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Should geoscientists spend time making Wikipedia articles better?

April 17, 2009

wikipedia-logoMy short answer to this is no. Read on for the long answer and my rationale.

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.

Regarding the current trend of growing disdain for expertise, social scientist Harry Collins said in an intriguing essay in Nature earlier this month that

The prospect of a society that entirely rejects the values of science and expertise is too awful to contemplate.

Indeed.

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.

Summary

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).

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2009 12:32 pm

    Science is a funny thing: a skeptic’s uphill climb toward truth. It’s inherently blurry and conditional, and only after a LOT of testing for reliability does society let engineers use science for meaningful work. Consequently science is an infinitely cautious conversation, precise even in its imprecision. Science is like a search party exploring a forest at night with flashlights. The people in the party are self-organized and in constant voice contact; where they stand in relation to their task is something they know collectively, not individually. And somehow they assure that every square meter of forest is inspected.

    A random bozo barging in with a cigarette lighter is in no position to help. Wikipedia is a useful experiment, but it’s run by a self-appointed set of random bozos. Scientists have their own structures for issuing authoritative statments: journals, textbooks, societies. Even a blog is more authoritative than Wikipedia, in that what’s there can’t be meddled with by random bozos.

    Wikipedia will never, ever have the prestige among scientists that, say, Annual Reviews has. The best thing scientists can do is create authoritative content that will support the wikipedists’ uphill climb toward truth.

  2. April 17, 2009 1:02 pm

    Perhaps scientists need to argue with publishers about the need for open access for peer-reviewed work. Peer-reviewed publication are inaccessible to most of the public (and even to college students at many schools). The internet makes unreliable information much more easily accessible than peer-reviewed work, and it’s impossible to keep people from relying on the internet. (And that’s coming for someone who has strict guidelines for acceptable sources for student papers, though different guidelines for students at different levels. Every year, it gets harder to convince students that it’s worth getting material through interlibrary loan.)

  3. April 17, 2009 4:16 pm

    I have little faith in the accuracy of Wikipedia and I by no means think it’s a reasonable or viable replacement for scientific journals. The problem is it has prominence. And because, as you mentioned above, Google gives it such high standing in search results for basic terms, it needs to be managed.

    You can ignore Wikipedia all you like, but the average layperson doesn’t know any better. It’s down to geoscientists with a little free time to fire fight. Not doing anything will allow random bozos and pseudo-scientists to push their own agendas, and none of us want that.

    Think of Wikipedia as a public classroom, and editing as being a member of the educational board that control said classroom. Whether you agree with the basis or the system or not, the platform must not be simply yielded to any weirdo to preach whatever they like under the guise of it being a semi-reliable resource.

    I agree with Kim, the science journals need to open up and release articles to the public. Since leaving academia I’ve found it literally impossible to read the articles I want without having to shell out $10-$20 per script. It’s like being expelled from the library of Alexandria. I’ve lost track of the number of times in arguments with EEdiots, where I’ve wanted to point them to a paper, or something substantial like the Treatise on Geochemistry, but alas, those are resources locked in the ivory tower. Is it any wonder such stupid concepts (EE, ID, Plutonium reactor at the Earth’s core, earthquake “prediction”, etc.) continue to spread when the basic resources needed to educate people are inaccessible?

    It maybe a broken system that’s easily open to abuse, but until Google is convinced that it’s not that great a resource, and the science journals open up, we’re simply going to have to continue with the damage control. Lest we get driven out of town by a torch-wielding mob demanding we tell them when and where the next big earthquake will strike.

  4. April 18, 2009 8:27 am

    1) “I have little faith in the accuracy of Wikipedia and I by no means think it’s a reasonable or viable replacement for scientific journals.”

    Who ever said Wikipedia intended to replace scientific journals ?
    You got the focus of Wikipedia wrong. If you do not understand its intentions how can you judge it properly ?

    2) “It is not worth my time to engage in “edit wars” says another. Do you really think a high school kid is going to enter a flame war over vulcanism or “gneiss” ???? Or do you think it’ll be over creationism, Obama or Britney Spears ?

    3) Another comment: “Wikipedia is a useful experiment, but it’s run by a self-appointed set of random bozos. Scientists have their own structures for issuing authoritative statments: journals, textbooks, societies.”

