On Wiki-Universes and Peer-Review


I am a frequent visitor to WattsUpWithThat, Anthony Watts’ global warming  skeptic blog that is once again up for Best Science Blog, which is an amazingly egalitarian and open site.

Yesterday, Anthony was asking for input/feedback on the state of the site.  One of the commenters mentioned the word “wiki.”  I had not had reason to look up exactly what a wiki was, so I took the time out to Google it.  After looking it up, I recognized almost immediately that a wiki is exactly my concept of how the Universe was “created,” to use the religious term.

I’ve understood for probably 35 years that the universe was not designed by one stand-alone intelligence.  I first got the idea for this straight out of the Bible, because the Hebrew term used in Genesis 1:1 is not singular.  The term used is “elohim.”  “Eloi” is singular, “elohim” is plural.  Now, way back then I saw that this throws an entirely different light on “the” Creation as presented.  It doesn’t mean I accept the Biblical account in any religious way.  It in fact means I saw it more as a collaborative effort.

In my years in engineering, I know for a fact that nothing is built from first glimmer to finished product.  And if there is one thing that is really a “finished product,” as much as possible, it is the universe.  “Aha!” you might react, “But the universe isn’t a finished product!  There is evolution!  Everything is evolving, especially life in the universe!”  We will tackle that shortly.  Let me first finish my thoughts about the effort to create the universe…

A “wiki,” as defined in the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia as

A Web site that can be quickly edited by its visitors with simple formatting rules.

A ProfessorWaters on July 5th, 2004 wrote:

Maybe this is an idea already discussed in “wiki space” already. But I have “only” been a contributor to Wikipedia (english) for a bit over a year. I also happen to be a university professor.

The concept of peer review is a foundational one in scholarly journals — in which contributions are “reviewed” by external referees prior to publication. There are a few electronic journals that have been established which use a formal peer review process prior to “publication” in electronic media.

Let me analogize (I apologize in advance, I am an engineering professor not a computer scientist). My understanding of the concept of open source software, and also to some extent of the Wikipedia and other wiki foundation projects is that they rely on the concept that many “eyeballs” improve the product (the converse of “too many cooks spoil the broth”). Suppose a WikiJournals project were organized in which scholarly articles (with appropriate footnoting, etc) were downloaded and subject to the “review” of the wiki-universe. I am impressed at the relative lack of errors in the wikipedia articles that are in areas I am highly knowledable about.

Peer reviews in scholarly journals are conducted by selected reviewers known to an editor. Could it not be that a WikiJournal would attract a community of knowledgeable contributors and reviewers (and unlike traditional journals — either electronic or print — the nature of Wiki permits intensive dialoging (and very import to me — it seems — archiving and potential for redaction of changes). My observation of the dynamics in wikipedia is that except for politically/culturally charged topics, after a while the edits do die off.

Of course such a project would require some “early adopter” volunteers amongst the scholarly community.

I look forward to comments.

I enjoyed his mention of peer review quite a bit.  Peer review is the method scientific journals use to vet new scientific articles, with the idea being to make sure the work is done to a high standard.  It works like this: a scientist or group of scientists submits his written paper along with his data and methodology spelled out, and then the editor assigns two or more expert reviewers in that field (who are kept anonymous) to judge the paper; once it passes muster it is then published in the journal.  Along the way the reviewers may find flaws in the science, the arguments or the presentation, and if they do, the originator makes changes as necessary and then it is passed.  Sometimes the reviewers reject the paper, and the journal takes a pass on the article.  Sometimes another journal will pass a paper rejected by another journal.

As was shown in the Climategate emails and files, there can be a good bit  of non-objectivity in the reviewing of papers, and this has brought some focus on the workability of peer review.  Even though it has been the method of choice in science for many decades, people have begun to put some though into what other method might be used.

