I've posted a detailed critique of RS to the talk page. I'm reposting
it here (still in wikiformatting) to make sure this issue gets the
wide attention it deserves, and because the nature of a talk page is
that it's going to become unreadable in 20 minutes or so.
===A somewhat interminable list of flaws===
As requested, an inventory of the flaws in this page. I hope you will
see that the flaws are deeply rooted, affecting the organization and
goal of the page. Not only is this an inadequate guideline for
sourcing, it is an inadequate foundation for a guideline. David is
correct - this needs to be rewritten from the ground up.
There are three basic flaws of this page, and they'll recur
throughout the below.
#The page arbitrarily attempts to rule out subjective judgment in
some cases while mandating it in others. The cases where it mandates
it are often masked as didactic guidelines that depend on phrases
like "reliable X," "common Y," or a mushy definition of fact. These
phrases could be defined in the same way that "reliable source" has
been, but such definitions would necessarily run into the same
problems of subjectivity. It's turtles all the way down.
#The page is, at numerous points, clearly written for a narrow range
of topics. When applied to other topics, it ranges from the merely
unhelpful to the completely wrong.
#Sections flatly contradict each other.
More details follow.
The opening section in general and paragraph three in particular
frame the page in an astonishingly flimflam way. The prospect of
unsourced information being removed is raised, but no serious
suggestion is given as to when "it is better to have no information
at all than to have information without sources." The result is to
give a vague and nonspecific warning when, in fact, a specific
warning is in order. We are, after all, talking (at least primarily)
about BLP here.
The definition of fact is too iron-clad, relying ultimately on the
idea that nobody "seriously disputes" a claim. By this standard,
neither evolution nor global warming are facts. No serious
encyclopedia should assert that evolution is not fact, but this
definition of fact leads us inexorably to that conclusion.
The problem is exacerbated in the next definition, whereby opinions
are yolked to verifiability, or lack thereof. This contrast between
fact and opinion leaves a vast no man's land of verifiable
information that people still disagree with. Worse, this no man's
land is not self-evident. Does the statement "The US war in Iraq was
conducted based on false information regarding the presence of WMDs
in Iraq" count? It's verifiable, but it's not universally held.
To be clear, THERE IS NO WHITE LINE DEFINITION of fact and opinion
that will let us automatically tell if a statement should be phrased
as fact or as "X thinks Y." There are white line cases - Mars is a
planet, Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God. But there's
a vast middle ground that needs to be taken case by case.
Onward, the definitions of sources are based on old language, but
have been altered past the point of usefulness. The biggest problem
is the idea that primary sources require a reliable publisher. Here
the reliable publisher is being used as a sort of surrogate secondary
source - we're not using the primary source, but rather the primary
source under the imprimatur of Publisher X. All of this is justified
under the idea that "most primary-source material requires training
to use correctly." (An idea that is untrue. They require care to use
correctly. Training is often given to help people become more
careful, but it is not the training that is required. There is a
difference between using historical archives and running a nuclear
The problem is that the same can be said of secondary sources. Even
ones published by scholarly presses, which are, oddly, the only
secondary sources endorsed, creating a system whereby we are bound
entirely to scholarly sources on a topic. (Thankfully, the page is
not consistent enough to endorse that position throughout) Secondary
sources require just as much care as primary sources, and the
privledging of them is nonsense.
The original statement on primary sources from which all of this
derived stated that it's original research to organize primary
sources in a "novel" fashion. But it never set up such a wide-ranging
ban on primary sources, and with good reason.
Finally, the distinction makes no light of the fact that the primacy
of sources is contextual. An example of just how bad this can get:
There is a poem by Yeats called "Among Schoolchildren." The literary
critic Paul de Man has a famous reading of this poem that has been
published by scholarly presses. This reading is a secondary source in
terms of the Yeats poem. But despite its scholarly status, it's
tremendously contested, since de Man is a controversial
deconstructionist - widely recognized as brilliant and important, but
not always agreed with. ''Furthermore'', de Man's reading is a
secondary source ONLY on the topic of Yeats. It's a primary source on
the topic of de Man. And due to the nature of the field, secondary
sources on de Man's reading are virtually all critical - not because
his reading does not have adherents, but because publishing an
article reconfirming de Man's opinion is not considered a useful
publication, and so only contrary opinions get published.
