Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ridiculous Fascination

There is a fascinating discussion underway for the past two weeks on the Wikipedia Administrators' Notice Board. It concerns the status of this writer, who has been indefinitely blocked on the English Wikipedia since 9/11 of last year. The blocking notice currently reads as follows:

You are currently unable to edit pages on Wikipedia.

You can still read pages, but cannot edit, change, or create them.

Editing from Moulton (your account, IP address, or IP address range) has been disabled by FeloniousMonk for the following reason(s):

Disruptive editing: Restoring community ban, arbcom rejected reopening case. no grounds for undertow to reduce ban duration

This block has been set to expire: indefinite.

Even if blocked, you will usually still be able to edit your user talk page and contact other editors and administrators by email.

The aforementioned discussion seeks to arrive at a community-wide consensus on whether the status displayed above was properly arrived at.

Viewpoints vary.

One observer likened my memorable experience to being "mugged" in a Massive Multi-Player Online Narcissistic Wounding and Mugging Game (MMPONWMG). Elsewhere, other observers have commented on how ridiculous the game appears to be, wondering whether noting the ridiculousness of the game is grounds for exclusion from playing it.

It all reminds me of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote a mostly forgotten short story, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man."

Whether Dostoevsky's allegory has any meaning in this context, I leave it for qualified literary analysts to opine.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Quickening Pace of Progress

The rate of progress in bringing the Wikipedia article on A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism up to standards (in terms of accuracy, excellence, and ethics in online media) appears to be picking up the pace. An anonymous editor identified only by an IP address has introduced a crucial improvement in the opening sentence:

A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism (or Dissent From Darwinism) is the name given to a petition notable for its use in promoting intelligent design. It is a list of signatories attesting to a statement, produced by the Discovery Institute, expressing skepticism about the ability of natural selection to account for the complexity of life, and encouraging careful examination of the evidence for "Darwinism". This list was first published in advertisements under an added introduction which stated that its signatories dispute the assertion that Darwin’s theory of evolution fully explains the complexity of living things, and dispute that "all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution".[1][2]

The most important part is the insertion of "the name given to". This important edit now helps the reader appreciate that the name given to the petition by the DI is not the name on the petition (it actually had no printed title on it at all). The article still doesn't reveal that the name initially appeared as the headline in the advertisement cited in Ref #1.

I hope our intrepid IP editor also attends to the "See also" section where the List of signatories to "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" takes the reader to another article that begins:

These are some of the individuals who have signed the Discovery Institute's pro-intelligent design/anti-evolution statement, A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

So once again, we need to revise that to correct the inaccurate characterization of this list as living persons whom Wikipedia has inexplicably identified as proponents of ID or opponents of evolution.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Is the Rate of Progress?

On Monday, I published an article here on the Media Ethics blog entitled, What Is the Name of This Problem?

I also copied it, verbatim, to a discussion thread on Wikipedia Review.

Today, I noticed on my watchlist that there had been some new activity on the article on A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism.

Yesterday, it seems, a Wikipedian named WAS 4.250, boldly undertook to correct a long-festering inaccuracy in that article. And he also posted a comment about it on the article's talk page. Having moved the ball closer to the goal line of accuracy, excellence, and ethics, the defending editors pushed back with all their might, so there was modest net gain in yardage at the end of two days. The article still does not acknowledge that the name, "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" was originally just the headline on the Anti-PBS ad of 2001.

I suppose I might have used the same 32-word petition in an ad headlined "100 Scientists Urge Rigorous Adherence to the Protocols of the Scientific Method When Examining Evidence in Support of Scientific Theories" followed by a couple of paragraphs of advertising copy explaining what that means. And I suppose I could have later launched a promotional web site, RigorInScience.Org, soliciting even more signatures. I wonder if those 100 scientists would have smiled in approval or frowned in disapproval of the way I had interpreted and promoted their previously untitled statement.

When I wrote the blog article on Monday, the key references were #19 and #20, buried deep in the article. Now the key references are #1 and #2. That's as it should be, since they are the references one must examine to sort {fact} from fiction PR spin.

So good for you, WAS 4.250. You're a mensch in my book. We've come a long way in a mere 10 months. We're halfway to the goal now. Zeno would be kvelling in his grave.

And thanks to Wikipedian PelleSmith, too, for pointing out that whatever goes for the main article goes for the WP:COATRACKS out there in that ever-hazardous BLP space.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What Is the Name Of This Problem?

Wikipedia has begun to recognize that it has a huge problem with biographies of living people.

But that's not what I want to talk about in this post.

What I want to talk about today is akin to a tiny pea under a pile of mattresses.

But it's an annoying pea that illustrates the subtlety of reckoning ethics in online media.

For the past ten months, I have sought, with notable lack of success, to raise to the attention of editors on Wikipedia a seemingly insignificant error that has caused a number of people considerable grief.

The problem arises because the editors of several related articles on Wikipedia insisted on incorrectly labeling a 2001 document that had become the centerpiece of a national controversy.

There is an article entitled "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" which describes a 2-sentence petition and a sponsoring web site promoting it. The problem is that the name attached to the petition and the purposes to which it has been put by its sponsor have varied and evolved since the document first was circulated in academia back in 2001. Among the signatories to this petition, the first 100 are said to be the most notable and most prominent scientists and academics. They are the ones who had signed the petition in question in 2001, prior to its first known publication.

Let's take a close look at the article in Wikipedia. First look at the main section, Statement, just below the article table of contents. Note that the text of the statement is in a pink box, with the italicized title outside the box. So far, so good. Below the pink box with the 32-word statement, the article continues, "The statement, and its title, refer to ..." Notice how the authors of this article have distinguished the 32-word statement from the 5-word title. In a minute you'll discover why. But first look at the balance of that section carefully, with special attention to the degree of ambiguity as to what it is that the petition is a "dissent from." Notice the article is now referring to "the petition" which is ambiguous, because we don't know if 'petition' refers just to the 32-word statement, or to the 32-word statement plus the 5-word title as a package.

Now we come to the next section, Discovery Institute usage, which talks about a "list of names" that the Discovery Institute has published in various paid advertisements, beginning in 2001.

Now it's time to drill down to the primary sources, which are references 19 and 20 in the current version of the article. Reference 19 goes to a press release from the Discovery Institute that has some bylined text followed by a bold-faced title, an italicized 32-word statement in quotes, and then a list of about 100 signatories. Reference 20 goes to a facsimile of the printed ad, as it appeared in the NY Times and other publications around September/October 2001. This is the best source. Look at it carefully.

It is a newspaper ad with a headline, two paragraphs of advertising copy and then a gray box with a 32-word statement in quotes, surrounded by the same list of about 100 names.

Now, here is the Socratic part, dear reader:
  1. What is the headline of the advertisement?

  2. What is the title of the statement inside the gray box? (Is there one?)

  3. If you were a journalist, what would be your evidence and reasoning to support the notion that those 100 scientists put their signature to a document that contained both a 5-word title and a 32-word statement?
Is it journalistically accurate and ethical to say that those 100 scientists put their names to a petition bearing the title, "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism"?

See also the cited analysis by Skip Evans, published by the NCSE shortly after the ad first appeared, which raises similar concerns about how the Discovery Institute had reframed and recontextualized the 32-word statement by framing it with a headline and two paragraphs of advertising copy suggesting how they'd like the public to interpret it.

Until last week, Wikipedia had prominently tagged the biographies of any of those scientists as "Signatories of the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism". That category tag has since been removed from Wikipedia, although it remains as a list, which includes those 100 scientists and academics who did not sign a petition bearing that name.