Wiki: Standard Reference or Original Research?

by wedrifid3 min read25th May 201119 comments

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My understanding of the purpose of the lesswrong wiki has been that it is a collection of well established concepts and local jargon that we can use as a reference and an easy way to communicate across inferential distance. The material on the wiki (I assumed) was to be summarised from prominent and uncontroversial blog posts that are already referenced to from time to time. Yet on several occasions I have seen pages edited with new content straight from the author's creativity.

A stark example was brought to my attention recently by User: bogus.

Please read the Less Wrong wiki page on Mind-killer, which summarizes the arguments for not doing politics at LessWrong better than any 'sequence' or blog post could.

What? I certainly hope not. If it the content isn't straight from a post then get it off the wiki and make it a post! And if the meaning of a concept differs in emphasis from that used in a sequence then so much the worse for your wiki comment.

Looking at the aforementioned mind-killer page the kind of thing I do not expect to see on the wiki is this:

many of these political virtues were identified by Bernard Crick in his work In Defense of Politics.

Huh? Bernard Crick? Since when was Bernard Crick part of an uncontroversial well established concept of 'mind killing' on lesswrong? The only reference to that author is in one comment by bogus in a post that is itself obscure. I've got nothing against Bernard Crick but I think the way to go about sharing the good news about his work is by making a post on him not injecting references into the wiki. Because then the new content has a chance to be vetted, commented on and voted on by the users.

Less obvious but to my mind more important is the distorted emphasis the article places on the subject, such as in the opening "politics is a mind killer" paragraph:

Political disputes are not limited to standard disagreements about factual matters, nor to disputes of personality or perspective or even faction: they involve matters that people physically fight over in the real world—or at least, matters that are to be enforced by the government's monopoly of violence.

That is kind of true. At least it isn't quite misleading enough that I would outright downvote it if it were a comment in a thread. But it certainly distracts from the core of the issue. On the other hand the related Politics is the Mind-Killer page nails it with a paragraph from an actual blog post:

People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation... When, today, you get into an argument about whether "we" ought to raise the minimum wage, you're executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed... Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back - providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

 

 

What the mind killer page does have in its favour is links. Apart from links to the PITMK posts and the color politics page it links to the related Paul Graham post which is also commonly referred to here. So basically if I was a wiki editor I would probably just nuke the content and leave the links and do the same thing whenever I found wiki pages that are original content. This is perhaps one good reason why I don't spend my time editing the wiki. ;)

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I think it's better to disallow original research (specifically, original-to-LW research), or summaries of external content which is not LW-canon, without clearing it by the community by posting first. After that, if the post gets an OK reception, a moderately detailed summary referring to the same sources as the blog post can be made on the wiki.

Richard Kennaway made a good summary:

the workflow should [be], independently of each other, both "idea for posting --> write post" and "notice something generally accepted on LW without a wiki page --> write wiki page".

This is also not a new idea. From LW wiki user guide:

Since the Less Wrong Wiki is intended to summarize concepts and link to longer discussions, please think carefully before making the summaries longer - this may just cause users to get lost. Ask whether your further details, extra clauses, or added links, are of equal quality, relevance, and importance with the existing material

After that, if the post gets an OK reception, a moderately detailed summary referring to the same sources as the blog post can be made on the wiki.

And as an added bonus we actually get to read it without relying on chance.

Note: The question of whether the wiki is a place for original research matters not just for the purpose of determining what wiki content is appropriate. It determines the role that wiki references serve. If the wiki is a reference for standard lesswrong concepts and material then I can link to it comfortably as a way to tie in to cached thoughts without wasting time. On the other hand if I anticipate it to be a bunch of original work by unknown author that hasn't been subject to review then I must treat it as about as reliable as an external blog post by whatever kind of person happens to have edited the wiki.

Right now if anyone referred mind-killer as a way to explain what the politics-is-the-mind-killer phrase means on lesswrong I would have to downvote the comment. Because it isn't the same concept. It is bogus's essay on politics. It may be an adequate essay for its own purpose but saying it is a description of politics-is-the-mind-killer is just wrong.

