10.11.2006

Citizendium

Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia who later quit the project over differences in vision, just announced a direct competitor to the project: Citizendium.[1] In short, it's a Wikipedia-style site with a focus on building a more scholarly, expert-centric community. You can read both the announcement and Sanger's essay on why Citizendium is a better collaborative model for building an online encyclopedia at Citizendium.org.[2] Read on for some background and an analysis of the fledgling project.

What's wrong with Wikipedia?

Over the past six years Wikipedia has become wildly popular with millions of articles in various world languages. Over ten percent of Americans are aware of Wikipedia and many consider it an essential resource. And though it's suffered through some public controversy, the most vocal criticisms of Wikipedia have come from those who have a vested interest in traditional encyclopedias or clearly don't understand the wiki model. So why the fuss?

Taking stock of Wikipedia is to ask two questions:

How good is Wikipedia's content?
It's surprisingly decent, given all the things that could go wrong. The most common criticisms of Wikipedia's content tend to hinge on vandalism and accuracy, but though there have been some high profile vandalism cases, it's not endemic (I use the site daily and have yet to see anything I suspect to be vandalism) and Wikipedia's accuracy has been borne out by the only formal study on the topic. As I've mentioned before, Nature's expert-fueled comparison of Wikipedia's and Britannica's science sections pegged them as roughly equally accurate: Wikipedia averaged four errors per article whereas Britannica averaged three. This result does come with certain caveats, among them that science is probably among the better areas covered by Wikipedia and that flaws in Wikipedia's community may cause various sorts of articles to 'top out' at certain levels, but (as Sanger readily admits) Wikipedia's content is generally quite decent.

How good is Wikipedia's community?
aka, What does Wikipedia's future look like?
This is more of a mixed bag, and Sanger for one thinks it's pretty bad. He argues that Wikipedia's community has gradually but irreversibly skewed it toward being "a system committed to the maximum empowerment of amateurs," a place where enthusiasm and conviction count for more than actually being correct. Sanger (and others) believe this atmosphere alienates many academics and experts who find their contributions mangled, reverted, or trivialized by a clueless, faceless mob, and the departure of these experts only amplifies this process and further hampers Wikipedia's credibility in academia. He's not shy about criticizing Wikipedia's community structure as fundamentally flawed, suggesting
Wikipedia quickly showed itself to have a wonderful system for producing massive amounts of reasonably good content quickly. But that does not mean that, as an encyclopedia and as a community, it is free of serious and endemic problems:
  • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently. Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
  • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not--in other words, the troll problem.
  • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
  • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics. Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism. Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there's something wrong with that.

... We may take Wikipedia as an early prototype of the application of open source hacker principles to content rather than code. I want to argue that it is just that, an early prototype, rather than a mature model of how such principles should be applied to reference, scholarly, and educational content.
Whether Sanger is right about these deep flaws in Wikipedia's community is a matter of debate: there are precious few metrics we have by which to measure the insular nature or social corruption of wiki communities, much as we can't measure how many experts have been driven away from the project. But there exist enough anecdotes and websites relating bitter experiences with Wikipedia's community that one tends to think it's not a question of if there are problems with the community, but of how bad things are.[3] Practically speaking, Wikipedia has done some really great things, but it was the first community of its kind and it probably didn't get everything right the first time.

The real question, then, is whether Wikipedia's problems can be fixed, or whether there's enough community inertia at Wikipedia that it's impossible to alter course, making a fork such as Sanger's necessary.

Wikipedia's leadership is not unmindful of the importance of experts: Jimmy Wales has made recent noises that Wikipedia should strive for quality, not quantity of content and noted that
"Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way." The Wikipedia community has investigated why they have a problem with retaining experts. But it's clear neither Wales nor the Wikipedia community believes in any radical changes which would empower those with credentials over those without.[4][5]

At any rate, it's clear Sanger holds that Wikipedia does suffer from deep, avoidable flaws, and he has a plan to build a successor to Wikipedia by moving the good, collaborative parts of Wikipedia (including a copy of its content) under the awning of a new community, one structured so as to prevent trolls, insular cliques, and anti-elitism from taking root.


So what is Citizendium?

It's difficult to write about Citizendium since it doesn't yet exist in a functional form, but Sanger and others have nailed down enough details on the Citizendium webpage, mailing lists, and forums such that one can get a decent picture of what the project is about. It's set to formally launch sometime in the next few months, taking stock and establishing a community charter after 6-12 months of operation. At this early juncture, needless to say, reports of its death by over-eager bloggers have been greatly exaggerated.[6]

In short, Citizendium is a lot like Wikipedia. It'll be a free, wiki-based encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It'll use the same wiki software as Wikipedia, the same neutrality policy, and even start out as a complete, frequently synchronized mirror of Wikipedia's content, diverging only as articles are edited.

The difference lies largely in how the communities will be structured: Wikipedia attempts to harness the latent abilities of the masses by focusing on empowering everyone to contribute and by giving the project a lot of leeway for self-organization. Citizendium, on the other hand, attempts to provide a workspace which benefits from both Wikipedia-style collaboration and academic scholarly norms by abolishing anonymity, courting the academics who are primed to 'get' wikis, and promoting a culture of deference to experts.

Eric S. Raymond famously likened the traditional way of creating software and content- Microsoft Windows and the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance- to building a cathedral. There's a top-down central planner, closely guarded blueprints and drafts, workers contracted to implement those blueprints, a laborious quality assurance process, and so forth. The Open Source and Wikipedia model, in contrast, is more analogous to a freewheeling bazaar in that, with no central authority, order sort of emerges bottom-up from the actions and desires of the participants. People see what needs to be done, and due to the project's open design and collective ownership, can do it themselves. This open approach can create wonderful things that the cathedral model can't- like Linux and Wikipedia.[7]

Sanger is quite specific that despite the addition of experts, Citizendium still follows the bottom-up bazaar model:
Experts will be expected to work shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary people in this project in more or less the same bottom-up fashion that Wikipedia uses. The difference is that, when content disputes arise, whatever editors are paying attention to the article will be empowered to articulate a resolution--if the article falls in their area of specialization. Furthermore, their decisions will be enforceable. Think of editors as the village elders wandering the bazaar and occasionally dispensing advice and reining in the wayward. Their presence is merely a moderating, civilizing influence. They don't stop the bazaar from being a bazaar. ... This isn't going to be a top-down, command-and-control system. It is merely a sensible community: one where the people who have made it their life's work to study certain areas are given a certain appropriate authority--without thereby converting the community into a traditional top-down academic editorial scheme.
Dispensing with abstractions, how does Citizendium differ from Wikipedia?

Charter:
Citizendium will have a project charter; Wikipedia does not. In hindsight, Sanger believes a charter necessary to keep a community focused, to allow for project stability and "the rule of law," and to allow individuals to self-select correctly. The current plan is to decide on a charter after 6-12 months of operation.

