Constructing the Digital Universe

April 18, 2006

“Is There a Neutral View on George W. Bush?”

Filed under: Neutrality, Wikipedia — Larry Sanger @ 11:36 pm

Mark Glaser has written an op-ed piece arguing, rather poorly, that "if you open it [any encyclopedia?] up for anyone to edit, you’re asking for anything but neutrality."  His argument appears to be that, since in his opinion the Wikipedia article about George W. Bush is not neutral, therefore Wikipedia is incapable of achieving neutrality, and therefore by implication any Web resource that is open is doomed to bias.  (His article is filed under "citizen journalism" and "wikis".)

This is, of course, a fallacious argument.

Glaser fails to distinguish the policy from Wikipedia's implementation of it.  Neutrality, as I formulated it on behalf of Wikipedia (and the Digital Universe will have a similar policy), requires that information, article topics, everything concerning a topic be presented in a way that all sides (in this case, Bush's detractors and his defenders) can recognize as adequately sympathetic, given that the other sides' views are represented in an equally sympathetic way.  Now, if it is true that the article selection and wording of articles about Bush are sympathetic to Bush-bashers but not Bush-lovers, then Wikipedia is to be criticized for failing to follow its own policy.

But to conclude from this one failure, if it is a failure, that Wikipedia as a whole fails to be neutral is what we call an "overgeneralization."  And to conclude that neutrality is actually impossible from this one case is an even further stretch.  Some people have said that Wikipedia's most aggressive and active participants do push it in one political direction.  Is Glaser committing himself to the claim that all open resources will be similarly pushed?  What if there is an enforceable policy against that?  Surely Glaser isn't saying that no project could have an enforceable policy against neutrality just because Wikipedia doesn't successfully enforce its own policy in all cases?

Of course, what makes Glaser's column interesting is the suggestion that he has given some good reason to think that neutrality, in the sense defined by Wikipedia, is either impossible or not a worthy aim (perhaps because it's impossible?).  As a philosopher, I would be very interested to read an actual argument that supports that conclusion, but Glaser has not offered one.  He has simply offered innuendo.

To make matters worse, at the end of the post, he says: "What do you think? Is there a way to explain the life and times of George W. Bush with a neutral point of view? Point us the way."  The implication here seems to be that the burden rests on those who believe that it is possible to represent a debate fairly–in a way that all sides can regard as fair–without actually taking a side.  But surely the burden does not rest on those people, because anyone can find zillions of perfectly neutral articles in Wikipedia and in a host of other sources.  Neutrality is possible.  It is, however, an art that requires practice and a deep understanding of rhetoric and the subject matter.  It's hard to get right.  That doesn't mean that it isn't worth the old college try.  Suggesting, as Glaser seems to be doing, that it is impossible for an open project to achieve neutrality "and perhaps misguided" will actually excuse people who do write unfair, biased prose.  Back when I was in charge of Wikipedia, I often dealt with people who criticized Wikipedia's neutrality policy as impossible and then proceeded to write egregiously biased entries.  Surely Glaser doesn't want to encourage that sort of person?



  1. Dear Larry,

    I am glad that you wrote this response, as it was important to see it from the point of view of the person who developed the Neutral Point of View policy. It is a pity that Wikipedia does not point this out clearly enough, as you should be given all due credit for this.

    I have written my response to the article on the article itself, and feel no need to add further comment, other than to say thank you to you for giving your voice. It will help greatly in enabling people to understand the issue.


    Comment by Blissyu2 — April 19, 2006 @ 2:01 am

  2. I think this is an excellent commentary on the issues Wikipedia is currently facing.

    If I may extend your comment about Wikipedia’s *implementation* of the NPOV policy, I would note that people are expecting the wrong thing from Wikipedia. The expectation is that Wikipedia has already achieved its goal of neutrality. Far from it! “Wikipedia” is an ambiguous term. It refers both to the encyclopaedia and the project to build that encyclopaedia. We can therefore see that Wikipedia isn’t finished! We haven’t made it yet! Nor, indeed, do we claim to have done.

    Now, this could easily be taken as excusing Wikipedia’s errors, along the lines of “It’s not our problem – you shouldn’t expect us to be perrfect”. On the contrary. You SHOULD expect us to be perfect. You SHOULD get cross when we don’t manage it. If people don’t get annoyed with bias and inaccuracies, they’ll never get fixed. But, all the same, we aren’t going to manage all this straightaway, however much we should.

    There are certainly legitimate criticisms of Wikipedia-the-project. Lack of respect for experts in their fields is an issue, and it is one that needs to be addressed. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Wikipedia should take their words as gospel truth. That would contravene the idea of NPOV. But it does mean that give them respect when they edit and give them credit for their credentials (this notably already happens in the field of theology with several users). And it is certainly possible to criticise Wikipedia-the-encyclopaedia’s current state.

    But I agree with Larry, here, that Wikipedia’s goals *are* achievable, and I believe this can happen with the open environment remaining intact. However, it does need some changing, particularly in respect towards people who are experts in their field.

    And yes, George W. Bush is currently a very, very difficult subject to be neutral on. But truth is the daughter of time, and, I believe, a neutral Wikipedia article on Bush will happen.

    Just not quite yet.

    Comment by Sam Korn — April 19, 2006 @ 4:56 am

  3. I think that a neutral article on GWB could happen very easily, for the record. The problem is that in making it neutral, you would need to remove a lot of the content.

    If you said, for example:

    “George W. Bush was born on (date) in (area) and his father, George H. Bush was a former president. George W. Bush was governor of Texas and is currently president of USA”.

