I’m an optimist. I believe that statements like “Bush went AWOL” or “Gore claims to have invented the Internet” can be evaluated and decided pretty much true or false. (the conclusion can be a little more nuanced, but the important thing is that there’s a definitive conclusion.)

And even crazier, I believe that if there was a fair and accurate system for determining which of these things were lies, people would stop repeating the lies. I would certainly try to. No matter how much I wanted to believe “Dean’s state record sealing was normal” or “global warming does exist”, if a fair system had decided against it, I would stop.

And perhaps most crazy of all, I want to stop repeating falsehoods. I believe the truth is more important than particular political goals, so I want to build a system I can trust. I want to know that when I make claims, I’m not speaking out of political distortion but out of honest truth. And I want to be able to evaluate the claims of other too.

So how would such a system work? First, large claims (“Gore is a serial liar”, “Ronald Reagan was a great President”) would be broken down into smaller component parts (“Gore claimed to have invented the Internet”, “Ronald Reagan’s economic plan created jobs”). On each small claim, we’d run The Process. Let’s take “Gore falsely claimed to have invented the Internet”.

First, some ground rules. Everything is open. Anyone can submit anything, and all the records are put on a public website.

We’d begin with collecting evidence. Anyone could submit helpful factual evidence. We’d get video tape from CNN of what exactly Gore said. We’d get Congressional records about Gore’s funding of the Arpanet. We’d get testimony from people involved. And so on. If someone challenged a piece of evidence’s validity (e.g. “that photo is doctored”, “that testimony is forged”), a Mini-Process could be started to resolve the issue.

Then there’d be the argument phase. A wiki page would be created where each side would try to take facts from the evidence and use them to build an argument for their case. But then the other side could modify the page to provide their own evidence, expand selective quotatins, and otherwise modify the page to make it more accurate and less partisan. Each side would continue bashing the other side’s work until the page gave the best arguments from each side, presented in such a way that nobody could object. (You may think that this is impossible, but Wikipedia has ably proven that it can work.)

Finally, there’d be the adjucation phase. This is the hard part. A group of twelve fairminded intelligent people (experts in the field, if necessary) would agree to put aside their partisanship and come to a conclusion based on the argument. Hopefully, most of the time this conclusion would be (after a little wiki-rewriting from both sides) unanimous. For example, “While Gore’s phrasing was a little misleading, it is clear Gore was claiming to have led the fight for providing funding for research that was later developed into the Internet — a claim that is mostly true. Gore was one of the research’s major backers, although others were involved.”

The panel would be assembled by selecting people widely seen as fairminded and intelligent, but coming from different sides of the political spectrum. It is likely many would accept — all they’d need to do was read a page and spend a little time agreeing to summarize it. And in doing so, they’d provide a great contribution to political debate (as well as getting their side represented).

All of these phases would be going on essentially simultaneously — the argument could be updated as new evidence came to light, new evidence could be added to fill holes in the argument, and the adjudicating jury could keep tabs on the page as updated.

And once a decision on an issue was made, it could be cited as evidence in the argument for a related issue (“Gore is a serial liar”).

Everything would be very fluid and wiki-like. We’d make up the rules as we went along, seeing what was necessary. And when we learned from our mistakes, we could go back and fix them.

This seems like an awful lot of effort for just coming to a decision on a couple of silly issues, but I think it’s far more than that. The result would be a vast collection of trustable arguments for many of the hot-topics of the day, a collection that could be relied on through time to give you the fair truth — because everybody had essentially signed off on it (it is publicly-modifiable, after all) And if you look at the effort expended on these claims and political fights, spending a little time getting the facts right seems like a small price to pay.

What do you think?

posted February 19, 2004 03:00 PM (Politics) (33 comments) #


Campaign Finance Reform: The Problem and Solution
Third Parties: Why They Spoil and How to Stop It
Gerrymandering: How Politicians Steal Votes and You Can Return Them
Up is Down: How Stating the False Hides the True
Down is Up: What This Stuff Is
Up With Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt
San Francisco Protects the Freedom to Marry
Sue for Freedom: Saving Steamboat Roy
Shorter Tom DeLay
President Bush: Why Can’t He Stop Lying?


I think, very sadly, that in the main, no-one would care.

In fact, for a while, I’ve had in mind to write a paper about the Al Gore story, from the perspective of how one determines truth.

I have a bunch of material that’s very interesting, from the perspect of the reasoning process involved.