Experts:
Citizendium will have expert editors that (in theory) are self-appointed. The plan is to allow people to announce their status as an expert editor in a certain field along with their CV and/or resume on their user page, and let the community sort out who is and isn't qualified. The organizing principle for allowing self-selection as editor is formal expertise, and although the FAQ states that "A Ph.D. will be neither necessary nor sufficient for editorship," the presence or absence of an advanced degree will probably play a very large part in the community's decision (from Sanger's comments, it appears a lack of formal credentials may prevent even an experienced and respected contributor to Citizendium from becoming an editor). Ideally policing the editor self-selection process won't become a large time sink, but if allowing self-certification doesn't work to select experts, there will be other ways.

The current plan calls for expert editors to have no more admin power than regular users; it's just assumed that the mantle of editor will carry with it sufficient authority to carry out the role of editor, and constables will deal with the scofflaws.

It's hard to precisely identify what roles expert editors will play, since so much of that will depend on how the community comes to understand the position and will doubtlessly vary between editors, but their primary roles qua editor appear to be being the go-to authority for problems and conflict, to steward the articles in their care, and to gently guide contributors and contributions. Of note, an expert is only an expert when they're dealing with things that fall under their area of expertise. Two things Sanger has expressed a particular desire to avoid are experts who possessively squat on 'their' articles and experts who attempt to act as "top-down" authorities, and presumably this intent will be written into the charter.

Constables:
There will be a corps of constables, people who have passed some sort of character and minimum-education and/or minimum-age review and are empowered to expediently ban troublemakers and enforce the charter. Ideally social norms will do most of the work of reigning in the wayward and constables will only be called in on extreme cases, but Sanger has repeatedly expressed a preference for aggressively banning troublemakers and trolls before they poison the community's atmosphere. The presence of constables is in contrast with Wikipedia's rather slow but perhaps more democratic process of banning users via arbitration committees. Sanger envisions a distinct separation between the powers of editors and constables.

Real Names:
As Sanger puts it,
There are two reasons for my support of the use of real names. First, a culture of real names will reduce (obviously, not eliminate) the amount of troublesome behavior that we see on Wikipedia. Second, and just as importantly, the use of real names underscores the importance of taking real-life, real-world responsibility for one's work. This project is to be *continuous* with the rest of the world, in a real sense, not its own little provincial world with our own identities and our own credentials.

Simplification:
Sanger feels Wikipedia tends to accrue unneeded complexity in bureaucracy and organization. There will be a significant focus on simplifying and avoiding subject categories, portals, user boxes, and wikiprojects, and minimizing the number of official roles in the community. Presumably this will also involve less focus on current events and facts from pop culture and more on the areas of knowledge which encyclopedias have traditionally been concerned with.

Article Approval:
Experts and/or copyeditors will be able to 'approve' a specific revision of an article, which people may choose to use and cite while others are hammering away at the primary, freewheeling wiki version.

Constitutional Republic (future directions):
Though this isn't apparent from Citizendium.org, Sanger has elsewhere expressed his preference for constitutional republic-style governments in online communities, and has gone on record as saying that "a collaborative community would do well to think of itself as a polity with everything that that entails: a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter." I would guess he will strongly push for a charter which includes these provisions, along with an orderly way by which to alter the charter.

All these changes add up to a different website, and a very different community than Wikipedia's. It's not a stretch to say that Wikipedia was concerned with making a working online encyclopedia; Citizendium is concerned with making a community that, if it works, will make a really good online encyclopedia.

Fundamentally, Citizendium is an experiment in collaboration. As Sanger puts it, "What the world has yet to test is the notion of experts and ordinary folks (and remember: experts working outside their areas of expertise are then “ordinary folks”) working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, on a single project according to open, open source principles. That is the radical experiment I propose."


Will the Citizendium model work?

Before breaking out the champagne and celebrating the birth of Wikipedia's successor, we should remember a key point- Wikipedia is a working, multilingual online encyclopedia with several million articles, whereas Citizendium is still just a small group of people with a plan.

Sanger's underlying assumption is that Citizendium is a relatively natural progression from Wikipedia, and that if Wikipedia worked, there's no inherent reason why Citizendium won't. It may be that the very things Sanger wants to change about Wikipedia were central reasons for its success: as Aaron Swartz states,

Building a community is pretty tough; it requires just the right combination of technology and rules and people. And while it's been clear that [online] communities are at the core of many of the most interesting things on the Internet, we're still at the very early stages of understanding what it is that makes them work.


But Wikipedia isn't even a typical community. Usually Internet communities are groups of people who come together to discuss something, like cryptography or the writing of a technical specification. Perhaps they meet in an IRC channel, a web forum, a newsgroup, or on a mailing list, but the focus is always something "out there", something outside the discussion itself.


But with Wikipedia, the goal is building Wikipedia. It's not a community set up to make some other thing, it's a community set up to make itself. And since Wikipedia was one of the first sites to do it, we know hardly anything about building communities like that.

Of course, our lack of knowledge about what makes online communities work is not a death knell for Citizendium: as Sanger remarks, "We don't really know if this will work, any more than we really knew that Wikipedia would work when it was first launched."

So what can we say of whether Citizendium will succeed or fail?

There are a lot of promising things about Citizendium, but the primary asset Citizendium has is probably Larry Sanger: he's a frighteningly intelligent, thoughtful, and driven man with a definite vision who shows a deep understanding of how wikis work, has already launched a massively successful collaborative encyclopedia, and has obviously spent a large part of the past six years thinking about how to best make an online encyclopedia and identifying where Wikipedia went wrong.

So, too, will Citizendium's "forking" of Wikipedia help: they're starting with 1.4 million pages rather than from scratch. This will be a big draw for both visitors and contributors (who are really two sides of the same coin): Citizendium will start out as a perfectly usable copy of Wikipedia with select articles further polished and fact-checked, and those who want to start editing under Citizendium's awning have Wikipedia's content as a jumping off point. Wikipedia didn't have this when it began, nor many other second mover advantages.


Then there are rumblings around the web which may (or may not) signify hordes of people chomping at the bit to be involved with a more responsible, better-designed, expert-respecting Wikipedia alternative. It's quite possible that, as popular as Wikipedia is, the structure of the community or the resulting limitations in the product have alienated or put off so many people from joining that many experts will immediately flock to Citizendium.

Furthermore, if Citizendium could successfully tap academia for contributors it would be a major coup over Wikipedia (which has largely failed to capture the imagination of academia).[8] As Sanger puts it, "I hold no brief for academia per se. ... But I recognize that academia is where the action is, to a great extent, when it comes to knowing stuff." He has also related that "I know, as I think many Wikipedians know, that there are huge numbers of experts who are willing to work without credit in a radically collaborative system." It just needs to be the right system. And perhaps Citizendium is that system: two days after the announcement, Sanger wrote on the mailing lists that
... what I am happiest about, and what makes me most optimistic, is that in the two days since I announced it in Berlin, we have added 164 people to citizendium-l, 32 to citizendium-tools, 38 to citizendium-world, and 53 to citizendium-policy. And that's *before* we do a press release or get any mainstream English language coverage, and *before* we post any announcements to academic mailing lists. Yowza. I predict that Citizendium-l is going to have over 1000 subscribers within a few months.

