A tale of Wikipedia woes and highly politicized issues

As a science writer with a liberal arts/ social studies background, I frequently run into brick walls where I do not have detailed enough knowledge about the subject. Physics will be one of those subjects where I gladly admit to being more ignorant than I ought to. Messages from my friend Miranda Hvinden frequently sends me looking for definitions as well (she is a microbiologist and a smart cookie) because she sometimes delves into details beyond my scope of knowledge. I frequently turn to Wikipedia to get the scope of scientific theories and definitions of technical terms.

I used to love the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica when I was in undergraduate school. I studied comparative religion and intellectual history, and the trusty old Britannica gave me run downs and overviews that got me into the subject matter quicker. The science journal Nature published a study where the accuracy of these two encyclopedic giants where ranked as pretty even when it came to the number of inaccuracies, to the chagrin of subscription based Encyclopedia Britannica.

I write quite a bit about politicized science issues, such as global warming and stem cells and plant biotechnology. And I can tell you that I never turn to Wikipedia on any of these issues. If it is an issue in the political arena, Wikipedia is not your friend. EVER! One of the columnists at the Financial Post has discovered this, because he actually spends some time editing articles on Wikipedia.

The columnist updated some incorrect information about one of the scientists who has involved himself in the global warming debate, but found out that his edits where immediately removed over and over again. The same person always did the removal.

Someone called Tabletop was undoing my edits, and, following what I suppose is Wikietiquette, also explained why. “Note that Peiser has retracted this critique and admits that he was wrong!” Tabletop said.

I undid Tabletop’s undoing of my edits, thinking I had an unassailable response: “Tabletop’s changes claim to represent Peiser’s views. I have checked with Peiser and he disputes Tabletop’s version.”

Tabletop undid my undid, claiming I could not speak for Peiser.

Why can Tabletop speak for Peiser but not I, who have his permission?, I thought. I redid Tabletop’s undid and protested: “Tabletop is distorting Peiser. She does not speak for him. Peiser has approved my description of events concerning him.”

Tabletop parried: “We have a reliable source to this. What Peiser has said to *you* is irrelevant.”

The columnist, whose name is Lawrence Solomon, ran into another mischaracterization of the views of a scientist that is active in the global warming debate. This time, politically correct Wikipedia entries where removing serious accounts of this person’s scientific track record and insinuating that he believes in Martians. Solomon has obviously given up contributing to Wikipedia by now, so he recounts the man’s science credentials in the Financial Post column instead of wasting his time on work that will be tossed out by less accurate writers with an angle.

By now, his columns and his edits have actually riled up some of the zealots that use Wikipedia as a political propaganda tool. Solomon posts another column where he shares the advice he has gotten from experienced Wikipedians, they all tell him not to write under his real name. This is counter intuitive for someone who writes for a living:

But how odd a thought that a writer would want anonymity. Or maybe not so odd. In the real world, those who want anonymity are either ashamed of their conduct — say, poison pen writers– or fear for their safety — say, writers inside China criticizing their government. In the world of Wicked Pedia, the same two reasons rule.

The world of online socializing can get ugly fast, because people feel anonymous behind their computers in their own homes. Anyone who has spent time on the Paleolithic bulletin board systems and UseNet can tell the tale that it always was so, and always will be so. Wikipedia is no different.

Solomon is not the only person who has run into pranksters and zealots with too much time on their hands on Wikipedia. Participants in the public debate have been declared dead, implied as participants in assignations and other criminal activities, and it is a problem that Wikipedia recognizes as a major obstacle to the quality of the Wikipedia brand. However, since Jimmy Wales proclaimed that he would operate with “stable” and audited entries in 2005, little has changed. We still have these issues.

I will continue to use Wikipedia for technical stuff, such as double checking the definitions of enzymes and ribosomes. I will also continue the rule that my professors at the Missouri School of Journalism drilled into my head, always verify the information from one source with another source. In the meantime know that Wikipedia is not a reliable source for information about political issues, or people that are involved in public debate about political issues.