Phillip Hallam-Baker wrote, very publicly, about the fabrication:

“I know Declan [McCullagh], he is a libertarian nut. For him the possibility that the government could have had a role in the creation of the Internet or the Web is utterly contrary to his world view. Hence the only way to create the Internet was to invent it.”

It seems to me there’s something very deep there.

posted by Seth Finkelstein at February 19, 2004 03:44 PM #

The problem I find most often with what people like Tom Daschle say is that what they say is true… but incomplete. So you are going to have to address not simply whether something is true, but whether it helps people construct a useful map of reality one can use for sound decisionmaking.

For what it is worth, I put Tom Daschle in the same categoriy of dangerousness as I put John Ashcroft.

posted by sbw at February 19, 2004 03:56 PM #

I would immediately submit the statement “The WikiCourt is inherently biased and cannot reach an impartial conclusion.”

For those with faith in a Wiki’s ability to determine truth, I will not argue with you; I’ll just mention this passage from The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer, 1951, pp. 80-81:

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth…

If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine. When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it. Simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret message. There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. He seems to use words as if he were ignorant of their true meaning. Hence, too, his taste for quibbling, hair-splitting and scholastic tortuousness.

posted by Jamie McCarthy at February 19, 2004 04:51 PM #

You ever hear the saying, a lie gets half-way round the world before the truth gets its boots on?

That’s the problem with this. It would take time to resolve the issue (and let’s not even get into philosophical/mathematical arguments about what “the truth” is).

Meanwhile, the spinners are infecting their mind-virus in as many people as they can through blast faxes, talking head pundits, blogs, TV ads, editorials, op-eds, talk radio, and so on. Once an idea is planted, it’s hard to dislodge. Which is why, to this day, reporters still repeat discredited falsehoods like “Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet.”

Indeed, I think you can trace the fall of liberalism over the last 20 years to the lack of an efficient information distribution system.

If you want to solve the problems of the world, help figure out a way to destroy mass media.

posted by Luke Francl at February 19, 2004 04:52 PM #

This is a bit rambling, so I apologize. I found your hypothesis provocative…

We already have an excellent system for telling truth from lies and it’s called “using logic and reason.” The problem is that most people aren’t educated in proper use of the system.

I find this post intriguing, Aaron, especially contrasted with your other entry, “Down is Up” and the recent report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists saying that the Bush administration sticks its head in the mud when it hears scientific conclusions contrary to its policy positions (one analysis of which is at Calpundit).

The problem is not that we don’t already have ways to evaluate a statement’s veracity. The problem is partly that we’re lazy and partly that the people we depend on to be the sentinels of the truth - the media, the clergy, legislators, and most other people in the public eye - have been asleep at the switch, accepting and repeating false statements as facts.

If I make a claim like “The sky is blue,” I make a statement that you can easily verify, and I imply in the statement the method of verification. You know where the sky is, so you can look at it and see if I’m telling the truth.

If, on the other hand, I make a statement like, “Al Gore said he invented the internet,” verification is a bit more problematic. If you know Al Gore you could ask him, I suppose. But most of us do not know Al Gore and so, based solely on the above statement, have no way of knowing if this is the truth or not. And so the proper step to take at this point is for you to ask me for clarification. You ask me, “Really? That’s an extraordinary claim! Did you hear him say it? No? Well, did you read it somewhere? Where? Did the person writing this hear him say it? If not, where did he get his information? In other words, buddy, back up your claim with a cold, hard fact.”

Whew! That’s exhausting! And it’s too much work, which is why most of us fall back on one of two expedients: the expert fallacy or the Gut Check fallacy. I.e., we either trust that the person who made the claim, being an expert of some sort, must know what he’s talking about, or we look someone up and down and guess whether he’s lying or not.

Add to this the imprecise nature of language and the time pressures of the media world and you can have a real mess on your hands. Play the telephone game sometime to remind yourself how small errors can get easily introduced in the simple transmission of information and become magnified to hysterical proportions. This would even be the case were some version of the Wiki process you suggest in place. Until the day we each have simultaneous and instant access to the same information, the only way to prevent the repetition of falsehoods is for each of us to be responsible fact-checkers.

Let me propose a far simpler formula for keeping falsehoods from being repeated. When presenting a statement of fact, it should be in this form:

“According to X, Y.”

Where Y is a statement of fact and X is a reference to a tangible, verifiable piece of evidence.

Give me the method for verifying your statement. If it’s true, there should be no reason not to.

