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How much interest would there be in a fringe theories wiki?

by Matthew Barnett1 min read28th Jun 202119 comments

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I've been exploring a concept for a wiki recently. The idea would be that people contribute fringe theories and present the best evidence for that theory, perhaps by contrasting it with mainstream interpretations of the data. Some examples of pages on the wiki could include,

  • CellBioGuy's theory that the paleocene-eocene thermal maximum was caused by an industrial civilization of birds living in Antarctica.
  • Robin Hanson's theory that a panspermia sibling to Earth hosts an ancient advanced alien civilization, whose world government experienced complex system rot in the process of developing an Earth-monitoring system, resulting in bizarre UFO encounters with them that we sometimes hear about on Earth.
  • The theory from various cryonicists, following Eric Drexler, that future nanotechnology will be sufficient to repair damage from vitrification and subsequent cryopreservation.
  • Robin Gardiner's theory that the ship called "The Titanic" was in fact the ship Olympic, and was purposely sunk as part of an elaborate insurance scam.
  • Scott Alexander's pseudo-religious theory that "There is an all-powerful, all-knowing logically necessary entity spawning all possible worlds and identical to the moral law."

The purpose would not be to make a determination to whether each theory was true or false, but rather just present the evidence.

Naturally, I'm more interested in theories that (1) have some sort of technical argument favoring it (regardless of credibility), (2) aren't merely moral or political theses in disguise, and (3) aren't already covered in sufficient detail in other places (unlike the JFK conspiracy theory). Wikipedia is a terrible place to do this, given their rules disallowing original research. Of course, without such constraints, there is a large risk that a Fringe Theories Wiki would attract bad editors, so some strict editing rules would still probably be required on the site.

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I'd be interested in such a wiki - I assume that there are a number of true beliefs which mainstream thought currently dismisses as false/weird/absurd, and I'd like to have one place where I can go and look for ideas where the mainstream may be wrong. 

That said, jimrandomh is absolutely right that epistemic hygiene is going to be important. Another way to put it: we want stuff like CellBioGuy's theory about the PETM global climate-change being caused by a previous civilisation, which is interesting and not physically impossible (although I'm not convinced by the argument), we don't want physics crackpots telling us about perpetual motion machines. 

Possible solution: link the wiki to LessWrong accounts and require a minimum LessWrong karma score in order to edit. Plus an invite option for people with interesting ideas who don't meet the minimum karma score.

I'd be interested in such a wiki - I assume that there are a number of true beliefs which mainstream thought currently dismisses as false/weird/absurd, and I'd like to have one place where I can go and look for ideas where the mainstream may be wrong. 

Interest in consumption isn't really meaningful interest. The thing that matters is whether people are interested in contributing. 

I would be more interested in people arranging adversarial collaborations on it. A big problem with raw presentations of fringe theories is that then you have to go through all of the arguments in detail. Having people on both sides of the issue who are well-acquainted with the evidence point out the most important core disagreements would be better.

1tailcalled5moAlso, if you (or someone else) arranges some site collecting adversarial collaborations, then please contact me, as there's some topics I can contribute with. Most notably, I've studied transsexuality a lot and am very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of some controversial theories on the topic.

I probably would mostly still use LessWrong for the wiki for my writings.

But as a reader, I would probably read at least the summary of each article, and probably the full text of each potentially actionable-for-me articles.

But I'd say finding the writers is harder than finding the readers

Another idea would be to have a "fringe" tag on LessWrong. But, actually, I think I would choose a more connotationally neutral term, like "speculative". Although, still, that's a changing and subjective category, so not sure I would do that.

Another idea would be to just curate fringe articles (like you've done in the description of this question). Maybe ask a question "What are articles on interesting fringe ideas?" on LessWrong.

You could also have a yearly prize of like 100$ to submit articles on fringe ideas. This might be a more cost-effective way to achieve your goal.

13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:11 AM

If it isn't backed by a surprisingly effective system for filtering out low-quality content, then most of the content on it will be crap, and I expect its main effect will be to hurt the credibility of the few bits of non-crap that get mixed in. I'm already cringing pretty hard at your list of examples; putting "cryonics works" and "there was an industrial civilization of birds in Antarctica" into an epistemic-status category together, comes across as a smear against cryonics, because the epistemic statuses of these two ideas is wildly different.

Yes, the Wikipedia page on cryonics is currently controlled by a small group of editors who are using it to deliberately smear cryonics, in a pretty dishonest way. The answer to that is not to accept the smearers' ontology.

If it isn't backed by a surprisingly effective system for filtering out low-quality content, then most of the content on it will be crap

I feel like it won't be that hard. My current idea is to make editing privileges invite-only.

