Request for comment on a novel reference work of understanding

by ender12 min read12th Aug 2021No comments

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Summary of Post / TLDR;

  • Idealogs is a new kind of reference work for explaining complex, controversial topics.
  • The objective of the project is to establish, preserve, and share the sum total of mankind’s understanding.
  • The problems we are focused on:
    • A society oversaturated with information, much of it meaningless
    • A well-founded, but misguided obsession with finding the perfect answer, at the expense of the more productive, meaningful challenge of finding the right question.
    • A media ecosystem that overwhelmingly incentivizes entertainment at the expense of public affairs reporting
  • Our solution:
    • An online collection of crowdsourced, user-edited articles (akin to Wikipedia) which summarize and analyze the major writings, claims, and questions which underlie controversial subjects of interest.
  • Like Wikipedia, this is a noncommercial, nonprofit, user-driven, and user-managed project whose fortunes ride on finding a community of volunteers who believe in and are passionate about the idea. The success of this project hinges on fostering a community similar to that of LessWrong, where contributors are individuals who are interested in the pursuit of understanding itself, and the pursuit of sharing that understanding with others. Consequently, I think this community would uniquely appreciate this project and have interesting things to say about it. The site is accessible at https://www.idealogs.org, and I would love to hear your thoughts, reactions, comments below :)

Introduction

Hi! Over the past four years I have been developing an idea for an online repository of understanding in my free time, gradually transforming the concept from an abstraction to a production-ready website. I am excited to announce that the project has now reached a stage where it is ready for a wider audience, and I am reaching out to the LW community in particular because I believe you are in a unique position to provide feedback and evaluation of the product itself and the philosophical ideas underpinning it. This is not a promotion, but instead:

  • A collection of metaphysical ideas that I have spent a large chunk of my life thinking about and pursuing, which at last have merged into a tangible system with potential to bring real change to the world.
  • A request for genuine feedback on both the finished product and the ideas underpinning it.

Observations

Observation 1: Knowledge vs Understanding

Learning does not make one learned: there are those who have knowledge and those who have understanding. The first requires memory, the second philosophy.

Abbé Faria, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

When reading about a complex topic on Wikipedia, I often gain the most insight from the article’s “Talk page”. I am fascinated by the behind-the-scenes disputes that lead to the final product: a comprehensive, and generally high quality, article. These passionate, sometimes polarized discussions help to illuminate the various factions, precedents, and open questions shaping our current interpretation of the topic. So much so that—for articles on controversial subjects—I frequently find that the article’s Talk page to be just as informative on the subject as the article itself, if not more so.

Based on this observation, I have a theory that if one can acquire the information tucked away in these behind-the-scenes debates, then they will have achieved a higher-level grasp of the subject than by analyzing the conclusions the editors came to in the article itself. That is, I claim that one who has mastered the information in a Wikipedia Article page has obtained knowledge, while one who has mastered the information in a Wikipedia Talk page has obtained understanding. This understanding represents a greater level of cognition and a greater command of a subject than the mere ability to repeat facts. Idealogs is a crowdsourcing website that captures this understanding -- in other words, it is a website that summarizes and analyzes the disputations of Wikipedia Talk pages in a systematic, easy-to-use manner.

Observation 2: Wikipedia has an authoritative voice unmatched anywhere else on the internet

For whatever reason, we trust Wikipedia despite the certifiably insane, highly counterintuitive method in which articles are written. Certainly there is bias in Wikipedia articles, but that does not detract from the incredible degree of accuracy and neutrality that the authors of Wikipedia are able to achieve with their limited toolsets.

One of the fundamental pillars of this project is finding a way to harness this authentic “wiki voice” and apply it to the challenge of breaking down complex and controversial topics. There are a growing number of organizations dedicated to establishing truth and common sense online, but very few if any gain traction on a large scale using this “wiki” route. The challenge is immense, as very few people can speak out their thoughts clearly, concisely, and politely on such subjects in person with acquaintances who disagree with them, let alone elucidate them in writing over the internet with random strangers wherein the status quo is to fight, bicker, provoke one another. Yet, the Wikipedia community is undeniable proof that a group of strangers with a common mission can overcome similar challenges to produce a high quality, trusted repository of information--and one of the most beloved websites in the world. I am convinced that with the right information model, the right community, and a little bit of providence, we can translate and improve upon their success to create a universal, trusted authority on controversial, disputed topics--a feat no other online community has been able to achieve to date.

