Sunday, 7 September 2014

the democratization of knowledge

If you want to find out about something, the internet is a good place to start. And if you are a regular user of search engines, you will probably have noticed that any relevant Wikipedia articles will appear at or near the top of your search results. This observation automatically leads me to question the accuracy of this ubiquitous online encyclopaedia, because I’m not convinced that its operating principles are sound.

A few days ago, Paula and I were walking across fields on the outskirts of town when we saw a massive halo around the sun. I’ve always known this relatively rare atmospheric phenomenon as a ‘sunbow’, but because I thought I might want to post photos, I decided to verify that this was the correct terminology to use. The Wikipedia article was highly dubious on the subject:

It forms no more than one-quarter of a circle….

Wikipedia, 28th August 2014.
The following photo, taken by Paula, shows an almost complete circle (the contrast has been boosted to highlight the halo), while on the next photo I used the chimneys of the house opposite ours to block out the sun. Part of the sunbow is thus obscured, but the photo nevertheless shows more than a quarter of a circle.

In addition to this demonstrably false assertion, the article also contains this statement:
…it arises from refraction of sunlight through horizontally-oriented ice crystals….
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
Other online dictionaries also refer to ‘refraction’, but I’ve always understood this phenomenon to be the result of diffraction, or scattering of light by ice crystals, rather than the bending that results when light passes from one medium into another (from air to a raindrop in the case of a rainbow). I could be wrong, of course, but here are three other examples of what I believe are false statements in Wikipedia articles.

When I wrote A Wet Day in Buttermere three years ago, I looked at the Wikipedia entry on the subject, which stated that the name ‘Buttermere’ derives from the Old English for ‘lake by a dairy pasture’. Now, however, two origins of the name are given. The second of these explanations is that the lake (and adjoining village) is named after Jarl Boethar, a quasi-mythical Norse chieftain whose chief claim to fame is that he engineered the most comprehensive military defeat suffered by the Normans on English soil.

However, Wikipedia cites an ‘expert on the subject, who ‘suggests that the personal name interpretation is incorrect’ without explaining why. On the other hand, there are many other sources that support this second interpretation, so I consider the Wikipedia article to be subjective, which is not what one wants to read in an encyclopaedia.

Dr Crippen
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife; his name was a byword for horror when I was growing up in the 1950s, when his wax effigy was one of the main attractions in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. Most of the Wikipedia article seems to me to be authentic, but the following paragraph is not:
A theory which was first propounded by Edward Marshall Hall was that Crippen was using hyoscine on his wife as a depressant or anaphrodisiac, but accidentally gave her an overdose and then panicked when she died. It is said that Hall declined to lead Crippen's defence because another theory was to be propounded.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
According to Marshall Hall, a biography by Nina Warner Hooke and Gil Thomas and published by Arthur Barker Ltd in 1966, the theory suggested by Wikipedia was indeed first propounded by Sir Edward Marshall Hall, coming originally from the biography of Hall written by Edward Majoribanks, a barrister friend, shortly after Hall’s death in 1927.

However, the Hooke/Thomas biography cites the testimony of Edgar Bowker, who was Hall’s senior clerk at the time of the Crippen case. What happened was this: Arthur Newton, Crippen’s solicitor, brought the brief to Hall’s chambers while Hall was on vacation; Bowker’s first duty was to discuss the fee; Newton was engaged in negotiations with a national newspaper, which would provide the money needed for Crippen’s defence, but that money was not yet available; Bowker refused the brief on behalf of his employer because taking on such a high-profile case without the certainty of payment would not have been of benefit to a barrister who was already at the peak of his profession (see Murder Most Foul).

I first read about the archaeological site at Glozel, near Vichy in central France, soon after ceramic artefacts from the site had been subjected to testing by a newly invented method for dating ancient pottery—thermoluminescence (TL)—in the mid-1970s. The site had been discovered in the 1920s, but half a century later it is widely regarded by archaeologists as fraudulent, like Piltdown Man. Wikipedia’s introduction to the subject includes the following sentence:
Initially, many experts argued in favor of a hoax, but advanced testing from later decades confirmed that many of the Glozel artifacts were most likely of genuine antiquity.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
Note the use of the word ‘confirmed’, which implies certainty, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a reputable archaeologist who thought that the Glozel artefacts were genuine. So what is happening here?

