Wikipedia wars

Like everyone, I have been using Wikipedia for a quick stop for general knowledge but this may change. As many have commented, the strength of this resource is that everyone has access and if common sense and honesty prevail, and they most often do, the right story will eventually be told.

Yesterday, I was looking for statistics on smoking and lung cancer and not finding quite what I was searching for, thought the relevant Wikipedia article might have a link to something appropriate. I ended up reading through the politically correct but evidentially suspect chapter on passive smoking and focussing on the passage on third hand smoke.

This is an issue that most citizens scoff at (as evidenced by the many comments to media reports) but the media loves to repeat. It has generally been accepted to be a baseless fear, that the residue of past smoking could have health effects, and not only that, has (other than the venerable flaky folks at ASH-US) been considered an embarrassment to the anti-smoking movement. But on Wikipedia, third hand smoke was thriving as a real concern.

I rewrote the passage, and within a few hours it has reverted to another slightly better piece of fiction, and now I have tried to bring it back into the fold of science but I suspect the story is far from over.

The main issue here is that you can write all the op eds you want but Wikipedia dwarfs them all.


5 thoughts on “Wikipedia wars

  1. Paul, Keep up the good work on that. If you fix the unquestionably wrong claims about “third hand smoke”, perhaps you then try to convince them that there is genuine controversy about other related claims. Remember that Wikipedia’s ethos is to acknowledge legitimate controversy, not try to resolve it, so you have to work that angle. Also, everyone should be aware that Wikipedia has a well-deserved reputation for being a great general encyclopedia, but that general encyclopedias do not work well as sources for knowledge that is unsettled. That is, the up-to-the-minute nature of Wikipedia does not actually deliver what some people think it does. Here is a good test: Go to an entry that you know more about than almost all of humanity that is a simple settled fact description (e.g., the city in which you live), and you will find little problems, things slightly out of date, spin that is not exactly what you would have chosen, etc. But go to an entry that you are expert on that you know more about than almost anyone because it is in an area of your research expertise and you will find painfully out-of-date information, statements of fact where there is major controversy, overly simplistic (mis)interpretations of the science, etc. The problem is that to write such entries right would require the input of several (to reduce the personal biases of any one) of the top 100 experts on the the topic (or each of the several topics that are blended together) contributing, with the aid in resolving disputes of an effective editor who recognizes that he is not a topical expert. Unfortunately what you (and I) have discovered is that the editors who “own” a particular entry are unwilling to recognize when someone with expertise beyond reading what comes up on a Google search of the topic is trying to correct an error, and offers knee-jerk resistance to the change.

  2. I have been angered by the wp page on passive smoking for several years now. I have suggested changes to the most ridiculous claims but have not managed to make an impression. If you look through the history and discussion pages you will see that the page is controlled by about six people, most anonymous. Every now and again, new people come along and eventually figure out what the score is. There is a higher level to which you can appeal, but for passive smoking this is an American woman, seemingly with no expertise in statistics, who lists smoking cessation among her interests. I didn’t waste my time.
    Once one distorted page is created, the authors have to try and edit other pages to keep the deception consistent. If you look at the lung cancer page you won’t get a very scholarly summary of the topic because part of it is written by anti-smoking activists.
    I think there is now at least some backlash against wp. In the UK, journalists regularly joke about it, and my niece’s (fee paying) school has forbidden its use.

  3. Carl,

    You make a number of excellent points. One would be aghast to see the laws of physics formulated by democratic agreement or inclusion of all viewpoints and yet that is what is happening here to some extent. Wikipedia has been useful to me for figuring out where the metro runs in Barcelona etc but otherwise…It is a little sobering in that there was a fairly optimistic view about a year ago(?) in that it was found to be overall quite accurate in comparison to some more established sources and the wonderful ethos that over time the truth will come out.


    Seems my nemesis is an Australian economist who dabbles in finding obscure and traditionally indefensible associations such as passive smoking and inner ear infections. I am up against faith it seems and that faith has a leap that bounds it right over the evidence without a loss of stride.

    But overall, and I suppose it would be difficult to form a better system that was as accessable as it is, the democracy still results in a hierarchy based less on knowledge than on history…..I guess even in the best democracies there will be bureaucracies.

  4. The problem is that Wikipedia’s base premise, although sounding good on the surface, is inherently false. Having everyone in the world write the encyclopedia, gaining from the total sum of human knowledge, if you will, sounds like a great idea, and if practiced it would be.

    Unfortunately it’s not the way Wikipedia really works. Many editors have little knowledge of the topics they write about and unfortunately, the people that do, particularly in the realm of health and science, are either too busy, too uninterested or just too frustrated with the system to contribute or correct mistakes and misinformation.

    Then you throw in activists and self proclaimed experts (like many from anti smoking groups and even lobbyists for big tobacco and big pharma), many of which have ulterior motives for skewing an article or only portraying a certain point of view, namely theirs, and it becomes a disaster. Too often the goal of Wikipedia authors is to further their own agenda, not the sum of human knowledge.

    Unfortunately, as you said, it’s become a popular source of “information” and by it’s very nature of ease of use, it’s users are not often interested in confirming the facts included in the articles. They are there to cut and paste and instead of increasing the sum of human knowledge and contributing to the free access of it by all people, they knowingly or unknowingly end up doing the exact opposite by spreading misinformation and propaganda.

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