Shen and Wikipedia: in Defence of Open Science

Dr Mark Tarver, 2015

I'm watching with some air of detachment, the unfolding clash between the editors on Wikipedia trying to delete the Shen article on grounds of non-notability and the members of the Shen group trying to keep it. I can't guess for certain what the outcome will be, but since the editors have the power they will probably get their way. Actually I did not create the Shen entry, and left to me, there would be no entry. But somebody else did and I cleaned it up a little and left it as a stub. So you'll understand why I'm detached. I haven't put much effort into it.

Yet, at another level, I'm not detached, because there is a misuse of power going on here. Certain criteria of notability, most principally, the idea that a subject is notable if enough people are interested in it, are being ignored by the editors. At least one correspondent has pointed this out in a quote from Wikipedia.

"The common theme in the notability guidelines is that there must be verifiable, objective evidence that the subject has received significant attention from independent sources to support a claim of notability."

Only by wilfully downplaying that passage could the editors succeed in deleting a entry on a language with 467 members in the news group. But there is a general confusion with the word 'notable', which I will come to.

Behind this unedifying backroom scuffle, there are issues bigger than the meanings of words. Meanings are being adjusted to reflect and favour decisions about really big issues in scientific research; meanings are the chips in a high stakes poker game involving prestige and a lot of money. This is really why I'm writing this essay; so people will understand the game that is being played out.

So What's Notable?

First let's start small; by discussing the word 'notable'. 'Notable' is really an adjective; it's natural place in the English language is waving a flag in front of a noun. 'John is a notable boxer, but not a notable chess player' makes perfect sense. If faced with the question 'Is John notable, yes or no?' we would only answer with a qualifier 'Yes, as a boxer'. That's the right answer. The hijacking of the English language begins when we detach 'notable' from the adjective position and insist on trying to make it stand on its own. What then happens is that it becomes open to covert manipulation whereby the missing noun is implicitly defined by the user to be the right and natural sense of 'notable'.

Something like that is going on in Wikipedia, with the even more depressing observation, that even a covert sense supplied in their own web pages is being downplayed. The question is 'Is Shen notable?'. If you've followed the previous paragraph, you'll realise that question is a dud. The proper response is 'In what respect?'.

If we play the notability game with computer languages we get all sorts of conflicting answers until we realise the proper adjectival position of 'notable'. Lets show how by beginning with Clojure. 'Is Clojure notable?'. Well, surely yes, because it has a large user group and a number of commercial applications. But in another sense, it is not. As Rich Hickey said in a thread 'Clojure is mostly unoriginal'. We restore our sense of balance when we realise that as a commercial development, in helping to introduce Lisp into the market place, Clojure is very notable, but as a development in language design much less so.

If we ask the notability question of Prolog, the situation is precisely reversed. Prolog is not much used as a commercial language, so it is not as notable as Clojure in this respect, but it is extremely notable as a step in the development of programming languages. I hope by now everybody reading this will now want to walk away from the question 'Is Prolog more notable than Clojure?'.

Yet the Wikipedia editors are still struggling with the attempt to define 'notable' and the result is just to make a decent English word the hostage of a political game. 'Is Shen notable?'; with a news group of 467, one could say 'yes'. It is certainly more notable in that respect than Brainfuck and Malbolge whose articles sit unassaulted; not as notable as Clojure, certainly, but then Clojure has a very large group. On that basis, Shen is notable. That cannot be allowed. So the notability game is changed so that 'notability' becomes defined in a way that allows the Shen article to be deleted. Now the editors talk about notability with respect to academic citations. This is where the game gets serious and it is worth looking at the power issues.

How Shen Came About

To understand these issues, and why Shen is mired in this controversy, you have to understand how Shen came into being. The genesis of Shen, and its predecessor Qi, is inextricably mixed with the development of the Internet and rise of information sharing. Shen in particular could not exist without the Internet.
The goal of Shen was to develop a next-generation functional language that was implemented in a very small instruction set and that could be ported to almost any platform. But that goal would always remain unrealised if Shen sources and Shen technology were not freely shared with other programmers. So that was done, and under the understanding that implementations of my work would be coded correctly, the sources were placed at the disposal of the community. A lot of very good programmers pitched in and Shen was ported to Clojure, CL, Scheme, Python etc. Later people wanted even more freedom, so the work was placed under BSD.

