Wikipedia Follies

by Kieran Healy on February 4, 2007

Via “Teresa Nielsen Hayden”: come “Lore Sjöberg’s views on Wikipedia.”:,70670-0.html He says in part:

Wikipedia is a new paradigm in human discourse. It’s a place where anyone with a browser can go, pick a subject that interests them, and without even logging in, start an argument. … The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: “Experts are scum.” For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War — and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge — get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

This reminds me of my friend “Dave Chalmers”: and his abortive efforts to suggest some clean up of the Wikipedia entry on “consciousness”:, especially the bits relating to his own well-known book _The Conscious Mind_. He registered a username and — politely — made a suggestion. “The results”: were not encouraging:

As can be seen above, most of your criticisms are not supported. Please demonstrate your familiarity with the field by supporting your critique with reasoned arguments rather than pejorative comments. *loxley* 08:50, 3 October 2005 (UTC)

Marshall McLuhan here. *Philos* is right about each of the points above. The philosophy section would be much improved if it reverted to the “philosopher’s” edit of a few days ago. *DavidChalmers* 23:51, 4 October 2005 (UTC)

How is he right about the points above? The points are clearly detailed and you could easily explain your criticism. Please could you also explain how cutting the historical, empirical descriptions of conscious experience and supervenience would improve the article. Why do you have the ID “DavidChalmers” yet use the name Marshall McLuhan? The only famous philosopher called Marshall McLuhan died in 1980. Are you taking the piss or are you philos with a duplicate ID? *loxley* 11:13, 5 October 2005 (UTC)

The user with ID DavidChalmers who claims to be the deceased and famous Canadian philosopher Marshal McLuhan should note that using the name of a living, prominent person as a USERID is against Wikipedia guidelines. *loxley* 11:19, 5 October 2005 (UTC)

My userID is my own name (I presume that’s allowed). “Marshall McLuhan” was an _Annie Hall_ reference. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to get into a long argument involving an entry where I am discussed. But since you’ve invoked my name twice (here and on the history page) in support of your claims, I thought I should register my judgment here. I appreciate all that you and others have done to build up this entry. But your discussion in the article and above shows fairly basic misunderstandings of supervenience (the Derrida quote has no bearing on supervenience), direct realism (it’s not true that direct realists see the explanatory gap in terms of access consciousness), functionalism (it’s not true that “experience of” is a functionalist or eliminativist locution), and so on. I’m sorry! And I’ll bow out now. *DavidChalmers* 23:36, 5 October 2005 (UTC)

Dear Prof. Chalmers, Thank you for your comments. I respect your willingness to bow out of decisions where conflicts of interest emerge, but I would like to stress that your informed opinion and guidance is most valuable here. This page has great potential to teach many curious readers about our current understanding of consciousness in an accurate and approachable way. I believe that all here would agree that this subject is a difficult one to get right and teach well, and thus your contributions here are most certainly a welcome public service. Many thanks for your past (and hopefully future) contributions. Cheers, *sallison* 01:47, 6 October 2005 (UTC)

Sallison: yuk. Chalmers, if that is your name, your criticisms are not in the spirit of Wikipedia. Don’t wave your hand with a pompous air of authority, get them dirty by actually contributing. I have given details of the assertions in the philosophy section that you can rebut in the section below. *loxley* 10:56, 6 October 2005 (UTC)

I’m not sure how things stand these days with that entry. Hopefully it improved.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Wikipedia: how and when to use it at Greg Laden
02.06.07 at 6:07 pm
Academia as an Extreme Sport » editing wikipedia
02.12.07 at 4:49 am
Exasperated Calculator » Blog Archive » The problems with Wikipedia
02.18.07 at 3:53 am



John Emerson 02.04.07 at 9:15 am

I find Wikipedia excellent and convenient on straightforward, non-controversial topics, of which there are many. I be not use it it as an authority on a developing area of thought, though I might make it my first stop when checking something out.

Wiki can be good on pretty abstruse topics. For example, the article on the Qarakhitai khanate of Central Asia (destroyed in 1218) gives a pretty good up-to-date summary of Biran’s 2005 book on the subject, which is by far the best thing in a Western language. Only an advanced scholar in the field could have improved on it much, by improving on Biran, and I’m not sure if anyone is able to do that.

Chalmers didn’t seem willing to participate in the Wikipedia process. His self-introduction with an Annie Hall reference created unnecessary confusion. It was probably interpreted as disrespect for the process, especially given his lame and perfunctory apology.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to get into a long argument involving an entry where I am discussed”. Sallison apparently thought he was declaring a conflict of interest, and he/she regretted his departure. I suspect that he/she was right that the article would have been improved if he had been willing to continue to participate. So does Chalmers, of course.

I really don’t think Chalmers wins this argument.


John Emerson 02.04.07 at 9:16 am

Your timer seems to have suddenly gone wack.


scats 02.04.07 at 9:21 am

loxley is an ass, but so is sjoberg. Wikipedia’s enemies are pretty ridiculous as well.

I’ve never understood the level of heat that the Wikipedia debate generates. The quote above about “quantum significance flux” points out the bizarre Manicheanism surrounding this phenomenon.

Encyclopedias aren’t meant to be some ironclad vault of knowledge (although perhaps they were originally conceived that way). Its a point-of-entry reference into an unfamiliar topic. I use it all the time and it doesn’t always prove to be accurate, but it always proves useful. If I hear about something I don’t know about, I can look it up from my browser and have a stepping-stone to a more in-depth inquiry. Sometimes I find that something I originally read was wrong, or inaccurate, or incomplete.

But doesn’t every inquiry work this way no matter where you start?

If so, then are Wikipedia’s detractors contending that Wikipedia is such a terrible point-of-entry that its useless at best and dangerous at worst?

I don’t take it as gospel, and I honestly don’t think anyone else does either. To think that a lot of people do is to underestimate the readership almost to the point of contempt.

You don’t have to think “experts are scum” to see that there is a pretty rich panopoly of knowledge to which experts don’t pay much attention, or in which there simply aren’t experts, but many people who know something although no a lot about the topic. Obviously Mr. Chalmers knows more about his field than the people on the board. But Wikipedia really shines in the breadth and diversity of the entry topics and categories. Its fascinating to see articles on so many things that for whatever reason the Academy doesn’t really cover. hugh is right, in the long haul it does seem to work well enough.

now if we can only invent a website that gets rid of asses…


John Emerson 02.04.07 at 9:24 am

This is Chalmers’ self-introduction:

Marshall McLuhan here. Philos is right about each of the points above. The philosophy section would be much improved if it reverted to the “philosopher’s” edit of a few days ago. DavidChalmers 23:51, 4 October 2005 (UTC)

Now, if they had realized that he was one of the sources someone had cited, they might have reacted more receptively. Instead he uses a joke name. They treated him the same way they’d treat anyone else who blew in off the street. Is not recognizing him the problem?

Suppose he had said something like “Hello, I’m David Chalmers who you’ve cited twice in your article. I appreciate what you’ve done, but the way you’ve interpreted my work is misleading”.

I can’t be sure that that would have been accepted, but my bet is that the response would have been more favorable by far.


Michael 02.04.07 at 9:42 am

Buncha jerks, they are. They aren’t able to read the name at the end of the post to see who wrote it? I hope they never “edit” anything of mine!


Randolph Fritz 02.04.07 at 9:59 am

“Perhaps Dave Chalmers can try again.”

I am sure he can; what I don’t understand is why he would.


Kelly 02.04.07 at 11:00 am

Until recently, Wikipedia frowned on you editing anything to do with yourself, so Chalmers was in the right by not editing anything. (I have no idea if they’ve changed the policy, but I have gone in and made edits for friends on their entries, because of inaccurate info.)

As someone who spends some time maintaining a few pages on Wikipedia, the problem isn’t really in the attitude that experts are scum, it’s that any old person takes themselves to be an expert, whether they are or not, and they “just know better”. It’s very hard to argue or otherwise deal with people who practice a bizarre, gastrointestinal based version of facticity.


a 02.04.07 at 11:02 am

Speaking of Marshall McLuhan moments, Marvin Minsky occasionally shows up and makes replies on Usenet. (I think he has a robot or such which searches out his name.) IMHO he doesn’t always get the better of the argument…


Aaron Swartz 02.04.07 at 11:02 am

I am particularly frustrated with the many jerks on Wikipedia who ensure that many portions of the site are problematic. But your example here doesn’t make the case for that — at most you’ve pointed out that there is one annoying person on the Internet. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s read a Crooked Timber comments thread.


