"Fringe wars" highlight difficulties with policy and dispute resolution process
Ideas about how the world works, when not accepted by scientific consensus, are referred to as fringe theories. These include subjects as diverse as intelligent design, ESP, and homeopathy. Wikipedia articles on these topics have always been controversial to at least some extent. Various editors hold vastly different opinions as to the correct way to present these ideas, and there is often a disagreement on interpretations of basic Wikipedia policies such as WP:NPOV. In many cases, the disagreements escalate to bitter edit wars. ArbCom has handled at least four cases about edits of articles related to fringe topics: the article Pseudoscience, the article Paranormal, edits by the editors Martinphi and ScienceApologist, and edits made by Matthew Hoffman.
This week, we interviewed two outspoken editors, User:Martinphi and User:ScienceApologist, who have long been involved in this conflict. The two have very different views on how fringe topics should be presented, but both believe that there are serious problems with the way Wikipedia has dealt with the situation. Both have proposed fundamental changes in Wikipedia's policies and bureaucratic structure.
- Zvika: Please start by introducing yourself. Who are you? What is your goal in editing Wikipedia? What drew you to edit the "fringe" articles?
Martinphi: I studied philosophy at university, which is where the "phi" in "Martinphi" came from. I never went to grade school, and I recommend that formal schooling be abolished in deference to self-teaching and an apprenticeship system. I'm known as a pseudoskeptic around home, and I live in a part of the country where people still believe that witches make them sick. Since I'm now known as a paranormal POV-pusher, I'd rather not say more.
I believe that our emotions and intuitions are the result of an evolutionary process which is formalized in science. Thus, science is the way in which knowledge is gained. It is embedded in the universe. I arrived at the Parapsychology article when I was just beginning to learn about the subject—I learn through writing. I soon found that something was wrong, and that many people wanted very much to discredit parapsychology—and every other fringe article.
ScienceApologist: I'm a graduate student at the Astronomy Department of Columbia University. I came to Wikipedia as a community college instructor in physics and astronomy in Chicago. There, I noticed a number of students were getting a lot of information from Wikipedia, and a goodly amount was incorrect or misleading. I first started editing to clean up the astronomy-related pages, but quickly found myself helping out at pages that were fully devoted to describing fringe claims and pseudoscience, such as plasma cosmology and creationism. I was involved with a number of arbitrations on pseudoscience-related subjects before becoming aware that there existed an entire area on Wikipedia plagued by misleading and counter-factual statements, namely those articles monitored by members of the Paranormal WikiProject.
I believe that Wikipedia articles should conform to the most reliable, vetted, and factual understanding that humanity has about material reality, that is, everything that is observable, measurable, and explored through the scientific method. I am particularly interested in articles relating to physical reality because that is the area in which I am most educated.
- Z: In your opinion, what are the major problems concerning fringe-related articles, and how do you think the situation could be remedied?
SA: The problem is that many of the people editing articles about pseudoscience and the paranormal are themselves passionately committed true-believers who want to make Wikipedia articles conform to their beliefs. These editors become dedicated POV-pushers who advocate for "fair treatment" that ultimately means marginalizing scientific critique in defiance of science's prominence. Simple statements of fact such as "there is no scientific evidence for this belief" are challenged through reinterpretations of various Wikipedia policies such as WP:NPOV, WP:RS, and ironically, as of late, WP:NOR. Normal channels of dispute resolution are not able to handle effectively the conflicts with such users for the following reasons:
- Compared to the POV-pushers described above, the people advocating for a neutral framing of subjects are generally not as committed. Scientists leave Wikipedia with departing essays stating that they wasted too much time fighting silly battles.
- Many third-parties who attempt to help resolve these disputes fail to realize that, in the areas related to science, simply aiming for "balance" as you would with a political controversy is equivalent to pandering to a false dichotomy. NPOV is not "balance"; explicitly, there is an undue weight clause to that effect. Too often, people who are unfamiliar with science do not understand how truly insignificant the views of the pseudoscience POV-pushers are in comparison to the mainstream understanding of material reality. It doesn't help matters that the dedicated POV-pushers tend to outnumber the dedicated advocates for neutrality.
The situation would be greatly improved if the community would empower administrators to deal substantively and decisively with POV-pushing complaints, and to provide a space for neutral editors to improve problem articles without the harassment of these types of single-purpose accounts.
MP: The major problem is the continuing tension between SPOV and NPOV. [SPOV was a proposal, which never achieved consensus, for writing science articles from the POV of mainstream science. --ed.] This debate is much older than my editorship, and it is at the root of most of the problems in fringe areas. Don't get me wrong—there are other severe problems, like POV-pushing from fringe believers. But that isn't what has driven the NPOV editors away, and that isn't what causes most of the tension.
