William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for November 2009

Who’s The Idiot?

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on November 30, 2009 at 9:28 pm

wikipedia-iggy-pop-idiotSo I’d thought that Stephen Colbert had finally quenched the national and political media’s thirst for amusement derived from Wikipedia vandalism, but The Hill newspaper has proved me wrong. If you are not following the 2012 presidential campaign three years out, you may have missed the storm today surrounding 2008 Republican dark horse (and arguable Romney spoiler) Mike Huckabee.

In 2000, serving in his capacity as governor of Arkansas, Huckabee granted clemency to a convicted felon who is currently a suspect in the murder of four police officers in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington. [Update: Was at the time. Hours later, Maurice Clemmons, the aforementioned felon, was killed by Seattle police.] Being a national news event, perhaps the best source of reported information is Wikipedia’s Lakewood police officer shooting article.

But it’s the article about Huckabee that caught The Hill’s attention, because earlier today, this was added to the lead paragraph:


In addition, next to Huckabee’s name in the infobox sidebar, the following clarification was noted thusly:


Yep, that sure is Wikipedia vandalism. And The Hill had quite the hot scoop, because the vandalism was gone within 10 minutes, and The Hill’s date stamp is just three minutes before it was reverted.

The Hill’s Jordan Fabian commented:

Any Internet user can edit or write Wikipedia entries, it is not clear who edited the page under the site’s revision history.

Well, in fact we can know that the vandal is in Seattle, simply because that IP address traces to that area. We can also look at the IP user’s previous edits, which include the clumsy expansion / temporary vandalism of the article about South Puget Sound Community College (his alma mater?) and editing the article of Golden Girls actress Betty White (?) to note something clearly heard on Seattle radio.

And then, as Wikipedia would hope, it was removed by a user just as anonymous as the one who added it. Or to quote the first commenter on The Hill’s breakthrough story:

Non-story, welcome to Wikipedia.

What Does Objectivism Have to Do With Wikipedia?

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on November 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Writer Evgeny Morozov has a long essay about Wikipedia, organized as a review of Andrew Lih‘s “The Wikipedia Revolution“, in the latest issue of Boston Review. Morozov identifies his chosen takeaway in a post on his blog, but I’m interested in what he has to say, via Lih’s book, about how Wikipedia’s co-founders first met through their shared regard for the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

wikipedia_randTwo of Wikipedia’s co-founders found each other on philosophy-related mailing lists. Indeed Sanger has a philosophy PhD (his Ohio State doctoral thesis is titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification”), while Wales almost completed a PhD in finance. They came to the project with assumptions about human cooperation that appear to be rooted in philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines), but those ideas are poorly articulated in the book.

Lih does point out that Sanger and Wales were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (shades of Alan Greenspan), according to which, reality exists independent of consciousness and life’s great purpose is the rational pursuit of self-interest. Wales’s fascination with Rand was so deep that he even named his daughter after a protagonist in one of Rand’s books. But Lih does not explain the steps from Objectivism to an encyclopedia that “could detail what is true in the world without judgments.” After all, didn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for that matter) aim to check judgments at the door and detail only “what is true in the world”? And isn’t that the aim of the new computational search engine, WolframAlpha? How does Objectivism enter the picture?

Maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve puzzled over this fact, as well. One of the core tenets of Objectivism is that altruism is no virtue. From Wikipedia’s Objectivism (Ayn Rand) entry:

A corollary to Rand’s endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of Auguste Comte’s altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Yet Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven non-commercial nature seems the very definition of altruism. As an amateur observer of Objectivism and Objectivists — I ran a libertarian-leaning magazine in college — my best reconciliation is that so long as one’s motives for editing (or creating) Wikipedia are defined in terms of one’s own self-interest then there is no contradiction. If one derives personal value from research and writing for its own sake, or from esteem among one’s peers (fellow Wikipedians) then it makes perfect sense. In that case, production of an online encyclopedia useful to the world is a happy byproduct. However, If Wales or Sanger have discussed Wikipedia vis-à-vis Rand, it would be news to me.

So if the question is, how does Objectivism enter the picture, I presume that it doesn’t necessarily explain anything and that it’s entirely possible Wales and Sanger could have met on a listserv for almost any intellectual pursuit.