I'm already cringing pretty hard at your list of examples; putting "cryonics works" and "there was an industrial civilization of birds in Antarctica" into an epistemic-status category together, comes across as a smear against cryonics, because the epistemic statuses of these two ideas is wildly different.

I didn't look into the industrial civilization of birds hypothesis too much, but it seems like a perfectly natural theory that is consistent with how scientists usually think about the world. Obviously, specific geological evidence probably doesn't back the theory up, but I'm not really trying to judge the plausibility of my examples right now. I'm more interested in whether they're the type of things I'd want to read and think about. Judging from the upvotes, it seems like a lot of people enjoyed thinking about CellBioGuy's theory.

I feel like it won't be that hard. My current idea is to make editing privileges invite-only.

Is there any Wiki that's invite-only that works?

Generally, you have to think about incentives. Publishing content on a Wiki generally means getting less personal recognition for having written the content. Publishing things on Wikipedia is useful because while you get little personal recognition you get a lot of reach. 

Maybe you can have something Wiki-like where the person who starts a post owns it and can accept/reject changes. Plausibly ownership of theories can be sold via NFTs. You could build rules around it that are enforced via Kleros. 

There might be incentive structures that are possible with crypto that allow for good sources of information to be created. 

Is there any Wiki that's invite-only that works?

Depends on what you mean by "works" but there's the Timelines wiki and the Cause Prioritization Wiki which says that you must "Contact Issa Rice to obtain an account on the wiki." I'm not aware of other examples (but I'm sure there are at least a few).

Generally, you have to think about incentives. Publishing content on a Wiki generally means getting less personal recognition for having written the content. Publishing things on Wikipedia is useful because while you get little personal recognition you get a lot of reach. 

I think the main reason why people post on wikis is that they find it fun, or satisfying in some way, rather than the reach it gets. It's easier than blogging because you can be satisfied with contributing just one line, rather than requiring a fully written article every time you want to publish something. Also I doubt anyone would want to contribute to this project if it were organized as a set of blogs.

Depends on what you mean by "works" but there's the Timelines wiki and the Cause Prioritization Wiki which says that you must "Contact Issa Rice to obtain an account on the wiki."

Most of the content of those Wiki's exist because someone paid for it. If you want to copy that model, who's going to fund the writing of the content? 

It seems like you’re just asking me the question I asked in this post?

Anyway, in a comment above you said that interest in consumption was not the same as interest in contributions. But typically, interest in consumption represents weak evidence of willingness to pay for a good!

But typically, interest in consumption represents weak evidence of willingness to pay for a good!

That depends on the business model. In the model in which the Wikis you linked to exist, they are not funded primarily because of interest in consumption. They are funded because of the belief that it's a valuable target for EA donations. 

I'm not aware of a Wiki where a majority of the content is paid and that's not funded because of altruistic motives. 

I'm having trouble keeping track of the central objection. First, it was you won't be able to filter out bad content --> I'm not aware of platforms that use invite-only --> I'm not aware of platforms that use invite only AND pay people for non-altruistic content. Anyway, it would be too curt to just say "Have you tried thinking for five minutes first?" so I'll try to explain my perspective. :)

There are vast numbers of websites filled with people writing content about various things. This website is even one of them. If people think this website is an interesting concept, then it would be more productive to search over the space of possible site designs and see if one makes sense. I agree that most immediate solutions that come to mind don't seem viable, but that's typical of new ideas.

Anyway, it would be too curt to just say "Have you tried thinking for five minutes first?" so I'll briefly add one more point.

I think you seriously underrate the amount I spent thinking about how to make Wiki systems work. I have been involved in policy making in multiple Wiki projects.  

I did get an in person explanation from Issa about how their system works a while back in a lot more then 5 minutes. I don't think it's applicable here. 

Yeah, that's reasonable. FWIW I meant "think for five minutes about the specific objection" rather than "think for five minutes about wiki systems."

Wiki is a quite general term. It's both a term about technology and one about a way to interact together. 

You said at the same time "I think the main reason why people post on wikis is that they find it fun, or satisfying in some way, rather than the reach it gets." and spoke about Vipul's Wikis when those simply don't work that way. 

This is the most similar resource I know of: http://www.rexresearch.com/1index.htm Unfortunately, it of course has terrible epistemic hygiene, it would be nice to have a resource like this that presented from somewhere grounded in reality. There are lots of obscure but sound ideas there though.

Wow, that's a lot of ideas. Many are obviously wrong, but there are some interesting ones, like the portable airport.