Wikipedia’s Rival, And What It Teaches Us About Expanding Human Knowledge

As many of you know, I am a big fan of, and regular contributor to, Wikipedia. I love it as much for its immense breadth information as for its ambitious mission to help make the entirely of human knowledge accessible to all. But I also absolutely love another website with a similarly audacious goal; the only encyclopedia that actually gives Wikipedia a run for its money when it comes to being an accessible and reliable source: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spanning almost 1,500 entries, the SEP manages a respectable one million views a month, which as Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad notes, is quite an achievement, “given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs.” According to the American Library Association, it is “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print. And did I mention that it is free?

Most crucially, the SEP has managed to accomplish the one thing that Wikipedia struggles with most of all: being a consistent and reliable source on all the topics it covers (although in fairness, Wikipedia spans a lot more pages and materials — close to five million in its English edition alone). Continue reading

Violence Against Knowledge

Aside from the obvious and horrific loss of human life that’s intrinsic to warfare, one of the most awful and frequent victims of humanity’s habit for violence is knowledge: for as long as war has been around, libraries, archives, universities, and other repositories of information have been destroyed. Usually, this occurs through collateral damage, but more often than not, it’s a deliberate act on the part of conquerors.

The following image from Global Data Vault, a business that provides data protection, gives a somber idea of only a handful of the many instances in which human progress has been stifled by the destruction of so much knowledge. In addition to listing the raw number of books, scrolls, or other mediums destroyed, it calculates the data based on gigabytes, which helps give a good idea as to the scale of the loss in a modern context (this was determined from the fact that the Amazon Kindle 3 can store about 3,500 books per 4GB).

The summary of this historical tragedy is as follows:

Throughout the ages, it has happened again and again. Whole libraries of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, bark codexes and paper books have been destroyed by natural disasters, fire and war. The Royal Library of Alexandria, where the accumulated knowledge of ancient scientists, physicians and philosophers was stored, was destroyed by fire. The destruction likely started during Caesar’s Civil War when Julius Caesar purposefully set his own ships ablaze, and many scholars believe the library suffered numerous other tragic fires throughout history. More than 120,000 volumes written by classical Greek and Roman authors were lost when fire destroyed the library at Constantinople in 473A.D.. Virtually all of the codexes recording the history, beliefs and sciences of the Maya were intentionally destroyed by the Spanish as works of the devil. In World War II libraries containing millions of books were destroyed as strategic acts of war.

During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s, the 17,000 volumes of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo were directly targeted, along with the National Museum and National Library. The Iraq War saw the destruction of more than 400,000 books in the Iraq National Library, including priceless records of the world’s first urban, literate civilization. On 9/11, 21 libraries inside the World Trade Center, the records of 3,000 to 4,000 active cases before the Securities and Exchange Commission, files belonging to the CIA and EEOC, U.S. trade documents dating back to the 1840s, the offices and archives of Helen Keller International, $100,000,000 in privately owned artworks, thousands of photo negatives of JFK and more than 900,000 archaeological artifacts were all lost.*

Note once again that these are just some of the many high-profile cases of houses of information being destroyed. Other well-known instances for which there is no reliable date include The Library of Antioch in 363B.C., The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in 600 B.C., Imperial Library of Ctesiphon in  754 A.D., The Library at Nalanda University in 1193 A.D., and the House of Wisdom in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq, 1258 A.D.

One can only wonder how different the world would be had so much knowledge not been periodically destroyed over so many generations. It’s just another example of how our barbaric nature can often get the best of human progress.

Video

Improving Our Education System

There is no shortage of proscriptions for how to improve our deficient public education system – indeed, there are probably more solutions given then there are efforts to actually implement them.

But this video, courtesy of RSA, is by far one of the best. Speaker Sir Ken Robinson, a noted education reformer, offers some pretty interesting observations and ideas regarding how to better teach young people, which includes (as I’ve long argued) changing the cultural and society attitudes that structure educational policy. Much of what he says has been expressed by other reformers as well, which suggests that there is a pretty solid consensus on what needs to be done (although not necessarily how it needs to be done).

As to be expected, these aren’t going to be quick or easy to implement – it’ll likely take much time and a multidimensional approach – but we can’t afford to ignore the problem for much longer. See the video, or check out his website to judge for yourselves. At the very least, there’s a conversation going.

