If I had a pound for each time I’ve been disparaging about the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript article, I’d probably be able to pay off my mortgage: but this is not because I’m negative (when I’m actually the complete opposite), but rather because despite being the most-linked page in the whole Voynich infosphere (Google has it as #1, for example), it’s miserably unhelpful on a truly grand scale.

A few days ago, I decided to go through it to see how much of it I could fix… but after a while, what struck me was that I was just sticking plasters on a gaping wound – that there was something so badly wrong with the way it was structured that no amount of textual hacking would ever fix it. That is, the problem isn’t that it is awkwardly written, but that it is epistemologically broken. I therefore added a new section to the Wikipedia Voynich talk page to say:

[…] But on reflection, it strikes me that what is fundamentally wrong with the whole thing is that it doesn’t really separate objective from subjective; and furthermore that its overall structure helps perpetuate this mingling of fact and speculation. I think that if we were to restructure it more sensibly, we might yet turn this whole article into a genuinely useful resource, rather than the sprawling sequence of speculative stuff it currently is.

I therefore propose that before the (currently first) “Content” section, a new section should be added called “Evidence”, with suggested subsections “Codicology” (facts about the support material [including radiocarbon dating], inks, paints, construction, quire numbers, foliation), “Palaeography” (facts about the ductus, Currier ‘Hands’), “Art History” (techniques used in the construction, such as parallel hatching) and “Statistics” (facts about the letter-patterns and word-patterns). The idea is that by doing this, we can separate out the discussion of what the Voynich Manuscript is from the discussion of what the Voynich Manuscript might be, so that people coming to the topic for the first time can gain an accurate picture untainted by the currently rather high level of embedded speculation. My Cipher Mysteries pages on codicology, quire numbers, parallel hatching may well be fruitful references for some of these topics.

I have elsewhere contrasted the existing speculation-centric “Voynich 1.0” approach with this “Voynich 2.0” history-centric approach: though the main argument against this used to be that we knew too little about the Voynich Manuscript to produce a useful non-speculative introduction to it, my opinion is that this is no longer true. Yet however sensible this change may be from my perspective, it is almost certainly too significant a difference to impose unilaterally on a well-linked article without some kind of sustained debate here first. So… what do you think? Nickpelling (talk) 09:11, 20 May 2010 (UTC)

This is an issue that really affects our whole research community (rightly or wrongly, the Wikipedia page is seen as the front face of the Voynich Manuscript), so please leave your comments either here or by editing the Wikipedia talk page by hand (but log in first). Have I got this right, or do you think the page is just fine as it is?

Something further to reflect upon is the differentiation drawn by Michael Shermer in a recent New Scientist article: he draws a line between skepticism and ‘denialism’, in that ‘denialists’ start from an ideological point of faith and deny / undermine all the evidence that’s inconsistent (i.e. they support their own weak ideas by trying to weaken the evidence supporting other competing ideas), whereas skeptics (as Shermer is the publisher of “Skeptic” magazine, these are the good guys) use “extensive observation, careful experimentation and cautious inference” to separate “the few kernels of wheat from the large pile of chaff”.

Within this conceptual framework, it strikes me that the overall Voynich research programme has had a particularly denialist methodology:

  1. Find a starting point (usually a similarity between something in the VMs and something you happen to know about)
  2. Construct a personal leap of faith (“because these are similar, the VMs must have been written by…”)
  3. Collate all the miscellaneous scraps of evidence that seem consistent with your personal leap of faith
  4. Find rhetorical ways of being dismissive about all the other evidence that is broadly inconsistent
  5. Construct ways of undermining the methodology behind any conflicting evidence (“radiocarbon dating is inaccurate”, etc)

What Shermer omits, though, is that in the real world the trickiest issue of all is how to tell denialists apart from skeptics. After all, they use the same techniques and rhetorical stylistics: who can say where Popperian falsification stops and apologetics starts?

Actually: I can. Firstly, there’s a further division to be made between a cynic and skeptic, insofar as I think a cynic is a denialist whose own personal leap of faith is that “no theory is possible”: you can therefore think of a cynic as an ideological pessimist, who actively denies the possibility of there ever being an achievable answer. By way of comparison, a skeptic is optimistic enough to believe that an answer is possible, but realistic enough to know that the road to such knowledge can be a long and hard one.

To me, a skeptical methodology should be a far more holistic thing (insofar as its goes from the general to the specific), far closer to the kind of thing intellectual historians do:

  1. Collect all the relevant evidence you can
  2. Find ways of assessing the reliability, pliability, and nature of each of them
  3. Assess (and continually reassess) which are the key pieces of falsifying evidence – the ones that let you reject hypotheses
  4. Construct a number of hypotheses that your key falsifying evidence pieces do not manage to kill
  5. Devise research questions to try to limit / constrain / refine / kill your hypotheses
  6. Keep trying (knowledge is hard)

The central differences are therefore (a) the overall direction of research, (b) skeptics understand that most evidence is not absolute, and (c) that skeptics attempt to invalidate all hypotheses, rather than just confirm their own. Further, skeptics know that correlation is not the same as causation, and that causation is 100x more elusive. So… are you a skeptic, a cynic, or a denialist?

