DANIEL VAUGHAN: The world of tomorrow is being built on biased common knowledge

December 21, 2018

DANIEL VAUGHAN: The world of tomorrow is being built on biased common knowledge

In December 2017, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman revived an old adage in the headline for an editorial entitled: “Facts Have a Well-Known Liberal Bias.” Yes, according to the left, anyone who disagrees with them is simply ignoring facts, science, and reason.

This proposition is, of course, nonsensical — and not just because we can point to a number of conservative, libertarian, or moderate beliefs that are factually accurate. It’s also absurd because the definition of “liberal” — even as defined by modern liberals — changes every few years.

The modern progressive’s default viewpoint is one of moral and truth relativity: beliefs, morals, facts, and ideas shift from year to year, generation to generation, and era to era. (Never mind the fact that future liberals will look at modern leftists in disgust for being closed-minded.)

When you hear liberals like Krugman assert that facts are on their side — and their side alone — what you should really be hearing from them is: “My personal political beliefs are the only valid ones.”

Indeed, it’s not that nature itself holds a liberal bias. Instead, leftists are (once again) cherry-picking data that fits their narrative.

Conservatives (or anyone, really) can take on this same exercise of constructing a world that conveniently leaves out facts, people, places, and ideas that challenge their viewpoints, but it’s mainly done by those on the left, who — when not asserting that facts are somehow biased toward them — claim that the arc of history bends toward progressive justice. (I’d love to hear the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans — whose civilizations ended in flames and destruction — give their take on whether history is destined for justice.)

But what’s the point? Why should we care what leftists choose to believe?

Because the decisions we make about what facts to believe form the basis of our collective knowledge as a society.

In this day and age, the internet grants us access to a wealth of knowledge that surpasses anything our ancestors could have imagined — but is this complete knowledge, or only a selected compendium erected by a biased set of editors?

One of the best tests of this is Wikipedia, the world’s encyclopedia. Teachers can rail against using it in the classroom, but it is, without question, the single largest depository of knowledge in the world. And because it is edited by countless volunteers, it represents how a mostly democratic mass of people can create a culture’s common knowledge.

But Wikipedia is not without flaws — far from it, in fact. As Jessi Hempel, senior editor at large at LinkedIn, says: “We need to talk about Wikipedia.”

In her article, published on Monday, Hempel shares the story of this year’s three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. “On October 2, the Canadian optical physicist Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics,” she writes. “A professor at the University of Waterloo, Strickland received the award, which she shared with two other scientists, for her 1980s work transforming lasers into tools people now use for things like surgery to fix vision problems.”

But while one could learn more about the two other winning scientists, Gérard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin, on Wikipedia, the encyclopedia site had no entry on Strickland.

“The science had been deployed for decades, but if you had searched for Strickland’s name on Wikipedia on the morning of October 2, you would have come up with nothing,” Hempel reported. When someone did submit an article on her, it was reviewed for two months before being rejected for failing to “show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.”

Hempel went on to report that this isn’t a one-off for Wikipedia; it appears that they are systemically excluding biographies of women. According to Hempel, only 17.8 percent of profiles on the site are of women.

And why does this matter?

Because the world of tomorrow is being built off Wikipedia’s knowledge base. Whether its founders intended it or not, our society is building its infrastructure on the common knowledge shared by Wikipedia editors.

“Earlier this year, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that Wikipedia would provide fact-checking for the company’s videos; Facebook shortly followed suit.” Hempel reported. When you ask Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa a factual question, their answers come from Wikipedia. Children’s homework begins — and often ends — with Wikipedia.

Indeed, the online encyclopedia is increasingly functioning as the source of the world’s knowledge. But as Hempel argues, “If we are going to rely on Wikipedia as the definitive source of all knowledge, then we must make sure that knowledge is accurate and that its biases are evened out.”

Facts don’t have a liberal bias — or any bias at all. Biases are created by humans, so if the collective knowledge of society is drifting leftward — or any direction — it’s because we, as a society, have chosen that direction, with all the prejudices and blind spots that come with it.

And so far, we’re choosing to accept that — even if it means completely erasing people like Donna Strickland from history.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.