Larry Moran discovers the quicksand that is Wikipedia

I tell my students that they are not allowed to cite Wikipedia in their papers. Sure, you can browse it to get a general idea on a topic, but then you have to do the work of delving into the scientific literature to figure out what’s actually happening. There also doesn’t seem to be much validation of what Wikipedia does cite. The article on non-coding DNA still cites Nessa Carey! I read her book, and my god, it is a muddled mess of badly written pop pseudoscience.

Larry Moran is confident that Wikipedia is a useful resource and that it could be made better, so he waded into the morass and decided to try editing that non-coding DNA article. He’s a more optimistic person than I am. He decided to fix a lot of bad references made by people who don’t have a tenth the expertise on the subject he does…and discovers how they deal with interlopers.

The introduction has been restored to the version that talks about the ENCODE project and references Nessa Carey’s book. I tried to move that paragraph to the section on the ENCODE project and I deleted the reference to Carey’s book on the grounds that it is not scientifically accurate [see Nessa Carey doesn’t understand junk DNA]. The Wikipedia police have restored the original version three times without explaining why they think we should mention the ENCODE results in the introduction to an article on non-coding DNA and without explaining why Nessa Carey’s book needs to be referenced.

Nowadays, the only people I see citing ENCODE are creationists, so I am unimpressed that Wikipedia does not like people who can put the study in context. It seems to be official policy that no experts are allowed to edit bad wikipedia articles — they have a point of view, which is very bad.

Here is an editor, Ramos1990, explaining the rules to him.

There is no way to verify who you are on wikipedia. Many people claim to be famous people here so that is not an argument that is valid or carries any weight on wikipedia. And merely claiming it is not a reason for anyone to believe what you are saying either. On top of that if you really are Larry Moran then there is conflict of interest issues where you cannot push your POV on an article. Especially since there are other viewpoints on the matter, for instance Carey and Pennisi whom you want to get rid of an censor out of the article.

Hmmm. Larry was not claiming that you should believe him because he’s famous; Kim Kardashian is far more famous, but I don’t think she knows much about biochemistry. He’s saying he’s a reputable authority on a narrow topic. What wikipedia is saying is that they won’t do anything to verify a source, and if they did, they’d have to reject him because he has a POV. Which means that wiki editors are all fundamentally anonymous, and they have to pretend they don’t have a POV even when they patently do. It’s a weird situation.

Here, for instance, is the bio for Ramos1990.

The Sciences (esp. Chemistry), Engineering, Mathematics, History of Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Archaeology, Philosophy, Secularism/Religion, Atheism and other related stuff. The world has lots of good stuff to study.

That is not a catalog of their expertise. That’s a list of ‘stuff’ that interests them. They could be a bumbling dilettante or a brilliant polymath, and there’s no way to tell. But, apparently, all that matters is that they have no POV and can put up the illusion of impartiality, even on subjects where expertise is needed to sort out the complexities and make a reasonable assessment. The epistemology of Wikipedia is a very strange thing in which it is official policy that you are not allowed to know how anyone knows what they claim to know.

This comment on Larry’s site is worth noting:

The “corrections” at Wikipedia and the statement by the head of the NIHGR are certainly depressing. The both reflect the consensus among genomicists and molecular biologists. That in turn is based on their very limited grasp of molecular evolution. On the other side is the near-unanimous consensus among molecular evolutionists that there is lots of junk DNA. That is based on their actually understanding the processes of inserting junk and removing it. Unfortunately there are many more genomicists and molecular biologists, so the vote is still heavily against junk DNA. Wikipedia has the strength and the limitation that it is a dominant-consensus view, and we can see that in a case like this it serves to reinforce a wrong dominant consensus. Perhaps someday soon there will be a page on “Junk DNA controversy” in which the pro-junk side will get to edit the description of what we say. When the 2012 ENCODE disaster occurred, I predicted gloomily that it would take the field 10 years to get back to where it was. Those 10 years are nearly done, and things still look bad. I have more recently started telling people that it will take more like 20 years. Actually, 30 might be more like it.

Unfortunately, that was said by Joe Felsenstein, a world-renowned authority on molecular evolution, so it’s invalid in Wikipedia’s eyes.

I’ll be continuing to tell my students that Wikipedia is untrustworthy, and that they shouldn’t cite it, ever.


  1. ANB says

    This reminds me of the time when I tried copy editing come articles a number of years ago. I wasn’t doing anything other than cleaning up the articles, but I got a nasty note from some anon. editor that threatened to ban me from Wikipedia for “changing” the article. I never could understand why, except that I made changes.

    I thought that’s what Wikipedia was about, but apparently I was on somebody else’s “turf.” Haven’t bothered “fixing” anything else since.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Wikipedia is a useful tool for non-controversial things, like who played the Indian in the film version of Ken Kesey’s book. It replaces those many volumes of encyclopedias.
    But any user needs to be aware of the inherent shortcomings.

