Shirky on the Semantic Web

Here’s an article by Clay Shirky on the real obstacles of the Semantic Web. It is interesting stuff, and I’m concerned with this topic. The supersecret project touches on some of these issues, so I’ve had a head full of this stuff for a while.

I pretty much agree with his conclusions down the line. There is a place he goes wildly astray, though, and that is on his logic. It’s a shame, because most of this is so well reasoned that he does himself harm by putting forward flawed strawmen as his counterarguments. Here’s one:

Consider the following assertions:
– Count Dracula is a Vampire
– Count Dracula lives in Transylvania

– Transylvania is a region of Romania
– Vampires are not real

You can draw only one non-clashing conclusion from such a set of assertions — Romania isn’t real. That’s wrong, of course, but the wrongness is nowhere reflected in these statements. There is simply no way to cleanly separate fact from fiction, and this matters in surprising and subtle ways that relate to matters far more weighty than vampiric identity.

That’s not correct reasoning. You can’t deny the existence of Romania from this. As I see it, the closest you can get is that “Count Dracula, who is not real, lives in Romania”. The next one:

Consider these assertions:

– US citizens are people
– The First Amendment covers the rights of US citizens
– Nike is protected by the First Amendment

You could conclude from this that Nike is a person, and of course you would be right. In the context of in First Amendment law, corporations are treated as people. If, however, you linked this conclusion with a medical database, you could go on to reason that Nike’s kidneys move poisons from Nike’s bloodstream into Nike’s urine.

This one also has a bad logical jump. You can conclude that US citizens are covered by the First Ammendment, but nothing in those assertions says that only citizens are covered. He’s making the jump that Nike being covered makes it a citizen, which does not logically hold. My formal logic is dusty, is that the contrapositive he’s trying to use, or merely the converse? Either way, it ain’t right. I wish he hadn’t used bogus bad examples here. His case is strong, and he should have used correct examples. He’s accusing the Semantic Web folks of palming cards and hiding the complexity, and he’s doing the same thing with the weakness of inference.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father.