Dan Karreman 02.04.07 at 11:52 am

You go to Wikipedia to get state of the art knowledge? Hm, maybe you should revisit your knowledge search procedures. Wikipedia is often an excellent entry point to a subject, as pointed out above, but hardly authoritative on anything.

Why should it be?


engels 02.04.07 at 1:02 pm

Giving the experts and the blowhards and the in-between equal power may be at best an unfamiliar experience and at worst a distasteful one, but doesn’t it generally seem to work in the long haul?

As far as the philosophy pages go, definitely not!


abb1 02.04.07 at 1:08 pm

Mr. Chalmers should’ve corrected the entry leaving a clear comment (without trying to be cute with “Marshall McLuhan here”) explaining who he is and why he did it. Or else ignore it altogether. Simple as that.


Paul Ding 02.04.07 at 1:10 pm

“Within that unalterable law of all online interaction, Wikipedia does a pretty good job” is simply another way of saying “Wikipedia sucks swamp water”.

Wikipedia is the pursuit of the unsupportable by the disreputable.

Stephen Colbert says it’s where anybody can be an expert, even if they don’t know what the hell they are talking about, but he’s wrong. It’s “whoever is willing to be the biggest bully, wins”.


engels 02.04.07 at 1:10 pm

How peculiar. My comment (now at #11) has just appeared ahead of the comment (Hugh’s #12) to which it was a response. And I didn’t even post it until after reading Walt’s #18.


Cirkux 02.04.07 at 3:38 pm


TheDeadlyShoe 02.04.07 at 4:21 pm

I think the problem with the wikipedia is that professorial types are sick and irritated with students citing it as a source. Students shouldnt, of course, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with Wikipedia. It still generates irrational levels of dislike in academics. :)

Often times I hear some strange or interesting fact on the internets and I check Wiki for more information. Sometimes I get more information…sometimes I add a new fact.

On occasion, I add pictures and information gleaned from tourism to interesting places.

There is a bias against experts, particularly on controversial topics, since well lots of people pretend to be experts who are not.

Wiki has its downsides of course… as anyone who tried to cleanup the ‘Killdozer’ article can attest. ;)


TheDeadlyShoe 02.04.07 at 4:22 pm

Holy screwy timestamps. My post, written after walt’s @ 22, is instead @ 16.


TheDeadlyShoe 02.04.07 at 4:28 pm

Another point. Wikipedia has an incredible hard time making negative points about people, or at least keeping them up. You should see the debates people have about the use of the word ‘Dictator’. It’s nearly impossible to keep negative information about lesser schmucks on-page.


abb1 02.04.07 at 4:40 pm

Some of the comments in this thread (including mine) were posted earlier than the thread itself appeared on February 4th, 2007 at 8:08 pm. Cool. This deserves a Wikipedia entry, don’t you think?


Seth Finkelstein 02.04.07 at 4:48 pm

aaron: “at most you’ve pointed out that there is one annoying person on the Internet.”

A big problem with Wikipedia is that the one annoying person has as much power over the article as an expert. Maybe more, if the annoying person is skilled at Wikipedia policy-gaming.

What I find most fascinating about Wikipedia is the way it’s developed so many ideological defenses against low quality, many based on putting critics on the defensive: Fix It Yourself … Nothing’s Perfect, It’s Just A Starting Point … You’re An Elitist … Works Most Of The Time … etc.

That’s a really interesting innovation – not hosting term-paper level articles and plagiarism, but making pointing out poor quality almost a flaw in the *critic*.


Seth Finkelstein 02.04.07 at 4:53 pm

FYI – more recent comedy:

Colbert: “When money determines Wikipedia entries, reality has become a commodity. And I’ll give five bucks to the first person who goes on W and changes the entry on Reality to “Reality Has Become A Commodity”.

“And to those who say “That’s not what Reality is”, I say “Go look up it on Wikipedia””

Also “The democratization of knowledge”, where “definitions will greet us as liberators”.


Russell Arben Fox 02.04.07 at 5:12 pm

I use Wikipedia for two things and two things only. 1) To obtain very general information on historical, natural, or social events that I find referenced in my reading while sitting at my desk, and that have genuinely no knowledge of whatsoever (the Lecompton Constitution? what was that?) 2) Nerd stuff. So far, I have no complaints.


Thom Brooks 02.04.07 at 5:22 pm

Yet another reason to never read Wikipedia!


Nick L 02.04.07 at 10:59 pm

In general most of the pages on non-technical philosophical topics are utterly useless. I’m not sure if it still exists in the same form, but the article on solipsism used to be simply atrocious. The same too for maltheism, which was obviously being edited by teenage goths. The problem is these kind of topics attract people with little knowledge and lots of opinions.

So paradoxically, wikipedia is best for expert, technical and obscure topics which hold little general interest. An ironic outcome for an open encyclopedia.


JR 02.04.07 at 11:55 pm

I love Wikipedia. For example, yesterday I saw Pan’s Labyrinth. As I was thinking about the historical period, I realized I knew a fair amount about the Civil War and the Franco era, but nothing about how the Republic had come to be. In five minutes on Wikipedia I learned about the First Spanish Republic, the Restoration, and the establishment of the Second Republic. Obviously I didn’t expect to be informed about all the political nuances and the many learned debates that must exist. But I got a sense of the lay of the land, which is what I wanted.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 12:00 am

Nick L is far wrong. Wikipedia is best for topics about which there is a consensus. It’s unlikely to be good on anything controversial, and you’d be surprised what’s controversial (e.g, Caucasian Albanians: proto-Azerbaijanis or not? Ethiopian Orthodox: Monophysite or not?)

It’s also bad for a.) fast-developing topics and b.) topics about which there are multiple approaches (something slightly different than politcal or religious controversy).

I doubt that a good three-year-old print encyclopedia would be very good on “consciousness” either, and even if the encyclopedia article had been written by Chalmers himself, I’m sure that there would be knowledgable people to explain how far wrong it was.

From where we are right now, it should be possible for someone who agrees with Chalmers to go to Wikipedia and fix the article. It’s somewhat of a bureaucratic process and pretty tedious, but it can be done if you are willing to put in the time.


Pete 02.05.07 at 12:01 am

The thing about philosophy is that there is no prime reference nor experimental basis: it’s all opinion and argument, all the way down. So pages aren’t going to converge on the right answer, because there isn’t a right answer to be found.

History fares better, although it’s under attack from revisionists (usually with some present-day political agenda to push). Linguistics likewise.

It works best where there is some science fiction that is being used as a prime reference, or where the topic is empirical science or mathematics.


Phoenix Woman 02.05.07 at 12:20 am

Chalmers’ problem is that he gave up too soon. If he’d been willing to stick it out, he’d have won his argument — he had at least one Wiki person begging him to stick around, so it’s not as if he was without backers.

As for whether or not to cite Wiki entries: I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t hesitate to cite a source referenced in a Wiki entry if I knew it was legit. (See, that’s the real reason to use Wiki: To gather up URLs for source material!)


Hugh 02.05.07 at 3:36 am

I dunno. Asking the learned Chalmers to substantiate his criticisms with specific rebuttal doesn’t seem that out of order. I appreciate that the wikipedia model doesn’t make the best use of expertise that it could, but it does make use of expertise. Based on the comments of sallison it seems as though, had DavidChalmers persisted a little his points might well have been absorbed, loxleyite highhandedness notwithstanding.

I suppose the question is, how could the situation be better structured? Is there any question that the wikipedia model is at least minimally effective? Giving the experts and the blowhards and the in-between equal power may be at best an unfamiliar experience and at worst a distasteful one, but doesn’t it generally seem to work in the long haul?


bi 02.05.07 at 3:43 am

Wikipedia is good for people who know how to game its rules. Wikipedia has lots of notice boards (WP:PAIN, WP:SSP, WP:RFPP, WP:SPAM, …) which allow one to get the attention of administrators and bring down the Wrath of God on stupid and rude people. But first you have to find these pages — which is no mean feat, because the official dispute resolution process goes out of its way to avoid mentioning these notice boards by name.

