August 18, 2022


Slick Healthy

Larry Moran discovers the quicksand that is Wikipedia

I tell my students that they are not allowed to cite Wikipedia in their papers. Sure, you can browse it to get a general idea on a topic, but then you have to do the work of delving into the scientific literature to figure out what’s actually happening. There also doesn’t seem to be much validation of what Wikipedia does cite. The article on non-coding DNA still cites Nessa Carey! I read her book, and my god, it is a muddled mess of badly written pop pseudoscience.

Larry Moran is confident that Wikipedia is a useful resource and that it could be made better, so he waded into the morass and decided to try editing that non-coding DNA article. He’s a more optimistic person than I am. He decided to fix a lot of bad references made by people who don’t have a tenth the expertise on the subject he does…and discovers how they deal with interlopers.

The introduction has been restored to the version that talks about the ENCODE project and references Nessa Carey’s book. I tried to move that paragraph to the section on the ENCODE project and I deleted the reference to Carey’s book on the grounds that it is not scientifically accurate [see Nessa Carey doesn’t understand junk DNA]. The Wikipedia police have restored the original version three times without explaining why they think we should mention the ENCODE results in the introduction to an article on non-coding DNA and without explaining why Nessa Carey’s book needs to be referenced.

Nowadays, the only people I see citing ENCODE are creationists, so I am unimpressed that Wikipedia does not like people who can put the study in context. It seems to be official policy that no experts are allowed to edit bad wikipedia articles — they have a point of view, which is very bad.

Here is an editor, Ramos1990, explaining the rules to him.

There is no way to verify who you are on wikipedia. Many people claim to be famous people here so that is not an argument that is valid or carries any weight on wikipedia. And merely claiming it is not a reason for anyone to believe what you are saying either. On top of that if you really are Larry Moran then there is conflict of interest issues where you cannot push your POV on an article. Especially since there are other viewpoints on the matter, for instance Carey and Pennisi whom you want to get rid of an censor out of the article.

Hmmm. Larry was not claiming that you should believe him because he’s famous; Kim Kardashian is far more famous, but I don’t think she knows much about biochemistry. He’s saying he’s a reputable authority on a narrow topic. What wikipedia is saying is that they won’t do anything to verify a source, and if they did, they’d have to reject him because he has a POV. Which means that wiki editors are all fundamentally anonymous, and they have to pretend they don’t have a POV even when they patently do. It’s a weird situation.

Here, for instance, is the bio for Ramos1990.

The Sciences (esp. Chemistry), Engineering, Mathematics, History of Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Archaeology, Philosophy, Secularism/Religion, Atheism and other related stuff. The world has lots of good stuff to study.

That is not a catalog of their expertise. That’s a list of ‘stuff’ that interests them. They could be a bumbling dilettante or a brilliant polymath, and there’s no way to tell. But, apparently, all that matters is that they have no POV and can put up the illusion of impartiality, even on subjects where expertise is needed to sort out the complexities and make a reasonable assessment. The epistemology of Wikipedia is a very strange thing in which it is official policy that you are not allowed to know how anyone knows what they claim to know.

This comment on Larry’s site is worth noting:

The “corrections” at Wikipedia and the statement by the head of the NIHGR are certainly depressing. The both reflect the consensus among genomicists and molecular biologists. That in turn is based on their very limited grasp of molecular evolution. On the other side is the near-unanimous consensus among molecular evolutionists that there is lots of junk DNA. That is based on their actually understanding the processes of inserting junk and removing it. Unfortunately there are many more genomicists and molecular biologists, so the vote is still heavily against junk DNA. Wikipedia has the strength and the limitation that it is a dominant-consensus view, and we can see that in a case like this it serves to reinforce a wrong dominant consensus. Perhaps someday soon there will be a page on “Junk DNA controversy” in which the pro-junk side will get to edit the description of what we say. When the 2012 ENCODE disaster occurred, I predicted gloomily that it would take the field 10 years to get back to where it was. Those 10 years are nearly done, and things still look bad. I have more recently started telling people that it will take more like 20 years. Actually, 30 might be more like it.

Unfortunately, that was said by Joe Felsenstein, a world-renowned authority on molecular evolution, so it’s invalid in Wikipedia’s eyes.

I’ll be continuing to tell my students that Wikipedia is untrustworthy, and that they shouldn’t cite it, ever.