Direct Experience Is So Overrated, Apparently

For hundreds of years people believed that water contracts when it freezes. Why? Because Aristotle said so, and Aristotle was an unimpeachable authority. During hundreds of winters someone could have learned the truth and refuted the great man by leaving a bottle of water outside on a frosty night, but the force of authority overruled experience.

Wikipedia operates by the same medieval principle. When I was researching Stockhausen’s Mantra for my 12-tone class, I finally turned in some desperation to the Wikipedia page on the piece. It contains some true statements, but it says that there are 13 sections in the piece, the beginning of each one marked by a stroke on the crotales (antique cymbals) outlining the 13-tone row on which the piece is based. This statement is apparently based on Stockhausen replying “Exactly” to an interviewer who asked him if this was the case. But if you start looking at Mantra, the first thing you notice is that the crotales go through the row not once but twice, the second time in inversion, and so (since the rows are linked by one note) there are actually 25 crotales gestures in the course of the piece (or really 23, since in each row two of the notes are combined in quick alternation). This misinformation had cost me some waste of time, so I wrote correcting the error on the article’s talk page. No matter: since Stockhausen said “Exactly,” the statement must stand. I was told: “we can’t just go filling up the article with ‘facts’ that we ‘know to be true.'” For me to count the crotales strokes was “original research,” and violated the Wikipedia principle, “Who ya gonna believe, us or your lying eyes?” (For the record, I am now aware that Richard Toop’s “Lectures on Stockhausen” contains a different explanation of the crotales strokes that fits the phenomena.)
I’m reminded of years ago when I taught a graduate 20th-century analysis class at Columbia, and brought in an electric keyboard to demonstrate Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale. Some Great White Hope who’s now probably teaching set theory analysis somewhere raised his hand and asked, “Have there been any studies done to see whether we can actually perceive these intervals?” I played a sequence of them for him and said, “Can you hear this one? Can you hear this one? Can you hear this one? What do you need to read a study for?”


  1. says

    I think that one of the best things about the way Wikipedia works is that people with direct experience can edit articles. You can sign up and simply edit the page, you know.
    KG replies: 1. No I can’t. If my source for the fact that there are 23 crotales gestures is myself, and I can’t footnote a printed source, then it’s inadmissible. 2. I’m too proud of my writing skills to craft sentences that any ignorant teenager can come along and irrevocably deface. Lost interest in that. But it seemed public spirited to inform someone of the false information.

  2. says

    If you published an analysis of Stockhausen’s Mantra, you could then go back and cite that publication as your source. Such are the arcane ways of Wikipedia.
    I have some sympathy for the rule, in that they are trying to keep out vanity entries. Sadly, it’s amazing how filled up with vanity entries Wikipedia actually is.
    KG replies: But it’s even more arcane than that. Back when I did a little writing for them, other writers challenged me even for quoting my own (peer-reviewed, academic-press) books, as though I were only trying to draw attention to my publications. It’s why their expert-retention level is so low.

  3. Eric Grunin says

    I had a similar experience with the Eroica article: when I tried to cite the score itself, I was told this didn’t meet their verification criteria.
    It needs be pointed out that there are two places where Wikipedia excels: information from the hard sciences (including technology in general), and recent cultural ephemera.
    KG replies: Agreed – at least, certainly seems to be true of the former and is with the latter.

  4. Ryan Howard says

    I don’t think there were water bottles in the Middle Ages.
    KG replies: Well ceramics would have done.

  5. jodru says

    I’ve gone around with Jerry on a few Stockhausen articles myself, and while it is frustrating to deal with overzealous editors, Jerry is thankfully not one of those. Moreover, he’s done real yeoman’s work in getting a ton of information on Wikipedia.
    In a film or a book article, the material is the source, and it isn’t original research, for instance, to say that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, because that is evidenced by The Empire Strikes Back. The same policy should be true for musical compositions. I don’t know why it isn’t.
    That being said, if a little silliness among editors is the price to pay for an open-source encyclopedia, I think that’s a fair enough trade off. The somewhat nonsensical ban on ‘original research’ is one of the bulwarks against Wikipedia falling into complete uselessness.
    KG replies: I had assumed the misstatement wasn’t Jerome Kohl’s, because I’d been given to understand that he’s a Stockhausen scholar. But he certainly is defending it at length.

  6. mclaren says

    The false claim that Wikipedia is reliable for hard science info has only gained wide currency because so few people have detailed knowledge of the arcane fields of hard science with which Wikipedia articles deal.
    Let’s take several sepcific examples. This article on M-theory presents M theory as though it were a recognized complete theory of physics. In fact, it is not a theory, since it does not make any testable predications: and in fact M-theory is so grossly inchoate that no one can even agree on what the letter “M” stands for. This article is complete mess, a dog’s breakfast, and anyone who knows anything about high-energy physics would find it laughable and wildly inaccurate.
    Likewise, Wikipedia’s discussion of catastrophe theory is thoroughly incorrect and entirely inaccurate. That disastrously bad article falsely claims:
    Bifurcation theory studies and classifies phenomena characterized by sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstance…
    This is so vague and hopelessly incoherent that it’s entirely wrong — insofar as it makes an sense at all. What is the mathematical meaning of a ‘change in circumstance”? It’s gibberish. Moreover, many types of phenomena are characterized by sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes — chaos theory, nonlinear dynamics, caustics, the behavior around a cusp, many different kinds of systems exhibit this behavior, but almost none of ’em can be described by catastrophe theory.
    In actual fact, catastrophe theory uses a geometric model of a dynamical system in which the manifold exhibits a sudden shear. At the shear point, the variables change drastically, typically reversing sign. This isn’t true of chaos theory or most nonlinear dynamical systems, but the authors of this godawful article are too ignorant and too incompetent to know that.
    Anyone who relies on any Wikipedia article is a fool. Wikipedia is riddled with gross misinformation from top to bottom. None of the articles are remotely reliable. Many of the Wikipedia articles, such as the articles about rational expectation theory in economics, are chock full of outright lies written by partisan ideologues with an axe to grind.
    KG replies: Happy to take your word for it.

  7. says

    “Some Great White Hope who’s now probably teaching set theory analysis somewhere…”
    I don’t know about Mantra or Wikipedia, but I wanted to comment on how much I love this phrase. I know EXACTLY the kind of student/scholar that you mean by it!