Perhaps Dave Chalmers can try again.


bi 02.05.07 at 3:44 am

(Oops, WP:SPAM isn’t a notice board.)


Kieran Healy 02.05.07 at 3:46 am

From the Sjoberg article:

Wikipedia exists in a state of quantum significance flux. It’s simultaneously a shining, flawless collection of incontrovertible information, and a debased pile of meaningless words thrown together by uneducated lemurs with political agendas. It simply cannot exist in any state between these two extremes. You can test this yourself by expressing a reasonable opinion about the site in any public space. Whatever words you type, they will be interpreted by readers as supporting one of these two opposing views.


Kieran Healy 02.05.07 at 3:47 am

And in fairness to Dave, his comment was explictly saying he didn’t think it was appropriate for him to edit the article, so he was just registering what he thought on the discussion page. And loxley is obviously an ass.


kb 02.05.07 at 3:55 am

Wikipedia is a particularly bad case of the principle that something’s fans are usually its worst enemies.


Walt 02.05.07 at 4:26 am

The problem with Wikipedia is the problem with the Internet: people are dicks. Within that unalterable law of all online interaction, Wikipedia does a pretty good job.


Slocum 02.05.07 at 2:55 pm

We already have plenty of domains where experts rule by authority–which obviously has advantages but also has certain kinds of characteristic flaws. Wiki has different advantages and flaws, so I would hate to see it become more like commercial encyclopedias or academic journals.

And I have to say that Chalmers is really not very helpful when he says:

But your discussion in the article and above shows fairly basic misunderstandings of supervenience (the Derrida quote has no bearing on supervenience), direct realism (it’s not true that direct realists see the explanatory gap in terms of access consciousness), functionalism (it’s not true that “experience of” is a functionalist or eliminativist locution), and so on. I’m sorry! And I’ll bow out now.

What are their interpretations incorrect? What are references to work that will show the correct interpretations? It is pretty common in adversarial academic publishing to claim that some rival theorist has shown basic misunderstandings (Chalmers has said that Dennet’s ‘Consciousness Explained’ should have been called ‘Consciousness Explained Away’). But when dealing with those he considered peers, Chalmers would have felt obligated to explain, in detail, what he thought the misunderstandings were and backed those explanations up with references. In this case, however, (at least judging from the excerpt above), he really couldn’t be bothered.


boswell 02.05.07 at 3:10 pm

It’s hard to see the point of updating wikipedia’s philosophy entries when the stanford encyclopedia is such a great, and free resource. Perhaps wikipedia might have a niche by being less technical than stanford?


bi 02.05.07 at 3:20 pm

Randolph Fritz:
“I am sure he can; what I don’t understand is why he would.”

Because he can try a different method the second time round?

Seth Finkelstein:
“A big problem with Wikipedia is that the one annoying person has as much power over the article as an expert. Maybe more, if the annoying person is skilled at Wikipedia policy-gaming.”

Indeed, and that was my point. This so-called “democratization” of knowledge has in fact given us a different kind of elitism, a warped kind of hierarchy:

People who know how to game the rules
Persistently annoying people who don’t know (or care) what “rules” are
Honest contributors and readers

One step towards fixing this will be to simply make the notice boards more prominent and get most of the namby-pamby “please, consensus, not conflict!” talk out of the way. But I’m quite sure there’ll be lots of blood spilled on Wikipedia if I even try to put this proposal up there for consideration.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 3:45 pm

A Wikipedia weakness I will concede is that like all consensus communities, it’s a timewaster. That’s why I’ve never gotten involved.

What Chalmers could do would assign a grad student to do what needs to be done, but that would be unfair to the grad student since Wiki work would be counted against him careerwise. Of course, a hostile consciousness scientist could start a wiki war be assigning his grad student to correct Chalmers’.


pmagnus 02.05.07 at 3:58 pm

I am not surprised that Chalmers had difficulty setting the Wikipedians on the right path. Consciousness is just the sort of topic that brings out posers and kooks.

Also: Sjoberg is a satirist and so is not making any effort to be fair. Something about the Wikipedia that fails to come out in discussions like Sjoberg’s is that often different entries are maintained by distinct communities. As such, the quality of entries varies quite a lot– I have made this point elsewhere are greater length.


abb1 02.05.07 at 4:05 pm

There are over 1.6 million articles in wikipedia. So, how many People Who Game The Rules are there and how much damage can they inflict, considering that there must be many more reasonable people correcting most of those damaged entires and probably without making a big fuss out of it?


mndean 02.05.07 at 4:33 pm

Even the most mundane Wikipedia articles (where there wouldn’t apppear to be any controversy) can be utterly worthless. I have read Wikipedia on topics of no real controversy, albeit of small interest, only to find that the article accompanying is so inaccurate as to be misleading. I even considered editing the article, only to find that there were competing edits going back and forth, so I gave the whole thing a miss.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.07 at 4:38 pm

Well, considering how many of those 1.6 million articles are about Japanese anime characters (not that there’s anything wrong with that …), I don’t think it’s that’s the best basis for gamers vs. reasonable people.


Alex Gregory 02.05.07 at 4:41 pm

It’s hardly surprising that professional philosophers, or other academics, find wikipedia ill-suited for their specialist needs. But as many people have pointed out above, if you just want to know the basic lay of the land of some topic you know absolutely nothing about, it can (almost always) be very handy.

Further, subjects like philosophy probably don’t lend themselves too well to encyclopedia style entries. Precisely what’s up for grabs most of the time is how a position is defined and to what extent arguments for/against it suceed. There’s very little in the way of established uncontroversial fact to rely on. (though not “no correct answers” as one commentator suggests). If I recall correctly, Blackburn’s dictionary of philosophy is written in an opinionated style, and probably for good reason. Such a move isn’t available for wikipedia.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 4:47 pm

Some of the People who Game the Rules actually are OK people who know how to do Wiki.

I really don’t think tht Chalmers had difficulty setting the Wiki straight. He tried very briefly, succeeded in annoying one person, and left. We don’t know that if he had made a continued effort that he would have failed.


Dayv 02.05.07 at 4:49 pm

It’s worth pointing out that Lore Sjöberg’s referenced article was satire.  It generated so much feedback that he gave his more serious opinions on Wikipedia (and the response to his piece) on his blog here.

[comment cross-posted at Pharyngula]


Doug K 02.05.07 at 5:23 pm

The Britannica article on consciousness has 549 words, and begins:
” a psychological condition defined by the English philosopher John Locke as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” ”
The paywall prevents any further access.

The Wikipedia article has 7119 words, and a nuanced discussion of Locke. The discussions of supervenience, functionalism, and direct realism all appear to have been amended as per David Chalmer’s earlier remarks. It also references both David Chalmers’ books and his web site, without discernible animus. It seems to me the Wikipedia presents an acceptable entry into the contentious swamplands of consciousness theory, at least for anyone who isn’t David Chalmers.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 5:37 pm

I have followed a few Wiki fights — at wiki you can go to the archive and find out how an article was put together. I was impressed at how much time people were willing to put in, and how well the process worked to get a crank’s opinions out of there. But if you tuned in at the wrong time, you would have seen a bad article.


Westwood 02.05.07 at 5:55 pm

“Chalmers’ problem is that he gave up too soon. If he’d been willing to stick it out, he’d have won his argument—he had at least one Wiki person begging him to stick around, so it’s not as if he was without backers.”

And I’m sure my tenure committee will be very impressed at how many Wikipedia pissing matches I’ve won.


bi 02.05.07 at 6:12 pm

John Emerson:

“We don’t know that if he had made a continued effort that he would have failed.”

To which I’d say, I think one shouldn’t have to persist so hard in the first place. Wikipedia is supposed to be a collection of knowledge, not an endurance contest. There should definitely be easier ways to allow new honest contributors to quickly draw administrators’ attention to any bad behaviour.

mndean saw an edit war and became discouraged. There’s no good reason why this sort of thing can’t be avoided: all that needs to be done is to tell people up front, “hey, if you see an edit war, go over to WP:RFPP and stick a bill there”.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 6:15 pm

Someone or another was militating to get internet outreach included in the “service” component in tenure review. There are enormous areas of Wiki where something like that could be done to great profit (and is already voluntarily being done in many cases), but as far as I know the idea never went anywhere.

