Monday, September 27, 2010

Elite Opposition to Online Information

Elite academia has their underwear in a bunch about use of online citations by college students. A few years ago, the History Department at Middlebury College went so far as to bar students from citing Wikipedia as a source in papers or other academic work, a story picked up by the NY Times (of course) and immitated by UC Santa Cruz and others.

Online sources, they say, have made it easier for students to copy material and submit it as their own writing (plagiarism). Much of that material, opponents claim, may be false because it has not gone through the editing and review process traditional for books and magazines.


In a recent talk on Freedom of the Press in the Digital Age at our local Philosophy Club, I used these examples to illustrate how "the authorities" always try to shut down alternative sources and technologies that undermine their monopoly control on information. The academic elite that controls the publishing industry and the main-stream press hates it when they lose control because they simply do not trust ordinary people.


Back around 1200 AD Pope Innocent III banned the common language (vulgate) Bible because, he said “… The mysteries of the faith … cannot be understood by everyone but only by those who are qualified to understand them with informed intelligence.” In other words, if you don't understand Latin you have to listen to the interpretations of "qualified" experts, i.e., the Pope and priests. In the 1450's when moveable type printing came into use, drastically reducing the cost of reproducing books which up til then had been a virtual monopoly of the Church and the Crown, no one could own a printing press without a license.

The English Parliament, in 1643, noting "Abuses, and frequent Disorders, in printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books" by people who "set up sundry private Printing Presses in Corners" ordered that no "Book, Pamphlet, or Paper, shall from henceforth be printed, … unless … first approved of, and licensed …” John Milton (yes the famous poet) responded the following year by publishing an UNLICENSED speech opposed to any kind of prior restraint on the freedom to publish. In general, the English-speaking world and our Western-oriented allies have the greatest degree of press freedom that has ever existed in the history of the world.


The advent of the Internet is the ultimate in freedom to publish without approval from "the authorities". Every day, millions of ordinary people post to Blogs like this one that nearly everyone in the world can read if they choose to. No licensing, no prior restraint by the government! Of course, if the information is libelous, injured parties can sue. If it is a matter of diffference of opinion, opponents are free to publish their own rebuttal on the Internet.

So, back to the ban on academic citations of Wikipedia and other online sources. Why does the academic elite think that books and magazines and newspapers published by established organizations are more reliable than Wikipedia? Well, they say, these organizations have editors and research staffs that act as "gatekeepers" to protect the truth. That is true, but it is also true that most of these gatekeepers have similar opinions on controversial topics. Would you make the Pope and priests the sole gatekeepers for religious information as Pope Innocent III wanted? If not, why would you put elite academics in charge of information about history and politics and similar topics where opinion and fact are not easy to separate?

I think Wikipedia, pound for pound, has a greater truth content than The New York Times. Yes, anyone can edit items into Wikipedia, but, if false information is edited into an item about an important topic, there are far many more people who are prepared to edit it out and make sure it is correct. Wikipedia has a system of voluntary reviewers. If an item is challenged, the author is given an opportunity to correct it and, if he or she fails to do so, there is a review and voting process that can delete the material. Corrections thus appear in hours or days. How long does it take to correct something in a book or magazine?

Wikipedia has Google-backed competition in the form of Google Knols (where a Knol is a bit of knowledge). Again, anyone may post Knol topics, but, unlike Wikipedia, authors must identify themselves. I have published 11 Knols that, in total, garnered nearly 17,000 page views as of a month ago.

As many of you know, I teach an online graduate course in System Engineering. I encourage my students to use online sources as wll as traditional published materials. I actually prefer online sources because it makes it easier for me to detect and prove plagiarism. When I see a phrase or sentence I do not think a particular student has written, and if it is not in quote marks with a proper citation, I do a Google on the phrase, using quote marks at either end. If I get a direct hit, I look to see if the rest of the sentence or paragraph is also copied, and, if so, I have positive proof of violation of the Academic Integrity policy of the university.

Ira Glickstein

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tea Party Thoughts

The "Tea Party" movement has worried and even alarmed regulars in both political parties as well as the national media establishment!

Many "talking heads" say they cannot understand it. Perhaps they are purposely misinterpreting it?

One thing for sure - The Tea Party is a force beyond their control!

Some "talking heads" claim it is an insignificant dust up that will soon pass. Others that it is the well-financed effort of some secret forces to seize control of the American political process.

