Mark Christensen/Neutrality problems

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This was moved from neutral point of view, since it was primarily a dispute between Larry:LMS and I. I've preserved most of the text because I think it may evolve into something valuable at some point...

Controversy has more to do with social cultural context than with the truth probability or "factual" nature of the proposition itself.

Let's look a two examples. For an example of a majority believed opinion which is controversial in some circles, let's look at the historical evidence for the Holocaust, which most agree is fact, but is believed to be controversial opinion by some groups (Neo-Nazi and KKK members). For another example, let's take the belief that the universe exists in three dimensional space, this is believed by most people to be true, but physicists "know" that time is another dimension, and many believe that we exist in a 10 dimensional "space."

Should the Wikipedia be neutral on these two positions? I doubt it. How about the issue of evolution which is very controversial amongst some communities in the United States? What about subjects like the history of economics, which would be presented very differently from a Chinese perspective?

Given that nutrality is not a real option in lots of cases, I think the most you can do is to:

Ask writers to use some humility in the face of controversial opinions Plan to cover as many sides of the controversy as possible

Obviously, I totally disagree with Mark that "neutrality is not a real option in lots of cases." I'm not sure I can think of a single one where it is not a real option. --LMS Well, just as Devil's advocate for a moment: Would it be OK to say "Mozart is among the greatest composers", or would I have to use weasel(ly) words like "Mozart is considered by many/most to be among the greatest composers", given I can find intelligent, rational people who disagree with the former statement. GWO

"Weasel words" if you want to call them that are necessary for being unbiased--qualifications are necessary--basically, you want to say things that virtually all intelligent, rational people can agree with, and you want to couch things in such a way as that it is clear to virtually all such people that the text does not seem to be advocating one view over another. But merely stating a majority opinion doesn't do that, I think. --LMS

The problem with saying only things that "virtually all intelligent people agree on" is that there are so many important issues about which there is wide disagreement. Is matter/energy all that is? What is the ultimate ontological status of the Ideas? It's hard to avoid questions like this when talking about Plato -- and the human community is filled with widely divergent points of view on this issue.

As a presupositionalist -- I belive "brute facts" are random and meaningless without a context, and thus all relevant facts are "interpreted facts," I don't know how to define the position of nutrality. In other words, I think that every contextual reading of a fact, or presentation of such facts, will presupposes a variety of ideas -- at least some of which are controversial.

My personal methodology when presenting a philosopher's ideas to a group of philosophy students is to step into that philosopher's shoes and present the best argument I can for the validity of their views. Later on I teach people how to critique those views, but at no point do any of us pretend to be neutral... And frankly I don't know how to do anything other than pretend...

If the encyclopedia requires a pretense of neutrality, I think that's too bad because philosophy is inevitably tied to arguments, and the advance or critique of arguments is a non-neutral activity (by definition). --MarkChristensen

Mark, first of all, please do see Creationism/Talk, as I think it might clear up my position for you.

The problem with saying only things that "virtually all intelligent people agree on" is that there are so many important issues about which there is wide disagreement. Is matter / energy all that is?...

I think you're failing to understand our position ("our" meaning mine, Jimbo's, and many other people's here on Wikipedia--as well as Nupedia). Where people do not agree about substantive views (obviously, materialism would be one example of a substantive view), they might well agree on how to formulate the views, or what the views are. In that case, that's what Wikipedia should report on--and in depth! All the detail of philosophical theorizing and discourse can be expressed, but it must be attributed to someone. And very often, of course, particularly in philosophy but in other fields as well, scholars disagree even about how to formulate a controversy. In that case, we "go meta" again, this time to explain the different ways people have of formulating a debate.

Where bias is perceivable, it is also removeable.

Now I understand that these texts are not up to your standards, and I'd like to contribute, but as a presupositionalist, and someone who is fundamentally convinced that that "brute facts" are random and meaningless without a context, and thus believes all relevant facts to be "interpreted facts." Moreover every contextual reading of a fact, or presentation of such facts, will presupposes a variety of ideas -- at least some of which are controversial.

If this is your final word on the issue, then I would ask you please not to participate. Unless you are willing to try, at least, to write from a neutral point of view, I personally would not welcome your contributions here. (Of course, I really do want you to participate as much as you can!) Please try to understand that our position is not that it is possible to have some sort f "presuppositionless" point of view in writing. I'm not even sure what that means.

The point is a rather more practical one. The idea is that we can, in fact, identify when a presentation of competing views (not of the subject matter itself--in encyclopedia philosophy articles, one presents views, or even views about views, about the subject matter) are tendentious. You have probably read many encyclopedia articles and news articles and other text such that it was extremely difficult to tell what view the author held; the author seemed to be much more concerned with carefully and fairly presenting competing views on a subject, each presented sympathetically, and perhaps with more emphasis on whatever the most popular views are, simply because they are the more popular views.

If the encyclopedia requires a pretense of neutrality, I think that's too bad because philosophy is inevitably tied to arguments, and the advance or critique of arguments is a non-neutral activity (by definition).

