Monday, June 30, 2008


You think Wikipedia's tough on Experts?

Take a look a look at this exchange on Conservapedia, which calls itself "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia". In short, Andrew Schlafy doubts the findings of a published, peer-reviewed article which presents strong evidence of evolution in bacteria, and decides the best way to question these findings is demand the data the scientist based this article on.

Nothing wrong with a bit of skepticism; by questioning what we are told we come to knowledge. However from this exchange, it appears that Schlafy thinks the scientific method works like tagging statements on Wikipedia articles with {{fact}} or {{verification needed}}: if a statement appears to be questionable, ask for sources. He doesn't realize that dealing with experts in the Real World involves a different approach. Schlafy's correspondent, who I doubt is familiar with Wikipedia's conventions, provides him with an object lesson about how to handle experts -- a lesson Schlafy appears to have failed.

When other Conservapedia editors try to explain to Schlafy just why his approach doesn't work, Schlafy persists in his ignorance. Or maybe this is just one of those parodies that are slipped into Conservapedia, to see if anyone notices; I understand it can sometimes be hard to tell.

We may not be kinder to the experts who donate their time and knowledge at Wikipedia, but I like to think that the average Wikipedian knows to stop arguing when she or he has lost the argument.

If the link above is dead, try this mirror of the exchange. Fair warning: I have commented on this over at Daily Kos, which is where I learned about this.


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I love his reply, and the way it is spinned on Conservapedia's main page:

"Richard Lenski's defenders finally admit that the data underlying his claims (which Lenski still has not disclosed) are not too voluminous."
Lenski is not entirely unschooled in the ways of Wikipedia.

About the same time Conservapedia was engaging in their exchange with Lenski, I wrote a Wikipedia article on Lenski's experiment.

Since I saw how generous he was with his time responding to the trolls at Conservapedia, I sent him an email asking for a different kind of evidence related to the experiment. He gave me some suggestions for the article (yet to be implemented) and generously provided some photos for the article:
What I meant in my blog post by "the ways of Wikipedia" is that when one encounters a suspicious statement, the Best Known Practice is to ask for a source -- which is what Schlafy is, in effect, doing here.

My knowledge of Best Known Practices for scientific findings is limited, but I believe that it involves a review of the experiment, an attempt to reproduce it, & perhaps even criticism of the analysis of the experiment -- not repeated demands for the scientist's lab notebooks. If a researcher has misrepresented his results, it is likely that his lab notebooks are also unreliable.

My point to mention this here is as an object lesson to Wikipedians -- don't act like this clown.

Here are two recent episods of experts being scared off of wikipedia from bad experiences:

1. A social scientist was instructed that the field he had written his dissertation about didn't actually exist.

2. A famous electrical engineering professor at MIT is thrown into the arms of finkelstein et al.

And that's just in the past week. This continues to be a pretty serious problem -- for every story you hear about, there are plenty you don't.

It would be great if there was some kind of concierge-style service where experts could get help navigating the system. In that first example, the article was deleted under prod even though the expert didn't want it deleted; he could have removed the tag, but nobody told him.
My post does not excuse Wikipedians for their bad behavior: we treat experts who are Wikipedia newbies badly far too often.

But a person has to try real hard to do worse than Wikipedia's usual garden-variety stupidity -- like this clown did.

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