What do We Really Think about Plate Tectonics?

In mid-August, two experts on acid rain published a study. It’s about Wikipedia and how wiki edits reflect some of the social dynamics of the public’s view of science.  The researchers – Adam Wilson and Gene Likens – indicated that they were frustrated. Wikipedia’s acid rain entry had been repeatedly vandalized with obscenities and nonsense. The culprit(s) were likely editors who disagreed that precipitation can become contaminated with sulphuric acid and that such pollution can cause environmental damage. The vandals were apparently unable to express their opinions through reasonable logical arguments supported by facts. So the renegade editors deleted large sections of material and inserted vulgarities and wiki-graffiti. For example, the opening paragraph was once briefly replaced by “Acid rain is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet poo and cats.” Hilarious though this may be among 12-year-olds, it is annoying to people using Wikipedia for general study and it is disturbing when such vandalism is committed by 35-year-old libertarians intent on giving coal mine owners and anti-environmentalists failed reputations.

Wet poo was just the beginning of the vandalism crudely intercalated within the structure of the acid rain wiki page. If you read Wilson and Likens’ PLOS paper about wiki-graffiti, you will find some of the more vulgar comments that were inserted. As a result of their irritation with the ignorant science-bashers, Wilson and Likens decided to investigate the level of conflict played out on various other contentious science-related Wikipedia pages. These include global warming, evolution, and continental drift. I would have chosen plate tectonics instead of drift, but the phrase ‘continental drift’ attracts less science-worthy editors – which was perhaps helpful to Wilson and Likens’ study. They wanted to see how many nuisance (non-science) edits Wikipedia has been imbibing. Quite a few, it turns out.

In order to attempt to quantify the level of conflict among editors of Wiki pages, the researchers counted the size and number of edits on the potentially contentious pages for the period 2003 through 2012. We may assume that larger edits (over 100 words) likely represent disagreements or insertions of content while smaller edits (fewer than 50 words) probably reflect grammar and spelling corrections and minor additions such as details or references supporting or opposing existing theses. They found that evolution received an average of  9 edits per week with 142 words changed per day. Global warming was edited 13 times per week with 111 words changed daily, on average. Our favourite – continental drift – experienced just 2 edits per week with an average of 24 words changed per day.

Wiki Stats from Wilson & Likens - full description is here.

Wiki Stats from Wilson & Likens – full description is here.

What about plate tectonics? I have not run the exhaustive statistics that the PLOS paper’s authors employed. But I have taken a quick look and compared continental drift with plate tectonics. From January 1, 2015 until today, there have been just 21 non-robotic (and non-sequential edits by the same editor) changes to the plate tectonics wiki entry. Meanwhile, continental drift has seen 118 edits that were not conducted by robots or sequential editors during 2015.   [Wiki bots tend to fix grammar, formatting, vulgarity vandalism, and unsourced materials. Sequential editors are the same person, repeatedly changing and saving and changing and saving again. The bots were not counted as they likely don’t have personalities and are not engaged in flame wars while the sequential editors are counted as a single edit undergoing frequent revisions.]

Fixing the internet.(Credit: xkcd.com)

Fixing the internet.
(Credit: xkcd.com)

Plate tectonics, 21. Continental drift, 118. Those are the total number of actual human-invoked edits since January first.  I was intrigued by the big difference. One thing that immediately jumps out to me, a casual viewer, is that roughly half of the continental drift editors had IP identifiers – they were not editing under registered user names and had not logged onto real accounts. (On the other hand, none of the plate tectonics edits were made behind the guise of an IP ID.)

There may be many reasons edits are conducted without logging on, but such edits should be viewed with suspicion. One example is IP (registered in Colombia, South America) which has been used only once for Wikipedia editing and includes the following vandalism on the continental drift page:  “ONE REASON THEY MOVE … the continents get boried of being in the same place so they move.” Well done, Another user, IP (registered in the USA) decided continental drift could use some porn references. These were undone within seconds by a computer algorithm named ClueBot.

I expected to find a number of tin-hat edits claiming that continental drift is a general fallacy and that such things as moving continents don’t happen on a flat Earth. I was happy to see that no such edits had been attempted among the several dozen entries I reviewed. My general conclusions are 1) topics with a more scientific-sounding title (plate tectonics as opposed to continental drift) receive more scholarly edits; and, 2) most irresponsible edits on the Earth science pages are easily recognized as vandalism.

I learned something else from the Wikipedia statistics compiled by Wilson and Likens: Continental drift is not very popular – and plate tectonics even less so. During the 9-year period researched, drift received about 1300 daily page views. The real action is evolution (6260 daily views) and global warming (15,550). My blog – the one you are reading right now – might be more popular if I had chosen to study and write about biology or the atmosphere instead of The Earth. Alas, I’ll continue my wayward path. And I appreciate your company on this journey.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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