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In Covering Intelligent Design, Wikipedia Engages in "Information Sabotage"

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Back in March, I discussed an article in PLOS ONE that protested against “quote mining” and other sloppiness in what it called “creationist texts.” The article itself, however, sloppily misquoted a piece that Logan Gage and I co-wrote in response to Francis Collins. Now a new article in PLOS ONE, “Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale,” has been published that is equally blind to its own biases.

The article concerns Wikipedia, and it offers the uninteresting finding that controversial scientific topics prompt more edit-wars than uncontroversial topics. Wikipedia is usually perfectly adequate if you want to learn about who won on American Idol last year or what year Elizabeth II was coronated. But everyone who is paying attention knows that when it comes to controversial topics, Wikipedia tends to be highly partisan.

And the authors of the PLOS ONE paper adopt Wikipedia‘s partisan view that the scientific consensus is unassailably correct and anyone who expresses dissent from the consensus is guilty of a thought crime — what their article calls “vandalism and other shenanigans.” A press statement prepared by those behind the study is titled, “On Wikipedia, politically controversial science topics vulnerable to information sabotage.” It says this:

As society turns to Wikipedia for answers, students, educators, and citizens should understand its limitations when researching scientific topics that are politically charged. On entries subject to edit-wars, like acid rain, evolution, and global change, one can obtain — within seconds — diametrically different information on the same topic, say authors of a new report. … [A]ccording to a paper published today in the journal PLOS ONE, Wikipedia entries on politically controversial scientific topics can be unreliable due to information sabotage.

So, Wikipedia‘s entries on evolution or global warming undergo a lot more editing than entries on uncontroversial topics like heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift. Who would have guessed? The article declares, “The authors have no support or funding to report,” which is good since I sure hope no taxpayer money was specifically devoted to arriving at this incredible discovery. (The authors, however, both teach at public universities which means that ultimately their research is indeed paid for by the public.) But framing is everything — and they explicitly portray edits that disagree with the “consensus” as a form of “sabotage”:

Likens explains, “In the scientific community, acid rain is not a controversial topic. Its mechanics have been well understood for decades. Yet, despite having ‘semi-protected’ status to prevent anonymous changes, Wikipedia‘s acid rain entry receives near-daily edits, some of which result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science.”

There you have it: in their view, if someone edits Wikipedia such that some comment poses a challenge to “consensus science” then that’s a form of “information sabotage.”

For those familiar with Wikipedia‘s actual modus operandi, this Orwellian framing of the topic is hardly surprising. On evolution and ID, the reality is that Wikipedia articles are grossly slanted — pro-evolution, anti-ID — and Wikipedia‘s high-level admin editors typically refuse to tolerate edits that would allow any balance or objectivity. As soon as anyone makes an edit to correct an anti-ID error or an instance of pro-Darwin bias, those edits are reversed and disallowed.

So there is indeed “sabotage” going on — but it’s by those who would censor and disallow information that challenges an evolutionary viewpoint. Although I personally don’t edit Wikipedia, I say this based upon years and years of people contacting me who tell of having tried to make bland, benign, reasonable edits and who then saw those changes immediately deleted by pro-Darwin editors. Sometimes, the page is then locked down with the justification that it has been “vandalized.” Here’s one anecdote that has always stuck out in my mind.

In 2005 the ACLU triumphed in the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling that banned a pro-ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, from being mentioned in science classrooms in a Pennsylvania school district. After that, one Wikipedia user dared to act on Wikipedia‘s official encouragement to “be bold when updating the encyclopedia.” The user added the Pandas textbook to a page listing banned books.

Apparently anticipating the intellectual lure of banned ideas, Wikipedia‘s editors then removed the Pandas textbook from the Banned Books page, and locked the page against further edits, alleging that it had been “vandalized.”

To promote this pro-evolution, anti-ID viewpoint, Wikipedia constantly violates its own rules. Officially the encyclopedia claims that “propaganda,” “advocacy,” and “original research” are disallowed. In practice, these rules are suspended when evolution is being advocated. Nonetheless, the official view is stated on the “What Wikipedia is not” policy page:

Wikipedia is not a soapbox, a battleground, or a vehicle for propaganda, advertising and showcasing. This applies to usernames, as well as articles, categories, templates, talk page discussions, and user pages. Therefore, content hosted in Wikipedia is not for:

1. Advocacy, propaganda, or recruitment of any kind: commercial, political, scientific, religious, national, sports-related, or otherwise. An article can report objectively about such things, as long as an attempt is made to describe the topic from a neutral point of view. You might wish to start a blog or visit a forum if you want to convince people of the merits of your opinions.