Which leads me to my final point: We have to be less willing to tolerate prevaricators. There should be serious repercussions for politicians, scientists, or members of the media who can be shown to have passed along false information, especially when the information could have been verified. Mistakes are one thing, but not checking your sources because you had a time deadline is - according to me - unforgivable.

As is simply lying because it suits your agenda. No rational system in the world - Wiki-based or otherwise - if it relies solely on logic, will be able to defeat the irrational act of ignoring the facts. Citizens concerned about truth and honesty must back up their rational systems with the passion of their morality. Only when irrational actors find no gain in behaving irrationally will there be a chance they’ll change their behavior. Only when honest people stand up for the truth will irrational behavior become irrelevant.

Bottom line: educating the public in the use of logic and reason and in high moral standards will remain the surest method of consistently finding the truth.

posted by Stumax at February 19, 2004 06:06 PM #

You just described Metafilter at it’s very best, Aaron. The problem being, though, that it’s very rarely at it’s best these days, and many of the people on both sides of the fence who engaged in the sort of thing you describe have given up trying.

Metafilter’s thought of as a leftleaning echo chamber by some (many?), and it frequently is, I suppose, but there have been a multitude of threads there over the years that were very much like what you describe.

Also, there was a project that was born out of MeFi, that Matt Haughey and Rusty from ku05hin were planning to build and launch (but that I guess has languished) that would have done something similar. It’s a shame it never made it to the light of day.

posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at February 19, 2004 06:29 PM #

Reaction #1: People, people … we live in a post-Clinton world — why are you wandering around with a Winki-Lantern looking for the “Truth?”

There is no law (physical or otherwise) that would force people to be logical. It isn’t even required in a courtroom. Without a system of logic, there can’t be determinations of truth at all. Someone will always say that your logic is culturally pre-determined or their definition of “is” is different than yours.

Even something as simple as “Al Gore invented the Internet” — which seems like a provable true/false statement — would be a difficult task. You would have to show that he really made that claim and that in itself may be unprovable as there probably isn’t any independent verification of that claim — just his word against some journalist.

Statements like “Reagan was a great President” are even harder. I’m not sure why you don’t like the job he did, but I am sure that I can find people who would agree with you factually but would still consider him a great president.

Person One: “He broke the air traffic controllers union — that was horrible.”

Person Two: “Oh yes, I remember — that was great.”

Cold rigorous truth may be great in CS, but it isn’t available and/or useful in the real world.

Reaction #2: The set of people who actually know what wiki is is very small. The people who are comfortable with interacting with wiki data sets are smaller than that. There is no way that a Wiki Court would have any impact on the real world.

This is important to remember — you could pull the plug on every blog, slashdot and usenet in the world and the vast majority of people would not ever notice.

Reaction #3: You want to change things — then get involved. And I don’t mean join a doomed Presidential campaign passing out flyers — I mean start going to your city council meetings, understanding and voting on local issues, joining local parties that actually have local candidates in your area.

You have a lot better chance of influencing local issues, and local issues have a lot better chance of influencing you. By getting involved you get politicians to see and remember you as a person and (perhaps) respect your views.

Remember, politicians are people too. You wouldn’t want someone you have never met to one day start screaming at you that you are wrong, but if someone you knew for a while disagreed with you you might listen.

By the way — a lot of what I’m saying is colored by having been a small town political reporter. I’ve watched people try and fail to influence politicians and not understand why they are doing poorly.

Oh yes, and never giggle at an activist, they don’t think it is funny…

posted by David Rouse at February 19, 2004 08:28 PM #

How about slashdot as model for discovering the truth? It only takes one meta-tweak to make it so. Allow voting on a number of dimensions, including Humor, Truth, Accuracy, Flame/Constructive, and anything else someone dreams up (including CowboyNealNess), on a -5 to 5 scale.

Or… get a real MARKUP language, and allow people to markup existing debates with their own layers of commentary and gloss on top of it, along with TML (Truth Markup Language), and things of that ilk. The same text could host thousands of discussions all selectively visible.

Even more radical would be the possibility of selectively filterng your worldview to exclude things you don’t believe, automatically, or actively finding things which you wish to ponder because they are near the edge of your beliefs.

Food for thought, and metathought.


posted by Mke Warot at February 19, 2004 11:25 PM #

I think so many thoughts, I can rely only on Wiki to synthesize them all.


To a certain degree, what you’ve said is already true.


But perhaps people do not value Truth as much as having a good time, some times?