That, my friends, is what we call a quorum. This thing is going to happen. It doesn't matter what the naysayers say: if there are enough of us to create critical mass on the wiki, this really could start with a bang. I'm anxious for us to get started, actually.
Perhaps this is simply an idea whose time has come.

Among the additional little things that Sanger has put or is planning to put into motion are
  • Moderated mailing lists with scheduled discussion topics;
  • A project archivist, or team of archivists, who would keep track of arguments in policy debates and summarize them into a coherent reference;
  • An emphasis on evenhanded enforcement. Sanger notes:
Suffice it to say that no one's contributions to the Citizendium will be sacrosanct, editors included; editors will be answerable to other editors, and will not simply be able to lord it over anyone. We'll eject misbehaving editors as well as misbehaving authors.

The care and attention to detail with which Sanger and the rest of the Citizendium pioneers are approaching the construction of the community leads me to believe, provided that 1). Sanger isn't led to over-compensate for the flaws of Wikipedia and 2). pundits in academia and the blogosphere give Citizendium a fair shake, that any failure of Citizendium will be because the idea as presented turns out to be inherently unworkable rather than due to the omission of some detail or poor execution.


So, what could go wrong?

Competition:
The most significant challenge facing Citizendium is drawing enough traffic, contributors, and donations while competing directly with the 800-lb gorilla that is Wikipedia. Wikipedia's first-mover advantage is significant, and the danger that Larry Sanger throws a party but no one comes is very real.

Anonymity:
Sanger envisions anonymity as antithetical to a serious scholarly community. It may be. But anonymous contributions may have been a significant source of Wikipedia's content. Aaron Swartz compiled some recent statistics on
"Who Writes Wikipedia?" - after crunching the numbers on 200 random articles, what he found was that
Insiders account for the vast majority of the edits [mostly grammar and format tweaks]. But it's the outsiders [unregistered users] who provide nearly all of the content ... This fact does have enormous policy implications. If Wikipedia is written by occasional contributors, then growing it requires making it easier and more rewarding to contribute occasionally. Instead of trying to squeeze more work out of those who spend their life on Wikipedia, we need to broaden the base of those who contribute just a little bit.
If most of Wikipedia's content was contributed by vast numbers of anonymous, casual users rather than a core community, then raising the barrier for users to contribute, as Citizendium is doing by requiring that people login to edit, may be disastrous.

Hierarchy:
There are plenty of examples of popular, radically-collaborative, non-hierarchical online communities: Wikipedia, Reddit, and Digg are among the most prominent. There are no such examples of popular, radically-collaborative communities based on static hierarchies ("static" meaning there are authors and there are expert editors, and- generally speaking- no amount of hard work by an author will qualify him as an expert editor). This is only somewhat suggestive, and perhaps Citizendium will be the first. And maybe Citizendium's will be a gentle hierarchy (Sanger has objected to it even being called a hierarchy). But it could be that large numbers of people are attracted to Wikipedia because they don't like working under any hierarchy- or at least any hierarchy that they can't scale- and Citizendium's "academocracy" may drive many potential contributors away.

Experts:
The concept at the heart of Citizendium is to bring in experts to oversee the radically-collaborative construction of an encyclopedia. But it's quite possible that relatively few experts will be motivated and qualified to do so.

Now, Sanger anticipates this argument, egging academics on as follows:
But some promoters of OSS and open content say these projects won't, or even can't, work. They say that professional researchers won't work without pay--ignoring that all the time researchers are writing for journals and giving speeches at conferences without pay. They say that scholars will do work only alone or in very small groups, require their names on their work, and can't learn how to collaborate in the radical OSS way--ignoring that many unsung scholars have collaborated with Wikipedians and clearly like the basic concept. They say that college professors are too snobbish to work alongside and interact with the public--ignoring that an essential part of being a college teacher is precisely to make knowledge accessible to the public, a task to which many are passionately devoted. They say that specialists generate mainly pretentious nonsense, and so are not suitable as editors for the public--ignoring the fine abilities of many specialists.

These well-meaning but wrongheaded promoters of OSS and open content seem to think that open collaboration is a method reserved exclusively to amateurs, students, the "general public," and so forth.

Let's prove them wrong.
I think Sanger's assumption that many experts will have the social and editorial skills to work on Citizendium is generally correct. But it's also a numbers game- there are, as Sanger mentions on the mailing lists, a "small but growing minority of academics, and other intellectuals, that are already primed to 'get' radical collaboration, openness, and *gradual* progress toward perfection." And some of those may hear about and join Citizendium. And most of those may be eloquent, learned, and well-meaning enough that Citizendium will want them. And some of those may be motivated enough so they would put in significant work on the project. And some of those may actually have the time to do so. But how many?

I believe that this last issue, motivation, is one of the larger black clouds over Citizendium. My major concerns are as follows:
1. How many academics can be expected to put large amounts of time and effort into something which doesn't (at this point) help their chances of getting tenure, nor their academic prestige?
2. Doing original research is one of the most appealing parts of being an academic, and there's no place for original research in an encyclopedia. Might academics tend to be busy with their own projects, curiosities, and visions?
3. Do enough experts have enough collective drive to build an encyclopedia? Nobody thought amateurs could write an encyclopedia, and that may have been a significant part of why Wikipedia took off. Experts, on the other hand, know they can write an encyclopedia in principle- all encyclopedias were written by experts before Wikipedia- and don't tend to be as hungry for validation as amateurs.