Reactions range from making fun of the name (using the sexually-loaded teabagger epithet); accusing members of being racist, gun-totting, homophobic ignoramuses; to alarmist calls to block a right-wing revolution funded by the Republican Party or, more ominously, by Rupert Murdock or some secret Texas billionaires!

The base illustration above is an engraving by W. D. Cooper that appeared in a 1789 book. I have added the annotations listing the stated purpose of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, No Taxation Without Representation, as well as the general principles subscribed to by the many Tea Party groups in 2010, Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets.


I have not attended any Tea Party events nor have I contributed any money or joined any of their national or local groups. However, like some 28% of the American public, I generally support the basic goals of the movement. According to an April 2010 Gallup/USA Today poll report, about an equal number (26%) oppose, and the remainder neither support nor oppose or have no opinion. Gallup concludes that "Tea Partiers Are Fairly Mainstream in Their Demographics, Skew right politically, but have typical profile by age, education, and employment."

Indeed, while 40% of the public call themselves "Independent", a slightly higher percentage of Independents (43%) support the Tea Party. Democrats, 32% of the public, comprise only 8% of Tea Party supporters, while Republicans, 28% of the public, comprise 49% of Tea Party supporters. Male supporters outnumber females by 10% (55% to 45%). Supporters tend to have somewhat higher incomes than the general public. 79% are non-Hispanic white, compared to 75% of the general population in that category, which means that some 21% of Tea Party supporters are Hispanic, Black, or "Other" which is only 4% less than the general public in those categories.

Tea Party supporters differ from the public on the "Healthcare Reform Bill". While the public thinks the Healthcare Reform Bill is a "bad thing" by a 50:47 margin, Tea Party supporters reject it by a much larger 87:12 margin.


There are literally thousands of local Tea Party groups with no clear national leadership. They all agree on three key tenets: Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets. They may differ on other issues and even support different candidates in primaries. The National Tea Party Federation (NTPF) has attempted to bring some order, even expelling one group, the Tea Party Express, when a member of its leadership team posted a racially-insensitive satire on his personal website and the Express failed to disown him.

IMHO, it is critically important that the local Tea Party groups blunt criticism by the national media that they are racist by firmly rejecting any member or group that strays into that non-productive arena. The NTPF will not accept local groups that cater to "birthers" or "truthers".

The problem is that any person can show up at a Tea Party event with a racist sign or shout awful words and, if the event is at a public place, there is little they can do about it. There are anti-Tea Party people who collect disgusting photos (that may or may not have been taken at actual Tea Party events, and, even if taken at these events may not be actual members of the Tea Party) .

For example, the third photo (President Obama with a Hitler mustache) in the linked collection has a clear "" label at the bottom (see image above). As you may know, Lyndon LaRouch is a political troublemaker and crackpot who was jailed from 1988-1994. Not only that, but he has run for political office seven times for the Democratic Party nomination (not that he is a mainstream guy in any established party)!

Some of the signs in the collection have typographical errors which, to me, shows that they were hand-written by ordinary Americans and not mass-produced by some political consultant. Others are merely distasteful.

Nevertheless, given the bias of much of the national media against the Tea Party, I think members and participants should take special care to avoid any signs or words or comments to the media that could be used to cast a bad light on the movement. I know the opponents of the Tea Party have used words and signs that are far worse, with barely any notice by the press, but that is just the way it is and we have to live with and make the best of it.


Some are worried that the Tea Party might try to become a separate political party. Indeed, just this week, the Michigan Supreme Court barred a "Tea Party" organization that tried to field a slate of 23 candidates for the November ballot. "Activists in the tea party movement who believed the Tea Party political party was a fraud by some Democrats to dilute the influence of conservative voters in this fall's election were relieved by the ruling."

I think it will be better if the Tea Party remains a grassroots organization with somewhat dispersed leadership. I hope they confine themselves to rousing the conservative base to go to the polls in primaries to support candidates of both political parties who support their basic tenets Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets.

In some jurisdictions, the only candidates who have a chance to be elected are moderate Republicans. The Tea Partiers should support electable candidates over more right-wing people who cannot win. For example, former HP Exec Carly Fiorina won her bid for the Republican Senate nomination from California with support from Tea Party advocate and former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. She defeated a more rightwing candidate who was supported by one of the Tea Party groups. In Democrat-dominated jurisdictions, I would like to see the Tea Party support the most moderate Democrat. Of course, since I am not a member of any Tea Party organization, these are merely helpful suggestions!

Ira Glickstein