The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 15 May 2009

"Known to Man" and the advent of the space aliens
Last week I wrote about how I was systematically changing the phrase "known to man" to just "known" in Wikipedia articles.

Two people so far have written to warn me that I would regret this once the space aliens come, and I have to go around undoing all my changes. But even completely leaving aside Wikipedia's "Wikipedia is not a crystal ball" policy, which completely absolves me from having to worry about this eventuality, I think these people have not analyzed the situation correctly. Here is how it seems to me.

Consider these example sentences:

  • Diamond is the hardest substance known to man.
  • Diamond is the hardest substance known.

There are four possible outcomes for the future:

  • Aliens reveal superhardium, a substance harder than diamond.
  • Aliens exist, but do not know about superhardium.
  • The aliens do not turn up, but humans discover superhardium on their own.
  • No aliens and no superhardium.

In cases (1) and (3), both sentences require revision.

In case (4), neither sentence requires revision.

But in case (2), sentence (a) requires revision, while (b) does not. So my change is a potential improvement in a way I had not appreciated.

Also in last week's article, I said it would be nice to find a case where a Wikipedia article's use of "known to man" actually intended a contrast with divine or feminine knowledge, rather than being a piece of inept blather. I did eventually find such a case: the article on runic alphabet says, in part:

In the Poetic Edda poem Rígþula another origin is related of how the runic alphabet became known to man. The poem relates how Ríg, identified as Heimdall in the introduction, ...

I gratefully acknowledge the gift of Thomas Guest. Thank you!

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