Real life conversation: “Yeah- Al Gore invented the Internet, after all.” “You know he didn’t really say that, right?” “Oh, I know. It’s just so much fun to say it.”


We do not have time to introspect into the validity of our perspectives and believes. Our perspectives and beliefs are like shacks with no bolts and screws. We operate in ramshackle systems, which consistently fail. We move forward, constantly, adapting moment by moment. We do not take the time to fully understand our larger picture. We don’t even have the sight to do so. It would take decades of work to build up a foundation view of the big picture, and even then- our big picture is likely to be wrong.

That may be why people do not value Truth. Because it’s so hard to find, there’s little point in looking for it.


Mark Twain: “I told you that there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further, but gives the rest of his days to hunting junk to patch it and caulk it and prop it with, and make it weather-proof and keep it from caving in on him.”


Look here: I’m writing a message to you. What I’m writing now has probably been said many times over in the history of humanity. There is an Access Failure: The time it takes to retrieve what humanity has stored is too long, compared to the need for the intelligence.

In sending this crude message to you, I am probably repeating an error that has been repeated for centuries, although someone somewhere has probably dedicated their life to just this study, and the propagation of their results.


We have seen the amazing power of Wiki to concentrate thought. (We’ve also seen failures of it to do such as well, but I chalk that up to the lack of maturity of wiki, both in that the server software is poor right now, and in that people don’t know what it is, much less why they could / should use it.)

In the next 10 to 20 years, technologies will grow even more advanced. In ways that we can’t predict, even. Thus, I suspect that the power and understanding of wiki will grow.

It will be visual, it will be intuitive, it will be easy. We will figure ourselves out. This is a basic faith of mine.


We should either:

Or, well… Both.

posted by Lion Kimbro at February 20, 2004 12:36 AM #

I have a lot of sympathy for ideas like that, I came up with something similar on Meatball Wiki I called DoubleWiki, (Aaron, maybe you can create a WikiCourt page on meatball, or I can if you don’t mind me copypasting your text).

Even if it can’t be widely adopted as a standard for truth, I’d find such a system great. Maybe not perfection, but a step forwards. If a few people from different viewpoints worked on a system to collaboratively find out what’s the truth, it may grow. Or give ideas for something better.

Now I’ll go look in more details at the various links from other commentors. I’m sure such ideas popped up in quite a few places, it’d be nice if they were linked together …

posted by Emile at February 20, 2004 12:39 AM #

Reading your comments made me think of how many email forwards I get that have been “disproven” (to some standard at least) by sites like http://truthorfiction.com/ or http://snopes.com/. Very rarely does it take more than one or two words into the sites’ search engine to find an article on a particular forwarded email rumour.

Yet, how many people do so, and then inform the sender of their error?

posted by Phil at February 20, 2004 03:25 AM #

The very first statement in your blog saying that you are an idealist tells a lot about your position. It shows that you won’t accept the other philosophical positions. What makes you think that you are better than me who is more pragmaticist or others whose philosophical positions differ from your position?

Just in case you don’t see, this country (that is, I am speaking of United States of America) is a fine model of how pluralistic society can flourish. To add a bit to your knowledge, the philosophy of pragmaticism started here.

In other words, you have right to be an idealist but don’t expect the rest of the U.S. to agree with you.

Joseph Pietro Riolo

Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this comment in the public domain.

posted by Joseph Pietro Riolo at February 20, 2004 07:04 AM #

Setting aside, for the moment, the posturing…

Defensebot: Your Honor, Objection!

Judgebot: Overrruled.

Thank-you, Your Honor, setting aside Mr. Schartz posturing, I believe he is envisioning the future!

DellaStreetBot: Ten microseconds to Judge Woppnerbot, Perry.

Thanks, Della.

posted by jcwinnie at February 20, 2004 07:32 AM #

A statement like “Reagan was a great President” doesn’t belong in this discussion. It is an opinion, not a fact. Opinions and facts are evaluated differently.

You don’t convey knowledge by giving an opinion, you shortstop learning because people stop to argue its worth or they blindly accept it at face value.

We ought to remind people, like Socrates did, that how one phrases the initial question is an important step toward finding a useful answer.

posted by sbw at February 20, 2004 08:57 AM #

All this effort to find out the truth? A complicated community process that does not only require people who can actually apply logic and reason, but they need computer skills, too? And then all those people have to spend time debunking countless lies produced to harm the process?

I think not. There is an easy solution. Don’t tell lies yourself, and disassociate yourself from anybody who does. If we all followed that approach, lies would be having a hard time…

You see, like you, I’m an idealist - but I believe in people making a change, not technology.

