Wikipedia:Editors will sometimes be wrong

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As Wikipedia has matured, the inevitable development of policies, guidelines and manuals has proliferated to the point that newcomers often find the experience of editing on Wikipedia to be overwhelming. Wikipedia has tried to combat the growth of bureaucracy and elitism by instituting a number of policies which are intended to make it possible for a community of editors to coexist peaceably with a variety of interests, perspectives, and philosophies about how Wikipedia should work.

However, ultimately, the goal of writing a reliable encyclopedia is one that cannot be left to the arbitrary consensus of whichever editors decide to let their voices be known. Tendentious and disruptive editors too often are given a pass without those accommodating them keeping the best interest of verifiability, reliability, or neutrality of Wikipedia in mind. In the interest of maintaining harmony, the fundamental goal of writing an encyclopedia is compromised.

Examples[edit]

By way of example, if fifty editors say that the National Enquirer is a reliable source for biographical information, that does not make it so, even if only one editor opposes them. The National Enquirer sometimes gets it right, and sometimes gets it wrong. It is the inconsistency that makes it inherently unreliable. In the absence of a policy recognizing expertise, there is no way to decide which situation is occurring. Some users will inevitably exploit this, finding ways to disrupt the project by advocating for edits to the encyclopedia that belie the fundamental premise of an accurate, reliable, neutral, and in-depth reference work.

A tongue-in-cheek example of how wrongness can frustrate experts on a topic was provided by Wired contributor Lore Sjöberg:

For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War -- and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge -- get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.[1]

Wikipedia does pass judgement[edit]

Wikipedia does not explicitly say that a point of view is "wrong", but Wikipedia does pass value judgements in other ways. For example, Wikipedia does not obscure that a view held by a minority is, in fact, a minority view. It does not try to present such a view as "equal" to more popular views.[2]

Many editors, especially new ones, forget this aspect of the core Neutral Point of View policy, often interpreting "neutral" as "no judgement". Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, stated early in the project development that presenting all views as equal is not the goal of Wikipedia:

NPOV does not require us to present all these views as if they are equal! This is one of the things that's hardest to remember about NPOV. If a view is the majority view of a broad consensus of scientists, then we say so. If a view is a minority view of some scientists, scientists who are respected by the mainstream that differs with them on this particular matter, then we say so. And if a view is held only by a few people without any traditional training or credentials, and if that view is dismissed by virtually all mainstream scientists, then we can say that, too.[3]

The approach of presenting views as equal to avoid bias is probably familiar to readers. It's a practice often used in journalism. However, according to Wales, it is not Wikipedia's approach:

There's a popular view of bias in journalism, held more in practice out of laziness I think than held as an actual theory of bias, that the way to be unbiased is to present both sides of an argument without prejudicing the discussion for or against either one. "Some say that the earth is round, others say that it is flat."

Our approach is more sophisticated, I think.[3]

Wikipedia prejudices the discussion by weighing viewpoints, giving greater weight to those that are more reliable and those that are more prominent. It is a sophisticated valuing of viewpoints, with no hard-set conclusions of "wrongness", but it does favor "rightness". Officially, Wikipedia supports verifiability, not truth,[4] however a certain type of truth is discovered through verifying the facts on a topic – how many people agree with a particular view.

While NPOV prohibits us from saying that a particular view is "wrong", in many cases it is our duty to point out that few people believe that the view is "right". Neutrality also prevents us from defending minority views, or elevating them to a position they haven't earned on their own, as neutrality simply means "not taking sides in a dispute". As Wales pointed out, when a topic is correctly covered, the discussion is prejudiced towards "rightness".

Ignoring wrong "rules"[edit]

In the absence of a consistent system for Wikipedia to figure out when an editor is right or wrong, and given the consistent resistance toward making such determinations, the best we can hope for is that editors who are right will ignore all rules and find a way to thwart those who are wrong. This is leaving the situation up to risky chance, for both the content and the editor, but it is the best we can do for the time being.

Ignoring the "rules" in this case really means ignoring a particular narrow interpretation of the rules; that is, the interpretation that a micro-consensus among a group of editors at a given article somehow protects it from the greater consensus of the community at large. Often, a small group of editors at an article may develop an internal consensus that isn't compatible with the overall goals of Wikipedia to be a reliable encyclopedia. Too often, small groups attempt to own the article, claiming consensus protects it from bold edits by "outsiders". Ignoring their rules is not the same as ignoring the principles, policies, guidelines and goals of the larger Wikipedia community, the macro-consensus.

Macro-consensus[edit]

Consensus among a limited group of editors, at one place and time, can not over-ride community consensus on a wider scale.[5] The macro-consensus of the Wikipedia community as a whole overwhelmingly supports creating a verifiably accurate and reliable compendium of information. Micro-consensus at any given article to include unreliable information does not over-ride the will of the community at large to exclude sources that do not meet our collective reliable sourcing criteria. The micro-consensus at the article is subjugated by the macro-consensus of the entire community to enforce reliable sources policy.

This is unfortunately of no help when the macro-consensus also supports the occasional exception[6] of compromising with the RS criteria to admit sources that are on a rational basis unreliable. In cases such as these, one can substantiate the inclusion with facts about the source. For example, point out that a source is a tabloid magazine when such information is pertinent to determining the reliability of the information. It is important, however, to be bold in enforcing reliability, to enforce macro-consensus, especially in biographies of living persons. WP:BLP is official Wikipedia policy, with a higher reliability standard.

Are you wrong?[edit]

The following are clues that you may be wrong and may want to rethink your position.

  • Your friends agree with you, but no one else does.
  • Most of the people agreeing with you seem to lack the intelligence of those who disagree with you.
  • Your opponent has well-reasoned arguments. Even you don't buy the rationale your friends are using to agree with you.
  • Your opponent cites policies and guidelines. You can't seem to find any policies or guidelines that support your position, even in a loop-hole sort of way.
  • You rely on loop-holes.
  • You learn that your major supporter has a conflict of interest.
  • An approach you take at a minor, less trafficked article seems to go over well. You try the same approach at a higher trafficked article and encounter a great deal of resistance. It's possible, then, that the approach you took wasn't right at the minor article either, just no one was around to call you on it.
  • If you're wondering if you are wrong, then likely there's a reason for thinking you might be. Assume that you are wrong and ask for an outside opinion.

What to do when you're right[edit]

Be bold in correcting any "wrongness" that hinders Wikipedia's ability to be a verifiably accurate and reliable encyclopedia. However, if you encounter more opposition than you can bare on your own, Wikipedia has a dispute resolution process designed to remove the dispute from a micro-level to a macro-level, away from any potentially wrong internal consensus and into a forum where it comes under the scrutiny of the community at large. If you are right, a greater consensus will develop that supports you at the micro-level. If you are wrong, well, rethink your position and try to work with the overall goals of Wikipedia in mind. Editors are sometimes wrong. It's possible you didn't know you were and DR will help you discover that.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "The Wikipedia FAQK". Wired. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  2. ^ See WP:UNDUE, and for extreme minority views, WP:FRINGE.
  3. ^ a b "NPOV and 'new physics'". Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  4. ^ See Wikipedia:Verifiability.
  5. ^ See Wikipedia:Consensus.
  6. ^ Wikipedia:Reliable sources is a content guideline, and as such is treated with common sense and the occasional exception.