Wikipedia is free. It’s understandable that people don’t like to look a gift horse in the mouth. But no one should fool themselves into thinking that the nag they got for free is an Arabian racehorse.―Andreas Kolbe
A bunch of recent articles about Wikipedia are worth a read if you're interested:
- Defenders of Wikipedia frequently cite a now decade-old "study" to the effect that the free, online "encyclopedia" is as accurate as The Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipediocracy has an article by Andreas Kolbe about how that "study" was not all it's cracked up to be. First of all, it wasn't a peer-reviewed "study", in the usual sense of that term. More importantly, the articles from the two reference works that were compared all concerned science, which makes sense given that the report was published in Nature. So, even if the report is to be believed, it would be a mistake to generalize it to all entries on any subject. As Kolbe writes:
Some of Wikipedia’s articles are indeed reliable. The problem is that you never know whether the article you are looking at is one of them.
Source: Andreas Kolbe, "Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?", Wikipediocracy, 8/25/2015
- While there is some evidence from the Nature report that Wikipedia's science articles are nearly as accurate as those of Britannica, there is new evidence of problems when the scientific topic is politically controversial. I don't know what specific entries the Nature article looked at―as far as I can tell, the report itself did not reveal them―but I would presume that they looked at mostly uncontroversial subjects.
The new study―and it's an actual, peer-reviewed study―compares the rate and size of revisions of Wikipedia's entries on three politically controversial scientific topics with those on four uncontroversial ones. The controversial entries were more frequently edited with larger changes than the non-controversial ones. Unfortunately, the authors did not attempt to analyze the nature of these changes, though there is a brief discussion in the introduction of some juvenile vandalism to the entry on acid rain.
The statistics also show that the controversial articles have much higher numbers of page views than the less controversial. Obviously, there is greater interest in scientific topics that arouse political controversy than in those that don't, and this may lead to more vandalism to the former than the latter. It would be useful to see a comparison of edit rates of more popular articles to less popular ones, as higher edit rates may be simply the result of greater popularity, that is, popularity may be a confounding variable. So, this new study doesn't do much more than confirm what was already obvious.
- Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, "On Wikipedia, politically controversial science topics vulnerable to information sabotage: When researching acid rain, evolution, and climate change, cast a critical eye on source material.", EurekAlert!, 8/14/2015
- Adam M. Wilson & Gene E. Likens, "Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale", PLOS One, 8/14/2015
Via: Steven Novella, "Controversial Science Topics on Wikipedia", Neurologica, 8/17/2015
The Puddle Fallacy
"Remarquez bien que les nez ont été faits pour porter des lunettes; aussi avons-nous des lunettes. Les jambes sont visiblement instituées pour être chaussées, et nous avons des chausses. Les pierres ont été formées pour être taillées et pour en faire des châteaux; aussi monseigneur a un très beau château…; et les cochons étant faits pour être mangés, nous mangeons du porc toute l'année…."―Voltaire, Candide, ou L'Optimisme, Chapitre I (Translation)
Steven Novella has written a sequel to his earlier article about Eric Metaxas that I linked to previously―see the Resource, below, if you're interested. The sequel is prompted by a video version of the Metaxas article that Novella and I criticized earlier, so I don't have anything new to add. However, Novella does have at least one thing new to add:
Metaxas is…making the classic “puddle” fallacy―that of a puddle of water marveling at the fact that the hole in which it exists was perfectly formed to hold it. Obviously it is the water that is conforming to the hole.
Source: Steven Novella, "Does Science Prove God?", Neurologica, 8/13/2015
I don't know how "classic" this supposed fallacy is, since I've never heard of it before, at least not under that name. In fact, I can only find one other use of the term "puddle fallacy" on the web, and that's in a comment on a blog where it's given the longer name "arrogant puddle fallacy". Apparently, the name comes from the following passage from a speech by science fiction author Douglas Adams:
…[E]arly man is thinking, 'This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely' and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him. This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is…an interesting hole I find myself in―fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'
Source: Douglas Adams, "Is there an Artificial God?", Biota, 9/1998
As you can see, Adams didn't name it or even specifically call it a "fallacy", though he did earlier refer to this type of thinking as "fallacious". I've also seen Adams' argument referred to as "the puddle analogy", since it draws an analogy between the self-centered puddle, and early man.
However, the type of argument criticized as a "puddle fallacy" is a familiar one, though not under that name. It was made fun of by Voltaire in Candide centuries ago, as you can see from the epigraph, above. I'm not satisfied with the name "puddle fallacy" because, unless you happen to be familiar with Adams' little analogy, the name does not suggest what the mistake is. We might just as well go back to Voltaire and call it "the spectacles fallacy" or "the socks fallacy". Even better would be "the Pangloss fallacy", since it's the character of Dr. Pangloss who speaks the quoted passage. Again, though, unless you know Candide this wouldn't ring any bells, and even then some might think that it refers to Pangloss' optimism.
A better name would be one that gets at the nature of the mistake committed. In Adams' analogy, the egotistical puddle reverses the direction of adaptation, as the puddle adapts itself to the shape of the hole, rather than vice versa. Similarly, eyeglasses are designed for people's noses and socks are made to fit legs, rather than the reverse.
Of course, these examples are exaggerations designed to mock the views of those such as Pangloss and Metaxas who see a world about them carefully tailored to meet their needs. As Novella puts it: "…[L]ife evolved to adapt to the conditions on Earth, and it is just as absurd as the puddle to think that Earth was made to perfectly support the life that is on it."
Resource: "The Fine-Tuning Argument Strikes Again!", 1/8/2015
Translation: "Note well that the nose was made to hold up spectacles; and so we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly shaped for socks, and we wear socks. Stones have been formed to be quarried and made into chateaus; and so His Grace has a very beautiful chateau…; and pigs were made to be eaten―we eat pork all year long…."
The Case of the Two Puzzling Statements
The police have questioned three suspects about a crime that was committed by a single perpetrator. The first suspect refused to answer any questions and demanded to see a lawyer. The second suspect made the following statement: "I confess. I did it. I committed the crime." The third suspect made the statement: "I didn't do it! One of the other two did it." The suspects' lawyers then showed up and, on the advice of those attorneys, each suspect refused to answer any questions or make any further statements.
The police are sure of only two facts: First, if the suspect who committed the crime made a statement, it was false. Second, at least one of the suspects gave a true statement.
Given the second suspect's confession, the police chief plans to recommend that the district attorney prosecute the second suspect. Are the police and the D.A. about to prosecute an innocent person?
Assuming that the police are right about the two facts, above, should the D.A. go ahead with the prosecution of the second suspect? Would the D.A. be prosecuting the wrong suspect? Can you determine which suspect committed the crime? If you think you can, click on "Solution" below to find out whodunnit.
Solution to the Case of the Two Puzzling Statements: The D.A. would be making a mistake to bring charges against the second suspect. Given the first fact, the second suspect cannot be the one who committed the crime, since the second suspect's statement would then be true. So, the confession is false. However, given the second fact, the third suspect's statement must be true, since the first suspect gave no statement. Thus, one of the first two suspects committed the crime. However, we've already established that the second suspect did not commit the crime. Therefore, the first suspect did it.