Revisiting: Wikipedia on MDMA

The third DrugMonkey blog post I wrote was entitled Wikipedia on MDMA, posted Feb 9, 2007. I was reminded of this because of a recent call from the NIH for scientists and science writers to jump on the Wikipedia bandwagon and edit all sorts of science-y entries. An NIH radio bit and transcript, Wikipedia Academy entry and a Wikimedia Foundation press release have been posted.
This follows an earlier call from the Society for Neuroscience to encourage its members to edit Wikipedia entries on neuroscience topics.
It isn't a bad idea. I just happen to think that it may be a little naive when it comes to the more contentious topics. Such as the potential for certain recreational drugs to cause harm, alternative medicine topics, vaccine-autism linkage, etc.
My original concern was as follows:

The Wikipedia entry on MDMA is a classic example of the limitations of this public encyclopedia approach. The "winner" in this case is the viewpoint of those with the will and spare time to take over the entry and constantly edit the content. Read over the talk page and see if this seems like a reasonable process to generate an encyclopedia.
Should scientists care? Certainly. We should not abdicate our authoritative role in the public discussion of scientific topics. MDMA and delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol may be somewhat unique in the drug-of-abuse world since the advocates are so fervent. But similar situations can be found with other public health and ecological science areas. Stem cells, autism, climate change- ring any bells? All areas in which the actual science has been obscured by political agenda, commercial agenda, (well-meaning?) lay public advocacy and the like. It is particularly annoying and insulting that in many areas the motives of scientists are questioned to advance the agenda, thereby creating unwarranted public suspicion of the scientific enterprise.
Lose public support, lose Congressional support, lose public funding of biomedical science.

You know, I've followed the entry now and again over the past few years and nothing changes. Sure, at times it gets better for awhile...then someone comes along and decides it needs to be 'adjusted' toward their way of thinking. And the same old problems erupt. Ultimately the "winner" is not the factual content but rather the bias and slant of those with the time on their hands to continually fight for their slant on the entry. Occasionally the argument is supplemented with reference to obscure Wikipedia rules and traditions, but adherence to that seems optional depending on whether it helps or hurts the intended take on the article.
Now, it may be the case that most of the Wikipedia entries are pretty good and do not suffer from contentious advancing of political or other agendas. But when the ones on which you have some background knowledge suffer from this sort of crappage, well it sure doesn't give you confidence about the entries for which you have no supporting knowledge.

5 responses so far

  • bsci says:

    I think this post is helping put words to an issue I've had with Wikipedia for a while. So much of it is very good and it has very high quality. As some studies have shown, on various measures of accuracy, it can be in the same quality range as professional encyclopedias. Still, it also has this issue of systemic bias occurring on contentious topics.
    Does the quality on non-contentious topics increase the perceived trustworthiness of biased pieces? To put to more directly, if neuroscientists are working hard to make neuroscience at wikipedia seem as accurate as possible, does their work go towards making people believe articles on topics like MDMA are equally accurate and unbiased?
    Short of scientists abandoning work on wikipedia, is there any way around this problem?

  • Lab Lemming says:

    Dude, you're trying to out-edit amphetamine addicts who can stay awake for days at a time! How can you possibly expect to keep up?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    LL: LoLZies!!

  • Maks says:

    Still, editing wikipedia articles is essential. Large parts of the THC article were complete pot-head nonsense, same for endocannabinoids. Please take your time and edit those articles! Lots of people take their information from wikipedia, so we have to make a difference.

  • To put to more directly, if neuroscientists are working hard to make neuroscience at wikipedia seem as accurate as possible, does their work go towards making people believe articles on topics like MDMA are equally accurate and unbiased?As some studies have shown, on various measures of accuracy, it can be in the same quality range as professional encyclopedias.

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