Truth May Be Wiggly in Wikipedia’s Hot-Button Science Articles

Users should take extra care when exploring Wikipedia’s science topics, because many articles on controversial issues such as global warming and acid rain have been targeted for editing by revisionists who reject scientific findings, new research has found.

Due to its crowdsourced model, academics widely regard Wikipedia as a starting point for research — a compass more than a map. However, many people rely heavily on the information it presents.

That realization prompted Gene Likens, president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and Adam Wilson, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s geography department, to undertake a study. Their report, “Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale,” appeared last week in PLOS One.

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In a nutshell, Wikipedia users should be mindful that the site is “vulnerable to vandalism and other shenanigans,” the researchers warned.

Wilson and Likens, who also are affiliated with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, analyzed seven Wikipedia articles. They set out to prove that articles on topics that have achieved a scientific consensus, yet are politically controversial, are significantly more subject to revision than articles on other topics.

They chose three politically controversial topics — evolution, global warming and acid rain. They selected four uncontroversial topics as well — the standard model of physics, the theory of general relativity, continental drift, and heliocentricism, which is the astronomical model that places the sun rather than the Earth at the center of the solar system.

The article on acid rain received 26 edits, while global warming had 231 and evolution had 89. Meanwhile, the article on continental drift had 19 edits, heliocentrism had 20, the standard model had 25, and the theory of general relativity had 37 edits.

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Wikipedia has become a battleground for editing wars due to the concerted efforts of anti-science groups, some media reports on the study have suggested.

However, that isn’t so, according to the Wikimedia Foundation.

“While we are always sensitive to concerns about organized efforts to undermine the neutrality and accuracy of Wikipedia articles, we don’t see any reference to ‘organized lobbying’ or ‘anti-science’ efforts in [the Wilson and Likens] paper,” said Samantha Lien, spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation. “The researchers themselves do not use those terms anywhere in the research.”

The study’s finding was merely that science articles that were politically controversial were more likely to receive edits than uncontroversial entries, said Lien.

There didn’t appear to be any correlation drawn between the frequency of edits and the likelihood of increased inaccuracy, she added.

“Instead, the study simply seems to confirm that the articles chosen as controversial are, in fact, controversial,” Lien emphasized. “Although the authors reference anecdotal examples of inaccuracies, they note that it is, in fact, “difficult to assess causality.”

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Wikipedia ranks No. 6 globally in website popularity, the researchers noted.

As people increasingly lean on Wikipedia as a primary source of information, the Wikimedia Foundation’s burden to ensure its accuracy could become onerous. Virtually anyone, anywhere can make changes to Wikipedia.

“If any content is added that does not meet Wikipedia’s editorial standards, there are a variety of mechanisms that can ensure its speedy removal,” Lien said.

Wikipedia editors can lock pages that are the targets of aggressive campaigns, noted Daniel Castro, vice president at ITIF, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

They have used this measure before on pages for highly contentious issues such as abortion, he told TechNewsWorld.

“Clearly there are some topics that Wikipedia editors care much more about than others,” Castro observed. “Wikipedia has also been criticized for having extensive articles on esoteric topics like ‘Sexuality in Star Trek,’ but less depth on issues of more mainstream concern.”

The Wikimedia Foundation has established fairly clear guidelines for scientifically accepted, politically controversial topics, said Castro.

Pages related to such topics will favor the scientific consensus and will note disputed points, often offering a more balanced portrayal of the facts than cable news, he pointed out.

“As Wikipedia and the PLOS One article argues, the correct use of the site is as a reference for additional reading — it is not meant to be the definitive set of ideas on a topic,” Castro said. “Unfortunately, many take Wikipedia — and cable news — as gospel.”

It can be difficult to monitor complex science articles for discrete yet substantive changes, as Wilson and Likens point out.

However, the results of other studies support the accuracy of Wikipedia, said the Wikimedia Foundation’s Lien.

Wikipedia’s accuracy was pegged as just shy of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s by a study published in Nature, she noted. Also, Wikipedia was found to be more accurate than the German-language encyclopedia Brockhaus Enzyklopdie in a study for the German magazine Stern. Further, Wikipedia’s drug information was found to be accurate and comprehensive enough for use in undergraduate medical education by researchers who conducted another PLOS One study.

“Wikipedia often fails to live up to its aspirations, but it seems to be moving in the right direction,” ITIF’s Castro said. “I don’t know many people who would say the same about cable news. The bigger problem for the site long term is the reliance on a dwindling set of volunteer editors and the lack of diversity among them.”

Quinten Plummer is a longtime technology reporter and an avid PC gamer who explored local news for a few years, covering law enforcement and government beats, before returning to writing about things run by ones and zeros and the people who make them. If it pushes pixels or improves lives, he wants to learn all he can about it.

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