Sanger suggests that academics will be motivated by irritation at their students' use of Wikipedia despite its flaws, a feeling of stewardship over their field, a desire to build a wonderful encyclopedia and teaching aid, and the opportunity to work toward the public good in a context where people defer to their expertise. I don't dismiss the significance of these motivators, but I do think they're only half the story.[9][10]

Expertise and Social Overhead:
Clay Shirky of Many to Many believes the premise of an encyclopedia overseen by experts is problematic because it's often difficult to identify who is and isn't an expert, and arbitrating these edge cases and enforcing an expert-friendly atmosphere will suck up large amounts of energy. Shirky writes,
Reading the Citizendium manifesto, two things jump out: his faith in experts as a robust and largely context-free category of people, and his belief that authority can exist largely free of expensive enforcement. Sanger wants to believe that expertise can survive just fine outside institutional frameworks, and that Wikipedia is the anomaly. It can’t, and it isn’t.
...
Sanger is an incrementalist, and assumes that the current institutional framework for credentialling experts and giving them authority can largely be preserved in a process that is open and communally supported. The problem with incrementalism is that the very costs of being an institution, with the significant overhead of process, creates a U curve — it’s good to be a functioning hierarchy, and its good to be a functioning community with a core group, but most of the hybrids are less fit than either of the end points.
...
The philosophical issue here is one of deference. Citizendium is intended to improve on Wikipedia by adding a mechanism for deference, but Wikipedia already has a mechanism for deference — survival of edits. ... Deference, on Citizendium will be for people, not contributions, and will rely on external credentials, a priori certification, and institutional enforcement. Deference, on Wikipedia, is for contributions, not people, and relies on behavior on Wikipedia itself, post hoc examination, and peer-review. Sanger believes that Wikipedia goes too far in its disrespect of experts; what killed Nupedia and will kill Citizendium is that they won’t go far enough.
Sanger has responded that Shirky's argument, though flashy, doesn't sufficiently support his conclusions, that Shirky doesn't understand what Citizendium is meant to be and what safeguards it will have, and that if it turns out some Citizendium policy doesn't work, it can be changed.

I think Shirky's argument grandstands a bit, but also that he's on to something, particularly with his 'U fitness curve' concept. It could be that there's no fertile ground for a credential-aware yet radically-collaborative hybrid between the extremes of academia and Wikipedia because it would inherit the social overhead of both. Simply mentioning this possibility is not much of an argument, as Sanger quite rightly objects, but it's an interesting hypothesis.

An interesting tangent on the problem of expertise is that identifying expertise in some subjects will present particularly difficult organizational challenges- challenges which Wikipedia does not face. As Sage Gasper of Slashdot writes,
Who is an expert in Middle Eastern politics? Israelis? Palestinians? Iranians? Iraqis? A polisci prof in midwest America? Who's an expert on the famous person that keeps getting their page defaced? What credentials do I need to decide what the valuable sources are in an article about The Hulk?

Reaction to Wikipedia:
Sanger is an ex-Wikipedian, as are many on the Citizendium policy mailing list. They're in the great position to understand Wikipedia's flaws- but there's a real danger that their collective bitterness toward Wikipedia may cause a reactionary slant in Citizendium policies. Just as when a room is filled with ex-wives the conversation will sour on the topic of men, when a mailing list is filled with ex-Wikipedians the conversation will no doubt sour on the topic of Wikipedia. This does not lead to a great understanding of men- or online encyclopedias. I don't think this bitter theme yet pervades the mailing lists, but it'll take vigilance to keep it out.

An example of Citizendium policy that I do find particularly reactionary is found in the values statement: among Citizendium's core values are
a love of simplicity, a robust dislike for bureaucracy, and not using computer algorithms (or aggregation) where individual judgment is required
The last part seems as though it must be a reaction to some obscure Wikipedian policy, especially since there's no context with it, the project will start out shortstaffed, and computer algorithms (and simple forms of AI) are getting better all the time.[11]

Regardless, the more I learn about Citizendium, the more I agree with what Sanger has said: no one knows whether this will work or not. But it's certainly worth trying.


Final thoughts: what
the Citizendium project means

First, what does the birth of Citizendium mean for Wikipedia? I think it's a mixed bag. On one hand, as wikis thrive on traffic, it hurts to have a viable competitor for the online encyclopedia throne, and it's doubly painful to have a competitor that's attempting to specifically attract experts and those who care about accuracy.[12] On the other hand, though, another game in town promises to increase awareness about online encyclopedias and attract new people to wikis, get competitive juices flowing which may lead to a streamlining and optimization of Wikipedia's practices and community structure, and lead to a symbiotic relationship between the two encyclopedias.

This last point bears further examination: Wikipedia and Citizendium share the same open content license (the GFDL), so it'll be quite easy for people or scripts associated with either project to copy the best content from the other. If one encyclopedia excels in a subject area or style of article, the other can copy those articles. Everyone- especially the reader- wins. Inevitably the article structures and hierarchies will diverge which will make automated syncing mechanisms more difficult, but not impossible.

Secondly, though a great encyclopedia may come out of the Citizendium project, so will the precedent of whether an expert-guided, freewheeling wiki can work. This is not an idle issue, nor is it limited to encyclopedias, as people and institutions realize how powerful wikis can be and want to know how and where to implement them: emerging experiments such as open peer review, the textop project, and genome wikis may take various approaches to their collaborative structure depending on Citizendium's success. Another data point in understanding which models of radical collaboration work and which don't will be quite valuable. More speculatively, maybe a Citizendium-like model could even lead to some reversal of the splintering, insular tendencies in academia: getting a diverse collection of experts together under one roof along with some opportunities for collaboration on cross-disciplinary articles has the potential to re-open dialogues between disciplines.

I'll end with a recommendation: as someone who has admittedly not witnessed how or why the relationship between Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger cooled, I still believe it's very valuable for the two of them to come to a publicly amicable understanding. If they don't make this effort- if there's not the perception of peace between the two men- it'll doubtlessly feed bitter feelings between Wikipedia and Citizendium, since by-and-large communities adopt their leaders' perceived positions, biases, and dislikes. It benefits no one to allow feuds between Wikipedia and Citizendium or take the risk of policies being driven by a reactionary, unreasoning distaste of the "other" encyclopedia's way of doing things.



Notes:
[1] Wales and Sanger vehemently disagree over whether Sanger can be considered a "co-founder" of Wikipedia.
[2] Sanger calls Citizendium a "compendium" with the implication that the body of articles they will inherit from Wikipedia will not be as reliable as an encyclopedia. However, this understanding of what Citizendium is may be revised once the project matures, and some articles from Citizendium will very likely end up in other, semi-affiliated encyclopedias such as the Digital Universe Encyclopedia. For all intents and purposes Citizendium at least as much of an encyclopedia as is Wikipedia.
[3] An anecdote that struck me as particularly and sadly funny was that Dr. Edward Buckner left due to "an amateur philosopher who insisted that the article on Astral planes belonged in the philosophy department."
[4] There was a Wikipedia proposal to create an 'expert editor' position much like that on Citizendium. It was rejected by the community.
[5] Wales has described his stance as "perhaps anti-credentialist. To me the key thing is getting it right. And if a person's really smart and they're doing fantastic work, I don't care if they're a high school kid or a Harvard professor."
[6] I suppose the first way Citizendium is useful, even before it produces a product, is to be a Rorschach test for how people understand wikis and academics.
[7] This explanation may extend ESR's metaphor further than was originally intended with respect to content. I've chosen to use this metaphor because Sanger uses it. An alternative metaphor that strikes me as valuable would be to talk about Wikipedia and Citizendium as part of the second economy.
[8] To step back a bit, some view the differences between academia and Wikipedia as a contrast between "reputation and personal accountability" vs "survival of edits" as the primary guide for content. Citizendium's position partway between these two extremes is an interesting one.
[9] Sanger has suggested that there's already evidence that experts will work on a radically-collaborative online encyclopedia, as Wikipedia is home to a non-trivial amount of experts. But given how large Wikipedia is, there are bound to be some experts there, and it's difficult to say this is indicative of how experts are or aren't drawn to these sorts of projects.
[10] It'd be extremely interesting to attempt to actually measure and contrast what primary psychological reasons people have for contributing to Wikipedia versus Citizendium.
[11] An interesting question, to which I don't think there's any clear answer to right now, is how future developments in AI will fit into the online encyclopedia scene.
[12] It'll be very frustrating, too, if Citizendium draws traffic away from Wikipedia and keeps anonymous users (arguably the lifeblood of wikis) from editing and thus Citizendium stops some people from contributing at all to the online encyclopedia scene.


