Jordan's Blog - Bootstrapping truth

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Bootstrapping truth

Jordan 2017-11-24
#culture

There’s an old xkcd comic in which an author uses Wikipedia to find facts about her book’s subject and ends up becoming a citation for the same facts she looked up. The title of the comic is “citogenesis” but I like to call this process truthstrapping, because it doesn’t just lead to the genesis of citations, it leads to the creation of a new “lowercase-t truth” out of nothing.

Uppercase-T Truth is supposed to be independent of whether or not people believe it. It was True that the Earth was not the center of the solar system before it was commonly believed. It was True that the Earth was round before Eratosthenes compared his noon shadow at Alexandria to his noon shadow at Syene. And it was True that our planet’s circumference was not 6000 miles shorter than Eratosthenes calculated even though Columbus believed it was. And when we use the lowercase-t word, truth, generally we’re talking about our best guess at the Truth.

So here’s the meta little twist. I don’t actually know for certain that those things are True; I have lots of evidence that they are, and it’s certainly my best guess at what is True, but that also means that there is some amount of evidence that would make me change my mind. If tomorrow I was bombarded by news that the earth was actually flat, and I could verify it for myself with some simple experiments, then I might be a little disoriented at first but eventually I would come back and edit this paragraph to read “it is True that the earth is flat, regardless of what we all used to believe yesterday.” Generally, the uppercase-T True is describing the territory, and the lowercase-t true is describing our best map of the territory. But in fact, when we write sentences like “these facts are True,” we usually mean “we think these facts are True.”

In this case, I’m writing about a process that I think generates lowercase-t truth. An article on Wikipedia serves as the best guess of what is True for a lot of people, which makes sense because that’s the whole point of having the article. And Wikipedia as a whole serves this same purpose for Truth in general. The project began as an effort to catalogue the Truth – scholars wrote articles based on what we believed to be True and hoped to reflect the state of our best guesses. As Wikipedia gained credibility as being a reliable reflection of that truth, to the disappointment of your History teacher, it became a reliable source of truth itself. Like a dictionary of everything, what began as a compilation based on everyday usage eventually became the place you look up the True definition. In a way, Wikipedia sort of truthstrapped itself.