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Business - Written by on Wednesday, May 27, 2009 8:15 - 0 Comments

Jeff DeChambeau
Can Wikipedia be Neutral?

As I often do in my day to day life, this past weekend I got into a rather spirited discussion about Wikipedia. At the core of the argument was the idea that asking a question like “Is Wikipedia neutral?” is jumping the gun a bit. A crucial first question is: “Can Wikipedia be neutral?”

Wikipedia goes to great lengths on it’s NPOV (Neutral Point of View) policy page to explain how and when an article can be considered “neutral:”

The neutral point of view is a means of dealing with conflicting verifiable perspectives on a topic as evidenced by reliable sources. The policy requires that where multiple or conflicting perspectives exist within a topic each should be presented fairly. None of the views should be given undue weight or asserted as being judged as “the truth”, in order that the various significant published viewpoints are made accessible to the reader, not just the most popular one.

This sounds great, but I’m concerned that the Wiki system as a whole might have considerable bias built-in. First, consider what Wikipedia is. It’s the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” but not anyone does — instead, most prefer just to read (it’s the 7th most visited site online). Just as visiting the site is an opt-in process, so is editing it; the community that creates and polices content is very much self-selecting. This is where I think the problem arises.Something is only neutral within the context of its community. That is, an issue is neutral (in my mind at least) when it exists perfectly balanced between the centres of gravity of two or more conflicting views. Given that the population of people who edit Wikipedia is necessarily drawn from the people who read Wikipedia — but also have the inclination, be it technological or ideological, to edit the site — there is the concern that the editing community has a different makeup with regards to their opinions on issues than the reader community, and the world at large.

Wikipedia attempts to address this by saying that in order for something to be cited as a reference, it needs to refer to a reliable source — one that has a reputation for fact checking and integrity. There are two problems with this:

  1. “Reliable sources” have bias built in too. Al Jazeera is reliable to one subset of people, FOX News is reliable to another. Fans of either source would be offended to hear that the other is placed on the same level as their own.
  2. The community gets to decide what sources are reliable (because who else is there to, Wikipedia is a community based effort).

The first problem doesn’t have any easy solutions; individual bloggers may be telling the truth with every word they write, but until they have a sufficient following and track record, there’s not really any reliable metric to decide if what they’re saying is admissible. Wikipedians could do research to bolster one-off claims found on blogs, but this practice would be awfully close to original research, something the site strives to avoid.

The second problem is simultaneously easy and hard to solve. The more people edit Wikipedia, the more accurate the alignment of “neutral” to the Wikipedians and “neutral” to everyone else becomes (unless of course people with a specific agenda flood into the site en-masse to try and shake things up). But this is counterbalanced with the issue of getting people involved. Not everyone wants to edit Wikipedia, and not everyone who wants to knows how.

Interestingly, I read this result as meaning that Wikipedia is consistent from first to last. In principle, the more people edit Wikipedia, the better it gets; similarly, the more people edit Wikipedia, the more its version of neutrality becomes one that reflects the world at large. It’s a fantastic resource, and if we want it to continue to improve, at some point, we’re all going to have to get involved.

(A special thank you to my friends Danielle, Eve, and Josh, with whom I had the conversation that resulted in this post. Also of note is that XKCD, did, in some measure, address this long before we did.)

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