On Logical Fallacies

The following was a homework assignment for my Critical Thinking and Ethics course. I figured its content merits a post of its own, so I hope you find it informative. I learned quite a bit while writing it. 

A fallacy is an error in reasoning that violates at least one principle of good argumentation (as they were outlined in the previous homework). Despite the negative connotation, a fallacy isn’t necessarily malicious or intentional, but merely represents poor logic and argumentation on the part of its perpetrator. A single fallacy can undermine the legitimacy of an entire argument.

Because all humans are liable to think and argue poorly, even if we don’t mean to, we’re all susceptible to fallacious ways of thinking. Therefore, we should be alert to these fallacies not only to ensure the truthfulness of the arguments we encounter, but to help us from committing similar errors in reasoning. The following are just four of the fallacies typically encountered in various debates, although by no means the only ones.

Straw Man Fallacy
This is perhaps one of the most common fallacies, especially in the realm of politics. It consists of someone claiming to have successfully refuted an argument, when instead, they’ve attacked a weak or degraded version of it, e.g. the straw man. Often times, this corrupted argument seems similar enough (superficially at least) for a third party to buy into it. A straw man may be a deliberate attempt to make the opponent’s argument look bad (especially if an audience is involved), or may be the result of genuinely misinterpreting the argument.

For example, Alvin is arguing that the United States should grant some sort of amnesty to illegal aliens through a long-term process that includes background checks and citizenship tests. Bob counter-argues that Alvinwants to open the floodgates to millions of people who will take American jobs.

Instead of challenging Alvin’s argument on its merits or rationale, Bob “attacked a straw man” by claiming that his opponent wants America to be taken over by foreigners. Obviously, Alvin said no such thing, but Bob is distorting his statement while also making him seem like an awful person. Not only does doing this undermine what could otherwise be a worthy discussion, but assuming it was intentional, what Bob is doing is dishonest and unethical, thereby violating the principle of charity for any rational discussion.

Irrelevant or Questionable Authority
Behind most good arguments are good sources: studies, institutions, specialists, or other authorities that help add weight and legitimacy to one’s point. Even the most educated person doesn’t know everything, which makes reliance on experts a necessity. However, not every authority is credible, and this fallacy entails relying on a source that either has no bearing on the argument for which it is used, or that is illegitimate due to bias or lack of credentials.

Annabel: I’ve decided I’m going to keep smoking, since it turns out it is safe.

Beatriz: Really? Says who?

Annabel: This study done by a group called Marlboro [a cigarette company].

Annabel believes smoking is okay for her health based on the research of a company that profits from people who smoke. Clearly, her argument is undermined by the fact that her source would have good reason to be biased in favor of smoking cigarettes – it is a questionable authority. She’d be committing the same fallacy if she relied on the opinion of a veterinarian or her Aunt Sally, both of whom would lack the credentials or relevant expertise on the matter being argued. Had Annabel cited research from the National Institute of Health or a specialist on respiratory health, her argument would be far less suspect. Always pay attention the authority your opponent is relying on, while being certain of the legitimacy of your own sources.

Post Hoc Fallacy
This error consists of confusing correlation with causation, whereby you claim that one event was caused by another event just because they occurred in chronological order. It’s a very easy mistake to make, since humans naturally seek out a pattern or relationship between certain factors in order to explain something, especially if those events follow in some kind of sequence.

For example, a landlord receives a new tenant in his apartment block. Shortly after, the water heater breaks down. The landlord insists that it must have something to do with the new occupant, since this happened not long after he moved in.

The landlord is committing a post hoc fallacy because he attributes one event (the water heater breaking) to another event (the new tenant moving in) on the sole basis that the former occurred after the latter. The fact that events occur in some temporal order tells us nothing about whether there is a relationship between them – it could simply be a coincidence. Now, it could very well be that the new renter is somehow responsible for breaking the water heater, but the landlord would need more evidence besides the order of events.

Hasty Generalization
This is arguably one of the most ubiquitous fallacies around. It consists of drawing a broad conclusion about something or someone based on a small sample size of data. Most people do this quite regularly: stereotyping, which occurs in nearly every society, consists of generalizing about a large and diverse group of people based on a few encounters.

