Moulton Lava

Moultonic Musings

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Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Scathing Glances

Speaking of scathing glances, I'm glowering at Wikipedia these days.

In an idle moment last week, I looked up the article on Affective Computing to see how up-to-date it was. I'm attached to the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab in the role of an unfunded Visiting Scientist. The latest project there is to develop technologies that will help people on the Autism Spectrum make sense of emotion cues that they have difficulty processing on their own in real time. This is like providing handy calculators for everybody else, because most people have difficulty quickly doing math on their own in real time.

Anyway, the article included a link to the Director of the Affective Computing Research Group, so I clicked on that to see what it looked like.

I was appalled.

The biography section was thin. A couple of sentences. Then there was a prominent section about an unrelated controversy over Darwinism and Creationism.

So I filled in the biography, essentially by copying material verbatim from the official MIT faculty biography pages.

And I deleted the section on the creationism controversy as it had no bearing on the subject, and because it presented factually incorrect claims derived from propaganda on a Creationist website which the NY Times had written a story about.

The Discovery Institute (DI) is a think tank associated with the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) — a controversial public relations and political action group that pushes Intelligent Design as a pseudo-scientific alternative to scientific theories.

Notwithstanding the highly politicized nature of the Center for Science and Culture and the Discovery Institute, there are legitimate scientists working in technical fields adjacent to the more prominent areas of Darwinian models who point out that Natural Selection is but one of many mechanisms at work, and that the others (which some of them are working on) are being overshadowed. For example, in Cell Biology and Biochemistry, there are very complex organic molecules which change through mechanisms unrelated to Natural Selection. More to the point, the origin of complex structures like DNA is not well understood. DNA is a self-replicating molecule, but it needs the mechanisms of the cell to complete a cycle of reproduction. How all that complicated stuff ever got started in the first place is still a scientific mystery, and is well beyond the scope of Darwin's model, which only addresses how new species arise from existing ones through natural selection.

Much of this is all very technical and arcane, and of relatively little interest to the general public. But more than a few scientists are concerned that the better-known Darwinian component overshadows the other branches, leaving the public believing that Darwin's model covers it all (including the origin of life itself).

So back in 2001, about a hundred scientists, in fields like Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Biological Systems Theory, Computer Science, and Nano-Technology signed a statement calling for doing a better job of sorting out which theories accounted for which observations, and making sure that Darwin's model of Natural Selection wasn't mindlessly invoked beyond its legitimate scope. Recombinant DNA and Genetic Drift, for example, should be given equal time. And Genetic Engineers and Nano-Technologists, who are engineering extremely complex molecules also weighed in on the conversation.

In 2006, the Center for Science and Culture (along with the Discovery Institute) seized upon that caution and spun it into a controversial public relations campaign attacking Darwin and promoting the teaching of the pseudo-scientific alternative known as Intelligent Design. The Discovery Institute cited the complaints of the other scientists, enabling the Center for Science and Culture to claim that over a hundred scientists "dissented from Darwin" and had signed what some observers called an "anti-evolution" petition back in 2001.

So the NY Times ran a story about the brouhaha and interviewed a handful of the scientists, who dismissed the CSC's unsupported spin on their debate and gave their own (highly technical) reasons for their views.

You'd think that would be the end of it, but a few fanatics (including a cabal of anonymous and ethically challenged editors on Wikipedia) launched an ill-conceived campaign to document the dispute. And that is why all that mokita appeared in the biography of my colleague in Affective Computing. She sides with the technicians who could care less about the public brouhaha. She thinks that science should be done diligently and that students should learn how to carefully examine the evidence for their theories and to make sure they understand the scope of alternative, adjacent, and overlapping theories. She's interested in science education, not noisy public relations campaigns.

But you wouldn't know that from reading the Wikipedia biography. You'd think she's a raving lunatic in favor of the the CSC's campaign, and therefore worthy of ridicule, abuse, and harassment.

But try to excise any of that inappropriate material from her Wikipedia biography! No way. A small army of fanatics will instantly revert it, claiming the NY Times article as a definitive and reliable source to assert that what the CSC says about those 100 scientists is a verified fact -- that they are certifiably anti-evolutionary dissenters from Darwin, unqualified to speak on the issue of rigor in science and science education.

Now I happen to believe that publishing false and defamatory material about a living person is a no-no. But I have no power to stop the Wikipedians from propagating the dubious claims of the DI or the public relations slant of CSC as if it were the ground truth. Why? Because the NY Times reported a story about it.

So I am disgusted with Wikipedia.

And I fear for the future of science education in our culture.

And I also fear for the concept of ethics in online journalism.

Color me bummed out.