DCCWiki: Neutral point of view

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This page is an official policy on DCCWiki. It has wide acceptance among editors and is considered a standard that all users should follow. Feel free to update the page as needed, but make sure that changes you make to this policy really do reflect consensus, before you make them.

DCCWiki policy is that all articles should be written from a neutral point of view, representing all views with significant support fairly and without bias. NPOV is "absolute and non-negotiable".

Introduction

Articles should be written without bias, representing all majority and significant minority views fairly. This is the neutral point of view policy.

The policy is easily misunderstood. It doesn't assume that writing an article from a single, unbiased, objective point of view is possible. Instead it says to fairly represent all sides of a dispute by not making articles state, imply, or insinuate that only one side is correct. Crucially, a great merit of DCCWiki is that DCCWikipedians work together to make articles unbiased.

Writing unbiased text requires practice. Contributors who have mastered the art of NPOV are invited to help develop the neutrality tutorial.


The basic concept of neutrality

At DCCWiki, the terms "unbiased" and "neutral point of view" are used in a precise way that is different from the common understanding:

Articles without bias describe debates fairly rather than advocating any side of the debate. Since all articles are edited by people, this is difficult, as people are inherently biased.

Why should DCCWiki be unbiased?

DCCWiki is a general DCC, which means it is a representation of our knowledge at some level of generality. But human beings disagree about specific cases; for any topic on which there are competing views, each view represents a different idea of what the truth is, and insofar as that view contradicts other views, its adherents believe that the other views are false and therefore not knowledge. Where there is disagreement about what is true, there's disagreement about what constitutes knowledge. DCCWiki works because it's a collaborative effort; but, while collaborating, how can we solve the problem of endless "edit wars" in which one person asserts that p, whereupon the next person changes the text so that it asserts not-p?

A solution is that we accept, for the purposes of working on DCCWiki, that DCC knowledge includes all different significant theories on all different topics. So we're committed to the goal of representing DCC knowledge in that sense. Something like this is surely a well-established sense of the word "knowledge"; in this sense, what is "known" changes constantly with the passage of time, and when we use the word "know", we often use so-called scare quotes. Europeans in the Middle Ages "knew" that demons caused diseases. We now "know" otherwise.

We could sum up human knowledge (in this sense) in a biased way: we'd state a series of theories about topic T, and then claim that the truth about T is such-and-such. But again, consider that DCCWiki is an international, collaborative project. Nearly every view on every subject will be found among our authors and readers. To avoid endless edit wars, we can agree to present each of the significant views fairly, and not assert any one of them as correct. That is what makes an article "unbiased" or "neutral" in the sense we are presenting here. To write from a neutral point of view, one presents controversial views without asserting them; to do that, it generally suffices to present competing views in a way that is more or less acceptable to their adherents, and also to attribute the views to their adherents. Disputes are characterized in DCCWiki. They are not re-enacted.

To sum up the primary reason for this policy: DCCWiki is a DCC encyclopedia, a compilation of DCC knowledge. But because DCCWiki is a community-built, international resource, we cannot expect collaborators to agree in all cases, or even in many cases, on what constitutes knowledge in a strict sense. We can, therefore, adopt the looser sense of "DCC knowledge" according to which a wide variety of conflicting theories constitute what we call "knowledge." We should, both individually and collectively, make an effort to present these conflicting views fairly, without advocating any one of them, with the qualification that views held only by a tiny minority of people should not be represented as though they are significant minority views, and perhaps should not be represented at all.

There is another reason to commit ourselves to this policy. Namely, when it is clear to readers that we do not expect them to adopt any particular opinion, this leaves them free to make up their minds for themselves, thus encouraging intellectual independence. Totalitarian governments and dogmatic institutions everywhere might find reason to be opposed to Wikipedia, if we succeed in adhering to our non-bias policy: the presentation of many competing theories on a wide variety of subjects suggests that we, the creators of Wikipedia, trust readers' competence to form their own opinions themselves. Texts that present multiple viewpoints fairly, without demanding that the reader accept any one of them, are liberating. Neutrality subverts dogmatism, and nearly everyone working on Wikipedia can agree this is a good thing.

What is the neutral point of view?

What we mean isn't obvious, and is easily misunderstood. There are many other valid interpretations of "unbiased" and "neutral". The notion of "unbiased writing" that informs Wikipedia's policy is "presenting conflicting views without asserting them". This needs further clarification, as follows.