For example: “People from Kansas are just awful. I just dealt with a tour group from there, and they were very rude and obnoxious.”

Kansas is a state of a nearly three million residents, so concluding that all of them are nasty people based on a handful of individuals is highly erroneous: a few people can’t possibly offer an accurate representation of an entire state. This is an easy trap to fall into because immediate anecdotal evidence often has a greater impact on us than an often long-term compilation of more data, studies, or statistics. Withhold reaching a conclusion about something until you’ve gathered more information or observed a larger sample size. Make sure arguments making broad claims are doing so based on sufficient data, especially if the argument is citing polls, surveys, or personal anecdotes.

Learn about other fallacies here. Familiarize yourself with these so that you may think and argue well and avoid being fooled or unjustly undermined in debates.

An Interesting Anecdote for Whenever Life Gets Rough

The following parable has been making the rounds on Tumblr, and I’m not sure who the author is or whether it’s even true, but I don’t think it matters. The message is a good one. For all the nonsense the permeates the web, there is quite a bit of wisdom to be found, if your willing to do some sifting.

When things in your life seem, almost too much to handle,
When 24 Hours in a day is not enough,
Remember the mayonnaise jar and 2 cups of coffee.

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him.
When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

He then asked the students if the jar was full.
They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured
them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly.
The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full.
They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar.
Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

‘Now,’ said the professor, as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life.’

The golf balls are the important things – family,
children, health, Friends, and Favorite passions –
Things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, house, and car.

The sand is everything else —The small stuff.

‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ He continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls.’

The same goes for life.

If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

So…

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
Play with your children.
Take time to get medical checkups.
Take your partner out to dinner.

There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal.

‘Take care of the golf balls first —
The things that really matter.
Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.’

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented.

The professor smiled, ‘I’m glad you asked’, he said.

‘It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem,
There’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.

As always, it’s about the simple things in life. Don’t underestimate the little breathers that come between all the hustle and bustle of our daily routines. They can often make or break our lives, and it will be those moments that we’ll reflect on when we’re judging the quality of the lives we lived.

Reflections on Obtaining a Smart Phone

So I’ve finally obtained a smart phone of my own, complete with unlimited 4G access (I was due for an upgrade, so it was thankfully affordable). This gadget is a news junkie’s dream: I now have instantaneous access to all the events of the world at all times. I can look up anything and everything whenever a random thought or question comes into my mind. I have a constant stream of knowledge available wherever I go.

Of course, like most innovations, this one is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have all this information literally in the palm of my hand. But will my often distracting obsession with data and news be made worse by this newfound capacity to expand on it? Sure, I don’t plan on playing any of the games that often distract many of my peers: all my apps are strictly functional (so far). But a distraction is a distraction…how intrusive will this remarkable device be?

I suppose this will offer a wonderful opportunity to test my willpower – or to learn by experience just how difficult it is for the human mind to adjust in this era of constant stimulus. I already know the feeling of data overload firsthand, as I’m sure most of us well-connected youth do. Have I just upped the ante here? I’ll see with time, but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying having so much to read and learn whenever I’m stuck waiting somewhere. For better or for worse, boredom is a thing of the past (though I’ve always carried reading material with me wherever I go, so keeping myself entertained has never been an issue; now I get to save on space).

Another profound thought struck me as I started reaping the benefits of my new toy: that in the palm of my hand, in this lightweight and sleek machine, lies access to almost the entire sum of human knowledge. Anything and everything I could ever want to know – from the mundane, to the profound, from the practical to the philosophical – was available to me almost instantaneously with a few strokes of my fingers. Not a single reportable event in the world can go unnoticed. No conceivable question could go unaddressed. All of that lies within something smaller than my hand, which I can take with me anywhere I wanted.

For most of our history, the majority of our species couldn’t even read or write, let alone have access to the world’s knowledge. We barely knew what went on beyond our little villages. Suddenly, a growing number of us are connected to this immaterial repository of human knowledge known as the internet, and now, if we so choose, we can delve into the near-totality of collected human knowledge.