Wikipedia purports to enforce three “core content policies”:
1. Neutral point of view:

“Editing from a neutral point of view (NPOV) means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic. All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view. NPOV is a fundamental principle of Wikipedia and of other Wikimedia projects. This policy is nonnegotiable and all editors and articles must follow it.”

2. No original research:

Wikipedia articles must not contain original research. The phrase “original research” (OR) is used on Wikipedia to refer to material — such as facts, allegations, and ideas — for which no reliable, published sources exist. This includes any analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to reach or imply a conclusion not stated by the sources. To demonstrate that you are not adding OR, you must be able to cite reliable, published sources that are directly related to the topic of the article, and directly support the material being presented.”

3. Verifiability:

“In Wikipedia, verifiability means that people reading and editing the encyclopedia can check that the information comes from a reliable source. Wikipedia does not publish original research. Its content is determined by previously published information rather than the beliefs or experiences of its editors. Even if you’re sure something is true, it must be verifiable before you can add it.”

However Wikipedia‘s entries related to intelligent design and evolution often relax or completely disregard these rules. Again, I could cite numerous examples of this. Let’s look at just a couple:

Violating Wikipedia‘s “Neutral Point of View” Rule
When it comes to intelligent design, this “non-negotiable” rule is frequently violated. The very first sentence of Wikipedia‘s entry on ID states:

Intelligent design (ID) is the pseudoscientific view[1][2] that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[3][2]

For its claim that ID is “pseudoscientific,” Wikipedia cites two sources. It’s true that those sources describe ID as “pseudoscientific,” but Wikipedia does not treat the sources in a neutral manner. Instead, it affirms, in its own voice, that the opinions and assertions of those sources that intelligent design is “pseudoscientific” are correct and accurate. This violates the encyclopedia’s policy of maintaining a “Neutral point of view“:

Avoid stating opinions as facts. Usually, articles will contain information about the significant opinions that have been expressed about their subjects. However, these opinions should not be stated in Wikipedia‘s voice. Rather, they should be attributed in the text to particular sources, or where justified, described as widespread views, etc. For example, an article should not state that “genocide is an evil action”, but it may state that “genocide has been described by John X as the epitome of human evil.”

Were Wikipedia to follow its own rules, it would say something like “Source X states that intelligent design is ‘pseudoscientific.'” That would be a reasonable presentation of the anti-ID viewpoint, and of course an encyclopedia should mention that view. But the editors choose not to follow the rules. They call ID “pseudoscientific” in Wikipedia‘s own voice.

The page also fails to point out how ID proponents respond to such charges. We show, among other things, that intelligent design uses the scientific method to make its claims, that ID uses the standard methods of historical sciences, that ID meets the toughest definitions of a “scientific theory”, and that the ID movement conducts research and has published many peer-reviewed scientific papers. These sorts of pro-ID arguments are never covered on Wikipedia.

On ID, the encyclopedia does not even attempt to maintain a neutral point of view. Wikipedia apparently attempts to justify this by saying it’s OK for Wikipedia to oppose what it deems to be “fringe science.”

Basically, Wikipedia gives itself permission to ignore its own rules when talking about controversial scientific topics like ID. But its rules (when followed) are intended to promote objectivity and guard against inaccuracy. Nothing should justify Wikipedia being inaccurate, misrepresenting the truth about issues, and violating its own rules that are designed to protect accuracy.

Violating Wikipedia‘s “No Original Research” Rule
In its page on “No original research,” Wikipedia claims to prohibit “any analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to reach or imply a conclusion not stated by the sources.” But on its pages on ID the encyclopedia frequently disregards this rule. For example, Wikipedia‘s main entry on intelligent design states:

In 2001, the Discovery Institute published advertisements under the heading A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, with the claim that listed scientists had signed this statement expressing skepticism:

‘We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.’

