Saturday, September 24, 2011

A neutral point of view?

The 'The Neutral Point of View' rule is the second best known rule on Wikipedia. (The first is ‘verifiability, not truth', which I will talk about later). I have been doing some research on how this rule became a part of Wikipedia. An early version was completed by Larry Sanger for Nupedia in November 2000, as part of his editorial policy guidelines. Section D of part III on General Nupedia Policies (‘Lack of Bias’) contains the core idea of the neutrality principle.

Sanger’s test for lack of bias is whether it is difficult or impossible for the reader to determine what view the author holds. This in turn means that “for each controversial view discussed, the author of an article (at a bare minimum) mention various opposing views that are taken seriously by any significant minority of experts (or concerned parties) on the subject”. He adds that, in a final version of an article, “every party to the controversy in question must be able to judge that its views have been fairly presented, or as fairly as is possible in a context in which other, opposing views must also be presented as fairly as possible” (my emphasis).

In a second attempt at such a guideline, the ‘Neutral point of view’ policy drafted in December 2001, he writes “The neutral point of view attempts to present ideas and facts in such a fashion that both supporters and opponents can agree.” And “you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly”. And “to write without bias (from a neutral point of view) is to write so that articles do not advocate any specific points of view; instead, the different viewpoints in a controversy are all described fairly.” (my emphasis, again).

The principle, as stated, is fundamentally flawed. If one view that p is contrary to another q (meaning that p and q cannot both be true), then it is very easy to determine which view the author holds, on the assumption that he or she is rational, and wants to avoid inconsistency (i.e. avoid asserting two things that cannot both be true). And of course it would be absurd to suppose that an encyclopedia, a source of knowledge, true propositions, should be asserting inconsistent statements.  Thus, the view that the author holds to be true is the one that the article states as true, and all other contrary views must be represented as false, or as mere beliefs.    Sanger's criterion that it should be difficult or impossible for the reader to determine what view the author holds is  impossible to apply.

His use of the term ‘mention’, and ‘fairly’ suggests a way out. We can state what the view is, i.e. truly say what its adherents hold, without saying anything true or false ourselves. For example, the statement ‘Flat earthers hold that the earth is flat’ is true (that’s what they say, after all), even though ‘the earth is flat’ is false, as far as we know.

 But that is no good either, at least not in an encyclopedia. For example, the article on the World Geodetic System opens
The World Geodetic System is a standard for use in cartography, geodesy, and navigation. It comprises a standard coordinate frame for the Earth, a standard spheroidal reference surface (the datum or reference ellipsoid) for raw altitude data, and a gravitational equipotential surface (the geoid) that defines the nominal sea level.
It does not assert that this is what round-earthers say or believe, nor does it mention the views of Flat Earthers at all. Wikipedia, and other encyclopedias, represents mainstream scientific opinion as true, and only represents other significant views by way of true statements about what its adherents believe.

There is exactly the same difficulty with Sanger’s December 2001 version.
If we're going to represent the sum total of "human knowledge"--of what we believe we know, essentially--then we must concede that we will be describing views repugnant to us without asserting that they are false. [my emphasis]
Another way round the difficulty is the idea of including only ‘significant’ views on a subject. Thus, in the Nupedia 2000 policy, Sanger refers to views hold by a ‘significant minority of experts’. In the later Wikipedia 2001 policy he refers to “all different (significant, published) theories on all different topics”. This is better, but still weak, for two reasons. First, the ‘published’ criterion includes all sorts of nonsense. Second, whether a view is significant or not is a value judgment, and thus difficult to verify.

In summary, none of these ways of ensuring neutrality – or rather, getting a bunch of internet amateurs to agree on matters on which there is considerable disagreement, such as Neurolinguistic programming, Pedophilia, The Palestine question or even the name of the British Isles* - were likely to work, and the only solution in past disputes has been simply to ban the disputing parties. It is impossible to assert any proposition without asserting that it is true. Simply mentioning it as a belief of certain people is inappropriate in a reference work. And deferring to mainstream scientific opinion makes it simply a copy of mainstream scientific opinion (which is what an encyclopedia should be anyway).

The 'verifiablity' principle came a bit later.  More tomorrow, or next week.

* A notable and long-running dispute in Wikipedia. The talk page of the British Isles article runs to a whopping 39 archives. Among the protagonists was user ‘Sarah777’, accustomed to saying things like “I'm staggered (not) at how ill-informed some British Nationalist editors are in relation to the history and symbolism of the Union Jack. It is akin to Germans still using the Swastika to represent Germany”. was banned in May 2012 for “total failure to adhere to the most basic principles of editing in a collaborative environment”.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Belette said...

S7 was always a bit of a pain - I remember from my days as an admin. Its a shame she won't be banned until next year.

6:16 pm  
Blogger Phronesis said...

«If one view that p is contrary to another q (meaning that p and q cannot both be true), then it is very easy to determine which view the author holds (...)»
Not exactly. "Some men are free" and "Some men are not free" are contrary to another and they both can be true (altough they can't be both false).

«Thus (...) Sanger's criterion that it should be difficult or impossible for the reader to determine what view the author holds is impossible to apply.»
Take the book 'Four Systems': what the author Carl Cohen attempts is to present each of the four political systems of the title (socialist democracy, individualist democracy, fascism and communism) as persuasively as the others - precisely in a neutral point of view. Now, take fascism and individualist democracy , for instance: they may be said to be opposite views and yet they can be presented in a sort of neutral point of view.
Or, if we are to be exposed to arguments on the issue of the permissibility of abortion, on what grounds should the article's author decide which one is true?
(This is far from suggesting that there is no truth or any such post-modernist claim.)
Paulo Lopes

6:16 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Some men are free" and "Some men are not free" are contrary to another

They are subcontraries, not contraries.

6:25 pm  
Blogger Phronesis said...

«Some men are free" and "Some men are not free" are contrary to another
They are subcontraries, not contraries.»
Thank you for your correction, which is entirely correct, of course (what I had in mind was 'opposed' but then I run inadvertently after your own expression).
(As for the possibility of presenting two (or more) opposing perspectives in a neutral point of view, it sems I can stand my ground.)

10:31 pm  

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