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Hogarth judge

December 2016

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Hogarth judge

J'accuse

Anti-supernatural bias on Wikipedia


I believe that anti-supernatural bias has become a problem on Wikipedia. Like most biases in Wikipedia, it fits the pattern: the community of active editors on Wikipedia differs from the world at large in a significant way, and that demographic difference makes a difference in Wikipedia content.

Contents


1 "Scientific skepticism" is a fringe position

2 Verifiability: why belief systems are not works of fiction

3 Reliable sources, and the open secrets of magic

4 Notes


"Scientific skepticism" is a fringe position

Alchemists developed a rich textual of hermetic lore, combining chemical and magical ideas. To what extent is this literature available to describe what alchemists thought and did?


What we need to remember first is that the "scientific skepticism" of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and similar institutions is itself a fringe position. Adherence to the tenets of scientific skepticism seems also to be positively related to ideas such as materialism, positivism, trust in scientific progress, and, of course, the ultimate fringe position (atheism). As the content guideline on "fringe theories" says, "We use the term fringe theory in a very broad sense to describe ideas that depart significantly from the prevailing or mainstream view in its particular field."


The wider world accepts the supernatural. Specifically, the wider world knows that there is a God, or at least a world of spirits. A variety of hypotheses have been proposed to explain why this is so. The simplest one is that people simply apprehend natively that there is a God; but other important philosophers have proposed more complicated explanations. I'm not claiming that we should "teach the controversy" here, but on the other hand the existence or not of a god, or a soul, or a spiritual world, are by most people's estimations, including the logical positivist's, formally unknowable. Most of your neighbors go on believing no matter how vehemently anyone claims that supernatural belief requires extraordinary proof.


Ideas like sympathetic magic, the law of contagion, and the gambler's fallacy are things that, like it or not, the human race is stuck with. Magical thinking isn't going away any time soon either. The belief systems that human societies have founded on these flimsy foundations are nevertheless fascinating, and to the extent they have a documented literature, potential subjects for the encyclopedia. The various bodies of lore that people have founded on these ideas include most forms of occult magic, protosciences or pseudosciences like astrology, alchemy, and homeopathy, and a variety of persistent beliefs such as the evil eye. What's at stake is the depth of coverage we are allowed into the content of these systems, and the acceptability of works by believers explaining their teachings as sources for those teachings.



Verifiability: why belief systems are not works of fiction



Some editors have taken to describing the works of prescientific disciplines like astrology or alchemy as "in universe". That, of course, is a Wikipedia term of art that relates entirely and only to fiction. As such, in this context it is dismissive to the point of impertinence, and a manifestation of blatant bias. Belief systems are not works of fiction, and the substance of their beliefs can and should be referenced to respected writers in their fields. The underlying assumption is that the substance of these bodies of human lore is incoherent. No text, for an example, by an astrologer explaining the substance of astrology can be cited as an authoritative reference; since astrology is not science, each astrologer makes it up anew again. This is not how it works.


Ask an astrologer, "What element is Gemini?" With almost unanimous voice they answer Air! There might be one out there who disagrees. Nobody's going to prove him wrong; astrology is still not science. Yep: from the perception of current science, the question is gibberish. It was the scholarly consensus six hundred years ago that the question was meaningful, and that there was a right answer, wrong answers, and not even wrong answers, (like, Nitrogen!). As such, it meets our policy of verifiability. It remains the case that astrology, like any other body of human lore, can be defined by the consensus of its practitioners.


Astrology, here, is just an example. Our pages on the zodiac signs are still woefully inadequate, most conspicuously because they do not present the platitudes that mainstream astrologers consistently use to describe the several sun signs. This is something that I think our readers would expect to see covered in a page bearing the title "Gemini (astrology)". My God, that page is pathetic. Our readers ought to be able to learn that mainstream astrologers say that Gemini is an Air sign, and that they tend to talk too much. This page is scientific proof confirming the hypothesis that it's true. You might think it's nonsense. It may well be nonsense. But it is nonsense with a vast literature, and our standard for inclusion is verifiability, not truth.


Reliable sources, and the open secrets of magic


Gareth Knight is a fairly well respected and published occultist. He wrote a book called A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism[1]. (I pity the fool who got stuck with an impractical guide to Qabalistic symbolism.) In his text, he associates the sephirah Chesed, which represents the mercy and steadfast love of God, with the number 4. Holy Sesame Street, Batman!


I am uncertain how exactly the mercy of God is related to the number four, or what the reasoning was that resulted in this conclusion. What I am much more certain of is that Knight is not alone in this attribution. I know so because the claim is confirmed by multiple sources considered to be reliable authorities on this kind of magic. I checked Dion Fortune's The Mystical Qabalah.[2] For Dion Fortune, Chesed goes with four as well. I checked Aleister Crowley's 777.[3] Chesed equals four for Crowley too.


This agreement among reliable sources gives the lie to the "in universe" line. There is a mainstream body of opinion among practitioners of the sort of Western qabalistic magic followed broadly by Knight, Fortune, and Crowley, and among the bits of knowledge you pick up if you study the field is that Chesed equals four. I doubt this is a testable proposition in any scientific sense. It doesn't make any difference. Multiple reliable sources reveal that not only is Chesed associated with 4, but also with the planet Jupiter (astrological symbol: Jupiter symbol.svg) and the archangel Zadkiel. Fortune also reports that the four suit 4 cards of the Tarot deck also fall under the presidency of Chesed. (I think I'm beginning to see a pattern here.) Nope, it's not science. These claims are still covered by sources whose authority is acknowledged in the field, and as such factual enough to get into an appropriate encyclopedia article.


Now, I'm not saying that this information belongs in our article about the planet Jupiter; there, a link in the 'mythology' section to the article on Jupiter in astrology (which is easily a large enough subject to support an extensive article) is enough. Does it belong in the article on the angel Zadkiel? I think so. And it also belongs in the article on Chesed.


The "in universe" argument is especially galling, and contrary to Wikipedia's actual verification policies, largely because it adopts a blinkered stance to the actual methods of transmission of traditional belief systems like this one. Because the body of lore in the tradition is not empirically tested, it is assumed to be incoherent. Because the body of lore in the tradition is not empirically tested, every authority that repeats the tradition becomes a primary source without regard to the age of the tradition or its continuity of transmission. Every author is imagined to be free to make it up as she goes along. If we report what one source says, that isn't good enough; there's no proof. If we report that several sources agree, that's original synthesis. These beliefs are all fictional ideas in the heads of believers anyways.


These arguments, I think, fall squarely within the definition of gaming the system. They are "deliberately using Wikipedia policies and guidelines in bad faith to thwart the aims of Wikipedia". And the pitiful state of our articles on the zodiac signs in astrology, among other things, are chiefly monuments to the fact that the aims of Wikipedia have been thwarted in this instance.

Comments

I have had a number of struggles like this over articles that are part of Wikiproject Catholicism. For instance, you say something like "Millions of people continue to visit the shrine of St. Bernadette every year." Somebody puts in "citation needed". The exact figure is available at the Lourdes Shrine website, which you can't use as a reference because it is a devotional site maintained by "believers".

They call it NPOV but what it really is, is an effort to insert trendy "skepticism" into every article on a subjective experience.