Notes: Wikipedia is an Internet site that anybody can access, contribute to, edit and change. It is interesting and suprising that most of the information you find there is actually accurate, but there is no way to be sure that the last person to edit it didn’t add misinformation, or deliberately damage the entry.
In this article from the science magazine Discover, Suzan Kruglinskidescribes how a Wikipedia entry can change over time, especially if the topic is a controversial one.
One such controversial topic is evolution, a scientific theory that has been widely accepted for over a hundred years, which says that humans and other living things have descended from different life forms in the past, changing gradually over time to adapt to their environment by a process called natural selection. For example, humans and monkeys are descended from common ancestors who lived millions of years ago, all mammals are descended from a common ancestor that lived even longer ago, and all life on earth came from tiny one-celled living things that lived very long ago indeed. Although this theory is now accepted by nearly all scientists, some religious people object to it, and insist that it is contrary to the Bible and cannot be true. Many people believe that evolution took place, but believe that God made it happen; some of these people believe that their religious ideas about evolution should be included when evolution is taught in science classes, and this is what is meant by the phrase “intelligent design.”
Map: Evolving Evolution
How a controversial entry in Wikipedia has changed over time
(Picture by Frank Van Ham, Fernanda Davis and Martin Wattenberg, Visual Communication Lab, IBM Research) http://www.discover.com/issues/jul-06/rd/evolutionmap/
The entry for evolution on Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit, was altered 2,081 times by 68 editors between December 2001 and last October. IBM’s Watson research Center produced this image, which tracks the transformation. Each vertical line is a new version; each color is a different editor.
1 DECEMBER 3, 2001: The initial version of evolution, 526 words long, is posted by someone with the user name “Dmerrill.” It offers links to pages for creationism and intelligent design but makes no mention of controversy.
2 JULY 13, 2002: An anonymous user redefines evolution as “a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation.” Within two hours it is changed to read “the commonly accepted scientific theory.”
3 October 1, 2002: “Graft,” shown in yellowish green, makes his debut. He will create 79 edits over three years and spend hours hashing out the content on discussion pages with pro- and antievolution editors. A biology grad student at Harvard University, Graft has edited more than 250 Wikipedia entries.
4 AUGUST 9, 2004: A black line occurs whenever the entire entry is deleted by a vandal. (Entries are also defaced with nonsense or vulgarities.) Editing Wikipedia has become such a popular pastime that, even with more than 1 million entries, about half of all vandalisms are corrected within five minutes.
5 MARCH 29, 2005: The entry reaches its longest point, 5,611 words. That evening, 888 words are excised, causing a clifflike drop in the graph. The deleted text, a cynical passage about creationists, was cut by proevolution editors who insist on a neutral point of view.
6 SEPTEMBER 19, 2005: A week bfore the intelligent design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, an edit war erupts when “Jlefer” writes that “a strong scientific and layman community advocate creationism.” The phrase is removed or reapplied eight times in one hour, leaving a yellow zig-zag.
Discover Magazine, July 2006