Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Things like that really, really, really annoy me

June 16, 2010


"And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects." (Photo by Curtis Palmer)

In May of 2005 a Wikipedia editor entered false information into the Wikipedia biography for John Seigenthaler, Sr. The false information was not discovered until September 2005 after which it became known as the Seigenthaler incident. In response to the publicity generated by this and other similar cases, Wikipedia restricted page creation (see: Wikipedia Signpost 2005-12-05 “Page creation restrictions”) and created new guidelines for biographies. The Wikipedia community continues to struggle with biased and false content in its biographical articles.

Yesterday Wikipedia began testing a new tool for catching casual Wikipedia editors who add unhelpful information to the encyclopedia. Of course, anyone who wants to add false information about living people to Wikipedia can easily defeat all of the lame “safeguards” that Wikipedia has put in place. The larger problem, that goes beyond just Wikipedia’s  “Biographies of Living Persons”, has always been Wikipedians who use the encyclopedia project as a platform to purposefully harass and slander people, particularly critics of Wikipedia. The Wikipedia:Biographies of living persons policy page was started in response to the Daniel Brandt “situation“.

I linked “situation” to the 14th round in the argument at Wikipedia over the issue of having a biographical article about Daniel Brandt. The casual user of Wikipedia might wonder how there could possible be a never-ending argument about whether Wikipedia should have a biography of Daniel Brandt. Daniel Brandt has been a vocal critic of Wikipedia, “the basic problem is that no one, neither the trustees of Wikimedia Foundation, nor the volunteers who are connected with Wikipedia, consider themselves responsible for the content.” Actually, problems at Wikipedia go deeper than that since there are Wikipedians who actively use the encyclopedia to harass people and publish false information about people and Wikipedia has not taken common sense steps to prevent such abuse.

It would be easy for Wikipedia to require that anyone adding information to biographical articles edit Wikipedia under their real world identity. This would allow those who post false claims about people on Wikipedia to be traced and subjected to legal remedies that protect us all against libel and online harassment. Under the leadership of Jimbo Wales, Wikipedia has persistently avoided its ethical responsibility to take simple steps that would prevent Wikipedia from being used as a platform where Wikipedians can publish false and harassing claims about people.

Many educators are astonished that the Wikimedia Foundation, an education-oriented 501(c)(3), fails to operate in an ethically responsible manner. Since many people assume that what they see in Wikipedia is true, some educators have tried to help make clear to their students that Wikipedia cannot be trusted. For example, history professor T. Mills Kelly’s learn-by-doing project created a hoax biography on Wikipedia (Edward Owens). In addition to showing how easy it is to put false information into Wikipedia, the course, Lying About the Past,  helped its participants learn to, “think critically about the impact of media past and present on our daily lives and views,” quoting one student evaluation.

What was the response of Jimbo Wales to this successful educational project? “To ask students to deliberately hoax Wkipedia is a very bad thing“. Wikipedia editor Moulton was similarly dismayed when he came across this version of the Wikipedia biography for Rosalind Picard.

Rosalind Wright Picard is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Laboratory. She holds Doctor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech. She has been a member of the faculty at MIT since 1991 and a full professor since 2005.

With over a quarter of a million biographies, Wikipedia has many biographical articles about university professors. In 1997, Dr. Picard published a book entitled “Affective Computing“, an innovative branch of Computer Science which studies how to make systems that recognize and respond to human emotions. One might guess that her Wikipedia biography would have been started in order to describe her scientific research and seminal contributions in Digital Signal Processing, Pattern Recognition, Affective Computing, and Autism Research. However, that is not the case.

On Feb. 21, 2006, The New York Times published “Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition” by Kenneth Chang. The petition comprised a two-sentence statement, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” Dr. Picard was one of a group of 105 scientists, researchers, and academics who agreed with this statement when it was circulated (in E-Mail) in academia in 2001.

On March 8, 2006 the Rosalind Picard article was created by an otherwise unidentified pseudonymous editor named “Tempb”, by copying Picard’s online Faculty Profile and adding a section called, “Intelligent Design Support”. It is clear that the purpose of the author of the biography (User:Tempb) was to craft an article that labels Dr. Picard as a supporter of Intelligent design and as “anti-evolution“. Notice that the Wikipedia user account “Tempb” was a single purpose account, used only to push into Wikipedia the conclusion that Dr. Picard is anti-evolution and a supporter of intelligent design. Note that “Tempb” is an experienced wiki editor who decided to use a “throw-away account” in order to make a biographical article that violated the Wikipedia policy on Biographies of living persons, part of which said: “Editors should be on the lookout for the malicious creation or editing of biographies or biographical information. If someone appears to be pushing a point of view, ask for credible third-party published sources and a clear demonstration of relevance to the person’s notability.”

