Fringe Theory on Portuguese Wikipedia

Susan Gerbic

Since nearly the beginning of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project, I have been preaching to anyone that will listen that if we are going to educate the world about pseudoscience, we will have to recognize that not everyone reads in English. This is why our team edits in many languages. We write and maintain Wikipedia pages, for the average reader, written in the language they want to read it in, focusing on science, scientific skepticism, and the paranormal.

One of my team members, Thiago Gasparino whom we call Gaspa, posted in our Cabal a message about a recent success he had with Portuguese Wikipedia. A change that will over time affect thousands of pages about pseudoscience topics.

What few people understand is that Wikipedia’s rules vary between languages. Each language editor discusses modifications to the rules they want to see changed amongst other editors, who are like themselves, volunteers. We often call these guidelines rather than rules.

One guideline in English Wikipedia is called Fringe theories (WP:FRINGE), which we use when the Wikipedia page is about a pseudoscience, alternative theoretical formulations, or questionable science. I often get the question during Q&A after one of my lectures, “How do you keep the paranormal community from adding nonsense to a Wikipedia page?” The answer is we use the fringe theory guideline.

Summing up what WP:FRINGE is all about I’ll quote it directly:

To maintain a neutral point of view, an idea that is not broadly supported by scholarship in its field must not be given undue weight in an article about a mainstream idea. More extensive treatment should be reserved for an article about the idea, which must meet the test of notability. Additionally, in an article about the minority viewpoint itself, the proper contextual relationship between minority and majority viewpoints must be made clear.

Many Wikipedia languages don’t have the Fringe theory guideline, making it difficult for editors to avoid time wasting arguments about pseudoscience topics. Gaspa explained that in Portuguese Wikipedia it was a much weaker argument, it had the status of an essay, not something that the editors needed to take seriously. He decided to press the issue, which he did by taking up the discussion with other editors. After some back-and-forth, Gaspa argued his case. This should be a guideline, which means it will be taken seriously by editors and help them keep nonsense off Portuguese Wikipedia. And in the end, they voted and accepted Gaspa’s argument. Fringe theory is now a guideline for Wikipedia editors to follow.

Gaspa joined GSoW in May 2016 and is a very busy forensic expert on crime scene investigations in Brazil. In that time, he has made many contributions to Portuguese and English Wikipedia, as well as been very helpful as a team member, proofreading pages, motivating, and giving feedback to his peers. He is responsible for the English Wikipedia pages for the Baskerville effect and Sean B. Carroll, as well as the Portuguese pages, Timerosal (Thiomersal, the “controversial” vaccine conservative), Análise bioenergética (Reichian body-oriented psychotherapy), Essência Floral (Bach Flower Remedies) and Conselho Europeu de Organizações Céticas (European Council of Skeptical Organisations). These six Wikipedia pages have already been viewed 64,439 times, receiving about 5,000 views a month.

But, his recent work getting fringe theories changed from something that editors will just shrug at into an actual guideline may, over time, have more influence.

Gerbic: Gaspa, can you explain further please?

Gaspa: Hi Susan, thanks for asking. If you don’t mind, first I would like to add something about Wikipedia policy that I think might help readers understand what’s going on. I’ll try not to use too much jargon.

One of the main policies in Wikipedia is about keeping a neutral point of view (WP:NPOV). It is a long document, very clearly describing what this means and how to achieve it. In short, it means articles should not take sides, the content should include many views of debated issues, all in a reasonable, balanced way. If one doesn’t go through the trouble of reading the page, they might interpret this as meaning that every opinion should be presented and given equal weight. This is not the case, of course: majority and minority views must be treated as such, and, most importantly, there is a difference between (1) legitimate divergence among actual scientists and experts and (2) the opinions and beliefs of proponents of pseudoscience, conspiracy theorists and other ideologues.

In (1) the article doesn’t take sides, but in (2) we might acknowledge the existence of those positions, whenever relevant, but it should be presented as what they are: fringe views. And that’s what the Fringe theory guideline (WP:FRINGE) is all about: neutrality does not mean we give credibility to wrong information just because it is someone’s opinion. By the way, there are a couple very important sections in WP:NPOV that say something along those same lines: the main one is called due and undue weight and further down the page the aptly named WP:TINFOILHAT.

So, to answer the question. Going through Wikipedia, sometimes we see claims of, for instance, a paranormal ability or of some miraculous alternative medicine modality that cures everything (and has no side effects! Isn’t that wonderful?). Now, this is supposed to be an encyclopedia; it should only have well-referenced, reliable information. So we edit the page to include the mainstream scientific view of the topic or just remove the claim if it lacks reliable references (e.g., some UFO sighting that was reported in a tabloid but wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media, yet someone felt like it belongs on the extraterrestrial life page or the page of the city where the sighting supposedly happened).

This might lead the editor who initially added the claim to undo our edit; there might be some discussion, even an “edit war.” How are these resolved? By arguing based in policies and guidelines, and, if needed, we get arbitration from administrators. In the end, hopefully, policy is applied and the more reliable content “wins.”

In my limited experience editing in English, there have been many occasions where I have used or seen others using WP:FRINGE to settle these disputes. It’s actually an expansion of a section of a major policy on keeping a neutral point of view, as I explained above, but focused on how to treat pseudoscience, or as stated on the page “an idea that departs significantly from the prevailing views or mainstream views”.

But Wikipedia is always evolving, most policies and guidelines were created and developed along the years as needed, and each language has its own guidelines, except for the very basic principles and some policies that, as far as I know, are shared among all languages. So, going back to WP:FRINGE, it had been translated into Portuguese by someone in 2011 (as WP:MARGINAL), but up to May 1, 2019, it only had a status of Essay, meaning it was up there for everyone to see, something to consider, but had not the weight of a policy or guideline. It was not something one could really use to settle disputes. Now it has and it is.

Gerbic: Tell us about the state of science and pseudoscience on Portuguese Wikipedia.

Gaspa: I would say it’s in a sad state but improving. The move in recent years from Brazilian health authorities to offer more and more unproven or ineffective Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) modalities (we’re “leading the world” in nonsense with twenty-nine different types of CAM being paid with taxpayer money—see Natália Pasternak’s talk at CSICON 2018 for more on that) have motivated not just me, but quite a few skeptic and science-minded individuals to improve those pages in Wikipedia.

There’s still much to do, and I have to admit I am not the most active editor around. I do a tweak here and there. Sometimes I have a spare afternoon and feel motivated, so I translate a whole page from English or write one from scratch, but fortunately there are other editors, not only the ones in GSoW, who have been doing good work. It was one of our editors’ work in the Reiki page that ultimately led me to suggest the change in policy with WP:FRINGE, by the way. And I think this changes the game a bit in the right direction.

Of course, CAM isn’t the only problematic area. There are anti-vaxxers, creationists, anti-fluoridation, other conspiracy theorists, anti-agtech, all sorts of spiritism and mediumship-related things. Recently there’s been an insane surge in historical revisionism—which anyone knowing anything about the current political climate in Brazil would understand is worrisome. And WP:FRINGE can help with all of those.

At the end of the day, the English Wikipedia articles have way more traffic and should be a priority, but once those are in good shape, it’s a lot easier for editors in other languages to just translate them.

Gerbic: Tell us about your experience with GSoW.

Gaspa: It’s just too cool for me, living in the middle of nowhere, Brazil (my city is literally a few hundred kilometers from the geographical midpoint of South America), to be able to interact with so many like-minded yet incredibly diverse people from around the world. It’s an honor, really, and I wish I could do more.

I joined GSoW in 2016, but my Wikipedia account was created ten years before that, in 2006, when I did my first edits. Back then, Wikipedia in English was probably slightly more reliable than Portuguese is now. I was twenty-three, then, going to University, thought I knew so much (as so many young people do), and could help the world with my amazing intellect. And then I made edits, they were reverted, and I was told to read the policies—“What, I need a reference to say that? But it’s the truth!”—and so by trying and by making mistakes I learned a lot, about how to do research, about humility, about the limits of my knowledge, and about science and skepticism.

I made edits for a time, and then for many years I didn’t do much editing. Sometimes I would do stuff but not even bother to log in, and then a few years before 2016 I started to get back in it, motivated by the rise in antiscience in Brazil (anti-vaccine, anti-fluoridation, etc.), and how the contents of the Portuguese Wikipedia were just terrible. One day, I think CFI’s Facebook page (or was it SGU? I don’t know) shared something from Natural News, saying how there was a conspiracy of ultra-skeptics, a group of Big Pharma shills, controlling Wikipedia, and after laughing about the absurd notion, I looked for you and joined right away.

Gerbic: Anything else you want to add?

Gaspa: Just a shout out to GSoW, especially to our Brazilian editors, Elizandro Max who joined recently and has been doing so much good work on lots of different topics, and the very active and experienced Valério (aka Ixocactus), who helped me figure out where to go for the change of policy.

Thank you so much Gaspa. You are right; we have had some great Portuguese editors over the years. To date, we have written twenty-eight pages in Portuguese, and those twenty-eight pages have been viewed 1,724,224 times. Obviously we must be making some kind of difference in educating people about science, critical thinking, and the paranormal. 

Besides the pages already mentioned, for those curious what pages GSoW has written in Portuguese, I’ll include them here.

Paranormal spiritualist Alexander Moreira-Almeida; Bioenergy Análise bioenergética; Clinic for Indigo children in Portugal Casa Índigo’ Texas cancer quack clinic Clínica Burzynski; the Carl Sagan documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (171,000 page views); Indigo child Criança indigo (this Portuguese page has been viewed over 800,000 times already); the urban legend Momo challenge Desafio da Momo (over 100,000 times viewed); the 18-year old Ethan Lindenberger who defied his parents by getting vaccinated; names you might recognize, Eugenie Scott, James Randi, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, Karen Stollznow, and Neil deGrasse Tyson; optical illusionist Jerry Andrus as well; the psychic technique of hot reading Leitura a quente; list of skeptic books Lista de livros sobre ceticismo; table turning Mesas girantes; Orgone energy Orgônio; Ozone therapy Ozonoterapia; moral panic Pânico moral; Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research which studied parapsychology; the term pseudoscience Pseudociência, which has been viewed almost 150,000 times; and lastly the dentist pseudoscience documentary Root Cause.

I’d forgotten about many of these pages; it’s nice to know that they still attract readers independently of anyone’s promotion of the pages. Seeing them here in one place shows the diversity of the team and also how much more work remains to be done.

I know we have been focusing on Portuguese in this article and you might be thinking, this GSoW project sounds like something you might be interested in joining, but you can’t read and write in Portuguese. Don’t let that stop you! English Wikipedia is still the most popular and obviously the one we work on the most. We have created 620 pages for English Wikipedia. So far those pages have been viewed 36,200,183 times. And there are thousands more waiting to be written. Having a well-written English Wikipedia page allows for the non-English editors to create well-written pages in other languages. Very possibly a page you might create in English will be translated into other languages. And sometimes it works the other way around. We need anyone who wants to take the time to train and roll up sleeves and get to work.

Our mission is to write, rewrite, maintain all Wikipedia pages concerning science, scientific skepticism, and the paranormal … and in all languages is a crazy insane idea. We can not wait until some theoretical perfect moment someday when everyone has nothing better to do with their time. We have to dive right in now and get to work. Please join us; you can find more information on our website.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.