If you just want a process to find the truth, we have one already. It’s called the courts. We just need to fix our legal system so you can’t buy justice.

posted by groby at February 20, 2004 09:29 AM #

I’ve changed the first line from “I’m an idealist” to “I’m an optimist”, because that’s what I really meant. But I think it’s funny that so many people responded with “there is no truth” and “people won’t listen to truth” when I noted those objections in my very first paragraph.

The other major objection is “we already have the truth” and “everybody stop lying”, which I think is just absurd.

posted by Aaron Swartz at February 20, 2004 10:12 AM #

This is a laudable concept Aaron, or rather the inspiration behind it is laudable, because I’m sure you will agree that the idea goes in a lot of different directions with many competing implications, and would require an enormous amount of refining to result in something useful. And yet, as time goes by, we are going to need to consider something of this nature if our supposedly “free and democratic” society is to survive.

Let’s step back a moment from the “wiki-court” concept, to get a better picture of what it is trying to accomplish - call it the “what’s your threat model” approach. When I look at contemporary events, I am increasingly horrified over the degree to which politicians and corporate officials are able to simply lie about their actions and intentions, due in large part to the subservient and submissive attitudes taken by most of the major media. One need look no further than last year’s invasion of Iraq, justified by the supposed existence of an imminent threat which has since been admitted did not actually exist. In fact, the vacuousness of the administration’s claims, eg. the “large quantities of uranium” story, were well known before the invasion but somehow it didn’t make any difference, because the institutions which should be exposing such obvious frauds and manipulations - ie. the news media - are for whatever reason unable or unwilling to do so.

The point being, what good is the ability to vote for leaders and representatives, if we have no way of getting good information about their actual activities? If they can say, “vote for me and I will do X” and then they actually do Y, the democratic process has no real meaning, especially when the news media reports that “great progress is being made toward X; rumors of Y are unfounded.”

So here’s the ‘threat assessment’: powerful special interests are subverting democracy from above by interfering with the ability of citizens to get accurate or dependable information about non-local events and the activities of corporations and elected/appointed officials. Knowledge is power; those who wish to monopolize power must also monopolize knowledge. Extra paranoia points: this is the real reason for the incredibly virulent attacks against free information systems, in which a lock-down approach is being sold as the only way to protect against “intellectual property theft”.

The antidote to increasing centralization and secrecy is decentralization and openness.

We’re never going to get to “the truth” about anything. One of the problems with the global warming “debate” is that all scientists understand that they are not ever going to reach a final end point in their research, that all we have are verifiable results and theories which explain them, and a consensus (or controversy) about which theories best explain which results, and that nothing is ever definitively and eternally “proven” in this process - therefore it is always possible to point to some uncertainty in any result and to create confusion on this basis. Just as the tobacco companies were always able to produce “scientific” evidence to claim “plausible deniability” in the connection between smoking and lung cancer, so are the hydrocarbon industries producing “scientists” like Bjorn Lomborg who are able to muddy the waters enough that small uncertainties in causal relationships are used to provide evidence that the earth is not warming, or that this warming is not caused by human activity.

We can’t get at “the truth” because it is impossible to finitely pre-state the initial conditions upon which we may wish to base what our definition of “is” is - reality is not a math problem or CS exercise. It’s a socially constructed meta-narrative, the sum total of what each of us believes to be true. The problem is vast and daunting, but ultimately one which we must face - thought experiments like the “wiki-court” are small steps in this direction.

More generally, we need to create new institutions which are directly answerable to real constituents, communities of individuals socially interacting on a face-to-face basis, which are able to establish and verify “consensus reality” statements about local, directly witnessed events - and then build “networks of networks” which aggregate and collate this information in meaningful and useful ways.

