Should geoscientists spend time making Wikipedia articles better?
Chris over at goodSchist.com recently sent out a call-to-arms to geoscience bloggers to make the Wikipedia article on the mantle better. As I commented on his post, while I applaud the enthusiasm and interest in making such a resource the best it can be, I am quite pessimistic about the endeavor being successful.
Wikipedia is a decent resource, or at least a decent starting point, for some scientific or technical concepts. But overall it is pretty disappointing. Personally, I think that the poor quality and/or incompleteness is a function of the wiki concept itself. Some might argue that the openness of Wikipedia — that the community writes, reviews, and edits itself — is similar to the peer-review process in science. I disagree.
In Defense of Expertise
The key in peer review is the word ‘peer’. In this context, a peer is someone who has the technical knowledge and expertise to evaluate someone’s technical work. Whether good-intentioned or bad, those lacking that expertise and experience cannot comprehensively evaluate technical work. People shouldn’t take this personal — it’s a matter of training and experience.
The prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science and expertise is too awful to contemplate.
Another relevant quote from the Collins essay:
…the right way to pursue knowledge about the natural world would be through observation, theorization and experiment, not revelation, tradition, the study of books of obscure origin or the building of alliances of the powerful. Science’s findings are to be preferred over religion’s revealed truths, and are braver than the logic of scepticism, but they are not certain. They are a better grounding for society precisely, and only, because they are provisional. It is open debate among those with experience that is the ultimate value of the good society. [emphasis mine]
I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment — with one minor quibble, which is the use of the word ‘theorization’ — I think we need to be more rigorous with how we use ‘hypothesis’ and ‘theory’. In the culture of our everyday non-scientific lives, a lot of people use the word ‘theory’ when they should be using ‘hypothesis’. I catch myself doing it from time to time. This is detrimental because it trivializes what a theory is, thus leading to “it’s only a theory” and similar rhetoric from anti-/pseudo-science pundits.
But the main point here is that expertise, which is gained from both training and experience, is the key element. While our current peer-review system certainly isn’t perfect and debates about how to improve it should continue, I think it’s important to acknowledge it’s foundation.
The Censorship Canard
Among the most nonsensical responses from the most paranoid (or simply dishonest) of the pseudo-science punditry is that editing of their sloppy, misleading, and/or erroneous writings in Wikipedia equates to censorship.
For example, check out this discussion section for Wikipedia’s mantle article (go here, scroll down to the bottom, and click on ‘show’ for a recent debate about the “cold” mantle that has been archived). The user Sophergeo is unhappy about content that was edited by other users and starts his/her argument by quoting Wikipedia itself:
Neutral point of view [NPOV] is a fundamental Wikimedia principle and a cornerstone of Wikipedia. All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing fairly, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources. This is non-negotiable and expected of all articles, and of all article editors. For guidance on how to make an article conform to the neutral point of view, see the NPOV tutorial; for examples and explanations that illustrate key aspects of this policy, see Wikipedia:Neutral point of view/FAQ.
Neutral point of view? I have a HUGE problem with this. Science is not something to be PC about … why should we give equal time to other “views” as if it were political or cultural commentary. Science is not something that should fall victim to the ever-worsening false equivalency problem. Just becuase someone has a “view” about the workings of the natural world doesn’t mean they automatically get equal status to theories that have taken considerable research to refine, revise, and integrate.
To be fair, an important part of the NPOV statement is that articles should include “all significant views that have been published by reliable sources”. This is good — but, what does ‘reliable sources’ mean? Those with an idea about how nature works might be inspired by an obscure journal article, a non-peer-reviewed popular science book, or even random writings from someone they believe to have relevant expertise.
If a person does not have the knowledge or experience to truly evaluate the data and analyses (or lack thereof) that underlie a “view” then don’t we run the risk of diluting the quality of the information at the expense of being inclusive?
Is Anonymity a Problem?
I’ve often wondered if the ability to be anonymous on Wikipedia contributes to issues of quality.
It is easy to argue that because Wikipedia article authors/editors are for the most part anonymous*, there is a lack of true accountability. Misbehavior can, and does, proceed without ramifications under a cloak of anonymity. I think there are good reasons for anonymity for many purposes on the internet — for example, communicating important information to the public without fear of retribution.
But I don’ t think anonymity is necessary everywhere on the internet just because it is easy to accomplish. Why the mystery? What does Wikipedia gain by allowing anonymous people contribute to pages? Writers and editors cannot effectively evaluate each other (i.e., their peers) with regards to level of expertise if most of the contributors are anonymous.
A wiki-style knowledgebase called Citizendium aims to solve this problem by requiring contributors use their real identities. Similarly, there is Scholarpedia — where only invited experts can edit articles and the articles are anonymously reviewed. While I think these are admirable endeavors, it seems that Wikipedia is just too dominating — it commonly comes up on the first page of google search results. Can these other wiki projects compete? I really don’t know … would be interested in hearing opinions from readers.
Within Wikipedia there is the WikiProject for Geology. I don’t know much about it, but my guess is that the vast majority of contributors have good intentions. But, similar to discussion forums and blogs, all it takes is one crackpot with a vendetta against logic and reason to ruin it all.
Returning to the title of this post — should geoscientists spend time making Wikipedia articles better? Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but I just don’t think it is worth my time to engage in these ‘edit wars’. I have enough to do with my job, trying to write papers myself (mostly on the side), reviewing papers for journals, keeping up with the literature, and so on, that making time to haggle with mysterious people on the internet is very low on my list.
Some might argue that Wikipedia (or something similar) is the future of knowledge dissemination so we ought to make sure it is the best it can be and be a part of its development. I’m not convinced that the wiki concept should be the future of scientific knowledge … at least not in this form.
As I mentioned above, I have never been a contributor to Wikipedia and thus don’t have a good sense of its inner workings and culture. If some of you have experience writing/editing articles, especially science ones, please comment below — I’d like to hear your perspective. Perhaps I simply have an unreasonbly pessimistic view?
UPDATE (6/5/09): See Suvrat’s post here about the Scitable site from Nature Education and continuation of discussion of this topic.
* I realize that there are ways to track IP addresses and such, and that ‘sock puppets’ are revealed … so perhaps it is more correctly pseudonymity … but, whatever one wishes to call it, it’s certainly not fully open and transparent with respect to who did the work (as it is in scientific literature and textbooks).