User:JWSchmidt/Blog/16 September 2008
How I came to know Moulton
I became aware of Moulton on or about 4 August 2008, even though he came to Wikiversity on 8 July 2008. Since then I have been gradually learning about Moulton's editing history at Wikipedia. When I first saw Ethical Management of the English Language Wikipedia I linked it to an existing Wikiversity topic, Topic:Wikipedia studies. At that time I did not have any knowledge of Moulton's editing history at Wikipedia. As someone who has been learning about that editing history during the past few weeks and who has had a chance to spend long happy hours with Moulton in conversation and collaborative learning I hope to be able to help the Wikiversity community understand him. This exercise is important because many participants at Wikiversity and Wikipedia have not had a chance to get to know Moulton, so there is a significant amount of confusion about his motivations. Of course, my understanding is limited, so I look forward to the day when he can once again collaborate with me in editing Wikiversity pages such as this one.
Moulton's road to Wikiversity began long ago when he became enchanted by the power of online learning communities. That was before the World Wide Web. Moulton has spent years working in and studying online communities and he is an unequaled resource for Wikiversity. Moulton came to Wikiversity along the same path that I did, by way of Wikipedia. While I was able to have many positive experiences at Wikipedia, Moulton fell into one of Wikipedia's notorious black holes of POV-pushing and page ownership. Tragically, this black hole included biographies of living persons.
Biographies of living persons
The intersection of Moulton with Wikipedia biographies of living persons is an interesting case study related to the larger problem of achieving accuracy in Wikipedia articles. By understanding what happened to Moulton we might be able to improve Wikipedia. The basic problem is that anyone can start a biographical Wikipedia article and write it in a biased way that does not follow the Wikipedia rules that are designed to lead to the creation of fair and balanced biographies of notable people. The additional problem is that some of Wikipedia's biased biographies are created and owned by editors who are pushing a particular agenda. Moulton crossed paths with some persistent editors who behaved as if they owned a set of biographical articles and could use those articles as part of a protracted edit war that is roughly centered on the Creation-evolution controversy.
The <self-censored Wikipedia article name> Biography
<self-censored name> is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at a major university. She holds Doctor of Science and Master of Science degrees from a major university and a Bachelor of Science degree from a major university. She has been a member of the faculty at <self-censored name of a major university> since 1991 and a full professor since 2005.
With over a quarter of a million biographies, Wikipedia has many biographical articles about university professors. In 1997, Dr. <self-censored name> published an important book in an innovative branch of Computer Science. One might guess that her Wikipedia biography would have been started in order to describe her scientific research and seminal contributions, however, that is not the case.
On Feb. 21, 2006, The New York Times published "Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition" by Kenneth Chang. The petition comprised a two-sentence statement, "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Dr. <self-censored name> was one of a group of 105 scientists, researchers, and academics who agreed with this statement when it was circulated (in E-Mail) in academia in 2001.
On March 8, 2006 the Wikipedia <self-censored article name> biography article about Dr. <self-censored name> was started by a Wikipedia editor who copied the online Faculty Profile of Dr. <self-censored name>. In addition to the copied Faculty Profile, the Wikipedia article included a section called, "Intelligent Design Support". Based on the edits of the creator of this BLP, it is clear that the purpose of this editor was to create an article that labels Dr. <self-censored> as a supporter of Intelligent Design and as "anti-evolution". The Wikipedia user account "<self-censored>" that was used to create this BLP was a single purpose account, used only to push into Wikipedia the claim that Dr. <self-censored> is anti-evolution and a supporter of Intelligent Design. Note that person editing as "<self-censored user name>" is an experienced wiki editor who decided to use a "throw-away account" in order to make a biographical article that violates the Wikipedia policy on Biographies of living persons, which reads in part: "Editors should be on the lookout for the malicious creation or editing of biographies or biographical information. If someone appears to be pushing a point of view, ask for credible third-party published sources and a clear demonstration of relevance to the person's notability."
Dr. <self-censored name> agreed with this statement: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." This is a reasonable statement for a skeptical scientist to make.