This is neither an overly convoluted example, nor an unusual one.
There is an endless list of topics that require this level of thought
to untangle the nature of primary and secondary sources.
The hedging about using other encyclopedias is a pleasant and rare
example of actually molding the guideline to reality, but is done in
a uselessly clumsy way, amounting to "unsigned articles in
encyclopedias aren't good enough, but we use them anyway." The result
moves towards a hardline sourcing guideline with a thousand
asterisked exceptions. This is not a direction in which a usable
guideline can be found.
The instruction not to remove material that you believe to be true
and common knowledge is important, but too weak. The reference to
[[Wikipedia:Common knowledge]] is distressing, both because it's
unclear to me that the example given (Earth's elliptical orbit)
satisfies the criteria there, and because that page seems to me to
have a section that tries to depricate [[WP:AGF]] in favor of
wikiquette. This use of common knowledge is equivalent to the fact/
opinion mess above - a situation where there is no white line is
being phrased as though there were a white line. In reality, the
judgments over what does and doesn't need a source are largely done
on a case-by-case basis - not by referring to a definition of common
This points towards a larger flaw in our understanding of sources. We
are basically set up to defer almost universally to the person asking
for a source. In reality, we need to recognize that source requests
can be made in bad faith or in error. There are many cases where the
answer to a request for a source is "No." Requesting a source needs
to not be fetishized as an innately reasonable act. Like adding
dispute tags or cleanup tags, it is often a reasonable and helpful
act. It can also be a trolling or stupid act.
====Beware false authority====
This section starts off by demonstrating the problem with valorizing
secondary sources - the process of vetting them is, in the end,
subjective, and often no easier than vetting primary sources. The
sole privledging of academic sources continues here, impovershing
fields with less academic research. (Popular culture, current events,
things related to homelife [Washing machines, cooking, furniture],
non-theoretical aspects of computing, etc).
The discussion of textbooks is valid only for the sciences and to a
lesser degree the social sciences (Where it is valid basically on an
undergraduate level only). It is utterly useless for the humanities,
where few college textbooks exist, and fewer still are assigned.
"Reputable news media" is yet another case of a deep well of
subjective judgment masquerading as a white line policy. "Reports of
a statement by someone that seems out of character, embarrassing,
controversial, or against an interest they had previously defended"
is similarly flawed.
In many fields, it is nigh-impossible to publish a critical review of
anything. This would be one thing if bad books were simply not
reviewed, but in practice bad books are badly reviewed, with reviews
focusing excessively on positive points while ignoring negative points.
This does not, of course, mean that sources in those fields cannot be
====Check multiple sources====
Certainly nice practice, but is this, practically speaking, ever
going to happen?
====Issues to look out for====
The Stormfront/Al Qaeda/Socialist Workers Party comment is another
example of the thousand-exception style of policy writing.
====Independent secondary sources====
This seems, ultimately, to point towards coming up with an absolute
account. NPOV neither mandates nor encourages this.
====Online Sources: Evaluating Reliability====
The tone of this section is good, but it's trying to collapse all the
common sense into one section, and still suffers from a bias towards
academic sources. The main problem here is that, by being collapsed
into so small a section, it ends up going in circles, and ultimately
reads more as "Evaluating sources is hard" but doesn't really point
toward an endpoint.
====OS: Bulletin boards, wikis and posts to Usenet====
This section is just nonsense. Usenet, BBs, and wikis are perfectly
reliable as primary sources in lots of cases. [[Spoo]] is a featured
article based almost entirely on BB posts and Usenet, and nobody with
any knowledge about the topic would criticize a one of them.