The ambiguous statement did not exclude other known evolutionary mechanisms, and most signatories were not scientists in relevant fields, but starting in 2004 the Institute claimed the increasing number of signatures indicated mounting doubts about evolution among scientists.

Consider the last sentence in that extract. Obviously it advocates a non-neutral point of view when it calls the statement of the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list “ambiguous.” But it then goes on to claim “most signatories were not scientists in relevant fields.” The citation at the end of the sentence is to a statement published by Discovery Institute about the list, and does not support the claim being made. Rather, the claim constitutes precisely what Wikipedia calls “original research.” How does Wikipedia establish what is a “relevant field”? What percent of scientists who signed the list are not in such a “relevant field”? No supporting data is given — this is merely an assertion of Wikipedia‘s viewpoint to promote a particular point of view.

But is Wikipedia‘s original-research claim even correct? Obviously any scientist with formal training and expertise in the biological sciences is a scientist in a “relevant field.” But in fact many scientists today are cross-disciplinary, and training in one field allows evaluation of claims in another field. For example, computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and physicists have investigated the feasibility of a Darwinian search mechanism producing the sort of complex features we see in biology. This is true for experts in those fields whether they are proponents or skeptics of Darwinian evolution. Moreover, many chemists have expertise relevant to protein behavior, and have become experts in the feasibility of unguided evolution producing functional proteins. Chemists often have expertise that pertains to the origin of life, which is a field to which earth scientists also commonly contribute. The same goes for astronomers, who are often experts in astrobiology and the feasibility of producing life on a planet or in a region of space. Thus, a case could be made that any scientist in those fields will have had relevant formal training sufficient to make an informed judgment on evolutionary claims.

An informal study I conducted in July 2014 showed that a plurality of scientists on the Dissent list have expertise and formal training in the biological sciences:

  • Computer Science: 3.6% (33)
  • Mathematics: 6.3% (57)
  • Engineering: 13.7% (124)
  • Biological Sciences: 44.0% (398)
  • Chemistry: 14.7% (133)
  • Physics and/or Astronomy: 11.7% (106)
  • Earth Sciences: 4.6% (42)
  • Other: 1.3% (12)

Thus, a strong argument can be made that Wikipedia‘s claim about scientific expertise is flatly false. At very least, the claim is extremely misleading.

Violating Wikipedia‘s “Verifiability” Rule
One of Wikipedia‘s main rules is that claims must be backed up by references to reliable secondary sources. This rule frequently goes unenforced. For example, Wikipedia‘s main article on ID offers the following unreferenced assertion:

In this historically motivated definition of science any appeal to an intelligent creator is explicitly excluded for the paralysing effect it may have on the scientific progress.

No citation is given to support the claim that invoking an “intelligent creator” somehow has a “paralyzing effect” on scientific progress. And of course, there is no mention of arguments from ID proponents that ID is useful in opening up new avenues of scientific investigation.

Sometimes Wikipedia editors cite sources that do not, in fact, back up the claim being made. For example, the page on Wikipedia, “Teach the Controversy,” states that it is “a campaign, conducted by Discovery Institute,” and concludes:

The Dover ruling also characterized “teaching the controversy” as part of a religious ploy.

However, the Dover ruling does not contain the phrase “teaching the controversy,” nor does it render a judgment on the idea. Rather, Dover’s policy was about requiring intelligent design in public schools, something Discovery Institute opposes. In fact, Discovery Institute explicitly opposed Dover’s ID policy since we opposed (and still do) pushing intelligent design into public school curricula. Thus, the policy Dover implemented wasn’t the kind Discovery Institute was advocating in what Wikipedia calls our “campaign.”

Many who laud the accuracy of Wikipedia cite this third rule as if it somehow guarantees accuracy. But what if the secondary source itself is inaccurate? A source on Wikipedia may be properly cited (i.e., it says what Wikipedia claims it says), but the thing the source is saying might be completely wrong. For example, the entry on intelligent design claims:

The intelligent design movement has not published a properly peer-reviewed article supporting ID in a scientific journal, and has failed to publish supporting peer-reviewed research or data.

