Why skeptics should pay close attention to Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned in several articles how important I feel it is to reach out to what Michael Shermer calls fence sitters: the people who have no strong opinion on skeptical topics. These are people who are neither skeptics nor believers. If we can reach these people before they’ve been swayed by a “believer”, we can educate them about what science has to say about the topic areas of skepticism.

Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia

An obvious way to do this is through search engine results. Build a website on a particular topic, and do your best to get it ranked highly by Google. Then when “fence sitters” reach out for information on that topic, you’ll be ready for them. Needless to say this takes a bit of effort. For some topics it is very difficult to elbow your way into that crucial first page of search engine results, due to huge amounts of competition.

But what if there were a way to post good science-oriented material on an existing website that is almost guaranteed to be in the first page of search engine results? Then you could focus on the material itself, and not even have to worry about setting up your own site and optimizing it for searches.

Such a website exists, and it is called Wikipedia.

Many are skeptical of Wikipedia. This user-edited web encyclopedia has existed since 2001. It allows anyone in the world to edit any article, and the changes they make are reflected instantly in the live copy of the web site. Editing is done collaboratively, there is no strict chain of editing authority. As you would imagine, this system certainly opens it up to abuse, and there have been several prominent incidents that have called attention to this. But perhaps surprisingly, most vandalism on Wikipedia doesn’t last very long. The site keeps complete logs of all changes, and allows any editor to automatically monitor a list of pages for recent changes, and to undo vandalism with one click.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is a major source of information for millions who use the web. It is famous in and of itself, but more importantly its pages often rank very highly in search engine results. Because of this, it can be easy for a random Internet user to get an introduction to a skepticism-related topic from a Wikipedia article rather than from a skeptical website. Further, because the content of Wikipedia is freely licensed for re-use, it reappears in other venues such as various third-party web sites and even printed in books. As a result, we could greatly improve our outreach efforts by monitoring these articles for their correctness.

It would also behoove us to do a better job of documenting the scientific skepticism movement itself in Wikipedia. This will help members of the public become aware of what we are doing and get involved.

In both cases, the 80/20 rule (or long tail) rears its familiar head. Often the highlights of the movement (James Randi, CSICOP, etc) and popular topics (homeopathy, UFOs, etc) are well documented, but other key topics or figures in our movement go completely unmentioned on Wikipedia.

For example, while researching another skeptic-related project, I recently discovered that Dr. Robert A. Baker (a Past Fellow of CSICOP who wrote several books on how paranormal events can be explained with psychology) had no biography in Wikipedia. He had been named one of the top skeptics of the 20th century in a 1999 poll, so needless to say this surprised me. I spent an afternoon in Google digging up information on him from the CSICOP web site and other web sites. Now he has a biography and is listed in several skeptical categories. His work on ghosts, UFO abduction cases and other skeptical investigations is now documented in a way that is much easier to find for an average Internet user.

Further, on December 7th, 2008, some Wikipedia editor pulled out a fact from the biography I wrote and featured it in the “Did you know…” box on the main page of Wikipedia! This might not seem like a big deal, unless you know that Google ranks the Wikipedia main page as Page Rank 8. That’s huge. The highest ranked skeptic websites have ranks that translate to traffic levels 10 to 1000 times lower than that. So that little factoid about Robert A. Baker probably got more far more page views any skeptic site on that day.

Where To Start

The practice of editing Wikipedia could fill many blog posts, indeed whole books have been written about it. So I encourage you to read more before you dive in head first, but I will give you a few tips here.

You can edit Wikipedia anonymously, but I recommend you avoid this and instead create an account. When you edit using an account, the site can track your changes for you and help you with other features. Also, your edits will be taken a bit more seriously by other editors.

Most importantly, with an account set up you will be able to use the watchlist feature of Wikipedia to monitor pages for changes. This is a good way to help prevent pseudoscientific nonsense from creeping into Wikpedia. Simply find some articles about skeptical topics you have interest or expertise in, and click the “watch” tab at the top of the screen. Then you can choose “my watchlist” at the very top at any time, and see the last few edits made to pages you are watching.

When it comes to editing, I recommend you start slowly, at first making only small changes to existing articles. This will help you get accustomed to the tools provided, and minimize the chances you will make a change someone might dislike. Look for grammar errors or broken links in existing skepticism-related articles, and find ways to fix them. Always provide a short summary of each edit in the box provided so people can see your intent.

