Editorially Relevant Information
Michael W. Busch
I was a graduate student in Planetary Science at Caltech, then a postdoc at UCLA and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and am now a research scientist at the SETI Institute. I also work with the Asteroid Radar Group at JPL.
As a preemptive measure, you will note that I have chosen to avoid anonymity. Various other editors have not, so, you'll need to trust me when I say that this is the only account I have used to make edits (other than edits made while not logged in). This should be obvious from my edit history, but I've been accused of sockpuppetry anyway.
- 1 Wikipedia, Science, and Pseudo-Science
- 1.1 Objection 0: Wikipedia is not the arbiter of scientific truth.
- 1.2 Objection 1: insert name of interest group has been suppressing science for insert monetary/political/religious reason.
- 1.3 Objection 2: This works, but it is covered under insert name of government secrecy
- 1.4 Objection 3: You personally have a grudge against insert words and don't want it to succeed
- 1.5 Objection 4: Reference to the Wright brothers, Einstein, Goddard, Tesla, Alfred Wegener, or other 'authoritative' person
- 1.6 Objection 5: insert flawed statistical argument
- 2 Note on Explaining Science
Wikipedia, Science, and Pseudo-Science
I've been involved with removing various unsupported speculation from Wikipedia. In removing this content, I have encountered support from many editors, but there is always someone who objects. The objections follow a standard pattern, so I will try and address them here so that I don't have to keep adding material to talk pages. I am quite aware that the people who do the objecting consider their cases to be different, but when I (or any other editors) reference the following I hope it will be clear beyond reasonable doubt that it applies. Incidentally, all of the examples given below have happened on Wikipedia at least once.
Objection 0: Wikipedia is not the arbiter of scientific truth.
- There is no single arbiter of science, by definition. But Wikipedia has become such a commonly used reference that whatever science it contains must correspond to present understanding. To do otherwise is as bad as putting in the JFK article one of the numerous conspiracy theories that surround that event and presenting such bollocks as true. So additions that mis-represent general relativity or describe alleged anti-gravity machines should be evaluated as harshly as possible; as harshly as the ideas that make up modern science have been tested. It is not coincidence that science succeeds and pseudo-science tends to fail.
Objection 1: insert name of interest group has been suppressing science for insert monetary/political/religious reason.
- Science has been constructed to be as resilient as possible to abuse. This is not to say that scientists are perfect (e.g. consider Hwang Woo Suk), but to say that anyone who is trying to pull a fast one will be found out. As part of my research, I predict where asteroids will be. If I am wrong, it becomes obvious. Similarly, it would be obvious if masses of alien spacecraft were visiting Earth or if a prototype antigravity device had flown off towards Mars.
- Invoking suppression of evidence also holds no water. Science is both cut-throat and collaborative. Saying 'American Academia' as a single unit is as meaningless as saying 'Russian Academia' or 'Room 156 in the South Mudd Building at Caltech Academia'. If I had evidence available that convinced me of any of the unsupported claims people have sent me, I would hardly suppress it. Conversely, if Mikko Kaasalainen had evidence to disprove my values for the spin state of an asteroid, he would not suppress it. The same applies to every scientist worthy of the name.
Objection 2: This works, but it is covered under insert name of government secrecy
- Forgive me, but this sounds too much like the X-files. Historically, any attempt to confine a technology or idea has led to it being even more widely known. It is also very convenient that anything proving something can't be accessed. If you are publicly making grand claims, they need to be supported down the line. To do otherwise is like Gary McKinnon, who claimed in a hearing to have seen pictures of UFO-derived technology when he hacked US Army computers, but couldn't be bothered to copy the data or even make a screen grab.
Objection 3: You personally have a grudge against insert words and don't want it to succeed
- To this there can be no answer, because anyone who would use it would dismiss denial. But see Objection 1 above. I do make mistakes, but I try not to hold grudges or suppress anyone. I will listen to any idea, but I also almost instinctively apply filters to rapidly throw out ideas that don't work. These filters are usually based on fundamental physics, observational evidence, or prior debunking.
- The references above are favorites, of people who allegedly succeeded despite naysayers or where all others had failed. Einstein is often held up as the paragon of the latter, but this is flawed because he would have been unable to do what he did without all of the experimental and mathematical knowledge he gathered from others. Tesla is held up because of his fascination with dubious ideas late in life, but this is flawed because he had numerous legitimate accomplishments before that, which are what he is known for in science. Wegener did get a lot of flak when he proposed continental drift, but he had also proven himself as a meteorologist. His background probably explains the flawed physics in his drift model. That he read the evidence for drift correctly is what he is now known for, because it took another fifty years of work to demonstrate the actual process.
- The Wright brothers and Goddard are held up because of people saying that what they did could not be done. But there is a difference here: no-one disagreed that powered flight was physically impossible, just that it was beyond the engineering abilities of civilization, as it was until light-weight combustion engines became available. Similarly, despite the infamous New York Times editorial, science knew about rockets working in vaccuum well before Goddard. None of the above is a justification for claims of faster-than-light travel, anti-gravity, or someone suddenly solving unified field theory. In fact, one of my filters for bad ideas is to search for such attempted justification. If an idea requires a comparison to Einstein to satisfy the author's ego, it is likely to have not been critically studied.
Objection 5: insert flawed statistical argument
- These arguments are the easiest to debunk, because the math is relatively simple, but they are also often the hardest to explain. Statistics is messy. Despite Mark Twain's maxim, it is valid, but only if it is treated properly. Explaining the proper treatment of chi-square or correlation tests always loses someone.
I have no desire to be labeled as as irascible as James Randi, nor to make myself a target, but pseudo-science must be purged from Wikipedia if this is ever to become a reliable reference.
Note on Explaining Science
Related to removing pseudoscience is explaining science, and when I make large changes, I do try to explain the science behind the change. However, there are limits. In several cases I've dealt with, explaining to someone who has been adding pseudoscience that they are incorrect in a way that they would understand and accept would have required delivering the equivalent of an entire introductory college astronomy, physics, and general scientific methods course. There I draw the line. I am human; I can't explain such complicated things quickly. Fortunately, Wikipedia serves its purpose in this regard, as may Wikiversity eventually. Michaelbusch
|The RickK Anti-Vandalism Barnstar|
|I, Persian Poet Gal, hereby award you this barnstar for some hard anti-vandal work :). ¤~Persian Poet Gal 03:54, 1 November 2006 (UTC)|
|The Editor's Barnstar|
|Awarded by Ben for revisions to Gold standard|
|The E=mc² Barnstar|
|This barnstar is awarded for working diligently to get Wikipedia to properly report on scientific consensus. We sure could use more editors like yourself. ScienceApologist (talk) 21:57, 5 December 2007 (UTC)|