Looking at recent developments on Wikipedia with “fringe” and “quacks,” I’ve found many symptoms of a systemic corruption, and this will show how the project lost its direction, at core and in a failure to honor the original community intentions, it’s become quite explicit. This started with looking at the user page of Roxy the dog. Wikipedia made what may have been a fatal error in not only allowing anonymous edits (probably necessary and highly useful) but also in allowing advanced privileges for anonymous accounts. In this, it deviated widely from academic traditions. It eliminated the “responsible publisher” for itself, creating mob rule.
This protected the Foundation, but not the project. This is classic: organizations are formed for purposes, but their own survival, if it comes into conflict with the purpose, becomes a priority. So if the trial of “community governance” fails — in the absence of clear structures that create responsible actors — nothing can be done. It’s up to the community, not the site owners. Wikipedia is famously not a reliable source. Why not? Precisely because there is no responsible publisher!
The possibility existed for a community project to become more reliable than any such effort in history. That is, in fact, why I worked on Wikipedia as long as I did. But the radically unreliable governance, vulnerable to participation bias (whoever happens to show up in specific discussions, and where some kinds of factional canvassing are allowed, plus the possibly random nature of who closes discussions, where bias in closing could be very difficult to detect, and, if detected, they shoot the messenger), led to a conclusion that the situation was unworkable.
Wikipedia will be replaced by a project that harnesses what Wikipedia has done, but that adds reliable governance and responsibility. This may be for-profit or nonprofit, it could be done either way.
It was clear to me at one point that Jimbo Wales (with Larry Sanger the founder of Wikipedia) was interested in governance reform. However, something was missing, and I’m coming to think that what was missing was an understanding of neutrality. He almost had it, but it’s clear that knee-jerk “popular,” not academic or scientific, responses, very obviously not neutral, took over for him. And this then explains, in part, how “popular factions” came to dominate Wikipedia, as many have noted. They lose, sometimes, their control is not absolute, but it creates a steady pressure and, over time, it’s apparent to me, the project has devolved away from neutrality, and a particular faction has, many times, opposed neutrality and has declared allegiance to a point of view, and they act to push that point of view.
Anyone trained in journalism will recognize the problem, how it infects the language and overall tenor of pages. Blatant violations of neutrality policy, misrepresentations of sources, in favor of attempting to create in readers POV impressions, are, in some areas, practically the rule rather than a transient exception. Revert warring is tolerated, if done by factional editors, who are considered “valuable volunteers” precisely because they work tirelessly for their point of view.
Editors with contrary points of view are isolated and sanctioned and topic- or site-banned. Editors promoting SPOV (“Scientific point of view,” when they go beyond limits in that promotion, may be sanctioned, but also are regarded as heroes. And so if they are actually banned, they often come back. Wouldn’t you?
This is what Roxy the dog has from Wales:
“Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.”
“What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of ‘true scientific discourse’. It isn’t.“
Roxy the dog uses this as I’d expect, to justify a series of claims of being justifiably biased. First, what exactly did Wales say, in what context.?
Wikipedia developed a procedure for creating a neutral project and he is referring to it, but he overspecifies that procedure, narrowing it in a way that favors the bias Roxy the dog displays. Was this merely accidental, incautious?
and, in fact, it’s obvious. From that page:
Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales this week sent a clear signal to skeptics who edit the user-created encyclopedia – he agrees with our focus on science and good evidence. He did this by responding firmly in the negative to a Change.org petition created by alternative medicine and holistic healing advocates. His response, which referred to paranormalists as “lunatic charlatans”, was widely reported on Twitter.
I’ve been recommending skeptics pay close attention to Wikipedia since the earliest days of this blog, almost six years ago. Susan Gerbic took up that gauntlet and created her wildly successful Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia project.
In the last year or so, the success of Susan’s project has gotten many paranormal and alternative medicine advocates riled up. They’ve repeatedly floated conspiracy theories that skeptics are somehow rigging the game on Wikipedia, or even bullying opponents off the site. Even personalities like Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra have gotten involved. None of these accusations have been supported by facts, and both Sheldrake and Chopra have been subsequently embarrassed by their own supporters’ rule-breaking behavior on the service.
This is common.
There is skeptic organization and this blog is proud of it. But if others point to organization, it’s a “conspiracy theory.”
Indeed, I have seen over-reaction, suspicion that, say, drug companies are paying editors to promote statin drugs and attack cholesterol skeptics. I find that implausible, but this is what happens where there are organizations that operate behind the scenes.
