Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

The Wiles of Wiki

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/25

The unreliability of Wikipedia has often been remarked, for instance in relation to matters of health and medicine (“Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense” and further links there). To be more precise: Whenever there’s a range of opinion, Wikipedia is unreliable because its entries are typically controlled by a single viewpoint.

The fundamental, inescapable reason for Wikipedia’s untrustworthiness is that it was founded on the naïve premise that an unregulated free-for-all would make the entries reliable through the contributions of anyone and everyone interested in a given topic.
Such a premise could only be held by someone immersed in abstraction and simplemindedly ignorant about the ways of human beings. Even the most rudimentary awareness of human behavior reveals the primacy of emotions. Those most likely to be actively involved in an enterprise are those who have the strongest interests in them. As to “knowledge”, dogmatically fanatical believers or disbelievers will be over-represented on any given topic; just sample blogs and other Internet forums. Historians, psychologists, sociologists — humanists and social scientists would never dream that truth or sound knowledge could result from a contributors’ free-for-all, no matter under what written policies. As I’ve remarked before, “Wiki’s policies are indeed splendid, and they would work just fine if the people contributing to Wiki were impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, and scrupulous in gathering all available information on any given topic and presenting it evenhandedly. Such people do not exist, however, and there’s no mechanism for impartial resolution of differences of opinion about Wiki entries”.

The founder of Wikipedia is indeed demonstrably naïve about human beings and simpleminded about matters social and political: “Jimmy Wales . . . is so enthralled with Rand and objectivism that he named his daughter after one of the characters in a Rand novel”.
I enjoyed Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged thoroughly, in the same way as I enjoy fictional thrillers for their moral certitude and for their endings where the good guys always win, but it never occurred to me that the real world is anything like Rand’s scenarios, or ever could be anything like that.

At any rate, Wikipedia is useful only when one already knows enough about a subject to assess the reliability of its entries. And on any halfway controversial topic, Wiki is dogmatically one-sided. Take the case of whether human activities are appreciably responsible for warming up the globe: Any number of relevant entries are slanted to support the so-called “scientific consensus” and to denigrate anyone who questions it, for example “Climate change denial”,  “Scientific consensus”, “Scientific opinion on climate change”, “Global warming controversy”  — among quite a few more.

Some familiarity with rhetorical devices help in recognizing such biases. It is perfectly possible to convey a misleading impression without mis-stating facts, just by selective citing of sources, for instance. Thus the Wiki entry on the  “Science & Environmental Policy Project” begins by summarizing correctly some of the points made there against the hypothesis of human-caused global warming (AGW, for anthropogenic GW), but unproven “facts” and misleading citations are then used to contradict those points. For instance, it says that “Patrick Michaels, a well-known ‘skeptic’, has said that it is ‘proven humans are warming the atmosphere’ [4]”; however, that reference [4] contains no mention of Patrick Michaels, let alone citing something that he does not believe. In the Wiki entry on “List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming”  Michaels is classed among “Scientists arguing that global warming will have few negative consequences” and not under “Scientists arguing that global warming is primarily caused by natural processes”, which is entirely deceptive: global warming will have few negative consequences because carbon dioxide is not producing significant warming, and Michaels could equally have been listed under “Scientists arguing that global warming is primarily caused by natural processes”. Note too that Michaels qualifies as a “Climate Misinformer” at “Skeptical science: Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism”.
Read what Michaels himself has written, say in Forbes magazine, to appreciate that he qualifies fully as a global warming “denialist”, the term used by vigilantes to describe anyone who points out that carbon dioxide has an entirely unproven but certainly negligible role in the warming trend as Earth recovers from the last Ice Age.

Wiki’s “List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming”  is altogether deceptive. It has only some 50 names even though many thousands of others have expressed similar views publicly. Here’s Wiki’s attempted excuse for this deceptive maneuver: to be listed, “it is not enough for a name to be found on a petition or similar” — a decision, enforced by anonymous Wiki editors, for which there is no rational basis. Imagine if such “reasoning” were applied to getting candidates for political office onto an official ballot, say. What might the Supreme Court hold if a political party attempted to disqualify signatures supporting a candidate’s name by claiming that signing a petition does not indicate a person’s belief?

By using such devices to mislead about counting names, Wiki then includes a graphic suggesting that these views are held by a negligible number of people:


Such tricks may not be immediately obvious to the unwary reader coming newly to this topic. Those who capture Wiki entries on a given topic are often shrewd enough, and certainly unscrupulous enough, to employ deceptions of all sorts — like Jimmy Wales claiming that Wiki policies ensure that only sound science is represented.
Connoisseurs of polemics will appreciate the facility with which Wiki projects evenhandedness while ensuring that readers are seduced to a particular viewpoint. S. Fred Singer, for example, has held so many prominent positions at first-rate places that his expertise cannot be denied even by Wiki. But the introduction of his entry concludes with the sentence, “Singer has been accused of rejecting peer-reviewed and independently confirmed scientific evidence in his claims concerning public health and environmental issues. [3] [11] [12] [13]”.
This reminded me — unpleasantly, of course — of the professor at the University of Sydney who used to make the rounds at cocktail parties saying things like, “Isn’t it despicable, the way they are maligning X . . . — about his cheating on his wife, embezzling research funds, seducing interns (male as well as female) . . .”, thus effectively smearing X while pretending to deplore the rumor-mongering of others.
The four sources cited by Wiki about the accusations against Singer include only such negative views as “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” (by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Bloomsbury, 2010) and “The Denial Machine” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 15 November 2006, 16:01–16:35 mins).

Innuendo, rumor-mongering, cherry-picking of sources and every other sleight-of-word trick is deployed in Wiki’s entries on any halfway controversial topic. Misleading in this manner is much more culpable than straight-out lying: “There is a difference between misleading statements and false ones; striving for ‘the clear reception of the message’ you are sometimes allowed to lie a little, but you must never mislead” (Paul R. Halmos, I Want to Be a Mathematician, 1985, pp. 113-14). The reason is that lies can readily be countered, but there is not effective way to defend against insinuations, rumors, innuendo.
At the same time as Wiki entries are rife with tactics to mislead, it attempts to represent itself as evenhanded with such caveats as


But bias will always be in control because it is the anonymous and not evenhanded Wiki editors who rule on what is “reliably sourced” and at what stage “the dispute is resolved”.



2 Responses to “The Wiles of Wiki”

  1. Mark said

    That part about that professor at The University Of Sydney reminded me of the very similar concept of “push polling” in political campaigns:

    I made sure to use a non-Wikipedia link, just above.

    I have a question for you. You have, more than once, made the point that misleading is, in many cases, at the very least, worse than lying. Even in the so-called “free” United States (I don’t understand how any organized society can be “free” when there is a significant difference of opinion – I think that “freedom” is a fantasy, but that’s a different discussion…) there are legal punishments for lying, under some circumstances. I understand that there may be some practical issues, but, conceptually, at least, would you be in favor of legal punishments for organizations and individuals, like Wikipedia, for being misleading?

    • Henry Bauer said

      I believe there are already potential penalties for misleading under some circumstances, for example in advertising.
      The general problem is to prove intentional deception. I can’t distinguish concept from practice in this case.

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