Wikipedia:Neutral point of view/FAQ

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These are some Frequently Asked Questions about Wikipedia's Neutral point of view policy.

Common questions

Being neutral

There's no such thing as objectivity

There's no such thing as objectivity. Everybody with any philosophical sophistication knows that. So, how can we take the NPOV policy seriously?

This most common objection to the neutrality policy also reflects the most common misunderstanding of the policy. The NPOV policy says nothing about objectivity. In particular, the policy does not say that there is such a thing as objectivity in a philosophical sense—a "view from nowhere" (to use Thomas Nagel's phrase), such that articles written from that viewpoint are consequently objectively true. That is not the policy, and it is not our aim! Rather, to be neutral is to describe debates rather than engage in them. In other words, when discussing a subject, we should report what people have said about it rather than what is so. This is not to say anything philosophically contentious; indeed, philosophers describe debates all the time. Even sophisticated relativists will immediately recognize that "neutrality", in this sense, is perfectly consistent with their philosophy.

Now, is it possible to characterize disputes fairly? This is an empirical issue, not a philosophical one: can we edit articles so that all the major participants will be able to look at the resulting text, and agree that their views are presented accurately and as completely as the context permits? It may not be possible to describe all disputes with perfect objectivity, but it is an aim that thousands of editors strive towards every day.

Lack of neutrality as an excuse to delete

The NPOV policy is used sometimes as an excuse to delete texts that are perceived as biased. Isn't this a problem?

Editors have different ideas about how Wikipedia should look "today". Some want it to be as fault-free as possible, even if that means cutting mediocre content; others think that all but the most serious flaws should be allowed to stand so they can be improved.

While the burden of establishing verifiability and reliability rests on those who are challenged about it, there is usually no need to immediately delete text that can instead be rewritten as necessary over time. Obvious exceptions are articles about living people or clear vandalism, but generally there is no need for text to meet the highest standards of neutrality today if there's a reasonable chance of getting there.

Also, determining whether a claim is true or useful, particularly when few people know about the topic, often requires a more involved process to get the opinions of other editors. It's a good idea to raise objections on a talk page or at a relevant WikiProject. Discussing contentious claims helps editors to evaluate their accuracy and often leads to better sourcing and clearer phrasing.

Especially contentious text can be removed to the talk page if necessary, but only as a last resort, and never just deleted.

It is a frequent misunderstanding of the NPOV policy, often expressed by newbies, visitors, and outside critics, that articles must not contain any form of bias, hence their efforts to remove statements they perceive as biased. The NPOV policy does forbid the inclusion of editorial bias, but does not forbid properly sourced bias. Without the inclusion and documentation of bias in the real world, many of our articles would fail to document the sum total of human knowledge, and would be rather "blah" reading, devoid of much meaningful and interesting content.

Assert facts, not opinions

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What is the difference between asserting a fact and asserting an opinion?

The text of Wikipedia articles should assert facts, but not assert opinions as fact.

  • When a statement is a fact (e.g. information that is accepted as true and about which there is no serious dispute), it should be asserted using Wikipedia's own voice without in-text attribution. Thus we write: "Mars is a planet" or "Plato was a philosopher". We do not write: "According to the Daily Telegraph, the capital of France is Paris" because doing so would create the impression of doubt or disagreement where there is none. It is good practice, however, to include an inline citation to a reliable source to allow the reader to verify any fact that is not widely known.
  • When a statement is an opinion (e.g. a matter which is subject to dispute or commonly considered to be subjective), it should be attributed in the text to the person or group who holds the opinion. Thus we might write: "John Doe's baseball skills have been praised by baseball insiders such as Al Kaline and Joe Torre.[1]". We do not write: "John Doe is the best baseball player". The inclusion of opinions is subject to weight policy, and they should be backed up with an inline citation to a reliable source that verifies both the opinion and who holds it.

A simple formulation is to assert facts, including facts about opinions, but don't assert opinions themselves.

Making necessary assumptions

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When writing a long series of articles on some general subject, e.g., in writing about evolution, do we have to hash out the evolution-vs.-creationism debate on every page?

No, surely not. There are virtually no topics that could proceed without making some assumptions that someone would find controversial. This is true not only in evolutionary biology, but also in philosophy, history, physics, etc.

