Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Some problems with Wikipedia

with 2 comments

Preamble:
On several occasions, I have started a text on problems with Wikipedia. With too many items to discuss, I have always lost interest before I was even half-done. To finally get something published on the matter, I have taken my last attempt (from May 2017), struck out a few keywords-that-should-have-been-expanded-upon, and polished it a little (including a few links to more recent posts); I acknowledge that more specific examples would be helpful, but, with the intervening time, the old examples are long gone. The result is the rest of this text.

I have long been a great fan, avid reader, and sometime editor of Wikipedia. For at least some part of its history, I have considered Wikipedia worth more than the rest of the Web* together. The more painful it has been for me to see the gradual degeneration of Wikipedia, the loss of the encyclopedic ideal, and the takeover by politically and ideologically motivated editors in many subject areas. Below I will discuss some of the current problems, many of which could be explained by a drift** in authorship from people of over-average intelligence, from an academic background, and/or with more technical interests to members of the broader masses.

*Here it pays to make the distinction between Web and Internet. Email, e.g., is part of the latter but not the former.

**A similar drift explains many of the things that have changed for the worse on the Internet, in the Open-Source community, and similar, over time. Indeed, the people who dominated the Internet when I first encountered it (1994) form a very small minority by now. Also see a post expanding on these thoughts.

  1. A great proliferation of “popular culture”* sections that bring little or no value, but waste space and the editors energy. Why on Earth does every nit-wit who has just heard topic X briefly referenced on “Family Guy” or “The Simpsons” feel the need to add this to the Wikipedia article on X?!?

    *The section heading is almost always a variation of, or contains, “popular culture”. The contents are not always compatible with this and I use this phrase without implying that it is well chosen.

    Discussion of films and books referencing X can have a valid place, but this requires some degree of significance of the work, that the presence of X in the work is considerable, and that it actually brings some added value. In rare cases, there might be reason to include some mention to show that X has had an influence on popular culture, but it is then almost always better to just state that it had an influence, rather than to attempt to list every single TV episode that made a fleeting reference. For an article on Mozart, e.g., the movie “Amadeus” is highly relevant; his (hypothetical) appearance on an episode of “Family Guy” is not; that a character on some-TV-show-or-other liked his music is utterly irrelevant and unencyclopedic.

  2. A decrease in the quality of language. This includes a drop in register and increasing deviations from encyclopedic language in favor of journalistic language; and a number of more detailed issues. (See excursion at the end.)
  3. A PC/feminist/whatnot influence, which includes spurious or irrelevant references to social constructs; uncritical support of “equality of outcome” as something positive, or an implicit assumption that any difference in outcome is caused by a lack of “equality of opportunity”; every second article having a section of feminism’s role for the topic, the feminist take on an topic, whatnot*; categorical and unscientific denial that races exist, even in articles where the claim has no obvious purpose or relevance; …

    *Notably, the relevance of specifically feminism is in most cases so low that another dozen movements and whatnots would have an equal right to be included—but rarely are. A particular idiocy is “feminist film analysis”, which does not even appear to be an honest attempt at applying a certain perspective and methodology on film analysis, instead giving every impression of just trying to extend the pseudo-science of “gender studies” to a new area.

  4. The common application of “feminist” to persons who lived before the term was invented and who e.g. have written on women’s issues, from a woman’s perspective, or using “strong women”; have been involved with some part of the women’s rights movement or expressed opinions in that direction; or even just have been successful women. Some of these might have identified with feminism; others would not have. Associating them with this poison of the mind in such a blanket manner is insulting, stupid, and/or intellectually dishonest (depending on the motivations). Giving feminism pseudo-credibility by claiming that historical persons were feminists is just atrocious.

    To put it down plain and simply: Someone who likes strong women is NOT automatically a feminist. Someone who wants men and women to be equal in rights and responsibilities is NOT automatically a feminist—indeed, more likely than not, a random feminist will not believe in true equality. Someone who thinks that women should have the right to vote is NOT automatically a feminist. Etc. To claim any or all of this is the equivalent of saying that anyone who wants to improve living conditions for the poor is a socialist or that all communists are revolutionaries.

