The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What makes an accusation Wiki-worthy?

Wikipedia aspires to be a neutral source of verifiable information about just about everything of import. The problem is that sometimes people disagree about what information is relevant or credible. This is particularly the case for politically charged subjects, such as political figures or policy matters over which ideological partisans disagree.  The result is that the more controversial the subject matter, the more one has to approach a Wiki page with caution.

The Wikipedia page for Neil deGrasse Tyson is a case in point.  As I noted here, Sean Davis has made a powerful case that noted scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson has a tendency to embellish stories in his speeches and public remarks. Most notably, it appears that Tyson wrongly attributed remarks to former President George W. Bush in order to portray the former president in a particularly unflattering light.  The tall tale was, according to the Tampa Tribune’s Tom Jackson, “a vicious, gratuitous slander.” Others find the charge against Tyson quite credible.

The problem is there is no record of Bush having made the remarks Tyson attributed to him, the alleged speech is not in the White House archive, and Bush’s former speechwriters deny any such remarks were given.  Moreover, the sentiment Tyson attributes to Bush conflicts with other contemporaneous remarks by the president and other incidental details about Tyson’s account don’t line up.

We all make mistakes, particularly when speaking off-the-cuff. Yet this was not an impromptu remark.  Rather it was part of a planned speech and a video of the relevant passage it is highlighted on the Hayden Planetarium Web site. So Tyson would seem to think it is significant. The charge is also the sort of claim that a scholar of Tyson’s statute should be able to substantiate.  Yet as of this writing, neither Tyson nor his representatives have offered any support for the claim, or otherwise responded to the accusation.

So a credible accusation of wrongdoing has been made against a prominent public figure, and the charge has been noted in numerous publications.  Including this on a Wiki page is a no-brainer, right?  Apparently not.  I understand why Wikipedia editors might not want to take sides on the underlying question, as more facts may yet emerge.  Yet the fact of the accusation itself would seem to be the sort of thing that would be included in the subject’s Wikipedia page, provided it is referenced in a neutral manner (e.g. “Tyson has been accused of . . . “).

Since the charges were made there has been a mini-editing war over this portion of Tyson’s Wiki page.  No doubt some of this is due to ideological partisanship.  Some “intelligent design” proponents and climate skeptics would like to take Tyson down a peg, as would some other conservatives.  Others seem just as eager to safeguard his reputation at all cost.  Indeed, some of the arguments against referencing Tyson’s alleged fabrication are quite amusing.  Again, however, the charge is out there, and it seems quite credible. It’s not as if someone is claiming Tyson’s speeches were written by Bill Ayers.

All this goes to show that while Wikipedia has its uses, when a Wiki page covers matters that are the subject of ideological dispute, the reader should be wary.

UPDATE: It appears that some of the gnomes at Wikipedia are a vindictive lot. More here.