The appearance of Nicholas Gibbs’ Voynich theory in the current Times Literary Supplement “Autumn Fiction Special” issue (and what deliciously outrageous irony that placement is) has caused all manner of mayhem behind the scenes here at Cipher Mysteries mansion.

Not only has my (frankly rather tired and uninterested) blog response to it been unexpectedly heavily Tweeted, his theory has also “inspired” a number of Wikipedia editors to enthusiastically bodge references to Gibbs into the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript page. Which is, as just about everyone here would be happy to point out, close to a crime against common sense.

But it’s not really their fault: it turns out that there’s a much bigger problem at play here.

Whackamoleipedia

As a responsible (though far from regular) Wikipedia editor, I thought I ought to try to offer some kind of balance to the worst excesses of this sudden wave of pro-Gibbs enthusiasm: for example, by removing a reference to Gibbs that had been added to the very first paragraph. *sigh*

But then yet more Wikieditors kept popping up, not unlike Gremlinized versions of Whack-a-Moles or Lernaean Hydra heads, continually inserting yet more references to Gibbs from Smart-Ars Technica or whichever other secondary media source they happened to have just surfed their way to.

Annoying as that is, they’re just the surface symptoms of something that cuts far deeper. The issue here is that in very many ways they are absolutely right to add it in: the piece in the TLS does indeed – by Wikipedia’s very exact standards – make Gibbs’ theory notable. And this causes it to transcend from the mundane world of self-published “OR” (Original Research) into published (and hence notable) work. And anything notable is fair game for inclusion in Wikipedia: indeed, if it is relevant and “notable”, there is arguably a stronger case for inclusion than exclusion.

So it turns out that these Whack-a-Mole editors are indeed actually doing their best to pursue the whole Wikipedia ‘Project’ precisely as it was intended. Can you therefore blame them for doing something that seems quite nonsensical to researchers? Well… no, not really, mad as it seems.

The First Problem With Wikipedia

Perhaps the above should make it clear one of the things that is going wrong here: that the entire Wikipedia project is nothing more than a parasitic encyclopaedia, relying on the world’s knowledge being recycled into it via fact-checked external media, such as (in this case) the Times Literary Supplement. Without the fact-checking stage being done by the media, Wikipedia would be worse than useless: this is because it has no intrinsic quality control, only enforcing measures of notability which themselves depend completely on someone else (normally in the media) paying for the fact-checking stage. Wikipedia does not check facts, it checks published sources: its editors (largely) do not know things, they know how to verify the notability of sources.

So: what happens – as seems to have happened here – when a story goes to press without even the faintest semblance of fact checking? As should be obvious, the Wikipedia editors turn the page content into a credulous extension of the idiot media that put the story out in the first place. It’s “notable” and publicly visible, so what is their alternative?

Hence one big problem with Wikipedia is that where the media omits to do fact checking, Wikipedia can quickly end up looking really, really stupid. But have you not noticed that media fact checking is these days going the way of phrenology and phlogistons?

The wider-angle picture here is that the future of the media – increasingly under pressure from online newsfeeds – is only going to get dumber and ‘dumberer’: its dequality ratchet leads only in a downwards direction. And so the less fact-checking that happens, the worse Wikipedia will get. The case of Nicholas Gibbs’ theory should make this completely clear, albeit in an edge-case kind of way.

The Second Problem With Wikipedia

Arguably, though, the second problem with Wikipedia is much worse: which is that Wikipedia is only successful when it tries to map the known. In cases such as the Voynich Manuscript where the majority of the topic is to do with the unknown, there is no sensible way Wikieditors can decide what should be included or what should be left out. And without any way of deciding the topic boundaries, a kind of thermodynamic page decay sets in: the page just accumulates stuff indefinitely. Honestly, what kind of sad sack would read the current Wikipedia Voynich page from start to finish, as anything apart from a cautionary tale of how not to structure information?

In case you’re wondering, deep domain experts are rarely welcome as Wikipedia editors: and this cuts to the core of what’s going on here. As currently defined and steered, Wikipedia cannot offer a useful guide to the unknown. It is not about original research, or really about any research at all: it’s about mapping the cultural inflow of knowledge mediated via the shabby and slow mirror of media reporting.