Editing is quite easy, as the MediaWiki software used by Wikipedia supports a simplified form of markup that doesn’t require you to know HTML. For instance, to create a section header with a bulleted item that links to my web sites, you would use the following:

==Skeptical Websites==
# [http://whatstheharm.net What's The Harm] is Tim's skeptical web project.
# [http://skeptools.com Skeptical Software Tools] is Tim's blog.

When viewed in Wikipedia, the above text would become the following HTML:

<h2>Skeptical Websites</h2>
<ol>
<li><a href="http://whatstheharm.net" class="external text" title="http://whatstheharm.net" rel="nofollow">What's The Harm</a> is Tim’s skeptical web project.</li>
<li><a href="http://skeptools.com" class="external text" title="http://skeptools.com" rel="nofollow">Skeptical Software Tools</a> is Tim’s blog.</li>
</ol>

(Actually its worse than that, I’ve edited that down a little). So as you can see Wikipedia saves from having to know HTML and lets you focus more on the content.

When you are ready to make large edits, I recommend you find an article that has content similar to what you want to do. (Make sure to find one that doesn’t have any cleanup warning boxes at the top, these indicate the article has problems in the view of the editors). Click the edit button on that article to see the actual wiki markup that was used, and perhaps copy and paste it into your article.

What To Remember

Cite your sources: Back in the early days of Wikipedia, the race was on to fill it with useful information, and they weren’t so strict about sourcing. These days they are more strict and ask everyone to cite sources. You should always use the <ref> tag and probably one of the {{cite}} templates to create an inline citation that backs up your material. The software will automatically turn your citation into a properly numbered footnote. If you need to reference a source in more than one place in the article, give it a name like this:

<ref name="myFirstSource">Some interesting citation info goes here.</ref>

You can reference that source in other locations in the article like this:

<ref name="myFirstSource"/>

Follow the rules: There are other rules for editing Wikipedia aside from “cite your sources”. The gist of this is covered in an article titled “Five Pillars.” One thing to always remember is Wikipedia topics must meet a notability requirement. So don’t go rushing off to write a biography of your favorite drinking buddy from the last Amazing Meeting (unless of course it was Ben Goldacre). If your article does not meet the notability requirement, it will be deleted and your time will have been wasted. Another key rule to remember is that uploaded material must be freely licensable. Photos really enhance an article, but make sure the photo you upload is your own or you know for sure it is not copyrighted.

Read the talk pages: Almost every page in Wikipedia has a link marked “discussion” at the top. This is the “talk page” for that topic. This is where you go to discuss controversies regarding that topic, defend changes you made which someone else deleted, and so on. Be aware of the talk pages and keep an eye on them. Even your user page has a talk page, which is where you may be contacted. Unlike many more modern web sites which have threaded conversations, private messages and so on, talk pages work exactly like a normal Wikipedia page. That is, they are just big blobs of text that anyone can edit.

Learn the templates: You’ll find that in addition to the simple markup shown above, many parts of Wikipedia use templates to semantically mark up certain types of content and automatically generate others. There are hundreds of these templates, but again by peeking at the edit page of existing articles, you can get a good idea of which ones you need to know. Three notable ones include:

  • Infobox (for those quick-reference boxes at the upper right of articles)
  • Cite (to cite sources using standardized formats)
  • Coord (for locations on earth, including this with display=title for articles about a place can make your article visible on Google Maps).

Using the right templates can make the information you add to wikipedia much more accessible to non-standard uses, such as in research projects or derivative web sites, improving its visibility.

Focus on the Long Tail: I’m probably sounding like a broken record at this point on “the long tail,” but I recommend you focus on smaller topics and less known people in skepticism (at least at first). There are lots of opportunities here to have a huge effect without running afoul of other editors who might second-guess your every move. Seek out topics that are not properly covered, and remedy that. But always keep in mind the notability requirement and find plenty of good reliable sources you can cite such as newspapers and books. (Did you know you can search the contents of books, including copyrighted ones, using Google Books? Very handy for finding good citations).

The best way to recognize an existing long tail article is to look at the talk page and history. If the history is short, and the talk page is empty or nearly empty, few are paying much attention to that article. Dive in! (As a counter-example, have a look at the talk pages for articles such as Carl Sagan or CSICOP. Here be dragons.)

Link generously: Linking to other content is the backbone of the web, and perhaps doubly so for Wikipedia articles. Part of the charm of Wikipedia is how it can draw you in and encourage you to read more about other topics. We can use this to our advantage in our outreach efforts. By creating many links both to and from skeptical articles on wikipedia (within the encyclopedia itself) we increase the likelihood that our content will be found by “fence sitters” and read.

