Sunday, October 31, 2010

Knowledge is not a Democratic Principle

I wanted to write a post about something scary for Hallowe'en, and I think I just found it. I came across this question and answer. The asker wants to know if he can use the Archimedes principle to weigh an airplane without a scale. And he knows that Archimedes developed this principle to determine whether a crown purported to be solid gold was indeed solid gold.

Several people tried to answer this question. Two suggested that the way to do this would be to completely submerge the airplane, evacuating all air. One concluded that this would work, assuming one knew the density and composition of the materials from which the airplane was made ("measure the volume of water displaced and multiply it by the mean average density of the plane to get the weight") and the other, citing "I'm a vampire blur" as sources concluded that such calculations were not possible, "so neh." Three suggested floating the aircraft and one didn't read the question properly, so suggested weighing the airplane on scales, using more or less the methodology cited by the asker in the original question.

The Archimedes principle is this:

"When a body is wholly or partially immersed in water, the upthrust, or loss of weight is equal to the weight of the water displaced."

One of the people who gave me my start in science and mathematics had come from an educational tradition where students learned things by rote memorization and demonstrated their knowledge by standing next to their desks and reciting them. A generation or so earlier they probably had to say it in the original Greek. That was never demanded of me, in any language, but when learned snippets of natural philosophy are recited by someone you respect, they stick anyway. I never have to look that up. Rote memorization is obviously not sufficient for understanding and application, but it's an anchor for the knowledge.

An airplane could be weighed by the water displacement method if you put it on a floating platform in a tank of water, and noted the water level in the tank. Then you hoist the airplane off the platform and measure how much water you must pump in to fill the tank back to the identical water level. That is the amount of water the weight of the airplane displaced, and by multiplying its volume (which you measured while pumping) by its density at that temperature, you have the weight of the airplane. That's easier than filling the tank to the brim without the airplane then collecting and weighing the water that spills over the top when you add the airplane, but it's functionally identical.

But because this is the way the world works now, on people voted on which was the correct answer. The vampire blur who wanted to sink the airplane "won." I know this is by no means the nadir of stupidity in online question and answer polls. You might tell me not to get too upset about this because he only received two votes and one of the floaters received one, but it's a second risk of the democratization of knowledge: not only has popularity become the definition of truth, but low voter turnout makes it easy to influence "truth."

Once upon a time in some parts of human history, when people didn't know things and they couldn't easily test them for themselves, they went to people who were wise, or powerful or lucky and asked them for the truth. What they said was accepted as the truth, even in the face of meticulous contradictory observations. Then came the scientific revolution. It wasn't about new knowledge. It was about how we know knowledge. We test it in a way that anyone can reproduce, and experience as truth instead of being told. That's the purpose of laboratory science training in schools, to show students that what they are learning is real and discoverable, not rote and on faith. Scientists worked in Latin and Greek not to be obscure and elitist, but to communicate. The Greeks and the Romans had the first literate engineers in the western world, and theirs became the tradition for communication. Newton reported on some of his discoveries in English, and despite a few centuries of language change, it's some of the most clear readable reporting of primary scientific results you'll ever read. It's not laden with jargon, just uses and defines existing terminology for the phenomena.

Since then knowledge has become more esoteric, experiments more expensive, scientific language more obscure, and people have to rely not only on others to do their experiments for them, but on others to read the results and filter them. We've gone back to individuals choosing which wise man they will turn to, and we've lost the distinction between philosophy and experimental knowledge. There's nothing wrong with turning to someone whose experience, subject knowledge and capacity for thought is greater than yours and asking for help understanding the world. There's nothing wrong with taking ones own knowledge of the world and trying to share it with others (at least there had better not be, because I do it all the time). But it results in a breakdown in the distinction between what is empirical fact and what is opinion. There is very little real historical fact. Some bones, some photographs, some rusted swords, are all. We assume that when numerous sources close in time and space to the occurrence agree with each other and with the physical evidence that we have historical fact, but we have to be open to the possibility of collusion by the only people who knew the truth. Wikipedia has rapidly become a major source of information for individuals and for the media we depend on to give us a broader view. Wikipedia is kind of a shoutocracy. When the only version of events that anyone looks at is the one laid down by he who shouts loudest, then did anything else really happen. Ethics have no empirical truth, and all we can do to determine which are right is to consult our wise people, our consciences, and the norms of our society. But some things are either real or not, and when there is a conflict among voices on determinable facts, but the "winner" is determined by volume1, popularity, tenacity, intimidation, tradition or apathy, that is very scary. Happy Hallowe'en.

1. Not by immersion in water, but that might be nice, in certain cases, incidentally settling the matter of who is a witch, just in time for Hallowe'en.


Matthew Flaschen said...

I agree with your overall conclusion, that knowledge is on its soundest footing when people can reproduce it.