At a high level of sophistication, though, the same political issues would arise. I don’t know who the anti-Chalmers is in consciousness science, but unless someone tells me that Chalmers is the universally acknowledge champ, I can easily imagine a high-level wiki war.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.07 at 6:24 pm


“Reponses to criticism of Wikipedia go something like this: the first is usually a paean to that pure democracy which is the project’s noble fundament. If I don’t like it, why don’t I go edit it myself? To which I reply: because I don’t have time to babysit the Internet. Hardly anyone does. If they do, it isn’t exactly a compliment.”

Yes – Chalmers could have patiently written detailed explanations in the face of constant carping from cranks, martinets, and people looking to score points by posturing. He could do that! He could, he could, he could!

By why would he *want* to?!

[Note this fascinating process – it’s the *critic* who is at fault for not putting up with the Wikipedia bureaucracy and continually giving their time for free against the negative aspects of Wikipedia’s structure]


bi 02.05.07 at 6:34 pm

Seth Finkelstein:

Exactly my point.

But as I pointed out, Chalmers’ doesn’t (and shouldn’t) need to write any more detailed explanations. Just stick a bill on… let me see… WP:WQA. Or WP:PAIN. Just say that loxley’s being an ass, that he’s making ungrounded accusations. Which brings me back to my point that the notice boards should be more prominent…


bi 02.05.07 at 6:36 pm

John Emerson:

Well, I don’t know how things work in the philosophy department in academia, but I’d guess that this “high-level wiki war” is likely to contain more useful content and lead more smoothly to some sort of consensus than the current wiki wars.


pluky 02.05.07 at 7:02 pm

In philosophy, the conclusions are often less interesting than the arguments.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 7:13 pm

Chalmers would want to correct the Wiki because he wanted a good Wiki to be out there to use as a resource.

Chalmers did not spend an enormous amount of time trying to correct the wiki, apparently just a few minutes, and he did so without initially introducing himself clearly. The first two supposedly objectionable posts were on the question of “Who is this?” which is a routine wiki questions.

He seemed to want to breeze in off the street, give his orders, and walk off. How many organization of any kind are there where you can do this?

And according to Doug K above, the Wiki apparently corrected itself after Chalmers ran off whining to the world that they weren’t nice to him.

BI, I agree that more academic input would be a good thing, but we’re arguing here about an academic who ran off crying after spending about three minutes trying to make his point.


bi 02.05.07 at 7:25 pm

“Are you taking the piss or are you philos with a duplicate ID?”

Eh, that’s emphatically not a routine wiki question. That’s an accusation of bad faith and wrongdoing. You don’t ask for people’s named by first launching a thinly-veiled claim of sock puppetry. If I see this I’ll go straight to WP:WQA.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.07 at 7:29 pm

“… because he wanted a good Wiki to be out there to use as a resource.”

I call this the “extortion” argument. Experts have to work for free, through popcorn-throwing from the peanut-gallery, because otherwise the mob will mess it up – and this is will then be marketed as the wisdom of crowds!

Yes, experts in a topic do usually expect a bit of social deference. That’s true. The issue is how much emphasis we’re going to devote that they’re at fault for not being perfect people, versus whether Wikipedia is at fault for being an environment which socially (not formally, but informally) supports attacking them on that flaw.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 7:39 pm

Seth, he didn’t even bother to try. He spent a total of three minutes, and the first two exchanges were spent trying to distinguish his joke identity from his actual identity.

Everyone at wiki is “working for free”. Chalmers didn’t have to do that, but if he had done so, he’d have been the same as everyone else there.

There’s no extortion. Wiki is a volunteer operation. With a rather small effort and expenditure of time I think that he could have solved the problem he cared enough to complain about. He may even have solved the problem anyway, but even so he went around whining because they didn’t defer to his misidentified self.


bi 02.05.07 at 7:40 pm

John Emerson:

That’s nonsense. loxley wasn’t just “not nice”, he was trying his very darn best to attack Chalmers in every front.

“Are you taking the piss or are you philos with a duplicate ID?”

This, as I explained, is an outright accusation of bad faith and sock puppetry. Clearly a no-no.

“…using the name of a living, prominent person as a USERID is against Wikipedia guidelines.”

This is total bullshite. Nowhere in WP:UN does it state this. The closest it gets is this: In no circumstance should a signature be used to impersonate another user: in particular, a signature should not be identical to the actual username of an existing user.

“…your criticisms are not in the spirit of Wikipedia.”

Um, excuse me? Is this supposed to be a coherent argument or what? I can feel my bogometer acting up already, and I mean Right Now!

Bottom line: Chalmers shouldn’t even have to face this nonsense in the first place.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 7:42 pm

Chalmers only identified himself as an expert in his third and final exchange, at the end of which he definitively left the discussion.


bi 02.05.07 at 7:42 pm

Just to add: the whole “misidentification” hoo-ha is a red herring anyway. Again, loxley was just looking for some excuse, any excuse, to attack whoever questioned his edits.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.07 at 7:44 pm

“… trying to distinguish his joke identity from his actual identity …”

ARGH! It was a humorous allusion, not a “joke identity”.

Now, my point is that there are two reactions one can have at this moment:

1) Oh-me-oh-my, I am to blame for making a funny that was misunderstood. Let me try to work with this community.

2) These people are a bunch of morons, and I don’t want to deal with them.

Reaction #1 would be laudable. But, in my view, reaction #2 is very understandable.

The issue is that the Wikipedia-defense-mechanism is to say reaction #2 is wrong, everyone should have reaction #1 (hence, nothing to see here, no problem with Wikipedia, it’s those unreasonable elitists at fault).


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 8:05 pm

Seth, they didn’t know who the guy was. He didn’t introduce himself until right before he left in a huff.

They missed a joke, and they didn’t immediately identify his name, and that makes them anti-intellectuals?

He sailed in, asserted his opinion with no argument, and they said “who is this guy”? If they’d thought a second, they might have said “Oh, maybe it’s the guy who was quoted twice”. That’s what they failed to do.

After he left, one was still pissed at him for mostly personal reasons, and the other was sorry he left. Perhaps it was the second one who actually corrected the entry.

Is there any organization of any kind anywhere in the world where someone can come in like this, unintroduced, and expect to be obeyed:

“Marshall McLuhan here. Philos is right about each of the points above. The philosophy section would be much improved if it reverted to the “philosopher’s” edit of a few days ago. DavidChalmers 23:51, 4 October 2005 (UTC)”

Isn’t this a reasonable response?:

How is he [Philos] right about the points above? The points are clearly detailed and you could easily explain your criticism. Please could you also explain how cutting the historical, empirical descriptions of conscious experience and supervenience would improve the article. Why do you have the ID “DavidChalmers” yet use the name Marshall McLuhan?

And Chalmers immediately left and ran to his CT friend complaining. After he left, apparently someone did what neede to be done, but he didn’t know that.

As I understand, your points are as follows:

1. The amateur Wiki, as it is presently constituted, should not exist.

2. Because of #1, it’s ridiculous to make any demands at all of experts who have issues with Wiki. Whenever an expert shows up to correct a Wiki entry, the Wiki people should defer to him immediately, even if they’re not completely sure who he is.

3. Everyone should have seen all of Woody Allen’s movies.

I don’t see your point at all, and I don’t understand the general indignation here at all. Chalmers didn’t even bother to try.

I find Wiki very useful though not completely reliable, even on fairly specialized topics, and highly appreciate the volunteers who make it work. I would even hope for the consciousness article to be pretty good sometime in the future, as soon as a less prima-donna expert deigns to show up.


bi 02.05.07 at 8:13 pm

John Emerson:

Why do you keep trying to rephrase loxley’s words when there’s no need to?

This isn’t about experts vs. non-experts, Emerson. It’s about honest contributors vs. scurrilous attack dogs. And yes, all scurrilous attack dogs should be made to defer immediately to all honest contributors. Sorry.