The advance and critique of arguments is of course a non-neutral activity, but encyclopedias are not in the business of advancing and critiquing arguments. They are in the business of presenting and clarifying arguments. You make it sound as though one could not write about philosophy without advancing or critiquing arguments. That's pretty obviously false, isn't it? Think speech acts: I can engage in the speech act of reporting, even when the report is of the act of asserting that p, without myself asserting that p. So, I could go into as much depth as you please, reporting about various competing arguments and critiques thereof, and all the other apparatus of philosophy, without (necessarily) committing myself to any of the claims reported.

Personally, I find it extremely annoying when a philosopher writes an encyclopedia article on some topic and winds up advocating his own pet theory, when there are many other theories out there. Commonly, I notice, such articles are rather weak in their presentation of competing views. The thought that usually goes through my mind when presented with this sort of article is, "Why should I give a flying f*** what this author thinks? Who the h*** does he think he is, trying to tell me what the Truth on this matter is? I'll make up my own mind, thanks very much. Just give me the facts, the facts about what the various leading contenders have said, and their arguments, and I'll weigh their merits myself."--Larry Sanger

My short answer is "I think I can live with the constraints you actually practice, but I can't agree with your description of those constraints."

I've read creationism, and creationism/talk and all of your comments there. And your recent writings here. I've also gone ahead and read the parts of Larrys Text which have been "wikified." And I'm still confused. Without going into detail about any of those pages, I want to say that it is my impression that 1) Creationism was obviously written by someone who is not a creationist, and is in fact an opponent of creationism, and therefore, it strikes me as impossibly confusing to claim that page represents a Neutral point of View.

That's not to say I have a specific objection with the creationism page -- other than it presents none of the arguments from either side! But I find it amazing that anyone could claim that it is really neutral. Now, I don't have a problem with presenting both sides of the issue's best arguments, etc. In fact I think this is essential. I just don't believe once it has been done neutrality has been achieved.

In fact, I don't think "nutrality" is a particularly laudable goal, because if we were ultimately neutral we'd have to say absolutely everything (which is impossible) or absolutely nothing, and while it's possible to say nothing, it does little to help build a usable online encyclopedia.

In spite of this, I think our goals may be similar. I still have a strong objection to your terminology, but I agree that it is annoying when an author makes his opinion a prominent part of a supposedly informational article. I also agree that it is possible to "report" on someone's argument with out advancing that argument. (Though this "reporting" is gennerally a submerged argument -- at least it is a claim that the person in question held such views, and generally that they had some reasons for doing so...)

This does not mean that I believe total nutrality is possible. The way you structure your report, the information you include in your summary, the weight you apportion to various components of the argument, the way you report on the counterarguments, all of these factors are inevitably going to add up to some kind of bias. This is inevitable because there is no clear line between persuasion and pedagogy, and because there are non-volitional factors which influence every speech act.

That said, I'd like to propose a positive set of goals which I think are achievable, and will result in the kind of texts you want, without reference to what I consider to be a mythical Neutral Point of View

I believe that reasonable goals when presenting a philosopher's work are:

1) Accuracy

2) Fairness

3) Generosity

4) Humility

Let me take each of these in turn.

Accuracy is an obvious virtue for writers of all kinds. Obviously it is an act of bad faith to put words in someone else's mouth, or to knowingly disseminate false information.

Fairness, by contrast is sometimes by some writers considered to be optional. I myself don't believe that this is so, even in purely argumentative writing, effective persuasion requires presenting the best of your opponent's arguments in the best light possible, and then presenting the best counterarguments available. In an ideal world fairness would mean that your presentation of a position you disagree with would be accurate, finely balanced, and persuasive, and a proponent of that position would be willing to sign off on it as it stands.

Generosity is an attitude toward those you disagree with. It is somewhat akin maintaining a Positive tone.

Humility is the virtue of getting out of the way. Inexperienced or insecure writers often create texts which seem to scream "look at me, look at me!" Instead, an entry on Hume, should be asking the reader to look at Hume, and the author should be getting out of the way. Of course, generosity, fairness, and accuracy are essential tools for an author who respects his subject, and wants to stay out of the way.

Anyway, I think that it is fair to say that I believe that in spite of the fact that I don't plan to be neutral, or to even pretend to have such neutrality I can write pages which I think will meet the criteria I see used in other pages on the Wiki, as well as pages you've written, because I think the type of work you are looking for isn't really about neutrality, but about other qualities.

In particular I think that if I strive to create fair, accurate, pages which present their subjects in the best light I can, and try to stay out of the way, the result will be something we can both agree is worthwhile, as well as something you might call neutral (but which I would not).

Perhaps we have a mere semantic dispute on our hands here. Why don't you want to call the style of writing you describe, which for the sake of argument we'll say is the ideal one, of a "neutral" sort? English words are there to be used, and "neutral" has a very definite sense in English when applied to texts, roughly equivalent to "unbiased":


Your position strikes me as analogous to that of the skeptic who insists that our best examples of empirical knowledge do not constitute "certain knowledge," simply because he has an impossibly difficult standard to satisfy. Why not proceed as a particularist, saying with Chisholm that whatever of our beliefs are less doubtful than any others are, by definition, certain?

By the way, rereading it, I agree that the creationism article could stand to present the creationists' view a bit more sympathetically. That would make the article more neutral (or less biased). --LMS