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Scientist Protests Wikipedia’s Mob Rule; Gets a Form Letter in Response


Enter just about any notable name or idea into Google, and the first entry that comes up will almost certainly be Wikipedia. I say “just about” because we’ve written here recently about the erasure of German paleontologist Günter Bechly, lately having come out as a proponent of intelligent design, from the incredibly influential online encyclopedia. This was followed by our learning that that another ID advocate, Walter Bradley at Baylor University, found his entry whittled down to near nothing.

Still another distinguished scientist, William S. Harris at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine, protested this treatment to Wikipedia and shared the resulting correspondence with us.

Dr. Harris had been a modest donor to the Wikipedia Foundation, contributing $20. This drew a solicitation email from executive director Katherine Maher. Adopting a phony intimate tone, the Subject line confides, “Bill – This is a little awkward.” Its goes on, before the salutation, promising that “I’ll keep this short,” as if this were jotted at the top of a personal note. She writes:

It’s a little awkward to talk about this, but the reality is that if enough people don’t pitch in every year, Wikipedia wouldn’t survive. The only alternative, then, would be to solicit advertising partners and sponsorships. Sell Wikipedia to the highest bidder. But then it wouldn’t be Wikipedia.

Do they really think donors are so stupid as to think that Katherine Maher feels personally awkward in approaching Dr. Harris to follow-up on his $20 gift? She goes on to confess to having been a nerd, “Such a nerd,” as a kid, who doted on libraries and the encyclopedia set her grandfather gave her. Professor Harris wrote back with a scathing and entirely justified rebuke:

Hi Katherine,

I would contribute to Wikipedia this year, but I’m totally disgusted with your “editors” (whoever they are) for their obvious bias in regard to an area of particular interest of mine, the theory of intelligent design, in the origins debate.

The Wikipedia entry on ID is obviously written by an opponent of the theory, and the group that can make the strongest case for it, Discovery Institute (Seattle, WA), is prohibited from presenting its point of view on Wikipedia. This blatant censorship makes me sick.

More recently, a highly regarded German paleontologist who just “came out of the closet” as a supporter of the ID theory (based on scientific evidence — not religion), has had his Wiki entry eliminated by your “editors” who said he was not “notable” enough for you folks. Sorry. I don’t believe that for a minute.

Your organization only allows certain worldviews to be shown by censoring those it disagrees with — that is exactly what Wikipedia should NOT be involved with. It should be a forum where each person or organization can present itself as it sees fit — without being filtered by philosophically driven objections or objectors.

So, sorry… no more money from me.

William S. Harris, PhD
President, OmegaQuant Analytics, LLC
Professor, University of South Dakota School of Medicine

Do you think he got a meaningful response in reply? Of course not. Michael Beattie, Donor Services Manager with the Wikimedia Foundation, shot back a boilerplate email intended to mollify donors who are ticked off by biased and otherwise faulty editing. At least “Michael Beattie,” if that’s who actually sent it, skips the faux confessional pose.

The email is phrased generally to deflect whatever is bothering the donor:

Volunteers who edit and contribute to our projects appreciate hearing viewpoints about content, and value input from readers that can help improve the quality of information…

Wikipedia volunteers are strongly focused on the editorial values of non-censorship, neutrality, verifiability, and what we term ‘no original research.’ Volunteers come from virtually all walks of life and reflect a vast number of viewpoints. All volunteers invested in the quality of Wikipedia are working collectively to build balanced, neutral articles that reflect a variety of perspectives on often complex, high-profile topics.

What a joke! A “variety of perspectives”? As we showed in describing the “editorial” process behind the erasure of Dr. Bechly, “input from readers,” of the most gentle and reasoned kind, was met with sputtering, semi-literate dismissal from an editor with the pseudonym “Trekker.” This individual basically threw a tantrum before storming out of the conversation. Deleting Bechly’s entry and his “perspective” was an exercise in censorship, not “neutrality.”

No one could demonstrate how objective criteria for being “notable” are applied in an even-handed manner across the philosophical spectrum. One editor who participated in the discussion, sneering at “fringe creationist views,” evidently used his real name. He is U.C. Irvine computer scientist David Eppstein, who has a Wiki entry. I wrote him to ask why he thought he was more “notable” than Dr. Bechly.

Dear Professor Eppstein,

I’m a colleague of Günter Bechly at Discovery Institute and read with interest the Wikipedia discussion of his page, resulting in its deletion. You argued for deleting the entry, and I sincerely appreciate and respect your decision to write there under your own name. But would you comment for publication on the following? I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful. However, simply to judge from your Wikipedia page and Dr. Bechly’s, I don’t understand why your biography would be “notable” while his would not be. Anything you can tell me in comparing the two entries — yours extant and “semi-protected” from changes, his deleted — would be helpful. Thank you for your time!

David Klinghoffer

Not that I’m surprised, but Dr. Eppstein did not reply. The ultimate decision to delete Bechly was made by a higher-level editor going by the pseudonym “Jo-Jo,” who according to his User page identifies as a 23-year-old “boy” from Switzerland, with an alternative identity as a 500-year-old wizard.

Frankly the comparison with Ms. Maher’s kindly grandfather and his favorite encyclopedia is absurd. If the latter was anything like the iconic encyclopedia works of old that I’m familiar with, articles were signed, often by distinguished experts, not fantastic pseudonyms (“Freakshownerd,” “ChildofMidnight,” “Apollo The Logician”). Someone was in charge, an identifiable editorial board with a publisher, all of whom took responsibility for accuracy and balance.

Yes, the resulting set of books was sold, not to the dreaded “highest bidder” but to libraries and ordinary people, for a more than trivial sum. Katherine Maher makes it sound like selling a product, through purchase or advertising, would corrupt the purity of Wikipedia. But the opposite is true. While the exchange of money doesn’t ensure responsibility, it’s an inducement to it. It means someone has skin in the game, especially when that someone is identified by name.

Wikipedia is called an encyclopedia, and for sure, it shares many characteristics with such an objective information source. If you want to know the population of Pittsburgh, Portland, or Palm Beach, Wikipedia is the place to go. However, for anything contentious, such as intelligent design, it’s a masked mob and it conducts itself that way. There’s no genuine appeal. No arguing with the guy behind the Guy Fawkes mask. When you’re trying to make your case to an anonymous mob, receiving a form letter in response is getting off easy.

The sociology of the mob is also telling, and bears a comparison with Wikipedia. Gainfully employed people with families and other commitments generally don’t join mobs. They don’t have time for it. Similarly, pseudonymous Wiki editors, the ones on lightning alert to cancel out genuine corrections to entries on subjects they care about, aren’t folks you automatically picture as solid citizens. How could they be? They would have other things to do with their time.

So despite claims of “balance,” with editors drawn from “virtually all walks of life,” the nature of the thing works to promise that when it really counts, Wikipedia is anything but “neutral.” There is little to be done about it by way of fighting the editors on their own pages. We’ve tried. Because they have such ample time on their hands, they’ll always win.

But as we have said before, you are not powerless here. Do let your friends know, and think twice before letting your children use Wikipedia for school reports and the like. As for your next $20 donation to a good cause, consider sending it elsewhere.

Photo: A mob wears Guy Fawkes masks, by JamesHarrison (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.