    See also a recent post covering similar ground.

  5. Undue reliance on and abuse of the principle of citability:

    One of the core principles of Wikipedia, and originally a very good thing, is that Wikipedia should only reflect what can be supported by reputable sources—not personal conviction, rumors, speculation, or even (possibly faulty) synthesis of facts by the editors. This, in theory, should keep the articles low* in bias, speculation, pseudo-science, mere personal opinion, …

    *A complete absence is likely unreachable.

    With time, this principle has turned out to be very vulnerable to both abuse and incompetence, and it fails whole-sale in areas where pseudo- or proto-sciences (and other fields of “expertise”) are dominated by true believers, ideology, and similar. Gender studies is the paramount, but, unfortunately, not only example. Because there is no equivalent of astronomy, the “astrologers” are the only ones citable and the articles are, by analogy, filled with astrology instead of astronomy.

    Even in areas where there is no such dominating streak of “astrology”, problems are quit common, notably that individual editors refuse to reconsider a claim which is based on a single, often low quality, source; fail to realize that the opinion of the source is not sufficiently supported that it can be viewed as fact; or similar. The use of sources that either do not satisfy Wikipedia’s criteria for good sources or does-but-should-not (e.g. news-paper articles) is abundant. Changes in what main-stream science consider correct are not necessarily reflected and it is not uncommon that scientists with no or minor expertise in a subject area are used as authorities (most of the, absurdly many, references to Stephen J. Gould are unwarranted for this reason—to the point that a blanket ban on using his name might be a good idea).

    This well-intentioned principle can in the end be what kills Wikipedia, and I see it as a near necessity that Wikipedia (a) is more explicit on the difference between fact and opinion*, (b) forces a higher degree of plausibility checking and culling of sources**, e.g. by excluding news papers and other journalistic reporting for material that cannot be considered “current events”. With regard to (a), I also note that a good encyclopedia considers the risk that what is considered fact today can turn out to be wrong tomorrow, e.g. because a better scientific theory appears or because a higher court over-turns a conviction***.

    *Consider e.g. the difference between “The sun is a black hole[1].”, “According to Meyer[1], the sun is a black hole”, “Meyer[1] represents the minority view that the sun is a black hole; main stream science considers it a star[2][3][4]”.

    **However, great care must be taken. It is very easy for such checks to degenerate into “agrees with me, OK; does not agree with me, not OK”. Criteria could include strength of source; whether the claims are logically consistent; whether a claim is actually supported by the source it self or just taken over from another source (note how “facts” are sometimes uncritically propagated in feminist propaganda with no-one knowing when and where the claim originated, cf. the Woozle effect); whether the claim is actually present in the source; to what degree the claim represents personal opinion/speculation by the editor, respectively has a support in the scientific community. (Where “support” need not imply even a majority opinion, but should go beyond rare fringe views.)

    ***Generally, I urge everyone, not just Wikipedia editors, to prefer formulations like “murder convict” over “convicted murderer”, unless the level of evidence goes considerably beyond even “reasonable doubt”.

    This becomes particularly problematic when a given article has one or several self-appointed “owners” and these have a strong opinion. The result is typically that controversy* is not discussed in the article, often hidden behind a flawed consensus among the editors** of the article, and attempts to introduce alternate view-points often result in these being deleted and another several references being tacked on to the view point pushed by the self-appointed owners. (This can result in single statements having between half and a whole dozen references—without the reader having any greater certainty about the correctness of the claim.)