But Morozov is not done with Rand yet; his criticism of Lih’s book is that it raises a few theories about what motivates Wikipedians without arriving at a conclusion. Since Lih’s book is primarily a lay history of Wikipedia it doesn’t seem fair to me that Lih should have had a unified theory ahead of writing the book, though he did devote space to the subject. Morozov asks:

wikipedia_kropotkinLih relies on the work of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler to address the puzzle. Benkler’s studies of “peer production” draw on the thought of Russian anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who believed that cooperation is as important in the evolution of species as competition and that “mutual aid” is essential to human survival. Lih does not mention that Rand and Kropotkin are not exactly intellectual soulmates. Lih also does not explain how these two diverging philosophies—one prizing egoism, the other altruism—could live happily together in one site.

Morozov has been doing original research, because while Benkler and Kropotkin both appear in the book, they do not come within 65 pages of each other. Anyway, here is what Lih says about Benkler’s proposed explanation for Wikipedian motivations on p. 108:

He asserts that motivation comes from two main things other than money: the “socio-psychological” reward of interacting with others, and the “hedonic” personal gratification of the task.

Which is essentially identical to the rational self-interest described above; just because Randians are strong advocates for a capitalist economy does not mean they love only money. And even if there was a contradiction here, all one must do is look to Wikipedia’s pillars to see how the ideas of Rand and Kropotkin may coexist on Wikipedia in NPOV as a principle and policy.

That said, Morozov’s essay is otherwise well worth reading, as it delves into worthwhile questions about Wikipedia’s structural biases, such as its heavy reliance upon online sources (nearly always found via Google) and resulting quandaries such as determining whether a person from the 1920s may be considered Notable. Questions such as these, rather than the influence of Ayn Rand, are what keep Wikipedians up at night.

The Archangel, the Renaissance Master and the Ninja Turtle

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on November 22, 2009 at 3:37 pm

raphael-angel     raphael-painter     raphael-tmnt

Back in March I considered the subject of “wikigroaning”—a joke / criticism about Wikipedia popularized on the Something Awful Internet forum in 2007. The idea is this: Sometimes, Wikipedia articles on weighty subjects are shorter and less well-developed than articles about similar, less-weighty subjects.

What I found was that this critique no longer applied to a comparison of “Lightsaber combat” vs. “Modern warfare“; the former entry no longer strictly exists, as the page now redirects to the larger topic of “Lightsaber” while the latter is essentially a hub for accessing articles on various sub-topics (assymetric warfare, biological warfare, etc.).

Today, let’s look at another one suggested by Something Awful members: Raphael (archangel) vs. Raphael (ninja turtle). How do the two compare?

Superficially, the joke is on Wikipedia: the main text of the article about the comic book character is approximately 3,000 words long, whereas the one about the Judeo-Christian figure is about 1,350. But here’s the thing—the TMNT-related article is basically devoid of any citations, and was clearly written by fans of the various comic books, TV shows and movies in which he appears. One might assume that the details should be relatively accurate, as it doesn’t seem to be a contentious subject, but who is to say? One citation is provided for the entire article, and indeed the article has been tagged as needing citations since December 2007:


That’s almost two years in which fans have been stopping by to work on the article, but no one has yet bothered to clean up problems identified by a non-fan editor, nor have they bothered to provide citations to verify any of it. From this we can infer that most editors on this particular article are focused on this particular topic and are not involved with Wikipedia otherwise.

Meanwhile there is another problem with this article. While much of it summarizes discrete events that occur in the TMNT series, other sections read as commentary on / interpretations of the character. For example:

He has an extremely loyal side and is the first to react when another of his brothers is in trouble. This happens on numerous occasions, like when he stops a blow from hitting Donatello using only his sais or kicks the Shredder away from Leonardo when the latter is about to attack.

So one could certainly verify the existence of a particular scene by citing directly from the comics. Yet the interpretation of Raphael’s actions is left to the reader, and adding this information directly to Wikipedia is a clear-cut case of original researchexpressly forbidden by Wikipedia guidelines.

