Monday, September 26, 2005

Couldn't be simpler

[Cross-posted from my other blog, where the traffic is light and the polysyllabic abstractions roam free. Caveat lector.]

Several months ago, I wrote (regarding the Wikipedia page on 'anomie'):
For what I'd want to know about a concept like that, that page is pretty dreadful. It veers wildly between essentialism (there is a thing called 'anomie' and we know what it is, across time and space) and nominalism (different people have used this combination of letters to mean different things, who knew?). What's not there is any sense of the history of the concept
I was reminded of this argument by Tom's recent comments on the 'penis envy' page ("I know this article on penis envy is bullshit, and it's been on my 'to do' list of things to fix for weeks, and I've got nowhere"). The problem here is that making things more complicated is a lot harder than keeping them simple. What's worse, the kind of people who are critical of other people's simplifications tend also to be critical of their own work, which means that getting the complicated version written and getting it right is a long and painstaking job. Which, in turn, means that in the absence of serious incentives it's quite likely not to get done. Wikipedia's native system of informal incentives breaks down, in other words, where the workload gets too large - and, when it comes to making things more complicated (and getting it right), the workload starts at 'large' and goes up.

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day (hi Chris!) when he came up with a proposal for filling the incentive gap. The idea is to mobilise peer pressure among the population of disgruntled complexifiers. What we want isn't so much an army of subject experts as a group of people who mistrust simple explanations and are good at digging out and writing down the underlying complications, in any of a number of fields. Hacks rather than professors, essentially - but good hacks. A list of apparently oversimplified Wikipedia articles could then be drawn up, and each one could be offered to names picked from the pool. I'll just reiterate that I'm not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds. The Wikipedia articles I've mentioned left me with a stack of unanswered questions, which I'd happily devote a few evenings to answering if I was being paid to do so - or if I had any incentive to do so. A virtual tap on the shoulder from an online group of pedantic curmudgeons might just do the job.

That just leaves the task of assembling the group. Here, Chris made the brilliant suggestion of using PledgeBank. Something like this:
I will take part in a group of volunteers who will improve Wikipedia by correcting and extending inaccurate and simplistic entries on social science concepts, but only if another 99 people do so too.
I think it could work. What do you think?

5 Comments:

Anonymous Charlie Whitaker said...

Sounds like a plan.

26/9/05 23:56  
Blogger Andrew Bartlett said...

I would, but while I might be a social researcher, I am probably a crap one.

This week I will be mostly watching my paper on the alienation of scientific workers in big science organisations getting roundly discredited.

27/9/05 18:48  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I'll do it. Technically I'm not a social scientist, but that's never stopped me before.

28/9/05 01:04  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

99 people may be a few too many, on the pledge, and you may want to have some qualification requirement for the people, I suppose.

28/9/05 09:13  
Blogger Chris Williams said...

For some reason or other, I'd better agree to this one...

As for the numbers, 20 or so would do it - CT would be a good place to flag it up. Qualifications probably aren't an issue: once there's something complicated up there, someone who does know something about it is more likely to choose to edit it piecemeal.

6/10/05 17:13  

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