As I mentioned before, there is certainly a catch as far as the social and psychological effects of all that data – the human mind was never meant to absorb so much information so regularly. We’ll probably come to adapt to it as we have to so many other developments, but it may be a difficult process nonetheless. Who knows? Whatever the caveats, we shouldn’t underestimate how marvelous it is to live in a time when knowledge is no longer (entirely) the domain of the rich and powerful. The accessibility and affordability of these things is getting better with time. Whatever the impact, it’s sure to be weighty.

 

World History?

Am I the only one who was taught “world” history as if it were mainly European history? Throughout primary school, I scarcely learned anything about the rest of the world unless it involved the West in some way. Aside from some token references in textbooks – which were often glanced at or skipped anyway – it seemed that very little occurred in most of the world for most of human history. In fact, one gets the impression that Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia were devoid of history until the Europeans showed up.

Indeed, how many people can recall the civilizations that existed in Sub-Saharan Africa prior to European colonization – or if any civilization existed in the first place? How many people know anything substantial about the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans other than that were conquered by the Spanish? The Persians, who constituted one of the most ancient and advanced civilizations in human history, emerge first – and often solely – as antagonists to the Ancient Greeks, whose civilization is the one many world history teachers start from instead.

And what about the invaluable contributions made by the ChineseIndian, and Islamic civilizations, each of which produced countless innovations, art forms, and philosophies? Their very existence changed the course of human history. Chinese civilization alone spans tens of thousands of years, most of them rich in all sorts of political, cultural, and intellectual developments. Yet by my recollection, the Chinese generally receive little more than passing acknowledgement of their ingenuity, much less any in-depth coverage.

To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate the importance of European history. To me, there’s no competition between any of the world’s many histories – they should be taught collectively and with as much equal consideration as possible. Obviously, we know more about some histories than others, and certain time periods were more influenced by some nations than others.

But the point of history, as the root word shows, is to tell a story. It shouldn’t be limited to just the victors or superpowers. Every perspective is pertinent to a holistic understanding of history. Even if Europe was the dominant bloc for many of the last few centuries, does that make the point of view of “lesser” or colonized states any less valuable or insightful?

Also, my assessment comes from personal experience, as well as my own observation of what young people are learning now. I’m not aware of any research on the subject, although I’d be very interested to read other people’s experiences. But either way, I’m certain that if I had limited my worldview only to what was presented to me in (public) school, I’d be woefully ignorant of the astounding richness of human civilization across the planet and the ages.

Sadly, if my anecdotal accounts are correct, not a lot has changed. The American public is woefully ethnocentric and has little knowledge or concern for other cultures, languages, and global events. Most people have little understanding of their own nation’s history, much less that of foreign entities. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t even have passports.

Some may argue that all this is a consequence of our superpower status, since smaller and comparatively weaker states must necessarily look outward to compete. Even geography may play a role – compared to other regions like Europe or East Asia, we’re quite isolated from other distinct civilizations. Another argument involves the nature of the public education system, which is too focused on math and reading at the expense of social studies.

So is the way we approach history the cause of our cloistered attitudes? Or is it the other way around? Are private schools any better? Whatever the case – and I confess having my own internationalist bias – I’m still lamenting the overall lack of appreciation for a genuine global history.

Are We Getting Dumber?

The New York Times is hosting an online debate on the state of human intelligence in the modern world and whether it will decline or improve in the coming generations. All debaters make interesting points, and the commentary from readers can be just as insightful. I encourage you all to share your views (here or there), or at least reflect upon the arguments made. The fates of this planet and our species are dependent upon are own intellectual and innovative capital.

For the record, I don’t believe we’re devolving intellectually – relative to historical levels, a larger number of people are more knowledgeable than ever. It’s just that the standards have changed, and the vast abundance of knowledge – as well as it’s increased availability – raises our expectations for intelligence. I do, however, fear that the growing technological convenience of the modern world may pose a risk to our cognitive development, as it may lead to a disincentive to learn more things or acquire new skills.

Alas, I’m heading to bed, so I can’t expound on my point as much as I’d like. But I will certainly be revisiting this later. As always, I welcome your own input.

An Open Mind

Making the rounds on Imgur is a presumed letter written by a professor of Cross-Cultural Psychology and sent to his students following a prior dispute about his curriculum (the university and the professor’s name are, of course, withheld). Aside from eloquently scolding some of them for their behavior – which you’ll learn about as you read along – his lengthy tract makes excellent points about the importance of challenging one’s views, keeping an open-mind, and facilitating an atmosphere of free inquiry.