  3. ANB says

    I know. You’ll see a typo from someone who copy edits. (I want to write that as one word, as in the previous post, but the squiggly red lines always “warn” me not to.) Hey, I haven’t finished my first cup of coffee yet, and I have a different standard for ephemeral writing. (I know, there’s no such thing as ephemeral on the internet….)

  4. says

    I love Wikipedia. It helps me sleep at night, but I know that it may be unreliable. I was a moderator for it in the early days when anyone could edit any article. Mostly I just cleaned up vandalism. No, Snoop Dogg was not elected president in 2004.

  5. hemidactylus says

    Though maybe a minor point something I haven’t gotten resolution on is where Larry goes with this bare bones definition on another more recent post: “Functional DNA is any stretch DNA that cannot be deleted from the genome without affecting the fitness of the individual.”

    Verbatim from what I said when this came up on… My question would be: What about redundancy? I’m going on poor memory of stuff I read in the late 90s about issues with attempting to knockout genes where other genes might buffer the effect or compensate for the loss. Given many genes may result from duplication and divergence the divergence may not be total from original function.

    My knowledge isn’t great, but if related (or convergent?) genes can pick up the slack (is that a thing?) would it require more nuance in the definition quoted above? I guess even a minor effect is possibly going to impact fitness and compensation won’t overcome.

    But if there’s redundancy a gene could possibly be deleted with perhaps minimal to no impact on fitness.

  6. raven says

    Yeah Wikipedia has its limitations.
    It is particularly untrustworthy on anything to do with religion, especially xianity.

    It is still an amazing resource. It is free, fast, and contains huge volumes of information about everything. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Wikipedia.

    There might be a way out for Larry Moran dealing with territorial Wikipedia editors.
    Pick a subset of the subject non-coding DNA and write his own article on that facet.
    For example write about how to tell functional DNA from junk DNA, or write about the retroviruses and transposons that make up much of human DNA .

    Transposable elements (TEs) are mobile repetitive sequences that make up large fractions of mammalian genomes, including at least 45% of the human genome (Lander et al.

    The evolutionary history of human DNA transposons – NCBI › articles › PMC1832089

    The human genome is 8% defective retroviruses and 45% transposable elements. These aren’t serving us any useful purposes. They are just there and spreading because it is easier for them to spread than for evolution to get rid of them.

  7. raven says

    Joe Felsenstein from the OP:

    Perhaps someday soon there will be a page on “Junk DNA controversy” in which the pro-junk side will get to edit the description of what we say.

    Joe Felsenstein anticipated what I just said.

    That would work to get the alternate evolutionary biologist viewpoint on to Wikipedia.
    I’d avoid have controversy in the title though. That is likely to attract those more interested in defending territory than arguing using data and reasoning.

  8. R. L. Foster says

    I am one of the 1% of Wikipedia users who supports it financially. When I receive their annual entreaties I usually give them $25. I know, it’s not much. I do that because I’ve used Wikipedia a lot over the years and know there are people on the other end who need to make a living. But, perhaps it is time to reconsider. If, as you say, they’re are putting out bad information and refuse to correct it or bring it up to date they are not a source of information, but misinformation.

  9. says

    “There is no way to tell who you are on wikipedia” is profoundly stupid. Add a flippin’ verified ID tag, and charge people $50 for processing. Just mail in a picture of your driver’s license, and yourself holding a sign that has a code matching a nonce that you get when you start the ID process. It’s actually a fund raising opportunity, ffs.

    A tiered permissions system based on identity is probably already in the code, or would take a few days to add and test.

    Really, is that the best the new internet generation can do? Old school programmer is not impressed.

  10. nevillepark says

    Yeahhhh, the talk page discussion where I saw Wikipedians successfully argue that Linnaeus’ contributions to scientific racism were irrelevant because Everybody Believed That Back Then, Why’s This Guy Special is seared into my brain and I keep it in mind whenever looking up stuff on Wikipedia.

    I have been trying to do my bit by fixing the many instances of misidentified mite pics—for a long time the images for clover mites and phytoseiids were not even from those taxa. They had a freaking anystid as a phytoseiid! AN ANYSTID, MAN! But 1) it’s like emptying the ocean with a spoon, and 2) I’m not even an expert? I just like the litel red guys??? Why am I allowed to do this??

    It would be great if there were a site like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy but for biology, where articles are written by experts in the relevant field. While SEP articles are very in-depth, I think even basic overviews with decent bibliographies would help, at least so people could go to the relevant literature if they want to learn more.