Sheldrake and Chopra have popular support, and people with popular support will be defended by some, often people with no real understanding of how Wikipedia works, and so they violate rules. But wait! Wikipedia Rule Number One, promoted by Wales himself, was “If a Rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it!” (WP:IAR)
I used to point out the Corollary, that if you have never been blocked for breaking the rules, you are not trying hard enough to improve the project.
The vision of the original Wikipedians has been lost, and this was practically inevitable (see Iron law of oligarchy), if protective structure was not created, and it was not.
Wales response was to a petition asking for reform.
As is common with reform efforts, what might be a valid objection to the Wikipedia status quo was mixed with lack of understanding of how Wikipedia operates, and a point of view. The title of the petition shows a lack of understanding of the purpose of Wikipedia and the process of creating an encyclopedia.
Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia: Create and enforce new policies that allow for true scientific discourse about holistic approaches to healing.
I will list problems with this request:
- Wales was not in charge of Wikipedia, he was the Founder, not the Governor. (In the other direction, he remained influential.)
- Wikipedia is not a site for “scientific discourse.” Wikiversity was, and could have remained so, but that was demolished, ultimately, by the faction, early this year. It was trivial to create neutral discourse, and it worked for years.
- The policies on inclusion were not the problem, the problem was lack of workable enforcement structure. The structure worked, though very inefficiently, for handling vandalism and isolated point of view pushing, but, increasingly, as factions developed power, poorly with factional point of view pushing.
MAR 23, 2014 — No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.
Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.
What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.
The blog claims that the organizers of the petition were “tone-deaf,” because they quoted Larry Sanger, thus, allegedly, irritating Wales. Sanger was quoted in the petition:
Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, left the organization due to concerns about its integrity. He stated: “In some fields and some topics, there are groups who ‘squat’ on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles.”
Sanger’s comment was a simple conclusion matching what many, many, with high experience with Wikipedia, have found. That happens. It happens in all directions, but . . . factions that represent the “fringe” are, by definition, not popular, and that condition in the population will be reflected in the editorial community, so these factions are readily identified and their efforts interdicted, whereas the faction that is biased toward a popular point of view, can operate with far higher impunity, and in the absence of neutral enforcement, that bias can dominate.
This happened to some extent with traditional encyclopedias, but these were generally written with high academic integrity. Wales became confused on this issue, and was, himself, tone-deaf. Many have complained, and the complaints are routine and remain common. Wales only looks at what was wrong with the petition, and fails to practice what he preaches:
“to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.”
So Wikipedia sails on, undisturbed by self-examination, supporting the “Scientific Point of View,” which is an oxymoron.
Rather, the Pillars of Wikipedia include one that would, if followed, establish journalistic and academic integrity:
|Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view|
|We strive for articles in an impartial tone that document and explain major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence. We avoid advocacy, and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong.|
Wikipedia proposed a solution to crowd-sourcing, to allow it to be verifiable. “Reliable” source does not mean “correct.” It refers to independently published sources, presented with a neutral tone. Stating an interpretation as if fact without attribution is not “honesty.” It’s easy to convert, say, a non-neutral interpretation (which might be found in a reliable source) into a fact by attributing it. “According to . . . ”
Yet there are “skeptical faction” editors inserting their own interpretations as if fact, even about living persons, or entire fields. Because I just noticed it, here is an example, about Gary Taubes:
This is in the lead (current version), which should, by the guideline, be rigorously neutral, enjoying high consensus. The lead has:
Some of the views propounded by Taubes are inconsisent [sic] with known science surrounding obesity.
The source is a book review, and such a review is the opinion of the author, particularly if it is an off-hand comment. What the review actually has, besides praise for the book (“… has much useful information and is well worth reading “):
some of the conclusions that the author reaches are not consistent with current concepts about obesity.
Are “current concepts” the same as “known science”? In fact, Taubes is challenging common concepts, explicitly and deliberately, as not being rooted in “known science,” i.e., known through the scientific method. This has been his theme for his entire career. The editor, however, believes what he has written and so considers that interpretation of the source to be a simple restatement.
The reviewer was not precise. “Current concepts” has a lost performative. Whose concepts? I used “common” as a vague term that would cover what I think is true. The concepts Taubes is challenging became common about forty years ago, through a political process that was only peripherally scientific. Documenting that has been much of Taube’s work.
