A few years ago, I found a sentence in a Wikipedia page that irritated me so much, I wrote a 25-page article about it. Eventually, I got that article published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. On account of all this, friends and colleagues sometimes send me news about Wikipedia, or point me to strange things they’ve found there. A couple such items have recently led me to Have Thoughts, which I share below.
This op-ed on the incomprehensibility of Wikipedia science articles puts a finger on a real problem, but its attempt at explanation assumes malice rather than incompetence. Yes, Virginia, the science and mathematics articles are often baffling and opaque. The Vice essay argues that the writers of Wikipedia’s science articles use the incomprehensibility of their prose as a shield to keep out the riffraff and maintain the “elite” status of their subject. I don’t buy it. In my opinion, this hypothesis does not account for the intrinsic difficulty of explaining science, nor for the incentive structures at work. Wikipedia pages grow by bricolage, small pieces of cruft accumulating over time. “Oh, this thing says . I’ll go find a citation to fill it in, while my coffee is brewing.” This is not conducive to clean pedagogy, or to a smooth transition from general-audience to specialist interest.
Have no doubt that a great many scientists are terrible at communication, but we can also imagine a world in which Wikipedia would attract the scientists that actually are good at communication.
There’s communication, and then there’s communication. (We scientists usually get formal training in neither.) I know quite a few scientists who are good at outreach. They work hard at it, because they believe it matters and they know that’s what it takes. Almost none of them have ever mentioned editing Wikipedia (even the one who used his science blog in his tenure portfolio). Thanks to the pressures of academia, the calculation always favors a mode of outreach where it’s easier to point to what you did, so you can get appropriate credit for it.
Thus, there might be a momentary impulse to make small-scale improvements, but there’s almost no incentive to effect changes that are structured on a larger scale — paragraphs, sections, organization among articles. This is a good incentive system for filling articles with technical minutiae, like jelly babies into a bag, but it’s not a way to plan a curriculum.
The piece in Vice says of a certain physics article,
I have no idea who the article exists for because I’m not sure that person actually exists: someone with enough knowledge to comprehend dense physics formulations that doesn’t also already understand the electroweak interaction or that doesn’t already have, like, access to a textbook about it.
You’d be surprised. It’s fairly common to remember the broad strokes of a subject but need a reference for the fiddly little details.
Writers don’t just dip in, produce some Wikipedia copy, and bounce.
I’m pretty sure this is … actually not borne out by the data? Like, many contributors just add little bits when they are strongly motivated, while the smaller active core of persistent editors clean up the content, get involved in article-improvement drives, wrangle behind the scenes, etc.
[EDIT TO ADD (24 November): To say it another way, both the distribution of edits per article and edits per editor are “fat tailed, which implies that even editors and articles with small numbers of edits should not be neglected.” Furthermore, most edits do not change an article’s length, or change it by only a small amount. The seeming tendency for “fewer editors gaining an ever more dominant role” is a real concern, but I doubt the opacity of technical articles is itself a tool of oligarchy. Indeed, I suspect that other factors contribute to the “core editor” group becoming more insular, one being the ease with which policies originally devised for good reasons can be weaponized.]
If you want “elitism,” you shouldn’t look in the technical prose on the project’s front end. Instead, you should go into the backroom. From what I’ve seen and heard, it’s very easy to run afoul of an editor who wants to lord over their tiny domain, and who will sling around policies and abbreviations and local jargon to get their way. Any transgression, or perceived transgression, is an excuse to revert.
Just take a look at “WP:PROF” — the “notability guideline” for evaluating whether a scholar merits a Wikipedia page. It’s almost 3500 words, laying out criteria and then expounding upon their curlicues. And if you create an article and someone else decides it should be deleted, you had better be familiar with the Guide to deletion (roughly 6700 words), which overlaps with the Deletion process documentation (another 4700 words). More than enough regulations for anyone to petulantly sling around until they get their way!
And on the subject of deletion, over on Mastodon the other day I got into a chat about the story of Günter Bechly, a paleontologist who went creationist and whose Wikipedia page was recently toasted. The incident was described by Haaretz thusly:
If Bechly’s article was originally introduced due to his scientific work, it was deleted due to his having become a poster child for the creationist movement.
I strongly suspect that it would have been deleted if it had been brought to anyone’s attention for any other reason, even if Bechly hadn’t gone creationist. His scientific work just doesn’t add up to what Wikipedia considers “notability,” the standard codified by the WP:PROF rulebook mentioned above. Nor were there adequate sources to write about his career in Wikipedia’s regulation flat, footnoted way. The project is clearly willing to have articles on creationists, if the claims in them can be sourced to their standards of propriety: Just look at their category of creationists! Bechly’s problem was that he was only mentioned in passing or written up in niche sources that were deemed unreliable.
If you poke around that deletion discussion for Bechly’s page, you’ll find it links to a rolling list of such discussions for “Academics and educators,” many of whom seem to be using Wikipedia as a LinkedIn substitute. It’s a mundane occurrence for the project.
And another thing about the Haaretz article. It mentions sockpuppets arriving to speak up in support of keeping Bechly’s page:
These one-time editors’ lack of experience became clear when they began voting in favor of keeping the article on Wikipedia – a practice not employed in the English version of Wikipedia since 2016, when editors voted to exchange the way articles are deleted for a process of consensus-based decision through discussion.
Uh, that’s been the rule since 2005 at least. Not the most impressive example of Journalisming.