If all of that strikes you as a horrible, (small-c) conservative, and superficial epistemology to be building such a large knowledge-based enterprise on, I can assure you that you’re really not alone.

The Third Problem With Wikipedia

Finally: in the case of subjects where there are an almost unimaginably large number of parallel (and only vaguely overlapping) theories, Wikipedia’s neutral point of view pretty much demands that all them should be visible. I’ve suggested numerous times that everything speculative or theory-based about the Voynich Manuscript should be broken out into one or more completely separate page(s), but this too kind of defeats the Wikipedia mindset, which is more about balance-through-primary-inclusivity than trying to evaluate or manage out rubbish theories. It turns out that even forcing a division between theory and non-theory is too fundamentally judgmental for the Wikipedia project to countenance.

And so the issue here is that where you are dealing with uncertain topics, theory inclusivity almost inevitably devolves into theory shopping lists, where the most glib and flippant YouTube theory can end up being listed alongside the most comprehensive and in-depth historical hypothesis. Wikipedia editors aren’t there to judge, they’re there to avoid having to judge: and the more theories that get proposed, the bigger the hole that not-judging digs those pages into.

And yes, there are now hundreds of Voynich theories.

What’s the “Birth” bit, Nick?

People sometimes conclude that I’m cross with Wikipedia, but that’s not really true at all. Rather, I’m cross with myself and the entire research community for not offering an alternative to Wikipedia. The work we do and the communities we form are served badly (if at all) by Wikipedia, because the two worldviews are almost entirely complementary – researchers try to create knowledge out of uncertainty, while Wikipedia recycles knowledge that the media try to pass off as certainty.

The last few days have made me so angry at my own inaction that I now want to go away and do something really drastic: to build something that empowers people working with the vast worlds of uncertain knowledge that Wikipedia has no business trying to deal with.

And so this is where I am. I don’t want to blog as a primary activity (though I may well, and I’m not planning to get rid of Cipher Mysteries any time soon): rather, I want to build something better than Wikipedia – something that helps people map and deal with difficult and emerging knowledge, rather than forcing them to pretend that neutral-sounding montages of crappy media accounts are good enough beyond a sketchy first approximation.

I want to build a whole way of thinking about and mapping difficult knowledge that doesn’t pretend that real knowledge is easy or certain: it is disingenuous and fake to think that it is.

I want to build knowledge-creating communities that can work together in richer, more interesting ways than antagonistic forums that treat theories as spinning Beyblades in toytown arenas.

I want to help people find ways to tease out difficult knowledge in all manner of subjects and topics, not just historical mysteries: I want to provide a place where a research worldview isn’t alien, but a key to a giant door of opportunity.

I want to treat research as the intellectual, cultural and economic powerhouse it exactly is, and to support it in ways that make what we currently do look like cavemen banging rocks together.

I want to build things that will make every kid on the planet want to be a researcher, to grasp that what we don’t know infinitely exceeds what we do know, and that knowledge doesn’t have to be passive, recycled, sham knowledge – basically, that the future is waiting for us to do better.

Right now, geekiness is cool but research is uncool: I think our culture has this arrangment back to front. Really, research is something everyone should do: research should be how we habitually deal with uncertain and difficult topics in our lives, not just in academia.

More than anything, I wish I could be in a situation where I can write down the above – all of which I consider to be a fundamental set of values – without it sounding like a manifesto. Because as of today, it really feels like I’m the only person who thinks the above in anything like a joined-up way: and more than anything I want that to change.

40 thoughts on “The death of Wikipedia, but the birth of what?

  1. You are not alone. You get my vote on all of the above.

    To see what is possible in a community project, check what Neven Curlin has done regarding the Arctic, the cryosphere and climate science in general.

    Neven is a very ethical and laid back kind of guy and keeps order in his blog and forum by banning obvious trolls – after a warning or three. His bans tend to get endorsements from the community.