The fact that Chalmers also happens to be an expert is, as I said, just a red herring. It should be clear as day by now that loxley
– accused people of sock puppetry with no evidence whatsoever
– brought up bogus non-existent Wikipedia “guidelines”
– started talking bull about the “spirit of Wikipedia”

…all while Chalmers (in his capacity as just an honest contributor) was trying to discuss things amicably with him. That’s plain wrong, and you know it.


JR 02.05.07 at 8:15 pm

Chalmers intended to insult loxley. He succeeded. Of course, loxley didn’t get the joke- 99% of the time, a joke delivered to a total stranger in writing is misunderstood. But he did know that he’d been insulted. Now Chalmers is mad because loxley acted like someone who had been insulted.


bi 02.05.07 at 8:22 pm

JR: Hey, that’s another plausible theory. But that doesn’t change the fact that loxley was bringing up non-existent Wikipedia “guidelines”. Too bad for him… bleh.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 8:23 pm

Bi, Chambers was unknown and did not bother to introduce himself in his first post (completely content-free except for a bald assertion) — actually he misidentified himself with a bad joke. Loxley was probably nastier than he/she needed to be and perhaps should be spanked. But one reason he/she suspected a sock puppet was that Chambers offered no argument at all but just asserted that Philos was right.

This isn’t about Loxley. The message we’re supposed to get is that Wiki is no damn good and Chalmers was a victim. I don’t buy that. This is a story about two people, one of them a whiny prima donna!

I’m sure there’s a less whiny consciousness scientist out there to make Wiki OK. Chalmers can go his way.


Kieran Healy 02.05.07 at 8:24 pm

Seth, they didn’t know who the guy was. He didn’t introduce himself until right before he left in a huff.

He didn’t leave in a huff.

They missed a joke, and they didn’t immediately identify his name, and that makes them anti-intellectuals?

His user ID was his name, and they had been writing about/referring to him in the sections in question. It’s not as though he was a complete unknown.

He sailed in, asserted his opinion with no argument, and they said “who is this guy”?

He made a suggestion. (In fact, it was more like a vote in support of a change that had been made and then reverted.) He didn’t give any orders or talk down from On High.

Is there any organization of any kind anywhere in the world where someone can come in like this, unintroduced, and expect to be obeyed

He wasn’t giving orders. He didn’t expect to be “obeyed.”

“Marshall McLuhan here. Philos is right about each of the points above. The philosophy section would be much improved if it reverted to the “philosopher’s” edit of a few days ago. DavidChalmers 23:51, 4 October 2005 (UTC)”

And Chalmers immediately left and ran to his CT friend complaining. After he left, apparently someone did what neede to be done, but he didn’t know that.

This happened a year ago and I heard about it a lot later. Chalmers did not “run complaining” to me or anyone else around here.


rupes 02.05.07 at 8:30 pm

I like wikipedia.

It is not perfect (what is?) but I’ve used it for initial research on an incredible range of topics – and on areas I am knowledgeable and can judge it is of a high-quality.

One thing that has not been much commented on is that there there is a discussion tab.

Not only can you read the article, you can read the process that led to it. Now, unless you are personally involved in researching a subject, that is an opportunity that has rarely been available (to give a particulsarly egregious example Encarta often glosses over controversy – it certainly doesn’t allow pro & anti camps to debate).


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 8:31 pm

Isn’t this supposed to be about Wiki? It’s not about Loxley vs. Chambers, is it? Because the lessons I take from L v C are a.) introduce yourself before trying to do business with strangers, and b.) be civil to people, c.) if you have an immediate misunderstanding with someone you’ve just met, try to smooth it out before running off angrily, and d.) if you don’t want to participate in an organization, don’t.

As far as Wiki goes, if Doug K. above is right, the problem has been solved by normal Wiki methods, which in my experience are excellent though far from perfect.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.07 at 8:42 pm

john, my overall point is that one of Wikipedia’s deepest problems is that, like many net contexts, the discussions are structured in a way that the least informed but most obstreperous person has the greatest effect. Note this is not saying that all partipants are uninformed and obnoxious – such people can be a tiny minority, but again, they have the greatest effect. Right, right, there’s a bunch of policies to attempt to mitigate this issue – but the policies don’t make the problem go away.

This is particularly off-putting to experts (who can certainly be rude and snide themselves). But the Wikipedia defense mechanism warps this problem into a very irritating perspective where there’s some kind of obligation to suffer fools gladly, with much criticism of one simply says it’s unpleasant and not worth it.


Bryan 02.05.07 at 8:45 pm

The first paragraph of the wikipedia conciousness article:

“Some philosophers divide consciousness into phenomenal consciousness, which is experience itself, and access consciousness, which is the processing of the things in experience [1] Phenomenal consciousness is the state of being conscious, such as when we say “I am conscious.” Access consciousness is being conscious of something in relation to abstract concepts, such as when we say “I am conscious of these words.” Various forms of access consciousness include awareness, self-awareness, conscience, stream of consciousness, Husserl’s phenomenology, and intentionality. The concept of phenomenal consciousness, in modern history, according to some, is closely related to the concept of qualia.”

Ugh. Someone hand me a real encyclopedia.


Teresa Nielsen Hayden 02.05.07 at 8:46 pm

Chalmers shouldn’t have given up so easily? Chalmers wasn’t properly getting into the spirit of the thing? Sh’yeah. I get grief on Wikipedia for writing about disemvowelling, a forum moderation technique I invented.

I’m a professional science fiction editor. I get asked for third-party in-print citations when I write about episodes in the history of genre publishing. That’s not a well-documented subject. If I had near-infinite time and an army of minions, I could piece together citations on every point, but it would be like making a quilt out of postage-stamp-sized bits of fabric. Some of those pieced-together citations would turn into small essays of their own: “The import of these three databits here, taken in context of that brief anecdote there plus the graphed curve I explained in the previous section, is what justifies the use of this specific adjective when describing the period’s tendency to…” And so forth.

Wikipedia pretty much belongs to people who (1.) know how to game the rules; and (2.) are so persistently irritating that it’s exhausting to have to deal with them. At some point I appear to have offended one of these, a pseudonymous golliwog who goes by the name of Will BeBack. I believe my sin was that I restored a joke he’d mistaken for an erroneous repetition and “corrected”, thereby changing the sense of the passage.

At this point I can only cite my ear, though I think it’s a pretty good one: in his comments, Will BeBack sounds exactly like one of those second-string copyeditors or proofreaders who are passionately committed to any and all rules (no matter how dubious their provenance) because they have no judgement of their own. They’re the bane of genre fiction. Back when I was editing literary criticism reprints, they were the ones who’d try to regularize Faulkner’s syntax and T. S. Eliot’s punctuation. Add to that a distinct overtone of neener-neener and you’ve got his voice.

WBB’s been harassing me on Wikipedia ever since the business with the de-corrected correction. One of his lesser but irritating riffs is to insist that it’s a rule that contractions must not be used in reference works. Given that I was employed for some time as a reference book editor and never once heard about the existence of this rule, I doubt he’s right. But he asserts it, constantly; and since those around him know even less than he does, he gets away with it.

The world is overstocked with people who passionately desire, not to be right, or useful, or illuminating, but to win arguments. Many of them find Wikipedia a congenial environment. Dave Chalmers has better things to do than hang out there and argue. They don’t.

I’ll grant that some Wikipedia entries are precise, detailed, accurate, clearly written, and contain no mentions of sword-wielding skeletons. This is most likely because no one has subsequently come along who thinks he knows something about the subject. It helps if the entry was originally written to a dead flat outline with topic sentences on every paragraph, so that people who were taught that that’s the only correct way to structure expository prose haven’t come along to rearrange the paragraphs and make a hash of the transitions and logic.

I keep thinking back to Usenet newsgroup FAQs, quite a few of which were genuinely excellent reference documents. Wikipedia could have been the great and comprehensive uber-FAQ, but it isn’t and it will never be. I think the difference is that the old newsgroup FAQs were put together under the eye of an audience that knew and cared about the subject. You didn’t have to have a degree in horticulture to add a section to an FAQ about Rosa rugosa, but you did have to be right; and your collective audience had a sufficient sense of the subject to tell whether or not you did.