SPOV is a rejected principle on WP, but I think it would be great if the debate were re-opened. We could produce some very fine articles on an SPOV basis. Fringe articles would become a discussion of fringe ideas from a mainstream-scientific POV. We would also have to allow some original research to fill in the blanks when mainstream science hasn't spoken on a fringe topic. We could make some very good articles this way.
There is a large group of editors who feel that SPOV is the way to go, and have been doing everything they can to write fringe articles from an SPOV viewpoint. Nevertheless, SPOV isn't our current system. Trying to make articles reflect SPOV is POV-pushing, and we need to get the community's consent before this should be tolerated.
When SPOV is thwarted, it often degenerates into debunking, and making the article sound as derogatory as possible toward the fringe subject. Sometimes this is very subtle, and even takes the form of inserting single unnecessary words to make the subject seem less valid. Sometimes, pseudoscientific unsourced assertions are made, such as flat statements that no evidence does or can exist.
There is a big problem with fringe advocates pushing their POV in fringe articles. But personally, I've seen much less of this than justifiable outrage at the highly negative way the fringe articles often sound, and the huge areas of the articles (40% in Homeopathy) taken up by mainstream-scientific analysis or derogatory opinions. This outrage is itself portrayed as fringe POV-pushing, which is why I have that reputation. Mainstream science is a notable view, it is usually the truest view, but it is not Wikipedia's purpose to decide for the reader what is and what is not true.
- Z: According to WP:WEIGHT, an "article should fairly represent all significant viewpoints […] in proportion to the prominence of each." What is your interpretation of this policy in cases where POVs departing from the scientific mainstream have many proponents? For example, in your opinion, what would be the correct structure of the article on Young Earth creationism?
SA: When it comes to material reality, the group that has by far the most significant viewpoint is the scientific community. These are the people who study the subject professionally and are the obvious experts on the subject. Whenever an article begins talking about material reality, the scientific viewpoint absolutely must be given the most weight.
This needs to be done in spite of the fact that people hold beliefs that contradict scientific facts. For example, although according to some surveys the majority of Americans do not believe in common descent, Wikipedia should not treat this belief as the most prominent viewpoint. To see why, consider the fact that the majority of Americans also think that the phases of the moon are caused by the Earth's shadow. Should we change Wikipedia's explanation of this occurrence? Surely not! The general public is notoriously misinformed and unaware of scientific facts. It is our responsibility to write a reliable reference work that reports facts without pandering to the misconceptions harbored by amateurs. The experts who know the facts of material reality are scientists, not John Q. Public. Whenever “majority viewpoints” are demonstrably incorrect we should not portray them as fact. We may report the existence of such viewpoints in Wikipedia, but it would be irresponsible for us to frame the subject as a “debate among equals” or a “legitimate controversy”.
Since Young Earth creationism is a topic which takes a particular religious perspective and claims that it describes the origins of material reality, the scientific counter to this idea is directly relevant. To be clear, religious beliefs, dogmas, and ideas are generally not explicitly relevant to science, but are rather about the supernatural or spirituality. Though religion and science are normally separate subjects, in an article like Young Earth creationism, they get muddled. If certain religious groups make claims about material reality, and if their ideas contradict the available scientific evidence, then a reliable encyclopedia must be explicit about the contradiction. So, for example, while there are religious interpretations of global flood that are not of scientific relevance, there are occasions where beliefs about a global flood directly contradict scientific facts. Wikipedia should explicitly state this. Furthermore, creationists are not reliable sources for describing material reality and should only be used as sources for their own beliefs in articles devoted to reporting their beliefs. When describing beliefs that explicitly run counter to the facts, a good reference work will point this out plainly.
Unfortunately for Wikipedians editing articles about pseudoscience, the scientific community tends to outright ignore the protestations of "alternative viewpoints." This means that there might be a greater quantity of sources arguing for a minority viewpoint than disputing it.
MP: "Minority" and "majority" viewpoints are relative to the subject of the article. For example, the prominence of science in an article on Young Earth creationism is quite low but significant, and should receive enough coverage that the reader will go away knowing that creationism isn't the scientific mainstream view, and with a basic understanding of the argument. In the article on Evolution, Creationism is a significant minority view, and it is mentioned. These articles properly interpret the policy as being relative to the subject of the article. If they interpreted the policy to mean that the majority mainstream view always predominated, then the Evolution article would be covered mostly from the perspective of Creationism, as that is the majority mainstream view of most people.
The section quoted goes on to say: "Minority views can receive attention on pages specifically devoted to them.... [O]n such pages, though a view may be spelled out in great detail, it must make appropriate reference to the majority viewpoint...." This is why an article on Evolution or Atheism cannot be taken over by the majority viewpoint, and why Young Earth creationism should not be mainly criticism.