This brings up the question of why it was thought to be the one and only method of judging papers.  In some fields there is competition for funds, competition for glory, academic competition for positions, and competition between viewpoints/paradigms.  We are all aware of the resistance to change that comes in science, and the hoops that researchers are sometimes, such as Galileo, kept from getting their findings out to the world.  There are other such stories about the resistance t new ideas – Wegener’s moving continents, Harlan Bretz’ channeled scablands flood, Copernicus with his heliocentric solar system.  All were held up for decades before winning over the majority of scientists.  Their works – though  more correct than the then-current theories – were rejected.  There are currently alternative hypotheses in several scientific fields that are not allowed the light of day, and that may some day prove to be more correct than the present paradigms.  Some current paradigms – global warming, for example – are being challenged out loud, in journals, in newspapers, on blogs, in magazines.

Some in science say this is fine, that this is the way science is supposed to work.  However, the tone in science today is one of polarization, of unbelief that papers are blocked by political differences, that scientists do not always have the truth as their guide as much as vested interests.  Yes, some say, even if the more powerfully connected can block the papers of those who are skeptical to global warming, in the end it will all work out and we will have the truth.

While I agree that this tug of war will resolve itself in time, that time may be measured in several decades, perhaps a century or more.  It literally might not be settled until the predictions of global warming scientists do or do not come true for the global average temperature in the year 2100.  This being 2011, that does not warm my heart.

So, I ask if a better way may exist.

The internet, with its blogs and online news sources, has changed the way people get their information.  It is something that caught the world unawares.  It affected the US Presidential election in 2008.  It was specifically part of bringing us Climategate.  The world is changing under our feet, and it may be that peer review may sometime soon be changed as well.

I welcome Professor Waters’ suggestion that a wikijournal may be worth considering.  As blogs and online news sources have shown us, though, the decision may be made in ways we don’t foresee at the present time.  Some event may occur which forces the change – perhaps from the inside, but more likely from the outside.  I am keeping my ear to the ground to see what happens.

But how about Creation?  How does this apply to Creation?

A wiki being a wide-open editing system Professor Waters considers it a possible replacement for peer review as we now know it. He admits to not knowing how it would pan out.  I agree.  I don’t either.  But I can see it working, at least in its broader trends.  I see some of that happening on the blogs – very little so far, but it seems to be growing slowly.  People are engaging each other and beginning to shape ideas collectively.  I must say, I don’t see it happening on Wikipedia so far, though.  Not yet.  Still, on the subject of global warming, Wikipedia had one editor who was a vociferous pro-global-warming fanatic who would edit out any contributions contrary to his own viewpoint – and eventually Wikipedia blocked his access to the site for a long period.  Still, issues that are controversial are subject to insertions and deletions, and that will be a problem in any wiki type collective effort.

But still, I see this just being the very beginning, and that “the rules of the road” have not yet been written.  (In the early days of wagon, carriage and auto traffic rules of the roadways were not settled for decades and were a gradual development, and developed in different countries at different rates.  In the end there is no one set of rules of the road; each country has its own – even now in the U.S. each state has a slightly different set of rules.)

I believe that this wiki approach will, in the end, become a huge part of how things are done.  Instead of the thinking being that too many cooks spoil the broth, I do believe that two heads are better than one.  And if two are better than one, then many heads are better than two.  Are you listening all you Creationists and Evolutionists?

I think it entirely probable that it took many, many minds to arrive at the universe we have now.  Some minds were more adept at molecular structures, but didn’t know a thing about what we call botany.  And vice versa.  Some had great ideas about the motions of galaxies and star systems.  I don’t think it happened in any short time.  I think it was a case of getting the ball rolling and then making adjustments.  I would even go so far as to suggest that the “laws of Physics” have possibly changed.  It might be that what we call magic even was real.  It does not strain my own credulity that human minds might at some time have been able to move objects.

Physicist David Bohm argued that the human mind has the ability to affect the holographic universe he said we live in.  If so, to what degree is that possible?  The book “The Holographic Universe” details the Jansenists in France in the 1700s who did amazing feats that belie belief.  Other phenomena discussed were two men who could have swords run through them without bleeding and who would not show wounds when the swords were withdrawn.  Was it magic?  Or were physical laws being implemented beyond what we currently know?  We all take it as natural that when aboriginal peoples saw modern technology, it would have seemed like magic to them.  But how many of us believe that our own understanding of reality might not be just as far below some other civilization’s technology?

Yet is it that we learn more and that is it?  Or may it also be that the laws of physics evolve, too?  Yes, it is more probable (from our hubristic point of view, anyway) that it is just us not having learned some of the laws of physics yet.  But maybe not.  I hold an open mind on that.

I wonder – out loud, even – if creation isn’t still going on.  I wonder if the universe has been created by a set of engineers – a LARGE set – working in a wiki environment and editing their creation as they go along, and creating a wiki-universe. . . with “creating” being in the present tense.

If it was elohim (plural) who “created” the heavens and the Earth “in the beginning”, the question certainly arises, “How many are we talking about?  Three?  25?  1,024?  17 billion?”  With a universe currently thought to be billions of light years across, with trillions and quadrillions of stars, how many contributors would be needed?  If we hold to just the current idea that it was a long time ago that it was all built, and that nothing has been added to it since then, then their underlying limitation (according to Einstein) was the speed of light, but that means that they couldn’t have built it in less time than the current age of the universe.  If so, does that mean the time since the beginning of the beginning is 1x the age of the universe or 2x?

Yes, cosmologists claim to know how things happened in the first expansion of space and matter out into the void.  But all that they talk of is angels on the heads of pins, because 90% of what they “know” is just math formulae.  Black holes?  Big Bang?  If you believe they really know, try being a fly on the wall when they discuss things among themselves.  It is said that if you have 100 archeologists in a room, you have probably 150 different ideas on what happened.  I believe the same is true of cosmologists, even if their public face seems united in consensus.  I will make this falsifiable prediction: Every single one of the ideas of cosmologists today will be replaced by the year 2111.

The more we learn about how complicated animal organisms are (plants, too, for that matter), the more I am convinced that it did not happen by a progression from eukaryotes and prokaryotes through to us.  When it is a 17-step process just to clot blood, pardon my not believing the accidental evolution story.  If even one of those 17 steps is left out, blood does not clot.  What are the chances then that the 17 came together within a body that was at some low level of evolving even itself, much less mixing and matching the chemical steps until one combination ended in stanching blood flow?

At the same time, the Creationists can’t possibly have it right, because they don’t even use thought processes – they just take some translation by someone in early 16th century England of ambiguous words written long after the fact by people who could not  have known what happened, themselves.  At least the scientists are putting out effort to find out what it is all about.  Getting down on bended knees and closing one’s eyes is not my idea of serious inquiry.

At the same time, since I don’t think it happened accidentally, I also agree with the “elohim” being plural.  As an engineer, I know how difficult it is to get something like automation right.  One person can’t do something as simple as putting a screw into a threaded hole.  Oh, one engineer can design it, but show me the engineer who has ever done every step of it, including machining the materials, heat-treating the materials, making every screw and nut used, making every sensor and wire from scratch, writing the program code, and then debugging the program and proving out the machine for the client company’s approval.  And if you can find one (you can’t), ask him how long it took.  Then look at the complexity of a liver or eye and tell me that one mentality did either one, or that it came about by accidental confluence of environmental stimuli.  As hard as our scientists are studying things, we probably don’t know 2% of what is going on in the human body.  We can’t create life.  We can copy some of it.  We use stem cells as if they are magic wands, and we pat ourselves on the back because we found out they can be any kind of cell.  But that doesn’t mean we understand even one BIT about what a stem cell is doing. It will be a long time before we do.  We don’t know why aspirin works.  We don’t even know why electricity is able to produce horsepower.  It is enough that we do know it does, but the why has never been determined.  Electrons moving from one molecule to another – how that makes horsepower, ask any electrical engineer or physicist.  they don’t know.  They only know it does, and they utilize it.  Utility is not knowledge.

So, though we know how to USE things does not mean we know why they work the way they do.  Underneath each molehill we know is a mountain we don’t know.

Included in that is how the universe was built.

Some day a very long time from now, we may.  But not today.

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