Wikipedia Trolls Are Spreading False Information on Controversial Science Topics

November 10, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Graffiti in a subway entrance reads "Question Everything"
Photo credit: Duncan Hull/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Scientists worry that people are being misled by false information added to controversial science Wiki pages numerous times each day.

Wikipedia just wouldn’t be Wikipedia without the charm of the flagrantly offensive, incorrect, and opinion-based statements that sometimes appear on its pages. While they usually only linger for a couple minutes, it’s undoubtedly entertaining to browse through hot topics of controversy to try and catch a glimpse of the nonsense before it’s edited away. But scientists worry that these internet trolls (or misguided people who truly believe what they’re posting) might influence others who rely on the world’s most popular online encyclopedia for factual information.

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Dr. Gene E Likens, a co-author of the recent study on Wikipedia science articles, discovered acid rain in North America while working in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Since 2003, he’s monitored Wikipedia’s acid rain entry.

Acid rain isn’t a topic of high controversy within the scientific community because its mechanics have been understood for decades. However, the Wikipedia page receives near-daily edits from those outside of the science community. Likens claims these edits result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science. This sparked his interest in the science sphere at large on Wikipedia, so he partnered up with Dr. Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at University of Buffalo, to further investigate.

Using about a decade of data, Likens and Wilson analyzed the daily edits and mean number of page views per day for three politically controversial scientific topics (evolution, global warming, and acid rain) and four non-controversial scientific topics (heliocentrism, general relativity, the standard model in physics, and continental drift). Unsurprisingly, the results showed that the politically controversial scientific topics were edited more heavily and viewed more often. The acid rain entry received fewer edits than the entries on evolution and global warming, but it still changed significantly more than the non-controversial topics.

“Wikipedia’s global warming entry sees 2-3 edits a day, with more than 100 words altered, while the standard model in physics has around 10 words changed every few weeks,” Wilson explains. “The high rate of change observed in politically controversial scientific topics makes it difficult for experts to monitor their accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections.”

Many people use Wikipedia without giving a second thought that virtually anyone can update the pages at any time of day. If you’re not careful, you could be unfortunate enough to read and trust faulty information about a topic in those few minutes that it’s up before being corrected.

Wikipedia has tried to stay on top of the issue, employing algorithms to help identify and correct blatantly malicious edits, such as profanity. But it’s more difficult for algorithms to detect the dynamically changing content that defines many peoples’ views on politically-charged science topics.

Likens warns, “As society turns to Wikipedia for answers, students, educators, and citizens should understand its limitations when researching scientific topics that are politically charged. On entries subject to edit-wars, like acid rain, evolution, and global change, one can obtain — within seconds — diametrically different information on the same topic.”

Wikipedia can be a fantastic source for quick, accessible information on almost anything one might wonder about, and it’s generally pretty reliable. A study published in Nature even showed that Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in the accuracy of its science entries. But it’s important to keep in mind that it might not provide the best way to shape your opinions about highly controversial topics. You know what they say — don't believe everything you read on the internet.

Even Wikipedia itself says, “It is in the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish. We are fully aware of what it is and what it isn’t. Also, because some articles may contain errors, please do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions.”

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