Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wales@home : sorry, I haven't a clue !

One of the sites I follow on a regular basis is Wales@home. It contains informed short articles, some of which are reprints of speeches or presented papers and some are written specifically for the site. They are all good, the vast majority are about Wales. The writers for the site are typically political types (A.M., various advisors) or journalists. The site appears to have been the idea of Duncan Higgit and a very fine idea it is to. I don't agree with much of what is written, but that is only goodness as it makes you think and often change your mind.

Duncan Higgit wrote part of an article (probably just a view) about the Afghan War and Wikileaks. What this did illustrate to me is that both the authors and most of those who left comments thought they knew the effect (good or bad) that Wikileaks will have.

I work on what are quite complex computer systems. The points of failure are quite obvious, and most parties that are effected will have a voice. While the diagnosis of problems can be highly non-trivial, you either know that you have fixed an issue very quickly or in 2 times the mean time between occurrences. My working life is a battle against cognitive bias, my own and that of others. We are not designed to deal with systems of this complexity, so we delete, distort and generalise, find pet causes and then look for details to support our pet cause. Here are documented many cognitive bais traits which I see (in myself and others) in my working life on a daily basis. Other than a degree of self awareness, there are tools like Kepner Tragoe rational process which help a great deal.

What Duncan's article and the comments made me grasp was that the Political class and Journalists are born more immune to the ravages of bias that effect us mortals. They work in a hugely more complex social system where the voice of many of the agents involved is not heard, the system itself is continually changing in subtle ways and the parties involved can't even agree on the problems that need solves, their priority and often don't involve experts. The experts don't fully understand their part of the part of the eco-system (think economic forecasts if you want an example). They have limited information about the subject areas, but can make informed correct decisions every time.

While my comments are somewhat opaque, I still stand by them.
  1. We can't know the long terms future of Wikipedia and its legacy can't be known in advance. Good or bad, we don't know yet.
  2. We can't know what impact the document leaking will have in aggregate
  3. Wikipedia's morals can only be judged right and wrong in reference to your ideology
  4. Duncan would be a fun chap to have a beer with
A gross generalisation I grant, but I think here lies a significant difference between the types of people involved in the discussion I mentioned above on the Wales@home site. I am dam sure I can't know the future, I struggle bringing some type of order to the chaos of much more constrained environments in the present. What do the Political class and Journalists know that I don't or are they just far better at putting forward credible arguments today which stand no better chance of being right when judged by history ?

I guess I have an advantage in that history won't be bothered to judge what I think.

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