Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why I like Wikipedia

A common refrain I hear about Wikipedia is that it is not to be trusted because anybody can edit any article, that unlike a traditional encyclopedia, there is no enforced expert review of articles. While those observations are true, I think dismissing Wikipedia as a result is the wrong conclusion to draw from them.

It seems to me that in general, the very fact that the broad community can edit articles is actually Wikipedia's strength. The argument behind this is essentially the thesis of the book The Wisdom of Crowds, and can be summarized as this: large groups of people - including experts, amateurs and even crackpots - collectively contain more wisdom on a given topic than any single expert.

We actually see this every day in the stock market. What is the value of a specific company? Any given stock analyst - who we typically consider experts in the field - can give an answer to this, yet multiple analysts often disagree with each other by a considerable degree. So why would we trust any one of them to give a "valid" answer when we have no way to know whether one is any more accurate than another? Well, we actually do have a way to know this: the stock market itself - composed of experts, amateurs, and crackpots alike - does a pretty good job ("pretty good" is a key qualifier - I'll come back to that below) at figuring out the value of a company, and most people put a lot of trust in that value, and it is remarkably accurate at doing so over long periods of time (i.e., not so much on a day-to-day basis).

The same dynamics are at work at Wikipedia. Any given article is created and edited by a collection of experts, amateurs, and crackpots, and yet the net result can be remarkably accurate - not perfect, but "pretty good," as with the stock market.

Just as there are day-to-day fluctuations in a stock's value that have nothing to do with its intrinsic value, there are edits that are made day-to-day to articles on Wikipedia that may be accurate, biased, or outright nonsense. This is what Wikipedia's naysayers tend to focus on, but I think it misses the point. Rather, the more interesting fact is that Wikipedia's community and process has a set of rules that not only allow anyone to edit, but also anyone to flag something as problematic, so that discussions can take place and - equally important - controversies can be exposed.

Pick an article on, say, butterflies, and you're not likely to get a lot of controversy. Pick an article on George W. Bush and you're likely to get somewhat more. Readers do need to understand that while Wikipedia in general is quite accurate and unbiased, that any given assertion in any given article may or may not be; one must decide for oneself how much to trust these statements. (This, by the way, is why Wikipedia values references and attributions for assertions).

Yes, Wikipedia can be gamed, yes it can be flawed. But for the most part, it is like the stock market - much more comprehensive, up-to-date, and (yes) accurate in the big picture than any collection of "experts" could produce.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cuba policy

Yesterday the Obama administration eased some restrictions on travel and transfers of money to Cuba. Seems to me that this is a reasonable step to take.

I've thought for a while that we should scrap most of our current embargo against Cuba. To be clear, the Cuban government is an evil dictatorship that abuses and represses its people, and we should not be supporting it. But I think our Cuba policy is emblematic of a mistake that we make quite frequently in our policies: we very often confuse what is justifiable or morally right with what actually achieves worthy goals. We're all familiar with the admonition that the ends don't justify the means. Our Cuba policy is a great example of the inverse to this rule: justifiable means failing to achieve our end goal.

The Cuban revolution was 50 years ago. We've been using the embargo to try to undo the revolution for 50 years. And yet Castro is still alive and has achieved a peaceful transfer of power. And meanwhile, other nations have established productive trade relations with Cuba, which means that they not only fill in the void left by the U.S. but also make it harder for us to eventually establish similar relationships. The net result is that I suspect we hurt ourselves much more than we hurt Cuba. I think that anyone who claims that the policy of isolation has been effective is out of touch with reality.

So why do we cling to it? I suspect it's two reasons: primarily the distaste for "legitimizing" the Cuban regime (never mind that that cat is out of the bag), but the other reason is of course the political clout of the Cuban-American community that cannot let go and has a degree of political clout that is quite disproportionate to their size.

My personal opinion is that we should hold our noses and scrap the embargo. We can achieve more change in Cuba through a bear hug embrace than we can through an arm's length relationship. China and Vietnam are political paradises by nobody's standard, but their populations today enjoy both a much higher standard of living and considerably more freedom than they enjoyed just 20 years ago, all due to engagement in trade. Having a Cuba that is like China or Vietnam, while distasteful, is certainly a step up from what Cuba is now.

It's been 50 years and the policy of isolation simply hasn't worked. If for no other reason than that, we should try a new policy.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Is Canada preparing to attack the US?

I'm getting quite worried about an imminent attack on the US, and this time the threat is not from radical Islamicists. I fear that our neighbor to the North is plotting an attack.

All of the evidence is there, if we as a nation would only open our eyes and face up to the facts.

First of all, I notice that Canada has slowly been creeping closer and closer - almost imperceptibly - until it has come right up against our northern border. In fact, if you just step across the 49th parallel from south to north, you'll discover that Canada is right there!

They've also been moving their populations closer to us in anticipation of an attack. Something like 75% of all Canadians live within just 90 miles of the US border! They seem so friendly, those Canadians, but why else would they be inching their country and their people so close to us if there were no underlying sinister intentions?

Finally, I'll point out the most shocking fact of all: Canada has quietly gone ahead and created their own military, their own government, and has even begun printing their own money. Why would they do these things if not for an intent to govern? Clearly they are intent upon imposing themselves upon us, usurping all for which we stand.

It is time for Americans to recognize the Canadian threat and go to defend our borders!