Sunday, January 13, 2013

Wikipedia Flunks Again

"It's Wikipedia again."
I hate to single out Wikipedia as a hopelessly putrid cesspool of amateur pedantry masquerading as knowledge, but frankly its authors (some of them, at least; not all) leave me little choice. One cannot wade into Wikipedia's murky waters, and hope to survive the experience, without wearing the linguistic equivalent of a hazmat suit.

Recently (don't ask me why), I ran into the following bit of verbal chunder floating around on the Cultural Cognition page. This is the first paragraph under the first subheading ("Cultural Cognition Thesis") of the article.

A study, by Dan M. Kahan and his colleagues, collected data on the climate-change risk perceptions of large representative samples of US adults. The study measured assessments of two opposing viewpoints of public opinion on climate change. Science Comprehension thesis (SCT) argues that because the public does not presumably know the information scientists do about climate change, they do not take it as seriously. Cultural cognition thesis (CCT) argues that people tend to form opinions of risk based on their social and cultural group they identify with. CCT model findings: People, who subscribe to a hierarchical, individualistic world-view that ties authority to social rankings and avoids interference with the decisions of such authority, tend to be skeptical of environmental risks. They perceive that widespread acceptance of climate change risks would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry. These are things hierarchical individualists value. In contrast, people who hold an egalitarian, communitarian world-view, which favors looser social organization and attending to collective needs over individualistic ones, usually are suspicious of commerce and industry. As a result, they find those industries worthy of restriction. The research data shows that egalitarian communitarians are more concerned than hierarchical individualists with climate change risks.

How does one even begin to tease apart such a confused tangle of pseudo-academic blather? The author of this entry begins by telling us about a study (attributed, without a reference, to one Dan M. Kahan and his nameless colleagues). After two sentences, the Kahan study is never heard from again. Instead, we go straight into "Science Comprehension thesis" (which is never defined, and for which there is no Wikipedia entry), but after one sentence, we never hear anything about that again, either.

I keep seeing the word "hierarchical" in this passage (as in "hierarchical individualists"), but it's not at all clear what the logical connection is between hierachy and any of the concepts presented. Why do we care about hierarchy? What does it have to do with anything?

It turns out the connection with hierarchy traces to work done by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas. She introduces the concept in her book Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology  (which, interestingly enough, has nothing whatsoever to do with astrophysics). A full discussion of Douglas is beyond the scope of this blog, of course. The important point is that by omitting a discussion of Douglas's well-known (to cultural anthropologists) "group vs. grid" way of looking at social organization, in which hierarchy is paramount, the author of the Cultural Cognition article not only confuses readers but destroys the meaning of the entire passage.

What's the author trying to say? The Wikipedia entry is about Cultural Cognition, so let's assume the author is trying to write about that. It seems logical to start by stating what cultural cognition is. So do that first. Then explain how the theory might be used to make some sort of prediction(s). If research exists to support the prediction(s), mention it and give citations.

If my only task is to rewrite the paragraph shown above (rather than seal it in a lead-lined container and bury it in the Nevada desert), I would (over)simplify it as follows:

The Cultural Cognition theory of risk centers on the idea that people tend to form opinions of risk based on the values of the social group with which they self-identify. Under this theory, people who favor an individual-centric worldview tend to identify with a cultural perspective that devalues collective needs. Similarly, people who favor an egalitarian or communitarian worldview identify with a cultural perspective that values collective needs over individual ones. These differing perspectives give rise to culturally biased risk perceptions, wherein an individual's own assessment of risk is colored by, for example, political beliefs. [reference needed]

If it turns out that the foregoing explanation is too simplistic and ignores relevant aspects of Douglas's group-grid theory, then group-grid theory needs to be introduced first, with a paragraph that begins something like: "In order  to understand Cultural Cognition theory, it's first necessary to understand Douglas's group-grid formulation of cultural worldviews."