  11. says

    It’s not just in the sciences. A friend of mine passed away eleven years ago and I went to tidy up his Wikipedia page. Among other things, I edited a section on his war record and deleted a link to an incorrect Guardian article about his service. Everyone who knew him knew where he had been during the Phony War because he had told us all a thousand times. His version was backed up by stuff at the National Archives at Kew. More obviously, the chronology in the Wikipedia article was contradictory; he could not have been a thousand miles away at the same time. Nope, said several editors, unless we could cite a source. Fuck Wikipedia and anyone fool enough to use it a footnote.

  12. PaulBC says

    ENCODE aside, I use Wikipedia all the time, though I agree it should not be cited as an authority. For that matter, I quote Wikipedia for usually non-controversial facts such as biographical details, or an explanation of some term (say “price elasticity”) that I mostly understand but have forgotten details (that’s a poor example, because when I google it, there are more authoritative looking sources that come up first).

    I view it as more than just a way to get “a general idea on a topic.” It’s a point of departure. If you knew nothing at all about a topic, even an inaccurate Wikipedia article will give you keywords and references that lead to enough primary sources that you really never need to cite Wikipedia. It’s unfortunate that Google Books was prevented from achieving its original goal, because that really could be a legitimate online library. It remains useful in fragmented form, particularly for obscure information that predates the intent (19th century works when available).

    Non-controversial Wikipedia facts are as reliable as any other source. For example, J D Salinger was born on January 1, 1919. I just googled that, saw Wikipedia as the first result and cited it here. It would be interesting if that’s an exceptional case, but I trust it enough that I would bet money on it to anyone foolish enough to accept such a bet. (I’ll double check after I post this.)

    In the ENCODE case, there are opposing factions with an incentive to promote their own viewpoint. It would be useful if there was a way to identify and indicate clearly whether a particular Wikipedia page was subject to factionalism. For all I know, there is, e.g. by looking at the talk page, etc. But what I mean is that the page itself should carry an indicator (e.g. red/yellow/green icon) that cannot be ignored and summarizes this. People could try to game that as well, but it would be hard to make a factional view seem neutral, and kind of a waste of time to make neutral facts look controversial.

  13. says

    I have heard from physicists who have been in similar situations that the solution to a bad Wikipedia article can be to rewrite it from the ground up. Articles there grow by bricolage: bits and pieces accumulating and getting stuck wherever they happen to fit. It’s inevitable that the result will often be, let’s say, mediocre. The rules about sources are generally good enough to keep out creationism and quack diets, but the science gets skewed in favor of whatever was in the news most recently.

  14. nevillepark says

    @Blake Stacey: There’s a joke in here about evolution vs. intelligent design, I can feel it

  15. says

    Wikipedia is much worse on law, on military history, and on anything even peripherally approaching “information wants to be free” than it is on the sciences. One example suffices:† When I tried to correct a misstatement of what a case relating to IWTBF means by citing to the specific pages and passages in the later court of appeals decision that reversed that case, I was told that I didn’t have appropriate citations and fundamentally misunderstood the case and the parties’ motivations. By nonlawyer “editors.” Despite having been the lawyer who had argued and lost the lower-court opinion, and argued and won the court of appeals case, and who had participated in most of the depositions and all of the settlement negotiations (so I had had plenty of direct opportunity to judge the parties’ motivations).

    The real problem with Wikipedia is the pretense that there’s no hierarchy when, in fact, there is a hierarchy — very much like the People’s Front of Judea (the problem is always knowing who is Reg in advance, even more than distinguishing the Popular Front). And the less said about some of the issues with the Foundation and its willingness to be a special snowflake to everyone else’s detriment, the better.

    † Yes, this is mere anecdotal evidence. But this is not my forum, where I can bring in the statistically significant sample of other examples; nor is it so on point that would be appropriate; nor would it be possible to do so without implicating privacy of others. Basically, you’re just going to have to trust me; but, unlike too many Wikipedia editors, I at least have documentary backup if it comes to that.

  16. wzrd1 says

    Wikipedia is useless for any college level scientific paper, as primary sources are typically required for such papers, not news articles that explain in lay and potentially defective terms what a paper is supposed to be about. And we all know how accurate and effective the press is on science – not.
    But, when editing and a conflict arises, rather than getting into an edit war, which is prohibited, one should go to the talk page and explain the edit, why it’s needed, why the previous content is badly deficient and if necessary, enter into the rfc process.

    @ANB, I’d have and have done this. Go to the article talk page and copy paste a quote, stating it as a copy paste of a nastygram sent by an editor (who cannot ban a ham sandwich, let alone a user – that’s for admins to decide on), along with my comments on why my edit is superior and consider if the offending editor wants to die on that mountain, open an rfc on the matter. I’ve yet to have one get to rfc, but I’ve been in groups considering rfc matters in articles that I am knowledgeable of and typically, one or both parties of an rfc are blithering idiots.