    *This is a scenario to be contrasted with the anti-evolutionary mantra “teach the controversy”: For evolution, there is no controversy within science, only in e.g. U.S. politics and popular opinion. The cases I discuss are often quite the reverse, with an existing disagreement between scientists or even branches of science, whereas the alleged consensus is often political, ideological, “popular”, whatnot. Worse, the latter type of consensus is sometimes allowed to trump a contradictory scientific consensus… Unfortunately, I kept no specific examples when writing the original version of this text; however, a typical generic example (not necessarily present on Wikipedia) of such a reversal is I.Q., where main-stream politicians and “enlightened” citizens “know” that I.Q. only measures how well someone can do an I.Q. test and that I.Q. tests are flawed, evil, and “culturally biased” to begin with—something entirely at odds with what science says on the topic.

    **As opposed to the “consensus among scientists”.

  6. Increased use of animations instead of individual images to illustrate processes. Individual images are usually the superior choice for illustration, seeing that the users can jump back-and-forth as they please and can take their time or not. In addition, animations are highly destructive when trying to enjoy other parts of the page—like trying to read a book when someone waves a hand in front of the page once every second or so. With (at least) earlier browser/computers and some forms of animation (notably Flash) this also meant a considerable performance drain, especially for users of tabbed browsing. (I regularly have dozens of tabs open for days or weeks.) Unsurprisingly, to compensate, many users prefer to disable animations entirely, and these then have the problem that the animations are reduced to a single individual image with little or no value.
  7. There are a number of issues on the technical side, including search terms being replaced by something entirely different when Wikipedia presumes to know better than the user what he should search for, use of page transitions (evil, should never have been invented), and highly intrusive* requests for donations when JavaScript is activated**.

    *I have no objection against a valuable “pro bono” service asking for donations from its users; however, when it does so in a manner that dominates the page and comes close to an optical slap in the face, well, that is something very different. If nothing else, this type of behavior likely makes people less likely to donate…

    **This was true around the time I made notes for the first version of this text. I have not verified whether it still is. (I rarely allow JavaScript, in general; and doing so where anyone can add content, including malicious JavaScript code, would be quite dangerous.)

In addition, there are a few problems present that have been with Wikipedia from the beginning (and which I therefore do not discuss above), including a very poor or non-existent coordination between different language versions and that very many U.S. editors fail to understand that en.wikipedia.org is the English language Wikipedia—not the U.S. national Wikipedia. The least of the problems that arise from this is the constant abuse of “American” to mean “U.S.” (with variations). Others include writing from a purely U.S. perspective on an issue (including ignoring legal differences between different countries), not mentioning that a particular claim pertains only to the U.S. (including such bloopers like mentioning “the Department of Justice”, in a generic context, without specifying that the U.S. Department of Justice is intended), giving strictly U.S. pronunciations for English words commonly used in the rest of the English speaking world, etc. On a few rare occasions, I have actually seen articles use formulations like “this country” in manner that implies that both editor and reader are in the U.S.

Articles on movies and books tend to be of a particularly low quality, including being filled with personal speculation* about motives, events, and implications. An ever recurring special case is to claim that a character died, lay dying, fell to his death, or similar, even when the work described leaves the eventual outcome unstated. In many or most cases, death is indeed the most plausible interpretation, but drawing such conclusions is not the role of an encyclopedia—especially since they are quite often incorrect: Fiction is full of characters who appear to die only to come back at an (in)opportune moment.

*Barring explicit claims by the creators of the work, any interpretation is speculative. This is one area where even a reference to a credible source does not alter the irrelevance of the interpretation to an encyclopedia. (Still, personal speculation by the article’s editors is worse.) In fact, even when the creators do make a claim or have a very clear intention, some caution can be needed, as can be seen e.g. by the “death” of Sherlock Holmes—protests by readers famously forced Arthur Conan Doyle to revive him…

Excursion on language and related issues:
With the great number of editors, each with their own weak spots, it is impossible to give an even remotely complete list. However, the following are disturbingly common:

  1. An incessant use of constructs like “being X, he Y-ed”*. Hypothetical examples include “Born in Swaziland, he studied to be a surgeon.” and “A natural red-head, he was sued for malpractice.”, typically with a similar low degree of connection between the two parts of the statement. In the rare cases where a strong connection is present, they are more acceptable, e.g. “Going blind, he was forced to give up surgery.”; however, even then other formulations are usually preferable.

