Why Wikipedia can’t be trusted

The National Post has an column by Lawrence Solomon on another edit war at Wikipedia. (Via Instapundit.) In this case, the page is about history professor Naomi Oreskes’s notorious essay in which she reports that she did a keyword search on “global climate change” and found no papers that disagreed with a human origin for climate change. The edit war regarded another analysis in which Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist, attempted to reproduce Oreskes’s results but obtained strikingly different results instead. Solomon writes that the article implied that Peiser has retracted his critique (which is manifestly not the case), but Solomon’s efforts to correct the article were repeatedly reverted.

My scan of the edits reveals that the edit history is a bit more complicated than Solomon’s column lets on. In the end, however, the entire discussion of Peiser’s critique was deleted, thus removing the misleading information regarding Peiser himself, but leaving the critique unexpressed. This was done while the page was supposedly protected.

While investigating, I learned a few interesting things. I’ve always known that Wikipedia can’t really be trusted on matters of controversy (e.g., climate change, NFL quarterbacks, or even the moon landings), but I had thought that one could get some idea of the arguments by reading the talk pages. It turns out, however, that people “referee” the talk pages as well, even there deleting comments they don’t like.

I also learned that the major Wikipedia editors don’t like to follow the rules that apply to everyone else. The antagonist in Solomon’s story violated the three-revert rule and was not apparently held to account. In fact, they even have a policy that says it’s rude to remind regulars to follow the rules.

Any collaborative project needs to deal with a diversity of interests. In a typical open source project, there are two main interests, the developers and the vandals. It’s not hard to see that one interest is legitimate and the other is not. It’s not so for Wikipedia. As a major source of information (particularly since Google gives it a special status), it has many non-vandal interests, and those interests can’t agree on which are legitimate. Plus there’s the iron law of bureaucracy. This makes Wikipedia into a competition, rather than a collaboration, which explains it in a nutshell.

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