Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Perplexing Ethical Conundrum

Yesterday, I posted on MoultonLava an item involving Wikimedia Foundation Volunteer Coordinator, Cary Bass, who has long been Jimbo Wales' right-hand man.

Bass had briefly stepped in to deal with an issue brought to his attention by a troubled Wikipedia Admin who goes by the avatar name of FeloniousMonk. When the issue became too hot for Cary Bass to deal with, he bailed from the brouhaha, whereupon it was taken up by the fabled and legendary Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Late Tuesday night, and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I exchanged E-Mail with the Founder, who was seeking to placate FeloniousMonk by persuading me to remove from Wikiversity all links to learning resources currently residing on MoultonLava.

The ethical conundrum arose because some of the content of that E-Mail exchange included problematic content that Jimbo preferred no one else to see.

I initially consulted a trusted counselor (with whom I shared the traffic, and who also helped me craft my responses).

Several custodial admins have offered to intervene, provided I don't air the details here. So I am redacting the sensitive portions of this blog post to give them a chance to resolve the issue without a public spotlight.

What I am leaving in place here is a list of problematic pages on the English Wikipedia that Jimbo promised to look at.

At his request, I compiled this list of problematic BLPs (Biographies of Living Persons) and other assorted travesties propounded by the WikiClique on Intelligent Design ("IDCab" or ID Cabal), and transmitted it by E-Mail to Jimmy...

Rosalind Picard Biography, as I found it, exactly a year ago. It's still not fully cleaned up.

Affective Computing, which the IDCab trashed up in a childish act of revenge.

James Tour Biography, a similar battleground for accuracy, excellence, and ethics in online media.

David Berlinski Biography, an utter travesty if I ever saw one.

Guillermo Gonzalez Biography, another IDCcab hatchet job.

A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, which I fear the IDCab will never bring into compliance with reasonable standards of objectivity and professionalism.

List of Signatories to the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, which for two years contained libelous and defamatory claims about many scientists and academics whose names were emblazoned there.

Icons of Evolution, which can't even cite a bibliographic entry correctly without a protracted edit war on how best to write a hatchet job.

Moulton's User Page, which FeloniousMonk egregiously vandalized, necessitating an MfD by gobsmacked admins.

FeloniousMonk's scathing indictment of Moulton, which he and User:Filll cite in three administrative proceedings: RfAr/C68-FM-SV, RfAr#Moulton, and RfC/ID#Questions.

Filll's non-article space biographical sketch of me (referenced in WP:AN/Moulton)

IDCab's Spammish Inquisition of a year ago which Sam Korn (and others) found to be a sham.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

And so we temporarily suspend review of the underlying ethical conundrum, pending guidance and intervention from ethical custodial admins who are more astute in these delicate (and sometimes adversarial) discussions and negotiations.

I await their demonstration of ethical best practice for resolving this perplexing political dilemma and ethical conundrum.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Taboo Or Not Taboo? That Is the Question.

A few days ago, Cary Bass, Volunteer Coordinator, of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) Office, issued a "foundation directive" to Wikiversity custodial admin, SB Johnny, to systematically remove from the pages of Wikiversity any and all links to Moulton's Blog.

When questioned about this unprecedented departure from Section 230 aloofness, SB Johnny replied:
Ask the guys on IRC [Internet Relay Chat] for details, but we've received word from them that links to Moulton's blog are specifically prohibited. I assume there will be a public explanation when they're ready. --SB_Johnny talk 21:11, 6 August 2008 (UTC)
It's been nearly a week, and no further explanation has come forth from Cary Bass, WMF General Counsel Mike Godwin, WMF Board Chairman Michael Snow, or anyone else at the Wikimedia Foundation Office.

Yesterday, SB Johnny made this move in the resultant chess game:
Suffice it to say that there have been myriad contradictory (mis-)communications on the subject. Please consider me "on Sabbatical" from the Ethics project. --SB_Johnny talk 10:09, 10 August 2008 (UTC)
Additional discussion of this curious turn of events may be found on Moulton's Talk Page at Wikiversity.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Harden Not Your Heart

Even those of us who do not read bible passages on a weekly basis are nonetheless familiar with many of them.

