This free online encyclopedia has achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of

Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz: “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may be the most interesting website on the internet. Not because of the content—which includes fascinating entries on everything from ambiguity to zombies—but because of the site itself.

Its creators have solved one of the internet’s fundamental problems: How to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers. It’s something the encyclopedia, or SEP, has managed to do for two decades.

The internet is an information landfill. Somewhere in it—buried under piles of opinion, speculation, and misinformation—is virtually all of human knowledge. The story of the SEP shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet.  But sorting through the trash is difficult work. Even when you have something you think is valuable, it often turns out to be a cheap knock-off.

The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it. A place where actual knowledge is sorted into a neat, separate pile instead of being thrown into the landfill. Where the world can go to learn everything that we know to be true. Something that would make humans a lot smarter than the internet we have today.

The impossible trinity of information

The online SEP has humble beginnings. Edward Zalta, a philosopher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, launched it way back in September 1995, with just two entries.

Philosophizing, pre-internet.(Flickr/Erik Drost—CC-BY-2.0)

That makes it positively ancient in internet years. Even Wikipedia is only 14. ….

John Perry, the director of the center, was the one who first suggested a dictionary of philosophical terms. But Zalta had bigger ideas. He and two co-authors later described the challenge in a 2002 paper (pdf, p. 1):

A fundamental problem faced by the general public and the members of an academic discipline in the information age is how to find the most authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date information about an important topic.

That paper is so old that it mentions “CD-ROMs” in the second sentence. But for all the years that have passed, the basic problem remains unsolved.  The requirements are an “impossible trinity”—like having your cake, eating it, and then bringing it to another party. The three requirements the authors list—”authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date”—are to information what the “impossible trinity” is to economics. You can only ever have one or two at once. It is like having your cake, eating it, and then bringing it to another party.

Yet if the goal is to share with people what is true, it is extremely important for a resource to have all of these things. It must be trusted. It must not leave anything out. And it must reflect the latest state of knowledge. Unfortunately, all of the other current ways of designing an encyclopedia very badly fail to meet at least one of these requirements.

Where other encyclopedias fall short


Authoritative: √

Comprehensive: X

Up-to-date: X

Printed encyclopedias: still a thing(Princeton University Press)

Printed books are authoritative: Readers trust articles they know have been written and edited by experts. Books also produce a coherent overview of a subject, as the editors consider how each entry fits into the whole. But they become obsolete whenever new research comes out. Nor can a book (or even a set of volumes) be comprehensive, except perhaps for a very narrow discipline; there’s simply too much to print.


Authoritative: X

Comprehensive: X

Up-to-date: √

A crowdsourced online encyclopedia has the virtue of timeliness. Thanks to Wikipedia’s vibrant community of non-experts, its entries on breaking-news events are often updated as they happen. But except perhaps in a few areas in which enough well-informed people care for errors to get weeded out, Wikipedia is not authoritative.  Basic mathematics entries on Wikipedia were a “a hot mess of error, arrogance, obscurity, and nonsense.”  One math professor reviewed basic mathematics entries and found them to be a “a hot mess of error, arrogance, obscurity, and nonsense.” Nor is it comprehensive: Though it has nearly 5 million articles in the English-language version alone, seemingly in every sphere of knowledge, fewer than 10,000 are “A-class” or better, the status awarded to articles considered “essentially complete.”

Speaking of holes, the SEP has a rather detailed entry on the topic of holes, and it rather nicely illustrates one of Wikipedia’s key shortcomings. Holes present a tricky philosophical problem, the SEP entry explains: A hole is nothing, but we refer to it as if it were something. (Achille Varzi, the author of the holes entry, was called upon in the US presidential election in 2000 toweigh in on the existential status of hanging chads.) If you ask Wikipedia for holes it gives you the young-adult novel Holes and the band Hole.

In other words, holes as philosophical notions are too abstract for a crowdsourced venue that favors clean, factual statements like a novel’s plot or a band’s discography. Wikipedia’s bottom-up model could never produce an entry on holes like the SEP’s.

Crowdsourcing + voting

Authoritative: ?

Comprehensive: X

Up-to-date: ?

A variation on the wiki model is question-and-answer sites like Quora (general interest) and StackOverflow (computer programming), on which users can pose questions and write answers. These are slightly more authoritative than Wikipedia, because users also vote answers up or down according to how helpful they find them; and because answers are given by single, specific users, who are encouraged to say why they’re qualified (“I’m a UI designer at Google,” say).

But while there are sometimes ways to check people’s accreditation, it’s largely self-reported and unverified. Moreover, these sites are far from comprehensive. Any given answer is only as complete as its writer decides or is able to make it. And the questions asked and answered tend to reflect the interests of the sites’ users, which in both Quora and StackOverflow’s cases skew heavily male, American, and techie.

Moreover, the sites aren’t up-to-date. While they may respond quickly to new events, answers that become outdated aren’t deleted or changed but stay there, burdening the site with a growing mass of stale information.

The Stanford solution

So is the impossible trinity just that—impossible? Not according to Zalta. He imagined a different model for the SEP: the “dynamic reference work.”

Dynamic reference work

Authoritative: √

Comprehensive: √

Up-to-date: √

To achieve authority, several dozen subject editors—responsible for broad areas like “ancient philosophy” or “formal epistemology”—identify topics in need of coverage, and invite qualified philosophers to write entries on them. If the invitation is accepted, the author sends an outline to the relevant subject editors.

 This is not somebody randomly deciding to answer a question on Quora. “An editor works with the author to get an optimal outline before the author begins to write,” says Susanna Siegel, subject editor for philosophy of mind. “Sometimes there is a lot of back and forth at this stage.” Editors may also reject entries. Zalta and Uri Nodelman, the SEP’s senior editor, say that this almost never happens. In the rare cases when it does, the reason is usually that an entry is overly biased. In short, this is not somebody randomly deciding to answer a question on Quora.

An executive editorial board—Zalta, Nodelman, and Colin Allen—works to make the SEP comprehensive….(More)”

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