    *I am unaware of an actual name for this type of construct.

    As for the reason for these ugly formulations, I would speculate that we, by now, simply have editors following a hype or trying to use “cool” way of writing, without considering factors like coherence and understandability. Part of the earlier cases could have come from either (unfortunate?) moves of insertions* or the spurious removal of words** in a misguided attempt to shorten the text***.

    *E.g. turning “X, an experienced surgeon, was skilled in anatomy.” into “An experienced surgeon, X was skilled in anatomy.”, which to some degree misses the point of an insertion, and which would be better solved by the original from the next footnote. Note that the variation “X, as an experienced surgeon, was skilled in anatomy.” is also an acceptable starting point, and might be preferable for having a greater internal connection—and would lead to exactly the original of the next footnote. (The greater internal connection can be seen by comparing e.g. “X, a young Frenchman, was skilled in anatomy.” with “X, as a young Frenchman, was skilled in anatomy.”: The latter implies a connection which simply is not warranted, while the former combines the same statements without implying a connection.)

    **E.g. turning “As an experienced surgeon, X was skilled in anatomy.” into “An experienced surgeon, X was skilled in anatomy.”, which makes the the sentence harder to understand and increases the risk of any additional error distorting the meaning.

    ***An older text on my own lack of brevity contains some words on “The Elements of Style” and its corresponding recommendation.

  2. Annoying and (depending on the intentions of the editor) possibly offensive use of “their” and “they” to indicate the third-person singular, even in cases when it introduces ambiguity. Cf. another recent text.
  3. Endless repetitions of “then [s]he”, “[s]he also”, and similar in biographic articles, e.g. to list various movies in which someone acted. (Many biographic articles give the impression that the editor is a high-school dropout.)
  4. Insisting on putting things in prose that would be better handled by a list or a table. (Overlapping with the previous item: A formal list* would have eliminated the awkward formulations.) Annoyingly, there is even a tag that suggests that this-or-that would be better off as prose, which is usually applied to perfectly legitimate lists and tables, while there is no corresponding tag for prose that should be moved to a list or table. (Or there is one that is never used…)

    *E.g. what is created by the UL or OL HTML-tags. Note that I do not necessarily suggest the type of use that I often resort to on WordPress. (My use is partially driven by not wanting to use regular headings/Hx-tags within WordPress, where the effects are not under my control; however, in other contexts, headings are often the better alternative.)

  5. Insertion of a colon (“:”) where it does not belong, e.g. “Examples of names include: Jack, Jill, and Spot”, where “include” implies that no colon should be present, the correct version being “Examples of names include Jack, Jill, and Spot”. Similarly, there should be no colon after words like “are”. In contrast, “Examples of names: Jack, Jill, Spot” would use the colon correctly.
  6. Use of “may” as a replacement for “can” and “might”, apparently under the assumption that it is “fancier”. There is a difference in meaning between the three: “may” implies a permission, “can” an ability, and “might” a possibility.* They should not be used in each others stead unless the difference in meaning is sufficiently small in the given context.**

    *For instance, someone who “can come to visit” has the ability to do so, himself being the limiting factor; someone who “may come to visit” has been allowed to do so, the host (usually) being the limiting factor; someone who “might come to visit” is still waiting to make a final decision.

    **But I admit to not always doing so perfectly myself. I was particularly prone to replace “might” with “may” when I was younger. However, note that I am not complaining about the odd error here and there—some Wikipedia articles appear to use “may” as the sole word for all three functions.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 22, 2018 at 9:36 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] *Here and below we see a few examples of abuse of “may”, as mentioned in a text on problems with Wikipedia. […]

  2. […] on Wikipedia and Wiktionary: Wikipedia, often corrupted by PC editors [1], predictably focuses solely on the misleading special-case meanings in the allegedly main Wikipedia […]


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