    Perhaps this person watched too much Fox news and thinks name calling without argumentation is a convincing argument.

    Since you are such a scientist, I am sure you actually did a scientifically and *statistically* sound survey on the “bozo-level” of Wikipedia editors. Correct ?

    Guys, get of your high horse. Wikipedia was not intended to replace peer reviewed scientific journals. It was intended to disseminate knowledge to the general audience by making use of what knowledge has been aggregated by that same audience.

    No it may not be 100 % correct on “vulcanism” or “gneiss”. But it may (and I think it IS) be very correct on Obama, or the 80-year war, or “birthdate of Queen Victoria” or all the other cool stuff I looked up in a normal encyclopedia before.

    Instead of resisting new ideas, new concepts and be derogatory about it, I’d try to engage it and understand its workings before you judge it. It SOUNDS like you feel attacked in your position just like the movie, recording, photography and newspaper industries.

    Oh.. and just in case: I worked in theoretical physics for 5 years after my MSc. My graduation report was published in the Dutch (I am Dutch) National Science Foundation’s annual report, I spoke at conferences on Shape Memory alloys and I also worked in Silicon Valley for 6 years.

  5. April 18, 2009 8:30 am

    And full disclosure: no I am not a wikipedia editor, but I have known quite a few as I personally also know people involved with Wikipedia and quite a few other internet startups (or not so startup anymore).

  6. April 18, 2009 1:19 pm

    Patrick says: “Guys, get of your high horse. Wikipedia was not intended to replace peer reviewed scientific journals. It was intended to disseminate knowledge to the general audience by making use of what knowledge has been aggregated by that same audience.”

    And the concerns I expressed were about where that knowledge comes from (and its accuracy). What’s wrong with that concern? You mention that an article on ‘volcanism’ or ‘gneiss’ may not be 100% correct … we’ll, that’s an issue, sorry. Wiki enthusiasts deal with it and try to make it better (that’s great) – this post is about a discussion of whether or not to spend the time to contribute.

    I appreciate your comments here, but don’t try to pull me or others into unproductive back-and-forth commenting by saying we feel ‘attacked’ or that we are resisting technology. Scientists are very open to news to communicate (e.g., we have blogs) … this post is simply to discuss it. That’s all.

  7. Patrick permalink
    April 18, 2009 3:59 pm

    Brian:

    To quote from your conclusion:
    “Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but I just don’t think it is worth my time to engage in these ‘edit wars’.”

    and then:
    “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.”

    And:
    “I have enough to do with my job, that making time to haggle with mysterious people on the internet is very low on my list.”

    That combination of statements is a completely illogical mumbo-jumbo to begin with.

    1) If you do not understand the inner workings, then how can you be so sure about edit wars.

    2) Moreover what do you base the criticism on anonimity on. What scientific evidence do you have that it is a necessarily worse system. I can find 1000nds of articles discussing why peer review is NOT a good system, or why complete openness (ego’s, powerplay, politics) is not a good approach.

    There are in fact good reasons for that: in fact there is a lot of research and (lord and behold) scientific thought behind anonimisation of contributions or even whole social networks (spam notwithstanding): it strips people from incentives to use their “online identity” to obtain status, have powerplay games, hunt for quantity instead of quality and so on. Strip them from their identity and you strip them from most of the wrong reasons to be active.

    3) It is obvious you do not know the inner workings since Wikipedia has long past the model of anonimity and has open discussions to evaluate behavior, and position of editors and to which extend they apply the wikipedia guidelines.

    So all in all, I find your criticism incorrect and more based on personal judgement and ideas than based on facts, evidence or research.

    Something you actually accuse Wikipedia of for some of its more specialized topics.

  8. April 18, 2009 4:04 pm

    Patrick, what you think of Wikipedia in matters where you have expertise?

  9. Patrick permalink
    April 18, 2009 4:12 pm

    And my final words on this: you judge an imperfect (which it surely is) project from a very privileged position. However many people around the world do not have that luxury.

    For you it may be a problem that the “gneiss” information is wrong, for others it’s a luxury that 80 or 90 % or even more (depending on the topic) of the information is correct, accessible and free for them to absorb.

