“The section title “Chemistry in cloud droplets” was changed to 'blowjobs”. Photo: Wikipedia.
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Wikipedia is corrupting science with blowjobs and elves, scientists warn

Wikipedia, with its network of citizen editors, can be vulnerable to inaccuracies – but is it really so much worse than peer-reviewed journals? 

Dr Gene E Likens is a pretty important American scientist. He was one of a small group of researchers who first brought acid rain to public attention back in the 1970s, and since then has won a slew of accolades, including a National Medal of Science. 

These days, though, Dr Likens is less concerned with science than he is with the anonymous editors who present science to the world on Wikipedia, the world's biggest online encyclopedia. Since 2003, Likens has closely (you might even say obsessively) monitored the Wikipedia page for acid rain. He noticed that there were “near daily edits” on the page, which, he claims, sometimes amounted to “egregious errors” and “distortion” of scientific fact. 

Now, along with co-author Adam M Wilson, Likens has released a paper which analyses a decade's worth of edits to seven scientific Wikipedia pages. The paper claims to show that politically controversial topics like evolution and climate change are subject to far more changes than other, less hot-button issues. The global warming page, for example, was edited around twice a day on average by around 100 words, while a page on particle physics was edited around 0.2 times a day, by around 10 words. 

The authors conclude that this “volatility” of the entries is dangerous and misleading, since it relies on other editors spotting the mistakes and changing them:

The high rate of change observed in these pages makes it difficult for experts to monitor accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections, to the possible detriment of scientific accuracy. 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.

In the paper, the pair present a catalogue of the changes made to the acid rain page over the course of just a few days in November 2011, and their annoyance is palpable: 

...an anonymous editor removed the introductory paragraph which defined acid rain and replaced it with a statement calling acid rain “a load of bullshit.” This change was quickly reverted, but the next day the paragraph was again deleted and replaced by “Acid rain is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet poo and cats.” Five minutes later this edit was reverted and repeated again, and then reverted again... 

Another sentence was changed from “During the 1990s, research continued.” to “During the 1990s, research on elfs continued,” which remained for over seven hours. Later that day the sentence "AciD Rain [sic] killed bugs bunny” was briefly added. Fifteen minutes later the section title “Chemistry in cloud droplets” was changed to “Blowjobs.”

Yet while the insertion of elves and Bugs Bunny into your life's work is no doubt irritating, the paper fails to prove that any more serious edits, like long-term substitution of facts for believeable falsehoods, is actually taking place on Wikipedia. One commenter on the journal article notes that "the authors seem to falsely correlate the number of changes to an article and the veracity of those changes” – the researchers assume that all changes are, by their nature, inaccurate and negative. But the pages with more changes are also areas of constant research. It's understandable that as the field of climate change develops, its Wikipedia page would too. 

Wikipedia allows anyone, regardless of their training, to submit pages and changes, but this is both a weakness and strength, as any change you make will be seen by thousands of other readers within a few days, and the site's editing policy is structured to make sure that the "better" information, linked to a reliable source, should usually win out. The policy also notes that "libel, nonsense, hoaxes, and vandalism should be completely removed", which should cover every edit to the acid rain page quoted in Likens and Wilson's paper. Meanwhile, more contentious edits - like a bias in the article, or changes to major facts - result in the page being marked as "under discussion", so it's clear to readers that the content may not be totally reliable. Likens and Wilson's focus is on the edits, not on the fact that within a day or two, all were removed. 

The authors' division of topics into "political" and "non political" is also worth examining: the pages with more changes are also viewed by a lot more people than those which are changed less often. Global warming, for example, has around 15,000 views and an average of 1.9 edits per day. Heliocentrism (the model which claims that planets orbit the sun) has around 1,000 views and 0.2 edits a day. This correlation isn't examined in the paper, despite the fact it appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. One gets the feeling that on Wikipedia - which is, in essence, an enormous peer-reviewed resource - other scientists or statisticians would have noticed this oversight and explored it further over time.

The Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit behind Wikipedia) has released a statement on the study on its blog. This is an excerpt: 

It didn’t surprise us to learn that articles considered to be controversial are frequently edited. The nature of controversy, after all, is that it generates discussion and public attention. For example, while the properties of water (H2O) have been well established, the causes of the Arctic sea ice decline are the subject of ongoing scientific inquiry and political debate.

Unfortunately, the study also jumped to conclusions about what this means for Wikipedia’s reliability, overstating findings and inferring facts not in evidence. Much of the press about the study has repeated the assertion that controversial articles are also more likely to be inaccurate, despite a lack of strong supporting evidence: the study only references a handful of anecdotal examples of inaccuracies. Instead, the study simply seems to confirm that the articles chosen as controversial are, in fact, controversial and thus frequently edited. "

The post also notes that other studies have found a correlation between the number of edits and the quality of the article, which suggests that, contrary to Likens and Wilson's findings, more edits lead to a more accurate piece. 

As a result, while pages on Wikipedia might be less wholly accurate in the moment, they evolve towards accuracy in a way that even prestigious scientific studies cannot. Wikipedia's editing policy notes that "even the best articles should never be considered complete". Perhaps scientists should acknowledge the same about their own fields of study. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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