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Trustworthy Knowledge September 14, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in Epistemology.
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wikipediaA few months ago the irish sociology student Shane Fitzgerald perpetrated a Wikipedia hoax that led to a mis-attributed quote by the composer Maurice Jarre in the Guardian’s obiturary‘ about him.  This led pundits to reflect on what counts as an authoritative trustworthy sources of knowledge.  They concluded that

  • Wikipedia isn’t authoritative;
  • journalists are lazy and don’t check their facts and
  • If such simple mis-attributions can be printed in a Guardian obituary, what information sources can we trust?

These observations, however true they may be,  miss an important point – the need for authoritative sources depends how likely or unlikely any bit of information is a priori. If I told you that Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to support the Burmese Military Junta, you would have every right to consider me a crackpot and demand that I document my claim, given what we know about her political history. That Maurice Jarre might have said (as was asserted in the Wikipedia hoax)

“My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life.”

is not entirely unbelievable (unless, perhaps, you knew Jarre personally and were quite sure it wasn’t in his character to say such a thing.)  How important should it have been for the journalist to substantiate the attribution of this quote? Not as important, I submit, as if the journalist had reported that Jarre had spent the first 5 years of his infancy being raised by wolves in Siberia – well, perhaps it would have been important to get that right, given the low probability that this is true.

In practice, academic peer-reviewing also depends on the a priori probability of a paper’s claim. Despite the methdologically sound call for repeatable experiments, documented procedures, public dataset etc.  there just aren’t enough hours in the day to comb through a paper’s claim in detail.  Unless the claim is unlikely to be true, given what we already know.

The now 20 year old Cold Fusion debacle is a good example of that.  Given the extraordinary claim that nuclear fusion can happen at room temperatures, it’s obviously critical that the experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon be both repeatable and repeated.  But I think it’s unreasonable to expect the same level of scrutiny to hold for what Thomas Kuhn called “Normal Science”.

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