Further reading:


Quotable quotes on Citizendium and Wikipedia:
Many experts who have left, or otherwise have expressed dissatisfaction with Wikipedia, fall into two categories: Those who have had repeated bad experiences dealing with jackassses, and are frustrated by Wikipedia’s inability to restrain said jackasses; and those who themselves are jackasses. Wikipedia has seen several recent incidents, including one this month, where notable scientists have joined the project and engaged in patterns of edits which demonstrated utter contempt for other editors of the encyclopedia (many of whom were also PhD-holding scientists, though lesser known), attempted to “own” pages, attempted to portray conjecture or unpublished research as fact, or have exaggerated the importance or quality of their own work. When challenged, said editors have engaged in (predictable) tirades accusing the encyclopedia of anti-intellectualism and anti-expert bias—charges we’ve all heard before. - "engineer_scotty"
Citizendium, if popular, will attract the same sorts of parasites, who will want to exploit a resource which many regard as reliable and truthful, in order to publish propaganda. It may be that registration, real names, and such may keep these folks at bay; but some wikiparasites are quite determined. My suspicion is that Citizendium, if it does gain some level of popularity, will have to impose technical barriers to access beyond the honor system. Which might not be bad, but it may have significant effects on the makeup of the author base, sufficient to impart bias on the project.

It is naive to assume that only angels will come to Citizendium, just because you place a sign on the door proclaiming that your establishment doesn't serve devils. If the drinks are any good, the devils will come wearing halos and playing harps, and you'll need increasingly agile and clever bouncers to keep them out. - "engineer_scotty"

One thing Jimmy Wales has done right is not to buckle under to the Chinese government on censorship. I completely support that policy. - Larry Sanger
[Wikipedia] is a project that shouldn't work, but does. - Larry Sanger

What I think is often missed is that Wikipedia is itself an *institution*, though a pretty poor one by general academic standards. But it's also one which casts itself as an anarchy, and both sides have a lot of incentive to use that mythology - Wikipedia because that's the source of a lot of its appeal, and academia because that lets it avoid examining how Wikipedia functions by kind of a distillation of the worst aspects of academic institutions (no pay, and motivation from lording status over lower-down members, as well as exploiting people's idealism for the life of the mind). - Seth Finkelstein

I'm of two mind in this affair. Part of me really likes the fact that these two organizations will fight it out, so to speak, toward creating the ultimate database of human knowledge. Because both organizations will be using the GNU free license, their work will be available to any human being on the planet without charge. In addition, the competition might cause Wikipedia's community of editors to finally address the long-standing problems of anonymous editors and reliability of articles. It is also probable that articles will be traded back and forth between the two projects, with the best articles rising to the top of both encyclopedias like fine cream.

That said, I am troubled by some aspects of Sanger's Citizendium. Aside from its pretentious title (which participants are already saying must be changed), this feels in some ways like an attempt by old-guard academics to retake control of humanity's knowledge. - Jason Sanford

Note also that since Wikipedia and Citizendium use the same license (GNU FDL), it will be trivial to synchronize content back and forth between the two. I wouldn't expect Wikipedia to be systematically biased against information gathered and vetted on Citizendium; that's what deference to contributions rather than people is all about. Result, any noncontroversial areas in which the Citizendium excels will quite quickly result in Wikipedia rapidly rising to the same level of excellence. Citizendium's design makes the reverse less likely to happen.

To understand the rapid success of Wikipedia, realize that (with a little more work, involving the copying of ideas and facts, rather than particular expressions), it stands in this same relation to every other possible source of knowledge. - James Grimmelmann

There is room for a diversity of places in the world. Wikipedia is the best place for experts who are prepared to write high quality articles under the eye of the public. Citizendium may provide an interesting forum for those who are not prepared for that. - Jimmy Wales
Basically what I think works in a wikis is to trust people to do the right thing, and trust them as much as you can possibly stand it, until it hurts your head and makes you scared for what they're going to break. Because that is what works. - Jimmy Wales

One of the things that is so good about the literature Sanger has created over the years is that he has dramatized the expectation that Wikipedia will fail due to lack of expertise, making its success illustrative.

My belief is that Wikipedia's success dramatizes instead a change in the nature of authority, moving from trust inhering in guarantees offered by institutions to probabilities created by processes. - Clay Shirky

9.30.2006

10 Reasons Why

A little lighter (and yes, tongue-in-cheek) fare this time. Back to the usual soon.

10 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Argue with Just a List of Reasons

1. It's overdone. Digg and Reddit are plastered with 10 reasons why this and 10 reasons why that. This argumentative structure is also often used as a rhetorical crutch because it's so easy to write with, thus tainting any argument so expressed with a suggestion of incompetence.

2. It's unprofessional. They may make good set-ups for jokes, but you don't see the NYT making arguments with "10 Reasons Why" articles, do you?

3. These arguments tend to only include said 10 reasons- which doesn't leave room for counter-arguments (in other words, yes, using a list of reasons to argue has some good things going for it- but nothing that fits into a list of reasons).

4. The "10 Reasons Why" argument implies a timeless quality about the argument. I guarantee any argument laying out precisely 10 reasons for anything isn't timeless.

5. I like- even prefer- itemizing an argument into distinct parts. But there aren't 10 primary reasons for everything. Maybe there are 11 reasons for something; maybe there are 7. More likely, there are 3 reasons, with 2, 3, and 6 subpoints each. Flattening and then stretching or compressing an argument to fit into 10 points muddies things up and is a terrible disservice to ones readers.

6. The form of these articles lead them to be overly-focused and they usually fail to situate what they're talking about in a larger context.

7. People are attracted to reading these articles, but in most cases only because "top 10" lists somehow exploit a cheap trick of human physiology to grab readers' attention. Maybe that's fine for some people- but to me and likely others it's insulting. I am the captain of my attention- if I wanted my attention jerked around I'd watch television ads or unblock those "punch the monkey" flash ads.

8. It often leads to people partly-restating a previous point or making up spurious reasons in order to get to the "magic" 10.