    If you feel that concerned about the value of “accurate knowledge” there is a very simple answer to that. Contribute until you’re proven right in your assumptions about edit wars and struggles with mysterious people.

  10. April 18, 2009 4:13 pm

    Patrick … we got it, you’ve made your point. Obviously, I hit a nerve. I never said my opinion was based on some comprehensive study … you’re right, it is my opinion. So what? You can disagree, but your defensiveness doesn’t really promote a productive discussion.

    This post was mainly to ask other geoscience bloggers about this, as there is a spectrum of opinions and I wanted to hear them. I appreciate your comments, but was more interested in the geology articles (and those who have contributed to them) than the wiki concept in general.

  11. April 18, 2009 4:16 pm

    “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.”

    And yet, you devoted thousands of words arguing with crackpots here on your blog.

    If you are going to do it, you might as well do it in a place where it does the most good.

  12. April 18, 2009 4:18 pm

    Lab Lemming says: “And yet, you devoted thousands of words arguing with crackpots here on your blog.”

    Crackpots can’t edit my posts.

  13. Patrick permalink
    April 18, 2009 4:19 pm

    Andrew: It reaches a certain level of accuracy, say “introduction level”. The more specialized the topic, the lower the level, the more general the topic, the higher. More editors is usually good since it flushes any errors pretty quickly for 99 % of the topics.

    (Again: no one is going to start an edit war over King Philip II and his agricultural policy). But if I had read 20 books on 16th century Spain, wouldn’t I be able to contribute on that topic ? Would I be incorrect in my edits ?

    It’s an imperfect system in an imperfect world, and it surely will be replaced by something else.

    But think about what it has accomplished: unleashing the collective knowledge of so many and the energy so many have put into it to build something “bigger than themselves”. I find that truly remarkable.

  14. April 18, 2009 4:22 pm

    Patrick says: “But think about what it has accomplished: unleashing the collective knowledge of so many and the energy so many have put into it to build something “bigger than themselves”. I find that truly remarkable.”

    I wholeheartedly agree … which is why I find it interesting and important to discuss it w/in the context of the little corner of knowledge I reside in.

  15. April 18, 2009 7:37 pm

    Brian, do you use it at all?

    I find it is a handy math and physics resource- good for looking up all those formulae that I forgot a decade ago.

  16. April 18, 2009 7:57 pm

    Lab Lemming … I agree, Wikipedia does come in handy for stuff like that.

    Again, this is not some overarching rebuke of Wikipedia as a whole.

    Lab Lemming — what do you think? (i.e., the question that is the title of the post)

  17. Anterracon permalink
    April 24, 2009 11:32 am

    I can only draw on my experience. As a Geologist looking for references regarding the Geology of the Indian sub-continent a few years back I was stymied by the lack of resources. In fact the only resource I could find was a badly written and confusing wikipedia article.But it contained the what I was looking for (but was interpretable only to someone with specialized knowledge of the Indian Proterozoic).

    So I took the time to re-write it, organize and make figures for it. Now it stands as the pre-eminent web resource on the geology of India(of course with others adding and building to the framework I imprinted).

    Our role on wikipedia is not polemicize but to educate. There is no need to have journal quality writing, only general introductions to the topic with places to go further. In some cases, where geologic information is a state secret(like Russia) wikipedia is the only way people can gain even a bare minimum of knowledge. To spend time edit warring is pointless but to share our knowledge and experience is vital.

  18. April 24, 2009 12:21 pm

    Anterracon … thanks a lot for you comment. Sounds like a success story in your case. I need to hear more stories like that … would give me a less pessimistic view of it :)

  19. April 25, 2009 5:52 am

    I think it depends on the situation.

    Fighting edit battles may be pointless, but for many geotopics, that isn’t an issue. For example, many useful but non-controversial topics simply need expansion from stub form. e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psammite

    Then there are the things with no entries at all, such as everything in red linked from here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine_canyon

  20. June 6, 2009 8:09 am

    See a continuation of this discussion at the blog Reporting on a Revolution here: http://tinyurl.com/qenky8

  21. August 25, 2009 8:49 am

    Wikipedia’s better than Conservapedia, at least.

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