Have the titles of key skeptical articles handy and link them where appropriate. One such article is Scientific skepticism which defines our movement. When you first use the word “skeptic” or “skepticism” in an article, you should link it there. The WikiMedia syntax for linking an article while controlling the link text looks like this: Tim Farley is a [[Scientific skepticism|skeptic]]. That will display as: Tim Farley is a skeptic.

Many articles have a See Also section heading which can be a good place to put relevant links that don’t obviously fit in elsewhere in the article. Also, you can use the “what links here” item in the toolbox on the left side, to find other articles that link to the article you are working on. If there are obvious topics that should link to your article that you don’t see here, fix that. These are other fantastic ways to encourage people to find our content.

Don’t forget to look for relevant Wikipedia categories, both skeptical and otherwise, to include on the page. These go at the bottom of the article and display in a box. Here are the categories I added to the bottom of my article on Robert A. Baker, in Wiki syntax:

{{Lifetime|1921|2005|Baker, Robert A.}}
[[Category:American atheists]]
[[Category:American science writers]]
[[Category:American skeptics]]
[[Category:People from Kentucky]]
[[Category:People from Crittenden County, Kentucky]]
[[Category:Psychologists]]
[[Category:Psychology educators]]
[[Category:University of Kentucky alumni]]
[[Category:University of Kentucky faculty]]
[[Category:Stanford University alumni]]

Not only do these provide other ways for people to find your article, but they can also elicit help in maintaining it. Because I (correctly) tagged Dr. Baker as being a person from Kentucky, the page got the attention of WikiProject Kentucky. This is a group of people who help edit and update articles about Kentucky and the people in it. So now I know others will help me keep Dr. Baker’s biography up to date as Wikipedia advances.

And of course, add hyperlinks to relevant skeptical websites in the External Links section that usually appears at the bottom of a Wikipedia article. That helps draw people into skepticism from Wikipedia. (It is worth noting that Wikipedia uses rel=”nofollow” on all its external links, as a matter of policy. So don’t bother linking just to boost your skeptical site in Google. That won’t work).

Where To Focus

So where should you start? That of course depends on your specialty within skepticism and your interests or expertise. But here are a few ways to explore.

Explore existing articles: There are a number of good articles on skepticism already such as the aforementioned scientific skepticism article and the following:

Each of these articles provide many links that will help you explore the skeptical content on Wikipedia. As you explore, think about what you see but also what appears to be missing. The latter represents an opportunity for you to contribute.

Explore via categories: Wikipedia tries to group articles into categories to encourage horizontal exploration. Some relevant existing categories in Wikipedia where you can find good content are listed below. Be sure to explore the sub-categories within as well.

Again, when exploring here think about what you see as well as what’s missing. The latter could be good topics you could contribute.

Join a WikiProject: WikiProjects are groups of people who cooperate in editing a particular group of articles within Wikipedia. They usually maintain a “to do” list of articles that need attention, and have procedures to carefully review content that fits their topic area.

There are at least two such groups that relate to skepticism. One is called WikiProject Rational Skepticism and the other is WikiProject Pseudoscience. Get involved with one or both of them.

I would avoid the Alternative Medicine WikiProject, as it seems to be populated by believers who will probably not be amenable to the edits you would make.

Summary

Wikipedia has tremendous visibility on the web, appearing in the first page of many search results. Skeptics should strive to ensure that Wikipedia contains the best and most scientific information possible in topic areas we care about. This helps us reach out to “fence sitters” with good information as well as publicize the skeptic movement.

Thanks to Reed Esau of Skepticamp for reminding me of the importance of this in a previous comment.

About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

14 Responses to Why skeptics should pay close attention to Wikipedia

  1. xinit00 says:

    I’d given up on editing the Homeopathy article ages ago… there was one guy continually re-adding his sources, putting citations after every second word, etc. I couldn’t seem to interest admins in the issue, or bring about any sort of lasting change.

    I mostly like the article as it’s written now; the opening paragraphs are a bit much, but welcome to The Committee :)

    I’ve decided to make a start on another article that bothers me… I’ve always thought that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_hunting should be labeled as a pseudoscience…

  2. Tim Farley says:

    Yes, there are definitely many “believers” to do battle with on the pseudoscience articles. Personally I’ve focused mainly on creating articles that document the skeptical movement itself for now, and I may dive into the fray on pseudoscience later when I find a good spot to make my jump.

