Wikipedia commentary/Larrys Big Reply

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This originally appeared on Creationism/Talk. I thought it deserved to be broken out onto its own page, so I did so.

Larry's Big Reply

Before I reply, let me just say that if we can agree that creationism as it stands, apart perhaps from the fact that the evolutionist insists on having the last word, is adequately unbiased, then our dispute is probably academic. So--on with the academic dispute!

I totally agree with your guys' attitude toward creationism. I think it's silly nonsense, too. Let's get that straight--we don't need to debate the merits of the theory (unless Bruce wants to do so). Moreover, I am probably the biggest commonsense realist and defender of rationality here. If you think my position is rooted in anything like relativism, that is excellent evidence that you don't understand my position and that you need to re-read what I've written more carefully. Jimbo, too, is a realist and defender of rationality, and he shares my view (in generalities, at least), as you can see on neutral point of view. Gee, how can that be? Read on.

Why on earth would I wanna do that, Larry? It's not like I advocate Creationism as such or anything. I only tried to point out that beating on the creationists is counter-productive. - AyeSpy (aka BrucieBaby)

1. Is evolution controversial? Yes--to the public at large, which will be reading Wikipedia. No--to scientists. For whom are we writing? The public at large--and scientists. (Perhaps that's what causes our problem here.) Lee says: "General articles on biology, on the other hand, should simply treat evolution as uncontroversial, because no serious biologist disagrees, and failure to do so compromises understanding of the subject." I think this is wrong on two counts. First, while evolution is uncontroversial among serious biologists, it is controversial among an alarmingly large portion of the general public; you do them and yourselves no favors by ignoring this controversy. Second, I see no reason to believe that recognizing that nonbiologists do not accept evolution as fact in any way "undermines understanding" of evolution. It doesn't even undermine your real goal, of course, which is to get people to accept evolution instead of getting caught up in idiotic creationist nonsense. In fact, the opposite is true: by failing to recognize the controversy, you essentially alienate the people you most want to teach. You would prefer indoctrination, it seems.

I think you may overestimate the controversy over evolution in the general public, but I agree with your point wholeheatedly - AyeSpy

2. Will we have to qualify every statement, or even every page, with a statement to the effect that it is the view of scientists? No, of course not. Why not? Because it's not controversial to anyone. Will we have to highlight discredited minority views as prominently as scientific fact? Of course not.

3. If we do describe scientific fact as what is accepted by all or nearly all scientists, then how are we misleading anyone? The question, again, is how? Have we encouraged anyone to believe anything other than what you want them to believe? Where's the downside you all fear?

4. Josh writes: "Historical revisionists are probably more important even. Yes, they can be interesting, but statement of their opinions as anything even resembling potential fact isn't just wrong, it is potentially offensive." Josh, I am not saying that historical revisionism should be presented as "anything even resembling potential fact." I am saying that the view should be described and appropriately attributed. How does that imply that the opinions will be presented as "anything even resembling potential fact"? Please bear in mind that we can reserve plenty of room for attributed explanations of why mainstream historians regard various kinds of historical revisionism as so much hokum. Our including such explanations is absolutely essential to having an unbiased encyclopedia, by the way.

5. Josh again: "To take the extreme example, even if it invokes Godwin's law against myself, what do you suppose would be the response if we said the holocaust was something widely considered to have occured by most historians, rather than something that occured? I'd consider that an awful legitamization of some of the worst opinions available." I would say that this is a very poor illustration (i.e., a "straw man") of my position. I imagine we should first clearly present what is generally believed about the Holocaust; then, perhaps quite far down in the article, we should have a paragraph or two that says something to the effect that the above is accepted (in generalities anyway) by all but a very small handful of trained historians, called Holocaust deniers and revisionists, blah blah blah, and explain the facts of that. This then attributes the claims about the Holocaust in a perfectly appropriate way and also mentions the fact that there is another (very minority) view. At the same time, we can state that most historians (most people) find such revisionism not only obviously false, but extremely morally repugnant. I hope I am making my position clearer now.