What is one to do if there is no published commentary on this aspect of the character’s personality? Is it then to be left out of Wikipedia entirely? In theory, yes. In practice, no. I could remove this section immediately and much more of the article if it so pleased me. But you know what? I won’t do it. The article isn’t hurting anyone, so in that way its relative frivolity helps. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that many or most of these interpretations could be found in published reviews, and without having done this I’m disinclined to delete someone’s sincere work, however inexpert. As a known issue, Wikipedia has an informal term for this type of material: fancruft. Fancruft is often deleted, but this much is so far not offensive enough to merit outright deletion.

tmnt-coverAnd how about the archangel? For an article about a Biblical figure I am surprised that it is not better. Only seven citations have been provided, and sections including “Raphael in Islam” and “Raphael in Paradise Lost” have none whatsoever. The quality of the writing is likewise uneven. Clearly, different sections within the article are substantially the work of different editors, and I would probably base my trust in each section according to the quality of the prose. Unsurprisingly, the better-written sections are also the ones with more sources.

But let’s now finally address the obvious: Something Awful seems to have made a mistake, because the Raphael the turtle is not named for Raphael the archangel. He is named for the Renaissance artist, just like his ninja turtle brothers Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Donatello.

Before we come to a final conclusion, let us consider the article about the real person, which is simply titled Raphael. And guess what? It’s the best of the bunch, and it’s not even close. The article is more than 6,000 words, well-written, well-sourced (84 in-line citations, nearly all from serious biographies) and well-illustrated (easy to do when the subject’s work is all public domain). There is not even a mention of the TMNT character, although it has been suggested before and appropriately rejected.

Did Something Awful purposefully avoid making the comparison? Hard to say. In 2007 the article about the Renaissance master was much shorter and completely unsourced, though carefully-written. At that time, the article about the ninja turtle was certainly longer but also less sophisticated.

According to the original Something Awful post, the criteria was simply an assesment of which article is “longer.” But this is too simplistic—it should be obvious that not all words are equal. Just as Something Awful seeks to highlight the mistake of determine a subject’s importance by the space allotted on Wikipedia, it’s also a mistake to assume that the quality of an article is directly correlated with the number of words contained within.

Both are important to keep in mind when reading Wikipedia. How many readers approach the site with these considerations in mind? That’s what I’d like to know.

Images via Wikipedia.

Examples of Bias in Conservapedia’s Examples of Bias in Wikipedia

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on November 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm

conservapedia_logoI can’t say that I spend much time thinking about Conservapedia, the creationist wiki created as a counterpoint to Wikipedia, but today I happened to find myself on the page titled “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia“. As you might expect, it’s a fun one. The one-line introduction to the page states:

The following is a growing list of examples of liberal bias, deceit, frivolous gossip, and blatant errors on Wikipedia.

It certainly is growing. The list of examples stands at 150 and counting as of this writing, and it defies easy summary. Many relate to disagreements over the portrayal of religion and use of international or non-U.S. standards, or complaints that certain details they find important have not been included on certain pages. For example, one of the most recent (#150) states:

Wikipedia’s Nidal Malik Hasan article fails to mention any connection to Obama’s transition government.

It’s true that Hasan participated in a task force associated with a GWU think tank that offered advice to Obama’s transition team. In fact, the detail has been considered for inclusion on the article about Hasan. Maybe something about it will be, however if it does it will surely fail to imply… whatever it is that this factoid is supposed to imply.

And then there are some objections (#2) that would never have occurred to me:

Wikipedia’s article on engineering features a photo of … an offshore wind turbine, which is an inefficient liberal boondoggle and certainly not a representative example of engineering. None even exist off the shores of the United States because they are not competitive.

Actually, as of today there is no such photograph in that particular article. Victory for Conservapedia! As it happens, there are other cases where the Conservapedia perspective has “won”; here (#45) is another:

Wikipedia has once again deleted all content on the North American Union. The old pages are inaccessible, and re-creation is blocked.

Turns out, there is now a North American Union article, and has been since December 2007, following a period where it indeed had been deleted. This was certainly in error, as the concept has received plenty of coverage — the article has nearly 50 sources.

And then there are some examples (#14) which are not, in fact, genuine examples:

In his article entitled Wikipedia lies, slander continue, journalist Joseph Farah supports his observation that Wikipedia “is not only a provider of inaccuracy and bias. It is wholesale purveyor of lies and slander unlike any other the world has ever known.”

Well, I am sure he is sincere in this belief, but I would still have to tag that “citation needed”.

Conservapedia logo via Conservapedia.