CZ:Neutrality Policy

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The Neutrality Policy of Citizendium is subject to the following articles of the Charter.

Article 19 All articles shall treat their subjects comprehensively, neutrally, and objectively to the greatest degree possible in a well-written narrative, complementing text with other suitable material and media.

Article 23 The Citizendium shall remain free of advocacy, advertisement and sensationalism.

Article 4 The Citizendium community shall recognize the special role that experts play in defining content standards in their relevant fields and in guiding content development towards reliability and quality.

Article 18 The Citizendium shall welcome contributions in all fields of knowledge.

Article 39 An Ombudsman is available to mediate any dispute. Agreements worked out through mediation shall be binding but may be appealed.

The following is an edited version of the policy in place before the Charter, and is not binding. It has been edited (by the Ombudsman) in a manner intended to shorten it without loss of content or meaning. In specific instances the policy may have been superseded by the Charter. It may also be refined by decisions of the Editorial Council that will be binding. It will serve as a guide for the Ombudsman, but only as a guide, and decisions of the Ombudsman will be interim pending decisions of the Editorial Council. In due course, this will be replaced by a concise account of current policy.

The basic concept of neutrality

Our policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Articles should be "unbiased" or "neutral." As we mean this, to write neutrally is to write so that articles do not advocate any specific points of view; instead, the different viewpoints are all described fairly. We try to describe debates rather than taking one definite stand.

One of our editors has expressed our policy in these terms:

"History is never neutral but always reflects the biases of its authors (just like all writing, including science). To remove these biases is to remove authorship. But to reflect on these biases and account for them is to make the presentation of the evidence and the story more objective."

Why should Citizendium be unbiased?

Whenever there are competing views, each view represents a different theory of what the truth is. Where there is disagreement about what is true, there's disagreement about what constitutes knowledge. The solution is that we accept that "human knowledge" includes all different (significant, published) theories on all topics.

We could sum up human knowledge (in this sense) in a biased way, we'd state a series of theories about topic T, and then claim that the truth about T is such-and-such. To write neutrally, one presents views without asserting them; to do that, it generally suffices to present competing views in a way that is more or less acceptable to their adherents, and also to attribute the views to their adherents.

To sum up the reasons for this policy: Citizendium is a compilation of human knowledge. But we cannot expect our collaborators to agree in all cases on what constitutes human knowledge in a strict sense. We therefore, adopt the looser sense of "human knowledge" according to which a variety of conflicting theories constitute what we call "human knowledge." We try to present these conflicting theories fairly, without advocating any one of them.

When it is clear to readers that we do not expect them to adopt any particular opinion, this is conducive to our readers' feeling free to make up their own minds. The presentation of competing theories suggests that we trust readers' competence to form their own opinions. Texts that present the multiple viewpoints fairly, without demanding that the reader accept any one of them, are liberating. Neutrality subverts dogmatism.

What do we mean by "unbiased" and "neutral"?

"Unbiased writing" means "presenting controversial views without asserting them."

Unbiased writing does not present only the most popular view; it does not assert the most popular view as being correct after presenting all views; it does not assert that some sort of intermediate view among the different views is the correct one. Unbiased writing says, more or less, that p-ists believe that p, and q-ists believe that q, and that's where the debate stands at present. Ideally, unbiased writing also gives a great deal of background on who believes that p and q and why, and which view is more popular (being careful, here, not to word the statement so as to imply that popularity implies correctness). Detailed articles might also contain the mutual evaluations of the p-ists and the q-ists, allowing each side to give its "best shot" at the other, but studiously refraining from saying who won the exchange.

Writing unbiasedly can be conceived as representing disputes, characterizing them, rather than engaging in them; it is the cold, fair, analytical description of debates. One might doubt that this can be done without insinuating that one position is correct. But experienced academics, polemical writers, and rhetoricians are well-attuned to bias, so that they can usually spot and remove a description of a debate that tends to favor one side.

We need not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views. We should not try to represent a dispute as if a view held by only a small minority deserved as much attention as a very popular view. To represent the dispute fairly, we should (in most cases) present competing views in proportion to their representation among experts, or among the concerned parties. None of this is to say that minority views cannot receive attention on pages specifically devoted to those views. But even on such pages, although a particular view may be described in detail, we still make sure that it is not represented as the truth.

Bias may not be conscious or partisan. Beginners in a field often fail to realize that what sounds like common sense is actually biased in favor of one view. For example, writers can, without intending, propagate "geographical" bias, by for example describing a dispute as it is conducted in the United States (or some other country), without knowing that the dispute is framed differently elsewhere.

Assert facts, including facts about opinions--but don't assert opinions

We sometimes give an alternative formulation of the neutrality policy: assert facts, including facts about opinions--but don't assert opinions. By "fact," we mean "information about which there is no serious dispute." In this sense, that a survey produced a certain published result is a fact. That Mars is a planet is a fact. That Socrates was a philosopher is a fact. No one seriously disputes these. By "opinion," we mean "a piece of information about which there is serious dispute." There's bound to be borderline cases where we're not sure if we should take a particular dispute seriously; but many propositions clearly express opinions. That God exists is an opinion. That the Beatles were the greatest rock and roll group is an opinion. That the United States was wrong to drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an opinion.

To determine whether something is fact or opinion in this sense, it does not matter what the actual truth of the matter is; there can be false "facts" (things that everybody agrees upon, but which are, in fact, false), and there are often true "opinions" .