9. The structure of "10 Reasons Why" articles doesn't really lend itself to themes or threads of reasoning which go with multiple points. It's a terribly artificial argument structure- nothing more than a crutch- and an argument will likely suffer because of it.

10. Writing a blog post or article, even if it's an argument, is always a journey. I often sit down to write about a topic and end up thinking about something completely different. When someone follows the "10 Reasons Why X" formula their subject is so well-defined that many detours of thought get closed off- and they might miss thinking about a tangential topic that's much more interesting than their initial project.

8.28.2006

On Technology, the Future, and Material Wealth

Something I've been musing on recently is material wealth, and why it is (or isn't) important. Now, there are hundreds of books and millions of theories on money, what it's for, how to get it, whether it's important or whether material goods corrode the soul. But I'd like to talk about something a little different that may be getting lost in the noise: the real-life importance of having wealth is changing, and changing fairly rapidly. Having money means different things now than it did 20 years ago, and will mean wildly different things even just 20 years from now. With that in mind, here are some ways reasons why money is both increasing and decreasing in relevance.

Trends that are increasing the importance of money:
  • More things are for sale: technology and entrepreneurship are quickly increasing the domain of things money can buy, and this is not limited to larger plasma televisions. Historically, having wealth has tended toward diminishing returns: after providing for oneself and family, enabling a pursuit of rewarding work, and allowing an urbane outlook on life, the use of money tends toward creature comforts, status symbols, and extended getaways. There will always be a point of diminishing returns on wealth, but that point of diminishing returns is growing much higher as we approach an era of human augmentation. Many people are ambivalent about money- but this might change when they see their rich neighbors have genetically-augmented kids that can run faster, learn faster, think better, stay healthier, and be happier than their classmates.
Here's Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, talking to Nature about human augmentation and money:
Nature: This sort of thing (human augmentation) must be fraught with ethical concerns. What sorts of issues come up?

Nick Bostrom: One issue that always comes up is: will it lead to inequality between those who have access to it and those who don't? Price makes a huge difference to accessibility, and one presentation at the conference tried to estimate the costs of different kinds of cognitive enhancements. These depend very much on the form the enhancement takes. If it's a pill, it can be expected to get cheaper quickly over time [as patents run out and materials get easier to produce]. If it's a procedure, there's a limit to how cheap that can be, at least until we get robots to do it for us.
  • Closure of the commons: many things which used to be free are now being privatized and sold in the name of efficiency. The World Bank and IMF are pressuring developing countries to privatize water, telecom companies are attempting to monetize packet priority on the internet (the net neutrality issue), and the traditional right to freely record songs from the radio is under attack. There's a powerful, global trend toward privatization and strong physical and intellectual property rights, and the institutions behind this trend are actively building restrictions on the use of once-unregulated things into our laws and devices. Regardless of whether it's more efficient to privatize things or merely a regressive and creativity-stifling form of wealth transfer, having to spend money on commonly-used things that were once free increases the importance of money.
  • Disaster preparation: today's combination of extreme ideologies, potential for sociopolitical unrest, and advancing technology makes a world-changing disaster a real possibility- and preparing for the worst takes money.

Trends that are decreasing the importance of money:

  • Commoditization: with the constant rush of technology, many things rapidly commoditize (and fall under the "better, faster, cheaper" trend) in our society. A rising tide lifts all boats, and even many people otherwise living in poverty have cell phones and can eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Arguably, there's never been a better time to be poor. This trend of commoditization is likely to accelerate as more things migrate to a digital medium and the law of accelerating returns percolates through more and more of our production processes. Though it's difficult to specify a metric for this, I predict more commoditization in the next 20 years than in the last 100. And it's less important to make lots of money if an increasing number of things are quickly filtering down to the mass market.
  • Empowerment of talent: the second most important asset in starting a business is no longer capital. It's talent[1]. A great number of factors have come together to lower the hurdles involved in starting a technology company, which is directly connected to the fact that venture capital money is getting cheaper (in terms of what concessions one must make to get funding). If you've got a great idea and great talent behind it, in most cases money will not be an obstacle[2]. One can make a similar argument about money becoming less important for bringing about social change, given that much of the once-tedious legwork of organization and collaboration can be done online. There's never been a better time to be poor and talented.
  • The Free Culture movement: Between Open Source Software, the Creative Commons, and various sources of free knowledge, there's a lot that people can take advantage of online without any need for money (and people can often even 'remix' it for free, as well). It's quite true that free software and content is not a magic bullet in all contexts, since the people who make it tend to scratch only certain types of itches: there aren't many open source accounting packages, nor are there any creative commons-licensed top-40 radio hits or open source cars, for reasons of motivation, economics, and physical possibility, respectively. But the movement toward producing free, open-source things is growing in strength and scope: in the short term, we can expect better free software and more creative-commons-licensed content, and perhaps in the longer term, free, open-source genomes for useful organisms/biomachines and free, open-source blueprints for molecular (nano) manufacturing. And the more good free stuff that's out there, the less important money becomes.

One of the big items that I couldn't categorize is healthcare. It's clear that the healthcare system in the U.S. is unsustainable, but it's unclear what form a solution might take, or whether the solution will take a form which emphasizes commoditization or choice and privatization. I could see it going either way.

I don't have any concrete advice about money, but I'm sure this subject is worth thinking about.

Notes:
[1]. The most important asset in starting a business is having something worthwhile to sell.
[2]. If you do have a great idea for a product and great talent behind the idea, I would suggest reading Paul Graham's essays if you haven't already.

p.s. Last time, when discussing the domestication of foxes, I mentioned that I felt there might be some room for so-called "domestication genes" to explain some of the diversity among humans. I've since heard that a certain population geneticist from the Univerity of Utah (mentioned here previously) is actually coming out with a paper supporting this idea. I'll be sure to post when it's published.

8.02.2006

Friendly Foxes

I should be on a weekly schedule starting next week, perhaps with a long-delayed post on epigenetics. Until then, here's something that I found fascinating.

The New York Times recently tracked the progress of Dmitri Belyaev's epic fox domestication experiment. The result:
After 40 years of the experiment, and the breeding of 45,000 foxes, a group of animals had emerged that were as tame and as eager to please as a dog.

As Belyaev had predicted, other changes appeared along with the tameness, even though they had not been selected for. The tame silver foxes had begun to show white patches on their fur, floppy ears, rolled tails and smaller skulls.

One possibility is that a handful of genes — perhaps even just one — underlie all the changes seen in domestication. A structure in the embryo of all vertebrates, known as the neural crest, is the source of cells that constitute much of the face, skull and pigment cells, and many parts of the peripheral nervous system and endocrine system. If the genes in the neural crest cells were delayed just a little in coming into action, a whole range of tissues could be affected, including the maturation of the adrenal glands that underlies the first fear response of young animals.
There's much more in the article* and follow-up Q&A, including some speculation on how similar domestication processes might have been involved in human evolution.

