Wikipedia Petition: “Encyclopedia Should Get to Determine What Published Research Says, Not Other Way Around”

Shiny Wikipedia puzzle piece by Fred the Oyster at Wikimedia Commons
Shiny Wikipedia puzzle piece by Fred the Oyster at Wikimedia Commons

Note: Tim Farley has written a very nice analysis of this matter and its wider implications over at Skeptical Software Tools.

In March 2014, Wikpedia Founder Jimmy Whales responded to a petition to change Wikipedia policies to make it easier to advocate for alternative medicine and holistic healing therapies. Pro-alt-med petitioners feel that the sourcing and weight requirements (and their enforcement by the editing community) on Wikipedia are an unfair burden that they say is bullying them away from editing the encyclopedia:

This is exactly the case with the Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), which are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed “skeptics” who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia.

The part of Wikipedia operation that the petitioners take issue with is the Fringe policy, as well as the Reliable Source and Due Weight policies. The Fringe policy states:

Wikipedia article should not make a fringe theory appear more notable or more widely accepted than it is. Claims must be based upon independent reliable sources. A theory that is not broadly supported by scholarship in its field must not be given undue weight in an article about a mainstream idea,and reliable sources must be cited that affirm the relationship of the marginal idea to the mainstream idea in a serious and substantial manner.

So, to sum it up…

The claim

Wikipedia needs to institute an exception to its policies concerning Fringe, Reliable Sources and Undue Weight so that advocacy editors for alternative therapies can promote them alongside treatments who are themselves able to meet the stricter requirements.

Why this Pleading is Special

The Special Pleading here is a little more obvious than is often the case, as a clear exception is being proposed: that proponents of a special topic be exempted from the criteria met by other editors.

The petition continues:

They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.

Emphasis added. In addition to the exceptions to the usual burden for reliable sources and due weight given topics, which the petitioners would see administered by sympathetic “referees,” another major gap in understanding exists…

The petitioners do not understand that it is not the place of an encyclopedia to change the “status quo.” Scientific consensus is shaped by robust results, repeated through a collaborative effort by the larger scientific community. Change the world with your breakthrough ideas and repeatedly confirmed results, and the encyclopedias will follow. Attempting to reverse the process, as is being tried by these frustrated editors, will not get you there any faster.

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