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Islands of Sanity

By Peter Damian

Andreas Kolbe’s piece on Wikipedia versus Britannica went down pretty well, except for one commentator, who objected that “The projects in the science, logic, mathematics, and music are islands of sanity”.



Really? My own specialism is in the history of logic, particularly medieval logic. It’s a disaster area. I wrote last year about some vandalism to the article on the 13th century logician Duns Scotus, which said that in 2011 Scotus received an honour from the University of Oxford, “together with Lawrence of Arabia, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien and living University members Rupert Murdoch, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck”. When I wrote that, nearly a year ago, I thought it would be immediately removed. Yet it’s still there. I also mentioned vandalism to the article on William Vorilong. That was removed, but there was more added quite recently, including the bizarre claim that Vorilong studied Japanese medieval philosophy, physics and astronomy. It’s still there, and see also the article on the Chinese Da Ming Hun Yi Tu map.

It can be speculated that one of the first people in Europe who consulted the map was William Vorilong, noted philosopher from England, who was shown the map while travelling with japanese visitor Yoshimitsu Kage.

Retrodeductive inference?


OK, you object that this is merely boring history, which no one cares about. The real stuff, on modern science and logic and mathematics and so on, is totally reliable. So let’s take a look at some of the articles on logic, starting with the flagship article. Right there in the introduction it says “Avicenna revived the study of logic and developed relationship between temporalis and the implication”. What does that mean? And is it really true that “Avicenna revived the study of logic”? That edit was more than a year ago, by an IP which has since been blocked.

Further down, it mentions ‘retrodeductive inference’. What is that?

Some authors suggest that this mode of inference can be used within social theorizing to postulate social structures/mechanisms that explain the way that social outcomes arise in social life—and that in turn indicates that these structures or mechanisms are alterable with sufficient social will (and envisioning of alternatives). In other words, this logic is specifically liberative in that it can be used to point to transformative potential in our way of organizing our social existence by our re-examining/exploring the deep structures that generate outcomes (and life chances for people). In her book on New Racism (2010) Norma Romm offers an account of various interpretations of what can be said to be involved in retroduction as a form of inference and how this can also be seen to be linked to a style of theorizing (and caring) where processes of knowing (which she sees as dialogically rooted) are linked to social justice projects.

Who is Norma Romm? Perhaps the Wikipedia editor of the same name, who added the material in the first place? This neatly illustrates the problem with Wikipedia. Anybody can edit, and so anyone with a pet theory can edit. There is no editorial function on Wikipedia. Wikipedia supporters say that crowdsourcing replaces the need for a ‘top down’ traditional approach to editing, and that the best way to get good information is to give bad information (which will be instantly reverted) but this particular piece of junk was added 9 September 2011, more than two years ago. Hardly ‘instant reversion’, unless the timescale is geological.

I was intrigued by the article Intensional Statement. ‘Intensional context’ is well known, but intensional statement? I wrote to a professor of logic at Syracuse, who replied “I agree that the article on “Intensional statement” is a conceptual mess and should just be off Wikipedia. I submitted a suitably negative report to Wikipedia, now that I have seen it”. His ‘negative report’ was the article feedback tool, which does not seem to have worked – hardly surprisingly, as it was a promotional exercise by the Wikimedia Foundation designed to attract more editors, such as Syracuse professors.

Horribly clumsy, horribly wrong

The distinction between de dicto and de re is one of the more important in logic. What does Wikipedia make of it?

De dicto and de re are two phrases used to mark important distinctions in intensional statements, associated with the intensional operators in many such statements. The distinctions are most recognized in philosophy of language and metaphysics.The literal translation of the phrase “de dicto” is “of (the) word”, whereas de re translates to “of (the) thing”. The original meaning of the Latin locutions is useful for understanding the living meaning of the phrases, in the distinctions they mark. The distinction is best understood by examples of intensional contexts of which we will consider three: a context of thought, a context of desire, and a context of modality.

This is a mixture of the horribly clumsy and the horribly wrong. The plural ‘important distinctions’ is merely clumsy, given that there is just one distinction. So is “The distinctions are mostrecognized in philosophy of language and metaphysics”. Does this mean that writers outside those subjects are aware of the distinction, but refuse to recognise it, or that writers outside those areas simply aren’t aware of the distinction at all, and don’t even make it?

But some of it is plain wrong. As pointed out above, the standard use of the term ‘intensional’ qualifies not a statement but a context. The distinction itself is a distinction in reading or sense, which the introduction does not explain properly. Thus there is a de re reading of a particular sentence, or a de dicto reading. As for the Latin ‘original meaning’, ‘de dicto’ does not mean ‘of the word’. ‘Dictum’ in Latin is a participle which simply means ‘what is/was said’. This is not really different from the internet slang ‘what she said’, meaning ‘I agree with (or add my voice to) what she said’. So it doesn’t mean a word, not even a bunch of words, but rather what the words say. So ‘de dicto’ means about what was said, rather than about reality (de re). In no way does it mean a word, as Wikipedia says, possibly confusing it with ‘dictio’ which can mean a word, or an expression. There is a similar confusion about etymology in the article Existence.

The word “existence” comes from the Latin word exsistere meaning “to appear”, “to arise”, “to become”, or “to be”, but literally, it means “to stand out” (ex- being the Latin prefix for “out” added to the Latin verb stare, meaning “to stand”).