John Hawks raises a question about why domestication is possible at all, from the viewpoint of genetic variation:
The rats and foxes haven't so much undergone genetic changes as simple enrichment of alleles that are already common. Which means that they may have unusual phenotypes as a result of these alleles being coincident at high frequencies, but those alleles already are doing something in normal, wild (and mostly solitary) animals. This doesn't mean that the tame phenotype should already exist -- even if all these alleles are independently common, if there are enough of them they may never all be present in any single wild individual.

So the interesting question is why these alleles that permit domestication in combination should already be common.
Domestication may involve multiple vectors, but a delay in the development of the neural crest appears to be a centrally important factor in this fox experiment. Now, given that humans have undergone some level of "self-domestication," could we extend this result to humans? Could delaying the development of the neural crest in humans delay the whole maturation process, as is suggested by some parts of Baelyav's fox results? And what might that mean for us today? Is there still significant genetic variation here- i.e. are some individuals or groups of people more "genetically domesticated" than others?

My complete speculation here is that a high concentration of these genes selected for in domestication might result in a prolonged childhood and adolescence and lead to the existence of geeks (and perhaps a certain sort of intellectual in general). Geeks seem to hit their peak later in life and are often described as relatively non-aggressive, eager to please, late bloomers, lifelong learners, and even eternal kids (though they don't seem to have floppy ears or rolled tails!).

Anyway, this story- and the research that comes from it- will be something worth watching.

*I've had trouble with the direct link- try here if the link above cuts to a different NYT story.

7.18.2006

Germs and Brains

In my last set of links I brought up Gregory Cochran's "germ theory" of disease- that many ailments we think of as primarily genetic or environmental are in fact due to infectious agents. I'd like to take this a step further, and mention a similar (yet even more speculative) theory from Agnostic over at Dusk.

While Cochran suggests germs may be the culprits behind many "lifestyle" or "genetic" diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Agnostic suggests that much of the variation we see in personality, motivation, and higher cognitive function also may stem from complex interactions with germs. His emphasis, specifically, is that lucky interactions with microorganisms who slip past the "gateway" into the brain, the blood-brain barrier, could be partly responsible for reinforcing certain thinking and motivational patterns common to geniuses. Newton, in short, may have had germs to thank for rearranging his brain for exceptional creativity.

This is a highly aggressive assertion. It'd be very hard to prove (or disprove) that microorganisms commonly influence higher cognitive functions, though we do have solid evidence that some germs do affect behavior (i.e. rabies and toxoplasmosis), that some germs we carry around are good for us, and that the onset of certain patterns of thinking- i.e. schizophrenia- show signs of infectious causation. These facts are somewhat suggestive of some deeper germ-brain connection.

Agnostic's argument depends upon:
  • The vast amount of germs (good and bad) that live in our body;
  • The vast possibilities of how germs could interact with cellular processes and alter mental processes, purposefully or accidentally, given that we already know some do (and that, among all these possibilities, surely a few of them involve increasing the host's intelligence, or altering their motivation).
  • A lack of alternative explanations for the numerous differences which develop between twins
  • A higher winter/spring birth percentage in the set of geniuses (and schizophrenics) he looked at, which he suggests may be indicative of a higher exposure to certain germs as susceptible newborns. The percentages are somewhat startling: he draws on Charles Murray's book "Human Accomplishment", and of the 18 top geniuses Murray identifies, we know the birth month of 16, and of these 16, all but two were born in the winter or spring.

Unfortunately, these connections between genius and infection are rather circumstantial and speculative, and this is not a very testable hypothesis. However, I think there's really something to the author's more general point, that "Of all the imaginable sources of variation in higher cognitive functioning among human beings, the one that remains the least explored is the role of microorganisms."

We know very little about these things inside of us, but we're quite aware that they're terribly important. The organisms we carry around are so tightly integrated with our bodies that we'd die if they weren't there, they outnumber our cells 10 to 1, they vary widely between individuals, many live in our brains, and, as John Hawks notes, we "are using the same metagenomic techniques to fine organisms in our bodies that are used to find new unidentified ocean life!" It would seem quite a stretch to hold that some of the organisms we carry around with us don't significantly affect our cognitive functions in some way. We're not talking "brain control by germs", but this may show up in contributing to more outliers (the Newtons and schizophrenics of this world), in increasing mental variation, and perhaps shifting certain average personalities a few points in some direction.

I think the takeaway concept from Agnostic's argument is that the microorganisms in a person's body almost certainly affect their personality, motivation, and higher-order thought-processes somehow, though we're far from understanding how they would do so, and that a lot of the variation between people may very well arise from the different germs they have, and how the complex interactions between their brains and their germs are playing out. And though it may sound creepy that germs probably commonly influence behavior, it's been this way for millions of years.

This is the first in a series which examines quirky things in and around genetics.
Epigenetics post planned for next week.

7.07.2006

Yahoo Answers: Stephen Hawking

Every so often a celebrity will post a question at Yahoo! Answers. This time it was Stephen Hawking, however, and so I decided to bite.
http://answers.yahoo.com/question/?qid=20060704195516AAnrdOD

The question is,
In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?
Now, this is an awful broad question but it's also important, and could also taken as some sort of an inkblot test. I'd encourage everyone to actually plan out an answer, at least in their heads.

The first answer to appear was
They will live underground
...which I found rather hilarious. :)

My answer, which is probably not as good as that, follows: it underwent a bare minimum of editing, for which I apologize in advance.


There is no simple answer to your question re: the next 100 years, as I'm sure you're aware. We will have to take it one step at a time. But as I see it our general strategy should be:

We need to convince the public, politicians, religions, and businesses that our species' survival is actually in doubt: there's too much inertia based on short-sighted self-interest otherwise. Perhaps a well-placed question to Ask Yahoo might generate some awareness of this issue. :)

Beyond that, we should enlist and provision our top forward-looking scientists (Lord Martin Rees and Ray Kurzweil come to mind) to chart out the least dangerous paths technology could take, and the top students of human nature to find ways to strengthen our society, to buffer it against future shock, and to find ways to give everyone- from suicide bombers to North Korea- some form of hope for a more prosperous future. The promise of a better future for one's children makes all the difference. We should also spend significant resources on innovative ways to encourage the best and brightest upcoming minds into thinking about the future.

The increasing destructive power of technology is perhaps our largest challenge, and there's no way to put the genie back in the bottle (see Kurzweil, "The Singularity is Near"). But we can do things to channel where future technology goes. A good first step is to enact well-researched, foresighted laws and procedures governing proliferation of bio- and nano-tech, and to stay ahead of the technological curve with our policies, contrary to what we do now. There are many regulatory agencies that are not well-structured for dealing with the future, and we must not blink in completely tearing them down and building better ones in their place.