For example, many newspapers regularly publish articles to the effect that global warming is “junk science”, mere unsubstantiated industry-bashing. Reading the scientific literature gives a very different impression, but who outside of the scientific community will spend the necessary weeks or months pouring over scholarly journals in order to gain a comprehensive and balanced view of what is controversial and what is not? The basic laboratory chemistry is clear: CO2 absorbs heat, and the earth’s atmosphere has about 50% higher CO2 content than it did 150 years ago. Add this to certain “anecdotal” information, like the fact that “the five hottest years on record all have occurred since 1997, and the 10 hottest since 1990” , that glaciers all over the world have been retreating for decades, etc, etc. Despite all this, what really made this “real” for me was an encounter that I had with a native of the Canadian Arctic, a man in his 40s, who told me that his tribal elders no longer have a clue what is going on, that there are plants and animals that they have never seen before, open water where there has always been ice - hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge of the land by people whose very survival depended on the accuracy of this knowledge, now made completely useless by climate change. It’s not a theory for these people.

posted by Jim Carrico at February 20, 2004 10:53 AM #

This reminds me of something I have been thinking of for a while…

Take statements by prominent political commentators, O’Rielly, Coulter, Frankin etc etc, or politicians themselves. Create a forum where the statement is presented and then both sides of the fence can discuss the facts that back up (or contradict) the said statement. Once enough voices are heard I believe it will be the case that the statement will be revealed as either true or false - the middle ground would be minimised by the fact that both sides have been able to say as much as they want. (As with your example)

If the statement is false then score a negative mark for the commentator or politician. If the statement is true then score a positive mark. After some time there would be an excellent resource showing just how truthful politicians and their commentators are.

I am a liberal optimist but I long for the day when somebody could say, “Coulter! You believe her? She has a -45 rating on truthwatch.com, don’t trust a thing she says!” and that would be enough to discredit/credit a person.


posted by dave at February 20, 2004 11:01 AM #

“I believe that if there was a fair and accurate system for determining which of these things were lies, people would stop repeating the lies.”

Let’s put it this way - recursively, this is of course the first proposition that needs to be evaluated. What would it take to convince you that it is false?

Not that you believe it, but that people won’t do it.

posted by Seth Finkelstein at February 20, 2004 11:54 AM #

Reading Jim’s comment made me think of another, institutionalized barrier to truth: secrecy-dependent organizations like the CIA and DoD.

President: “Sadaam Hussein is building weapons of mass destruction.”
Press: “What proof do you have?”
President: “The CIA has done extensive investigations and they’re the ones that have the evidence.”
Press: “May we see the evidence from the CIA?”
President: “I’m afraid not. That would compromise their sources and their ability to function in the future.”
Press: “So you can’t offer us definite proof?”
President: “Not without compromising this country’s safety.”
Press: “So we just have to trust you?”
President: “Pretty much, yep.”

And so it goes. The system works pretty well when trustworthy people are the ones holding the secret information. Still, when you can’t verify something yourself, you shouldn’t repeat it as fact. Which of course the press does. Not that I’m bitter.

posted by Stumax at February 20, 2004 12:23 PM #

You are postulating that it is possible for language to represent reality in the same way that the arithmetical (quantum theory) and the geometrical (string theory) are capable of doing in their more stringent environments. I find that interesting.

That language is an imperfect medium does not necessarily refute your contention. Your solution of increasing its precision through multiple arbiters would (at the very least) increase its value.

But at the end of the day, I would predict that all of the same disagreements would still be in place. Only now they would be seen for what they are: conclusions based on axiomatic metaphysical precursors, i.e., where you end up is completely predetermined by where you start.

Still, that would be a tremendous improvement in what passes for information today.

posted by Doug at February 20, 2004 01:53 PM #

This is brilliant. I’ve been hoping for this kind of system for at least three years now. Everytime I hear this back-and-forth between pundits, I regret the time-wasted by the world in having to sort it all out. Plus all the abused untruths that circulate is an efficiency-sink.

Please build this system. I’m a little bit of a perl hacker and am interested in this truth-seeking a business. So if you need help or want to collaborate, let me know!

Forget the cynics on your comment board. We have the technology, we have the desire, it’s worth a shot, let’s do it!

posted by Philip Dhingra at February 20, 2004 01:57 PM #

David Rouse’s comment about the PATCO strike is interesting. That’s a particular bit of recent history that people still disagree about — despite, I suspect, having access to fairly similar facts about PATCO’s history. In fact, a few of the controllers fired by Reagan are still in the midst of a political struggle to be restored to their former positions (or at least “pardoned”).

It often seems that important disagreements about values are hard to cast into the world of facts. In fact, a lot of other parts of American history are still strongly contested — the New Deal and the McCarthy Era are good examples, and indeed even the question of whether someone should be a culture hero or a villain gets a lot of ink or bits spilled. Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, etc. (So was Warren Harding a good president? There’s a pretty strong consensus that he did very little as president. But some libertarians like inactivity in a chief executive, and some radicals of all stripes are pleased with how Harding treated radical political movements during his time in office, at least compared with other politicans of his era.)

