WikiBias: How Wikipedia erases “fringe theories” and enforces conformity

Wikipedia is probably the most widely used encyclopedia in the world. If you’re looking for facts, it is pretty reliable. For example, if you want to compare the number of traffic roundabouts per capita in the US and other countries, Wikipedia will provide a nice graph from the World Economic Forum showing that the UK has about thirteen times as many as the US.

On the other hand, Wikipedia is not a reliable source for some controversial topics. The very biased entry for political scientist Charles Murray is a striking example. The following history shows something of how this works.

A friend tried to make a small change to the entry for Murray. His account was then blocked. This was done by an anonymous and self-selected collection of highly motivated individuals—more about them in a moment.

After hearing of my friend’s failure, I decided to have a go myself. I tried several things, but the simplest was to change a single word. I altered a paragraph referring to Herrnstein and Murray’s widely attacked 1994 book The Bell Curve. As it stood, this section read as follows:

The book’s most controversial argument hinged on a hypothesized relationship between race and intelligence, specifically the hypothesis that differences in average IQ test performance between racial groups are at least partially genetic in origin. Subsequent developments in genetics research have led to a scholarly consensus that this hypothesis is false. The idea that there are genetically determined differences in intelligence between racial groups is now considered discredited by mainstream science [emphasis added].

This paragraph is factually incorrect. First, there is no real consensus that the difference in test performance between racially identified groups is not partly genetic. Almost any measurable characteristic, whether physical or behavioral, has some heritable component. Second, since this position has not been proved false—which would be extremely difficult to do for a human population not available for breeding experiments—it’s incorrect to say that it has been discredited. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that many reject it.

I therefore corrected the last sentence as follows:

The idea that there are genetically determined differences in intelligence between racial groups is now rejectedby mainstream science.

The change was accepted, but then reversed a few hours later. I tried again, but it was again reversed. This repeated a few times and, eventually, I got this message: “Please stop. If you continue to vandalize Wikipedia, as you did at Charles Murray (political scientist), you may be blocked from editing.” Apparently, my minor change was regarded as vandalism. (The message was pseudonymous, but it linked to a website which proclaims, “This user is of dubious and undisclosed gender, and uses they/them pronouns.”)

It turns out that the Wikipedia editorial system, organized in a complicated way that I confess I do not fully understand, classifies some positions as fringe: “the theory that a genetic link exists between race and intelligence is enough of a minority viewpoint in the scientific consensus that it falls under Wikipedia’s definition of a fringe theory.” Fringe theories are to be excluded from Wikipedia, apparently.

Of course, the idea that many behavioral characteristics, including IQ, are heritable is far from a fringe theory. Wikipedia’s fallacious summary of the issue is:

Group differences in IQ are real and are primarily or entirely caused by social and/or environmental factors. Group differences in IQ do not truly exist and are the result of inappropriate use of the tests themselves [emphasis added].

No unbiased discussion of group differences in intelligence may be found in Wikipedia’s vast corpus. So, I decided to try a different tack.

This paragraph in the Charles Murray entry cites several critiques of The Bell Curve:

After its publication, academics criticized the book over his assertions on race and IQ.[38][39] Some said it supported long-discredited “scientific racism[40][41][42][43] and a number of books were written to rebut The Bell Curve. Those works included a 1996 edition of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould‘s The Mismeasure of Man; a collection of essays, The Bell Curve Wars (1995), reacting to Murray and Herrnstein’s commentary; and The Bell Curve Debate (1995), whose essays similarly respond to issues raised in The Bell Curve. Arthur S. Goldberger and Charles F. Manski critiqued the empirical methods supporting the book’s hypotheses.[44]

The Bell Curve’s most influential critic was Stephen Jay Gould in the updated version of his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man. The most effective critique of Gould is J. Philippe Rushton’s 1997 paper “Race, intelligence, and the brain: The errors and omissions of the ‘revised’ edition of S. J. Gould’s the mismeasure of man” (Person. individ. Diff. Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 169-180, 1997). Rushton’s critique is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry.

Rushton himself is a controversial figure. So, rather than cite his work, I decided to focus on two of the most blatant errors in Gould’s book. I therefore inserted a passage after the paragraph of critical references along the following lines:

Gould’s criticism of The Bell Curve was probably the most effective. For example, in Mismeasure he wrote “Herrnstein and Murray violate fairness by converting a complex case that can yield only agnosticism into a biased brief for permanent and heritable difference.” Herrnstein died in 1994, just as the book was published, but Gould’s accusations still dog Murray.

In fact, on p. 311, The Bell Curve says precisely what Gould accused Herrnstein and Murray of not saying:

It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences.  What might the mix be?  We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. [emphases added]

Herrnstein and Murray also cited the work of 19th century physician and scientist Samuel Morton, who compared the brain volumes of European, Asian and African skulls, finding that African brains were smaller than Asian and European.  Gould, in Mismeasure, disputed that also, suggesting that Morton had “subconsciously manipulated the brain volumes…to favor his bias that Europeans had larger brains and African smaller ones.” However, a 2011 study[1] by physical anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed a few earlier studies which found that Morton was in fact correct and Gould’s claim is wrong.

Nevertheless, these flawed, not to say mendacious, attacks by Gould and others, have effectively excluded Murray’s work from the public IQ debate.

Needless to say, this insertion was also repeatedly deleted.

This little history reveals a flaw in the way that Wikipedia treats science. Error and debate are intrinsic to science. A consensus isn’t necessarily correct. If opinion is divided, it is simply wrong to dismiss the minority view as fringe.