    Things along those lines are purely factual and hence neutral.

    The problem is that the “meat”, or the interesting areas of an article by their very nature cannot be neutral. You could easily make every article neutral, but to do so you would need to make them all very short, and rather useless. I personally prefer a biased article that teaches me something to a neutral article that teaches me nothing. There is nothing wrong with bias, as long as we have some idea what that bias is, and account for it. Just so long as it is factually accurate.

    Comment by Blissyu2 — April 19, 2006 @ 8:45 am

  4. Larry, the argument I was making was that it seems to me nearly impossible to write a neutral entry for controversial subjects such as George W. Bush.

    I didn’t say that all Wikipedia entries have problems with NPOV, or that it wasn’t achievable in some cases. But I wondered whether NPOV was possible in these particular cases with an open system. I can see that Wikipedia is trying to close off edits or monitor them more closely on some subjects. Is that still an open system? And who decides what to close off?

    I don’t claim to have all the answers, and that’s why I closed by asking for other people’s opinions on this. I appreciate hearing yours.

    I think that achieving NPOV for controversial subjects is difficult, and only possible when you include more controls, more moderation and a clear, transparent chain of who’s deciding what.

    Or if you neuter the article, as Blissyu2 suggests.

    Can you explain why you left Wikipedia?

    Comment by Mark Glaser — April 19, 2006 @ 12:32 pm

  5. Mark, I don’t mean to be overly critical here, but saying “it seems to me nearly impossible to write a neutral entry for controversial subjects such as George W. Bush” is not by itself an argument but merely an assertion. As a philosopher and former logic teacher, I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to what is called an “argument.” I’d be curious to hear actual substantive reasons why this is nearly impossible! For just average people, unlikely, yes; rare in any case, yes; but does that mean nearly impossible for any conceivable open system? To claim that without an argument, anyway, belies sufficient imagination (and awareness of what the DU is up to 🙂 ).

    I left Wikipedia for reasons stated here, here, and (earlier) here. Bomis lost the ability to pay me (I was the last of many Bomis employees to be laid off, I was told), and I was not about to devalue my labor by continuing to do what I was doing without pay; besides, I needed a job. But I permanently distanced myself from the project, and later began criticizing it, because it was clear to me that Jimmy Wales did not personally intend to do what it would take to solve the problems I described here. Then, surely not by coincidence, I was hired by Joe Firmage to work with Bernard Haisch and many others to build the Digital Universe.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 19, 2006 @ 12:45 pm

  6. I think both arguments have valid points to an extent. The problem is that anything anyone presents will not ever be completely neutral. Human beings are not objective- they have been shaped since birth to adopt the biases that surround them. Yes, word choices can reveal subtle (obvious to those trained to notice) hints to author biases and slants of articles, yet, the fact that someone chooses a particular article is a result of a lack of neutrality. I personally feel that it is uncommon to see people who are indifferent to a topic actually make the effort to volunteer and submit an article on it. Every academic that is expected to present “objective” or “neutral” data recognizes the shortcomings of being human- that cultural influences creates subjective beings. Historians and journalists for example, know how the statements of recognized facts can fail to present a impartial submission of data. Recognition that qualified experts should have significant weight in the presentation of relevant data must be combined with transparency in an attempt to create a reliable open source encyclopedia/database. Neutrality is always an issue, but the spread of sound information should be elevated past this. I think it would be more effective for author biases to be stated so that later in hindsight, when the “facts” have changed, there will be documentation as to the circumstances (why was this data originally presented as such??). Stating both sides of the “argument” could be a daunting task when you consider everything is not black or white. If you do attempt to be neutral with everything, what various sides will be presented evenly? Will the most neutral article by Western standards honestly be seen as unbiased to all societies? Changing ideologies and innovations will nonetheless change what we assume to be factual. Can you effectively negate biases from every side when you may not even be aware of all the sides to a topic? When historians look at all their data from varying sources they pull out a pattern and write a history that they can conclude from the similarities and differences. Those histories still continue to be biased. I think that presenting the general consensus that has been subjected to a peer review of experts in the appropriate fields will result in the most reliable public resource.

    Comment by Andrea McClure — April 19, 2006 @ 10:13 pm

  7. I believe that part of the problem is that people do not really understand NPOV. I am not sure that I can judge if an article is NPOV or not, as I have my own viewpoint. Even if I try to view it from the eyes of other sides, how am I sure I have not missed some other view? Nevertheless, I strive to try and incorporate all of the views that I can (that I can also find sources for).
    As it is, NPOV is already a challenge, but on Wikipedia it becomes Sisyphean. Other people will come in and make changes that are meant to be biased. In some cases people are trying to make something NPOV, but they do not really understand NPOV (this seems to be a common problem). I, like you, do not view this as a failure of NPOV, but as a failure of Wikipedia.

    Comment by James Turick — April 21, 2006 @ 10:19 am

  8. James, I agree completely on both points, which I’ll underscore. Through long experience I have come to realize that people simply see the phrase “neutral point of view” and assume it means whatever they think it means. And they’re usually wrong. Moreover, and this is the worse problem, Wikipedia has no system whereby egregious violators of the neutrality policy are effectively taken to task. You’re right that people (often the same people who conveniently claim that neutrality is impossible) frequently make changes that are meant to be biased. It’s now on the management of Wikipedia to do something about these problems; but there is nothing effective that can be done, without more mature oversight.

    The Digital Universe really is the solution.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 21, 2006 @ 10:24 am

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