There has been a long-lasting struggle at Wikipedia over articles related to evolution and intelligent design. Intelligent design-advocates can cause problems on Wikipedia and that can lead to "a response" from Wikipedians who oppose the goals of the intelligent design movement. It is a fundamental human problem that when we "come under attack" we get upset and often start fighting back. However, the rules of Wikipedia basically say, "stay calm, stay polite, listen to well-intentioned complaints from other people even if you think the complaints are misguided". During conflicts that exist at the boundary between religion and science there is a problem in how language serves our needs. Scientists and non-scientists do not share a common set of definitions for terms such as "evolution". Important words mean different things to scientists and to non-scientists. This means that scientists and non-scientists are constantly talking past each other and not understanding each other. So, Wikipedians who are editing at the boundary between science and religion need to be aware of this, they need to be mature and recognize the problem, and they need to make a special effort to understand what they hear and they need to do their "work" at Wikipedia with constant attention to the goal of making sure that all points of view are heard and fairly presented by Wikipedia.
Most scientists would probably agree that: "the vast (vast) majority of scientific opinion supports evolution". For most people, the term "evolution" (when used in its biological context) is treated synonymously with 'darwinian natural selection'. However, typical dictionary definitions of "evolution" do not mention "natural selection" at all when giving the meaning of "evolution" (example, my dictionary is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language from 1978, see also this). The Wikipedia article on Evolution correctly makes a distinction between the terms "evolution" and "natural selection". The distinction is that natural selection is a mechanism or process that can play an important role in the way many types of evolutionary change take place. Further, scientists who study evolution know that natural selection is not the only process that is important for the evolution of life. So for a scientist to say,
1) "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."
in no way contradicts or conflicts with
2) "the vast (vast) majority of scientific opinion supports evolution".
Do you see the distinction? Many scientists study other mechanisms of evolution besides natural selection. Darwinian natural selection only deals with how a biological species can transform into a new species. Many people who study the complexity of life study molecular evolution and the transition of molecules to the living state (abiogenesis), a transition that involved the evolution of molecular complexity before there ever was a "species" that could be subjected to Darwinian natural selection. Anyhow, the bottom line is that some Wikipedian's jumped to the conclusion that anyone who agrees with statement #1 (above) is a friend of the Discovery Institute and their methods and their goals. That's false and and it has been a long bloody struggle to try to root this misconception out of Wikipedia. Much of the blood was Moulton's.
Original research at Wikipedia
Wikipedia's policy No original research is designed to keep out of Wikipedia novel conclusions that cannot be supported by previously published reliable sources. As discussed above, some Wikipedia editors created a novel idea and pushed it into Wikipedia. One Wikipedian wrote that he viewed Picard's agreement with the two sentence statement ("We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.") as "anti-science". This was all part of a justification for not allowing the <self-censored page name> article to be corrected and for trying to ignore Moulton's attempt to fix the negative bias in the article. Of course, it is not easy to put an "anti-science" label on professional scientists, so the editors trying to label Dr. <self-censored name> as anti-science have generally satisfied themselves with trying to place terms such as "anti-evolution" and "Darwin dissenter" and "intelligent design support" on her bio as many times as possible. This effort to mis-lable Dr. <self-censored name>'s views has persisted over a long period of time at Wikipedia. (Update: still continuing as of July, 2010)
Here is an example that I helped correct recently: "She is dismissive of scientific reductionism" was added to Dr. <self-censored name>'s BLP. However, scientific reductionism was not mentioned in the article cited to support this statement. The phrase, "She is dismissive of scientific reductionism" is an imagined interpretation of Dr. <self-censored name>'s thinking. The contorted "reasoning" used to support adding this claim to the <self-censored page name> article was given on the article's talk page and makes interesting reading because it illustrates the lengths that Wikipedia editors went to in order to depict Dr. <self-censored name> as anti-science. In the context of the editing history of this Wikipedia page, this contorted "reasoning" can be seen as just one attempt in a long series to depict <self-censored name> as anti-science. The <self-censored name> biography has gotten much better as more Wikipedians have paid attention to the problem, and some of <self-censored name>'s actual views on intelligent design are now included. Her actual views confirm the validity of Moulton's original complaint about the negative bias that was in the BLP when he first found it.
