The Largeness of Science

Today was a rare occasion when I sat down, not with Science or Nature, but rather with Discover and the Scientific American. What struck me was the enormity of the modern science enterprise. I like to think that sitting in the director’s chair at an institute for advanced study, I’d have a pretty good feel for at least the feature landscape of science, but while this may be true for the intersection of neurobiology, cognitive psychology and computer science, I’m astounded by what’s going on entirely outside that rather broad purview–in fields such ranging from cosmology down to microbiology.

So my question is: how does a person deeply interested in science (writ large) keep up? This is a challenge not only for folks like myself, but true as well for the bench-top principle investigator. A few years ago, our university took out a site subscription to the Faculty of 1000–which amounts to a sort of expert crowdsourcing of the literature. I valued that a great deal. It seems to be headed in the right direction.

I also acknowledge that Wikipedia (at least in my own narrow expertise of molecular neuroscience) is usually pretty good as far as getting the facts right. Which leaves me hopeful that it might be as good in other fields for which I’m not qualified to make that judgment.

Tyler Cowen on Wikipedia

….meanwhile at The New Republic, my colleague and friend Tyler Cowen weighs in on dissing Wikipedia…..

So, should the academic journal or the Wikipedia entry receive more respect? Should we give literary critics tenure for sparkling reviews on Should The New York Times, on a given day, simply link to the best of the web?

Sadly, the final lessons here are brutal. We cannot quite embrace the wonderfully egalitarian world of knowledge on the web. Error, falsehood, sloppy untruths, and just downright lies are found all too frequently and they threaten to spread even further. That’s why we should defend institutions–such as academia and the standard canons of traditional journalism–that promise full fact-checking and tough standards of rigor. Yes those institutions are very often hypocritical. Everyone faces a deadline or a budget. Nonetheless, dropping our stated loyalties to such institutions would be like removing our thumb from the dike and letting the flood waters in.

I don’t mean this as a call to let up on vigilance. We should criticize our truth-testing institutions and try to improve their truth-tracking properties; of course, this can mean an active life in Wikipedia,, and the blogosphere. But in the final analysis the standards of mainstream institutions are necessary. We should use the web to strengthen, rather than weaken, those procedures.

My own sense is that the real danger with Wikipedia is that the mere knowledge that decision makers with little time to go to the library, “cheat” to it when their boss asks about X (which they’ve never heard of before) creates an opportunity for mischief.


Do students over-use Wikipedia?

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, on the over-use of the on-line source for their “research” in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review. I think the point is well taken.

Money quote:

Here, the problem lies in the use. In doing research, students don’t consult enough sources. Wikipedia is so easy and accessible that it stands out from all other reference works. Thirty years ago, students might check several encyclopedias, look up Cliff Notes, pore through the stacks for background texts, etc. Now, it’s Wikipedia first and, too often, last.

If you have access to the link, take a look at the comments, they are illuminating. What do you think about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia versus its competitors

I’m very interested in the phenomenon of Wikipedia. Many times when Wikipedia comes up as a topic, I find that people are mystified by its democratic approach to editorial control. And of course competitors such as Scholarpedia view this characteristic as the antithesis of true peer review.

However, for many topics where I am able to spot check Wikipedia (in my own areas of expertise) more often than not, Wikipedia is close to spot on. That is articles are detailed, well referenced and cogent. And of course Wikipedia is huge. It’s got a head start (understatement) on its competition.

The question of course is: can I trust Wikipedia to give me close to accurate information in areas outside my expertise?


Decade of the Mind: Wikipedia

I’ve been working today on the Wikipedia entry for the Decade of the Mind project. Turns out to be more complicated than writing a blog entry. The key trick was to link it appropriately into the category tree, provide the citations and un-orphan it (from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study entry).

And yes, I confess to using Wikipedia extensively when reading scientific articles outside my own field.