Applying all this to the Wikipedia VMs page, at no point does the article try to collate or list all the relevant evidence, or even to give an idea of how reliable or (im)precise each fragment is. Rather, it seems to be a long sequence of theories abutted by denialist oppositions to them. Given that my bias is towards the kind of skeptical methodology I describe above, my overall position is that the page offers little or no assistance to someone who comes in and wants to understand the object prior to forming an opinion: rather, the page offers a load of pre-formed opinions and rebuttals, with fragments of information teasingly wedged between them. It’s rather like trying to understand wildebeest anatomy by looking at the scraps of meat left on a lion’s teeth.

Perhaps I’m barking up completely the wrong tree here: perhaps the “Wikipedia” model for knowledge is innately denialist, in that each article seeks to find a position of dynamic balance between actively-held apologetic positions. I suspect that the epistemological error underlying Wikipedia is that it mistakes a Mexican stand-off for consensus, when skeptical knowledge should ultimately be organized in a quite different way: all the Voynich article does is to highlight this error in a fairly extreme way.

What do you think – can Wikipedia ever be fixed?

9 thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Voynich Manuscript…

  1. Diane on May 22, 2010 at 7:17 am said:

    Nick, this is probably the best thing I’ve ever seen written about the Voynich.

    I think your idea of re-classifying is good.

    Hard evidence for hard objects:
    Voynich manuscript as artefact: codicology, hands etc.
    Then maybe add a section on unanswered questions likely to shed useful light on the question of broader origins: e.g. we need an analysis of the covering leather, stitching material and so forth – hypothetically, a book bound in yak-skin, stitched Japanese style with waxed silk, might be informative.
    Any pollen-tests ever been done using fragments of glue?

    Soft evidence is useful too, though.

    The real problem is not the approach taken, but research informed by, and limited to a fixed position.

    Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I think that once a person has reached a conclusion on a point, that part of their research is finished. Evidence-collecting – I think – should lead towards a conclusion, not be “found” to support one.

    So how about another classification: sceptic, denialist, cynic and “ask me later”

  2. Ron Carter on May 22, 2010 at 7:21 am said:

    Don Quixote lives! Let’s hope with a better ending. Waiter! Reality check, please.

    Let’s face it, no matter how logical of an approach (and you have proposed just that) is taken, there will always be “contributors” to the Wikipedia VMs page that will revert it to some cynical state.

    As the VMs is a somewhat(!) esoteric subject, I would doubt that the page could be locked after being “fixed” so as to not allow it to revert.

    Might I suggest (if one hasn’t already been done) a Wiki VMs page be done in the skeptical manner, posted in some way so it can be locked, and referenced.

    Discussions, contributions and edits can still be accomplished and yet (hopefully) in some controlled manner.

  3. Diane: because the Wikipedia page is for everyone but Voynich researchers, its primary requirements are for accessibility, usefulness and brevity – all three of which I think it currently fails. It’s not a place for unpublished or cutting edge research, but all the same I think it could play an excellent role in helping to stimulate that research (and not necessarily from the current Voynich research community). However, there is a definite lack of well-put-together papers and articles out there for the Wikipedia page to build on, which is a bit of a hindrance. “ask me later” is skeptical, too. 🙂

    Ron: in terms of stories, I’d like to think that this one is closer to The Emperor’s New Clothes than to Don Quixote. 🙂 Actually, I’m not afraid that denialist or cynical “contributors” would wreck a beautiful plan 🙂 – rather, I think that if a pragmatic structure were to be put in place, then new edits would have some kind of principle to guide their writing, and so everyone’s contributions would be better guided. If you strip it right back, all I’m saying is that I think a new ‘Evidence’ section should go at the front and all the evidence be migrated there: that’s surely fairly uncontroversial?

  4. Rene Zandbergen on May 22, 2010 at 10:13 am said:

    In my opinion one problem is, that the boundary between objective and subjective is itself subjective. What one person might consider as ‘evidently true’ may not at all be so for someone else. It will therefore be very hard to fix by one person.

    Overall, I fully agree with the need to leave the speculation to the end of the chain of reasoning, and to be flexilble enough to scrap / adjust threories on the basis of new evidence…

  5. Rene: it is, of course, a truism that there is no objective definition of what is subjective. 🙂 However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t even try: in fact, I would expect the mere act of trying to be a thoroughly worthwhile exercise in itself. 🙂

  6. Dennis on May 22, 2010 at 11:40 pm said:

    Why don’t you try writing an article like that, Nick?

  7. Paul Ferguson on May 23, 2010 at 10:58 am said:

    The Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript article hyperlink doesn’t work.

  8. Dennis: ummm, because 100x more people would see it on Wikipedia. But I do take your point, though. 🙂

    Paul: Fixed, sorry about that (editing too fast for my fingers).

  9. jorge on July 14, 2010 at 12:16 pm said:

    A johnny-come-late comment on your post. I liked Ron Carter suggestion. Would a “Research Data/Finds” section, orderly presenting only the main hard facts that could be ascertained so far, be a makedo for placating your concern on the rather speculative nature of the Wiki Voynich page contents?
    Somewhat off topic, or BTW(?): I have seen nowhere by anybody, any extended comments on the stunning finding by Stolfi regarding the binomial distribution of the word lenghts throughout the VMs. That certainly is a big FACT.
    Risking and attempting to add a bit to the speculative estate on the VMs, I strongly suspect that such distribution stems from the structure of the N rosette, which could be at the heart of VMs cypher generation (!!!), but I still have no additional data to offer.

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