0978: "Citogenesis"

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0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Chaoszerom » Wed Nov 16, 2011 8:55 am UTC

Image
Alt/Title text: I just read a pop-science book by a respected author. One chapter, and much of the thesis, was based around wildly inaccurate data which traced back to... Wikipedia. To encourage people to be on their toes, I'm not going to say what book or author.

Interesting idea, always thought that that might happen. Damn it, though, generally Wikipedia is reliable.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby tris203 » Wed Nov 16, 2011 8:56 am UTC

i so posted this before you, but as i have no posts i couldnt do the bbcode :(

i did find this comic interesting though
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby westrim » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:00 am UTC

Oh Randall, you tease.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby SkullVader » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:00 am UTC

Citing this has a source on Wikipedia's "Wikipedia: Citing sources" page.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby melladh » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:01 am UTC

Reminds me of this wonderful old excerpt from Neil Gaiman's blog

I followed a link on, um, something in American Gods, to its Wikipedia entry. And read an entry about something that I'd made up (because it fitted, because it worked, and because I didn't think anyone would mind) that cited a reference book that talked about the thing I made up. The reference book was written some years after American Gods was published, and the person who wrote the reference book has obviously cribbed a little information from American Gods.

The last time, some years ago, I'd checked the Wikipedia entry, it was accurate, and noted that the thing in question had started in American Gods. Now all reference to me and to American Gods has gone. It now has, after all, a reference book link. And something that I made up has become, to all intents and purposes, a fact.

I pondered fixing it. I'd need to do a blog entry clarifying exactly what I made up and what I didn't in this thing, to allow someone to do a fix, so they could link to that. (I can't just fix the Wikipedia entry. It doesn't work like that: someone would just revert the change, dismiss it as "original research" or point out that there IS now a reference book reference. I'd need to cite chapter and verse over here on the blog, or in a book, to give the Wikipedia entry something to link to.)

But really, there's probably a very useful lesson in there somewhere about what facts are.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby JohanJ » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:02 am UTC

Speaking as a Wikipedian: oh yes, this is a phenomenon we're painfully aware of.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Dinoguy1000 » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:03 am UTC

Not exactly the same, but I've come across cases where a Wikipedia article cites some web page which is a copy of the Wikipedia article. Fortunately, these are pretty obvious, so your biggest problem becomes trying to decide who is plagiarizing who.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby mercutio_stencil » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:05 am UTC

so, anyone care to guess at the book? My reading list is getting far to short.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby hetas » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:13 am UTC

I've been playing with the same idea with references.

Person X writes some arbitrary Stuff to Wikipedia without references.
Perxon Y finds the Stuff and uses it in his/hers book/article without references.
Person Z reads the book by Y and fixes the Wikipedia page by adding the reference to the book/article Stuff obviously came from.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby ekulio » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:17 am UTC

[citation needed]

In all seriousness though, I would like to see some concrete examples of this happening. Not that I don't believe it I just find it quite interesting and wonder how common it actually is.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Brian-M » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:17 am UTC

What bugs me when I want to look up something fairly obscure...

When Wikipedia fails to provide enough information on the subject (eg, only provides a stub), I then try other sites suggested by Google, only to find that many of them only have information that is word-for-word identical to the Wikipedia page. The blatant copyright violation comes second in annoyance to the waste of time looking at sites that have nothing more to add on the subject.

Of course, all these sites are now also references for Wikipedians to cite supporting the supposed accuracy of the article.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Brian-M » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:19 am UTC

mercutio_stencil wrote:so, anyone care to guess at the book? My reading list is getting far to short.

I'm guessing that Randall has no specific book in mind, but is just trolling to foster (a well-deserved) mistrust of pop-science books.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby JohanJ » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:22 am UTC

Of course, all these sites are now also references for Wikipedians to cite supporting the supposed accuracy of the article.


Those sites shouldn't be used as sources no matter what they say, though. Verfiability is about being able to verify the information with credible sources. Now, of course, this doesn't work very well – newspapers are used, and they are lousy sources – but a lot of editors would remove a reference to a random site if it couldn't in any way explain why that site should be used as a source.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Dinoguy1000 » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:26 am UTC

JohanJ wrote:
Of course, all these sites are now also references for Wikipedians to cite supporting the supposed accuracy of the article.