It is difficult to draw up general principles on which to rule in specific cases, but the following might help: there is probably not a good reason to discuss some assumption on a given page if an assumption is best discussed in depth on some other page.

Balancing different views

Giving "equal validity"

History has shown that pseudoscience can beat out facts, by relying on lies, slander, innuendo and numerical majorities to force their views on others. If this project gives equal validity to those who literally claim that the Earth is flat, or those who claim that the Holocaust never occurred, the result is that it will inadvertently legitimize and promote baseless and/or evil ideas.

Wikipedia's neutrality policy certainly does not state, or imply, that we should or must "give equal validity" to minority (sometimes pseudoscientific) views. It does state that we must not take a stand on them as encyclopedia writers, but that does not stop us from describing the majority views as such and using the words of reliable sources to present strong criticisms. Fairly explaining the arguments against a pseudoscientific theory or verifiably describing the moral repugnance that people feel toward a notion is fully permitted by NPOV.

Writing for the opponent

See also: Wikipedia:Writing for the opponent (essay)

I'm not convinced by what you say about "writing for the opponent". I don't want to write for the opponents. Most of them rely on stating as fact many statements that are demonstrably false. Are you saying that, to be neutral in writing an article, I must lie, in order to represent the view I disagree with?

The great thing about NPOV is that you aren't claiming anything, except to say, "So-and-so argues that ____________, and therefore, ___________." This can be done with a straight face, with no moral compunctions, because you are attributing the claim to someone else. Even in the most contentious debates, when scholars are trying to prove a point, they include counter-arguments, at the least so that they can explain why the counter-arguments fail.

Also, people can honestly fail to see the bias inherent in a popular term or point of view, simply because it's the one commonly used or familiar to them. But English Wikipedia is a highly diverse and international project, and its editors reflect many different points of view. Maintaining objectivity about the most personal or contentious subjects is new to most people, and many disputes over the terminology and phrasing can be resolved by simply balancing points of view (in proportion to their significance, of course).

Religion

Disrespecting my religion, or treating it like a human invention of some kind, is religious discrimination, inaccurate, or wrong. And what about beliefs I feel are wrong, or against my religion, or outdated, or non-scientific?

NPOV policy means presenting all significant points of view. This means providing not only the points of view of different groups today, but also different groups in the past, and not only points of view you share, but also points of view with which you disagree.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. One important task for encyclopedias is to explain things. In the case of human beliefs and practices, explanation encompasses not only what motivates individuals who hold these beliefs and practices, but an account of how such beliefs and practices came to be and took shape. Wikipedia articles on history and religion draw from a religion's sacred texts. But Wikipedia articles on history and religion also draw from modern archaeological, historical, and scientific sources.

Some adherents of a religion might object to a critical historical treatment of their faith, claiming that this somehow discriminates against their religious beliefs. They might prefer that the articles describe their faith as they see it. NPOV policy means that Wikipedia editors ought to say something like this: Many adherents of this faith believe X, which they believe that members of this group have always believed; however, due to the acceptance of some findings (say which) by modern historians and archaeologists (say which), other adherents (say which) of this faith now believe Z. This way, views are presented without being criticized or endorsed.

An important note on using the term "fundamentalism": In studies of religion, this word has a very specific meaning. Wikipedia articles about religion should use this word only in its technical sense, not "strongly-held belief", "opposition to science", or "religious conservatism", as it is often used in the popular press. Take care to explain what is meant by this term in order to avoid causing unnecessary offense or misleading the reader. As religion is an emotional and controversial topic, Wikipedia editors should be prepared to see some articles edited due to seemingly minor quibbles. Stay civil and try not to take discussions too personally.

Morally offensive views

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What about views that are morally offensive to most readers, such as sexism and homicidal cannibalism, that some people actually hold? Surely we are not to be neutral about them?

We can maintain a healthy, consistent support for the neutral point of view by attributing emotionally charged views to prominent representatives or to a group of people. Those who harbor attitudes of racism, sexism, etc., will not be convinced to change their views based on a biased article, which only puts them on the defensive; on the other hand, if we make a concerted effort to apply our non-bias policy consistently, those whom we consider to have morally repugnant beliefs opposite to our own may consider an insight that could change their views.

The fact that an idea or topic is morally outrageous is not a reason to leave it out of Wikipedia. If a morally outrageous idea or practice has received notable coverage from neutral, independent sources (not just its originator), we provide a valuable service by describing it as well as the criticisms and opposition it has received.

