Page 3.14


If you don’t think you are a brain in a vat, then there are certain things in life you regard as true—things that are also accepted as true by most other people. When events happen, there are generally highly efficient methods to convey information to the public so that the first-hand information gathered by a select few is transformed into “common knowledge” in an increasingly short period of time. But because currently accepted methods of establishing a consensus on scientific claims are lengthy and inaccessible to the public, “most of the knowledge in science is uncommon,” according to John Wilbanks, author of the new ScienceBlog Common Knowledge.

An advocate of the OpenAccess movement and head of the Science Commons project at Creative Commons, Wilbanks believes in using the power of the Internet to create networks of scientific knowledge that are readily available to everyone. Read on to find out more about him!

What’s your name?

John Wilbanks

What do you do when you’re not blogging?

I work at Creative Commons, where I run the Science Commons project. When I’m not obsessing about copyrights, semantic web, biological materials, and so on, I like to cook.

What is your blog called?

Common Knowledge.

What’s up with that name?

I studied philosophy in college, with a special focus on epistemology – the theory of knowledge. So knowledge has always been an interest to me: how we get knowledge, when we get it, what we do with it, and so forth. But with the rise of the internet and the Web, the amount of knowledge available – or at least accessible – has skyrocketed. So we depend more and more on technology to get knowledge. And I think that has changed our idea of “common knowledge” from “things we all know” to “things that Google can find” – and that change has a lot of under-studied impacts. That’s what I want to blog about, so it seemed a good enough name…

How long have you been blogging, anyway?

About two years. I blogged at Nature Network for most of that time. I’m not the most prolific blogger but I try to get one substantive post up per week most of the time. At least that’s what my calendar reminder is supposed to do.

Where are you from and where do you live now?

I’ve lived all over, but I was raised from kindergarten through high school in Knoxville, TN. Since 1997 I’ve been living in Boston other than a short stint in Chapel Hill, NC.

Would you describe yourself as a working scientist?

Nope. I’m a scientist of last resort. Most of what I do is translation among different communities – scientists, programmers, lawyers, policymakers, funders of science. But I don’t design and test hypotheses about the world around us, which to me is the acid test of being a scientist.

Any educational experiences or degrees you’d like to mention?

My undergrad work was at Tulane in New Orleans, with a philosophy degree focused on epistemology. I also focused some on the ancient Greek writers. My other main focus at university was French, and I spent a year studying at the Sorbonne as part of my college years.

What are your main academic interests, in or out of your field?

Epistemology and semantics. Molecular biology – mainly the history and theory of the field. I love to study how big disruptive innovations came to be. History. Intellectual property. Innovation. I also have a very amateurish interest in game theory and economics.

Last book you read?

Non-fiction: The Day of Battle (Atkinson). Fiction: Little Brother (Doctorow).

What is your idea of a perfect day?

In Boston: Sleep late. Fresh fruit and eggs. An inbox below twenty, with no more than 5 more than a few days old. Blue sky. Two hours of work reading and writing. Walk along the river with my wife. Good mexican food for dinner. No cell phone calls.

What’s your greatest habitual annoyance?

Not being able to see enough of my family and friends due to travel and work.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?

I really respond well to characters who live in a world they find insane, though I don’t know that I’d call them my heroes…


Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces). Yossarian (Catch-22). Hank Devereaux (Straight Man). The Dude (The Big Lebowski).

Your favorite heroes in real life?

Again, I don’t know that I have heroes in the strict sense of the world. Most of us are pretty flawed in one way or another. But there are people who I respect enormously…I’ve been blessed with a lot of extraordinary co-workers over the years, and I won’t list them for fear of leaving one out. My boards and mentors have made me who I am, and for that I owe them everything. On a personal level, my sister Lisa, who suffers from lifelong illnesses and bears them with grace, humor, and quiet strength, is my biggest hero. If I could suffer half of what she does and not complain I’d be a better person.

What’s your most marked characteristic?

I talk waaaayyyyy too much.

What’s your fatal flaw?

I talk waaaayyyyy too much.

Who are your favorite writers?

William Gibson and Richard Russo are my favorite contemporary fiction writers. I grew up on the Southerners – Walker Percy, Peter Taylor in particular. Joe Heller. I also love David Brin’s science fiction.

What would you like to be?

I like what I am professionally. I hope that personally I’m a good husband and will be a good father. I’d also love to be a gardener and a more frequent cook!