Wikipedia, by contrast, represents the intersection of any person with any subject. It lacks that neighborhood of expertise that evaluates editorial changes, so it substitutes rules for judgement; and because it does, it has the kind of rules that require none. Its natural fate is to be the online equivalent of the mediocre, untrustworthy general reference book you consult to get some idea of the subjects you need to look up in other, better books.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 8:56 pm

To clarify 71, it was Loxley who was uncivil, not Chalmers.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 8:58 pm

I’ve been quite happy with Wiki quality most of the times I’ve used it. I’ve heard stories like Theresa’s before, and I agree that there is probably a problem. I just can’t see Chalmers’ exchange as a case of it. He ran away almost immediately, and he barely bothered to make his substantive point. And as far as I can tell, the corrections he asked for ultimately were made.


Teresa Nielsen Hayden 02.05.07 at 9:02 pm

On second thought, there is one thing Wikipedia is really good at: geek knowledge in depth. It will never pop up a window telling you that detailed timelines of the permutations of the Justice League aren’t worth their wordcount.


bi 02.05.07 at 9:06 pm

“One of his lesser but irritating riffs is to insist that it’s a rule that contractions must not be used in reference works. … he asserts it, constantly; and since those around him know even less than he does, he gets away with it.”

I say, put it to a WP:RFC, get a few other users you know to weigh in, and see what happens. This whole thing’ll probably go into WP:LAME at some point.


Seth Finkelstein 02.05.07 at 9:07 pm

“Well, if you can’t believe what you read in a comic book, what can you believe?!” –Bullwinkle J. Moose.


bi 02.05.07 at 9:11 pm

Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

Oh, and personal attacks and stuff can go straight to WP:PAIN or WP:WQA, no questions asked.


abb1 02.05.07 at 9:14 pm

What John Emerson said.

Plus, once again: why didn’t he just correct the freakin entry instead of getting into a pointless argument with the guy called loxley? Am I missing something here, is there a requirement to have a discussion with loxley first?


bi 02.05.07 at 9:18 pm

abb1: No, as far as I can tell. The article was never protected or semi-protected.


Kieran Healy 02.05.07 at 9:19 pm

He was on the talk page precisely because he wasn’t barging in saying ‘Here’s how things have to be.’


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 9:35 pm

As far as I know, Wikipedia’s routine procedures for handling this kind of thing probably would have worked, and seemingly they did work in the end. I would guess that Teresa’s right that working within the Wiki system can be extremely annoying. Every bureaucracy I’ve ever been in has been extremely annoying. You learn to deal.

The rule that would have probably kept Chalmers out was the self-edit / self-promotion prohibition. That’s for pretty good reason, though, to keep Wiki from becoming a self-dealing vanity site.


Teresa Nielsen Hayden 02.05.07 at 10:38 pm

It’s almost embarrassing to have to say this — shoemaker’s kid, and all that — but Wikipedia’s explanations of its own arbitration and appeals procedures could be a lot clearer.


radek 02.05.07 at 10:46 pm

Around comment 45 this thread turned into a typical Wiki:Talk page.
Anyway. Everything John Emerson says is true.
Time to go check my watchlist and revert a couple of idiots.


radek 02.05.07 at 10:52 pm

I’ll grant that some Wikipedia entries are precise, detailed, accurate, clearly written, and contain no mentions of sword-wielding skeletons.

I think this article satisfies all of these requirements except the last:


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 10:56 pm

I detect irony.


radek 02.05.07 at 11:03 pm

You must have ironydar. But I was serious in 86 (or whatever it will ultimately show up as). For me “The good that Wiki does” >>> “The bad that Wiki does”.

Going back to the Colbert thing, it makes for a funny joke, but he’s totally overstating his point. Just went and looked at the entry for Reality and the word “commodity” does not appear anywhere in the article. So if anyone took him up on it, someone else rv-ed it and now he’s outta five bucks and has nothing to show for it. Altering Reality, as well as reality, is too prohibitivaly costly precisely because it is so cheap.


John Emerson 02.05.07 at 11:13 pm

Radek, one of the good but not perfect Wiki entries I saw was the definition of “economic rent”. As I remember, there are two competing definitions and Wiki gave OK definitions of both of them, as well as links. The definition was good enough for my purposes at the time, though I still wouldn’t use the term in a serious argument.


radek 02.05.07 at 11:41 pm

Yeah that one was (still is?) pretty messy but all things considered not too bad. In fact I’d say it’s a “below average Wiki article” which seeing as how it’s still not too bad means Wiki’s not a bad place. And this for economics which is always gonna bring forth arguments and controversy.


sara 02.06.07 at 1:00 am

I would think that Wiki’s article guidelines of Neutral Point of View and No Original Research would deter most academics, whose careers have (ideally) been based on the opposite.

Granted, these guidelines seem more observed in the breach at Wiki, but if you take the guidelines seriously, and you like writing up original research, writing for Wiki would be as much of a chore as contributing to a textbook.

The Wiki-gamers are trying to make the project more lively for themselves.

I also use Wiki for things I don’t know anything about (not wanting to shell out $80 or whatever the price is now for the Britannica Online). I studiously avoid searching Wiki on my subject area.

A good guide to good articles is also the number of extra-mural links, the equivalent of bibliographic citations. This biases the distribution of good articles towards the sciences, which publish on-line, and towards pop culture and maybe politics; non-recent history suffers (the humanities mostly don’t publish on-line).


bi 02.06.07 at 5:05 am

“Everything John Emerson says is true.”

w00t! Can I now go forth and suspect radek of being Emerson’s sock puppet?

“Every bureaucracy I’ve ever been in has been extremely annoying. You learn to deal.”

Which, as I pointed out, produces a warped hierarchy which is totally wrong-headed. It puts near the top those people who have so much time on their hands that they learn the ways of “working” the bureaucracy in a very short time. (It may even be their day job, especially if they’re shilling for a company mentioned on Wikipedia.) I don’t see why anyone will even think this warped hierarchy is such a good idea, but apparently many do.


radek 02.06.07 at 5:40 am

Understandably, you too are having your ironydar set off. Folks can disagree a lot on some things and agree on others. What’s so crazy about that?
The other part of your post essentially amounts to complaining that the world is not perfect. All I can say is that I sympathize very very profoundly at a very deep deep level and pass you my already quite drenched kleenex and remotely consider the possibility of a hug. Veeeeerrrryyy remotely.


bi 02.06.07 at 6:24 am

Yeah, the world is not perfect, so Heaven forbid we even _think_ of trying to improve it! I don’t get this defence.

The policies of Wikipedia and their precise wording aren’t cast in stone. They’re not like the laws of gravity, unchanging and unchangeable. The fact that WP:DR goes out of its way to avoid naming notice boards such as WP:WQA, WP:PAIN, WP:SSP, WP:RFPP, … isn’t something basic about human nature or the universe.

I still find it mystifying that people will rush to defend the current state of affairs.


Danny Yee 02.06.07 at 1:17 pm

I’ve pretty much given up editing Wikipedia myself – my experience is that articles go backwards pretty much as often as they go forwards, so unless you “watch” your contributions they’ll get eroded.

And I will never cite a Wikipedia entry, for the simple reason that I can never be sure it won’t change radically.


John Emerson 02.06.07 at 2:23 pm

No one here is against improving Wikipedia or the Wikipedia process. I took the sense of the whole post to be “Wikipedia is horrible and wrong”, which I deny. I also thought that Chalmers didn’t give it a fair shot and really didn’t have a grievance.

I have had many unpleasant encounters with bureaucracies, which seem to control the whole world, and Wikipedia (a volunteer bureaucracy providing a service which has been very useful to me) doesn’t seem at to be worse than average.

Bi, maybe you don’t completely realize the irony. Before this thread Radek and I disagreed vigorously and a great length almost every single time we communicated with one another. This is like the Stalin-Hitler pact.


Bezel Blubber 02.06.07 at 2:27 pm

The law of Walt rules!

This comment thread performs and exhibits itself pretty much everything the thread is ostensibly discussing.

There’s some nice and reasonable folks who recognize the limits and benefits of wikipedia. And there are nasty elitist career pricks who can’t be bothered (but very much are) with others’ activities.