    I wonder if you could set up a mysteries wiki with input by invitation only. If, say, someone has done or is doing serious research then you might invite them in. Of course, you may disagree with the outcome of their research but, hey, synergy gets things done.

    I’ll give this a bump in my blog. Times Illiteracy Supplement? Tosh!

    Best regards,
    Patrick

  2. Anton Alipov on September 11, 2017 at 12:17 am said:

    Wikipedia has never been suitable for anything better than initial screening of the subject. But most of the time that’s what the user wants – some instant surface information. Of course the range is from “so-so” to “downright distortion”.

    Basically, it’s an illusion of an “easy bread”, but no bread is easy.

  3. Charlotte Auer on September 11, 2017 at 12:34 am said:

    The Fourth Problem With Wikipedia? Vanity!

    Good luck with your new powerhouse NICKYPEDIA!

    No, that’s not a joke, I ‘m serious. Who will judge the “intellectual, cultural and economic” input and then decide upon the output for the average cavemen? How would you shoulder this tremendous burden? Any idea yet?

    As modest as I am I’m going silently back to work with a handful insiders in the pedia-free zone and wait for your impact in the media. May the force be with you!

  4. “I’ll give this a bump in my blog. Times Illiteracy Supplement? Tosh!”

    Done!

    http://www.science20.com/patrick_lockerby/gibbs_voynich_wikiwars_and_the_times_illiteracy_supplement-225963

    Please feel free to comment, correct, advise, tear me a new one. 🙂

  5. Hear, hear! Well said! Have you read Rudd’s book Blind Spot? He has some sort of method for filtering reasoning processes to arrive at reasonable conclusions. I will cheerfully submit my research to anyone who will actually check my footnotes. So count me in.

  6. Nick,
    I’ve had a phone call from a person related by marriage, who received a tweet from a friend in Australia, who had it from someone in central Europe…. and that’s why I as the ‘voynich expert’ of that network (apparently) was being asked for an opinion. I said first that there’s no such thing as a ‘Voyich expert’ but that perhaps a handful of people had been around long enough to remember who first said what, and so on. I then referred them here.

  7. PS – what’s wrong with this and other Voynich theories is that they never cease to be.

  8. Jackie Speel on September 11, 2017 at 11:14 am said:

    Wikipedia has its uses – point of first resort, place for ‘collective wisdom and enlightening of ignorance’, seeing which potential thesis/book topics have not been ‘done’ sufficiently to appear there etc.

    It has its negative aspects – No Original Research, ‘collective absence of wisdom’, ‘things considered too marginal’ etc.

    However: it is there and it has popularised the wiki model as a means of organising information (as a means in itself or for future use elsewhere) – there are many tens of thousands of active wikis = and has probably introduced many people to the joys of research/brought people of similar interests together.

    The internet as a whole is awash with ‘the weird, the wrong, the not-even-half-baked (just waved in front of the cooker) and the unpleasant’ – and a certain amount of useful stuff.

    So what is needed for the VM in particular (and other ‘specific research projects in general’)? There is this discussion group, several small wikis, a number of people’s websites of varying validity – what else could or should there be?

  9. Wikipedia is like democracy, a terrible system, but no one has (realistically) come up with a better one. Until funding bodies and employers of researchers come to the conclusion that contributing to something like a domain-expert-based, fact-checked wikipedia-like (or even that fact-checking wikipedia in and of itself) is inherently valuable and should be budgeted for in time-planning and acknowledged in performance reviews then the vast majority of domain experts are not going to do it, because it takes serious time for no benefit to them, indeed for actual harm to them in terms of not doing the things they _are_ judged on by their employers. It’s stupid and short sighted, but that is where we are at.

  10. Greg: to my mind, while Wikipedia is a tertiary source (piggy-backing on knowledge of primary sources as recycled by notable secondary sources) of certain knowledge, I’m instead thinking about building a secondary source of uncertain knowledge, i.e. research. Hence I’m not proposing to replace Wikipedia, but rather to find a way of dealing with the vast amount of research that Wikipedia cannot (because of the way it works) comfortably touch.

