You might be surprised to learn that Wikipedia has a formal policy called “Wikipedia is not a battleground”. Not that anyone seems to have got the memo: although Wikipedia’s rules kindly suggest that its editors not use articles to advance ideological or partisan interests, in practice there’s no reason to think that it can work like that. And should we really want it to be otherwise?
This brings us to the latest partisan battle to make its way from the political blogosphere (if we still call it that?) to the pages of Wikipedia: Tyson-gate (or: Tyson-ghazi?). Earlier this month, a new-ish right-of-center web magazine called The Federalist (whose contributors, I should say, include several friends) started publishing a series of articles pointing out inaccuracies—or possibly fabrications—by the celebrated scientist, media personality and Colbert Report regular Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Federalist co-founder Sean Davis made a pretty strong case that a quote Tyson attributed to former President George W. Bush did not in fact exist; Tyson eventually acknowledged the error, though it wasn’t quickly forthcoming. While subsequent events have made it clear that Davis had the goods on Tyson, his rhetorical style leaves much to be desired: Davis insists on words like “fabricated” implying an insight into the nature of Tyson’s error that he really can’t know. Davis isn’t alone in this; on the left, Media Matters routinely uses the unforgiving phrase “falsely claims” to describe conservative opinions all the time. This puts me in mind of another Wikipedia policy inconsistently observed: “Comment on content, not the contributor” Remember this point, because I’m going to come back to it.
Anyway, of course the battle made its way to the front lines of the war of ideas, Wikipedia. What happened over the last week was simple enough: one person added a lengthy summary of Davis’ allegations to Tyson’s Wikipedia bio; someone else reverted it very quickly, claiming that it went too far; another editor tried a shorter version; yet another editor removed it again for being “original research”; around and around it went like this from September 16 to 21. When I started compiling links on Tuesday the 29th, a fairly short, but also short-on-context version of this passage read:
Tyson has claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”. Tom Jackson of the Tampa Tribune called it “… a vicious, gratuitous slander.”
But then a longer version which appeared later in the day seemed like too much:
Tyson had claimed that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush said, “Our God is the God who named the stars,” in order to “distinguish we from they (Muslims)”. Neil Tyson has confirmed that he was actually referring to President Bush’s February 2003 speech on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and that he “transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote.”  In that speech then-President George W. Bush quotes Isaiah when he said “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.” Then George W. Bush said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” 
As of this writing, all mention of the controversy has been removed, and the article has been temporarily locked to prevent further edit warring. Meanwhile, the debate on the Neil deGrasse Tyson discussion page has run to some 50,000 (!) words since mid-September, comprising at least one Request for Comment where the only real conclusion so far is: “This has become unproductive.”
Meanwhile, someone put The Federalist’s own Wikipedia article up for deletion, possibly out of spite, but also possibly because it seemed like a borderline eligibility case based on included sources at the time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that a very short version of the article will be kept once the arguing here is through. (And as more than one contributor has noted, the more attention this gets in the political media, the more “Notable” The Federalist likely becomes.)
Throughout this debate, Davis and The Federalist haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Sean Davis of course is as much reporting on his own fight with Tyson as he is reporting on Tyson, including multiple articles about the debate on Wikipedia.
This included an initial summary on September 18 that continued blithely pushing the “fabrication” claim and proudly quoted an unnamed Wikipedian saying “no version of this event will be allowed into the article” as if this unnamed editor spoke for all of Wikipedia. Worse still was a follow-up by Davis called “9 Absurd Edit Justifications By Wikipedia’s Neil Tyson Truthers” that pointed to fairly standard considerations for inclusion or exclusion of controversial material as if it was patent nonsense. For instance, these two comments:
It doesn’t matter if we can demonstrate it happened or not, many things happen in many people lives, we don’t write each of them into every persons biography. …
[T]his is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word.
Davis may not like these answers, but they are anything but unreasonable points to make in a content dispute, especially about a living person whose reputation is (to some degree) at stake. Indeed, the same policy that points out Wikipedia is not a battleground also points out: “[N]ot all verifiable events are suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia.”
The problem is not that Davis is wrong; in fact, some of the objections to the topic’s inclusion were possibly mistaken, arrived at prematurely, or later invalidated by the emergence of new sources. The problem is not even that Davis is treating Wikipedia as a battleground—after all, Wikipedia is where we go to argue about such things. If Wikipedia is to be the “sum of human knowledge”, that very much includes contentious material related to political and ideological battles.
The problem is actually one of good faith—and here we come to a policy that is also frequently ignored on Wikipedia, but would it be followed better, we could have all been saved a few weeks and tens of thousands of words: “Assume good faith”. And as problems go, it is one that exists on both sides, although it tends to be the case that one side usually goes further—which either produces a decisive political victory or defeat. Davis has this territory pretty well staked out with this column that doesn’t accomplish anything but to “falsely claim” Wikipedia is a single entity entirely comprising lying liars of the left.
The political blogosphere was a source of fascination for me in the early part of my career, in particular writing about it in a sadly departed column called The Blogometer for National Journal’s Hotline. Starting in the late 2000s, I turned my focus more to Wikipedia, in particular writing about it on this blog. There are numerous parallels, but the least savory is the tendency of both to bog down in bitter recrimination. Witness also the fight over the Chelsea Manning Wikipedia entry from late last year.
Part of me thinks that Wikipedia shouldn’t worry about these fights, only about whether or not they continue to occur at Wikipedia; even an ugly debate is better than none at all, right? But considering the voluminous anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s eroding editor base and absurd gender gap owe something to its tolerance for incivility—despite the existence of a policy stating otherwise and a speech by Jimmy Wales at Wikimania this year calling for a renewed emphasis upon it—this is something the Wikipedia community had better take seriously.
Of course, this doesn’t exist in a vacuum: Sean Davis, The Federalist, left-leaning Wikipedia editors, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson with his bullshit political anecdotes (I am using Harry Frankfurt’s precise definition) aren’t quite the problem; they are merely avatars of it. Everything that’s wrong with US politics—where to start!—eventually finds its way to Wikipedia.
But there remains one important difference between the blogosphere and Wikipedia: rules. The blogosphere does not have them; Wikipedia does, and these rules shape the debate that occurs on its talk pages. Without these rules, it would just be endless edit wars of attrition. The problem with Wikipedia, then, is not its rules but how it enforces them. Wikipedia’s community should be asking itself: what kind of battleground do we want to be?
Photo via the White House / Flickr.