This begins the lead:
Gary Taubes (born April 30, 1956) is an American journalist, writer and low-carbohydrate diet advocate.
Is he? This was there until a few days ago:
Gary Taubes (born April 30, 1956) is an American science writer.
To the faction, many examples can be shown, “low carbohydrate diet advocate” is a dog whistle to call skeptical attention to a person, who, in other contexts , might be called a “fad diet promoter,” “quack,” and “charlatan.”
Remember, verifiability not truth. The statement about “diet advocate” is not sourced. It’s misleading. What Taubes has been advocating is twofold:
- improved public understanding of the history of the lipid hypothesis and the demonization of fat, as well as the evidence of the “diseases of civilization” being associated with high refined carbohydrate consumption,
- but, more important (certainly to him), the encouragement and facilitation (read funding) of scientific research into diet. Taubes is not a ‘believer,” but he has drawn some conclusions and has been acting on them. That is normal in science. Wales wrote:
If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.
First of all, he was misstating the actual policy. “Published in respectable scientific journals” is not the actual standard, and such publication can happen without “replicable scientific experiments,” that is only one aspect of science, and the reliance is not on “replicable,” but on “confirmed,” i.e., actually replicated, as shown in peer-reviewed reviews of a topic, secondary sources. Many facts can be reported (with maximum freedom, by guidelines) if attributed. The attribution should be to a reliable source, but the source may be weaker, though still reliable. The skeptical faction uses their own factional publications, that focus on “debunking” and are not neutrally peer-reviewed by experts in the fields, as if reliable source, it’s been common for years, whereas independently peer-reviewed secondary source reviews are excluded by the faction as “junk” or “fringe believer author.”
These are obvious violations of the neutrality pillar, but are tolerated because of a false opp0sition as reflected in Wales’ defense of Wikipedia.
A paper that was invited by a major peer-reviewed journal of high reputation, with Gary Taubes as one of the authors:
Dietary fat and cardiometabolic health: evidence, controversies, and consensus for guidance June 13, 2018
This review treats the topic with academic tone. It presents a variety of major points of view. This is what Wikipedia could be like, were it actually supporting science. Instead, it is supporting a highly judgmental and often fanatic debunking point-of-view.
Another example: Wales wanted to see “replicable experiments.” That is not required for notability, Wales is actually substituting his own ideas for the policy, but . . . I was banned from cold fusion on Wikipedia and the claim was made that I was promoting it, and this was often connected with claims that “cold fusion” is “pseudoscience.” In fact, what I was promoting, what was actually important to me at the time, was Wikipedia neutrality and genuine consensus process. However, when I was banned from the topic, I then investigated “cold fusion” more thoroughly, and eventually wrote an article, published in a significant journal, which would, in theory, satisfy the claims Wales made:
Replicable cold fusion experiment: heat/helium ratio
Okay, a review. Check. Peer-reviewed. Check. Describes multiple confirmations of a crucial experiment, that demonstrates that there is a real anomaly, that looks like it could be fusion (but probably not what most physicists would think of). Check.
Okay, is that cited? I don’t know if anyone attempted it. It was cited on Wikiversity. Much older and weaker sources on claims of helium detection (deprecating them) have been cited on Wikipedia, and remain. As I was about to be topic banned for the second time, I put up another review in a journal of very high reputation for consideration on the Reliable Source Noticeboard. It was found usable as reliable source. And after all that, was the source allowed? No. Immediately removed every time presented.
Peer-reviewed review in a major multidisciplinary journal, Naturwissenschaften. Check. Stronger source than any other source used in the article. If editors think it was a mistake, it could be attributed.
See the arguments against it on RSN. That discussion was narrow and focused but was never “closed.” Consensus was clear. The paper is RS, and as with all sources, to be used with appropriate caution. Just because something is in reliable source does not make it “truth,” it makes it notable. And wikipedia was properly founded on notability, established by what is found in responsible publishers.
So what happened then? I have made the point often that the major problem with Wikipedia has been inefficiency. To establish what should have been accomplished by a reference to policy and guidelines, a matter of a few sentences, took a massive discussion. A responsible publisher would go bankrupt if their editorial process were like this.