The technology, meaning the ideas, were published in book form and for Qi, were made freely readable as HTML. For financial reasons, in order to fund the work, the Shen book was sold as a hardcopy, but many people decided to buy and so the work became circulated and a decent trade was done. Many more probably decided to read the HTML. But more importantly, the code itself was downloaded many times. Qi had over 1500 downloads before I stopped counting and Shen probably no less. During the 10 years, many people read the texts and many people played with the code, and many who did were fascinated and some chose to stay.

Now the point of this is not to sell Shen, but to point out that Shen was very thoroughly tested and that many able people read the texts and the math'l proofs of correctness in the book (including my good friend Dr Riha) and that during that whole time - 10 years - no serious error was found in either in the proofs or the realisation of those ideas in code. Bugs were found certainly, but none of a foundational nature. Shen emerged from a process of testing and scrutiny more demanding than anything I could have devised. Does this mean it must therefore be free from serious error? No, errors are always possible - even in proofs. But it does mean that the chances of such an error are less.

This process of correction and validation is completely C21; it is born out of the Internet and social networking on a large scale. For this reason it is orthogonal to the usual scientific approach which I will discuss next. This traditional approach has some serious weaknesses and is already under assault, but there are powerful vested interests to keep it going. The clash of the old and the new is at play here, and this is why the Wikipedia drama is being played out.

The Traditional Scientific Model

The traditional scientific model runs something like this. A scientist has an original idea (so he thinks) and so he writes it up and submits it to the review process. His paper, which may or may not be anonymous, is passed to a number of anonymous referees, who possess expert knowledge, are completely impartial and have no vested interests or are capable of putting them aside. They go through the paper in great detail, giving it thorough scrutiny. The paper is finally either accepted or rejected, and if it is accepted then it joins that body of learning called scientific knowledge.

This wonderful picture is at odds with the classical economic model of human beings which portrays them as essentially selfish being who try to maximise their utility. If it is cheaper, then they'll buy it. Often true, despite activist attempts to unmask multinational corporations and outsourcing; people will follow a bargain. So are scientists somehow exempt? Does the process of being a scientist make one that noble creature exempt from the temptations of lesser beings?


The answer of course is 'no'. Scientists are human beings and share the weaknesses of our species. This is not to say that they are all corrupt, but that the picture painted in the opening paragraph is absurdly idealistic. Let's see what really happens.

The first hurdle any editor has to overcome is 'Oh God, where will I find a reviewer?'. Reviewing is a thankless task. It does not contribute much to your CV and it takes a lot of work. So the editor may find that the best person for the job will not do it. In practice it often means that the person chosen will be the person closest to the topic who is prepared to take on the job. This of course, is consistent with being less expert than the person writing the paper. In fact I would say this might be more the rule.

Second there is the question of time devoted to the review. Papers are hard to read, and a reviewer may want to get through the process as quickly as he can. Hence if he encounters a bump, something that is not clear, the instinct might be to reject the paper and go on to the next task on his job list. Very often papers are not clear; this may be a function of ineptitude with the English language, but it is frequently a function of length restrictions whereby papers are compressed to that very verge of intelligibility consistent with the use of their native tongue. Frequently as a referee, when faced with some convoluted piece of presentation, one is given the choice of either rejecting the paper (thereby relieving one of the odious task of wading through it all) or of being a nice guy (giving him the benefit of the doubt) or writing back asking for clarification (thereby doubling one's work load). No option is really attractive, but the first leads to brilliant work often being rejected (we'll come to that) and the second leads to the existence of errors in published work - and we'll come to that too.