So this is the mess that Moulton walked into at Wikipedia. When he tried to fix Wikipedia's bias, he ended up getting indefinitely blocked. Rather than being welcomed to help get Wikipedia BLPs right, Moulton was actively opposed by other editors working to use BLPs as a way to put a false negative label on people. I believe that Moulton came away with a desire to change Wikipedia so that anonymous editors are not free to put false information into BLPs.
The Wikipedia community is struggling to find ways to prevent bias in biographies of living persons. I've been trying to use the "Moulton Case Study" as a way to start thinking about possible modifications to the way biographies of living persons are edited at Wikipedia. Can we find ways to prevent bad situations such as what Moulton fell into? Should we "just say no" to editing of biographies of living persons by anonymous editors? If editors such as the anonymous editor who first created the <self-censored page name> article were not able to edit anonymously, would Wikipedia have fewer problems? I think Moulton feels that it is a fundamental error to allow people to anonymously edit biographies of living persons. This stance has lead Moulton into a study of the real life identities of wiki editors that is not welcome within the Wikimedia Foundation. So while I think Moulton could make real contributions and help improve things by "working from inside" Wikimedia, his interest in real life identities of wiki editors makes it impossible for him to merge into WMF wiki communities. I still hope Moulton will give up his interest in real life identities of wiki editors and help Wikimedians improve our wiki communities.
Original Research at Wikiversity
For me, my experiment with an "on-wiki" analysis of a problematical Wikipedia biography of a living person has been an interesting learning experience. My approach to studying topics is to adopt working hypotheses and then try to find evidence that will disprove those hypotheses. I got started reading the history of the <self-censored page name> biographical article at Wikipedia and started keeping notes on a user subpage here at Wikiversity. My notes then got moved into the main namespace. A major limitation on my investigation was that I was working in isolation from the editors I was reading about. Things got slightly better when user "Salmon of Doubt" started participating and functioned to help balance Moulton's perspective. Other Wikipedian's were invited to participate, but I think only one other Wikipedian has come over to help. Given the difficulty in getting good participation, I'm not sure that such "in wiki" investigations are worth while. It would only really work if we could get all the involved editors to come help sort out what happened in a case like the <self-censored page name> biography. My main research method (looking at edit histories) just hits too many mysteries....human input from the editors is needed. Much of the <self-censored page name> biographical page editing is over a year old and people forget what they were thinking at the time. So we have "page history" but the real history is being lost. It is hard to learn and reconstruct a coherent narrative from just the page history. Also, I have no training in this sort of thing anyhow, so its silly for me to think I can really figure out what went on a year or two ago at Wikipedia. These sorts of problems make it hard for the Wikimedia community to learn from its past failings. Maybe if people like me bumble around for a while it will attract the attention of the people who can actually make this kind of "Wikipedia Studies" project work. still, its disappointing how few Wikipedians could be induced to come help. I guess most people just know right from the start that this kind of study project is not likely to pay big dividends. Experienced wiki watchers like Jimbo probably have an intuition for these things. The most experienced wiki-watchers are probably too busy to have time for joining in and offering guidance at Wikiversity.
It was suggested that Wikiversity can both study Wikipedia and impose "an explicit ban on 'case studies' using real examples of non-notable people, in exchange for hypotheticals." I wish this proposal could be clarified. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Wikiversity participants cannot discuss problems in the Dr. <self-censored name> biography. I think this means that people will have to do their research off wiki and then express their research results in terms of hypotheticals. The problem with this approach is that hypotheticals do not provide the sense of urgency that can be generated by actual real-world examples. If we only generate hypotheticals, people yawn, nothing changes and Wikipedia continues to have biased BLPs. I thought we were supposed to do all we can to make sure we get BLPs right, but apparently there are higher priorities related to not upsetting some Wikipedians. This seems to put the interests of some Wikipedians ahead of the need to get BLPs right. In my view, this raises serious questions about the ethical foundations of Wikipedia. Are we, as Wikipedians, more interested in ourselves than the people we harm with our bad BLPs? I think this is the kind of question that motivates Moulton to study Wikimedia and push for change.
- January 2009 update. A review of research projects that have been conducted at Wikiversity and the proposal that there be an explicit ban on 'case studies' using real examples of non-notable people at: the main research guidelines discussion page.