Wikipedia editor Moulton tried to correct the problems with the Wikipedia Rosalind Picard biography. For his trouble he met stiff resistance, was harassed and was soon blocked from editing Wikipedia. Astonished by his treatment at Wikipedia, Moulton began to study Wikipedia and the Wikipedians who use the encyclopedia to publish false and misleading attacks on living people.

I first became aware of User:Moulton on or about 4 August 2008, even though he came to Wikiversity on 9 July 2008. When I first saw Ethical Management of the English Language Wikipedia I linked it to an existing Wikiversity topic, Topic:Wikipedia studies. At that time I did not have any knowledge of Moulton’s editing history at Wikipedia. I started studying the sorry history of how Administrators at Wikipedia drove Moulton out of Wikipedia rather than support his good faith efforts to fix a policy-violating biographical article. As a Wikipedia Administrator, I am frequently horrified by the sickening behavior of other Wikipedia Administrators who abuse their sysop power and do damage to the Wikipedia project. After an initial study of what happened to Moulton at Wikipedia, I established some objectives for further study.

1) Has the Wikipedia:WikiProject intelligent design attracted a group of editors who damage Wikipedia by trying too zealously to defend Wikipedia against creationists and other editors who question evolution by natural selection?

2) Is Moulton an example of a Wikipedia editor who was unfairly treated by editors associated with the Wikipedia:WikiProject intelligent design?

3) Is there something we can do to prevent this kind of problem in the future?

During the past two years my research into these kinds of issues at Wikipedia has revealed that, right from the start,  several important Wikipedians “set the tone” for using Wikipedia as a platform for fighting battles against “fringe science” and religious groups that are viewed as cults. One of these Wikipedians remains as a paid employee of the Wikimedia Foundation. There is need for further research into the institutionalized practices of the Wikimedia Foundation that allow Wikimedia wiki projects to continue to be used to publish false information about living people.

The main work page for my research into Moulton’s experiences at Wikipedia attracted the attention of Wikipedians who ultimately tried to have the entire Wikiversity Ethical Management of the English Language Wikipedia project deleted. One Wikipedian came to Wikiversity and stated his reason for participation as being an attempt to get Moulton banned from participating at Wikiversity. This “wiki hit man” was ultimately successful. Jimbo Wales blocked Moulton from editing and declared him as being globally banned from all of Wikimedia.

Wikipedia remains a website where its participants can publish false information about living people and never face consequences for their actions. Wikipedia remains a website where Administrators and other high officials protect policy violators and ban good faith Wikipedians who try to correct Wikipedia’s problems. Given the anonymity that is given to Wikipedia editors, it may be that the Administrators who protect policy violators (like User:Tempb and his buddies) actually are alternate user accounts of the policy violators. Who knows?

Participation at Wikimedia wiki projects remains an educational experience. As long as Wikipedia fails to correct its problems it will remain the target of “Ethical Breaching Experiments” and hoaxes that aim to either correct Wikipedia’s deficiencies or educate the public about those deficiencies.

Image. Photo by Curtis Palmer, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Fiction and Learning

February 21, 2010


In my last blog past I blithely wrote about the human capacity to learn language, something that even our close evolutionary friends the chimps can’t do. Of course, there are many genes that contribute to human language learning and not everyone has the same versions of those genes. Probably the most famous example of a gene that is involved in human language behavior is FOXP2; when it is mutated, children can have disrupted capacity to generate speech.

In my case, I find spelling and grammar to be mysterious. When writing, I can easily leave out a word, add a superfluous word or substitute an incorrect word for the desired word. When reading, my brain easily ignores missing or duplicated words. Probably the most well studied genetic condition effecting the ability of humans to use written language is dyslexia. Research into human variation in genes that are important for written language is still very primitive, similar to where cancer research was 40 years ago. It is safe to say that humans have a wide variation in genes that are involved with supporting the use of written language. In the coming decades we will learn much more about human neurodiversity.

By the age of 18, I was seriously addicted to the written word, but I had been rejected by the priesthood of writing. I loved to read, but I dreaded the thought of trying to get a written assignment past an English instructor. Then I got lucky. I found a college English instructor who was as far “outside the box” as were my language genes, an instructor who taught consilience and failed to accept the idea of a schism between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. All my other instructors were masters of specialization, but I was lucky enough to have one who taught the truth that real understanding of our place in the universe depends on our ability to combine apparently unrelated ideas.

A duckrabbit

Change is dangerous. In both genetic and memetic systems there must be a limited capacity for change. Change is needed, but too much change would be chaotic. The rate of change must be limited so that adaptive genes and memes are not destroyed as part of a mad rush for new genes and memes. For genes, mutations must be relatively rare while there must be a robust selection mechanism that retains existing working genes. Similarly, during the past 10,000,000 or so years humans have evolved as meme machines for which the emphasis is on propagating adaptive memes rather than the creation of new memes. Children dutifully learn their parent’s language, religion and political biases. Even scientists are indoctrinated into acceptance of scientific assumptions and only a select few are able to step outside of the box imposed by their inherited memes and create something radically new like theories of relativity, plate tectonics and evolution by natural selection.

