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?

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