Wrong. ‘Ex’ is added not to ‘stare’ but to ‘sistere’. Weirdly, the footnote references an online etymology dictionary which does give the correct explanation. But then you notice that the footnote was added later by someone who hadn’t bothered to check the reference with what it referenced.

But don’t fix it!

I could go on. Why don’t I fix it? As it happens I can’t, as I was banned from Wikipedia five years ago, for a disagreement that had nothing to do with article content. The person who made the original ‘islands of sanity’ objection was also banned more recently (again, for nothing to do with the quality of contributions). And this user, a mathematician who has made many contributions to the project, is not allowed even to ask other people to make corrections to articles. As reported here, he resorted to sending emails to suggest edits to the article Mutation (algebra). This is the horrible crime known as ‘proxying for a banned user’, and he should have known better.

The language on WP:PROXYING prevents anyone from adding material at the direction of a banned editor. So if you posted any advice, people would be forbidden to act on it. Thank you, EdJohnston (talk) 05:52, 10 February 2014 (UTC)

This also means that anyone reading this post, and then trying to correct the mistakes identified, will be forbidden to do so by Mr Johnston, and perhaps end up banned themselves! It reallyreally is absurd, particularly given that the quality of articles – even in the islands of sanity – is so poor, but this is Wikipedia. The idea of it being a project to bring human knowledge to the world has long been abandoned.


Image credits: Flickr/Lexe-I, Wikimedia  ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

11 comments to Islands of Sanity

  • The madness and vandalism is everywhere. Experts are often locked out from helping. The WMF just stands by and counts the money.

  • Anon.

    Excellent post!
    By the way, I see that someone has edited and removed the worst mistakes, with the edit summary “pr Peter Damien”. I wonder what will happen now? ( See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/ )

  • Ed

    @Anon “The language on WP:PROXYING prevents anyone from adding material at the direction of a banned editor.” Since the alterations were clearly labelled as under the direction of this post, it follows that the IP should be sanctioned. I would advise any responsible Wikipedian reading this to report this behaviour to EdJohnston on his talk page, or better still, to the Administrators Noticeboard where responsible Wikipedians can take preventative action.

  • enwikibadscience

    I have seen a lot of good science editors in the projects, but they appear to be ignoring the made up science being put on en.Wiki’s main page courtesy of DYK.

    This may be because the editors in the science projects, though competent, cannot deal with the nastiness around a Randy-from-Boise fighting to get their barn star of praise, or it may be because they are vested in their OWN articles and, like the editors making up the taxonomies, couldn’t care less that other editors are making up for the main page, or for many other reasons.

    But, if a science project is allowing editors to get DYKs with made up information on the main page, like Wiki Project Gastropods is, they cannot be called “islands of sanity.”

    Sanity would be building an accurate encyclopedia. There are no such islands in an encyclopedia full of editors who would rather fight and praise each other than write and demand accurate articles from each other.

  • Kiefer.Wolfowitz

    In my experience, the mathematics and music-theory projects are islands of sanity.

    (I had retracted my earlier statement well before this blog was posted. In my experience, mathematical logic is sane and professional, albeit it needs logicians with expertise in areas besides set theory, which Jaakko Hintikka has called the “Frankenstein’s monster” of logic. I accept that philosophical logic and the history of logic have problems.)

    Regarding “Proxy editing”.

    The current policy does not allow edits to be inserted on behalf of a banned editor unless the editor is able to take responsibility for them. The editor must have sufficient reason to stand for the edits on his own behalf, and not just as an automaton.

    I was banned last August. Wikipedia’s extraordinary editor Dr. Blofeld knows more about music theory and guitar playing than I do. He has occasionally inserted edits on my behalf to articles on guitar playing. I have only asked him to make improvements to articles where he, with one lobe of his brain tied behind his back, is able to justify the improvements.

    Regarding editor MathSci and a mathematical article on mutations. MathSci is an internationally established expert in mathematics, and his research interests and competences are shared by very few on Wikipedia. (I can think of only a handful of editors at his mathematical level on Wikipedia.) An editor without competence on the topic of mutations is unable to insert MathSci’s improvements, by Wikipedia’s proxy policy.

    Many editors mistakenly believe that the proxy policy bans all edits on behalf of banned editors, even when the implementer takes responsibility for them. Perhaps EdJohnston shares this mistaken belief?

  • Deltahedron

    I created the article on Mutations (algebra) and have not been informed of any mistakes in what I wrote that need correction (though if there are any please do say so). Shortly after I created it, Mathsci (with whom I had had an unpleasant experience some time ago) emailed another editor to suggest references. I have no reason to believe that Mathsci has been “trying to correct the mistakes identified” or prevented from correcting any errors in that article.

    • You were the new kid on the block

      Just been going through the Mathcsci edits – and to be fair – they did a lot of work creating articles.
      Whereas the above poster, if they’re the real deal, seemed to have only popped up on WP in MAy 2012 and set about creating stub after stub article.
      If you read the discourse between Mathsci and Deltahedron, the former chides the latter for never written a decent article. [See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Hurwitz_algebra

      • Deltahedron

        So you don’t like my articles — no doubt your mathematics contributions are more substantial. Did you find any of these “mistakes” that people claim I made?

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