Behind the Wikipedia wars: what happened when Bradley Manning became Chelsea

Abigail Brady, who edits the site as Morwen, explains the polite notes and not-votes behind the scenes.

Shortly after Chelsea Manning's statement regarding her transition was made public, the Wikipedia page for Bradley Manning was redirected. The article now consistently refers to Chelsea by her chosen name and pronoun, showing more understanding of the issues at hand than many more traditional news sources. But the move wasn't without friction. A glance at the articles talk page, where editors discuss changes, shows an argument in full flow. "This PC-driven move lowers wikipedia's credibility even further", writes one opposing the change."A person's gender identity is their choice to make," says another, supporting the move.

Abigail Brady, who is on the site under the name Morwen, was the admin who first made the move. I spoke to her about Manning, wikipedia, and edit wars in general.

How long have you been a Wikipedia editor? What drew you to the site?

I recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of my first registered edit to Wikipedia. I started an article about the old East German Parliament, oddly enough – this was back when Wikipedia was rapidly ascending in the search rankings for lots of hits, and it was often hard to find good factual stuff on other sites. Adding things to Wikipedia that I knew about – and there was a lot of UK geography and politics that was not covered at all – was a massively exciting task. I got made an admin pretty quickly – it was a much less paranoid process back then.

Have you had experiences beforehand which prepared you for a debate this ferocious?

To some extent yes. I have stayed out of trans issues on Wikipedia for ages, but you should see the arguments we had about Star Trek ranks!

Do you get involved with trans issues on the site more generally, or is it just for this case?

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but, for example, I started the article on April Ashley, and took a relatively hard line against people mucking around with it and other such articles. I think I can claim some credit for the current "use identity" thing being the style guide. More recently, I was involved in a dispute other whether the article "cisgender" should exist.

Was your first thought upon reading Chelsea's statement to move the page? How much time passed between you finding out and you making the edit?

There's an essay on the site called WP:RECENT which cautions about being too quick to update. We are, after all, building an encyclopaedia not a news source. But as I read the statement I saw how completely unambiguous it was. There had been discussions about this before, which I was aware of but did not participate in (in fact, it was an FAQ on the talk page before yesterday). So I posted on the talk page, saw that someone else was making the same suggestion that I did, held off for a little while and a small consensus emerged, and then pressed the button. I thought I was giving it plenty of time, given how clear that release was!

Is there a culture on the site of trying to be the first to update pieces with news? Did that motivate you?

There is a bit of a friendly rivalry about being the first to update, but it's not taken too seriously, and I'd never consider putting stuff in there against my editorial judgement, such as it is, just to claim credit. I created the articles about the 7/7 bombings back in the day and, bizarrely, got a radio interview off it (I predicted twitter's role in grassroots news gathering!). I'm fairly inactive now but also took a role updating the article about the Leveson report, when that came out, and dealing with the page about a Baron McAlpine. So I came out of the woodwork, because I don't mind stepping on the landmines. Mixed metaphor there, sorry.

What's Wikipedia's policy on people transitioning? Who sets that policy?

Wikipedia's policy according to MOS:IDENTITY, and long-established practice, is to use preferred name and pronouns for the entirety of a life. I like that policy. Policies emerge through a kind of consensus-building process which would probably horrify you if you looked at it in too much detail, but generally seem to end up pretty well.

What happened immediately after you made the move?

Someone reverted it back, pretty quickly. But I left them a polite note, asking if they'd actually read the reference I'd given, and it turns out they hadn't, and they apologised. So I put it back. I've made it a policy never to actively get involved in an "edit war", after several annoying experiences in the past. So I've stayed off the page proper since then, and confined myself to talk.

After that short squabble, discussion moved to the talk page. How did that go?

Someone said I never should have done the move in the first place. We have a policy of "being bold", but they said this didn't apply here and I should have done a "requested move" first, which is a consensus-gathering approach. (Wikipedia policies are great in the same way standards are – there's one for every occasion and line of argument). So now we are having a "not vote", as we call it, where people say whether they support or oppose the move (that is, the move back), and outline their reasoning.

It seems the page is full of the professionally outraged. Do you think they really are aiming at making the best encyclopaedia possible?

I honestly don't know. Many of them are raising the same old points, over and over again, like they are novel. Yes, there's a background of transphobia to a lot of this, but I think a lot is people driving by and insisting on having their opinion on the raging topic of the day. Someone has come forward already and volunteered to look at the argument and try and determine some kind of consensus from it (hah), and they're going to have their work cut out for them, but they're supposed to look at the actual debate, rather than just weigh the number of randoms who have expressed their opinions, bigoted or not.

The page firstly got "semi-protected", then "protected". What does that mean? Will it end?

Protected means that technically nobody can edit the page apart from an admin. However, that doesn't mean admins are allowed to edit freely, they are only allowed to make clearly good edits (like typos) or ones that have requested and consented to by general users on the talk page. Semi-protection is when we lock down new accounts and people who aren't logged in from editing. Both things are done as a temporary measure while things cool down – and the few incidents where the "temporary" becomes basically permanent are considered regrettable. The traditional description of admin powers on Wikipedia is that it is a janitorial function. It doesn't give you any authority in itself, it just shows that the community has trusted you a bit more to use the software responsibly. Obviously, there's an extent to which that is an ambition rather than an absolute description of reality, and the admins do have certain amount of de facto power, but people who misuse it can and have been removed.

Chelsea Manning's Wikipedia page.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”