On the deletion of scholar Ralph Siu by the ‘Wikipedia lynch mobs’

I have written about the Wikipedia deletionist movement before. Deletionism, i.e. groups of editors who scroll the Wikipedia in order to propose articles for deletion, is based on a fundamentally faulty premise, namely that a online universal encyclopedia should be based on scarcity, and that there is no place for diversity and knowledge that is build on the edge. It also suffers from the intellectual ignorance of many editors, who have become arrogant through their power to delete. Finally, some of the objective rules required to avoid deletion, can easily be misused by people with an agenda. Scores of good articles, offering a wide variety of balanced citations from different sources, have become hagiographies because supporters of particular schools of thought, use the formal rules to censor out critique.

I have been sent copies of the discussion around the articles around Panetics, slated for deletion. While the article is not well-written and indeed confusing for non-experts, this only should mean it should be corrected, not deleted. But the deletionists remarks and exemplify an ignorance of non-Western intellectual traditions, ignorance in the tradition of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and much more. Ignorance is not a problem in itself, as everybody can learn from each other, but when coupled with the arrogance of the power to delete, it unfortunately transforms Wikipedia writing in an exclusively political process. The only way out seems to counter-mobilize, but individual and more knowledgeable people are unlikely to be willing, or have the time, to do so. I do hope that forces native to Wikipedia can reverse the deletionist trend, but I see no evidence of it so far. The problems is with the very rules that have been enacted, a meta level of governance that is difficult to access by individual authors of articles. Wikipedia remains a wonderful social achievement, but it is also starting to reveal a new set of problems that are native to peer governance, and specifically a tendency towards lowest-common denominator processes that we are already familiar with in television. Of course the internet as such offers the solution, one can simply write quality material outside of the Wikipedia, and knowledgeable people can self-select and create their own pools, as is customarily done through the Delicious network function.

Without further ado, and in honour of the deleted scholar, here is an account on the subject by Anthony Judge, who already wrote a piece on deletionism.

Subsequent reflection following the “deletion” of Ralph Siu (January 2008)

The entry on R G H Siu has just been deleted from Wikipedia, despite references to his name in connection with panetics (the study of suffering) which was the preoccupation of a research program and organization that he instigated (the International Society for Panetics). The entry on panetics is also marked as being considered for deletion. Siu continues (for the moment) to be mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on suffering.

Siu was an early pioneer in creating a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures, notably in his work on taoism and science (published by MIT Press). These,with other publications on taoism and management (published by Wiley), he subsequently framed as a 12-volume collection (The Quantum and the Tao: an unified East-West psychophilosophical synthesis toward harmonious living). The volumes, with an indication of their contents are listed by a project of the Special Integration Group (SIG) — of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) originally Society for General Systems Research (SGSR) and the International Institute for Systemic Inquiry and Integration.

Siu is an exemplar of lifelong dedication to complex issues having fundamental humanitarian implications. The unseemly haste with which an honourable scholar has been “deleted”, by what amounts to a rabid editorial lynch mob, is a sad commentary on the democratic dynamics which many had so hopefully associated with Wikipedia as an alternative model. The intellectual quality of the dialogue relating to the proposed deletion of panetics is also a sad commentary on collective ignorance and the “unwisdom of crowds” at a time when suffering is a preoccupation for many that experience and of relatively little interest to the research community.

The removal of Siu focuses attention on historical revisionism and censorship as it effectively results from criteria of editorial quality and haste. Clearly, the bias favours the crowd and that which is known to the crowd; hence the extent to which currently favoured bands and groups, using the names of fundamental human values, displace those values in any web search facility.

Wikipedia and Google (or their future competitors) could therefore usefully consider a longer time span in weighting relevance of web content presented through their services — or find that they serve increasingly to obscure larger contexts in favour of the fashionable present even when it is later only of historical significance (if any). For how many decades, for example will the Wikipedia entry on the NY band Mindless Self Indulgence continue to be retained as an authoritative indication of modern global preoccupations — obscuring the absence of any entry on self indulgence that is the cause of so much suffering (as studied by Siu)?

1 Comment On the deletion of scholar Ralph Siu by the ‘Wikipedia lynch mobs’

  1. Michel Bauwens

    Posted by Flemming Funch:

    “While I won’t contest that edgy subjects might be at risk in a place
    like Wikipedia, I’d lean towards framing all of this as good versus
    bad communication more than necessarily as a witch hunt against
    certain types of materials.

    Right, the Panetics article is not well written, and it is confusing.
    I’d be willing to believe that this is a bigger reason for its looming
    deletion than is the subject matter. But the subject matter is of
    course part of the equation, because the editors don’t know what it
    is, so they don’t have any a priori idea that it absolutely has to be
    there. What the article fails to do is to explain clearly what it is,
    and establish that it is an important subject that is part of a web of
    references. Although there are references there, they are mostly
    self-referential, demonstrating that the inventor of the term wrote
    about it.

    There are all sorts of entries in Wikipedia, some about factual
    things, some about fictional characters, some about rock bands, some
    about different people’s beliefs. A lot of these are allowed to stay,
    even if many reviewers might find the subject matter a bit silly, or
    they might disagree violently. To me, that is a matter of framing and
    clarity and a visible web of reference.

    If one describes the subject from a certain distance, with a certain
    academic neutrality, the result is different. I.e. one describes
    correctly what universe the subject belongs to. If it is a fictional
    character, it has to be clearly labeled as such. If it is a belief of
    a certain group of people, that needs to be clear. If one accidentally
    labels something as science that most scientists wouldn’t agree as
    being science, one starts getting into trouble.

    If one describes the subject clearly, so it can be understood by
    people who aren’t already insiders, one makes a much stronger case.
    We’re talking about an encyclopedia. Even if one is very fond of the
    subject, one needs to appear to not be taking sides.

    To establish that a subject is important enough to appear in an
    encyclopedia, one needs to demonstrate that it is part of a web of
    other things. So, it needs to have references to related subjects,
    meta-subjects, sub-subjects, etc. And links from those other subjects.

    I think that if it can be demonstrated that a lot of people find a
    subject important, and they have written about it, and the subject is
    presented clearly and more or less objectively, it is going to be hard
    to get around it, difficult to suggest it should be deleted.

    Wikipedia has a fine entry on Astrology. I’m sure a lot of reviewers
    would consider astrology some kind of superstitious nonsense, but it
    doesn’t matter. The article frames it in a neutral way, doesn’t try to
    pretend that it is science, but it explains some of its principles and
    history, and it has many references. Nobody would be able to get away
    with deleting that entry.

    Yes, maybe there’s some undercurrent of Deletionism, but I think it
    can be counteracted by effective communication.

    In NLP there’s a principle which could be stated as “the meaning of a
    communication is the result it gets”. If I try to get a certain point
    across to a certain group of people, and they misunderstand me and get
    mad at me, it is my fault as the communicator. So, I structure it
    differently, frame it differently, say it differently, and after a few
    tries, I might get a result more like what I desire.

    So, in this setting I would also tend to believe that there’s a
    winning way of doing it. There’s a way of presenting even difficult or
    edgy subjects in such a way that they’ll survive hordes of Wikipedia
    reviewers who have no inherent interest in those subjects.”

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