But I'm confused about why you're using an example of the worst of Yahoo Answers ( is also an unrelated site) as a basis for labeling Wikipedia a "shoutocracy." The sites are vastly different. Wikipedia actually has sound policies emphasizing verifiability and a neutral point of view . Are those policies enforced perfectly? No, of course not, and it needs to keep improving. However, people insert biased and inaccurate information into all media, including traditional "reliable sources". Part of what makes Wikipedia unique is the way its revision history allows you to see who is perpetuating inaccuracy. The site is also increasingly emphasizing the importance of citing sources, and unfounded arguments ("shouting") count for less every day.

dpierce said...

Wikipedia is kind of a shoutocracy ...

That depends on which little community within Wikipedia you're dealing with. I've seen some shoutocracy there, but it's the minority of content I go for. Wikipedia works best when you get involved in the content you disagree with.

Regarding answer sites, yes, they're essentially useless except for getting answers to things you can test right away, like DVR settings.

zb said...

Nothing is perfect, but compared to other corners of the internet, I think wikipedia works quite well.

It's not like school books are never biased. What bothers me more is the usage, which is worst when you combine wikipedia with mobile internet. When you sit together with some folks at a party or in a restaurant, and the discussion goes toward a certain who-did-what- or how-stuff-works-topic, people tend to stop finding the answer in a discussion and more and more just pull out a smartphone to check what wikipedia says. That's very sad, sometimes.

It's very important to have some mentors and peers who you trust and who enjoy discussing things with you instead of telling you to look stuff up online or rtfm.

Marty said...

Hello Aviatrix,

While some areas of science are indeed getting more expensive, the economies of scale and freedom of information in other areas are making previously expensive science experiments within the reach of the average person.

Make has a science section that is currently looking at home brew space 'exploration'. Sending a camera up to 100,000 ft is possible, and not exceptionally difficult or expensive (for what you get!)

I guess there is a lot of inaccuracy out there. But there really always has been. It's still up to the individual to call BS or not, to try it out for themselves or not.

Then again, I grew up without the internet, with parents who let us try things for ourselves. I have proven to myself many times over that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

townmouse said...

Actually, it's even scarier than your conclusion. It's not just shouty people on the internet; in some academic quarters (critical theory, for example), there is appears to be an active rejection of empirical facts and logic. I was once criticised for my 'outmoded empirical thinking' and, when I pointed out that an argument was circular and therefore not very useful, was asked by whose rules a circular argument was logically incorrect. I wish I was making these examples up and that this wasn't a discussion with a tutor at a respected British University. I retired from the conversation, unable to see how it might be possible to engage with anyone who regards logic as the tool of the patriarchy and the whole of the Enlightenment as a deeply misguided period of history. Fortunately 'theory' hasn't got its claws into science and engineering yet, probably because physics has a way of asserting its reality very forcefully if you try and ignore its laws because you don't like the sound of them.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

I believe it was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan who observed that "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."



Aviatrix said...

Thank you everyone for the comments on this one. I'm glad you understood it in the way I intended. I acknowledge the poor example; it was just what got me started.

I grant to the Wikipedia people that the information on the site is good and useful, and probably does settle out on being mostly citeable facts. I think the shoutocracy aspect comes in with regards to what is insufficiently notable or otherwise included or excluded. Not that that doesn't happen through any editorship anywhere.

dpierce said...

My above response was written while I was rushing to get to a flight (the kind where you sit in back), and it gave me plenty of time to reflect on your topic.

It occurred to me that a lot of business projects (such as the one I was just leaving) also suffer from a kind of democratization of knowledge. Instead of bringing in something akin to an "expert" (a consultant, an academic, a professional, or simply someone who's done the said thing all their life), project teams often merely assemble a mostly unqualified set of "stakeholders" and "project champions" who vote on what the best course of action is, and steer the project. Everyone's actions and comments are duly noted, silly decisions are made, disaster happens, and then there's a "lessons learned" review, and the whole cycle repeats.

Now, there is something scientifically valuable in making a mistake, learning from it, and moving forward, but the group's initial decision was based on the assent of people whose only collective qualification was that they could be coaxed to agree on a next step. ... in the way that a bunch of small children can coax each other to taunt a bulldog.

Sue said...

I generally trust information I find on the Wikipedia site (some topics have more reliable information than others, I'm sure). I find very problematic. Just as an example, I found this question: "What is the Latin prefix meaning one thousand?" The Answer was "Kilo eg. 20 kilometers" which is simply wrong (Kilo is from the Greek, not Latin).

Traveller said...

My wife once had a math problem graded as wrong (in middle or junior high school, IIRC) because she was the only one that got the answer she did. She didn't see her error, so she brought it to her father, a university Mathematics professor. Turns out she was the only one that got it right. The teacher finally allowed a 1/2 score on that problem. Grading on consensus shouldn't be applied to math.

Regarding Wikipedia, I agree with the shoutacracy with regard to determining notability. I spent a good while reviewing and improving a biographical piece only to have it removed because the person was "sufficiently notable" in the mind of the editor deleting the article. This has also applied to article on groups I've supported. It gets worse when there are national interests involved. Turkey and the Armenians make a good example of this.