Wikipedia treats some other controversial issues more fairly. Its discussion of climate change, for example, acknowledges that there is debate over the amount and causes of global temperature change (although it exaggerates the size of the dominant majority).

But race and intelligence is clearly a taboo subject, as I have noticed in other interactions. Even after lengthy phone and email conversations with a reporter for Inside Higher Education, for example, he continued to charge that the factual claim that blacks have, on average, substantially lower IQs than whites is itself racist. The fact that Herrnstein and Murray make a similar claim in their book evidently places them beyond the pale.

Unfortunately, this black–white difference exists. Whether it is genetically based is almost impossible to determine and absolutely irrelevant for public policy. If there is a difference in cognitive ability, and if politicians insist on obsessing over group-average data on income, health, etc., then honest science demands that we also look at other differences, such as IQ, that may help account for these socio-economic differences.

But we mustn’t do this, according to other sources such as top science journals and the mass media. The problem, of course, is that if Wikipedia readers are forbidden to even consider the possibility of differences in interests and abilities between racial groups, all that is left to account for the economic and social disparities between blacks and whites is systemic racism, an unmeasurable, hence irrefutable, evil perpetrated by whites against black people. Which is what has happened. White people are now routinely slandered as racists because other potential causes of black–white group disparities have been suppressed—Wikipedia is one of the guilty parties.

1 Jason E. Lewis et al. (2011) The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias PLOS BIOLOGY June 7.

Image: Adobe Stock

John Staddon

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke University. His most recent books are The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science, 3rd edition (Psychology Press, 2021) and Science in an Age of Unreason (Regnery, 2022).

8 thoughts on “WikiBias: How Wikipedia erases “fringe theories” and enforces conformity

  1. I believe Wikipedia’s “bias” in this case is that it is representing the established scientific consensus/orthodoxy on the subject — is that a problem?

    1. Ditto. I also spent considerable time in years past, contributing to Wikipedia. But it became increasingly clear to me that it had become commandeered by “woke” ideology, and many articles other than the driest STEM entries were biased, and policed so that editing to bring them closer to the vaunted “neutral point if view” was impossible. This MTC article here is only one of a number I have come across which relate this impossibility in particular cases. Overall, Wikipedia demonstrates that truth is now, very literally, whatever current ruling class fashion dictates. The older idea that truth is found through debate and commitment to the ideal of objectivity, is a relic from a vanishing previous age.

      1. Unfortunately it is even worse than that.

        Expert knowledge is removed by a cabal of users to promote a position to get around the “consensus” rule. Most, if not all of these users can be traced via IP to University (activist) centers, far- left wing orgs and media groups like MediaMatters, the Intercept, Electronic Intifada, etc., and even democrat politician staffers (Dianne Feinstein notoriously had her staffers attempt to scrub her profile of her profiting from her husband’s corporate relations to government contracts she was pushing for in the Senate).

        Then second step they have done is to decide what counts as a “reliable source.” Only far left sites such as Rolling Stone, Buzzfeed, The NYT (which has been sued how many times lately for defamation), the Washington Post (which has twice settled recently fro defamation), Daily Beast, Mother Jones (lol!), etc. It is a a corrupt shell game.

  2. POSTCRIPT: You have been blocked indefinitely from editing certain pages (J. E. R. Staddon) for Editor editing own bio after being told to comply with policyh.
    If you think there are good reasons for being unblocked, please read the guide to appealing blocks, then add the following text at the bottom of your talk page: {{unblock|reason=Your reason here ~~~~}}. Doug Weller talk 15:44, 5 May 2023 (UTC)
    Dear Doug Weller:
    Since you did not contest the TRUTH of any of the changes I suggested, you have just demonstrated that Wikipedia is run by a totalitarian ideology.
    I see you have also deleted my publications from my bio. Thanks for that. (I added them long before the Charles Murray edits, which are the real reason for my cancellation. Dishonest as well as ideological?)
    Cheers, JSwiki staddon JERS 18:26, 5 May 2023 (UTC)osscript

    1. I have had to deal with Doug Weller numerous times too… A hack that is all there is to despise about Wikipedia selective enforcement. You have my sympathy and understanding.

      Some other (dis)honorable mentions:


  3. This essay is, basically, off-wiki harassment. Whatever you want to achieve by it, you’re not helping your case.

  4. The differences in academic performance between races certainly has a cultural aspect. If a culture is apathetic (or doesn’t particularly value) say reading, then people in that demographic probably won’t demonstrate high reading ability. But a credible argument can also be that, in part, poor academic performance could be genetic in nature.

    The fastest sprinters in the world usually come from America and the Caribbean region. They are mostly black. The best long distance runners in the world come from east Africa. Again, they are black. You just don’t find a lot of world-class runners from South America or Southeast Asia. The best basketball players in the world are in the NBA. The NBA is 75% black.

    Physical activity is a biological process and therefore controlled by genetics. If you say the black race is genetically favored in certain sports, nobody will bat an eye. No controversy there.

    Well, thinking is also a biological process and therefore also controlled by genetics. It has never ceased to amaze me that people won’t object if you say certain races are, on average, genetically favored more than others in certain physical abilities, but somehow we’re all supposed to be the same when it comes to mental ability.

    Note I am not saying greater mental ability in one race over another race makes one race in any way superior. It just makes them different.

    Wikipedia has a well deserved reputation for being leftist. I am not in the least surprised to see they purposely present Charles Murray’s work in a negative light and then block any attempts to present it correctly.

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