As a university graduate who loved school, I could certainly relate with the instructor’s dismay and subsequent suggestion. I even deal with or witness similar incidents. A lot of people, even in their vibrant and curious youth, are too embedded in their preconceived beliefs; they seem regard an education as nothing more than a path to get a degree and make money (and in fairness, this mentality stems from institutional flaws within the education system, as well as pernicious societal influence.

But even outside the university environment, we should strive for the kind of honest and free-thinking that is outlined in the letter. We’re not perfect, and we’ll always be prone to bias, irrationality, and prejudice. But the point is to at least try and, most importantly, not infringe on other people’s efforts to learn too (in or out of school).

Wikipedia

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia 

Most of my friends know me to be a very strong “wiki aficionado”, to put it lightly. I’m quite obsessed with the site, and I lose countless hours traversing its seemingly endless sum of information, ranging from the mundane and obscure, to the profound and fundamental. I’ll freely admit that “wiki-ing” is basically a hobby of mine, and I credit this unique and wonderful site with teaching me a lot, or at least pointing me to the right place to do so. Despite popular belief, most articles have references and external links to relevant sources, and those that are sufficiently cited are identified as such to readers; also, pages with a bronze star at the upper-right corner are indicated as high-quality by the site’s actually employees.
 
In any case, my love for Wikipedia is almost certainly unsurprising. I’m a knowledge junkie after all, so any site that can give me full and easy access to almost any topic imaginable is a godsend (needless to say, I have a Wiki App on my iPod touch to facilitate constant learning).  
 
In fact, I was a true believer in the site from the very beginning, back when it was an upstart that was largely disregarded by most of the public, especially those in academia, who derided it as inaccurate and unreliable. At best, it was a fun little curiosity or something to pass the time with. Throughout my college studies, I recall having an increasing number of professors explicitly forbid the use of Wikipedia as a source, and from what I hear, that position has only become more prevalent, to the extent that such a warning is now codified in most class syllabi. Of course, most people still utilized it anyway, opting to simply fact check its claims from conventional sources, or clicking on its linked references.
 
Granted, Wikipedia was certainly not the most dependable source out there, especially in the early years when supervision was lax and vandalism – or mere human error – was subsequently common (if not exaggerated in its extent). But there wasn’t anything else like it that was online or as accessible – and there still isn’t. For all its flaws, Wikipedia was the only source of its kind – an aggregate of as much human knowledge as possible, covering realms of data ranging from pop culture to metaphysics.
 
I knew Wikipedia wasn’t perfect (and still isn’t, despite vast improvements). But I also knew that such an ambitious project would, like any other, take a lot of time and work to see fruition. If not yet taken seriously as a source, it at least deserved some respect and support as an idea. As its founder’s quote attests, a world where human beings, with their increasing access to the web, can have near-universal access to everything we know is a beautiful one that must be promoted. Long-term users like me will notice that Wikipedia has come a long way, and deserves all the help it can get to continue improving.
 
The site has managed to become the 5th most visited on the web, with close to 500 million visitors and billions of page views monthly – all that popular dismissal notwithstanding (I suspect even critics give it a glance once in a while). Few people have never seen a Wiki entry, and doing any sort of Google search almost always lists one among the top recommendations. The site has managed to grow enough to encompass 283 languages and close to 20 million articles – all this with only 679 serves and 95 staff (for comparison, Google has a million servers and Yahoo has around 13,000 employees).
 
This is all the more impressive given that the entire project is a non-profit, dependent upon donations to sustain it: there is no fee or subscription, nor is there any advertising. The absence of these things makes the site more conducive to learning, yet leaves it without a revenue stream – hence the periodic fund drives that request contributions for the bare minimum of keeping operations going.
 
I honestly used to ignore the banners at the top of each page pleading for donations. I can’t say I had a good reason to, given my enjoyment of the site and my presumed inclination for charitable causes. But I made amends and decided to finally give what I could to a project that is dear to me. I know all this sounds like a propaganda piece, but I sincerely ask that readers to do their part and give what they can. As this blog attests, I’m passionate about the dispersal of knowledge and the advancing of human progress through education. Wikipedia has its work cut out for it, but at least its making a step in the right direction.