Wikipedia, and why it matters

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Wikipedia, and why it matters

Wikipedia is a byword for unreliable information written by some social inadequate who never comes out of his room. This is slightly unfair: Only parts of it are like that. Unfortunately those parts include almost everything it says on the subject of vaping. It’s easy to say this doesn’t matter, but sadly it does. Here’s why.

Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”,  is a fairly amazing phenomenon. It went live on 12 January 2001, and by 12 February had 1,000 articles. It’s grown a bit since then; now it has (as of 14 July 2015) 4,916,792 English-language articles. If you printed it out in the same format as the Encyclopaedia Britannica there would be  2,176 volumes – enough to fill a nine-shelf bookcase longer than a single-decker bus. What’s even more remarkable is how it’s worked its way off the internet and into society. Many people, when they want to learn about something, head straight for Wikipedia. They rely on it to be accurate. A poll in the UK found that 64% of people trust Wikipedia to be reliable “a great deal” or “a fair amount” – 3% more than believe the same about the BBC.

And that’s a problem.

Why is it a problem? Well, it’s complicated. Wikipedia calls itself “the encyclopedia anyone can edit”, but that’s not quite the reality of it. Yes, anyone can edit most articles, even without an account. But will that edit stay on the site? It’s doubtful. Unless you stick to obscure topics that nobody’s interested in the chances are your contribution will be removed within a few minutes – and any attempt to put it back will be met with a smug lecture about all the Wikipedia policies it violates.

Wikipedia has very few formal rules. What it does have is a huge collection of policies developed by “the community”. Are you groaning yet? You should be. “The community” is, in theory, everyone who wants to edit the site. In practice it’s a surprisingly small collection of people with a strange, but deep, passion for arguing about why a cat has two holes in its fur just where its eyes happen to be. If you’ve ever belonged to any sort of organised club or association you know the type: You’re at the annual meeting. The budget’s been approved; the new membership secretary has stood up, blinking nervously, to be introduced. The president has said “If there’s no further business I’ll close the meeting”, and you start to push your chair back because you want to get to the bar. Then, from two rows behind you, there’s a fake cough and you groan. Because some miserable little fart is about to stand up, holding a bunch of papers, and say “If I could just draw your attention to point 3a, sub-paragraph 29, from the minutes of last year’s meeting…”

Well, that’s Wikipedia.

Actually that’s most of Wikipedia. Some bits are even worse, and the worst of all is the medical bit. I’m not even going to start on the self-appointed head of Wikiproject Medicine, except to say he’s an illiterate moron who spends half his days fingering prostates in rural Canada and the other half posting whiny, ungrammatical comments that make the free encyclopaedia worth every penny of what you paid for it. The simple truth is that this entire section of the site is run by a cabal of opinionated chods who think they own it. If you’re approved of by this dismal clique you get to edit medical articles, which have an even more obscure and convoluted set of “guidelines” than everything else does. If you’re not, you don’t. The problem is that anything that might impact your health in any way is, to these cretins, a medical article. And that includes vaping.

I won’t even bother to tell you what sort of viewpoint they’re coming from; I’m sure you can guess. Let’s just say that the most cited paper on all their e-cigarette articles is the infamous Glantz/Dutra diatribe. Don’t worry though; there’s room for plenty of other crap as well. Formaldehyde, nanoparticles, kids, gateway effects, “we just don’t know” – it’s all in there. And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because 64% of the UK population trust this abysmal pile of festering gizzards. It’s a problem because when someone wants to know about e-cigs there’s a depressingly high chance they’re going to look it up on Wikipedia. It’s a problem because the number of people who know that vaping is safer than smoking is, incredibly, going down.

If you’re an e-cig advocate it’s easy to write Wikipedia off as a joke. That’s fair enough; it is a joke. But it still matters. It matters because the average person who wants to know more about vaping, whether because she wants to quit smoking or she’s wondering what her business’s policy should be, is likely to read these articles. Most people haven’t had the same crash course in finding journal articles as we have; they don’t know which researchers are reputable scientists, and which are corrupt blowhard wing-wipers posing as cardiologists. They’re going to trust what they read on Wikipedia, so that means it needs to be truthful.

Advocacy costs money, most of the time. We’re not shills for Big Vape, and we don’t have slush funds we can dip into whenever we want to attend a meeting or get a pamphlet printed. I know that I can’t do all I’d like to, because I simply don’t have the cash. But here’s something you can do for nothing. Create a Wikipedia account and spend a couple of weeks learning the rules. Stay away from the vaping articles at first; just edit whatever interests you, build up a history of a few dozen decent edits and find out how it works. Pay attention to disputes, how they get resolved and what policies are applied; read up on things like Reliable Source, Verifiability and Neutral Point of View. Then start making the occasional comment on the talk pages of articles about vaping. Be polite. Be reasonable. Be willing to find a compromise if it improves the article even slightly. Don’t stop editing other topics, because they’ll label you as a single-purpose account (and probably an industry shill) and apply “community sanctions” to ban you from the whole subject. But slowly turn up the pressure. If you can provoke Doc James or his pet monkey QuackGuru into losing their tempers or telling an outright lie, all the better – one of the valiant band of people who’re already trying to improve the articles will know what to do. Right now there are half a dozen people trying to restore some semblance of the real world to Wikipedia’s e-cigarette coverage. We need that to be fifty people, or a hundred; the more the merrier. A hundred people, each posting one comment a day, will move the consensus a long way from the mess it’s in now.

The important fights right now are with the EU TPD, the FDA and various other official bodies, but sorting out the cesspit of ANTZ propaganda on Wikipedia is something we can’t neglect. Well, I say “We”. I got banned months ago, at the instigation of the Canadian rectum-prodder. So I suppose that means it’s up to you.