If studies exist to back up the cultural cognition theory, they should be discussed in a separate paragraph (and appropriate citations given).

But frankly, fixing this type of Wikipedia entry is a fool's errand. The passage as written can't be made whole with mere revision any more than a Toyota Camry that's been broadsided by a locomotive can be made whole with mere replacement of damaged parts. It's out-and-out junk. Unfixable garbage, front to back. Do not try to repair. Do not remove plastic cover. No user serviceable parts.

In a word: FUBAR.


  1. Well, if it's so bad and you're knowledgeable, rewrite it! Or at least flag the text for editing. Wikipedia is a community resource. It depends on public participation in order to fix problems. This is like complaining about a problem with Linux or Firefox, but never contributing a patch or at least filing a bug report.

    I've rewritten Wikipedia articles before. Hopefully, these were improvements on others' work. Likewise, people have revised my contributions - which I was very happy to see. My point is that if you want Wikipedia to be better, make it better. The bar for contributing is set pretty low, and this is a feature (not a bug).

  2. Anonymous6:08 PM

    I had to do a double-take on the opening sentence, but once I had digested the context, I didn't have any trouble dis-un-orientatering myself intowards the meaning, ergo, visa vie, concordantly... Oh nevermind.

  3. I never understood how Wikipedia attracts contributors and who these people are. Why would writing for Wikipedia be an appealing choice for those writers who can actually write? Perhaps Wikipedia isn't communicating the advantages very well, or - more likely - there might not be many! If what you can write for Wikipedia is good writing, then why not publish it elsewhere under your own name?

    And even for writers who can't write - would they learn anything as a result? Mere practice of writing helps for sure, but for truly effective learning you'd need a good mentor too. Does Wikipedia provide them? ;))

    1. Anonymous11:44 AM

      Social impact, duh.

      A wikipedia article is going to have a much larger exposure than a private essay elsewhere. Individually you will not be credited, but your work has a greater chance of entering into the public discourse. Writing about a subject you know about means you can prevent errors from creeping into people's understandings of things, while writing about stuff you don't gives you an opportunity to learn about something new in the process of researching for the article.

      Would you have even *heard* of Cultural Cognition Theory without a wikipedia article? I entirely doubt it. To some extent wikipedia these days defines essentially what exists.

      In the end, you might as well ask why people comment anonymously...

  4. I once felt as you did. And then on a few different occasions and for a few different reasons, I've found myself doing research on various unrelated dusty old topics, which of course means spitting in Wikipedia's eye and going straight to reliable sources, by which I mean: books.

    That seemed great at first. But I was digging pretty deep. And as I learned more about these topics, I began to see problems. Contradictions between one text and another. Huge, massive contradictions. Over and over again, I kept finding what I eventually came to recognize as "experts" (authors) passing off their pet theories as legitimate history by writing them down in books.

    This is when I realized the true (potential) power of Wikipedia. If something sucks in a book, what can you do? Historically all you'd do is write another book, which you'd hope would be published as widely and hopefully might correct the mistakes of the last book. And introduce a few of your own. This goes on for years and decades with absolutely no recourse. This is how myths are born, and how they grow and spread, and in some cases completely overtake whatever the truth might actually have been.

    But with Wikipedia, if it sucks (which is very often) you can fix it, if you know the answer. But even more importantly, if you aren't an expert and have no idea what is correct or not, you can go check out the talk page and find out which issues are contentious. There's no way to do this with a book.

    Or to put it another way, books are every bit as bad as Wikipedia, but with no way to ever find that out, let alone fix it.

    So who edits Wikipedia? Yes, a lot of idiots. But hopefully a few experts might wade in and contribute some information and a conversation that was utterly unthinkable in the age of books. So as hard it might seem to fix that article, the miracle of the modern age is that it is, in fact, fixable.


  5. Wikipedia sucks, but everything else sucks more. Much like democracy.


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