6. Is my position "spineless"? Jmlynch thinks so: "in accordance with the views of 99% of theologians, scientists and philosophers, they are wrong. We should state so emphatically. To do otherwise is to be spineless. ... This, I assure you, is contrary to the aims of any good project (particularly if it is haunted by the shades of the original Encyclopediestes)." Well, as a modern-day encyclopedist who has thought for many, many hours about this stuff (even before I started working on an encyclopedia), I can "assure you" that our doing what I ask is not in the slightest "spineless." Well, so much for mutual assurances; now to arguments. I think I can understand your reason for thinking so. Your assumption appears to be that, if we do not explicitly declare something to be true, then the reader can draw certain inferences about us--such as that we wish to placate creationists, or that we think creationism might be scientifically respectable, or that we might be creationists ourselves, etc., etc. Well, no. Reasonable people do not draw such inferences when presented with unbiased texts. You yourself, Jim, would not typically draw such inferences--you know better, of course. Suppose that a history text adopted a policy of failing to identify Nazi scum as the murdering bastards they were--but simply reported the facts about what they did. Would it be reasonable to assume that the text's author(s) might just be willing to admit the possibility that the Nazis were upstanding citizens doing a service to Europe?

Factually, I have read some very dry and "non-judgemental" accounts, practically devoid of adjectives. They still gave me the heebeejeebees and I never thought for a moment the author favored the Nazis. - AyeSpy

-- The facts about what they did, simply reported, permit most readers to judge for themselves that the Nazis were in fact "murdering bastard scum". Readers who make the judgement that the Nazis were in fact "upstanding citizens doing a service to Europe" would probably not be influenced by the editor's stating his/her personal opinion to the contrary. Arguably, we are insulting the reader by assuming he/she needs to be "pushed" to see things our way. -- 27 Septenber 2001.

7. Are being fact-stating and unbiased independent goals? No: in order to be unbiased, you must be fact-stating. In particular, you must be very clear about how you word the facts about what various majority and minority positions are. I contrast (in the present context--not when I'm talking metaphysics & philosophy of language, where 'fact' is a technical term) fact with opinion; opinions can be correct (and thus fact-stating), but one identifies something as a fact to emphasize that it is not under dispute, and one identifies something as an opinion in order to emphasize that it is under dispute. If, in our evolution article, we say that evolution is a "proven fact," while this is no doubt true (i.e., evolutionary theory has met ordinary standards of scientific evidence), the force of saying it is that evolution is simply not under dispute. Well, it is under dispute by your readers, guys. And (damnably) that's a fact. You aren't going to change their minds, or make the world otherwise any safer for rationality and science (which I love at least as much as you do), by explicitly averring that evolution is a fact and creationism is false. Actually, what you do is close off the avenues of discourse by doing so, setting up the less-rational folk in an antagonistic stance toward you, and make it harder to help them see the light. (Think of this as intellectual diplomacy.)

8. "Further, one can easily propagandize by stating only facts." Very true; that's why we shouldn't refer to my position as merely that articles should be fact-stating. They should be unbiased. I've explained what I mean by this in many different places many different times. "A full page of 'Creationists believe that...because...' with no reference to contradictory evidence or any other claim is clearly a propaganda piece, even though it happens to be fact-stating." I totally agree, and I will thank you for not setting up further caricatures of my view.

9. "I also believe that it is fundamentally impossible to eliminate all bias, and the all readers of any purportedly-factual article should understand that all authors have biases, and read in that context." But whenever we can identify bias, we can eliminate it--one way or another, and usually by going "meta." Give yourself some credit; people are creative; we can think of ways to eliminate bias when we spot it. (If you're still not convince, I suspect this is because you have a useless, impossibly-restrictive concept of bias. Personally, I prefer my concepts to be useful.)

10. "I believe that being overly afraid of bias sometimes compromises those goals, by cluttering articles with reportage on clearly useless beliefs held by a few minorities." Why think that articles will be cluttered with views held by minorities? If they are minority views, they will not be highlighted and ubiquitous in the same way that the majority views will be. That's as it should be. No one can reasonably complain.

My conclusion:

We should not impose our values on other thinking people. You are all liberal-minded people, I trust--not liberal politically, necessarily, but liberal in the sense that you want to free minds. I enjoin you to think carefully about the best way to achieve this. By failing to take stands on controversial issues, we aren't demonstrating weakness--in fact, we are demonstrating the strength of our faith in the minds of our fellow human beings. We should let them arrive at their own conclusions. We should trust them to use their own minds--just as you want to be trusted. More benighted souls than our enlightened selves will appreciate our stance and be more apt to listen when we hand down the truth.

I don't know if I can make my case any more completely...

No need to... - AyeSpy