Wikipedia and Intelligent Design

My SFist article this week is brought to you by the letter I, for Insomnia.

The reason I went on so long is because I’ve been reading about Wikipedia ever since I saw that libel story. And the more I read, the more I had the feeling that there was just something troubling about the whole concept. It wasn’t until I read the article from the Encyclopedia Britannica guy calling it a “faith-based encyclopedia,” and the one from the co-founder talking about “anti-elitism” that I figured out what it was.

The core attitude behind Wikipedia is the same one behind the Intelligent Design “movement.”

Every time you read about Wikipedia, people talk about it in Darwinian terms. The articles get better through natural selection, they say, and only the strongest articles will survive. It’s as close to being a pure democracy as possible, is the claim, and because everyone has equal say, it’ll eventually reach some kind of objective truth — errors are weeded out, as are highly opinionated pieces, and they maintain the rallying cry of “neutral point of view.”

Which is bunk. Robert McHenry used the quote from a Wikipedia article:

“Arguably, he set the path for American economic and military greatness, though the benefits might be argued.”

as a demonstration of just plain poor writing and the lack of editorial oversight. Sure, it reads like a C-average high school student’s history report, but there’s a deeper problem there than just lazy writing. It’s lazy thinking.

This is how they deal with “controversy.” Any crackpot with an internet connection and an opinion has an equal crack at the encyclopedia, which means that even the most innocuous articles — from Mother Theresa to The Andy Griffith Show — can result in a debate. And contributors will invariably begin shouting “NPOV!” and editing articles to acknowledge every inane point of view, watering them down to the point of being meaningless.

And whenever I hear “lazy thinking,” I immediately think of Intelligent Design. Not that the people behind that movement are lazy; on the contrary, they’re insidious and dangerous. But the way they work is by taking advantage of lazy thinking on the part of average people. It’s ingeniously disguised as a populist movement (even though, of course, it’s anything but). It takes advantage of the little sound bites and high-level overviews of fundamental concepts, then twists them in order to discredit them.

The ID crowd takes advantage of the fact that a lot of people hear “man didn’t descend from monkeys!” or “evolution is a theory!” or “there are scientists who don’t believe in human evolution!” and just stop there with their thinking. Even though those three things are true, they don’t do anything to discredit evolution and are in fact an important part of the scientific process.

The ID crowd also takes advantage of the anti-elitist, anti-intellectual attitude — the same attitude that made people think GW Bush would’ve been better suited for the presidency than Al Gore, because the former would be “more fun to have a beer with” — to try and discredit human evolutionary theory. The scare talk is: They want to keep religion out of your children’s schools, but they refuse to have their own beliefs questioned! They’re forcing your kids to blindly accept a controversial theory without listening to everyone’s opinions!

Everyone with any sense should be wary of the ID movement, but it puts liberal Christians (which I consider myself to be) in a particularly tough spot. Complain about Intelligent Design, and you’re labeled an anti-religious secular humanist cultural elitist. Acknowledge that you do believe in an intelligent Creator of the universe, and you’re still lumped in with the ID crowd and labeled a fundamentalist.

But more offensive to me than some religious debate is the idea that dumber is better. That there’s some inherent value in not being an expert or a professional. That just having a different opinion, even if you can’t back it up, is enough to constitute a “controversy.” Just because billions of people, including myself, believe in a higher power doesn’t mean that that belief has any place in a science class. And just because you believe that you are a special snowflake (Jessica’s expression) with strong opinions doesn’t mean that those opinions have any place in an encyclopedia. Get a personal blog, where you can pontificate all you want — just don’t piss on a public resource and then try to claim that it’s the truth.