In my last blog past I outlined a series of revolutions in learning: the invention of social learning, the evolution of spoken human language, the development of systems of written language and then I ended with some questions about the power of information technologies to change how human learning takes place. Here, I’m trying to focus on the distinction between an individual who is trying to learn what is already known and the same individual who is trying to discover something new. To me, it seems reasonable to assume that we have some neural circuits that help us see outside the box of our memes and some that tend to keep us sealed up within the confines of our existing memes.

I’m not going to argue that only some small, select group of people are genetically endowed with the required styles of brains that make it possible for them to be creative and make new discoveries. From a young age each child can either be encouraged to think differently and ask question or they can be discouraged from thinking outside the box of conventional thought. I’m fascinated by the idea that during human history there has been a wide range in the extent to which various human societies have supported the development of questioning and creative children.

The creation and destruction of fictions


All of the above is a long-winded foundation for mentioning the idea that our human capacity for inventing stories and creating fictions is important for making new discoveries about the world. However, just as importantly, people have an almost limitless capacity for believing fictions that distract us from the truth. We like to celebrate the creativity of the young Albert Einstein when he imagined the fictitious scenario of going for a ride on light beam, but we must also celebrate his ability to throw away the conventional fictions that then existed as accepted assumptions about the nature of time and space.

Similarly I am often tempted to celebrate the creative flow of ideas that I am flooded by when I explore the internet. However, I can’t hide from the fact that the internet often seems more a device for destroying memes than creating them. It is easier to pull something down than build it up, particularly when people are comfortable with an existing fiction. I grew up during the time when it was discovered that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Of course, there was too much $$ in selling tobacco for the scientific facts to go unchallenged by the tobacco industry. And there were millions of people addicted to nicotine who were all too eager to listen to tobacco industry propaganda. I won’t say that people believed the tobacco industry propaganda. Memes are not really about belief. In many cases people do what they do and then simply layer convenient rationalization over the top.

Here is a case study for the role of fiction in human learning: “Artificial flight and other myths“. I love analogies and this is a fictional account of an avian philosopher that provides an interesting analogy for the philosophical debates over artificial intelligence. This little story is also an intuition pump.  We do not know how difficult it will be to build machines with human-like minds. Artificial intelligence researchers have found it very challenging  to package human-like learning abilities into a computing system. AI researchers need to keep their spirits up and they can find comfort in stories such as “Artificial flight and other myths”. I’ve written my own “intuition pump” that has another perspective on the question of machine intelligence (see “Go to Hell“). In the end, I believe that most hard problems are like the story of blind men and an elephant: we are best able to learn about the elephant when we work together, not when we manufacture fictions that allow us to comfortably remain isolated in our own little world. There is a defect in our mental meme machines: the existence of one meme can exclude others, even when those others are better.



In his robot novels, Isaac Asimov imagined a future in which scientists and dress designers were linked by a global communications system, but each parson, rather than cooperating with others, pursued their individual creative endeavor. The ultimate expression of that trend in human isolation was the planet Solaria where the human colonists ultimately decided to become hermaphrodites who never had physical contact with other people. Now, I’m not saying that this will be our fate as we continue to develop technologies like the internet, but I do think there are important choices facing us in how we make use of information technologies.

Will the internet bring humanity together or  will we all self-segregate into warring internet tribes? Over here we will have websites where human-induced climate change is a fiction and over there will be the holocaust deniers and over in another corner will be the lingering “smoking won’t kill me” websites. We will all be free to find the parts of the internet that affirm exactly what we already believe. The dominate use of fiction for learning will be fiction that promotes the learning of propaganda rather than the use of fiction as a tool for shifting us out of our meme box and allowing us to move a step closer to truth. Even in creative endeavors where the goal might be something other than truth (for example, literary merit) I’m intrigued by the collaborative nature of the process that establishes criteria for success, allows for measures of success and guides the creation of new cultural works.

Zucchini Duck

How can we avoid that kind of segregated future where we each sink into the part of the internet where we feel comfortable? I think there is a solution to that internet pitfall and it has something to do with collaboration. Can we use the internet to bring together members of different tribes in learning environments where we can work towards the truth rather than towards personal profit and short-term comfort? What tools for collaboration will be developed within the internet environment and how will people make use of those tools?

Related reading: Isaac Asimov and Distributable Educational Material Markup Language. DEMML blog.

Images. Bunny Rabbit by William Warby. Zucchini Duck by Alex Gee. Duck Head by Sujit kumar.