Personally I prefer referring to the work of a relevant expert to an evolutionary psychology based "just so" explanation, even if that explanation is advanced by Eliezer himself.

When trying to explain to someone the LessWrongian conception of "Politics is the Mind-Killer"?

I agree that in general, references to external experts are desirable. But in the case of the wiki I don't think the point is to create facts, it's to explain concepts from the sequences. And experts in evolutionary psychology are not experts in Less Wrong vocab.

The wiki is content-poor enough that we ought to remove all trivial inconveniences in the way of producing content for it. Having to first write content as a post, wait for discussion to resolve, then transfer it to the wiki is a fairly major inconvenience if improving the wiki was the original goal, so we should not require people to do that.

On the other hand, it might nice to have software for transferring content in the other direction: an easy way to convert wiki-diffs into discussion posts.

I agree with wedrifid in saying:

The material on the wiki (I assumed) was to be summarised from prominent and uncontroversial blog posts that are already referenced to from time to time.

That is, the workflow should not be "idea for wiki page --> write post --> discussion --> write wiki page", but, independently of each other, both "idea for posting --> write post" and "notice something generally accepted on LW without a wiki page --> write wiki page".

Having to first write content as a post, wait for discussion to resolve, then transfer it to the wiki is a fairly major inconvenience if improving the wiki was the original goal, so we should not require people to do that.

This depends on what "improving the wiki" means. If the wiki is treated as a summary of the blog content and community canon (as it was intended, and as it is actually currently shaped), then adding content that is not on the blog doesn't serve this purpose, and doesn't constitute an improvement. Also, any good content should be posted to LW anyway.

The wiki is content-poor enough that we ought to remove all trivial inconveniences in the way of producing content for it.

Since the reason Eliezer imposed or proposed the inconvenience is to improve article quality, do you maintain that the wiki is content-poor enough that we ought to not worry about the quality of contributions to the wiki?

I'd say yes, to some degree. Good content is more likely to come from someone editing poor content than be created from scratch.

Wiki and blog/dscussion software are very different media, with different strengths and weaknesses: this has been understood since Ward Cunningham's WikiWiki, with its differing workflows for "document mode" and "discussion mode". IMHO, having software replicate all wikidiffs here as "discussion posts" would be unhelpful and confusing.

It is more useful to keep the option of "starting a discussion about a wiki edit" as a means of escalating a content dispute, as wedrifid has implicitly done here.

As for wedrifid's objections, I view them as superficially understandable, but ultimately unwarranted. Bernard Crick's work is standard in political science and is used by many introductory courses in the field. Referencing him on politics poses no more risk to epistemic hygiene than referencing Kahneman and Twersky on behavioral economics or Edwin Jaynes on Bayesian probability.

As it turns out, Crick's central reflections in IDOP, warning against any sort of "ideology" or "absolute-sounding ethic", directly address one-sided policy decisions, black-and-white thinking and ingroup/outgroup bias as leading sources of epistemic bias in politics. (From this POV his work closely parallels Michael Oakeshott's cautionary essays on "Rationalism in Politics", albeit from a rather different perspective.)

Somehow, wedrifid also objects to the "distorted" emphasis in the opening paragraph: Apparently, we don't fight over politics any more, but we used to fight over it in the ancestral environment, so our instincts are misled. But this is putting the cart before the horse: Fundamentally, politics is a means of (hopefully non-violent) conflict resolution and de-escalation, achieved through increasingly complicated strategies and institutions. When we are unable to solve a political conflict through non-violent means, we can and do fight over it, as the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have been discovering recently. Wedrifid seems to hold to the Maoist/Machiavellian view of politics as something that "flows out of the barrel of a gun": might makes right, ethics and rights be damned. This view works correctly until it doesn't, and when it fails the costs can be severe.