  11. As a researcher of historical European martial arts, this speaks to my soul. (Though one of the reasons I follow research on the Voynich ms. is that it makes me feel less bad about the state of my own field of manuscript study. 🙂

  12. Excellent post ! The ability to sort out the ‘wives tales’ which have truth to those which are truly just false can be so very difficult without good science to prove whether is truth or is false with verification done separately and independently. When everything hinges back to a one man’s tale, it leaves room for adding doubt.

    Again – EXCELLENT POST !! Bravo !

  13. You might be interested in Bruce Smith’s ideas on creating “a social network for ideas”:

    http://oresmus.github.io/blog/2015/09/21/social-net-for-ideas.html

    The first two paragraphs:

    “This post proposes a new kind of software tool and social network protocol for people who want to engage others in constructive discussions about complex problems (of all scales), or more generally to collaborate on complex projects in an open-ended way.”

    “The goal is to increase the effectiveness of group discussions of all sizes, by helping participants keep things organized for themselves and each other, and see how everything fits together, as if they were “seeing into a global brain” that they can all contribute to. The hope (justified below) is that this could augment current large-group decision processes so that the outcome can be more intelligent when more people are involved.”

  14. Nick,

    Thinking out of your British values of “elitism and muddling through” is possible, as long as cultural blinders are not worn, Look at the contents of national museums, each contains huge oversights.

    Mexico’s national anthropological museum is a case worth discussing in detail. A room is decorated by Conqestador and native Mexican mannequins from each state. Conqestadors are dressed in 1500’s military conquering garb, with full facial features, many with ble eyes and blond hair. Native Mexican are dressed in beautiful regional attire, all with blank features, clearly exposing the racial bias of Mexucan national politics and academic blinders.

    France, in the Louvre, England, in the British Museum, the US, in the Smithsonian, and every national museum that I can think of, have attested histories of racism depicted in their museums. Politically correct attempts to erase the political histories of each country, in the media, and it’s schools, all are disproved by museum liberals, failed attempts to white wash history.

    Wikipedia operates in noble British manner, filled with elitist views of revisionist history. Concerning the British view of Ancient Greece, and Egypt, a vivid pro-Greek bias is explicitly documented by under reporting Egyptian mathematical texts like the Henry Rhind’s EMLR and RMP by only citing additive aspects of 1920s authors like Peet and Chace.

    To Wikipedia, lowest common denominator views of historical threads most often stops time in ways that updated analyses are almost always censored. Concerning current Voynich contriversery, Gibbs’s views seem to have been accepted by being published in British newspapers. Nick, you are 100% correct, the British media has not independently double checked their Voynich articles.

    Standing back, and out of British View points, published on Wikipedia, or elitist media, must take place. Asking this question does little. Hard work, working with non-Brits in international groups offers one approach. Another approach is not allow subtle bivalent language blind spots to creep into conclusions.

    For those that are not aware, all western languages are bivalent, each able only to record yes and no to life’s answers in a sentence. Life’s questions that are not yes/no, likely 90% of most questions, must record the maybe aspects of each question, in a paragraph, chapter, book, or encyclopedia.

    Only trivalent Aymara from Bolivia/Peru, used by google translate to,gain quick and dirty translations between bivalent languages a and b, offers a solution.

    In conclusion, think outside of your native language and its often biased institutions, and translate your work via Aymara to several languages that you do not speak fluently.

    Thank you for looking beyond racists and subtle biases that placed artifacts into their national museums, to a longer verified view of history. thinking Learn to think and write as Aymarans record yes, no and maybe in each word, when possible. To do less us to avoid humble yes abd no answers without classifying the closely associated “maybe” of Voynich words, and the attested context in which the documents were written.

    Best Regards,

    Milo Gardner
    Allowing ancient documents to speak, as originally written, without modern bias.

  15. Wiki is for me a medium to quickly become a basic knowledge.
    How safe and detailed it is, is not yet important once.
    If I want it more precisely, I have to work myself and buff books and lexicon.

    @ Nick
    How do you think you could realize your idea? Facing theories without which it ends in a combat club?

