I'm watching with some
air of detachment, the unfolding
the editors on Wikipedia trying to delete the Shen
grounds of non-notability and the members of the Shen
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.