Whether you like it or not, Wikipedia has become the de facto source when you want fast access to information on, well, just about anything. Some studies suggest Wikipedia is generally a pretty reliable source of information. But new research suggests that even if Wikipedia is usually reliable, disputes over politically controversial science pages could prevent users from getting the facts they need.
“As our society turns to Wikipedia as a primary source of scientific information, it is vital we read it critically and with the understanding that the content is dynamic and vulnerable to vandalism and other shenanigans,” ecologists Adam Wilson and Gene Likens write in PLoS One.
Likens has something of a personal stake in this. He was among the first scientists to study acid rain and its link to air pollution, and he won the National Medal of Science in 2001 for his research. In the last few years, he and Wilson write, “we noticed that some corrections we or others made on the acid rain article had been changed by major edits to introduce (or re-introduce) balderdash and factual errors into the content.”
Some of those edits are juvenile, to put it mildly. In November 2011, for example, the introduction to the acid rain page was changed to “it is a load of bullshit.” More substantial changes crept in, too. In one case, an editor made changes to suggest acid rain had direct effects on human health, which isn’t actually true.
The question, Wilson and Likens argue, is whether such shenanigans are actually more common on controversial pages. The researchers answered that question by looking at three politically, though not scientifically, controversial topics (acid rain, global warming, and evolution) and four less-controversial topics (heliocentrism, for example). They then compared how frequently those Wikipedia articles were modified.
Incidentally, the answer isn’t obvious. According to one analysis, the sixth most-edited page concerns characters on a Canadian animated TV show. Global warming comes in at 24th, just behind RuneScape and just ahead of Roger Federer—not exactly politically sensitive topics.
Still, compared to other topics, there are significantly more changes made to controversial science articles. Global warming’s page, for example, was edited on average nearly twice a day between June 2003 and July 2012, and the changes amounted to about 110 words per day. Less-controversial articles were edited only once every two or three days, and changes added up to only around 25 words per day.
And that adds up to problems, no matter how reliable Wikipedia is overall. “Users should be aware that content in Wikipedia can be extremely dynamic; two students could obtain, within seconds, diametrically different information on a controversial scientific topic,” Wilson and Likens write. “Educators should ensure that students understand the limitations and appropriate uses of Wikipedia, especially for controversial scientific issues.”