Hi, I like to contribute to Wikipedia, for the public good. I work at a university. I'm interested in biotechnology, intellectual property, and the public perception of both. Politically, I am more or less a Clinton democrat. I think capitalism is a great engine for innovation and opportunity, each of which make people's lives better; I also believe that government is essential to create a strong safety net, to ensure there is fair competition (including equal opportunity), and to ensure that individuals and companies pursuing their goals don't harm everybody else (i.e. good regulation is essential). So like most Americans I favor a mixed economy. The question is always about balance; about finding the rough and somewhat ugly middle ground that makes things work.
I believe strongly in Wikipedia's Five Pillars.
I also believe that US society is rife with communities walled off from each other by the cognitive bias of community members. We don't get our news from the same places, and people unreflectively pass among themselves half-truth jokes and claims that make their side seem wonderful, and the other side seem buffoonish at best and evil at worst. "Our country faces unmitigated disaster if the Other Side wins." This retreat into bubbles is destroying our ability to have rational discussions about many topics and to strike reasonable balances that can effectively address the real problems we face. The fact that, as Harry Frankfurt has said, "our society is awash in bullshit," does not help. I believe that clearly presented, unbiased information is an antidote and that Wikipedia is part of the solution when the five pillars are followed.
If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend Frankfurt's book, "On Bullshit"", which you can read here, as well as his follow-up book, appropriately called "On Truth." In "On Bullshit" Frankfurt says bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth, and he says: "Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."
So many people have fallen prey to bullshit, and have never taken the time to really learn what is going on. Add to that, passion about the issues the bullshit is centered on, and you have the most toxic mix imaginable - ignorance, conviction, and passion. This is destroying American democracy from within.
If we want to solve problems in the world, if we want to have rational conversations and negotiations with people who think, feel, and see the world differently than we do, we have to start by clearly seeing the facts - the truth - that define problems and their causes, and we have to be willing to question our own convictions about what is true and what is real. Where things are not fully explainable, and we are dealing with uncertainties, that has to be clearly acknowledged. (Much bullshit is generated in claims of certainty, in cases where none can be had.) I find bullshit - this disregard for the messiness of the real world and its facts - all over the place. Both on the political right and on the political left. Wikipedia's Five Pillars - especially the first and second - are inherently anti-bullshit, which is why I love them.
The other thing that makes Wikipedia great to me, is its open nature (the third pillar). What a crazy and beautiful idea - that anybody can come work. And that many people, of many different perspectives - sometimes starkly different - actually do. Together we have made this great resource for everybody to use.
That can only work because civility is one of the five pillars. The fourth pillar is crucial for successful interactions among editors trying to write articles that reflect the truth (as far as limited humans can reach, anyway). Because we are all limited - limited in knowledge, limited in insight, and most importantly, limited in authority - we have to work together - we have to see and acknowledge each other - to get anything good done. Additionally, civility is all about behavior -- it has nothing to do with who you are or what you believe; what matters is what you write, and how you write it. Civility is what makes this ultimate democratic space possible.
The best interactions I have had on WIkipedia have been ones where there were disagreements about content, but the discussions by the parties involved were grounded in Wikipedia policies and guidelines, clear evidence of homework (old and fresh) was brought, and editors carefully listened and responded to one another, all focused on coming to an agreement on content that everybody can live with -- on reaching consensus. A community formed, accomplished a task, and everybody moved on. And this feels deeply good.
The worst interactions I have had are the opposite. Things are said and done in ignorance or misunderstanding of policy/guidelines or the subject matter, parties don't listen and don't respond, and at least one party is focused on getting his or her way (as opposed to working toward consensus). The article gets lost, and the conversation starts being about the editors - essentialist nonsense starts creeping in. Those are the interactions where accusations of bad faith start flying. In this case, an anti-community forms (a dysmunity?), nothing is done, and everybody is stuck. And this feels very bad.
The best interactions are characterized by competence and civility; the worst, by incompetence and incivility. Most interactions fall somewhere in the middle.
Of the two, only one is a pillar. Civility. If editors work in a spirit that acknowledges the other's validity and one's own limitedness - if they assume good faith - a consensus can be reached, eventually. Take civility away, and there is no chance.
Bad faith editors
The flipside of this, is that as an open project with an assumption of good faith, Wikipedia is vulnerable to bad faith editors. We have processes for dealing with them (WP:NPOVN, WP:COIN; WP:SPI; WP:ANI). Bad faith editors can be those with an undisclosed conflict of interest who do do not follow the guideline for editors with a COI or from POV-pushing editors, who have no COI but are committed to some ideology or position and try to drive it into the encyclopedia. Both kinds of bad faith editors - undeclared COI editors and advocates - pervert the goal of Wikipedia, which is to be a great encyclopedia, providing NPOV and RS information to the public.