  3. reede says:

    This is an excellent and important article. Thanks for writing it, Tim.

    Few people realize the influence that Wikipedia will have in our lives in the coming years. We’re seeing the first hints of it, such as the strong search engine rankings you mention as well as geographically-tagged Wikipedia articles showing up in our cellphone mapping applications.

    In the coming years, wherever you have search capability on a topic, be it at the grocery store or traveling in unfamiliar territory, it will be the Wikipedia article you will check out first, as it will provide the basic data you need in a consistent format that meets your expectations. In addition, it can serve as a jumping point for more detailed inquiry.

    We skeptics need to be standing at that junction defending the topics we care about, correcting the misinformation and providing the best evidence available, unencumbered by unsourced statements and uncritical thinking.

    While skeptic-oriented satellite wikis can serve to extend and build upon topics independent of the limitations of an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, it will nevertheless be the latter that will become the central intellectual battleground.

    There are a several recent books on the topic that merit our careful study. A couple of them:

    Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky

    Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Don Tapscott

    The Shirky book in particular has informed both Tim’s and my own views on these topics — me particularly with developing Skepticamp.

    btw, Tim, you should consider doing a presentation at TAM on this very topic.

  4. reede says:

    Scientists associated with Nature (a big science journal) are collaborating on edits to WP to increase the commons. Another journal (RNA Biology) actually requires you must submit to WP before they’ll publish your paper.

    http://radar.oreilly.com/2008/12/wikipedia-and-nature.html

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  6. srid says:

    From a FAQ of http://nonspiritual.net/

    Why not just add the critical information to wikipedia?

    Addition of critical information about a spiritual teacher or group is usually edited out by its zealous followers. Since the followers are usually more numerous, it is a losing battle to add information again and again only to have it repeatedly deleted. Frequently, the outcome is that a wikipedia article is protected due to editing disputes. Also, wikipedia’s editorial policy discourages anecdotal reports and blog links, which we consider useful.

  7. Tim Farley says:

    Well, experiences vary and the people working on different articles on Wikipedia certainly differ. But I disagree with all but the last sentence of that comment from nonspiritual.net.
     
    Wikipedia explicitly states that it is not a democracy. Simply because the believers in something outnumber the skeptics, that does not mean the believers will win.
     
    The key if you get into a battle like that on Wikipedia is to keep hammering on what Wikipedians call NPOV (neutral point of view) and verifiability. Articles are supposed to reflect what the consensus view in the real world about a topic. And to do that they have to cite reliable real-world sources. If believers are entering bogus info, use the Wikipedia procedures to force them to add citations or remove the material. Question the reliability of their sources if need be. There are lots of methods.
     
    There are other good tactics to use when you’ve got believers swamping an article. One is to check for and make public any conflict of interest. If the edits are being made from particular accounts, find out if they are tied to the church/business/whatever that is being pushed. If they are being made from an IP address, trace it and see if its coming from that business. (This is how Scientology got banned from editing Wikipedia).
     
    Another tactic is, when relevant, to mark an article as being an advertisement masquerading as an article. This is basically similar to conflict of interest above, but for when you can’t conclusively identify who is making the edits.
     
    Bottom line: Wikpedia policy does favor a reality-based point of view, but sometimes it does takes a bunch of legwork to make sure policy is enforced.

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  10. Tom Morris says:

    Tim, one thing skeptics should know about when editing Wikipedia is the Fringe Theories Noticeboard. It’s really a very useful resource.

    Basically, if you are reading Wikipedia, poking around or whatever, and find something that is “fringey”, you can post it up on the noticeboard.

    This basically sends up the bat signal that the article is having problems with people adding fringe theories or giving them undue weight (a simple example: if the 9/11 article were to be overrun with more information about conspiracy theories from the “truthers” and it ends up spending more time on that than it does on the actual facts).

    I use the noticeboard a lot: I’m a pretty active Wikipedian but I don’t spend my time writing about controversial topics including psuedoscience/paranormal stuff because life is too short to argue on the Internet about it. I have great admiration for the people who do all that stuff, and one way of helping them is to keep them up-to-date with fringe stuff appearing in Wikipedia. So, skeptics, don’t keep quiet: register an account on Wikipedia and if you spot someone breaking the rules on pseudoscience and fringe theories, send it to the Noticeboard!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:FTN

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