There are plenty of Wikipedia editors who understood the policies and attempted to apply them neutrally. They burn out, faced with editors who ignore the policies, are persistent, and who are enabled to continue this, year after year.
removes reference to Storms (2010) based on argument rejected at RSN. Editor: ජපස, who has changed his name many times. He is the one who made the argument about Storms being an editor. That was an attributed reference, clearly neutral. This reverted the edit of Enric Naval.
Eventually, in 2015, the bibliographic reference to Storms (2010), and another citation of it, were removed by JzG, a highly involved factional editor and administrator who had been reprimanded by the Arbitration Committee for his actions with regard to cold fusion. Apparently nobody noticed. Jzg removed the reference to the 2007 book, and the 2010 journal review of cold fusion. His edit summary:
(pruning some WP:PRIMARY, including for example a book review written by a True Believer. We have sufficient high quality sources that we don’t need to dumpster-dive.)
These are the arguments that completely failed to be accepted at WP:RSN. Are there stronger sources by Wikipedia RS standards and the standards for science topics? What was left was weaker, or if not weak, substantially older.
None of these were primary sources, and he’s highly experienced, so . . . he lied, they were all secondary. (2007) was published World Scientific, an academic press, and (2010) was discussed above. The Book Review reference is unclear. JzG also removed material cited in Simon (2002), which is an academic secondary source review (a book), not a “book review”). He did remove from the bibliography one primary source (at least arguably so), Shanahan (2006). There was an appalling discussion in talk, no consensus, and the editor objecting was “reminded” about discretionary sanctions, which was essentially a threat that he could be blocked. This was a blatant and smug display of factional POV editing, and, as usual, without consequence, JzG (and William M. Connolley), sailed on, undisturbed, as they have for years. (In two cases, I took them to the Arbitration Committee, JzG was reprimanded, Connolley was desysopped. But the net effect was, with extensive effort, long term, zero. Discretionary sanctions were established as a result of the second case, (with neutral enforcement, a good idea), but it has only been used to support the skeptical faction and threaten or block anyone appearing to have a different point of view.)
In 2015, Current Science published a special section on low-energy nuclear reactions. It included a number of reviews of aspects of the field, written by major researchers (and one journalist, me). There was mention of this in the article that resisted removal, it’s still there. However, none of those papers are cited in the article, in spite of being recent specific reviews of aspects of the field, on topics discussed in the article.
Wales is either ignorant about what actually happens on Wikipedia, or he’s lying. I prefer the former interpretation, but I also hold him responsible for maintaining his ignorance in spite of complaints. Instead of actually investigating the complaints, or setting up a review process, he smugly proclaimed an extreme interpretation of the policy that then, very clearly, encouraged the SPOV-pushers. I’ve seen a shift since that time, and this might explain it.
No, if one does research and gets it published in peer-reviewed journals, it is inadequate to shift the Wikipedia balance, because the balance is maintained in the impressions and interpretations of editors, and it’s very well-known that when people have committed themselves to a position (by using language like “charlatan” and “fringe believers” and “crank”) they become resistant to change, and will continue to invent justifications and reasons to continue to believe the same.
Ironically, this is what this faction believes about others, that they are “die-hards” and “pseudoscientific.” If someone calls them “pseudoskeptical” or “pathoskeptic,” they will block or arrange for the person to be blocked, but claims in the other direction are routine and tolerated. Enforcement is biased, creating a long-term pressure away from neutrality.
Wikipedia could be transformed, but what has been created is so highly entrenched that it might take a major event.
I’ve suggested that a new encyclopedia could be created that uses Wikipedia content, routinely, but that creates a filter and process for reviewing it. I’ve suggested that such a site might pay authors and editors, and that it might sell itself as “Wikipedia, but more reliable.” And it would solicit donations, but would also sell advertising, carefully vetted to be reliable, itself, which is quite doable. (The advertising would pay for the writing and editorial work.)
Sometimes, you get what you pay for. If you use volunteers, they work for their own purposes. It can be great, but large human organizations pay management, even when they use many volunteers.
Everipedia looks like an effort in that direction, but it utterly fails to attract me, so far, nor does it look like it could attract the kind of massive use and participation that could take it beyond Wikipedia. The Everipedia article on cold fusion is a fork of the Wikipedia article (so far, what I’d expect, but, then, if I read the article, does it invite me to improve it? If so, I don’t see how or where.)
