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I have been editing Wikipedia articles as a registered user for a couple of months. I edited as an IP or anonymous user in the past, but usually just making a correction or two here and there, with a single major exception.

Wikipedia is the worst of the Web. It is a large site that gets millions of hits every day. It is almost entirely white males of European ancestry. And they don’t like outsiders. And they don’t like experts. And they’re not too up on science. When science goes bad on Wikipedia, you usually wind up with a group of averageWikipedians, the in-crowd, supporting the producer of the bad science. This is due to the ways that bad science gets created on Wikipedia.

First of all, understand what Wikipedia is. It’s a social network far more powerful and successful than Facebook. The content is driven by the largely white male, European-ancestry, computer savvy population with lots of time on their hands; the averageWikipedian is not like the rest of the world, he is far more privileged.

The bulk of content on the encyclopedia is created by a small subgroup of registered users. This group likes being on Wikipedia. It likes making thousands of edits. It likes fighting sock puppets and vandalism. But, it also doesn’t like outsiders. And, while it is hanging out making the encyclopedia, the averageWikipedian enjoys social networking with fellow like-minded and like editors to a high degree, sometimes to the exclusion of making those thousands of edits. It also craves recognition and praise for its participation in the social network, common to most participants in social networks. And they’re angry. All of the time. They are angry at experts. They are angry at each other. They are angry at IPs (unregistered users). They are angry at sock puppets. They are angry at vandals. In general, they are just angry with the self-righteousness of doing an important task well. They need praise for their self-worth.

Upworthiness on en.Wikipedia comes in a few ways. Here are some:

1. Your edit is preserved! (No one disappears the content you added.)

2. You write a Do You Know, it gets vetted (cough, cough) by another editor and winds up on the main page.

3. You write a Good Article (GA) or a Featured Article (FA) and get the acknowledgement and praise of the community for both, plus a prominent position on the main page for the FA.

4. You get a barn star from another user praising you for your accomplishments, good editing, fighting vandalism, all sorts of other reasons, including general sycophancy.

Subheading, general sycophancy and its relationship to article contributions:



5. You win the WikiCup! A contest where editors collect points for insanely editing and “improving” articles.

6. You become an administrator, even if you are clueless and lazy content-wise, rules-wise, and civility-wise.

7. You dominate a topical behind-the-scenes area.

8. You become an acknowledged expert in a Wikipedia project area.

9. You’re personal friends with Jimbo!

(Self-appointed Featured Article Director; decides, by himself, the appearance of one of the most viewed pages on the Web in a community that claims otherwise than elitism.)

10. You don’t get blocked, or you’re one of the trusted admins who hasn’t blocked him/herself.

The problem with all this social networking and everything done to keep it together is that these Wikipedia articles turn up at the top of Google searches. The social networking trumps the accuracy of scientific articles, also. An example of this in action is one of Wikipedia’s most prolific editors, the winner of numerous accolades from various other Wikipedia editors, User:Cwmhiraeth. I investigated some edits by this user because I was bothered by his/her propagation sections on plant articles that I had seen on the main page; they were basically from horticulture books, how to grow sections. This was a minor detail, that the propagation sections were gardening tips. When I commented at the Good Article review, where editors help decide whether an article meets the criteria to be classified as a Good Article, I was met by a hostile editor who claimed to be the only editor allowed to review the article prior to it being declared a Good Article. This side-tracked me, and I started looking into the quality of other articles created by this award-winning editor, and I was shocked to find crap. Pure crap.

User:Cwmhiraeth was also working on a couple of other articles for points for the WikiCup, including the article Desert. In this article, Cwmhiraeth claimed that all cacti did not have leaves and that C4 photosynthesis plants opened their stomata at night. Neither of these things are true, so I removed the misinformation from the Desert article and made a comment about it on the review page. Cwmhiraeth reverted my removal of the bad science from the Desert article and admonished me to “not remove chunks of sourced information as you did with the sentence on cacti, thereby interrupting the flow of the text. Cwmhiraeth (talk) 11:14, 28 September 2013 (UTC)”

This is a problem on Wikipedia. Wikipedians call it “Randy in Boise” syndrome. Cwmhiraeth does not actually know enough about deserts and has difficulties reading scientific information; when I removed bad science,  Cwmhiraeth simply restored it. Cwmhiraeth claims that the information is sourced, but the article in question, the article cited as the source, is in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and is not bad science. It does not say that C4 plants open their stomata at night to allow CO2 to enter. Yet, Cwmhiraeth read that this is the mechanism used by CAM photosynthesis plants and appears to have extrapolated this information into how C4 plants are adapted to arid conditions. There is no basis for this extrapolation.

I continued looking through Cwmhiraeth’s contributions, and I found another gem, well, maybe a turd, an article that he/she had approved for being a Do You Know destined for Wikipedia’s main page. The article on Oman’s Jiddat al-Harasis desert had a strange Wikilink in it. Wikilinks are internal links within an article. If an article uses a technical word, it is useful for the reader to link that word to the article on the topic with Wikipedia.

The Jiddat al-Harasis article was a real turd. It was almost entirely incomprehensible; and it contained a lot of bad science. But it had a Wikilink turd that really showed the level of non-scientific editing at Wikipedia. The desert is one of the few places on Earth where one can find lunar meteorites. The article, of course, didn’t include this information. However, it described the “chemistry” of a particular lunar meteorite as ” inferred as a ‘complete stone with no remaining fusion crust’ with chemical composition of ‘Troctolite olivine, Fa17–24.3, feldspar, An96.5’.” The editor who had added this gem/turd, not Cwmhiraeth, had then linked An to whatever he thought it was. In the source, Fa is an abbreviation for the Fayelite composition of a basalt, and An is a geological abbreviation for the Anorthite content of a feldspar. The author could not figure out what “Fa” was an abbreviation for and did not Wikilink it, but he took a guess at “An” and came up with Ammonium nitrate. First, the source he copied the information from just includes it as a comment, not as the “chemical composition,” and second, nowhere on the page does it mention ammonium nitrate. However, the editors who created the article simply did not have the background knowledge that would allow them to use a table of scientific information about a meteorite. They had options; they could have left the information out. They chose, however, to include it and simply guess at what it meant. An? “AN.” Link it to a fertilizer component!

Yes, this is Wikipedia science: you, as an editor, don’t know something, so you just guess at it. Cwm guessed that no cacti have leaves, guessed that C4 plants opened their stomata at night. The Oman desert article editors guessed that An in an article about the composition of meteorites meant ammonium nitrate.

I did help the editors fix the Omani desert article; it was eventually “promoted” to DYK status and made it to the main page of Wikipedia. The two main editors, and a couple of other editors, worked hard to correct the article; it is a useful piece of information on the Web for English language speakers about an important world ecosystem with few English friendly sources available. However, the initial response to my stating that the article was a complete disaster was for the editors to accuse me of a high crime on en.Wikipedia, “pointiness,” which means that by corrrecting the bad science, I was “disrupting” the creation of the encyclopedia.

That’s right, that is what correcting bad science is to Wikipedia insider editors: it is “disruption.”

This blog is about the bad science on Wikipedia and its creators and the symptoms that lead to its creation and distribution throughout the Web. More to come!

Previews: the 5000 bad articles and the “PhD” student who created them; picture vetting; angry angre admins