% fortune -ae paul murphy

Do problems with Wikipedia presage social networking's end?

Wikipedia is supposed to be the on-line encyclopedia for everyone, but what it has become is something entirely different: an early and illustrative warning of the collapse from informed social networking to propaganda.

Wikipedia's central premise is that inviting anyone and everyone to scrutinize and correct encyclopedia information is the best guarantee of honesty and completeness - it's a very democratic idea and broadly similar to Raymond's comment about no bug being invisible to a million eyeballs.

Like democracy itself, this ideal assumes that the participants are both educated and honest: educated enough to understand the issues, and honest enough to fairly report facts and consequences separately from speculation and opinion.

Look at Wikipedia as a focal point for niche groups - those interested in each major subject grouping - and it's a pretty clear application of the same ideas underlying something like sourceforge or any other open source community center. In that context, therefore, my concern about Wikipedia's apparent failure to meet its mission mandate is that this illustrates something fundamental about social networking: specifically, that it inevitably degrades to the lowest level acceptable to the most committed players in each niche.

Consider two illustrative niches: a controversial one focused on climate change, and the apolitical discussions centered around processor architectures.

On climate change consider this extended quotation from a National Review article by Lawrence Solomon:


In theory Wikipedia is a "people's encyclopedia" written and edited by the people who read it - anyone with an Internet connection. So on controversial topics, one might expect to see a broad range of opinion.

Not on global warming. On global warming we get consensus, Gore-style: a consensus forged by censorship, intimidation, and deceit.

I first noticed this when I entered a correction to a Wikipedia page on the work of Naomi Oreskes, author of the now-infamous paper, published in the prestigious journal Science, claiming to have exhaustively reviewed the scientific literature and found not one single article dissenting from the alarmist version of global warming.

Of course Oreskes's conclusions were absurd, and have been widely ridiculed. I myself have profiled dozens of truly world-eminent scientists whose work casts doubt on the Gore-U.N. version of global warming. Following the references in my book The Deniers, one can find hundreds of refereed papers that cast doubt on some aspect of the Gore/U.N. case, and that only scratches the surface.

Naturally I was surprised to read on Wikipedia that Oreskes's work had been vindicated and that, for instance, one of her most thorough critics, British scientist and publisher Bennie Peiser, not only had been discredited but had grudgingly conceded Oreskes was right.

I checked with Peiser, who said he had done no such thing. I then corrected the Wikipedia entry, and advised Peiser that I had done so.

Peiser wrote back saying he couldn't see my corrections on the Wikipedia page. I made the changes again, and this time confirmed that the changes had been saved. But then, in a twinkle, they were gone again. I made other changes. And others. They all disappeared shortly after they were made.

Turns out that on Wikipedia some folks are more equal than others. Kim Dabelstein Petersen is a Wikipedia editor who seems to devote a large part of his life to editing reams and reams of Wikipedia pages to pump the assertions of global-warming alarmists and deprecate or make disappear the arguments of skeptics.

I soon found others who had the same experience: They would try to squeeze in any dissent, or even correct an obvious slander against a dissenter, and Petersen or some other censor would immediately snuff them out.

Now Petersen is merely a Wikipedia editor. Holding the far more prestigious and powerful position of administrator is William Connolley. Connolley is a software engineer and sometime climatologist (he used to hold a job in the British Antarctic Survey), as well as a serial (but so far unsuccessful) office seeker for England's Green party.

And yet by virtue of his power at Wikipedia, Connolley, a ruthless enforcer of the doomsday consensus, may be the world's most influential person in the global warming debate after Al Gore. Connolley routinely uses his editorial clout to tear down scientists of great accomplishment such as Fred Singer, the first director of the U.S. National Weather Satellite Service and a scientist with dazzling achievements. Under Connolley's supervision, Wikipedia relentlessly smears Singer as a kook who believes in Martians and a hack in the pay of the oil industry.


If you just enter "global warming" in google the first result you get points to the Wikipedia entry Connolley controls - and if you just wanted a two minute briefing on the subject you'd never know that the article is utterly and relentlessly dishonest.

It's possible to argue, however, that the global warming hypothesis was once grounded in science; has now become so politicized because this is the only way to get action; and therefore that the expression of activism through both censorship and exaggeration is justified. Moral issues aside, this is a means justifying the ends argument dependent on the provability of the underlying assumptions - a defense for Wikipedia which, whatever its merits with respect to climate change, would clearly not apply to something as apolitical as computer processor architectures.

And yet, the same kinds of distortions and omissions are found there.

Thus what's been allowed into the Wikipedia's primary article on CPUs focuses on Intel x86, includes numerous statements offered as fact that are simply not true (everything from the assertion that Intel was the first to create the microprocessor to the claimed design equivalence of Intel's multi-core packaging to Sun's CMT/SMP architecture), and essentially denies AMD's role in repeatedly forcing innovation within the x86 framework.

Exclusions work the same way too: just as the climate change article allows no hint of dissent, the CPU article gives the reader no hints that PPC derivatives dramatically out sell and out perform x86 while using less power and costing significantly less per operation per second.

What's going on in both cases is that sub-groups of the general community have captured these niches and are now using Wikipedia as a marketing tool for their viewpoints - and while that's expected and reasonable for agenda sites like groklaw or dailykos, it's fundamentally inappropriate in a site nominally dedicated to the provision of objective information.

But, given the structure, how could it be otherwise? Wikipedia invites community members to contribute and edit information - and given that people who advocate a position are more likely to be deeply committed to a particular viewpoint than their audience, how could site editors who're neither omniscient nor omnipresent hope to prevent the slide from objectivity to advocacy?

I don't believe they can, and therefore see Wikipedia's inability to maintain credibility in the face of its usefulness to propagandists as illustrative of a hypothesis I want to put forward for discussion: that no widely accessible social networking site can simultaneously give its users write access to the source material and protect itself from takeover by people with axes to grind.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.