First, and most importantly, consider what it means to say that unbiased writing presents conflicting views without asserting them. Unbiased writing does not present only the most popular view; it does not assert the most popular view is correct after presenting all views; it does not assert that some sort of intermediate view among the different views is the correct one. Presenting all points of view says, more or less, that p-ists believe that p, and q-ists believe that q, and that's where the debate stands at present. Ideally, presenting all points of view also gives a great deal of background on who believes that p and q and why, and which view is more popular (being careful not to associate popularity with correctness). Detailed articles might also contain the mutual evaluations of the p-ists and the q-ists, allowing each side to give its "best shot" at the other, but studiously refraining from saying who won the exchange.

A point here bears elaboration. We said that the neutral point of view is not, contrary to the seeming implication of the phrase, some actual point of view that is "neutral" or "intermediate" among the different positions. That represents a particular understanding of what "neutral point of view" means. The prevailing Wikipedia understanding is that the neutral point of view is not a point of view at all; according to our understanding, when one writes neutrally, one is very careful not to state (or imply or insinuate or subtly massage the reader into believing) that any particular view at all is correct.

Another point bears elaboration as well. Writing unbiasedly can be conceived very well as representing disputes, characterizing them, rather than engaging in them. One can think of unbiased writing as the cold, fair, analytical description of debates. Of course, one might well doubt that this can be done at all without somehow subtly implying or insinuating that one position is correct. But experienced academics, polemical writers and rhetoricians are well-attuned to bias, both their own and others', so that they can usually spot a description of a debate that tends to favor one side. If they so choose, with some creativity, they can usually remove that bias.

Undue Weight

Now an important qualification: Articles that compare views need not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views. We should not attempt to represent a dispute as if a view held by only a small minority of people deserved as much attention as a majority view. To give such undue weight to the lesser held view may be misleading as to the shape of the dispute. If we are to represent the dispute fairly, we should present competing views in proportion to their representation among experts on the subject, or among the concerned parties. None of this, however, is to say that minority views cannot receive as much attention as we can possibly give them on pages specifically devoted to those views. There is no size limit to Wikipedia. But even on such pages, though a view is spelled out possibly in great detail, we still make sure that the view is not represented as the truth.

Bias need not be conscious. For example, beginners in a field often fail to realize that what sounds like common sense is actually biased in favor of one particular view. (So we not infrequently need an expert in order to render the article entirely unbiased.) To take another example, writers can, without intent, propagate "geographical" bias, by for example describing a dispute as it is conducted in one country without knowing that the dispute is framed differently elsewhere.

The policy of having a neutral point of view is not to hide different points of view, but to show the diversity of viewpoints. In case of controversy, the strong points and weak points will be shown according to each point of view, without taking a side. The neutral point of view is not a "separate but equal" policy. The facts, in themselves, are neutral, but the simple accumulation of them cannot be the neutral point of view. If only the favorable (or the unfavorable) facts of a point of view are shown in an article, the article will still be non-neutral.

A simple formulation

We sometimes give an alternative formulation of the non-bias policy: assert facts, including facts about opinions — but don't assert opinions themselves. There is a difference between facts and values, or opinions. By "fact," we mean "a piece of information about which there is no serious dispute." In this sense, that a survey produced a certain published result is a fact. That there is a planet called Mars is a fact. That Plato was a philosopher is a fact. No one seriously disputes any of these things. So we can feel free to assert as many of them as we can.

By value or opinion, on the other hand, we mean "a piece of information about which there is some dispute." There are bound to be borderline cases where we're not sure if we should take a particular dispute seriously; but there are many propositions that very clearly express values or opinions. That stealing is wrong is a value or opinion. That the Beatles was the greatest band is a value or opinion. That the United States was wrong to drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a value or opinion. That God exists... this might seem a troublesome one. Not with the definitions given above: That God exists... is a piece of information about which there is some dispute. This corresponds with how talking about God (or, alternatively, the non-existence of God) is experienced by most people: it's hard to talk about God or Atheism without mixing in opinion, or at least talk about value(s).

