The Wikipedia paper 
I have a draft of Epistemology and Wikipedia on-line. The paper has existed as detailed notes for quite some time, but I finally hammered it out as paragraphs. It is still waiting on some data, so there is a lacuna in the present draft. I will be presenting it at the Computing and Philosophy Conference next week, and hopefully the lacuna can be filled by then.

The paper concludes with the claim that Wikipedia "frustrates the methods by which we judge the claims of traditional information sources like encyclopedias. This does not mean that Wikipedia is worthless or that we ought not use it at all. Yet it does mean that we should be wary of it and that we should try to develop methods which are suitable to it."

In an earlier draft, I surveyed some cautious ways in which we might use the Wikipedia:

1. Wikipedia entries often contain links to related pages around the web. I know people who exploit this feature and visit the Wikipedia when looking for relevant links. It lets them get at a page quickly, without trying to coax the relevant URL from a search engine. This is fine, but it does not involve actually trusting a claim made in Wikipedia itself.

2. I use Wikipedia to keep track of comic book plots, since I no longer actively read comic books but have friends that do. For topics that have a dedicated fan base, the Wikipedia articles are well tended.

3. It is tempting to say that we can rely on Wikipedia when looking up trivia: Although the Wikipedia might mislead us, the cost of being misled about trivia would be low. This seems wrong to me.

Suppose I consult Wikipedia on some matter that does not seem important, and I come to believe whatever Wikipedia has to say. At a later date, when the topic is more important, I remember what I read without remembering where I read it. There is debate among epistemologists about whether detaching a belief in this way is ever responsible, but it is certainly something that happens. It is a danger of consulting Wikipedia. I wish I could quantify this danger, but I do not know enough about the psychology of belief to say anything more precise.

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I'm just here for the natural kinds 
In his TV show Good Eats and in his books, Alton Brown explains the physics and chemistry behind various recipes: what flour does at a molecular level, how butter makes biscuits fluffy, and so on. In the introduction to his book I'm Just Here For MORE FOOD, he writes: "To my mind, the greatest analytical tool in the world is classification." Philosophers everywhere applaud. Brown continues:
For instance, I used to make a really lousy cheesecake until I realized that cheesecake is not a cake, it is a custard pie. Now I treat cheesecake like a custard pie and everything is fine...
...I have come to the conclusion that the best way (for me) to classify baked goods is by mixing method. Not only does this system make sense, it has made me a better baker. [p. 7]
Despite the caveat "for me", Brown is making a substantive claim about the natural kind structure of baked goods.

One may object that custard and biscuit, although collections of real things, are not candidates to be natural kinds. I can think of two reasons that one might say this:

First, they are artificial and (one might say) not natural. This seems wrongheaded to me. There are various chemical elements that had to be synthesized. Nevertheless, Rutherfordium is as much a natural kind as Lithium. In chemistry, every element is a natural kind-- whether it is synthetic or not.

Second, physics does not distinguish custards from biscuits as such. Of course they differ in viscosity and compressibility, but (one might say) science does not acknowledge custard and biscuit as kinds. This too is wrongheaded. We cannot suppose that, because a kind is not acknowledged by one science, that it is ipso facto unscientific. Physics makes no distinction between cats and dogs, but biology does. Neither physics nor biology distinguish custards and biscuits, but another science might. One may object that home economics is not a science, but this would beg the question. Cooking, as Alton Brown practices it, is an applied science.

This last point is important. I have come to think that calling something a 'natural kind' is at best elliptical. A natural kind is only a 'natural kind' for some science or other. A science is individuated by its domain of enquiry, the questions it asks, and so on. So cat is a natural kind for biology and not for physics. Biscuit is not a natural kind for either biology or physics, but it may be a natural kind for cooking. (If physics has a claim to being more fundamental than other sciences, it is because its natural kinds are also natural kinds for many other sciences.)

So far, I have just argued that biscuit could be a natural kind. Is it? In marginal note, Brown acknowledges that his taxonomy is not standard:
I realize the accepted method of classification-- the one used in more cookbooks-- is nomenclature-based: pancakes, biscuits, rolls, and so on. I don't think this is any more a "system" than sorting books by color. Names just don't mean that much.
I'd put his point this way: The usual taxonomy is haphazard and unscientific. It doesn't get the natural kinds right. In order to decide whether Brown has got the right taxonomy or not, I would have to consider how it sorts specific recipes, consider alternatives, and bake more.

Cristyn and I made griddle scones this morning, which count as biscuit method in Brown's scheme. One data point. More research is required. (Mmm... research...) I simply want to point out that, if Brown's taxonomy is the right one, then it has identified the natural kind structure of baked goods relative to the questions and aims of cooking.

Ask about the transmission and change of baking practice, however, and the histories of various recipes become important. So anthropologists, with their questions and aims, divide baked goods into different natural kinds. Physicists, biologists, nutritionists, economists, and all the rest, each with different questions and aims, would put the griddle cakes that we made this morning into different kinds. None of the shows that biscuit method baked good is not a legitimate natural kind.