Pseudoscience

How are we to write articles about pseudoscientific topics, about which majority scientific opinion is that the pseudoscientific opinion is not credible and doesn't even really deserve serious mention?

If we're going to represent the sum total of encyclopedic knowledge, then we must concede that we will be describing views repugnant to us without asserting that they are false. This is not, however, as bad as it sounds. The task before us is not to describe disputes as though pseudoscience were on a par with science; rather, the task is to represent the majority (scientific) view as the majority view and the minority (sometimes pseudoscientific) view as the minority view, and to explain how scientists have received or criticized pseudoscientific theories. This is all in the purview of the task of describing a dispute fairly. Pseudoscience may be significant as a social phenomenon, but it should not obfuscate the description of mainstream scientific views. Any mention of pseudoscientific views should be proportionate to the rest of the article.

With regard to characterizing topics as pseudoscience, the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee ruled as follows (at Wikipedia:Requests_for_arbitration/Pseudoscience):

  • Obvious pseudoscience: Theories which, while purporting to be scientific, are obviously bogus, such as Time Cube, may be so labeled and categorized as such without more.
  • Generally considered pseudoscience: Theories which have a following, such as astrology, but which are generally considered pseudoscience by the scientific community may properly contain that information and may be categorized as pseudoscience.
  • Questionable science: Theories which have a substantial following, such as psychoanalysis, but which some critics allege to be pseudoscience, may contain information to that effect, but generally should not be so characterized.
  • Alternative theoretical formulations: Alternative theoretical formulations which have a following within the scientific community are not pseudoscience, but part of the scientific process.

Editor disputes

Dealing with biased contributors

I agree with the nonbias policy but there are some here who seem completely, irremediably biased. I have to go around and clean up after them. What do I do?

Unless the case is really egregious, maybe the best thing is to call attention to the problem publicly, pointing the perpetrators to this page (but politely — one gets more flies with honey than with vinegar) and asking others to help. See Dispute resolution for more ideas. There is a point beyond which our interest in being a completely open project is trumped by our interest in being able to get work done without constantly having to fix the intrusions of people who do not respect our policies.

Avoiding constant disputes

How can we avoid constant and endless warfare over neutrality issues?

The best way to avoid warfare over bias is to remember that most of us are reasonably intelligent, articulate people here, or we wouldn't be working on this and caring so much about it. We have to make it our goal to understand each other's perspectives and to work hard to make sure that those other perspectives are fairly represented.

When any dispute arises as to what the article should say, or what is true, we must not adopt an adversarial stance; we must do our best to step back and ask ourselves, "How can this dispute be fairly characterized?" This has to be asked repeatedly as each new controversial point is stated. It is not our job to edit Wikipedia so that it reflects our own idiosyncratic views and then defend those edits against all-comers; it is our job to work together, mainly adding or improving content, but also, when necessary, coming to a compromise about how a controversy should be described, so that it is fair to all sides. Consensus is not always possible, but it should be your goal.

Other objections

Anglo-American focus

Wikipedia seems to have an Anglo-American focus. Is this contrary to NPOV?

Yes, it is, especially when dealing with articles that require an international perspective. The presence of articles written from a United States or European Anglophone perspective is simply a reflection of the fact that there are many U.S. and European Anglophone people working on the project. This is an ongoing problem that should be corrected by active collaboration between Anglo-Americans and people from other countries. But rather than introducing their own cultural bias, they should seek to improve articles by removing any examples of cultural bias that they encounter, or making readers aware of them. A special WikiProject for Countering systemic bias has been set up to deal with this problem. This is not only a problem in the English Wikipedia. The French Language Wikipedia may reflect a French bias, the Japanese Wikipedia may reflect a Japanese bias, and so on.

Not answered here

I have some other objection—where should I complain?

Before asking it, please review the links below. Many issues surrounding the neutrality policy have been covered before very extensively and good answers exist in other places.

Other NPOV resources

Because the neutral point of view policy is often unfamiliar to newcomers yet central to Wikipedia's approach, many issues surrounding the neutrality policy have been covered extensively before. If you have some new contribution to make to the debate, you could try Talk:Neutral point of view, or bring it up on the Wikipedia mailing list. Before asking, please review the links below:

External links








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