Steward Guidelines for Inclusivity

January 30, 2009, 8:04 pm
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Two of the key objectives of the editorial policy of the Digital Universe are to present the most reliable information in a clear and easy-to-find fashion (in the Stewarded Area), while at the same time not suppressing reasonable and responsible points of view that may differ from conventional wisdom. The DUF approach is more meritocracy than democracy. It is egalitarian in that all participants have a right to voice their views on Digital Universe content. However, trusted experts working within guidelines of fairness and objectivity have the final say over what content is accepted into the Digital Universe and how it is presented.

Affirmation of the Peer-Review Approach

In previous centuries, natural philosophers -- as scientists were once known -- might open new vistas by summarizing years of solitary research and contemplation in a single influential book, famous examples being Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. But whereas Darwin followed this path with his publication of "The Origin of Species" in 1859, Maxwell published his theory of electrodynamics in three papers appearing between 1856 and 1864 (which were then compiled into the single "Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism" in 1873). By the first decades of the twentieth century the scientific journal had become the collective repository of knowledge and seedbed of new ideas: Relativity and quantum mechanics were born in journal articles, not in books. Scholarly, peer-reviewed publication has been the highly successful engine of scientific advancement.

At first glance the wide-open Internet and the unrefereed www.arxiv.org preprint archive for physics, astrophysics and mathematics at Cornell Univ. appear to have changed all this, but that is not the case. High energy physics, for example, is full of papers submitted to the arxiv that never make it to the stage of journal submission, but in fact the community of researchers effectively exercises a kind of collective peer-review on submissions, and it is hard to identify any examples of Internet-only presentation that have thus far had any significant impact in science. Overall this is a good thing.

The downside of peer review is that new ideas face hurdles in direct proportion, and perhaps even to a higher power, to the degree to which they challenge the reigning orthodoxy. Sometimes minority opinions need to be acknowledged as well as the conventional wisdom; history teaches that unorthodox views occasionally win out in the long run, and that one cannot always predict accurately which of today's orthodoxies or heresies will be tomorrow's accepted paradigm.

A steward thus faces two challenges: (1) finding the best material in his or her domain, and (2) deciding which points of view are to be represented. In most cases, it is likely that the latter will be a more difficult task than the former. How and where to draw the line? It is the purpose of these guidelines to bring some rationality to such choices.

Desirability of Multiple Points of View

Bertrand Russell, arguably a peerless rationalist, stated:

The question is how to arrive at your opinions and not what your opinions are. The thing in which we believe is the supremacy of reason. If reason should lead you to orthodox conclusions, well and good; you are still a Rationalist. To my mind the essential thing is that one should base one's arguments upon the kind of grounds that are accepted in science, and one should not regard anything that one accepts as quite certain, but only as probable in a greater or a less degree. Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.

Guidelines for Inclusivity

The criteria listed here are guidelines, not requirements. The more criteria a particular piece meets, the more likely it is to be a good fit with the Digital Universe, but it is understood that there will always be exceptions, and some room should be made for exceptions.

  1. Does the quality of the presentation convey a serious and scholarly impression (what one would call the "look and feel" in web design parlance)?
  2. Are the ideas of potential importance correct?
  3. Does the author have respectable and relevant credentials?
  4. Are arguments backed by references to work of others, and if so, what is the apparent quality of that work?
  5. Have the ideas been published in any peer-reviewed or editorially-controlled venues or only on the Internet, conference proceedings or in non-professonal magazines?
  6. Where do the ideas fall in the spectrum between conjecture and substantive theoretical development?
  7. Is the work purely theoretical or is there data or evidence to back it up? How credible is the evidence?
  8. Are the concepts potentially falsfiable or at least subject to rational counter-argument?
  9. If significant objections have been made, has the author responded rationally?
  10. Is the author alone in proposing such ideas or are there others who take a similar position?
  11. Are the analysis tool and methods the same or similar to those used in the appropriate mainstream area?
  12. Has the author carried out conventional research as well?
  13. Does the author have institutional backing or is the author an active member of relevant professional organizations?
  14. If a controversial area has been under discussion long enough, is there any evidence of progress in the debate?

Unfortunately the decision on whether or not to include a given concept or point of view cannot --- or at least should not --- be made by naively using the above as a checklist yielding a nominal pass or fail based on a single score. Every one of the above questions and criteria is itself an object of subjective interpretation. It is essential for a steward, no matter how expert in a given area, to maintain a level of humility with respect to his own certainty of how things must be, based on his own knowledge. Keep in mind the following:

  • Just because something cannot be explained does not mean that it did not happen or does not exist.
  • Contradiction to established knowledge does not prove incorrectness.
  • Many of the most marvelous scientific achievements stood in contradiction to textbook science when first proposed and were ignored, resisted or reviled.
  • Recent example: Ball Lightning went from ridicule to serious investigation in 2000.

A healthy skepticism must accompany the responsibility of stewardship. A healthy skepticism consists of practicing the method of suspended judgment, engaging in rational and dispassionate reasoning as exemplified by the scientific method, showing willingness to consider alternative explanations without prejudice based on prior beliefs, and seeking out evidence and carefully scrutinizing its validity. Healthy skepticism does not degenerate into scoffing.

Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless .... Bertrand Russell
Glossary

Citation

Lindblom, J. (2009). Steward Guidelines for Inclusivity. Retrieved from http://www.digitaluniverse.net/dufoundation/view/article/136850

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