This site, with its huge quantities of pots, inscribed clay tablets and bone carvings, was discovered by an uneducated farming family on whose land it was located. However, it soon came to the attention of a local doctor and amateur archaeologist, Antonin Morlet, who told the family that they stood to make a lot of money. Morlet confidently identified many of the artefacts as palaeolithic or neolithic, but if this interpretation is correct, then the ‘writing’ on the clay tablets, which remains undeciphered to this day, would be the oldest writing in the world. This, of course, chimes perfectly with notions of French nationalism.

After several years of controversy and legal wrangling, the saga disappeared below the horizon until 1974, when a group of Danish physicists decided to use a newly invented technique to date some of the pots from Glozel. The clay minerals (kaolinite, gibbsite, etc.) used to make pottery contain minute quantities of uranium, which emits beta particles (electrons) as it decays. These electrons become trapped in the crystal lattice, but when a pot is fired, the extreme heat drives off these electrons, thus resetting the pot’s internal clock to zero. However, the radioactive decay continues, and TL works by counting the number of electrons in a pottery sample, which is in effect a proxy for the amount of time that has elapsed since the pot was fired.

Wikipedia clearly has no doubts about the efficacy of the technique:
Thermoluminescence dating of Glozel pottery in 1974 confirmed that the pottery was not produced recently.
ibidem, 28th August 2014.
I would be the first to state that archaeology is not a science, but it is not crackpottery. It is a rigorous academic discipline, and the consensus among its practitioners is that the Glozel site is not merely implausible; it is impossible. The soil at the site is thin, and it is on quite a steep slope, so there would have been a considerable throughflow of water during the centuries when the artefacts were alleged to have lain undiscovered in that soil, which militates against the surprising fact that most of the many pots found on the site were intact.

It is evident that Wikipedia’s editors have shown blind faith in science, but if the TL dates (600 BC to AD 100) are accurate, whole areas of theoretical archaeology would need to be thrown out. Yet none of the pottery matches anything from the Celtic and Gallo-Roman periods in France found at other sites (these are the periods covered by the TL dates). However, the following comment from the inventor of TL, written in 1975, is relevant here:
The Glozel tablets must have a message either for the archaeologists or for the TL-dating specialists, and, having been in business for only seven years, it behoves the latter to peer anxiously, in case the message is for them.
*  *  *
I believe that the fundamental concept behind Wikipedia is flawed. Allowing anyone to edit an article on the site might seem democratic, and there are ‘editors’ who check all changes, but the problem is that just because 99 percent of people believe something to be true doesn’t make it so. After all, large numbers of people believe that the Japanese have a form of ritual suicide that they call hari kari. They don’t.


  1. Wikipedia doesn't allow anyone to alter their stuffs. If you do any change the "aeries" will delete it.
    Go to the "Talk" page and you'll have people correcting the flaws but the editors treat anybody who has a different in the most uneducated way.
    There are some good contributions on the talk page and we can have more accurate info from those who are treated like shit by Wikipedia hood-loons.
    Wikipedia is another tool to promote the official version of everything.
    It is really said that they are the first choice because some people don't like to research.

    1. I’ve heard that some of Wikipedia’s editors automatically reject any changes made by casual visitors to the site, which is an obvious flaw in the system. And I agree that points raised in the talk pages rarely find their way into the main articles.

      However, I do think that the main reason Wikipedia is consulted so frequently is that it’s always at the top of search results (and many people look no further).

  2. Hi Denis,
    Whie reading the part about Paula and yourself looking at the halo. I was transported back twenty odd years I guess when I was walking down the hill from your flat to the coast road to catch a bus into Sai Kung. You were walking behind with Paula and said 'Hey Keith, what colour is that star?'
    'Red' I replied -which was very obvious to me and obviously to you, yet Paula could not see it.
    Funny how odd remnants of the past pop up from so long ago. It makes one wonder how much dormant useless information I store. in my head while forgetting important stuff. lol

    1. The star would probably have been Betelgeuse in Orion. It's the kind of thing I like to ask, but I have no recollection of the actual incident you describe. Mind you, my head is probably stuffed with useless information too.

  3. I totally agree about Wiki, however I reckon Yahoo Answers has an accuracy rate of around ten percent - with answers coming from members of the general public who are totally convinced of their veracity

    1. Keith, you’ve just reminded me not to consult Yahoo Answers, which sounds to me more like anarchy than democracy.


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