  16. Milo: to a very large degree, Wikipedia is culturally dependent on the media from which it draws its sustenance. And so it perhaps should not be surprising if secondary source biases reappear in tertiary source material, however hard a neutral point of view is sought. :-/

  17. John Baez: thank you very much indeed, I wasn’t aware of that at all, a great link. 🙂

  18. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on September 11, 2017 at 4:47 pm said:

    Hello Nick.
    You still just sigh.

  19. Charlotte Auer on September 11, 2017 at 6:17 pm said:

    Wikipedia is no more and no less than a dynamically growing conglomerate of common knowledge. Serious research in a special domain does not depend on that, and was already done long before the internet became reality. So “real” research will always stay independent and only accessible for insiders who know each other anyway.

    Voynich research is no research at all because there is no single institution, no standard or whatsoever commonly agreed. Everyone can do what he/she wants to do and hope for his/her approach to lead to the final solution. So what?

    There is absolutely no need for any kind of wiki ruled by some self-appointed experts who never decoded one single word of the codex by themselves. At least not for the kind of “experts” who judge other people’s work without having the slightest expertise to do it properly.

  20. Charlotte: in my opinion, the sooner the whole “researchers are heroic outsiders” myth gets thrown away, the better off we’ll all be.

  21. Peter: what would be so bad about building a website that encourages researchers to do the best research that they can?

  22. Fred Brandes on September 11, 2017 at 9:55 pm said:

    Perhaps an “umbrella” site with links to sites, blogs, whatever (organized by category or topic) wherein included links have pledged to uphold a stated research criteria and methodology and submitted to peer review. The umbrella site’s value to the public would be the review and enforcement of the methodology of each site along with the assurance that the expert peer review would maintain a high standard of content quality.

  23. Charlotte Auer on September 11, 2017 at 11:05 pm said:

    Nick,

    I’m not aware of such a myth and the researchers I know are neither heroic nor outsiders.

    Another question is why they should contribute “the best research that they can” to a website that isn’t relevant to their profession? They are better off in their classic peer reviewed publications instead of compromising their reputation.

    There is nothing bad about your high-flown ideas of a new kind of wiki or research networking under a common roof as long as you don’t lose grip on academic reality. To build a multidisciplinary website that is devoted to one single research goal, as for example the Voynich, is not such a bad idea, but then you have to have a board of widely accepted peers and you have to judge, to select and to reject. In the end you will have a kind of an online
    Voynich Magazine and a lot of new ennemies. Apart from the still remaining researchers and amateurs who just ignore you and your fabulous new website.

    If your ideas go far beyond the Voynich as a single goal, then a lot more trouble will be guaranteed.

  24. Nick
    I do not think that it is bad, I wonder how is the fuktionieren. A specific theme or across the universe.
    Would not it inevitably lead to chaos if one were not limited to a few subjects?
    Is it possible to implement the whole thing at all?

  25. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on September 12, 2017 at 8:14 am said:

    Nick. The manuscript 408 is above your abilities. No scientist nor an ant will ever be able to tell the true meaning of the manuscirpt 408. The manuscript is very complex written and encrypted. Written in Czech language. This is, of course written in the manuscript. Eliška writes it in several places in the manuscript.
    Wikipedia has nothing to do with your inability.

  26. Peter: probably the best way to find whether or not it is possible is by trying to build it. 😉

  27. Fred: I don’t think it would be a good idea to somehow compel research to qualify before allowing it to be listed. All the same, what I (broadly) have in mind would tackle the same set of problems but from quite a different angle.

  28. Nick, maybe a trial is still the best.
    There are also no blueprints for card houses. 😉

  29. Peter: 🙂

    All of which is why I’m currently looking at other people’s houses that haven’t been blown down. 🙂

  30. 🙂

  31. Here’s something you may care to use in your valiant efforts to convince other Wikipedians that Gibbs has not been endorsed by anyone. Far from it.

    “We do not endorse any user generated content, nor do we guarantee the accuracy or authority of any user generated content. ”
    https://www.the-tls.co.uk/terms-conditions/

    Gibbs’ article is user generated content.