Then there is the question of impartiality. Refereeing is anonymous and there is no right of reply. This gives enormous scope for abuse. Though papers themselves may be anonymous, it is often easy to guess the identity of the author from the content of the paper. This gives ample scope for the settling of scores. Does the author fail to cite or to recognise work that the referee is involved with? Is he involved in approaching the problems in a way that is different in method from the one's used by the referee? Would publishing the paper allow an approach to arise that might put in question the ideas and approach of the referee? Would allowing these ideas to take hold threaten the lifeblood of grant money that the referee and his co-workers depend on? All these questions may have positive answers, and it would be naive to believe that referees are immune to these considerations when anonymity protects their decisions.

The Traditional Model and the Paradigm Shift

The traditional model often comes unstuck with papers are submitted that represent paradigm shifts or conceptual leaps in their field. These papers may put into question, the approaches and ideas of the scientific community. Hence the tension between objectivity and self-interest is often played out to the detriment of scientific progress. Sometimes the problem is not professional self-interest; a brilliant paper may reference material quite unfamiliar to the normal scientist working in the field. The lines are dramatically redrawn. Scanning the paper for familiar landmarks, the reviewer does not find them and so the paper is rejected. The result is often professional and emotional damage to the brilliant scientist.

History is so full of these examples that the tormented genius struggling for recognition is become a cliche, which is sad, because it is really a tragedy. And it is a tragedy that is replayed in every generation. Jenner's initial paper on smallpox vaccination was rejected, Semmelweis was crucified for suggesting that doctors were responsible for spreading puerperal fever, Cantor was hounded by Kronecker into a mental asylum for his work on infinity. And it has got worse now and not better. Since citation circles and publish-or-perish have grown up in the wake of research assessment exercises and 'centres of excellence', the pressure to conform is even stronger. Many potentially brilliant and innovative young academics are aware of the perils of non-conformity and subsequent rejection, so the result is self-censorship and the proliferation of dull conformist work.

The Traditional Model and Getting It Wrong

It is sometimes argued that the traditional model, although making it hard for brilliant and innovative minds, does at least filter out mistakes. Better to throw out a few really good ideas, if that is the price for ensuring errors are not published. But actually the traditional model is not even good at that.

The problem, as has been pointed out, is that referees are under time pressure and struggling with dense material. Proofs are often shortened to sketches and much may be assumed. In such a situation, referees may err on the side of charity and assume that the author has got it right. Since there are only perhaps three referees, this is not unusual. The paper is published and read, again by possibly only a very few people, possibly less than a dozen. The mistake goes uncorrected and becomes part of science.

Mistakes like this are, I believe, more common than one might think. They are most likely to occur in papers published in obscure conferences read by a few cognoscenti. I have come across them myself twice. The first time arose within the Qualitative Spatial Reasoning Group at Leeds. A somewhat abashed conversation with one of the research assistants involved in a SERC grant, revealed that the group has unearthed a contradiction in their published work to do with the pointwise connection of regions of space. It was a beautiful paradox, of the kind Zeno would have loved, but they were not enamoured to own it. Whether the contradiction was published I do not know. I never heard what the resolution was.

The second experience was when I was researching my own work and I wanted an answer to the type theory of a specific extended lambda calculus. I had formalised an account, but realised it was not quite right because there was a deep counterinstance to one of the rules of my system. Though I had corrected the rule, I wanted more assurance, so I wrote to Henk Barendregt in Holland for insight. He in turn referred me to an authority in Imperial College.

I wrote to the authority and offered my solution, and he swiftly (as he believed) corrected me and sent me the right version of the rule. It was, he told me, the only substantially correct analysis of the question I had asked him and he had published it 10 years previously.

Except it wasn't right. It was identical to the incorrect rule I had started with. He was confronted with the counterinstance and his weekend was probably ruined. He wrote back once and admitted the error but had nothing to offer. This sparked a search for a correctness proof of my solution which I eventually found and the result is in The Book of Shen. The system has worked like clockwork for 10 years, but I still worry that somewhere there is a mistake.