It would definitely be nice to have more access to evidence about controversies.

posted by Seth Schoen at February 21, 2004 12:20 AM #

Again, as noted by me and others, it is not possible to evaluate the truthfulness of whether Reagan was the greatest President ever. It’s inherently subjective. There’s no way to measure it except in your own mind, for your own sake.

And for the record — as someone in your comments appeared to think otherwise — I did not claim he was the greatest ever, though I would certainly put him in the top 10. But then again, I’d want to put Nixon in the top 15 at least, although Watergate had such lasting neagative effects, it makes placement difficult.

But I digress. To the main point: I think it is a fundamentally flawed idea. I think the more facts you have, the more people have to equivocate on.

Take Bush being a deserter/AWOL, for example. The evidence proves, beyond a doubt, that he was not: he needed 50 points each year to fufill his obligation, and the records prove he got them. There is simply no question: he was not AWOL, he did not desert, and any statement to the contrary is ludicrous.

Yet after releasing his records, many people still claimed he shirked his duty by being in Alabama at all, because they didn’t have the planes there that he knew how to fly (and even if they did, they had too many pilots and not enough planes anyway), so the money and time spent on him in Texas was “wasted.” Is there validity to the argument? If you want to find a way to make Bush bad, I suppose. But it ignores the fact that the military didn’t have to let him change his duties; that they did shows they didn’t have a problem with it, so what reason do we have to second-guess it 30 years later, apart from pure partisan mudslinging?

We could go around and around and around on this issue. How does having more facts help us? At this point we have the facts, and it comes down to interpretation, which the two sides will never agree on, and it becomes a neverending cesspool, swirling filth rising from the depths to swallow us and our loved ones while they cry, “honey, the children miss you! stop arguing on that damned web site about something that happened 30 years ago!”

So what we have is you designing a system where most of the issues to be discussed (Reagan’s greatness, Gore’s inventiveness, Bush’s desertedness) are essentially meaningless, and we will never come to a conclusion anyway.

What I would prefer is that we have the fortitude to stand up to these inane issues and say I DON’T GIVE A DAMN. All you conservatives: omeone tries to convince you Kerry had an affair. Say I DON’T GIVE A DAMN. Liberals, someone tries to convince you Bush was a deserter. Say I DON’T GIVE A DAMN.

Until we can, on each side of the aisle, refuse to give into the gutter politics that are directed at the other side of the aisle, the cesspool will only grow. Not that I think it won’t, but I’ll do my part by working on me, and implore others to follow suit.

posted by pudge at February 21, 2004 01:45 AM #

I disagree with you, pudge. And I agree with you.

One disagreement: you write: I think the more facts you have, the more people have to equivocate on.

On the contrary, facts are unequivocal; facts are unambiguous. To equivocate is to “be deliberately ambiguous or unclear in order to mislead or withhold information,” a state that generally gets harder to maintain the more facts are known. Equivocating, intentionally withholding or misstating facts, is standard procedure for truth-dodgers.

I do agree with you on this: empirically validating statements of opinion is impossible. There is no test yet devised that we can perform to prove or disprove the assertion that Reagan was the best president ever.

On the other hand, the question of whether Bush was AWOL is a proposition that can be proven empirically. Bush either was or was not AWOL according to Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ provides penalties for “any member of the armed forces who, without authority—

(1) fails to go to his appointed place of duty at the time prescribed;

(2) goes from that place; or

(3) absents himself or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty at which he is required to be at the time prescribed…”

pudge, you argue that Bush got 50 points each year, which proves that he didn’t go AWOL. But getting 50 points per year is not one of the necessary conditions for proving or disproving the state of being AWOL under the UCMJ.

In logic, one way to disprove an argument is to ask whether you can make any true statment that contradicts the argument. So if I assert that it’s always sunny out, you can easily contradict me by pointing out that it’s not sunny at night. In the Bush example, if you claim that getting 50 points per year proves that he wasn’t AWOL, you must also prove to me that he couldn’t have accumulated 50 points through any other manner, legal or illegal. Even then, you’d only have a circumstantial, indirect proof, far inferior to proving directly that Bush satisfied the conditions of the test of AWOL-ness provided for in Article 86 of the UCMJ.

So we do, in fact, need more facts before we can say categorically that Bush was or was not AWOL. And until those facts are provided, the question will remain unresolved.

I’m not really interested in a political discussion here, mind you; I’m not taking sides. I’m just trying to again make the point that the tools of logic and reason are available to us when we want to sort out certain issues. Instead of saying “I don’t give a damn,” we should be saying, “What evidence do you have?”

