Wikipedia:Pro and con lists

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A number of Wikipedia articles today contain pro & con lists: lists of arguments for and against some particular contention or position. These take several forms, including lists of advantages & disadvantages of a technology or proposal (such as Wi-Fi) and lists of criticisms & defenses of a political position or other view (such as socialism or creationism; lists on those articles have since been removed).

There is no consensus on when and where pro and con lists are appropriate in the wiki; so as a general rule, they should be handled on a per-article basis. If you have an objection to one, you should raise it on the article's talk page first. As a general rule, however, a pro-con list can be useful in an engineering context, where there are well-established advantages and disadvantages to a particular technology or approach which can be clearly enumerated and sourced; they are less appropriate in political or sociological articles.

(A "criticisms & defenses" list is a backwards pro & con list. The opposing side is presented first, followed by the responses of the defending side. Lists of this form seem to grow out of more contentious articles.)

Rationale[edit]

The point of pro & con lists is, presumably, to encapsulate or bracket neutral point of view (NPOV) problems, by making separate logical spaces in which different points of view can be expressed. They are preferable over "thread-mode" discussions in which editors insert responses from alternating points of view. However, in some articles, pro & con lists lead to problems of their own; in these articles, they can show that an article needs more work to integrate different points of view. Ultimately, pro & con lists in politically-oriented articles a symptom of unresolved NPOV problems, rather than being a successful strategy for resolving them.

Structure of a thread-mode discussion (bad!)

  • Point from POV A
    • Response from POV B
      • Response to response, from POV A
  • Another point from POV A
    • Another response from POV B
      • Response to response, from POV A
        • Response3, from POV B

Structure of a pro & con list

  • Pro side (e.g. Advantages)
    • Point from POV A
    • Another point from POV A
  • Con side (e.g. Disadvantages)
    • Point from POV B
    • Another point from POV B

So what's wrong with pro & con lists?[edit]

Pro & con lists are an improvement (for Wikipedia's purposes) over thread-mode discussions. However, when used carelessly, they pose problems both for the reader and for future editors.

Pro & con lists fragment the presentation of facts. There are many issues on which there is a difference of opinion over whether some fact is a benefit or a detriment. For instance, it is a fact that Wi-Fi networks use unlicensed radio spectrum. This has advantages and disadvantages, many of which are subjective or relative. However, in a pro & con list, the advantages of unlicensed spectrum will be grouped with other unrelated advantages, and the disadvantages with unrelated disadvantages – rather than both being presented in a section about unlicensed spectrum.

Details about the matter will be split between the pro and con sides, presented either redundantly (which is bad) or selectively to promote the two different POVs (worse). So a reader who is interested in reading about the facts of a matter ends up having to jump back and forth between the pro and con sides of the list.

Pro & con lists oversimplify controversies. There are many issues where describing a dispute or controversy is an important part of an article. There is no way to discuss certain subjects adequately without discussing the massive controversies on these issues. Pro & con lists seem to be a way to describe the views of the different sides on a controversy.

However, few controversies really have just two sides. The pro & con list format is rarely expanded to include more than two views – young Earth creationism and old Earth creationism contradict one another thoroughly, but in a pro & con list that pits creationism against evolution, they are wedged into the same side. While this may represent the political alliance of young- and old-Earth creationists, it does not accurately represent the claims and arguments made. It sacrifices accuracy for politics – a devil's bargain for a Wikipedia editor!

Pro & con lists invite spurious correspondences between "sides". One way that a future editor can "improve" a pro & con list is to attempt to point out the connections between points on either side of the list, or to set up correspondences between specific points. (This is a natural response to a criticisms & defenses list, and can take the shape of a 2xN table, as seen in this old version of Plural of virus.)

However, real-world disagreements are rarely so simple that they can be lined up in tables of correspondences. As a result, the "sides" that are depicted in such a pro & con list veer towards being misrepresented. Even though a pro & con list is usually better than thread-mode, in this fashion it can run down over successive edits until it is equivalent to thread-mode.

Pro & con lists are never complete, and thus invite biased contributions. For any given viewpoint, there is generally a large number of arguments that can be marshalled for it. An editor with a tendency towards one of the positions described in a pro & con list can easily see that the strengths of his own position and the weaknesses of the other are not fully expressed. A natural reaction is to edit the list to enhance the arguments on the favored side and weaken those in the opposition.

This kind of behavior not only degrades the quality of the article, but leads editors to drift into "camps" opposing one another. This can lead down two paths. In the presence of hot-headed editors, it leads to edit wars; otherwise it leads to an article which is a precarious compromise between the camps rather than a collaboration among editors. (Articles of this sort can be recognized by the fact that a new editor coming along starts putting in revisions and blows away the carefully balanced compromise worked out on the talk page.)

Finally, Pro & Con lists have a tendency to encourage forbidden primary research, by encouraging contributors to add to one side or another to balance out the other side-the problem being that the contributor himself thought of the argument.

When to use Pro & Con Lists[edit]

On the other hand, there are some articles where a pro & con list can be appropriate. In engineering contexts, there are often well-documented and universally-accepted advantages and disadvantages to particular approaches or technologies; in those cases, a pro-con list can provide an at-a-glance summary of the factors engineers take into account when deciding on a method. When using a pro-con list in such a context, it is useful to cite the entire list to a specific source; if there is controversy over what source to use, then it is likely that a pro/con list is not a good approach.

Alternatives[edit]

Contrast these versions of the article Internet Explorer – and also see the "Features" section of the present version. Editors recategorized a pro & con list of "positive and negative features" of the popular Web browser into a form which is more balanced, more accurate, and more suitable for future editing. We may disagree on whether a given feature is positive or negative; we can agree on whether it is present or absent. Observing the edit history of the article since then, we find that while other parts of it have been fiercely disputed since then, the previously contentious "Features" list has become relatively settled.

Alternative forums[edit]

If you are thinking of creating one of these lists, you may find a more appropriate forum outside the encyclopedia. Debate and discussion sites include:

See also[edit]

Cleanup[edit]

Adding {{Pro and con list}} to an article will display:

This will add pages to Category:articles containing pro and con lists. Do not apply this template blindly. There is no universal consensus against pro-con lists; in many articles, consensus may find them to be appropriate.