The reason this question came up is that SPOV advocates believe that subjects which are opposed to mainstream science should be covered from the mainstream scientific perspective. (Often "mainstream" is equated with "mainstream science," which isn't what Wikipedia policy means.) The former SPOV admin from the Matthew Hoffman case asserted "In Intelligent design, SPOV should be dominant, but NPOV says we also have to explain what intelligent design proponents claim for NPOV."
The policy as we have it works well for NPOV, but not for SPOV.
If a fringe topic really doesn't seem to have mainstream scientific sources, we should just say we couldn't find any, even if it doesn't sound encyclopedic. We should also be careful not to do original research to invent the viewpoint that scientists would take if only they had studied the matter—which SPOV advocates often try to do. We should heed the ArbCom decision saying that by using words such as "paranormal," "belief," "myth," etc. in the lead, the reader will understand the epistemological status of the subject. Unless, of course, the Wikipedia community decides to adopt SPOV as its guiding principle.
- Z: ScienceApologist, you have recently stated that you think "Civility is arbitrary. ... [T]he entire concept needs to be trashed...." Please explain this opinion.
SA: In my opinion, the Wikipedia community has placed too much emphasis of late on civility. An editor can be uncivil occasionally and still be a fabulous contributor: such peccadilloes should not be deal-breakers. Currently, some administrators exclusively enforce civility-violations and refuse to address the substantive issues of improving the encyclopedia. Right now the community is more likely to ban a user who makes fantastic contributions but calls someone a puerile name than a disruptive, tendentious POV-pusher who is superficially polite to a fault. This is wrong.
- Z: Some editors have claimed that civility, being easier to define, is enforced more than content policies such as NPOV and RS. To what extent has this been true in your experience, Martinphi?
MP: Admins only enforce NPOV and RS if they are abusing their tools. NPOV and RS are content issues which even the arbitration committee doesn't usually rule on. In the Matthew Hoffman case, an SPOV admin lost his tools for abusing them in just such a manner. Admins can enforce disruption, 3RR and CIV. So I certainly hope that CIV is enforced more than content policy. Wikipedia has no basic arbiter of content disputes. Thus, when a large group of editors all want the same thing and no other policies apply, NPOV may get thrown out. I don't know what to do basically, but when a lot of editors push their own POV, and even admit it openly like the advocates of SPOV, something sure needs to be done.
- Z: ArbCom has made decisions which relate to some of the problem areas under discussion, including the cases Pseudoscience, Paranormal, Martinphi-ScienceApologist, and Matthew Hoffman. What is your overall opinion of these decisions?
MP: They are extremely good, and work smoothly together to uphold NPOV. But SPOV editors have criticized them heavily, and refused to abide by them. Because of this, they have done little to ameliorate the situation, though they should have. In addition to this, leading SPOV editors are protected by others, including admins, who share their POV. There is no doubt that in similar situations, editors who try to change fringe articles into an NPOV state do not receive such privileges.
In the Paranormal ArbCom, one of the main claims was that I was POV-pushing. But the final rulings broadly endorsed my reading of the relevant policies. The ArbCom even directly included in the final decision several major points from an essay I'd written. During the case, I had noted that NPOV is a non-negotiable policy, and I had asked the ArbCom to tell me if I was wrong about policy. But of course, that ArbCom decision has been ignored. This eventually led to the so-called "expert withdrawal" situation [in which several SPOV editors unsuccessfully tried to organize a boycott of Wikipedia. --ed.].
SA: ArbCom decisions have been a mixed bag. Some have been great, some have been downright boneheaded. One problem is that arbitration is not supposed to deal with content decisions, but ultimately every fight on Wikipedia is over content. This means that ArbCom is stuck putting out (or starting) peripheral fires without dealing with the main problems. I have a high opinion of certain arbitrators and a low opinion of others. In general, I think that ArbCom enacts the will of the community fairly well, but oftentimes the will of the community is counter to what is best for creating a reliable encyclopedia. While the problematic, high-profile ArbCom decisions attract notice, problematic activities happen on a much smaller scale perpetrated by administrators and users every day. Ideally, ArbCom would lead the community toward a better way of dealing with disputes, but one of the known problems in a democracy is that the mediocrity of the community often is reflected in its chosen leaders. One persistent problem is that most encyclopedias are controlled by content-experts, but Wikipedia is not.
- Z: Any final words?
SA: Reliable descriptions of material reality are only made through the expert consensus of the scientific community. While Wikipedia is charged with reporting on various alternative viewpoints, the fact that these alternative viewpoints are not reliable descriptions of material reality must be made clear for Wikipedia to be the best encyclopedia it can be.
MP: Fringe articles are being held hostage by multiple conflicting points of view, and we desperately need NPOV editors to help, because nearly all of them have been driven away by the POV-pushing, incivility and poisonous atmosphere. I hope you will join in.
- Z: Thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions.