March 03, 2007

Liberal bias is so un-American

Bill's post on Conservapedia succeeded, albeit unintentionally, in making me curious about this thing. The main page of Conservapedia claims that the most-viewed of its "over 3,800 entries" (commas make 4-digit numbers look bigger) is Examples of Bias in Wikipedia. Readers of Language Log may be most intrigued by #7, especially given Arnold's post on spelling rage:

Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling [sic] of words, even though most English-speaking users are American. Look up "Most Favored Nation" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling "Most Favoured Nation." Look up "Division of labor" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling "Division of labour," then insists on the British spelling for "specialization" also. Enter "Hapsburg" (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been "Hapsburg". Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words.

I'm confused by this. This is supposedly an "example of bias in Wikipedia", the idea being that bias is A Bad Thing. But the final sentence of this example is an open admission that Conservapedia is (also) biased, favoring "American spellings of words". One might try to explain this hypocrisy away by saying that these are meant to be examples of liberal bias in Wikipedia. But in what sense is using any particular spelling convention a liberal bias?

It's useful to take a look at the national varieties of English section of Wikipedia's extensive manual of style:

Cultural clashes over grammar, spelling, and capitalisation/capitalization are a common experience on Wikipedia. Remember that millions of people have been taught to use a form of English different from yours, including different spellings, grammatical constructions, and punctuation. For the English Wikipedia, while a nationally predominant form should be used, there is no preference among the major national varieties of English; none is more "correct" than any other. However, there is certain etiquette generally accepted on Wikipedia, as listed here. These guidelines are given roughly in order of importance; those earlier in the list will usually take precedence over later ones:

  • Articles should use the same spelling system and grammatical conventions throughout. [...]
  • If there is a strong tie to a specific region/dialect, use that dialect. [...]
  • Try to find words that are common to all. [...]
  • Stay with established spelling [...]
  • Follow the dialect of the first contributor. [...]
  • Note the second of these in particular: contrary to what Conservapedia's example-of-bias-#7 implies, there are Wikipedia entries that are more likely to follow American spelling conventions (e.g., the entry for the American Civil War) and others that are more likely to follow British spelling conventions (e.g., the entry for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings). (I checked the American Civil War entry, by the way, for 'color/colour' and 'labor/labour'; both words can be found and are spelled the American way with 'o', not 'ou'.)

    Wikipedia's spelling guidelines are by themselves more detailed than the Conservapedia counterpart to the entire Wikipedia manual of style, The Conservapedia Commandments. (Boy, do I ever wish I were making this stuff up.)

    The Conservapedia Commandments

    1. Everything you post must be true and verifiable.
    2. Always cite and give credit to your sources, even if in the public domain.
    3. Edits/new pages must be family-friendly, clean, concise, and without gossip or foul language.
    4. When referencing dates based on the approximate birth of Jesus, give appropriate credit for the basis of the date (B.C. or A.D.). "BCE" and "CE" are unacceptable substitutes because they deny the historical basis. See CE.
    5. As much as is possible, American spelling of words must be used.[1]
    6. Do not post personal opinion on an encyclopedia entry. Opinions can be posted on Talk:pages or on debate or discussion pages.

    One of only six commandments, #5, specifically states that Conservapedia favors American spelling conventions. (I imagine that the "as much as is possible" bit is there to allow for things like example-of-bias-#7, where labour and the like must be spelled the un-American way to make the point that it's an example of bias in Wikipedia, and perhaps also for direct quotations from British sources.) Interestingly, this is the only one of the six commandments that has a clarificatory footnote:

    You will only be blocked for violating command 5 if you repeatedly change words from American spelling to another spelling.

    These Conservapedia folks seem to really care about their spelling conventions! Lest you think that violation of any one of the other five commandments is not worthy of censure, note the page's closing sentence:

    Edits which violate these rules will be deleted. Users who violate the rules repeatedly will be blocked. A blatantly inappropriate entry, such as vandalism or obscenity, can result in immediate blocking without warning.

    Compare this fire-and-brimstone approach to Wikipedia's more sensible words on the subject:

    This Manual of Style has the simple purpose of making the encyclopedia easy to read, by establishing agreed principles for its format. It is a style guide. The following rules do not claim to be the last word on Wikipedia style. One way is often as good as another, but if everyone does things the same way, Wikipedia will be easier to read and use, and easier to write and edit. These are not rigid laws: they are principles that many editors have found to work well in most circumstances, but which should be applied with flexibility. In this vein, editors should strive to have their articles follow these guidelines.

    While quality of writing may be more important than presentation and formatting, these elements also have their place in clear and unbiased delivery of information. One of the joys of wiki editing is that Wikipedia does not demand perfection. Wikipedia does not require writers to follow all or any of these rules, but their efforts will be more appreciated when they are guided by them.

    [ I'm sure I'll live to regret this but ... comments? ]

    Posted by Eric Bakovic at March 3, 2007 03:39 PM