Friday, 30 January 2009

Wikipedian methodology and logic

I have found that generally Wikipedia has an outstanding collection of information, with good principles on weight of evidence, citations of notable material, and a comprehensively thought out set of principles on how articles should be edited and maintained. For non-controversial issues, it can often be a reliable wealth of information, particularly on many areas of science and medicine.

However, it really struggles to deal with areas of controversy in areas of science with relatively low degrees of public notability. For example, overhead powerline health effects are currently relatively strongly disputed in the scientific arena at the moment. Meta-analyses by Ahlbom and Greenland had shown back in 2000 that the association between extremely low frequency (ELF) magnetic fields of 0.4 microTesla (4 milliGauss) and above was quite clear, albeit not fully understood, which then triggered the IARC 2B Classification as a possible carcinogen in 2002.

This association was not transferred to residential living proximity to powerlines however, Despite the obvious fact that living near powerlines increases exposure to ELF magnetic fields (and exposure is around 0.4 microTesla at approximately 60-70 metres away from 275 and 400 kV overhead powerlines). This connection was not generally acknowledged in the literature until June 2005 when Draper published a study (now often referred to as the "Draper Report") in conjunction with colleagues at the Childhood Cancer Research Group and National Grid.

After years of work and debate (7 years after the scientific community were generally accepting the association!), there is now a begrudging semi-acknowledgement by the World Health Organisation that childhood leukaemia may be associated with ELF magnetic fields, but no real mention of overhead transmission lines - something which, if past experience is to be repeated, should be acknowledged somewhere around 2012.

How does this relate to Wikipedia? Well, for fully understandable reasons, Wikipedia relies on the notability of its sources for a "check" to maintain accuracy. As such, documents written by knowledgeable hobbyists such as myself or independent scientific experts such as the BioInitiative group are given considerably less weight than WHO or the UK Health Protection Agency. This makes complete sense (although I'd argue that lessening the value of the BioInitiative Report itself as quite hard to support with the nature and reputation of the majority of the authors - the argument that it is self published has little weight when the report is 600 pages long, something not submissible to any peer reviewed journals anyway), but it does mean that Wikipedia is always forced to represent information and science that is up to a decade out of date, which puts a large delay on scientific information reaching the general public.

People are generally underestimated in their ability to deal with complex arguments and levels of uncertainty. Wikipedia is effectively designed to be an open source encyclopaedia so it is perhaps not the place to do so, but at the same time there needs to be some recognition of where the limits of knowledge lie. It is useful to explain what is considered to be understood, but also important to admit "it is not known whether ...", without the need for caveats, particularly on areas of science and health.