Friday, October 28, 2005

Proud to be a Cornellian

I hold two Bachelor of Science degrees from Cornell University, and have spent ten years of my life affiliated with the institution in one way or another. I was thus delighted to read in What's New (by Prof. Bob Park at my current employer the University of Maryland) that Cornell President Hunter Rawlings has not merely come out against the creeping influence of "Intelligent Design," but has committed the university to a campaign of public outreach designed to educate more Americans about the basic fallacies underlying ID. I can only hope that this effort will not only be successful, but that it will be extended to other realms of public abandonment of science. I won't get on my soapbox here; I just wanted to say how happy I am about President Rawlings' declaration.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

What the Wiki?

It seems to be pick-on-Wikipedia-day, so I figured I'd add my inconsequential voice into the fray. After all, the very fact that I have a blog means I'm a trendster. Before I trash Wikipedia, or at least the theoretical underpinning behind it, I'd like to note that I've found its articles on mathematics and statistics extremely useful.

The Register is running an article about Wikipedia, and ostensibly how it's a different kind of "open" than Linux. The article, however, really only touches briefly on this, preferring rather to focus on how Wikipedia differs from a traditional encyclopedia and why these differences are bad.

What disappoints me is that Mr. Orlowski (the author) misses the opportunity to highlight what I believe is the major fallacy behind Wikipedia. I refer, of course, to the idea of "Collective Intelligence," the theory that if you get enough regular schlubs together, you end up with a virtual Leonardo Da Vinci. To this I say: Hogwash!

I've seen very little rigorous discussion of Collective Intelligence (or the more soundbite-friendly "Hive Mind"). What I've seen, however, is very different than the purported effect behind Wikipedia's brilliance. The basis for the theory of Collective Intelligence seems to be that if you ask people who have a basic familiarity with, but no concrete data on, some thing, their estimates about that thing will tend to be distributed around the true value.

Note how different this is than, "if you have enough people reading and correcting an article, its quality and accuracy will gradually improve." Mr. Orlowski gives the lie to this with his quote of Carlo Graziani with which many will sympathise:

I'm relieved to see other people are also wary of information that they get from a source whose organizing principle appears to be that twenty jackasses make an expert. Although after reading your take on Wikipedia, it appears that the actual situation is worse - the output produced by twenty jackasses plus one expert is indistinguishable from what would be produced by twenty-one jackasses.

Unfortunately, I can't track down the original article, so I don't know to whom Mr. Graziani is responding.

The important point is that collective intelligence merely implies that as you ask more people to estimate some quantity, there's a good chance that the average will more closely approach the true value. That's all. You get no guarantees. You get nothing qualitative, nothing descriptive.

That's not to say that Wikipedia is an evil that must be wiped from the face of the Earth. As I wrote at the outset, I've found some of their articles very useful. The idea of a collaborative encyclopedia is fascinating. Supporting the idea with the misapplication of a set of empirical observations is just foolish.