Essay:Accuracy vs. neutrality on Conservapedia

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This essay is an original work by Philip J. Rayment. Please comment only on the talk page.
Wikipedia has a policy of neutrality, the intention apparently being to minimise bias.[1]

Conservapedia, in contrast, has no such policy, and openly acknowledges its bias[1] towards conservative ideas. In practice, this includes accepting the Bible for what it claims to be. Thus it is Christian and tends to be young-Earth creationist.

Conservapedia also aims to be accurate. Many editors question how an encyclopedia which admits to having a bias can also be accurate. This page aims to explain how the two are compatible.

Contents

Clarifying terms

Before getting on to the main issue, let's clarify a couple of terms:

Evidence

Definitions of "evidence" include:

  • "information or signs indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid"[2]
  • "an outward sign : indication"[3]
  • "ground for belief; that which tends to prove or disprove something[4]

Proof

Definitions of "proof" include:

  • "evidence establishing a fact or the truth of a statement"[5]
  • "the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact"[6]
  • "Evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth"[4]

There are of course other definitions, such as photographic proofs and mathematical proofs, but this discussion is not concerned with those sorts of proofs.

The difference between the two

Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it's probably best to think of evidence as the facts that are used to try and prove something, and proof as evidence sufficient to establish something as true, as one of the definitions above says. The key word there, though, is "sufficient".

How much is enough?

The question then arises, how much evidence is sufficient to establish something as true? The answer depends on the situation.

Criminal cases

In a criminal court case, the charges have to be proven true beyond reasonable doubt. That is, there is still some room for doubt, but not much. This recognises that such things can rarely (if ever) be proved beyond any doubt at all. Even if the defendant confesses to the crime, it's still possible to consider that he's confessed to protect someone else, or has been forced to confess, for example. It's generally not possible to remove absolutely all doubt. But being unable to remove absolutely all doubt does not prevent society from deciding guilt in such cases, even when the consequences of doing so are considerable, such as the defendant being found guilty and executed.

Civil cases

In civil court cases the "standard of proof" is lower. In such cases, the decision is made on the basis of which side is more likely to be true. There are valid reasons for having a different standard, but the point to note here is that different levels of "proof" are applicable in different circumstances.

Science

In science, it is often said that nothing can ever be proved.[7][8] For example, no matter how many tests are conducted showing that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, there remains the possibility, no matter how remote, that the next experiment might return a different result.

In that sense, the "standard of proof" for science can be said to be beyond all doubt. But it's because there could always be some doubt, no matter how small, that science can never be said to "prove" anything. (What it can do, is disprove something. And failure to disprove something, despite repeated attempts, is sufficient to consider the thing to be reasonably certain.)

"Proving" God

A newspaper cartoon in the 1960s in Australia[9] showed a man pointing to a television showing a photograph of Earth taken from space, and telling his elderly father that this proved that the Earth really was round, not flat. The unconvinced father replied, "I'm wise to their trick photography".

Sceptics frequently argue not only that nobody has ever proved God's existence, but that such a proof is impossible because God is beyond being tested. Such sceptics seem to be arguing for a scientific proof of God. And indeed, in that respect, they are correct: God cannot be scientifically tested, as science can only test the natural world, whereas God is supernatural.

However, such sceptics go further, and argue that there is no evidence for God's existence. Sometimes, they appear to be using the word "evidence" as a synonym for "proof", and more specifically, for scientific proof (despite there being no such thing).

However, what such sceptics overlook is that there is evidence for God's existence. Whether that evidence is "sufficient to establish something as true" in their minds is another matter. Indeed, the evidence may well not convince them. And in that sense God's existence will indeed not be "proved". But the evidence may well be enough to convince some people. So for those people, God's existence has been proved.

It is therefore unreasonable to say that God's existence cannot be proved. God's existence indeed can be proved, depending on what evidence it takes to convince one.

Wikipedia and neutrality

Wikipedia has a "Neutral Point of View" policy, which essentially says that Wikipedia is not to take sides in an issue, but to present both sides of an issue fairly.

In practice, however, points of view that are popular (among the active editors) tend to predominate. Thus evolution is presented as true, and opposing views such as creation and Intelligent Design are treated as pseudo science.

The controlling editors use various arguments to support this bias. For example, they argue that minority views should not be given undue weight. This argument is properly used to ensure that crackpot ideas such as a hollow Earth are not presented as equally likely to be true as opposing ideas. However, it is also used to marginalise ideas such as creation and Intelligent Design for which there is widespread support, on the grounds that the ideas don't have widespread support among scientists.

What this demonstrates, however, is that being neutral is very difficult if not impossible to achieve, and in some cases is not actually desirable.

Conservapedia and neutrality

Conservapedia gets around the difficulty of achieving neutrality by not trying to be neutral. Unlike Wikipedia, which is not neutral but claims to be, Conservapedia is not claiming to be something that it is not (in this regard at least).

But that doesn't mean that Conservapedia cannot be truthful or factual. Taking the view that the Earth is solid, not hollow, for example, is something that is reasonable to do, on the basis that it has been proved. That is, there exists what we consider to be sufficient evidence to be certain that the Earth is solid.

Similarly, the people in charge of Conservapedia consider there to be sufficient evidence to believe that God exists, that Jesus is God, that the Bible is true, and that evolution (in the sense of common descent) is false.

No, none of these things has been scientifically proved. But as explained above, that is not the only sort of proof.

People with opposing views are, of course, welcome to edit Conservapedia. And they are definitely welcome to correct errors of fact. They are even welcome to argue that there is not sufficient evidence to consider something proven.

However, it is inappropriate to insist that Conservapedia is being unreasonably biased, is wrong to claim certainty on certain matters (such as the existence of God), and that opposing views deserve as much space.

Encyclopedias and neutrality

But is it appropriate for an encyclopedia to have a bias? As mentioned above, Wikipedia does have a bias, despite its policy of neutrality. Similar applies to traditional encyclopedias. Britannica, Encarta, World Book, etc. all talk about evolution as though it is true, and are thus not neutral to the creation/evolution issue.

This is due to the view that predominates among those that write the encyclopedia. The first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, written at a time before Darwin made evolution popular, and even before there had been much change to the long-held idea of Earth being 6,000 years old, gave "the age of the earth as thousands of years, and [described] the global Flood of Noah as a real historical event."[10]

Conservapedia is no different. It presents as truth what it believes to be truth. In doing so, it is not claiming infallibility—mistakes are always possible. But it is not being intellectually dishonest in doing so whilst at the same time claiming to be accurate, trustworthy, and factual.[11]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 The word "bias" is here used to mean a "predisposition toward one belief before another". It is not used to mean a prejudice or an "unreasoned judgement".
  2. Evidence in Compact Oxford English Dictionary
  3. Evidence in Merriam Webster
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Penguin Macquarie Dictionary
  5. Proof in Compact Oxford English Dictionary
  6. Proof in Merriam Webster
  7. Mathematics is different, as theorems can be proved in maths.
  8. Karl Popper, in particular, argued this.
  9. Either The Potts or Dad and Dave, from memory.
  10. Walker, Tas., Believe it or not—the earth is young!, 28th November, 2007 (Creation Ministries International).
  11. This is the principle. How well it works in practice, with the possibility of a given editor or editors with sufficient power pushing a particular view, is another matter.
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