Why does it matter whether cooking has natural kinds? To quote Brown: "Classifying things leads to enlightenment, and enlightenment to deeper meaning."

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Wikipedia on Cartesian Free Masonry 
I am presenting on the reliability of the Wikipedia in a few weeks, and I wish I had more data.

A study, reported in Nature earlier this year, tested science entries from Wikipedia and Britannica. I have done some similar work on philosophy entries, although on only a handful of subjects. Although these studies can tell us about the density of errors in Wikipedia as opposed to in other resources, they cannot tell us about the dynamics. Boosters of the Wikipedia talk of its self-correcting nature, but what is the life cycle of an error in a Wikipedia entry?

Two about mysticism


A few days ago, I decided to try a small test. I inserted this sentence in the entry on Bertrand Russell, just after a passage describing his reaction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
Despite his disagreement with mysticism on essential points, Russell did not deny that mystical experiences do occur; he acknowledged attending a seance while he was a student at Cambridge and seeing what appeared to be the ghost of John Dee.
Ten minutes later, a user in the Czech Republic undid the change.

Such a test is rather shady, so I had only intended to try it once. (More on the ethics of it in a moment.) Nevertheless, this put me in a bind. I could not ignore it as a data point, but neither was it plausible that every falsity is scrubbed out so quickly. So the following day I tried another test. This time, in the entry on Descartes:
At La Flche, Descartes first encountered hermetic mysticism. Although he was briefly a Free Mason, he later abandoned mysticism in favor of reasoned inquiry.
The change survived past my bedtime.

About four and a half hours after I inserted the test sentences, an anonymous user replaced the entire section of the entry in which they appeared with the sentence "u have been terrorized!!!!!." Almost immediately, a user in Oxfordshire undid that change and restored the section that included my test sentences. The same anonymous user deleted that section again. A minute later, the user in Oxfordshire restored it.

Lest one think that the comment about being "terrorized" was a reference to the change I had made, I can say this much: An anonymous user from the same IP address made a similar attack on the Nero entry several days prior, erasing sections of the entry and replacing them with strings of obscenities. The style of the vandalism leaves little doubt that it was the same guy.

Thirteen hours after I inserted the test sentences, a self-described "pedant" and "university professor in Ontario, Canada" edited the entry so as to exchange an ampersand for the word "and."

Twenty-four hours after I inserted the sentences, I removed them.

Modest integrity


The tests I performed are somewhat suspect, from an ethical point of view. I inserted fabrications into a public record. To be blunt, I lied. A large scale study involving a campaign of such lies would be irresponsible. I am not going to do it, and I do not want to hear that someone did it after getting the idea from me.

Moreover, the methodology has all of the advantages of theft over honest toil. Every change ever made to the Wikipedia is saved. The wiki interface facilitates comparing different versions. I used this feature in tracking the response to my two little fibs about mysticism, in tracking the vandalism of Mister Anonymous, and in recovering the history of the 'church key' entry (as discussed in a previous entry). Questions about the dynamics of the Wikipedia could be answered by a systematic examination of the history entries.

The history entries confirm the lesson of my modest tests: There are Wikipedia users who react quickly to vandalism. If they detect an error or lie, then it will be removed within minutes. But not every ill-change is detected by these minute men. When I removed it, my change to the Descartes article was no longer fresh in the queue of changes. Most users would encounter it as part of the article, seemlessly connected with the rest of Descartes' biography.

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Holmes again, Holmes again, jiggety jig 
Brian Weatherson links to a recent episode of The Philosopher's Zone, an Australian radio program. They have it on-line both as audio and transcribed.

The host, Alan Saunders, is interviewing Greg Restall. They are discussing the fact that, in classical logic, a contradiction entails everything but, in ordinary reasoning, it does not. Saunders considers an example that I have discussed here recently:
[We] actually allow for the inconsistencies. I mean, let's say it's a Sherlock Holmes story. Now we know that Sherlock Holmes was not the centre of Conan Doyle's interest, he wrote these stories very, very quickly, so if I found an inconsistency like that in a Sherlock Holmes story, I would sort of mentally dissolve it, because I'd think, Oh well, he just wasn't paying attention. If, on the other hand, it were an historical account of a murder and I found [an inconsistency], then I'd say, Well, the evidence isn't all in yet, I'm going to have to suspend judgment on this.
By 'mentally dissolving' the contradiction, we refuse to treat it as evidence about Holmes at all. It provides no constraint on the set of Holmes-worlds. When I discussed inconsistencies in Holmes stories, I suggested something similar.

In reading a historical account, Saunders suggests that we should take opposing claims seriously as evidence-- albeit conflicting evidence-- of how things actually happened. When considering the past, we know that there was some one way that the world was. There is no such assumption about Holmes' world. However, I am not sure that this difference is sufficient to justify Saunders' different handling of these two cases. We can take contradictions in stories as signs that there is some strangeness afoot in them. Why don't we?

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Defer madness 
I wrote most of this entry a couple of weeks ago, after Brian Weatherson pointed to the article in question. Something else came up, so I saved it and moved on. Today I went back, cleaned it up, and posted it.

