I recently read Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Keen provides an easy to read litany of problems associated with “Web 2.0” user generated content. While I do have some thoughts in response to his larger thesis, one thing I found confusing is his understanding of a particular decision made on Wikipedia. Like many critics, Keen is concerned by the fact that experts aren’t appreciated or respected above amateur contributors. With respect to a well-known “climate change” conflict, he writes how Dr. William Connolley, an expert on climate modeling, had to go “head-to-head” with an aggressive Wikipedia editor, and was eventually put on “editorial parole” by the Arbitration Committee:
Connolly, who was pushing no POV [point of view] other than that of factual accuracy was put on editorial parole by Wikipedia, he was limited to making one entry a day. When he challenged the case, Wikipedia arbitration committee gave no weight to his expertise, treating Connolly, an international expert on global warming, with the same deference and level of credibility as his anonymous vote – who, for all anyone knew, could have been a penguin in the pay of ExxonMobil.
I believe Keen is referring to this case, which I consider to be a lovely example of judicious decision making on Wikipedia. While I’m very sympathetic to the frustration and amount of work entailed in repulsing crackpots and moonbats from articles such as evolution and global climate change, the decision was not as Keen describes it. Consider the following excerpts from the arbitration case:
Neutral point of view
2) Wikipedia’s neutral point-of-view (NPOV) policy contemplates inclusion of all significant points of view regarding any subject on which there is division of opinion. However, this does not imply that all competing points of view deserve equal consideration in an article.
- Passed 8-0
3) As put forward in Wikipedia:Dispute resolution, Wikipedia works by building consensus. This is done through the use of polite discussion, in an attempt to develop a consensus regarding proper application of Wikipedia:Policies and guidelines such as Wikipedia:Neutral point of view. Surveys and the Request for comment process are designed to assist consensus-building when normal talk page communication has not worked.
- Passed 8-0
Relative value of references
8) Since the goal of Wikipedia is to provide accurate content, we cannot regard all references as equally valid and give them all equal weight. Editors should exercise care in the selection and use of references. The closer a reference is to current peer reviewed work, the better. Balance must also be attained by properly labeling and attributing significant dissenting views (where they exist).
- Passed 7-1 with 1 abstain
Findings of Fact
William M. Connolley as expert
3) William M. Connolley is widely viewed in Wikipedia as being highly knowledgeable in the field he is writing about.
- Passed 7-1
Cortonin’s view of real greenhouses
5) Cortonin has persistently and aggressively advanced views which confuse metaphorical explanations of the greenhouse effect and greenhouses with the technical scientific phenomena underlying them. Despite determined efforts by other editors to inform him and point him to information on the subject he seems to have difficulty understanding both the use of metaphor and the scientific literature in the field, see Talk:Greenhouse effect. This is a persistent condition which seems likely to continue.
- Passed 8-0
Cortonin: Six-month ban from editing certain [climate change] articles
William M. Connolley: Six-month revert parole on certain articles
- JonGwynne:Three month ban from Wikipedia … Six-month ban from editing certain articles
That is, despite Keen’s summary, Connolley was paroled for reverting others too frequently without explanation. His expertise was noted, as was the importance of providing authoritative references – which is the ultimate authority in claims one can make on Wikipedia. In response, he was put on a six-month parole limiting his ability to make reversions; there was no limit to “making one entry a day” from this case. Yet of his “opponents,” Cortonin received a six-month ban from editing global climate articles, and JonGwynne was banned from Wikipedia for three months and banned from editing climate related articles for six months.
Because Keen opts not to reference online sources, it is possible he is referring to something else. But if he is referring to this case, which I think he is, his summary is very misleading.
William Connolley on 2009-02-07
A bit late but:
Joseph Reagle on 2007-08-31
Interesting stuff, you might be interested in two of my Wikimania article on the topic of neutrality: A Case of Mutual Aid and Is the Wikipedia Neutral?. I’d be interested in your thoughts. These ideas have been integrated and extended in a dissertation chapter, if you’d like to have a look send me an email!
HaeB on 2007-08-29
This would be a valuable addition to Lawrence Lessig’s “KeenReader”.
To be precise, there was also this other, earlier RfC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_comment/William_M._Connolley
which got Connolley a bit frustrated: http://mustelid.blogspot.com/2005/01/dark-side-of-wikipedia.html
but which went out in his favor, too.
And Keen conveniently ignores that Connolley went on to become an admin and remains a prolific contributor to this day, with more than 23000 edits.
As Lessig put it in his review: “…what is puzzling about this book is that it purports to be a book attacking the sloppiness, error and ignorance of the Internet, yet it itself is shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance.”
HaeB on 2007-08-30
Sorry about the double posting. I had wanted to add this remark instead:
Interestingly, a principal argument of Connolley’s opponents in the first RfC was “Larry Sanger’s definition of neutrality” (“Neutrality is all about presenting competing versions of what the facts are. …”), which Connolley rejected as unfit for science articles.
I don’t know enough about the history of the NPOV to decide if it is appropriate to blame Sanger for this kind of relativism (which Wikipedia today tries to avoid with WP:UNDUE), but one cannot help drawing the connection to a recent debate on Sanger’s Citizendium, which caused an important academic editor to leave CZ in protest - Russell Potter, professor of English at Rhode Island College. In it, he specifically referred to the treatment of global warming in CZ. See also Connolley’s sarcastic remark about an early version of CZ’s global warming article. To be fair, he probably finds the current version a lot more acceptable.
Other interesting cases of academic experts who left Citizendium disillusioned of Sanger’s purported expertocracy are Kali Tal, Matthias Brendel, a Philosophy Ph.D., and Kris Roose, a professor of psychiatry and neurology (with books published in those fields). Roose’s CZ articles were soft-deleted immediately, causing him to complain that “Both Wikipedia and Citizendium have the fault that, to protect objectivity and ‘scientificness’, they only admit articles about established concepts, and no creative, contructive, integrative discussions.”
While Brendel seems to be a worrying example of a draconian overreaction of CZ’s constable regime (apparently he got banned for lifetime from the project because he had dared, in a detailed criticism of an article version, to call a statement “absurd”, thus having “impugned the credibility of members in good standing”), I suspect that the other two - in spite of their solid credits - would have run into similar conflicts with the editors of commercial general interest encyclopedias (or WP admins). In any case, they illustrate the naivete of Sanger’s - and Keen’s - “cult of the expert”.
Joseph Reagle on 2007-08-29
Thank you for the comment, and the pointer to the earlier RFC, which is surprisingly decent and civil. I’m also amused that William Connolley is still able to recommend the three revert rule with a bit of humor: “Being blocked for 3RR is frustrating, particularly if you’re in the right. I should know.” 1 I’ll have a look at KeenReader!