Observation 3: Wikipedia struggles with controversies

Speaking of improvement: Wikipedia struggles with its treatment of controversial subjects. For proof, peruse the massive Talk page archives for articles on controversial (or seemingly not controversial) subjects, and one will quickly discover how overwhelming and intense the process is of producing quality articles on these subjects.

WIkipedia’s controversy coverage lacks because there is little to no room on the site for ideas that are false or mistaken, yet—as this community is well aware of—a fundamental aspect of the pursuit of truth is the ability to master what is false, lacking, misleading, etc. Another way to express this idea is that we learn from our mistakes, yet Wikipedia by its very nature scrubs out mistakes and frequently only leaves us with a conclusion, while many of the incredible insights that led to that conclusion remain hidden in a labyrinth of Talk page archives that approximately 0% of Wikipedia users see. Further, I believe that Wikipedia editors frequently sanitize articles of thought-provoking, and potentially insensitive yet rational argumentation--argumentation which is critical to understanding the depth of an idea--in order to produce cleaner articles that are easier for people to read and interact with. I do not fault Wikipedia for this, but it is a clear lack for those in the pursuit of understanding. I have always wished there was a place on the web where mistakes and false ideas weren’t scrubbed away, but instead accepted and preserved in their proper, positive context—ie, in a way that we can learn from them.

Observation 4: A place which defines disputes from a neutral point of view

I do not believe there is a place on the internet that successfully defines disputes from a neutral point of view on a large scale. I want to change that. I seek to create a home for trusted articles that lay out questions--along with the relevant claims and primary sources that define them--so that I can make my own conclusions. In other words, I want a website which establishes the question, not the answer. This is a fundamental paradigm shift from the litany of knowledge-based communities (Wikipedia, StackExchange, Quora, Reddit, etc) that exist today. In these places, answers get all the attention. But as every good academic researcher knows, finding the right question is just as important in a new discovery. Moreover, these communities waste innumerable resources either a) chasing bad questions or, worse, b) engaging endlessly in timeless disputes over good questions, repeating the same tired arguments over and over again instead of moving the conversation forward.

Observation 5: Incentives for writing on the web

The current funding model for journalism is incredibly broken*. There is much that has already been said on the subject, but I want to emphasize a specific point in regards to online news. It seems to me that one of the fundamental problems in the online news marketplace is that entertainment is incentivized over public discourse in all facets. For organizations who are funded primarily by advertisements, the incentive is to create a headline that is “juicy” enough to get you to click, and for organizations that are funded by subscription, the incentive is to create as much entertaining material as possible to get you to not cancel your subscription. Organizations are openly incentivized to produce “content” that triggers emotional responses over the dry, intellectual, public affairs reporting that is critical for the continued survival of democratic nations around the world. Consequently, I have always wished for a place on the web which provides a marketplace for strong, creative writing where authors are rewarded based on the quality and creativity of their words, and not on how effective they are at exploiting the emotions of their readers.

*There are many people who speak about this; I recommend checking out the work of Professor Pablo J. Boczkowski out of Northwestern University who has written extensively about the divergent online news preferences of journalists and consumers, or what he calls “the News Gap”. See here for a great lecture he once gave on the subject, and here for the plethora of books he has written on the subject.

Observation 6: A curious cycle involving writings, statements, questions

During this search for a new model of understanding, I stumbled upon the following idea which might explain what understanding is, and provide a roadmap for how to collect it so that it can be shared with others. It is the fundamental principle underpinning the website.

The basic idea is that understanding is the mastery of a subject’s context, and a subject has three types of context—writings, statements, and questions—which together form a cycle. A person understands a subject when they have mastered the subject’s cycle.