Wikipedia is, at the end of the day, the content of its articles. Which are open and public - open to scrutiny, open to editing. Discussions on Talk are public too. Bad faith editing will out. Tendentious editors will be betrayed by their behavior in Talk and the content they produce; BS content created by COI editors and advocates will get corrected, and if they start fighting tendentiously, they will get caught out that way.
Our process works. It may not be swift, and it is not pretty, but it works. I for one do not favor changing the open nature of Wikipedia; I prefer the wild vulnerability that our high goals create, to some more locked-down prison state. I have no problem with COI editors who follow the rules; they do not touch content. They don't matter, at the end of the day.
We do, however, need to raise our COI guideline to policy. It is crazy and irresponsible that an organization as big and influential as WIkipedia does not have a clear, actionable COI policy to guide editors, make it more straightforward to identify problems and deal with them, and to ensure the public that we are on top of this. An effective COI policy will also destroy the business model of companies like Wiki-PR, which would no longer be able to say their work can comply with Wikipedia policies, and would in turn reduce the number of bad quality articles that houses like Wiki-PR churn out. A good COI policy would also provide the community with procedural clarity - how should an editor handle it, if he or she suspects or learns another editor has a COI? Procedural clarity would allow swift and fair community action and would prevent witch-hunts and hounding.
For Wikipedia as for America - "The price of liberty is vigilance." This does not mean McCarthyism. It does mean, that we should all follow the five pillars (including civility and its assumption of good faith) while editing, as brilliantly as we can. And use the procedures we have in place to deal with those we suspect of being bad faith editors.
My work here
Quick background. I've been reflecting lately, and realized that I have a life-long interest in food. It is part of my nature to inquire and understand, in a hands-on way as much as I can. So, I had an uncle who was a dairy farmer next to his day job working in a factory, and spent a little time as a kid during summer vacations helping out; I have had huge gardens, have worked in a whole foods co-op as a coordinator where I managed the inventory, have worked in restaurants (rising over several years from dish washing to being chef), have worked in soup kitchens and food pantries... it is a thread running through my whole life. Not intentionally, but something I seem to circle around, coming to understand the entire chain that leads from farm to table. My work in Wikipedia since the summer of 2012 has been really focused on agricultural biotechnology, which fits right into that; it was interesting for me to realize that. (The work I do in the real world, which I have done for many years now, is unrelated to food or agriculture, but does involve biotechnology - see COI section below.)
I opened my Wikipedia account in January 2008 and didn't do much. I got more interested when someone I knew started taking a bunch of dietary supplements and talking them up, and I wanted to learn more about them. This was my first encounter with bullshit in Wikipedia, and I started doing research as per WP:MEDRS and editing articles to improve their sourcing and content as per the pillars. I have kept working on other health-related articles, on dietary supplements, and health effects of various things found in food or other products. This remains an interest of mine, and an area where there is a lot of smoke and not enough light in public discourse.
Then, in the spring of 2012, I walked by a protest where a guy had a sign that said “Monsanto kills” and I thought, “Wow, what’s up with that?” It was a real question - I had only the vaguest notion of what Monsanto was, and wanted to understand why someone would take time out of their day to make such a strong claim, and so passionately. I love real questions and I love random conversations on the street. I wanted to ask the guy, but was already running late to a meeting.
The question stuck with me, so when I got home I started reading about Monsanto. I hit the Monsanto article in Wikipedia first thing when I started doing that research, and the article at that time reeked of bullshit.
So I started doing research like a scholar would – like we are supposed to do in Wikipedia – finding NPOV reliable sources and reading them and then coming back and editing the Monsanto article and other GM-related articles, and negotiating with other editors interested in the topic. It was surprising to me – really surprising – to find the same statements about Monsanto repeated over and over (often verbatim) in anti-Monsanto sources, which you come across a lot of, as you search for information on the web. And repeated again in the Monsanto article and the other GM-related articles in Wikipedia.
