Borderline case

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Moved here from the English Wikipedia:

In order to achieve greatest neutrality without diluting content it is important to distinguish between "talk about talk" and "talk about the world." Consider, for example, statements such as

  1. "Iraq's population was 24 million in 2002."
  2. "The 2002 CIA World Factbook reported 24 million as an estimate of Iraq's population."

Statement 1 purports to be a fact, but 2 is a demonstrable fact, unlike 1. The world is yet more complicated than humankind's stories about the world. Even though our ultimate interest is the world itself, writing about the more easily verified stories about the world greatly enhances the value of communications among persons of different persuasions.

A shift, which is often a difference of nuance, from "talking about the world" to "talking about talk about the world" is closely related to Alfred North Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Consider the difference between Leibniz's and Newton's notion of a derivative. For Newton, the first derivative of position was velocity and the 2nd derivative was acceleration and he used the notation y'(t) and y"(t). But Leibnitz recognized that he was working with an abstraction and he used the notation dy/dt. Newton thought he was talking about something "out there" (the speed and acceleration of moving bodies) whereas Leibnitz realized that he was working with a conceptualization that was useful for (modeling) talking about the world. Over time mathematics came to realize, in the simple-minded phraseology of this note, that they were "talking about talk" rather than "talking about the world."

The mere realization that we are often talking about humankind's views of the world rather than the more difficult-to-know world itself is to avoid committing Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Derivatives, for example, are in "our heads" -- they aren't "out there."

The achievement of greater intellectual sophistication dovetails with the pursuit of less contentious discussion without the loss of content. Any worthwhile encyclopedia such as Wikipedia is an exercise in the articulation of humankind's views of the world. When we slip into thinking we're talking about the world itself -- when we commit Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness -- we open the door to ideology and non-neutrality.

The gray area of borderline contributions -- those that may or may not be sufficiently neutral to enhance the value of Wikipedia -- can be diminished by modest attention to recognizing how often we're talking about views of the world rather than the world, per se.

However, while "talking about talk" is a good way to avoid bias, many readers are more interested in understanding the truth itself, rather than what various groups claim to be "the truth." To facilitate the reader's search for truth editors should make a concerted effort to both

  • attribute claims to specific sources (persons, groups, a given percentage of some population, etc.) and
  • provide enough information about these sources that readers can accurately gauge for themselves the trustworthiness of each.

Articles should not "talk about the world," but they should help readers discover the truth about the world by providing sufficient (and verifiable) information about precisely who is saying what.