Proof by Intimidation

There has been quite a lot of excitement over at Wikipedia-EN these past week with the media "discovering an imposter". A tried and true administrator, EssJay, was to be hired by Wikia for a top (paid) editing job. At the point that Real Life (tm) intersected the Internet it was discovered that EssJay was actually a college dropout in his early twenties and not a learned theologican.

Well gosh. Does that make his edits any worse, just because he was pretending to be someone else? Apparently it does, someone found a discussion in which he ranted "I have a doctorate in theology, so I know what is correct". He has now resigned from the Wikipedia (surely soon to return under another name with a doctorate in zoology...) and did not get that editing job.

It reminds me of the day of my rude awakening as a grad student. Like many students I had believed that professors and learned people with doctorates were rather pope-like in their infallibility. They strove for truth, were above pettyness, and were just vastly intelligent. Sure, there were a few bozos, but I attributed this to stray values. I had my "Question Authority" button on regularly, but that was for administrators and burocrats, people with no connection to Real Life.

I was at a meeting of the large, EU (well, it was called the EEC then)-funded multi-national research group. Prof. Everyone Knows Me was at the board doing a proof. I think I lost the trail shortly after "Let x= .....". One of the research guys from the Danish group put up his hand and was recognized. "Sir," he said, "that is not true for all cases." Prof. Everyone Knows Me was puzzled, then pulled back, looked at the board and said "Of course it is true, I have thought this out!"

Those of us in the back row started giggling about "Proof by Intimidation", "I'm Prof. EKM, I say so, so it is true."

This brave soul would not let loose. He replied "Let me show you" and went up to the board and scribbled a lot of mathematics. It was evident to those who could follow that indeed, the grad student had constructed a case in which the purported theorem did not hold. Prof. EKM waved his hand and said, well, this case cannot happen because I am only looking at code which is produced from a proven-correct compiler, this case cannot be produced by a proven-correct compiler. And the lad sat down while the proof continued.

Ah ha. So even the big shots made errors? But we had to believe everything they said, just because they were who they were?

From that point on, I no longer believed people only because they have lots of nice extraneous letters decorating their name. It is the content, what they do and say, that counts.

And so it should be at the Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales has suggested a sort of Certification Authority for proving who we are. This is a can of worms - it is trivial to print off your own doctoral certificate these days (although if you misspell the name of the school or the field you are supposedly holding a doctorate in, it will be obvious that this is a fake). People even get doctorates (real ones) by handing in false theses - plagiarisms.

Respect must be earned, one edit at a time, one publication at a time, one discussion at a time. Of course this is difficult, and how do people in X know when A is a con artist from Y? You don't - you just keep a healthy skepticism open, question authority, and strive for truth.

1 comment:

Jim Horning said...

I had a different experience with a Professor EKM.

When I pointed out an error, he corrected it. I said, "It's nice to know that even Prof. EKM makes mistakes."

He responded, "One should not confuse a love of perfection with a claim to have achieved it."