This is backed up by the following citation:

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, cv 2688 (December 20, 2005). Whether ID is Science, p. 87

That citation does say what Wikipedia claims — the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling does in fact say on page 87 that “ID is not supported by any peer-reviewed research, data or publications.” Thus, Wikipedia has cited an apparently credible source — the ruling of a federal judge — and it has cited that source for a claim that the source actually makes. However, Judge Jones’s statement is entirely inaccurate, and the source of his inaccuracy is easily traced to a brief submitted by the ACLU, which used almost the exact same words:

Intelligent design is not supported by any peer-reviewed research, data or publications.

Of course the claim is not true, whether it was made by the ACLU or repeated by Judge Jones. During the Dover trial, expert witness Scott Minnich testified that there were between “seven and ten” peer-reviewed papers supporting ID, and both he and expert witness Barbara Forrest discussed a pro-intelligent design article in a peer-reviewed biology journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Additional peer-reviewed publications were listed in an annotated bibliography submitted in an amicus brief accepted as part of the official court record by Judge Jones. Thus, although Judge Jones’s claim is wrong, and absolutely refuted by the factual record, Wikipedia‘s rules allow it to be cited as credibly established fact. Judge Jones’s claim is even more demonstrably false today than it was at the time he made it. There are now dozens of peer-reviewed articles supporting ID. Technically speaking, the claim abides by Wikipedia‘s “verifiability” rule, but it is entirely false.

Wikipedia‘s rules state that if some third party said it, then it’s probably fair game to cite as a “fact.” Since there are plenty of ID opponents out there repeating the same fallacious criticisms, it isn’t hard for Wikipedia editors to find all kinds of third parties who have accused ID of all kinds of pernicious things, ranging from promoting pseudoscience, to trying to establish theocracy, to being morally deficient, to threatening to destroy science and civilization, to never publishing any scientific research. Precisely such outlandish and unserious charges appear in Wikipedia‘s articles on ID. By citing such polemical attacks and rants, the editors find all the citations they need to convert wild assertions and accusations into purported encyclopedic facts. This is how Wikipedia really works.

These are all objective problems that point to biases, errors, and flagrant violations of Wikipedia‘s own rules. Yet if you were to correct any of these errors and biases, your edits would be immediately reversed and you might be accused by pro-Darwin academics of engaging in “information sabotage,” “vandalism,” and “other shenanigans.” Since the vast majority of Wikipedia’s editors are anti-ID, it easily erects a firewall that prevents would-be editors from inputting balance or objectivity into the pages.

Yet many otherwise thoughtful writers refuse to acknowledge these problems because, having read Wikipedia and not knowing the facts of these matters, they think what Wikipedia says is true. Thus we see Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science commending the new PLOS ONE paper:

While topics like evolution, alternative medicine, climate change, and nuclear power are not scientifically controversial, they are politically controversial. It is for this reason that those topics often fall victim to “edit wars” on Wikipedia, where users alter information to fit their biased beliefs or tarnish the integrity of the page with slanderous statements. Other users respond by correcting the changes.

Here, Pomeroy is basically acting as a mouthpiece for Wikipedia and the consensus, assuming that anyone who might disagree with the majority on evolution has no merits to his view and is just promoting “biased beliefs” or making “slanderous statements.” Ironically, what he says would be almost completely true were it not for the last sentence. Pro-Darwin and anti-ID editors have nearly free reign on Wikipedia to promote their views in a heavily biased and inaccurate manner that ignores the encyclopedia’s core rules — but those who disagree with the consensus have almost no power to correct those changes.

Equally ironic is the good advice given by the authors of the PLOS ONE paper. They write:

Wikipedia should not be used in academic citations without very careful consideration and scrutiny. Wikipedia acknowledges this and reports that, “while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish.” Furthermore, Wikipedia‘s policy on academic use is clear that “Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source . . . any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending point.”

That’s an understatement.

What’s happening here is that Wikipedia and its defenders want to have their cake and eat it too. They militantly advocate their viewpoint, censor those who disagree with them in the name of the “consensus,” and all the while pretend that they are the ones who are the victims of bias and censorship.

When it comes to controversial topics, the famed online encyclopedia is hardly trustworthy and in my experience, its rules are a sham. That’s a fact, but don’t expect Wikipedia to ever admit it.

Image: � ArtemSam / Dollar Photo Club.