I think Wikipedia displays in concentrated form all the upsides and downsides of teh internets. Does CT present any real alternative to the ego-stroking/flaying, clique-centered (networks built inside networks), partial (partisan/incomplete), open to any and all nut, information collection/dissemination biz of wikipedia?


Brian 02.06.07 at 3:27 pm

I immediately got the McLuhan reference and, from the comments (in the archive and to this post) I’m not sure everyone else gets it even now. In the film, Allen fulfills the fantasy of everyone who’s ever had to listen to some self-anointed expert pontificate by bringing in the subject of said expert’s bloviations – MM, himself – to tell him he’s wrong.


Walt 02.06.07 at 3:50 pm

There’s no shame in disagreeing with your own sock puppets, John.


John Emerson 02.06.07 at 6:11 pm

I didn’t get the reference. There was already an unfairness in blaming the Wiki people for not getting the Woody Allen reference, but it may be that they did understand the reference and were just annoyed. The reference makes it clear that Chalmers had no intention of actually improving the wiki page; like Seth, he just believed that it should not exist at all.


radek 02.06.07 at 6:12 pm

Let’s make it 100.

Bi, I’m not against improving the world. Well, sometimes I am but not today. There’s the legitimate structural complaint of ‘the system could work better, here’s how’ which is what you’re suggesting, which I also agree with and then there’s the ‘throw the damn thing out the window’ approach which in this particular case is just silly.
And anyone who cites Wiki in a serious article is a fool. But we already knew that.


radek 02.06.07 at 6:12 pm



John Emerson 02.06.07 at 6:12 pm

Radek: are you Stalin or Hitler? Your choice.


radek 02.06.07 at 6:26 pm

Ahhhhhh…..let’s say rather it’s the Athens-Sparta alliance to fight the Mede. Of course I’m Athens.


Seth Finkelstein 02.06.07 at 6:57 pm

John, rather than “Wikipedia is horrible and wrong”, I’d put it as “Wikipedia is deeply flawed and very oversold”. And more significantly, it’s not _in practice_ an open system at all – it’s got an organizational hierarchy which is worse than average, because it’s got the institutional problem of not being able to forthrightly deal with having a hierarchy. And not wanting to deal with the fuss and nonsense, is, in my view, an extremely reasonable feeling (while the Wikipedia defense-mechanism asserts that’s an unreasonable reaction to, at best, the person’s own mistakes, and at worst, against Wikipedia’s inherent revolutionary democratic nature).


Doctor Slack 02.06.07 at 9:21 pm

The normally sensible Emerson weighs in on… the merits of WikiPedia. This is truly messing with my head.

Deeply flawed and oversold is, shall we say, putting it mildly. “Makes the baby Jesus cry” is closer to the mark.


John Emerson 02.06.07 at 9:42 pm

As I’ve said, I’ve found Wikipedia very useful on topics about which there is a consensus. It’s the cheapest and most convenient resouce of its kind, and more up-to-date than my Encyclopedia Brittanica.

I don’t see how something free can be oversold, but then, I have never encountered Wiki triumphalists. And I found Chalmers annoying.

But thanks for calling me “normally sensible”.


engels 02.06.07 at 9:46 pm

Wikipedia has become the McDonalds/Microsoft/Walmart of information. It provides reliably mediocre information at a low, low cost. This drives competitors out of business, reduces diversity, and lowers the standards all across the board. Just as McDonald’s is where you go when you’re hungry but don’t really care about the quality of your food, Wikipedia is where you go when you’re curious but don’t really care about the quality of your knowledge.



radek 02.06.07 at 9:59 pm

I might as well confess at this point that once I was reading the wiki article on Baron von Richthofen which claimed in several places, that the fatal shot which killed him was fired by “Snoopy, a popular comic book character” and I didn’t revert it because I thought it was funny.


radek 02.06.07 at 10:13 pm

The person behind wikitruth needs to get a life. That site just has this…junior high smack talking feel to it. The person behind Wikiwatch, well he also needs to get a life, but I actually like that guy.


John Emerson 02.06.07 at 10:22 pm

Probably we’re talking about different things. I don’t rely on Wiki for anything serious, but I find it enormously convenient as the first place to look. As far as I know I’ve been successful in ignoring the bad articles. It’s erratic on complex, difficult concepts, but even there I’ve found it helpful some of the time.

Can Wiki be an authority? No.


bi 02.07.07 at 8:48 am

John Emerson:

“…I have never encountered Wiki triumphalists.”

John Emerson, Cory Doctorow. Cory Doctorow, John Emerson.


“The person behind wikitruth needs to get a life.”

To which I say, people who have time to babysit Wikipedia need to get a life. Paradoxically, Wikipedia fundamentalists seem to want everyone except themselves to have _no_ _life_, that you focus huge gobs of energy on the exciting fun-filled task of Warding Off Vandals And Other Annoying Characters.


Barbar 02.07.07 at 2:10 pm

I’ll second the “normally sensible” comment. This loxley character is hilarious.


John Emerson 02.07.07 at 2:28 pm

Well, we have two things on the table: a 5-post three-person interaction of about 300-400 words, and the overall judgement of Wikipedia. Loxley is an imperfect person, but Chalmers introduced himself in a confusing and annoying jokey way, and then left almost immediately.

What I’ve said all along is that Wiki has been a very useful, convenient tool for me, better and easier to use than anything else, even though I’ve always realized it’s not reliable and not an authority. So I’m grateful to those (even my arch-enemy and evel nemesis Radek) who are willing to put their time in maintaining the resource. (And as it happens, I have made use of a post Radek personally worked on.)

If Chalmers had been patient enough to substantiate his asserted criticism, I bet he could have gotten Sallison’s vote, thus providing non-specialists with a more valuable, easily-accessible free resource. I doubt it would have cost him a whole hour of his time, and it’s soemthing he could have asked a research assistant or grad student to do.

I have never read a word by the annoying Doctorow, who may very well be the real topic of this thread (Loxley being his proxy). I am familiar with Wikipedia and I like it.


bi 02.07.07 at 5:04 pm

John Emerson:

“(Loxley being his proxy)”

Not really. loxley is a abusive idiot. Doctorow is a Wikipedia fundamentalist (but also a not-bad story-writer).

And from my experience, I say it’ll take way more than one hour. You can fix the article and get sallison’s vote, but if there’s a lamer on the prowl, it’s virtually guaranteed that the lamer will decide to undo your fixes. And then you refix, he reverts, you refix, he reverts, … The quantum state of the article will persist until something interesting happens, e.g. the lamer gets blocked, or the page gets protected. And this is why the Wikipedia process tends to work out in the Long Haul.


John Emerson 02.07.07 at 5:13 pm

See, at a certain point Sallison would have taken over for Chalmers. That’s my theory.


bi 02.07.07 at 5:18 pm

Or not. You never know.


Doctor Slack 02.07.07 at 5:20 pm

The point about the WikiTruth guy is somewhat valid — if WikiPedia has obsessive apostles, it has equally obsessive detractors. But that doesn’t make him wrong, necessarily.

I’m not saying Emerson is a bad person for liking WikiPedia. But I don’t see the attraction. I find it hard to use anything as an encyclopedia that’s that frequently riddled with mistakes, unreadable articles and outright false or defamatory information. It’s not always bad, but it’s bad enough — and unpredictably enough — to undermine my ability to trust it as a worthwhile resource about anything. (This side of things is particularly noticeable to me because one of my interests is history, and historical articles really bring out the cranks.) And I find it beyond annoying that it replicates like Kudzu all over the internets.


John 02.07.07 at 5:36 pm

As someone who works on wikipedia fairly regularly, let me say that I find John Emerson’s take to be about right, with some caveats.

In terms of the Chalmers situation described, and how it would have played out if Chalmers had been more patient, I think it’s actually really hard to say. It depends on how smart Loxley was, and how persistent. It also depends on how many reasonable people involved themselves in the discussion. Given that the article has apparently been fixed, I think ultimate victory seems inevitable, but how annoying it would be to get to that point remains in dispute. It might go so far as to require blocking or banning of Loxley. But, on the other hand, Loxley might himself have given up much earlier than that. One can’t really know.