Logic won’t help us figure out everything, but judicious and prudent use of logic and reason would help put an end to some of the bickering that goes on in public life today. We could certainly prove or disprove whether Kerry had an affair, whether Bush was AWOL, or whether Mars is made of green cheese. What we shouldn’t do is draw conclusions before the facts have been presented. Assertions are not proof.

posted by Stumax at February 21, 2004 05:49 PM #

On the contrary, facts are unequivocal; facts are unambiguous.

Yes, but they lead to other things. You ever hear the expression, “the more I learn, the less I know”?

But getting 50 points per year is not one of the necessary conditions for proving or disproving the state of being AWOL under the UCMJ.

The point is that his obligation was not to be in a particular place at a particular time, but to get 50 points. What you quote speaks to someone being absent from an obligation, and no one has shown there was any such obligation, despite many allegations of it. I won’t reserve judgment based on their fancy. They’ve had years to provide evidence of it and have not; how long should I wait?

The only evidence we have of him not being somewhere he was required to be was his skipped medical exam, for which he was disciplined, but not charged with being AWOL. That they didn’t shows they didn’t consider this to be AWOL.

And this is what I mean by more equivocation. We have more facts, and yet we can argue about what his obligations really were, whether he was required to be there, and what it really means to be AWOL, and whether you can call someone AWOL if they’ve not been charged with it. And on and on it goes.

We could certainly prove or disprove whether Kerry had an affair, whether Bush was AWOL, or whether Mars is made of green cheese.

My argument is that we shouldn’t try, that it is gutter politics. I don’t go in for attacking Kerry for the supposed affair, or for the things he said and did after his military service, etc. I have no doubts many Republicans will get into it, and I wish they wouldn’t, not because it is bad for Bush, but because it is bad for our political system.

posted by pudge at February 22, 2004 12:25 PM #

This idea reminds me of a “fact forum” or “science court”, with the “technical panel” as the “group of twelve fairminded intelligent people” and unspecified “modern communications … journal-like process to speed public debate on crucial facts” as the wiki.

Idea future markets are another approach to finding truth in public disagreements.

posted by Mike Linksvayer at February 23, 2004 12:47 PM #

Response: Wikis can’t resolve arguments. [~950 words]

posted by mpt at February 23, 2004 09:28 PM #

I have something like this over at my wiki.

What is the difference between an allegation and a fact?. An allegation is an argument that demands you to accept premises you may not agree with. However, if all premises of an allegatioon were proven and accepted, then the conclusion depending on them would be accepted as fact, as well.

So, you use a wiki to turn allegations into proofs. I call them “Social Proofs”.

You outline an argument. The concise nature of it looks like an allegation. But if you disagree, you can drill down to read the reasoning behind its component premises.

If you contest a premise, then all parent proofs are by definition contested as well.

The concept is still in progress. It would eventually require several extensions to normal wiki functionality, for instance registering and tracking points of contention. But I’m working on it!

posted by tunesmith at February 24, 2004 09:24 PM #

I think this sort of thing can be useful (try googling for Citizen Deliberative Councils for some off-line efforts), but the way Aaron’s framed it (no offense intended, you’ve stimulated some interesting discussion) seems a little backward to me. More than focusing such efforts on finding common understanding in reaction to things that the media & politicians say, i’d like to see us find ways to set the agenda, get the media and candidates to spend 90% of their time addressing issues that matter to us (and only 10% on mud-slinging and the horserace :-).

Even better, people could use such practices to address issues directly ourselves, allowing government as we know it to fade away.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” —Thomas Pynchon

posted by John Abbe at February 25, 2004 05:21 AM #

Good point. Nobody cares whether or not Bush went AWOL or whether Kerry had an affair. Or rather, nobody should care that much, and one of the things that broken with the debate system (and that Blogs don’t seem to fix) is that those things get high publicity.

One of the purpose of a good debate system should be to find worthwhile subjects. Meaningmap (http://www.meaningmap.com) maybe is a good start.

posted by Emile at February 25, 2004 11:26 PM #

Idea futures are a terrible way to find truth. I mean, it’s bad enough that current “facts” are heavily influenced by media moguls, but then you want to go ahead and let them buy the truth outright!

posted by Aaron Swartz at March 9, 2004 09:03 PM #

A good marksman may miss.

posted by Ferdinand at April 2, 2004 02:56 PM #

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