Mar 25 2014

Standards of Evidence – Wikipedia Edition

There are many public intellectual debates occurring over scientific and skeptical issues – the place of creationism vs evolution in public science classes, the including of alternative medicine in academic curricula, the validity of debate on global warming, etc.

Many of these issues, while important, are proxy issues for a deeper cultural conflict – the role of standards in the intellectual, academic, and scientific spheres.

Scientific skeptics (whether they go by that label or not) generally take the position that there should be fair and reasonable standards by which to evaluate any factual claim or intellectual position. We need a process to ensure that our collective thinking is logically valid, balanced in it judgments, and properly accounts for all available evidence. With regard to empirical claims, we call this process science, but these virtues are generic to any intellectual endeavor.

Therefore, what gets taught is public science classrooms should meet some reasonable standard to be consider part of mainstream science. The standard of care in medicine should follow some evaluation of evidence and outcome. Peer-reviewed scientific or academic journals need to have a standard of quality and transparency. Licensed professionals should be required to meet some standard of professionalism, knowledge, and ability.

Underlying all of these issues is the more fundamental issue of standards.

There are those, however, who do not want standards. It is not by coincidence that these are the people who do not or cannot meet existing standards. They feel it is better to whine about the standards than to improve the quality of their claims and arguments.

They typically will characterize quality standards as oppressive, closed minded, protectionist, and elitist. As they continue down that rabbit hole, they further claim that standards are really just part of a conspiracy by those in power to protect their privilege or world view.

I am, in fact, happy to see this basic struggle apply to Wikipedia, because it means that Wikipedia has sufficient standards in place to at least annoy some cranks enough to complain about it.

A petition on, in fact, asks Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, to be more open to fringe claims about “holistic” medicine. They hit all the red flags about interpreting standards as a conspiracy, and name skeptics as the primary perpetrators of this conspiracy.

You can read the entire text, and some more commentary on the issue, at Respectful Insolence.

Here is Jimmy Wales response:

No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.
Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.
What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.

Nicely done. Wales is essentially saying, we have standards. Deal with it.

As Orac points out, however, you have to be careful about using publication in peer-reviewed journals as a dominant criterion. The infiltration of nonsense into academia is such (combined with the proliferation of low-quality journals) that this is an insufficient criterion.

But the broader point is well made. There are standards of what is consider a legitimate claim. If you can’t meet that standard, stop whining about it, and certain don’t expect Wikipedia to lower their editorial standards just to let in your particular brand of nonsense.

This one definitely goes in the win column.

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