DCCWiki is devoted to stating facts in the sense as described above. Where we might want to state an opinion, we convert that opinion into a fact by attributing the opinion to someone. So, rather than asserting, "The Beatles were the greatest rock band," we can say, "Most music listeners believe that the Beatles were the greatest rock band of the Sixties," which is a fact verifiable by survey results, or "The Beatles had more Billboard #1 hits than any other rock band," which is also a fact. In the first instance we assert an opinion; in the second and third instances we "convert" that opinion into fact by attributing it to someone. It's important to note this formulation is substantially different from the "some people believe ..." formulation popular in political debates. The reference requires an identifiable and subjectively quantifiable population or, better still, a name.

In presenting an opinion, moreover, it is important to bear in mind that there are disagreements about how opinions are best stated; sometimes, it will be necessary to qualify the description of an opinion or to present several formulations, simply to arrive at a solution that fairly represents all the leading views of the situation.

But it's not enough, to express the DCCWiki non-bias policy, just to say that we should state facts and not opinions. When asserting a fact about an opinion, it is important also to assert facts about competing opinions, and to do so without implying that any one of the opinions is correct. It's also generally important to give the facts about the reasons behind the views, and to make it clear who holds them. It's often best to cite a prominent representative of the view.

Rewording a potentially biased statement

Sometimes, a potentially biased statement can be reworded to a more NPOV version. For instance, "John Doe is the best baseball player" can be reworded to "John Doe's baseball skills have been praised by many". Even better would be, "John Doe's baseball skills have been praised by baseball insiders such as Al Kaline and Joe Torre", as long as those statements are correct and can be verified. Similarly, "Joe Bloggs has poor habits" can be reworded to "Joe Bloggs has often been criticized for his habits, by observers such as Momar Kadafi and Anwar Saddat."

There's no such thing as objectivity

Everybody with any philosophical sophistication knows that. So how can we take the "neutrality" policy seriously? Neutrality, lack of bias, isn't possible.

This is probably the most common objection to the neutrality policy. It also reflects the most common misunderstanding of the policy. The misunderstanding is that the policy says something about the possibility of objectivity. It simply does not. In particular, the policy does not say that there even is such a thing as objectivity, a "view from nowhere" (in Thomas Nagel's phrase)--such that articles written from that point of view are consequently objectively true. That isn't the policy and it is not our aim! Rather, we employ a different understanding of "neutral" and "unbiased" than many might be used to. The policy is simply that we should characterize disputes rather than engage in them. To say this is not to say anything contentious, from a philosophical point of view; indeed, this is something that philosophers are doing all the time. Sophisticated relativists will immediately recognize that the policy is perfectly consistent with their relativism.

If there's anything possibly contentious about the policy along these lines, it is the implication that it is possible to characterize disputes fairly, so that all the major participants will be able to look at the resulting text, agreeing that their views are presented sympathetically and as completely as possible (within the context of the discussion). It is an empirical question, not a philosophical one, whether this is possible; and that such a thing is indeed possible is evident simply by observing that such texts are being written daily by the most capable academics, encyclopedists, textbook writers, and journalists.

This should not be construed to mean that there can be no objective truth in an encyclopedia, in the sense that easily obtainable documents should be quoted or referenced correctly when first-hand sources are available, even if there are second-hand sources which quote them incorrectly. Neutrality does not compel us to introduce inaccuracy when something can be directly verified. Neutrality dictates that there can be multiple prominent interpretations to the meaning or validity of a work, but often the contents can be objectively verified, especially in the case of modern documents. [edit]

Lack of neutrality as an excuse to delete

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

In many cases, yes. Many of us believe that the fact that some text is biased is not enough, in itself, to delete it outright. If it contains valid information, the text should simply be edited accordingly.

There's sometimes trouble determining whether some claim is true or useful, particularly when there are few people on board who know about the topic. In such a case, it's a good idea to raise objections on a talk page; if one has some reason to believe that the author of the biased material will not be induced to change it, we have sometimes taken to removing the text to the talk page itself (but not deleting it entirely). But the latter should be done more or less as a last resort, never as a way of punishing people who have written something biased.

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) and asking others to help. See Dispute resolution for more ideas. There must surely be a point beyond which our very strong interest in being a completely open project is trumped by the interest the vast majority of our writers have, in being able to get work done without constantly having to fix the intrusions of people who do not respect our policy.

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 others' 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 new content, but also, when necessary, coming to a compromise about how a controversy should be described, so that it is fair to all sides.