To succeed, an improved project must present something clearly better than Wikipedia, such that users would have an incentive to look up a topic there rather than on Wikipedia. There are also complications, Google being a major supporter of Wikipedia. But a better product does not have to be better in every way, just in some, and it could flag what has been fact-checked and reviewed for neutrality, for example, and what was merely copied from Wikipedia. (Everipedia may do that, I can’t tell, but Everipedia seems to be focusing on selling access to businesses or people who want to control articles about themselves. Not on setting up an expert review process or other structure that would create reliability.)
It would use Wikipedia’s process to create a level of reliability, and then improve it. It would make comparisons with Wikipedia easy, as an example, so that changes to Wikipedia would be imported as (1) automatic if the fork article has not been validated, or as (2) reviewed, as with the contributions of any non-empowered editor on Wikipedia.
The focus appears to be on how to preserve one of the major weaknesses of Wikipedia, anonymity. That’s a double-edged sword. The new project, if linked to Wikipedia, would already have a way for anonymous editors to contribute: on Wikipedia! It could also allow suggested edits on its own versions.
(Wikipedia could also bring in content the other way, through a process that was used on wikipedia when a banned user created an article elsewhere, and then there was a Request for Comment on importing that (radical change) as a single edit. This is actually a far simpler question than the one-edit at a time process Wikipedia follows: “Is A or B better?” )
It would need to have layers of detail. It could have better editorial review tools than Wikipedia. An example of something missing from Wikipedia is an ability to search history, the entire history of the project or of an article, or of user contributions. Now, you can obtain logs, but they are not generally searchable, except primitively. I do it, but by downloading histories (the logs will not retrieve more than 5000 operations), merging them, and then using search in a text editor or in Excel, and that doesn’t give me the editorial text, only edit summaries.
It is possible to search project full-history XML, but it can be incredibly cumbersome.
Everipedia is not showing signs of being well-designed and implemented. The FAQ I find far too complicated. Wikipedia made it easy and quick for anyone to edit. While “anyone can edit” fell apart to some extent, becoming more like “anyone can waste time trying to improve the project,” that ease of use was crucial to Wikipedia’s initial success. Wikipedia failed not from that, but from failure to establish reliable review process, something that is normally crucial for serious publishers.
Another issue is that Wikipedia not only failed to reward expert attention, it actually became hostile to ordinary experts. Wikibooks and Wikiversity were much friendlier, but then I discovered something. Most experts were not terribly interested in sustained free contributions to books or educational resources, if there was no benefit for them other than simply being able to write. And if what was written was fragile, and easily hacked up by Randy from Boise, and if they have plenty of other places to publish, why should they contribute? Many people will do it occasionally just because people are mostly nice. But regularly and reliably? No.
(To assist someone who wanted to study the subject, I set up a Parapsychology resource on Wikiversity, and it actually attracted some notable scientists. But they did not regularly contribute, nor did they watch the pages. That project was deleted early this year when the skeptical faction extended its reach to Wikiversity. Long story. JzG was involved. They also deleted the Wikiversity resource on cold fusion, all based on the action of a single bureaucrat, not supported by the community. Efforts like that had always failed in the past. But the Wikiversity community that had always supported academic freedom and the inclusive neutrality of Wikiversity as distinct from the exclusive neutrality of Wikipedia (i.e., academic standards rather than encyclopedic) was, as usual, asleep. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.
I rescued those resources. Cold fusion. Parapsychology. Wikiversity showed how resources could be inclusively neutral. (A clearer example, where there would have been, on Wikipedia, or any other single-level wiki, edit warring, is Landmark Education.) Parapsychology was neutral, I’d been very careful to set it up that way. Cold fusion might not have been completely neutral, (I’d written most of it) but it would have taken about five minutes, with no harm being done, to rigorously neutralize it. The Wikiversity cold fusion article was often attacked on Wikipedia, but it was open for editing, and it had not been at all disruptive. Real neutrality is not disruptive, certainly not in itself. Real neutrality, with good-faith participants, can normally find complete consensus, even in the presence of major controversies. Wikipedia never understood this.
If I just want to shoot off my mouth, or to enjoy writing, I’ll start a blog, not start up an account on a wiki. It is far, far easier and, believe me, far more fun. And I can actually obtain funding for it. (Thanks!)
As an example, I know much of the cold fusion research community. Only very small number have ever attempted to edit Wikipedia. Met with entrenched hostility, for the most part, the handful who tried it simply gave up quickly. The field needs funding, and funding is not obtained by writing about cold fusion on Wikipedia. The inefficiency of Wikipedia makes it seriously wasteful.