There is a phrase that appears in both the Old and New Testament that has long arrested me. I first heard it in a passage from the Passover Haggadah, in connection to the story of the Ten Plagues. The Plagues were supposed to cause Pharaoh to relent, and allow Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, out of oppression. But nine times, Pharaoh changed his mind. In the text, he "hardened his heart."

In the New Testament there is a prominent teaching, "Harden not your heart."

Most of us understand this metaphor to mean a failure to adopt a merciful, compassionate, and understanding attitude. In the 1982, the pop group Quarterflash produced a musical number entitled Harden My Heart to dramatize seething anger that culminates in bulldozers and flamethrowers.

But why that metaphor? Why the metaphor of "hardening the heart"?

Today we know that the heart is a powerful muscle, used to pump blood.

Like any muscle, it can be made hard by mechanically tensing it. Who among us has not "made a muscle" of the biceps and palpated it to see how hard we can make it?

But the heart is not a voluntary muscle like a bicep. What hardens it?

Today most of us can name the neuropeptide that acts to make the heart race like mad, pumping blood in times of stress or danger. We know it as the Fight or Flight Response, mediated by Adrenaline.

And yet as a child, I was mystified by the biblical phrase, "harden the heart" for a reason that most adults of that era would not have been able to explain.

You see, I'm a redhead.

And there is something different about redheads.

For reasons having to do with physiology and cell biology, those of us who have diminished levels of Eumelanin also have correspondingly diminished levels of correlated neuropeptides, including Adrenaline, Serotonin, Dopamine, and Oxytocin.

As a result we tend to be somewhat more mellow, contemplative, and affectionate than the mean population. Think of a Golden Retriever. That's my demeanor.

The key thing here is a diminished store of Adrenaline. I rarely pump Adrenaline, and then only under exceedingly dire circumstances, such as a life-or-death situation (which almost never happens in my laid back life as a semi-retired scholar, researcher, and science educator).

But a lot of people not only experience Adrenaline surges, they actively seek the thrills that produce an Adrenaline rush. And one effect of that is to activate the heart muscles so that they can pump blood like crazy.

It's hard for me to have empathy for someone who is berserking in an Adrenaline-driven rage, because it's not a physiological state that I have any direct experience with.

Oh, sure, I've had my heart-pounding moments, but harnessing that surge of physical energy for Fight or Flight is just so far outside of my normative behavior that it didn't even occur to me to put a fist through a wall (let alone someone's nose).

On the Internet, it's nigh impossible to detect when a correspondent is in an Adrenaline-mediated rage. You can't see their eyes bulge out, or any other physiological manifestation of turning into the Incredible Hulk. Instead, people seem to take on a Jekyll and Hyde character, behavior uncharacteristically idiotic when intoxicated with Adrenaline and other surging neuropeptides (like Dopamine).

When us mellow redheads observe that, we scratch our heads, and mutter WTF???

Friday, August 08, 2008

Durova's Blog, Part 2

Durova is a Wikipedian who also writes a blog about Wikipedia.

A week ago last Thursday, she made good on an offer to post remarks on my behalf during a brief interlude when I was unable to post on Wikipedia Review.

After a few rounds of comments, Durova posted one final remark of hers, and then closed out the comments without posting my response to her last remark.

Here is her last comment...
Durova said...

Moulton, you assert that your goal is to promote excellence and ethics in online communications. Having been expelled from Wikipedia Review, and before that from Wikipedia, Slashdot, and various other sites, now would be a good time to reassess how that project is going.

Supposing your aims are sincere, and you are an intelligent and rational Ph.D. with an (unpaid) position at MIT, then it must be obvious by now that you’ve expended a great deal of effort only to meet rejection at site after site. If key positions throughout the Internet are indeed held by (as you say) “anankastic control freaks“, then your ability to identify these problems is futile without the tools and support to implement reform. Tilting at windmills may be picturesque, but it is a waste of effort. Surely your considerable talents would achieve more result if redirected into efforts that played to your strengths. So far, this endeavor at excellence has been so unsuccessful that I also write what follows.