Step 1 in the cycle: A person writes something

Writing converts abstract thought into a physical creation that others can interact with, so long as the container (e.g. paper, or perhaps a computer server) persists. A piece of writing is both finite and infinite in nature: infinite in that it represents a deeper, infinite truth that the author is trying to express, and finite in that it has a physical, finite form which enables that truth to be shared with others. I call this in-between stage “Transfinite”, which comes from the concept of the transfinite numbers, a set which contains properties of both the infinite and the finite.

Step 2: A statement is derived from the writing

Loosely, writings make statements about the world. Usually there are one or more proofs associated with each statement. A statement is “infinite” in that it establishes some deeper truth about the world which exists outside of man.

Step 3: A question arises

When two or more of those statements contradict, a question arises. Either the question can be resolved by clarifying one or both of the statements, or more likely further writing is required in order to unravel the contradiction.

Step 4: Repeat!

A beautiful cycle emerges: writings lead to statements, contradicting statements lead to questions, and questions lead to new writings. I call this the synesis* cycle. My theory is that it is the underlying process by which understanding of subjects is accumulated by man, and I claim that one understands a subject if and only if they have mastered its synesis cycle. I have spent the better part of the last four years trying to build a website that captures synesis, ultimately allowing a community of contributors to summarize and analyze the most important writings, statements, and questions that define subjects that people are interested in.

*latin for understanding

Idealogs

Idealogs is that website. It is currently live, and can be accessed here. The site is optimized for use in Chromium-based browsers (Chrome, Edge, etc), and there is a functional, but feature-limited mobile version as well.

What is Idealogs?

Idealogs is a crowdsourced reference work for defining controversial topics by means of summarizing the major writings, claims, and questions that constitute the underlying dispute. In other words, Idealogs is a new kind of wiki for collaboratively writing literature reviews of complex topics.

Basics

Idealogs is a wiki. It is a collection of articles that anyone in the world can edit. The content of these articles are available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. You can create an account to edit articles, but doing so is not necessary. The success of this project is dependent on a community of dedicated volunteers who believe in our mission.

Specifics

There are four types of articles in in this wiki, each representing a different component of a disputed topic:

  • Writings: these are the primary sources that people publish on the topic in all different types of settings, e.g. academic journals, newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc...if it's the written word and contains something worth reading, then we catalog it on this site in a wiki article that analyzes what it says.
  • Statements: these are the claims that derive from the writings that are already cataloged on the site. We catalog each individual claim in a wiki article which summarizes the best proofs from our primary sources.
  • Questions: these are the questions that derive from two or more statements that contradict in some way. We catalog each question in a wiki article which analyzes the claims that constitute the question, and establishes (to the best of our abilities) all the relevant facts that make it such a good question.
  • Subjects: last but not least, when a collection of writings, statements, and questions (WSQs) begin to coalesce around a single subject, then we create a wiki article which is a literature review of the most important WSQs that one needs to study to understand the subject.

Note on Observation 5

The attentive reader will notice that I have not addressed in this post how this project attempts to solve for the issue raised in Observation 5, the overemphasis of entertainment at the expense of rational public discourse in modern journalism. That is for Phase 2 of this project, but if you are interested to learn more I would be happy to explain more either in the comments below or elsewhere.

Conclusion

The problem we are trying to solve is an overloaded information culture that is a) devoid of meaning, b) focused on counterproductive pursuits, and c) used to trigger emotional reactions out of people at the expense of educating them. Our solution is a crowdsourced reference work for writing literature reviews on complex subjects.

Some directed questions I am looking for feedback on:

  • Are you interested in the idea?
  • Do you see connections between the observations above and what I have built?
  • Is the website intuitive? Enjoyable to use?
  • Were you able to navigate the various pages which document how the site works?
  • Are you interested in contributing now, or in the future? If so, please check out the FAQ and/or get in touch.

Thank you for reading. Any feedback, thoughts, ideas, etc. are greatly appreciated.

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