This policy does not fit sensibly with the previous section. Anyone
can start a blog, making the identity verification equally
problematic. This renders the two functionally equivalent. In some
cases, of course, we can verify a blogger's identity. We can also, in
some cases, verify a message board poster's identity. Also, the
professional researcher criteria is insufficient. Consider a
situation like Ronald Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica.
He maintains a blog on the Sci-Fi Channel's website. This is clearly
a reliable source of information about the show, despite the fact
that he is not a "researcher" in any useful definition.
====OS: Self-publication on self====
The above BSG example (As well as the Spoo example) fail this test
too. No independent corroboration is going to be forthcoming on such
examples of information being released about a media product. (How
would this even be possible? No secondary source is going to base
itself on anything other than the statements of the creators.) This
is a BLP guideline masquerading as a larger guideline. A more sane
guideline would note that when a person's own account is contradicted
by other accounts, this should be noted - not to cast de facto
suspicion on a person's own account.
====OS:Self-published sources as secondary sources====
The blanket ban on using self-published sources as secondary sources
is in flat contradiction with the "professional researcher" clause
several sections up.
Why is extreme caution necessary to use, say, the Stormfront website
as a primary source about Stormfront's beliefs? This is silly. What
we're trying to prevent is allowing Stormfront to write their own
The note about company websites is not a matter of reliable sources -
it's a matter of NPOV. A general note that, when conclusions of
primary sources are contradicted by other sources, whether primary or
secondary, we do not defer wholly to the primary source would be both
sufficient and appropriate.
====Finding good sources====
A bit of a pep talk, and an odd one at that. We should be cautious
about suggesting that the ideal Wikipedia editor is going to devote
an inordinate amount of time to the task and go do book-based
research. It's nice, yes, but it does cut rather severely against the
notion that "anyone" can edit the encyclopedia, and is an affront to
the volunteer nature of the project. We should make sure this
guideline can be followed by the volunteers we have - not by the ones
we wish we had.
This is not a guideline related to sourcing.
This section is working more towards a notion of "authoritative"
sources instead of reliable ones. Authoritative sources are of
interest only if we are trying to present an absolute point of view.
The claim about "reporting material in different fields" is
problematic, due particularly to the rise of interdisceplenary journals.
Multiple studies have pointed to systemic flaws in the scientific
peer review system. This becomes a serious issue when dealing with
cutting-edge science, which is often difficult at best to summarize
in generalizable terms. The combination of these facts poses serious
problems for verifiability. (This is a case where we need to be
worried about primary sources - where a non-expert could not possibly
The popular press does not cover science less well than any other
academic field. This warning should not be specific to science.
Unless we want to create a general list of reputable publications,
the "which science journals" section doesn't actually provide useful
arXiv needs to be used with extreme caution, but an article on, say,
the Poincare conjecture can't really be written without it at present.
The statistics section encourages exactly the sort of judgment that
the page forbids on other topics such as blogs and Usenet.
====Popular culture and fiction====
As said before, nonsense - popular culture articles on contemporary
culture cannot be written without reference to blogs, Usenet,
bulletin boards, etc. This is a fundamental shift in what a source
is, and we need to respond to it.
No reputable style manuals or research guidelines are cited - only
Again, a subject-specific guideline is being passed off as a general
guideline. These pages on primary/secondary sources are good for
history - not for the general case.
That's all I've got. [[User:Phil Sandifer|Phil Sandifer]] 17:29, 10
October 2006 (UTC)
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a
boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
On Oct 10, 2006, at 6:48 AM, David Gerard wrote:
WP:RS is an essay, not a guideline. I can say that because the
incumbents are now blindly edit-warring to their preferred version,
even against corrections of grammatical errors. That's the sign of a
process that has become way too introverted and really, really needs
to be brought back in touch with the real world.
WikiEN-l mailing list
To unsubscribe from this mailing list, visit: