-and-paste from the wikipedia. So it repeats rather than corroborates.

The wikipedia seems to serve as a relay in this way: Someone, call them Alpha, says X on their webpage. Alpha or someone who has read Alpha's webpage writes X into a wikipedia entry. Other people read it and say X on the websites or in on-line discussions. Because the wikipedia is more often consulted than particular websites, this amplifies the usual echo chamber effect. Wikipedia also has an air of comprehensiveness and ubiquity that makes people less likely to acknowledge it specifically.

In my jargon, this makes sampling a less effective method than it would otherwise be.

Since this is simply a matter of curiosity for me, I could easily have accepted this without much scrutiny. If I had added it to my stock of beliefs, I could easily have done so without remembering where I had read it. If I recalled it later in some other context, I might rely on it because I believed it.

The worry about Huxley and Alice is just that the wikipedia can amplify ignorance or carelessness. Greater concerns arise when people start deliberately manipulating entries for their own ends. The defamation of John Seigenthaler seems to have been a practical joke, but more insidious manipulations are possible. Congress seems to be in on the act; congressional staffers are manipulating the entries on their bosses and their boss' adversaries [via ShortWoman].

UPDATE: Patrick Barkham has a clever piece in the Guardian about political spin of wikipedia entries.

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Significance in the 20th century 
Working on the d-cog paper and teaching Understanding Science again have got me ruminating on scientific significance.

In The Advancement of Science, Philip Kitcher first advocated the view that science aims not at truth but at significant truth. At the time, he treated significance as an objective feature of some truths. To set up what I say below, here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in Spring '97:

* * * begin flashback * * *

Kitcher sees science as aiming to adopt significant truths. Traditional attempts to understand scientific significance in terms of systems of universal generalizations have led to problematic schemes to measure truth content. So, he writes:
My approach circumvents these difficulties by offering a quite different view of scientific significance. A significant statement is a potential answer to a significant question. What we strive for, when we can get them, are true answers to significant questions. [p.118]
The explanatory schemata of the concensus practice suggest questions of intrinsic significance, and many other questions derive significance as a step toward answering these primary questions. Significance, then, is a shared sense that points the scientific community to investigate different things. When a significant truth is discovered, it is taken up into concensus practice.
Although Kitcher assumes that significance is uniform across the community, it's not clear why that should be so. A field biologist might find considerable significance in the migratory habits of birds, but little or none in molecular genetics. Conversely, another biologist might find great significance in genetics but none in migrations. This is not simply a matter of caprice-- suppose the first biologist's work relies on her using the best available information regarding migration, but nothing relies on what she think's about the bird's genome. Even if researchers differed over the significance of certain truths, we would like poeple who apply scientific discoveries to be working with the best that science has to offer. Although it may not be critical for the discovery of further significant truths that a clinician use the best medical knowledge we have, it may be necessary for the survival of his patients. So, significance is tied to practical concerns of two kinds: (i) the discovery of further significant truths and (ii) the achievement of certain technological goals.

It follows immediately that the sectors of the scientific community which ought to hold the community's best candidates for truth are those for whom that truth would be a significant truth. Consider, for example, information concerning cancer. Doctors treating cancer patients should clearly employ those beliefs most likely to heal their patients. Given Kitcher's realism, this is just to say they should employ those beliefs most likely to be true. Cancer researchers, in order to discover new truths, ought to begin by employing background knowledge that is likely to be true. Other members of the scientific community (other doctors, marine biologists, theoretical physicists) needn't believe the community's best candidates for the truth about cancer at all, unless doing so is required to have oncologists believe it. So, the aim of science need not be conceived as adopting significant truth into consensus practice or even as spreading particular truths as widely as possible. Instead, all that matters is that truths are held by the people who actually need them; that is, people for whom they are significant. If the class of people who found a question significant were small, then the aim of science would be consistent with the majority of scientists believing anything whatsoever about it. Many of them may well cling to a falsehood, but why should this matter if it's not a significant falsehood for them?
The notion of significance developed above is, in a sense, recursive. ... Clause (i), by referring to significant truths, forces us back into the definition. Only facts used to achieve technical objectives are significant in themselves. Clause (ii) is just about technological proweress. Does truth then just reduce to the ability to perform technical feats? The concern is that proper deference to the significance of significant truths makes them all significance and no truth. How might such bald pragmatism be softened?

* * * end flashback * * *

In Science, Truth, and Democracy, Philip changed his view and argued that significance depends on what we care about. He also offered an answer to the objection: Significance is not necessarily practical. There are some questions we are motivated to ask just on the basis of natural human curiosity.

The appeal to natural human curiosity always strikes me as thin and philosophically unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I feel the visceral appeal of it. It is simply cool to learn about dinosaurs, for instance, and that coolness lends some significance to paleontological research. It is not simply that constructing big skeletons in museums is cool, because we could more easily construct fictional but impressive dragon skeletons. The coolness of dinosaurs is due, in part, to the fact that they really did exist and that our account of them-- although not true in all its details-- is based on the best evidence available.

Call this the dinosaur argument against bald pragmatism.

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File under 'words are curious things' 
I am aware that the words 'philosophy' and 'philosophical' are commonly employed in ways that have nothing to do with academic philosophy, but a story in today's the NY Times seemed obviously wrong to me. The story by Denise Grady is about a GI who suffered crippling injuries in Iraq. She writes:
Corporal Poole is philosophical. "Even when I do get low it's just for 5 or 10 minutes," he said. "I'm just a happy guy. I mean, like, it sucks, basically, but it happened to me and I'm still alive."

It turns out that this usage is perfectly kosher. One on-line dictionary offers 'meeting trouble with level-headed detachment' as a second definition for 'philosophical.'

For any readers who are completing a dissertation in philosophy at this time, I suggest this as an epigram: "I mean, like, it sucks, basically, but it happened to me and I'm still alive."

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iLogic, youLogic, weAllLogic 
In Summer 2000, I had a job developing on-line materials for the intro logic book that Rick Grush was writing. He wanted to have little movies of someone lecturing, so that students could watch and rewatch material outside of class. Bandwidth restrictions made that impractical at the time, so we didn't do that. I wrote some perl scripts and put together some flash movies, none of which amounted to much.

Now technology has caught up with Rick's vision. He's made podcasts out of some of his logic lectures and published them via iTunes. This press release compares him to Howard Stern.

[via TAR and Daily Phil]

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Parapsychology and demarcation 
Writing about parapsychology [here], Paul Churchland argues that parapsychologists do nothing more than point to anecdotal results that are anomalous for materialism. Since every theory faces some anomalies, this on its own shows nothing. Borrowing material from Feyerabend, Paul says that a genuinely scientific research program requires a theory of its own which can explain the results. He concludes: "Parapsychologists have not provided the raw conceptual materials with which to construct a coherent and well-motivated research program, even if materialism is in fact false. That is why parapsychology remains a pseudoscience."

I admit that science often involves a relatively detailed theoretical framework developing in dialogue with empirical work. However, Paul overstates the case when he uses this as a demarcation criterion. I want to argue that lacking a rich explanatory framework does not make a discipline ipso facto pseudoscientific.

Imagine that parapsychologists had discovered robust correlations between (say) the thoughts of nearby bald men and the vibrations of pink quartz crystals. Suppose further that these regularities allowed the construction of reliable telepathic lie detectors. The enquiry would certainly count as scientific, even if parapsychologists had no explanation for these regularities.

As Paul notes, parapsychology has not generated any robust, reproducible results like this. That is damning for parapsychology. My point is merely that empirical success alone is enough to sustain a scientific research program at least for a while, and so the Churchand/Feyerabend criterion is not satisfactory as a demarcation criterion.

The example of gestalt psychology is instructive in this regard. The gestalt psychologists discovered interesting phenomena. Cataloging and organizing these phenomena sustained a legitimately scientific research program for many years. Eventually, the research program stopped generating new results and became degenerate. The gestalt folks were not able to give deeper explanations for the phenomena it had discovered. When they tried, they navely extrapolated from phenomenal structure to brain structure. The result was a bad theory. I learned from Lakatos that a degenerate research program doesn't become non-science, it just becomes bad science that ought to be abandoned.

One might still try to defend a more conservative version of the demarcation criterion: A discipline is unscientific if all it does is find anomalies for an existing research program.

I still think this says too much. I agree that you can't have a distinct scientific research program just by tabulating anomalies for an existing research program. Since any research program will face some anomalies, then tabulating anomalies might not even be interesting scientific work.

In the case of parapsychology, the damning thing is that there are no systematic anomalies for a materialist approach. Unlike gestalt psychology, parapsychology has not discovered any robust phenomenal laws. We might say that parapsychology is a non-science because of that, but we might instead say that it is just a really terrible science.

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