In semi-defense of Loxley, I will note that there is, in fact, a wikipedia policy which says that you can’t use the name of a famous living person as your username unless you demonstrate that you are that person. Note the following, at, which notes the following as an example of an inappropriate user name:

Names of well-known living or recently deceased people, such as Chuck Norris or Ken Lay, unless you are that living person. If you are, please note this on your user page. These accounts may be temporarily blocked pending confirmation, if in an administrator’s best judgment or per discussion, there may be doubt over the validity of the claim. (See also Wikipedians with articles).

So if the person posting was not, in fact, David Chalmers, he probably would have been in violation of this rule, especially since he was editing under that name in an article about Chalmers’s topic of expertise.

Anyway, there’s certainly a lot of problems with wikipedia. Will BeBack is certainly an ass, and there’s generally a lot of self-important busybodies. But that doesn’t change that it can also be very useful.

I did want to comment on the issue of supposed lack of respect for expertise. In one sense, this is certainly true. Nobody gives you any respect on wikipedia simply because of who you are. That being said, experts who are willing to play by the rules and engage in talk page discussions like everybody else are respected, I think, or, at least, they can be. More importantly, I think, well-sourced argument based on the best expert secondary sources is respected, and is frequently used to toss out nonsense proposed by crank users. Of course, some people are always going to be assholes, but it’s the internet. What can one expect?


John Emerson 02.07.07 at 5:53 pm

OK, I’ve just compared Wiki with the 1960 Brittanica on the Bulgars and the Volga Bulgars. This is an area peripheral to my major interest where I am able to read critically.

The Wiki is more detailed than the Brittanica and has a useful map which the B does not. There are traces of nationalist interference but they’ve been subordinated. (In the EB there are gross barbarian stereotypes). The Wiki article points you to other related articles more usefully than the EB.

I spotted a handful of doubtful points in the Wiki, one of which was shared with the EB. Nothing really wrong. In two places a problem came from relying on a single ancient source — one of which was new to me, and I’m glad to know what it said (it was properly attested).

I would really recommend the Wiki over the EB. For someone with time and a university library, I wouldn’t recommend either, but encyclopedias are by definition imperfect compared to libraries.


Doctor Slack 02.07.07 at 8:53 pm

And for every good outcome, there’s a trainwreck like the WikiPedia article on Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which includes a little trivia you wouldn’t find in other encyclopedias but also very suspiciously fails to mention the political violence that made him and the IFP so notorious in the Nineties. (Note the Columbia Encyclopedia does manage to get this right.) Sorry, but the added trivia just isn’t added value in this case, and there are more than enough cases like it to confirm me as an anti-Wikian.

There are the smaller annoyances, too, which add up. Venturing out of modern history and into the classics, and picking an article more or less at random, we have an epic entry on The Roman Empire, which helpfully informs us in the span of three early paragraphs that “the question about who was the first emperor has never found a definitive answer” and that “Octavian . . . is widely accepted as the first emperor.” That kind of thing is constant background noise that makes reading WikiPedia irritating even when there’s nothing wrong, per se.

The practice of constantly measuring WikiPedia against Britannica puzzles me, because a large chunk of its material comes from public domain editions of Britannica. (Cf. This article on Frumentius.)


John Emerson 02.07.07 at 10:08 pm

Jeez, Slack, I said it was better than Brittanica on what I looked at. Is it wrong to make that comparison?

I think I specified at the top that it’s no good for anything controversial (Buthelezi).

Wiki is a fantastic first stop. You have to read critically. Not good for fast-moving research or controversial questions. Not an authority to cite. Wiki has been good to me.


Doctor Slack 02.07.07 at 10:13 pm

No, fair enough: it’s been good to you, whereas it has offended my family and offended a Shaolin Temple. I don’t think any more need be said.


John Emerson 02.07.07 at 10:27 pm

Let the Shaolin heretics die the death they have brought on themselves. I will say nothing about your family.


David Chalmers 02.07.07 at 11:03 pm

126 comments — wow. But I think some context has been lost here. My contribution was prompted by a comment (from “Loxley” in response to an attempted correction by “Philos”) saying “I would refer you to Chalmers’ classic 1996 text “The Conscious Mind” where he comes at consciousness from precisely this angle.” I thought that in this context a word from me might be helpful (hence the Annie Hall reference, which really doesn’t make sense outside this context). Obviously I was wrong about that. And yes, if I’d been prepared to stick around for a long argument, we probably could have made progress, but that would have been borderline inappropriate, and others were already fighting that battle. In any case, I certainly don’t take myself to have any sort of “grievance” over this, and overall I’m pretty impressed by Wikipedia, despite its imperfections.


yeti 02.08.07 at 12:06 am

…if that *is* your real name…


yeti 02.08.07 at 12:11 am

Also, I thought the McLuhan joke was funny. And if loxley had just read the contemporaneous McLuhan wikipedia page, he would have caught the Annie Hall reference. No prior knowledge needed, pace Emerson.


radek 02.08.07 at 2:45 am

To which I say, people who have time to babysit Wikipedia need to get a life.

Yeah but the babysitters are doing something socially productive whereas the wikitruth guy is just sneering from the sidelines. This is also why I have a lot more respect for the WikiWatch guy who’s own website is pretty amazing, has lots of info and which I’ve used as a source previously (or at least as a source for sources). So he gets to smack talk, the other guy doesn’t.

Also, as far as all those hoaxes go. First, given anyone can write stuff up you’d be crazy to expect no hoaxes. It would be a sad statement about the creativity and sense of humor of the human race if there was no wiki-hoaxes. Second, and relatedly, I’m actually surprised as to how few of them actually are. The response to that I guess would be that we don’t really know how many hoaxes are out there because some may not have been discovered yet. But like it’s been pointed out it’s a self correcting process (and the WikiWatch guy points to a case where scepticism on Wiki led to questioning of a story naively reported by MSM). Further, the slow rate at which these hoaxes pop up suggests either that there’s few of them to be discovered, or that Wiki editors are horrible at detecting them.

I dunno, I once created an article for a major Polish painter (Andrzej Wroblewski) which was deleted within 5 seconds because someone somewhere outthere hadn’t heard of him and thought it was a hoax. So I’ll go with the “there’s few of them to be discovered”.


radek 02.08.07 at 3:42 am

Just out of curiosity I calculated the number of articles per language-speakers for the top entries languages that are displayed on Wiki’s home page. Here’s how it breaks down (first column = number of articles, second column # of speakers, third column = ratio):
Spanish 196000 400000000 0.00049
Portugese 237000 230000000 0.0010
Italian 250000 100000000 0.0025
French 440660 175000000 0.0025
English 1625476 370000000 0.0044
German 539328 105000000 0.0051
Polish 345692 55000000 0.0063
Dutch 269000 26000000 0.0103
Swedish 207000 9300000 0.0223

Man, someone should do something about them Swedes. 45 Swedes = 1 Wiki Article !!! Compare that to 97 Dutchmen or 160 Poles = 1 Wiki article.

Of course I got all these numbers from Wiki itself and the Language Wiki Page does have NPOV tag – but I think that has something to do with # of Tamil speakers rather than any of these.

The Cree language wiki has 113 articles, which gets them a very respectable .0023 articles per speaker. For some reason this wiki has been vandalized a lot.


radek 02.08.07 at 3:44 am

I knew that that was gonna get screwed up. Just look for the decimal point.


Doctor Slack 02.08.07 at 8:29 am

Radek: It would be a sad statement about the creativity and sense of humor of the human race if there was no wiki-hoaxes.

I really have to admit, that’s well-put. A bit of a sense of humour about these things doesn’t go amiss.

On the other hand:

I dunno, I once created an article for a major Polish painter (Andrzej Wroblewski) which was deleted within 5 seconds because someone somewhere outthere hadn’t heard of him and thought it was a hoax.

… and I once found an article effectively accusing ethnobotanist Wade Davis of fraud which had been up for over two years. (It’s probably the defamatory stuff that bothers me most.) Mileage varies.


noneuklid 02.08.07 at 7:29 pm

I’m kind of astonished at the number of comments condemning Dr. Chalmers’s response. I’m really not seeing a ‘pompous air of authority’ as loxley says (or as others in this thread have seemed to imply).

As for Wikipedia itself, I think that subject’s been well-covered already in this thread. It’s an excellent encyclopedia, emphasis on both terms.

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