Professor says Wikipedia unreliable on science controversies

Posted: August 16, 2015 by oldbrew in opinion, Uncertainty
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[credit: softpedia.com]

[credit: softpedia.com]


Phys.org is running an article headed: On Wikipedia, politically controversial science topics vulnerable to information sabotage. This is no great surprise apart possibly from the fact that it’s being openly discussed by academics.

Wikipedia reigns. It’s the world’s most popular online encyclopedia, the sixth most visited website in America, and a research source most U.S. students rely on. But, according to a paper published today in the journal PLOS ONE, Wikipedia entries on politically controversial scientific topics can be unreliable due to information sabotage.


Co-author Dr. Gene E. Likens is President Emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Likens co-discovered acid rain in North America, and counts among his accolades a National Medal of Science, a Tyler Prize, and elected membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Since 2003, he has monitored Wikipedia’s acid rain entry.

Likens explains, “In the scientific community, acid rain is not a controversial topic. Its mechanics have been well understood for decades. Yet, despite having ‘semi-protected’ status to prevent anonymous changes, Wikipedia’s acid rain entry receives near-daily edits, some of which result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science.”

In an effort to see how Wikipedia’s acid rain entry compared to other scientific topics, Likens partnered with Dr. Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at the University of Buffalo. Together, they analyzed Wikipedia edit histories for three politically controversial scientific topics (acid rain, evolution, and global warming), and four non-controversial scientific topics (the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift).

Using nearly a decade of data, Likens and Wilson teased out daily edit rates, the mean size of edits (words added, deleted, or edited), and the mean number of page views per day. While the edit rate of the acid rain article was less than the edit rate of the evolution and global warming articles, it was significantly higher than the non-controversial topics. Across the board, politically controversial scientific topics were edited more heavily and viewed more often.

“Wikipedia’s global warming entry sees 2-3 edits a day, with more than 100 words altered, while the standard model in physics has around 10 words changed every few weeks, ” Wilson notes. “The high rate of change observed in politically controversial scientific topics makes it difficult for experts to monitor their accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections.”

Likens adds, “As society turns to Wikipedia for answers, students, educators, and citizens should understand its limitations when researching scientific topics that are politically charged. On entries subject to edit-wars, like acid rain, evolution, and global change, one can obtain – within seconds – diametrically different information on the same topic.”

The author’s note that as Wikipedia matures, there is evidence that the breadth of its scientific content is increasingly based on source material from established scientific journals. They also note that Wikipedia employs algorithms to help identify and correct blatantly malicious edits, such as profanity. But in their view, it remains to be seen how Wikipedia will manage the dynamic, changing content that typifies politically-charged science topics.

To help readers critically evaluate Wikipedia content, Likens and Wilson suggest identifying entries that are known to have significant controversy or edit wars. They also recommend quantifying the reputation of individual editors. In the meantime, users are urged to cast a critical eye on Wikipedia source material, which is found at the bottom of each entry.

Phys.org report: On Wikipedia, politically controversial science topics vulnerable to information sabotage.

Comments
  1. daveburton says:

    Wikipedia is worse than useless for anything controversial, because, inevitably, partisans for one side of the argument take over the articles, and turn them into propaganda. Since Wikipedia czar Jimbo Wales is a confirmed leftist, his thumb on the scale ensures that side of the argument generally “wins.” For example, climate activists rewrote over 5000 Wikipedia articles into AGW propaganda, censoring them to prevent any but the warmist point of view from being represented, to the applause of Jimbo Wales.

    And in other news, Captain Renault is shocked! shocked! to find that gambling is going on in a casino.

  2. craigm350 says:

    It can be useful as I follow the links to the source but when it comes to controversy it is useless. I never use it for anything GW related thanks to serial spammer, deleter and all round Orwell disciple Mr. W. Con o’lee (spelt wrong as it winds him up). It’s not unique tho’ as the Israel pages are an edit war zone and we have politicians having their underlings edit their pages. It says it all when no school, college or uni will allow it as a source.

  3. Not just science controversies – sabotage goes on in many Wikipedia entries, which is why it was banned by The Times sub editors. Personally I find it useful but only as a first , general reference on any topic. You then back it up with the relevant scientific paper or primary source. There’s all kinds of mischief makers out there…

  4. Richard111 says:

    Does Wikipedia show that The Principles of Modern Chemistry, version 7, is wrong with regard to radiative heat transfer?
    Whatever. CO2 gas in the atmosphere reduces the effect of the sun’s energy to the surface and when there is no sun it cools the atmosphere. Just read up the science. Not in Wikipedia of course!🙂

  5. dikstr says:

    Wikipedia, like The Sorcerer’s John Wellington Welles, has a mixed bag of scientific blessings and curses. The blessings are the concise and readily available, relatively uncontroversial scientific information on many subjects. The curses, as noted by others here, are the intransigence of ideologically entrenched science groups and editing by egomaniacs who endeavor to take control of certain topics regardless of scientific merit. New ideas and findings have a very uncertain future in Wikipedia, especially if they conflict with an established viewpoint. I see Wikipedia as a potentially healthy clearinghouse for ideas and findings but the ability to use it for political science propaganda is a very real and unpleasant component in its current version.

  6. oldbrew says:

    Unfortunately it seems some gullible people regard it as the online organ of ultimate truth, and think anyone who criticises it at all must be an obsolescent numpty (or worse, probably).

  7. oldbrew says:

    ‘Wikipedia’s acid rain entry receives near-daily edits, some of which result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science’

    It could be argued this points to a lack of consensus.

  8. tom0mason says:

    Likens partnered with Dr. Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at the University of Buffalo. Together, they analyzed Wikipedia edit histories for three politically controversial scientific topics (acid rain, evolution, and global warming), and four non-controversial scientific topics (the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift).

    And therein lies the problem, they appear to believe that ‘global warming’ is a science topic. Can we take their research seriously when they’ve made such an elementary error.
    As all sane people understand it is a global political/religious cult movement, comprising of the left of center political advocates, NGOs, and religious leaders, and headed by rich and power-hungry elites commanding the fiction factory called the UN.

    As ‘global warming’ is a relatively new mythology system promulgated by the UN opinion makers, and still subject to much periodic reinterpretation, it’s Wikipedia entry is bound to keep changing as this new ‘settled science’ doctrine slowly evolves.