As it turns out, Crick's central reflections in IDOP, warning against any sort of "ideology" or "absolute-sounding ethic", directly address one-sided policy decisions, black-and-white thinking and ingroup/outgroup bias as leading sources of epistemic bias in politics. (From this POV his work closely parallels Michael Oakeshott's cautionary essays on "Rationalism in Politics", albeit from a rather different perspective.)

Please consider writing a post about what you have learned from Crick. Please do not inject him into a wiki page that is already a loosely related reserved concept in the lesswrong namespace.

Please consider writing a post about what you have learned from Crick. Please do not inject him into a wiki page that is already a loosely related reserved concept in the lesswrong namespace.

Thanks for your suggestion. At this point, I'm willing to leave this as an exercise to the interested reader, since politics-in-the-abstract is not actually a very significant topic here, at least at present.

It would be rather more useful to discuss Crick's and others' views in the context of designing actual tools to support rationality in deliberation, negotiation, bargaining and other features of policy decision making. This is very much an open problem, one which--if solved--would seem to have remarkable potential in raising the sanity waterline.

Yes, much of politics is not about policy, but instead is driven by hidden motives such as signaling, negotiating status among groups and so on: improving policy deliberation won't make political behavior fully optimal. Nonetheless, such motives also apply to academic research and scholarship, charity, business and other enterprises which yield useful products and can make good use of deliberation tools for their private and internal decision making.

Robin Hanson has taken a first stab at this problem with his futarchy and decision market, but--needless to say--his solution is rather extreme and not very close to the actual Western ideal of political deliberation. The inferential distance here may simply be too large for comfort.

I'd also be interested in reading a post on Crick, and also think that the wiki is not the best place to introduce such ideas to the community. I think quite a few regular members rarely look at the wiki unless they're explicitely pointed towards it or are looking for something specific, and don't expect that to change much.

It would be rather more useful to discuss Crick's and others' views in the context of designing actual tools to support rationality in deliberation, negotiation, bargaining and other features of policy decision making.

I'd be interested in seeing more about that, though there's already been some discussion of those.

Somehow, wedfrid also objects to the "distorted" emphasis in the opening paragraph: Apparently, we don't fight over politics any more, but we used to fight over it in the ancestral environment, so our instincts are misled. But this is putting the cart before the horse: Fundamentally, politics is a means of (hopefully non-violent) conflict resolution and de-escalation, achieved through increasingly complicated strategies and institutions. When we are unable to solve a political conflict through non-violent means, we can and do fight over it, as the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have been discovering recently. Wedfrid seems to hold to the Maoist/Machiavellian view of politics as something that "flows out of the barrel of a gun": might makes right, ethics and rights be damned. This view works correctly until it doesn't, and when it fails the costs can be severe.

I consider this to be a straw man. I did not say those things. I don't believe those things. Your claims about what I believe are not a tenable interpretation of my words.

I downvoted due to the strawman attack on wedrifid's views of politics. Bernard Crick's work sounds interesting but if it hasn't been discussed on LW it belongs on the wiki not our wiki.

With regards to your last paragraph, I would refrain from ascribing any "fundamental purpose" to politics. Things that are optimized (for example, by being designed) have purposes but politics does not seem like an obviously optimized phenomena, so saying 'fundamentally politics is X' is likely to be a mistake.

My judgement is that original research is fine. While maybe not ideal, I'd rather have more content than less. Nuking original research and leaving only links defeats the purpose of the wiki as an alternative to link explosions. I'm essentially agreeing with jimrandomh here. If someone posts content straight to the wiki rather than in discussion, that's fine as long as they are satisfied being subjected to group editing. If you thought Bernard Crick wasn't relevant to Mind-Killers, take it out. Bogus could post it to discussion if he still stood behind it.

tl;dr Edit, but don't nuke, original research.

If someone posts content straight to the wiki rather than in discussion, that's fine as long as they are satisfied being subjected to group editing.

I would prefer not to have to go through and audit the wiki to make sure I can endorse the page every time I make a link to earlier lesswrong work. Quite frankly I would prefer not to have a wiki at all. Then the blog posts themselves can be referred to instead, serving most of the same purposes even though it isn't quite as convenient.