Your record also has the characteristics of a spectacularly successful troll. Disruption and turmoil thrive wherever you go. You manage to stick around just long enough to really spin a community into a tizzy, and you are quite skilled at identifying weak points in online structures and kicking them hard enough to really throw the anatomy out of joint. In spite of that, due to your credentials and your articulate civility, a long line of people extend the benefit of the doubt. It takes a while for a person to realize that dialog doesn’t actually happen with you. When they offer solutions to the problems you raise you pause long enough for them to have their say, then resume whatever destructive course you had already embarked upon--all the while proclaiming that no other option remains due to the ethical failures of the people who control the site.

If the former estimate is true then it should give you pause to read that the latter interpretation is possible. Surely “excellent” communications would never be misconstrued as badly as this. And if the latter estimate is true then I applaud you, wholeheartedly and publicly: this is performance art.

I think these two possibilities will shake down to one based upon Moulton’s experience at the next online community he joins.

And now, per the mutually agreeable terms of engagement that Moulton and I worked out before this post started, I wish you all well. Adieu.

Here is my response to her final comment...

I'm not sure where you're getting your information from, since (as far as I know) you are neither a reader nor a poster on WR or Slashdot. So let me ask you: Upon what evidence are you relying to assert that I have been "expelled" from WR, Wikipedia, Slashdot, and various other sites? Is this original investigative reporting on your part, or have you adopted the version of some intermediate reporter? If the latter, please identify and cite your source, so that we may examine it for accuracy and ethics in reporting.

I don't have the power to "implement reform". I only have to power to research known problems, construct system models and theories with as much insight as I am able to muster, and publish my findings for the benefit of those who wish to learn how to solve the problems I'm studying.

I will grant you that there are many (perhaps a majority) who have less than zero interest in rectifying corruption and ineptitude. There is little I can do about desire or motivation, short of revealing the ineluctable consequences of failing to ascend the ladder of improvement in terms of accuracy, excellence, and ethics in online media.

My position is that projects which fail to become successful learning organizations in this regard simply don't have much of a future. Those who (for whatever reason) wish to see Wikipedia fail might well be in favor of more ineptitude and corruption, and thus alarmed at any movement to salvage the project.

A "troll" is defined as someone who asks difficult questions that those being questioned would prefer not to have to answer. I do ask hard questions, and there are some who frankly would prefer not to have to answer them. Those who prefer not to address hard questions may well seek to dismiss me as a "troll" in their terminology.

There is another more classical term for someone who asks such questions. Socrates was called a "gadfly". Beckett was similarly a gadfly to King Henry. It is the role of educators who employ the maieutic method to ask serious questions that only serious scholars will undertake to answers. Those who prefer not to think their way through the issues will dismiss their interlocutor with a curt, "Giddoudahere, Doofus."

Was Filll trolling when he asked his famous Eight Questions at RfC/ID? I didn't think so at the time. I undertook to respond to them directly, and to support my responses with hard evidence. But when he sought to redact and expunge my response, I began to wonder why he would ask such questions if he could not abide the answers.

As I look back on other pioneers of science and didactic education, I can see the recurring pattern. Everyone is familiar with the well-known examples of Socrates, Beckett, and Galileo. The central drama of their stories is repeated time and again in lesser known variations of the same process. Perhaps no one caricatured it more amusingly as Lewis Carroll. There is no shortage of Red Queens.

I once asked a learned scholar why Socrates didn't just write a novel, like Mark Twain or JK Rowling. He replied that the novel hadn't been invented yet, and didn't really become a mainstay until the Russian Realists perfected the genre. Probably Dostoevsky signifies the epitome of this method. His sendup of a profoundly dysfunctional culture remains one of the most seminal and insightful adaptations of literature to the problem I'm working on.

Fiction is a great scam. You get to tell the truth while pretending to lie.

Alas I am a theory guy, not a storymaker.

I greatly admire Umberto Eco, but it's unlikely I'll ever write any work of fiction as brilliant or effective as his in translating subtle theory into compelling story.

I'll have to stick to the drama of the Socratic Method, at least for now.

If you have the Hemlock concession, Durova, you stand to make a killing.