In a recent paper in Analysis [July 2006, 179-187], Philip Pettit considers the question of whether or not one should acquiesce to the opinion of the majority. He considers three cases, but two are sufficient for the points below.

Case A: Joe is one of many witnesses to an auto accident.* When he saw it, he thought the driver ran a red light. Many other witnesses say that the light was green. Should Joe defer to the majority of reports and conclude that the light was indeed green?

Case B: Joe believes that intelligent design is the best explanation for the existence of order in the universe. The majority of people say otherwise. Should Joe defer to the majority and conclude that intelligent design is hokum?

Pettit suggests that our answer is 'yes' in Case A, but 'no' in Case B. His paper aims to explain and justify the asymmetry.

In a subsequent section, Petit offers a schematic situation. Paraphrasing a bit:
Joe is one of many people who face a given question. Joe and the rest are "equally intelligent, equally informed and equally impartial." Joe disagrees with the answer given by most of the others. Joe knows all of this to be true.
Now, should Joe change his opinion?

Pettit offers the obvious argument for the 'yes' answer: If each person has some independent probability (greater than 1/2) of getting the right answer, then one would be more likely to get the right answer by trusting the majority than the minority. In the limit of large population, probability that the majority will get the right answer approaches one.

This argument gives a 'yes' answer to any instances of the schematic situation. Rather than rebut it, Pettit looks elsewhere for an asymmetry. The difference between Case A and Case B, he suggests, is that the belief that the light was green was closer to the periphery of Joe's web of belief than the belief in intelligent design. Because the latter belief is deeply embedded in his other beliefs, Joe would have to decide if and how to update his other beliefs after deferring to the majority opinion.

Pettit surveys various ways that Joe might try to update his beliefs. If Joe accepts the majority opinion about several questions all at once, then he might end up with inconsistent beliefs. If Joe accepts the majority opinion about one matter, lets that effect his degree of belief, considers the majority opinion regarding a second question, and so on, then the outcome will depend on which question Joe considers first. Since possible inconsistency and path-dependency are to be avoided, Pettit concludes, we should say 'no' in cases where the beliefs are deeply embedded.

Pettit's arguments for inconsistency or path-dependence if Joe defers proceed simply in terms of Joe's beliefs about p, q, and p&q. As such, I suspect that the arguments do not really discriminate between core and peripheral beliefs. Peripheral beliefs can still enter into conjunctions. Admittedly, this suspicion is not an argument; but it does suggest that embeddedness can't explain the asymmetry between Cases A and B.

One real distinction between Case A from Case B is much simpler: Case B is not plausibly an instance of Pettit's general schema, and so the initial argument for a 'yes' answer does not apply. We know that debates about intelligent design do not involve people who are "equally intelligent, equally informed and equally impartial." Both sides would agree on this, although for different reasons; believers in science see the ID crowd as creationist yahoos, and the yahoos portray us as being in the grip of a priori naturalism. Regardless of whatever might be stipulated about Joe and his interlocutors, our background knowledge shapes our intuitions about Case B.

Moreover, path dependence can result if Joe defers in Case A. Suppose there are a dozen witnesses who are evenly divided as to whether the light was red or green. Three of them compare notes before being questioned. Merely as a matter of chance, one of these three will be in the minority. Since the perceptual belief is far from the center of her web, she defers to the other two. Things continue until Joe has a chance to compare notes with his fellow witnesses. By that time, a majority favors one view or the other. This is not quite the same path dependence that worries Pettit; it is not relative to Joe's personal history, but relative to the history of the community. Nevertheless, it is enough to discredit the strategy of deference even for beliefs that are not deeply embedded.

This might seem to be an argument for 'no' in Case A, which would be in tension with the general argument for 'yes' that Pettit begins with. I think that this is just a result of the way the problem is represented. Before Joe discusses the accident with others, he believes that it looked to him that the light was red. Whether he defers to them or not, he should not change his belief about that. Rather, he might change his belief about whether the light was red. Similarly, if he listens to other witness' description of the accident, he will not defer on the basis of their beliefs that the light was green. Rather, he is interested in their reports about whether it looked to them as if the light was red. With this distinction in mind, the cascade to agreement would not occur.

Perhaps there is no such distinction in Case B. For non-perceptual beliefs, one might say, there is no clear distinction between saying how it seemed and judging how it was.** Of course, perceptual beliefs are less embedded in the web of belief. So this would just be Pettit's distinction again.


* He puts the scenarios in the second person, but I have shifted to the third person Joe. It would be presumptuous to stipulate your opinions about intelligent design in Case B.

** I have phrased this as a hypothetical because I am dubious of it. Even if detachment is permitted for some beliefs, it seems like scientific controversies require remembering which evidence one took to be persuasive. As such, Joe should distinguish between having believed a theory on the basis of some evidence and later disbelieving it because his clever friends do. I can distinguish between my sense of a scientific theory based on my (meager) understanding of the evidence and my sense based on what competent scientists tell me; I have beliefs about both, but if asked for a flat-footed judgment about the theory I would probably defer and give the latter.

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