Those sites shouldn't be used as sources no matter what they say, though. Verfiability is about being able to verify the information with credible sources. Now, of course, this doesn't work very well – newspapers are used, and they are lousy sources – but a lot of editors would remove a reference to a random site if it couldn't in any way explain why that site should be used as a source.


Indeed; there is an entire noticeboard dedicated to just the question of "is X source reliable?".
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby WhiteAvenger » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:26 am UTC

This happened with the German minister for economics, who was announced in 2009. His full name is Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.
Someone had, the night before he was announced, decided to add an extra name. The next morning, all the German newspapers printed his full name - including the extra one. (Lazy journalists not checking facts.)
When someone on Wikipedia flagged this and asked for quotes to prove he really had the extra name, everyone pointed to the newspaper articles...
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby petz » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:35 am UTC

Two years ago, Germany got a new Minister of Economics who had a dozen or so first names. Some guy added a name ("William") to the corresponding Wikipedia entry. The following day when the newspapers brought the story they all included the made up name which proved that they all had copied Wikipedia without fact checking. The Wikipedia article itself had quickly gotten corrected, but the correction was reversed as they had now enough proof (newspaper citations) of the "correct" name. You can read the whole story from the guy who changed Wikipedia here: http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=de&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bildblog.de%2F5704%2Fwie-ich-freiherr-von-guttenberg-zu-wilhelm-machte%2F
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby siamraf » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:49 am UTC

This also happened here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Sacha_Baron_Cohen#Independent.2FForbes.2FGuardian_articles_mentioning_Goldman_Sachs
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby hellcatv » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:50 am UTC

There is an analogy in computer science:

http://cm.bell-labs.com/who/ken/trust.html

The actual bug I planted in the compiler would match code in the UNIX "login" command. The replacement code would miscompile the login command so that it would accept either the intended encrypted password or a particular known password. Thus if this code were installed in binary and the binary were used to compile the login command, I could log into that system as any user.

Such blatant code would not go undetected for long. Even the most casual perusal of the source of the C compiler would raise suspicions.

...simply add a second Trojan horse to the one that already exists. The second pattern is aimed at the C compiler. The replacement code is a Stage I self-reproducing program that inserts both Trojan horses into the compiler. This requires a learning phase as in the Stage II example. First we compile the modified source with the normal C compiler to produce a bugged binary. We install this binary as the official C. We can now remove the bugs from the source of the compiler and the new binary will reinsert the bugs whenever it is compiled. Of course, the login command will remain bugged with no trace in source anywhere.


I suppose this kind of bug can be applied to wikipedia as well as to computing devices.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby folkhero » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:53 am UTC

mercutio_stencil wrote:so, anyone care to guess at the book? My reading list is getting far to short.

My guess would be something by Pinker or Gladwell, but this is based purely on my own hunches and biases.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Robyn Slinger » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:55 am UTC

One may wonder to what extent these things happened before Wikipedia (or, indeed, before the internet). Probably it was more rare, but fact invention and lazy reporting are hardly something new.
It is beautifully explained in today's strip though.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby vicariggio » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:59 am UTC

The double use of word 'was' in panel #1 just trolled me. I wonder if this is intentional, or a typo. It could be intentional, like the tricky texts, where a simple word (like 'of') is doubled such that one instance is at the end of a row, and the next row starts with the second instance, thus the reader wouldn't notice the error at first glance.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby gwozdziu » Wed Nov 16, 2011 9:59 am UTC

Neal Stephenson, "Reamde".

Don't like it. Waaaay worse than previous Stephenson's works.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Deejaye6 » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:08 am UTC

I was searching Wikipedia regarding a popular (and untrue) myth about DC, and found that all pages related to said subject were incorrect. Every single page referenced the same editorial printed in the Washington Post a few years ago. An editorial! I found the actual records to set the pages straight, and added the reference to the actual records (thank you, Google Documents!) and fixed the pages. And to this day, I still run into people in DC who think the myth is true. *Sigh*
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby DeathCarrot » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:21 am UTC

One way to help in detecting this could be to compare the dates of the publications to the date the false information was added to the wiki. If the wiki article is the first occurence of the information then it could be potentially dubious. If there is conflicting information from before the wiki change then you can increase the likelihood of dubiosity of the information on the wiki.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Tomo2k » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:21 am UTC

Chaoszerom wrote:Interesting idea, always thought that that might happen.