    The biggest problem with Wiki is, an authoritative source is preferred if it’s CNN and prohibited if it’s the primary research paper that the article is based upon.

    I’m still trying to find out when Philosophy, Secularism/Religion, Atheism became sciences… I do know that physics was considered a philosophy, but that was well over a century ago, before all that math and reproducible experiments supported notions like luminiferous aether, which really, Maxwell knocked into a cocked hat and Einstein administered the coup de grace to.

  17. consciousness razor says

    On top of that if you really are Larry Moran then there is conflict of interest issues where you cannot push your POV on an article. Especially since there are other viewpoints on the matter, for instance Carey and Pennisi whom you want to get rid of an censor out of the article.

    The same standards of “journalism” observed here, where it’s regarded as problematic that you simply have and express a POV:

    “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.”

    I am told the New York Times sent this reminder out to staff today. The language is from their social media guidelines.


    Gannett, largest newspaper publisher: “You cannot use social media to take a political position, criticize or attack a candidate, or express personal feelings about an outcome or ruling.


    Inbox: @seattletimes sent its staff a reminder about its social media policies today in light of SCOTUS overturning #RoeVWade.

    The first image is an email from today. The second and third are a re-forwarding of an email sent to staff in May after the Uvalde shooting in Texas.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    wzrd1 @17:

    …notions like luminiferous aether, which really, Maxwell knocked into a cocked hat…

    When do you think he did that? He assumed that EM waves propagated through the aether. Aether was still widely accepted for decades after his death.

  19. brucej says

    I have read similar stories by a number of people, including people who merely wanted to correct mistaken descriptions and conclusion from their own research only to be told that it was unacceptable to do this if they couldn’t cite other sources than their own research. Much of Wikipedia is a trash fire.

    Recall the non-Scot’s speaking kid who translated a huge amount of the Scots language Wikipedia?

  20. wzrd1 says

    @Rob Grigjanis, true, but other experiments showed that rarification of the air didn’t effect transmission of EM waves and later, they were shown to transmit equally well in a vacuum.
    Widely accepted is not universally accepted, in science, the best theory is the one that more fully explains the phenomenon under study and beyond that, helping better explain the universe in general.

    @brucej, if you want entertainment, install the pubpeer extension in your browser, then visit Wikipedia scientific articles. You’ll see quite a few peer comments, some scathing on citations from said articles.
    But, that’s what happens when one democratically reports on anything, rather than listening to SME’s provided content.
    My view is, use Wikipedia as a starting point for work, such as what PZ assigns, check the citations and probably, citations within the citations to find proper citations to use. With a bit of work and knowledge, one can eventually refine one’s bullshit detector and only follow quality information.

  21. anthrosciguy says

    I only tried Wikipedia editing a couple times, and all I did was to take out some editorializing about my site where they’d listed it as a source. I only changed it to read the same as the other sources were listed, eliminating the editorializing. It was changed back each time. After that I haven’t felt like trying to improve any article there was worth my time.

  22. nomdeplume says

    I had a very similar experience in early Wikipedia days. I tried to edit two articles, one in a field I have spent 20 years researching, the other one about a project I actually ran. Both had egregious errors of fact, and I was only trying to correct them, not present my own POV. In both cases all my corrections were removed and the errors restored. The editor concerned knew exactly who I was and rejected my protests. I never tried to correct anything again. There must be millions of such errors all over Wikipedia.

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    wzrd1 @21:

    other experiments showed that rarification of the air didn’t effect transmission of EM waves and later, they were shown to transmit equally well in a vacuum.

    That has nothing to do with the aether. If you meant that Maxwell’s equations played an important role in moving past aether, you’d have been correct. But Maxwell himself knew nothing about that, having died years before the Michelson-Morley experiment.

    Widely accepted is not universally accepted, in science, the best theory is the one that more fully explains the phenomenon under study and beyond that, helping better explain the universe in general.

    Yes, and as far as the aether is concerned, that wasn’t sorted out until 1905, with Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”.

  24. Chris Capoccia says

    wikipedia has rules for editing and for articles. it really doesn’t matter if what you are writing is “truth”. if you don’t follow the rules, you lose, get reverted. it’s like showing up to a conference with a megaphone and reading out your thesis while someone else is supposed to be talking. you’re breaking the rules, and it doesn’t matter how good your research is, you’ll get kicked out and not be allowed to present. someone else who follows the rules might have substantially worse research but be allowed to present and be invited back because they know how to behave

  25. hemidactylus says

    The bigger picture is Larry is supposed to be publishing a book I want to read. It better be in ebook format!!!! And he’s channeling Denzel from Man on Fire AND The Equalizer when it comes to ENCODE. I love that!

    Yeah and this episode makes Wikipedia look very, very bad. If Larry is getting cold shouldered from wiki dipshits then screw them for they obviously know not who they are dealing with: [on the left]