    NYT has a take on Gibbs’ ‘solution’ –
    https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-voynich-manuscript-and-truth-on-the-internet

    Smithsonian mentions Metafilter and ‘poking holes’.

    Smithsonian:”…consider yourself warned: the Voynich rabbit hole is very, very deep.”

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/6-things-know-about-mysterious-voynich-manuscript-180964847/

    No-sword on Metfilter:”I mean the solution is easily testable. Just hire some women to sit in decoctions of unidentifiable plants holding lodestones, and see if Atlantis rises or not.”

    http://www.metafilter.com/169274/Voynich-final-answer

    You know this, Nick, but I’m posting for any who don’t know core Wikipedia policy.

    “Giving due weight and avoiding giving undue weight means that articles should not give minority views or aspects as much of or as detailed a description as more widely held views or widely supported aspects. Generally, the views of tiny minorities should not be included at all, except perhaps in a “see also” to an article about those specific views. For example, the article on the Earth does not directly mention modern support for the flat Earth concept, the view of a distinct minority; to do so would give undue weight to it.”

    Gibbs has no endorsements: he is a minority of one, as I think you already said.

    Best of luck.

  32. @Nick: I just took a look at Smithonian’s latest offering in re the “Voynich” supposedly being bought by Rudolph II. Utter nonsense. Even more nonsensical is the inability of supposed experts to separate fact from fiction. Especially irritating to me is their conceit.
    Example: Rudolph II was not interested in texts of any kind.
    He was, however a collector of paintings . His favorite painting was a ‘portrait’ of himself. Fruits and vegetables arranged in such a meticulous manner that Rudolph and his court could not fail to recognize the ‘subject’ .

    bd

  33. I do not think the Rudolf bought the VM as a single book, but it is the same that he bought the entire library. Whether the VM was in inventory. Would surely make a search worth if there is an inventory list at this time.

  34. Peter: there are several inventory lists, but there’s nothing in them that says “batshit crazy naked woman manuscript”. 😉

  35. Mark Knowles on September 15, 2017 at 12:42 pm said:

    Nick: I have a suggestion. If you are so inclined you could list as a topic for your blog something like “the 100 things a researcher in the Voynich should be familiar with”. You could link to pages of your blog where appropriate. These items could be things such as facts we know, particularly relevant or interesting manuscripts, interesting or prominent speculation, key debates regarding the Voynich and so on. You have already created a page about the 100 things we don’t know which you don’t need to rehash, but can certainly link to. This could serve as a good entrance point for a researcher wanting to get up to speed with all aspects of Voynich research. Whilst there are many aspects of Voynich research which are not directly related to or particularly relevant my own I would welcome the opportunity to broaden my knowledge in relation to the Voynich. Personally I am less interested in the history of the manuscript: Wilfred Voynich, John Dee, Edward Kelly, Emperor Rudolf etc. I think we can assume most researchers know the known history and the overall basics.

    If you have already produced such a page then if you could let me know the link to it that would be great.

    It is your blog, of course, so you may well feel that your time is better spent on other topics.

  36. Mark Knowles on September 15, 2017 at 1:55 pm said:

    I spotted YouTube video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBC40qHbHY8

    Is there an English language version?

  37. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on September 15, 2017 at 2:10 pm said:

    Nick and ants.
    I also have one advice. It would be very relevant to use the Czech language in the manuscript 408.

    I know it’s complicated for you. But otherwise you will still be at the beginning.

  38. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on September 15, 2017 at 6:43 pm said:

    Nick and ants.
    I will give you an example. Galerie Voynich f 77 r.
    Eliška writes there what is the character of the letter ” E “.
    The character E has value of number 5.

    It can be seen by every ant and scientist.
    Eliška drew it to you. Picture left side. 🙂

  39. Mark Knowles on September 15, 2017 at 10:26 pm said:

    Nick: Good documentary, but a bit short. However to be honest all the documentaries I have seen on the Voynich are too short. It just seems that people don’t make 5 hour long documentaries.

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