“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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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.