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.

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