This effect is fundamental to the 'public editors' model that Wikipedia uses, because there is no way whatsoever of checking whether a given editor knows what they are talking about.

For example, editor Cake has lots of really great edits and a high status in the community, as they've done some really great stuff in the field of bakery.
They then make an edit in Computing.

If that edit good, bad or indifferent? The system cannot possibly know.

So they rely heavily on citations.

The fundamental flaw is because it's quite hard to discover whether a given source is correct, was correct and is now superceded by something else, or was always wrong.

As everyone is a volunteer, very few people actually bother doing that difficult checking - and they're often shouted down by the people who didn't as there are more of them!

Chaoszerom wrote:Damn it, though, generally Wikipedia is reliable.

No it isn't!

I used to think that it was reliable for some fields, but then I realised that the areas I thought it was good for are the fields I don't know very well, and those I thought it was rubbish in are the ones I do know very well.

That's the same as many popular science programmes on TV - if you don't know the field, it often seems pretty good.
However, if you do know the field you realise that it's usually inaccurate, and often wrong.

That made me realise that the whole thing is likely to be inaccurate and often wrong.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Zamite » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:23 am UTC

For a moment there I thought it had something to do with cytogenesis.. then I read "writer" oh!

And I think this was used on purpose by a few trolls a while ago.
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It’s what I always said.

Postby BAReFOOt » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:24 am UTC

There are no “facts”, there is no “objectivity” and most of all, there is no “absolute reality”. It’s unscientific nonsense.
“Facts” is what non-scientists use not only for a theory whose predictions were observed enough to be above their very personal trustworthiness threshold, but also everything they read, hear or see, provided it comes from an “authority”. And we all know that “authority” is just another word for “someone who has not gained our trust on the subject matter, but tells us who to trust on it”. I’m sure this just screams out “circular reasoning“ and “non-sequitur” to everyone.
But even observations about theories don’t mean what people think they mean. Which brings me to the next point:
“Objectivity” is what people call something that shows both sides of the coin with their own personal bias. ^^ And actually, if you ask most people, they don’t give a rat’s ass about showing both sides. All they care about is that it is in harmony with their personal model of reality. That’s what they call “neutral”. And everything that deviates from it, is “biased”.
But the thing is: They have to. They have no choice. Because the “absolute truth/reality” on which their “objectivity/neutrality” is based, just as much does not exist. So the only thing that’s left to compare things with, is their own model of reality / view of the world. (Those who know their neurology, know why this is “neutral” from their p.o.v..)
The problem is, that while there are some rules which worked everywhere and for everyone for now, in practice, they nearly don’t mean anything at all. For practical purposes, it matters, that we all observe reality through a set of senses. Those are themselves strongly processing the data, introducing bias left and right. This is a problem because there is no way to ever get around them. One can’t observe the world directly. Ever. And even if one would, the brain is actually nothing more than a huge bias machine. It literally can’t process neutral input. Since it can only store and process the bias/difference from neutral. So neutral input is like the 1 in multiplication. And even if it could process neutral input, it would still be from its own personal point of view. Which, as relativity theory makes clear, well, relative. ^^
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Because in reality, it is just infeasible to observe everything on your own. In reality, nearly everything of what we think we know, comes from other “sources”. Without any verification. Unless you call even more “sources” telling the same “verification”. (Which would mean falling into “argumentum ad populum” fallacy territory.)
Most of us haven’t touched a hot cooking plate, never fell from a 10-story building, and never actually did see our elected officials or a quantum entanglement with our own eyes.
We trust our own “sources”. Because we deem them to be “reliable”.
But here’s the problem: Reliable for whom? (My English grammar still isn’t that good, so I apologize if this looks deeply wrong to you native speakers. I hope you know what I meant anyway. ;)
As we established, reliability and trustworthiness are relative and personal. So saying “reliable sources” in an absolutist way, is a “argument from authority” fallacy, and just screams “egocentric world view” and “god complex”. Unless personally trusted, those sources don’t make anything more trustworthy or true from your p.o.v., than as if their content was stated directly in the article.