And it was more surprising to me to find that many of those statements were untrue or half-true, when I ran their claims to ground. I spent hours learning and digging down into the issues, reading entire OECD, EFSA, and FDA guidances and reports, and the history of regulatory law and policy, reading patents and court cases, reading about the biotechnology behind GMOs and how ag biotechnology has been regulated. And really importantly, reading about farming and why farmers have so widely adopted these products. (It was and is stunning to me how rarely you read anything in the anti-GM literature about what real farmers actually think and do — most times they are portrayed as powerless victims or patsies. Not as the savvy business people they are. Terrible.) Reading how seed is produced and how that market works and has worked, learning how food is actually produced in the US. Reading the scientific papers that both sides tout. And always going back and matching what I was reading, with what was in the anti-GMO sites and with what was in WIkipedia.
Intellectually amazing (and still is - I keep learning more and more; there is so much science, business, ethics, law, history, and politics involved!), and from a human perspective, depressing as hell. The level of passion and ignorance in the anti-GMO community has been just mind-blowing to me. Time after time, I would read some strong negative statement and say, “Wow really??” and go learn more about it, and have it fall apart in my hands. I am not a big one for generalizations, but it is pretty clear to me by now, that material produced by anti-GMO groups is generally not reliable, especially with regard to the key question of food safety; one finds instead a flood of bullshit - speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth. What seems to matter, is trying to scare the hell out of people. However, reality does exist; we have tools to help us try to grasp it (most of them covered between the scientific method and the historical method). And there is a scientific consensus that currently marketed foods from GMOs are as safe to eat as conventional foods. Evidence may emerge one day that changes the consensus. But it has not arrived yet.
There are folks in Wikipedia who think that the widespread use of GM crops is a great wrong, and they want to fight that battle in Wikipedia. However Wikipedia is not a place to right great wrongs and it is not a place for advocacy; this is a place where we describe the world as it is. GM crops, and GM food, are mainstream. Over 90% of all soybean, corn, and sugarbeets grown in the US are GM. That is about as mainstream as it gets.
That said, there are very clear risks and concerns with big ag, biotechnology, and the whole passel of issues that has led to the crap that passes for "food" that Americans manufacture, buy, and eat on such a staggering scale (Why is it so hard to find good bread in America? And how did that come to be? Those are a questions I need to address one day). I have learned about those too, and have always included negative things, and risks, in my edits. I have never removed negative information that was reliably sourced and that had appropriate weight in an article (I acknowledge that negotiations concerning weight are infamously difficult in Wikipedia - more on that another day, perhaps). And I have added negative information. But some specific risks and concerns are monoculture's effects on the ecosystem (not an issue with GM crops per se, but clearly GM crops so far have been designed with monoculture in mind and are extensively used in monoculture), gene flow, how well markets are actually working (I am so disappointed with the non-report that the Justice Dept recently produced on whether seed markets are competitive or not), really large questions of how to balance the good things innovation can bring, with managing risks of unintended consequences (chief among them, understanding subtle, long-term toxicities) -- all these and more are really key questions that are both important and challenging. And there is no doubt that pro-GMO forces have their own bullshit. Claims about "feeding the world" remain pretty hollow, as long as the world is basically capitalist and there are poor among us who cannot afford to buy food. (That said, the more abundant the supply, the lower the price, and the lower price, the more people can afford to eat; people went hungry in Egypt when the Russian wheat harvest failed and prices shot up worldwide ~2010.)
But as the first section above discusses, if we want to be effective in the world, we need to see reality as clearly as we can. We cannot swallow bullshit. My work in Wikipedia over the past year and a half, has been a mostly joyful and very satisfying process of learning and sharing - of grabbing hold of a claim, investigating it thoroughly via good old fashioned research, and working with the community of editors to include new information, or edit existing information, in Wikipedia. I've also worked with others to think about how to optimize the organizational structures for the suite of GM-related articles to best present the information for readers' benefit.
There has been darkness, too. There are some who see me as a stooge of Monsanto - either a paid operative or some kind of zombie advocate for them, and as wielding a baleful influence over Wikipedia. Which is sad and hurtful to me; and I feel bad for people carrying such unhappiness. None of those folks has asked me why I do what I do. I added this to my page, to give them an answer.
I've asked myself the questions on WP:Tendentious editing. I cringed a couple of times, but overall, I think I am clean. We are all human, and I have made mistakes. When I have, and have seen them, I have acknowledged them and done what I could to apologize and correct them. The goal of my work here is to create a great encyclopedia as per the five pillars.
Self-initiated COI Investigation
I initiated a COI investigation of myself with regard to ag biotech, articles concerning which are often contentious, and in discussion of which COI charges can fly too easily: results are here. Example articles I have worked on a lot include: Genetically modified crops, Genetically modified food, Regulation of the release of genetically modified organisms, Genetically modified food controversies, Séralini affair, and Monsanto.