The Eyeballs Principle and Why Science Works

I think science and scientific papers contain many more mistakes than one might commonly suppose. The traditional scientific model for vetting work is really quite inefficient. Yet oddly, despite these weaknesses, science manages to work quite well. The reason why is to do with Eric S. Raymond's famous dictum: 'Many eyeballs make all bugs shallow.' Mistakes generally go undetected when papers are not widely read or the ideas are not implemented and put into use. Such work is not notable (in the citation sense used by Wikipedia). Notable work is more likely to be correct and since science depends more on notable work, it proceeds forward unimpeded by the hidden mistakes in published non-notable science.

When one realises this, one begins to see that what holds science together is not the anachronistic and rather creaking C19 peer review process - which frequently excludes brilliant work - but the social network of reading minds that can follow the publication. In other words, ironically, it is the same hidden review process that Shen has followed, the gauntlet of users and readers, that gives science much of its integrity. I say 'ironically' because it is this sort of review process, which depends on a large community interest and Internet exchange, which is right now being discounted as irrelevant by the Wikipedia editors.

Priests of Science and Rogue Scholars

Given the arbitrary, inefficient and conformist model of scientific publication that we have inherited from the last century and before, one could ask with justice, why do young scientists submit to it? The short answer is that scientists have to eat like everybody else. Hence they submit to the whims of referees and bite the bullet in order to climb the ranks of their profession. Doing this requires considerable sacrifice and work, but if successful they are rewarded by sizable chunks of public money for research (suitably approved research) and also power. They in turn acquire the power to determine what does and does not get published and hence what counts as serious science. They become priests of science.

Priesthoods with respect to knowledge are nothing new. The early Christian church quickly interposed itself between God, Jesus and the laity and reserved the interpretation of the Bible for itself. The doctors of the medieval School of Medicine in Paris persecuted the herbal healers of the day in order to set up a monopoly in medicine and slaughtered their patients. Brahmins control the liturgy of Hinduism and psychiatrists define sanity. In other words, knowledge is power and so is the power to label something as knowledge.

It was this model and lifestyle I rejected 15 years ago and I wrote about in
Why I am Not a Professor. The priesthood I observed seemed to me to be corrupt and complacent and wasteful of public money. Above all it was not fun. Hence I left and ceased to be an academic and became a scholar. I simply published my results for fun and let people decide whether they wanted to read my work and use it. The response surprised me; people were fascinated and tried the work and read the text. The main complaint from 2005-2008 was that they wanted a different license - not GPL. We evolved eventually to BSD.

The path I was following was essentially one of Open Science and I gradually became aware that more traditional members of the academic community were not happy with Qi or Shen. I began to realise that, as a rogue scholar who had rejected academia, the following that Qi and Shen had accumulated (without submitting to traditional peer review) was deeply upsetting. Qi and Shen had eclipsed some publically funded work.

Moreover if such a process did catch on, then the role of the priests of science in determining knowledge might be overturned. Even worse, if the Open Science community overturned the position of the priests of science, the priests of science would not only lose the power to determine what counted as knowledge, they might lose the absolute power to control how science money was spent. The cherry on top, the piece de resistance, was that Shen technology and ideas borrowed from work in high-performance reasoning, a rather different idea pool than the one that many priests in the field were working with, and it delivered to the working programmer the sort of power to shape his ideas that was generally reserved for the priesthood. All this resentment more or less simmered in the background until the Wikipedia debate brought it all out.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

This question has a local sense; in relation to the drama being played out with Shen on Wikipedia and a more global sense to do with how science is funded and researched. The local sense is fairly unimportant. As said, I'm detached from the Shen stub on Wikipedia and I've got more fun things to do than hammer the rudiments of Shen into neolithic referees hooked on Haskell. Being a scholar is about doing things you like. Right now I'm editing a course on hermetic philosophy.

The much more important question is where does science research and computing research go from here? Because like it or not, Open Science of the kind that Shen represents is not going to go away. Open Science will only get bigger as time rolls on and since it is not subject to the censorship, we may well see the appearance of brilliant as well as batty ideas from this source. In turn, if Open Science does become established, it will start to demand some say in the way that science money is doled out. The sad thing about Wikipedia is that it has set itself against the very forces that made Wikipedia possible and chained itself to an older model of scientific review that is under attack.