I apologize for using a tired metaphor, but we should view getting ready for the future as an undertaking at least as large in scale as the Apollo Project. And as we get started preparing for the future and reversing the mistakes of the past, it'll all happen fast: to quote Al Gore, "The political system, like the environment, is nonlinear ... In 1941 it was impossible for us to build 1,000 airplanes. In 1942 it was easy. As this pattern becomes ever more clear, there will be a rising public demand for action."

The second step in channeling technology is to setup a world body to enforce the technology laws we enact, and to go along with this, build a more-or-less automated system, having many many cross-referenced inputs, to find and track any situations where people, institutions, and governments are not following our bio- and nano-tech proliferation policies. We have somewhat ham-fisted and ineffectual precursers to this in place, but we should get away from such a body being an arm of government and try to structure it more efficiently, thoughtfully, and transparently- perhaps a mashup of Google and CERN.

The third step is to increasingly augment this hypothetical proliferation tracking system with artificial intelligence and distributed sensors, because as bio- and nano-tech get easier to make, the capacity to track who can (and has) made what becomes more and more difficult. Maturing bio- and nano-tech will also make space colonization both easier and more imperative, as you have noted.

Beyond that, it's difficult to predict what will happen. A lot could go wrong- but we also can throw an unparalleled amount of resources, top talent, and cutting-edge theory and technology into making a good go at things. Once our society realizes we actually are in trouble, you'll be amazed at how much can be done so quickly. And as Lord Rees has stated, despite the dangers technology brings, "there are grounds for being a techno-optimist."

Let's not count humankind out just yet.

6.30.2006

Friday Links

  • Cochran et al. suggest that some illnesses or conditions that we currently think of as genetic or environmental may be primarily caused by germs. This idea is not new- we thought ulcers were caused by stress and lifestyle, but the culprit turned out to be bacteria- but the scope of Cochran's research and claims, which include rheumatoid arthritis, MS, and schizophrenia, bears mentioning. His evidence includes recent findings and arguments from evolutionary fitness theory. An example from the article:
    Long-continued rheumatoid arthritis causes distinctive changes to the joints that can be recognized in Amerindian skeletons from the Mississippi valley going back several thousand years, but not in Old World skeletons from before ad 1500. This epidemiological footprint implicates an infectious agent that was brought back to Europe from the New World by early explorers [87].
  • Lord Martin Rees, the Royal Astronomer of Britain and all-around smart fellow, chats with Edge about the world's prospects for the future and the dangers and hopes technology brings to the table.
  • Viva La Evolucion reviews a recent odd finding about DNA, that "genes with a greater proportion of third-position [amino acid] Gs or Cs are expressed more than genes with third-position As or Us." The implications and importance of this are currently unknown.
  • Ars Technica gives some background on a Supreme Court case regarding how novel an idea must be for it to be patentable. Given the increasing economic and social importance of inventions and the increasing mess which is patent law, this could be the most important Supreme Court case currently on the docket.
In site news, I had people from every continent except Antarctica visit yesterday. Welcome, everyone.

6.25.2006

Neurogenesis

After thousands of years of viewing the brain as a mysterious black box, we're finally starting to understand a little bit about how it works. Basic neural research is finally bearing real fruit, giving us real insight into phenomena as diverse as addiction, smell, and sanity, and, for better or worse, perhaps setting the stage for some really wild engineering projects. I think the most interesting takeaway concept to emerge from neurology in recent years, however, has to be the concept of adult neurogenesis.

Neurogenesis is the growth of new brain cells, and that it occurs at all is an important departure from the prevailing dogma of as late as a decade ago. Certain types of systemic and specific damage done to the brain by drugs, trauma, or stress, once thought permanent, are now thought to be reversable through growing new brain cells. Relatedly, the rate of neurogenesis varies: learning new things, for instance, increases it; being born into a rough life or to a stressed mother can decrease it; a state of chronic stress can more-or-less shut it down.

This discovery has paved the way for experiments involving neurogenesis: some findings have shown that growing new brain cells allows the brain to better learn and remember new things, but researchers have also linked it to mood, by giving antidepressants to rats who are depressed (they no longer act depressed, and later autopsies reveal they grew more neurons than other, depressed rats), and by using radiation to selectively kill new neurons and effectively stop neurogenesis in rats who were being given antidepressants (they went right back to being depressed). This data has allowed a rather audacious new theory, that 1). Depression is fundamentally a malfunction of neurogenesis rather than of brain chemistry, as was previously thought, and 2). Neurogenesis is nearly synonymous with brain plasticity, or the adaptability of one's brain.

To put this very simply, this hypothesis asserts that being happy (or at least, not depressed), continually growing new brain cells, and having an adaptable brain are all deeply connected enough to be considered the same thing. When there's a malfunction in any of these, it soon becomes a malfunction in all of them: for instance, when something occurs that hinders the creation of new brain cells, the brain loses some of its plasticity, which may cause stress or depression, which in turn hinders the creation of new brain cells, and so forth in a vicious cycle. Similarly, any therapy that helps one of these things- happiness, plasticity, and neurogenesis- helps them all (albeit with a one-month lag, the time it takes for new neurons to mature and connect to other neurons).

I heartily recommend Seed Magazine's special on neurogenesis and mood. Eero Castren also suggests an aggressive generalization of this idea- that "mood represents a functional state of neural networks" (accessible commentary by Derek Lowe). And, for the scholarly folks, here's a well-linked overview of recent activity in this corner of science from Wikipedia:
Malberg et al. (2000) [2] and Manev et al. (2001) [3] have linked neurogenesis to the beneficial actions of certain antidepressants, suggesting a connection between decreased hippocampal neurogenesis and depression. In a subsequent paper, Santarelli et al. (2003) [4] demonstrated that the behavioural effects of antidepressants in rats did not occur when neurogenesis was prevented with x-irradiation techniques. Very recent papers have linked together learning and memory with depression, and have suggested that neurogenesis may promote neuroplasticity. For instance, Castren (2005) [5] has proposed that our mood may be regulated, at a base level, by plasticity, and thus not chemistry; for instance, the effects of antidepressant treatment are only secondary to this.
Caveats: The connections between mood and plasticity, and plasticity and neurogenesis, are new, and thus still under debate. Also, demonstrating even a strong link between neurogenesis, plasticity, and depression is a far cry from creating a general 'network theory of mood', as Castren is certainly aware. It's clear that there's much more to mood than just neurogenesis. But, frankly, the hypothesis of the past twenty-odd years that baseline mood arises from specific concentrations of certain chemical signals in the brain seems rather unpredictive and tapped out, whereas the hypothesis that mood depends on the communication patterns of one's neurons seems quite a generative model.

For what it's worth, the most common ways to actively promote neurogenesis that I've seen quoted in the literature are antidepressants (though they're a bit of a scattershot solution), exercise, learning new things, and being in love.

6-28-06: Reworked for clarity and accuracy.