Charles Matthews on Notability

This is a guest post by Charles Matthews. Charles has been a Wikipedia editor since 2003, an Arbitration Committee member since 2006, and is one of the authors of How Wikipedia Works. He commented on my post Wikipedia, the deeply conservative and traditional encyclopedia and I invited him to expand his thoughts on the topic into a complete post. The links were added by me; apart from that it is wholly his text. —Brianna

Should Wikipedia have an article on Charles Herman Kuhl? Some people would think so. Kuhl’s claim to fame is to have been slapped around by George Patton, in “shell shock is for cissies” mode. The fact that we even have to discuss such an issue seems to me to be a good example of what is wrong with the “notability debate”.

Starting in another way, I was asked in conversation at Wikimania about a proposal to create Wikipedia articles for each human gene. What were my reactions here? I said immediately, there should be no orphans, and the articles shouldn’t be any kind of walled garden. A walled garden would be some sort of sub-project that ordinary Wikipedia editors would find tough to relate to: say if the articles were hard to understand and edit in the ordinary way, or if standard deletion criteria were somehow suspended by fiat. Well, nobody can call off the deletionists that way.

What I did not have as a first or second reaction is “are human genes notable”? I thought, I guess, that the genes are a big part of what make us us. It isn’t interesting to quibble about that kind of thing. I also didn’t react with a query about “reliable sources”. The way I’d go about such a project is with a big listing of the genes, first. Create articles (therefore not orphans) from the listing page(s). If gene XYZ is not really well documented yet, don’t create the article, but leave it on the listing with whatever verifiable info there is so far. If a new gene article is a bit thin, agree to merge it back into the listing pro tem. Over the years, the gene articles project should grow up to reflect the science.

Where’s the problem here? Well, Wikipedia has its content policy, and part of that (or allied to that) is “topic policy” and/or “title policy”, the business of ruling of what topics the encyclopedia should cover, and the details of titling per topic. We tend not to talk about “topic policy”, and only vaguely about what is “encyclopedic”. Wikipedia anyway is only approximately an encyclopedia. What it is, really, is a tertiary source. And Wikipedia only approximately operates by choosing notable topics, in the everyday sense. It has a topic policy that allows topics in Sumerology to be selected according to what is notable to a Sumerologist. Quite rightly. Per field of endeavour, per academic discipline, Wikipedia is interested in surveying the major and minor but still reckonable topics. This is a different issue, by the way, from the mission statement “to provide the whole world’s information”. It is the question of the packages, not the contents.

So, there are a few annoying and catchy misconceptions around. They are like the tunes to bubblegum pop songs, in the way that you can’t get them out of your head even if you want to. Notability doesn’t apply to facts, but to topics: you are probably thinking of verifiability. We don’t have “notable” facts, but facts have salience or not relative to a given topic (very relevant to BLP). Notability is just a guideline. It therefore cannot be a reason to force inclusion of a topic. This is where US Army Private Charles Herman Kuhl comes in. For all there may be a guideline saying notability can be assessed by the presence of good sources, it cannot be the last word: Kuhl was written up by Time magazine, doesn’t make him within sensible “topic policy”. An article about him, simply based on the Patton incident, is probably a classic ‘coatrack’ in fact, written to make Patton look bad rather than to inform. The catchy tune here is that “enough reliable sources make a topic notable”. Oh no they don’t. Enough good sources are probably necessary for a topic’s inclusion, otherwise the article will be paltry. But the witness, bystander or (in this case) passive victim in a famous incident is not really notable: the “Patton slaps GI” topic is clearly destined for all time to be a subsection in the Patton article. The necessary condition of reliable sources isn’t sufficient.

Notability works adequately as a way to exclude topics at AfD: given five days to dig up reasons to keep an article, a sensible decision can often be taken, and the false positive and negatives are not so serious. A marginal decision at AfD decides the issue for six months, but not in fact forever, and debates are curtailed where they might cover imponderables. This works well enough. CSD A7 has worked much worse, in the past, and the bar has now been lowered: “An article … that does not indicate why its subject is important or significant. This is distinct from questions of verifiability and reliability of sources, and is a lower standard than notability.” This used to read in terms of an “assertion of notability”: the problem being that some people wouldn’t take office-holders to be notable for their office alone. An arguable point, but it seems to have been admitted that the “assertion” thing was broken.

Topic policy isn’t as broken, but what we now know is that the catchy isn’t always helpful in this area. [[Category:Wikipedia notability]] is a subcategory of [[Category:Wikipedia content selection]], but completely dominant … around 100 pages in there, and only the Fancruft, Neologism and Recentism pages escape. Really, we should start to revamp, explaining more clearly what the policy on topics is. There were recent polls to try to change the policy, but I thought the proposals were nearly all wrong-headed, and probably aimed at some of the successful tenets we have. In effect we do not allow subpages in article space and insist that summary style, highly desirable as it is, operate only through individually notable topics. Here we see topic policy plus concision constraining content policy, and a good thing too.

15 October, 2008 • , ,

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