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Responses to Common NPOV Criticisms

Joseph Reagle

July 2009

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Whose “facts” or “truths” are implicated in NPOV?

NPOV is not about perfectly neutral knowledge or “truth.” Quite the opposite.

NPOV policy recommends that articles should represent “significant views fairly, proportionately, and without bias”; it asks Wikipedians to “Assert facts, including facts about opinions — but do not assert the opinions themselves.” (Where “facts” are claims for “which there is no serious dispute.”) (Wikipedia2008npv)

I'd prefer it didn't mention "facts" at all, and instead spoke of verifiable claims, but at least it defines facts in keeping with Gould:

Moreover, "fact" does not mean "absolute certainty." ... In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms. (Gould1994eaf)

What then is NPOV about?

It is a behavioral stance (e.g., testable, to some extent, via "Writing for the Enemy", and the NPOV tutorial and examples/exercises).

As Jimmy Wales noted, NPOV should be understood “as a social concept of co-operation”

… for helping people get along: to avoid or sidestep a lot of philosophical debates. Someone who believes that that truth is socially constructed, and somebody who believes that truth is a correspondence to the facts in reality, they can still work together. (WalesFuzheadoWyatt2008iwj)

NPOV is naive.

Again, NPOV is concerned with presenting verifiable claims. It is ultimately pragmatic, as seen in early Nupedia discussions:

Nupedia aims to be as unbiased as possible; of course, some people will regard this as a political statement. We can’t make everyone happy in this regard. In any event, we intend to represent all points of view, including those held by any significant minority of experts in a field, as fairly as possible. (Sanger2000nq)

Surely you will agree that there are more or less accurate, objective, fair, [un]biased ways of putting things. We should simply strive to eliminate all the problems that we can, and remain constantly open to sensible revisions. Will this be perfect? Of course not. But it is all we can do and it is the least we can do…. if you are trying to say that someone, somewhere will always accuse us of bias, I’m sure you’re right. But we should nonetheless try our best to be objective. It doesn’t strike me as particularly difficult. We will want to present a broad consensus of mainstream thought…. This does mean that sometimes we will be wrong! (Wales2000b)

NPOV is confusing.

It can be. The Wikipedia article itself admits, “the terms ‘unbiased’ and ‘neutral point of view’ are used in a precise way that is different from the common understanding.”

It implies that its opposite, having a point of view, is bad.

Even Wales and Sanger disagree about whether the idea should be called NPOV or unbiased, but the idea itself is important, even if not named well.

Can’t they just wiki-lawyer?

NPOV, as many other Wikipedia norms, is not about belief, but behavior.

In Wikipedia, Critical Social Theory, and the Possibility of Rational Discourse the authors write: “The participant does not have to be neutral, but his argument must be presented so as to maintain the appearance of adherence to the policy.” (HansenBerenteLyytinen2009wcs)

On the civility front a 2005 Storm Front (white supremacist) alert about Wikipedia read: “You must give your reason as to why you voted to keep the article - needless to say you should do so in a cordial manner, those wishing to delete the article will latch onto anything they can as an excuse to be hostile towards anybody criticising Jewish culture.” (AndyL2005nna)

However, I do concede Wikipedia policy can be abused and “good faith” intentions are important.

My response: What’s the alternative?

What does a project without NPOV look like?

Conservapedia strikes me as naive with its statement that they do not “attempt to be neutral to all points of view. We are neutral to the facts.” (Conservapedia2009chc) What then, are their facts?

Are they neutral between young earth and old earth creationists? Why and how?

Bias, Proportionality, and Conservapedia’s Mistake

Because of Verifiability, there is a bias at Wikipedia, it prefers significant claims from reputable (“materialistic” or “scientific”) sources.

Also, there are questions of proportionality, how much of an article should be dedicated to a particular point of view (i.e., what is fair?).

None-the-less, one could still have a reference work preferring other types of sources (e.g., the King James Bible) but still benefit from the collaborative aspect of NPOV.


Thanks for listening! :)