It's shocking (bud sadly to be expected) that people are so dumb that they don’t realize all this on their own. It’s so crazy obvious, simple, and should jump everyone right in the face. But apparently it doesn’t and isn’t.
Which is why I stopped looking at the world the way I did before. I call everything just a theory/hypothesis, and instead of talking in terms of “facts”, “truth” and “objectivity”, I talk in terms of “consistency (in terms of logic)”, “trustworthiness” (especially when not directly observed by myself) and especially “what’s in it for me?”. Because in the end, it all comes down to how much that information helps us to predict the future, and how much that actually helps us succeed in growth, reproduction, and natural selection.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby JohanJ » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:26 am UTC

Tomo2k wrote: Chaoszerom wrote:Damn it, though, generally Wikipedia is reliable.

No it isn't!
Except, of course, that a number of studies have proven that Wikipedia is a decent source of information within a number of fields. Although very far from perfect, of course. Then again, the point is to give an overview of subject. Detailed information should always sought elsewhere.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Grygon » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:31 am UTC

Off topic of the discussion, anyone else notice the double who in the first panel?
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby jalanb » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:39 am UTC

TIL: Steven Chu is one serious dude. I just assumed from reading the comic that the Nobel Prize was unreal, but turns out he has one, and
At the time of his appointment as Energy Secretary, he was a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley


Even before we get to the whole scroll-lock thing :shock:
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Re: It’s what I always said.

Postby ijuin » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:41 am UTC

BAReFOOt wrote:There are no “facts”, there is no “objectivity” and most of all, there is no “absolute reality”. It’s unscientific nonsense.
“Facts” is what non-scientists use not only for a theory whose predictions were observed enough to be above their very personal trustworthiness threshold, but also everything they read, hear or see, provided it comes from an “authority”


As Philip K. Dick said, "Reality is whatever refuses to go away when I stop believing in it". In other words, anything that can be said not to change even if the perceptions of all of the people in the world changed.

Would the Sun stop being powered by nuclear fusion if everyone on Earth believed that it was powered by combustion? What you seem to be claiming is that there is no existence outside of our perceptions, and that anything that we are unable to detect can be regarded as nonexistent. Did protons and neutrons spring into existence only after we learned to split apart atoms? Or were they always there, waiting to be noticed?
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Re: It’s what I always said.

Postby jalanb » Wed Nov 16, 2011 10:59 am UTC

ijuin wrote:Did protons and neutrons spring into existence only after we learned to split apart atoms? Or were they always there, waiting to be noticed?


Was all light made up of waves until we managed to notice its particles?

Protons and neutrons are artifacts of our methods of observation, and if we has completely different methods of observation, then they would disappear, as if the were never there.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby tomandlu » Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:22 am UTC

Heh - I wrote an article about this a few years ago...

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/15/tom_melly_wikipedia_comment/
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby icebrain » Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:37 am UTC

Brian-M wrote:What bugs me when I want to look up something fairly obscure...

When Wikipedia fails to provide enough information on the subject (eg, only provides a stub), I then try other sites suggested by Google, only to find that many of them only have information that is word-for-word identical to the Wikipedia page. The blatant copyright violation comes second in annoyance to the waste of time looking at sites that have nothing more to add on the subject.

Of course, all these sites are now also references for Wikipedians to cite supporting the supposed accuracy of the article.

In case you're serious, you should know that all the text in Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons (more specifically, CC-BY-SA) and that a simple link is enough to satisfy the Attribution clause. So I'd bet most of those sites are not actually violating copyright.

If you're a contributor to Wikipedia, this should be clear, since right above the "Save" button there's a text saying:

By clicking the "Save Page" button, you agree to the Terms of Use, and you irrevocably agree to release your contribution under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 License and the GFDL. You agree that a hyperlink or URL is sufficient attribution under the Creative Commons license.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby thearbiter » Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:40 am UTC

This is hardly a problem that Wikipedia are unaware of. All Randall's done is flag a problem that we knew about anyway and fail to propose a solution. I know he is a comic writer and not a journalist but for some reason that irks me even more. The issue is actually less common than you'd imagine and only ever occurs with pretty obscure articles. No decent writer is going to reference a fact which is tagged as needing a citation and a decent Wikipedian is going to add a citation with a date preceding the initial edit.

Oh and Randall almost certainly has no book in mind whatsoever but incredibly he's made himself look knowledgeable about some unknown topic! xkcd is just a lot of hot air these days.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Sean Quixote » Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:47 am UTC

Anybody else ever do that thing where you read something, and your brain sometimes removes or adds a letter? I think you can prolly guess what I did from there...

Also, I just did this last night too on Facebook. My cousin posted "Dragon count - 9" and, well, you can probably guess that as well, if you're imaginative enough.

I think I might be horny.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby EpicanicusStrikes » Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:49 am UTC

This is precisely why Wikipedia's "List of Common Misconceptions" will be responsible for spreading errant thought for generations to come.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby userxp » Wed Nov 16, 2011 11:58 am UTC

I believe it would be wrong to assume that this phenomenon started with Wikipedia. I'm pretty sure it can still happen with just books. At most, Wikipedia might act like a catalizer.

BAReFOOt wrote:There are no “facts”, there is no “objectivity” and most of all, there is no “absolute reality”. It’s unscientific nonsense.
“Facts” is what non-scientists use not only for a theory whose predictions were observed enough to be above their very personal trustworthiness threshold, but also everything they read, hear or see, provided it comes from an “authority”.

[other stuff that's not really relevant]

Long reply (spoilered for offtopic).
Spoiler:
No.
"Facts", or more appropriately "truth" is information that corresponds with the universe*. For example, "The Eiffel tower is in Paris": this means that the particular collection of subatomic particles** that form what we call the Eiffel tower is located within the bounds of the spatial region we call Paris. Defining exactly what particles form the Eiffel tower and what spatial region forms Paris is much more difficult (and very arbitrary), but once we've done it then the truth is well-defined: either the entire Eiffel tower is in Paris or not.

Of course, obtaining truth is an entirely different issue. It is completely impossible to observe the universe directly, so any being has to rely on indirect observations and reasoning to assign a probability to "truth". A rational intelligence would watch the movement of the planets, do some calculations, and then say "I believe with probability = 98.3% that the mass of Jupiter is higher than 10^27 kg". This is essentially what science tries to do.

And then there's the particular case of humans. Humans are not rational superintelligences optimized for collecting evidence and finding truth. We rely on approximations and arbitrary rules that have evolved over time (like believing things that we like more than things we dislike). For example, if someone says that "X is true", I will not think "I perceive what I identify as a person saying that X is true. I will now try to fit this new observation into my existing model of the universe and recalculate the probability of X". Instead I might think "X? I like this idea! And this person looks like an intelligent person. Yes, I think X must definitely be true".

That doesn't mean "facts" and "objective reality" doesn't exist. It's just that we are very bad at finding them. That's why we have one field for "how knowledge should be obtained and treated" (epistemology) and one for "how people obtain and treat knowledge" (cognitive science). I hope I managed to clear up some things.


-----
*Of course, I am assuming that the universe (or "reality") exists, and is external to our minds. You can assume that everything you see is a dream created by your ethereal consciousness if you want to, but then you don't really have to bother talking with me.

**For this example I also assumed the universe is made of subatomic particles in space. It doesn't matter, "truth" still exists if the universe is made of quantum wavefunctions or garden gnomes playing the violin.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby Michael.K » Wed Nov 16, 2011 12:00 pm UTC

C'mon, alt-text! Name the book!
Text or it didn't happen.
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Re: 0978: "Citogenesis"

Postby tomandlu » Wed Nov 16, 2011 12:13 pm UTC

thearbiter wrote:This is hardly a problem that Wikipedia are unaware of. All Randall's done is flag a problem that we knew about anyway and fail to propose a solution. I know he is a comic writer and not a journalist but for some reason that irks me even more. The issue is actually less common than you'd imagine and only ever occurs with pretty obscure articles. No decent writer is going to reference a fact which is tagged as needing a citation and a decent Wikipedian is going to add a citation with a date preceding the initial edit.

Oh and Randall almost certainly has no book in mind whatsoever but incredibly he's made himself look knowledgeable about some unknown topic! xkcd is just a lot of hot air these days.


What a bizarre post, and full of very odd assertions... he failed to propose a solution, you're more irked by him not being a journalist, and - most comical - 'no decent writer' would do this... err, just as well all journalism comes with 'decent writer'/'not decent writer' tags then... I'm probably being cynical, but you come across as a tad defensive on the subject... as for proposing solutions, what solution have your fellow wikipedians come up with? (the obvious one - no citation source can post-date the original un-cited part of the wikipedia article strikes me as very hard to implement).

... and the final ad hominem is just silly - I don't care whether Randall's being modest or making it up. You admit this happens, so why is it relevant? [Edit to add] And he makes it clear why he's not naming the book...
How can I think my way out of the problem when the problem is the way I think?
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