In Citizendium we aim to state facts and only facts. Where we want to state an opinion, we convert it into a fact by attributing the opinion to someone. Rather than asserting, "God exists," which is an opinion, we can say, "Most Americans believe that God exists," which is a fact, or "Thomas Aquinas believed that God exists," which is also a fact.

When asserting a fact about an opinion, it is important also to assert facts about competing opinions, and to avoid implying that any one of the opinions is correct. It's also important to give the facts about the reasons behind the views, and to make it clear who holds them, and whether they are experts.

Expert knowledge and neutrality

Citizendium is committed to credibility, and is led by experts. But we do not assume that the true view of a topic can be found among only experts; we do not endorse a "scholarly mainstream point of view," because we do not endorse any from among competing points of view. So, we are open to contributions from the public. Clearly, there is a tension between expert guidance, which might have us dismiss certain opinions held mainly by nonexperts as nonsense, and the requirements of neutrality, which would have us include that "nonsense."

We resolve the tension pragmatically. Expert knowledge and opinion receives top billing and the most extensive exposition. But, where it is contradicted by some significant portion of the populace (not just a tiny percentage), the popular view, as well as its grounds, should be noted as well. In this case, the attitudes of experts toward the popular views should be fully explored, because that is, after all, a very important part of the dialectic about the topic.

Fairness demands we present competing views with a consistently sympathetic tone. It is possible for an article to end up as partisan commentary even while presenting both points of view; this is wrong. Even when a topic is presented in terms of facts rather than opinion, an article can still radiate an implied stance through either selection of which facts to present, or their organization--for instance, refuting opposing views as one goes makes them look worse than collecting them in an opinions-of-opponents section.

We should, instead, write articles conveying the tone that all positions presented are at least plausible.

Characterizing opinions of people's artistic and other work

Some characterizations of art, artists, and other creative topics tend toward the effusive. This is out of place in an encyclopedia; we might not all agree that so-and-so is the greatest bass guitar player in history. But it is very important information how some artist or some work has been received by the public, by reviewers, and by experts. Providing an overview of common interpretations of a creative work, preferably with citations or references to notable individuals holding that interpretation, is appropriate. For instance, that Shakespeare is one of the greatest authors of the English language is an important bit of knowledge a schoolchild might need to learn from an encyclopedia.

To write neutrally is to write for the enemy, too

Those who constantly attempt to advocate their own views on certain topics, who seem not to care at all about whether other points of view are represented fairly, are violating the neutrality policy. It is our job to speak for the other side, and not just represent our own views. In saying this, we are spelling out what might have been obvious from the initial statement of the policy. If each of us individually is permitted to write totally biased stuff in Citizendium, then it is impossible that the policy is ever violated. Hence, you must balance the statement of your own views with a sympathetic description of views you disagree with. We must all at least try to present the other sides fairly.

"Writing for the enemy" might make it seem as if we were adding deliberately flawed arguments to Citizendium. It's better to view this as adding the best arguments of the opposition, stating them as cogently and fluently as possible. Academics, e.g., philosophers, do this all the time; if we did not, we would always behave like one-sided propagandists.

Objection: there's no such thing as objectivity. Neutrality just isn't possible.

The policy does not say anything controversial about the possibility of objectivity. It does not say that there even is such a thing as objectivity, such that articles written from that point of view are objectively true. The policy is simply that we should do our best to characterize disputes rather than engage in them. This is something that philosophers do all the time: they are virtually required to first characterize their opponents' views fairly, to avoid being accused of setting up straw men to knock down.

If there's anything contentious about the policy, it is the implication that it is possible to characterize disputes fairly, so that all major participants will agree that their views are presented sympathetically and as completely as possible. It is an empirical question, not a philosophical one, whether this is possible; that it is possible is evident by observing that such texts are written daily by academics, encyclopedists, textbook writers, and journalists.

Objection: some people demand fair, sympathetic representation of their idiosyncratic view, when their view is based in ignorance. How can we deal with such people?

Our goal is neither to sum up all possible views on a topic--which would be dull to try and impossible to achieve--nor to sum up the perhaps idiosyncratic views of the people who happen to be contributors. Many views can and should be excluded for the simple reason that they are idiosyncratic, endorsed by only a tiny minority of nonexperts. Contributors may challenge someone who demands a fair exposition of their idiosyncratic view by asking, "What expert has ever said anything like that?" If no good answer is forthcoming, the idiosyncratic view may be excluded without further consideration.

Objection: I am concerned that theories that buck the expert mainstream, will not be fairly represented.

Those holding mainstream views sometimes dismiss the views of minorities as not worthy of any serious consideration. This is sometimes used to silence dissent against the mainstream. However repugnant, wrong-headed, or unscholarly one finds the position of a significant minority, that position still must be represented fairly. It need not be given as much space in an article; that depends on the size, and the expertise, of the minority.

Sometimes, people deny that a minority view deserves any attention precisely because the fact that someone holds a view proves he is not an expert about the subject. Citizendium takes the position that all positions held by a significant portion of the populace, not just mainstream experts, must be fairly represented. However, expert reactions to minority and popular positions must be represented as well; we are committed to representing the full dialectic fairly, and expert reception of minority and popular views is an important part of this.

There are borderline cases, where we can't tell whether a small minority is "significant" enough to warrant our attention. These we will deal with on a case-by-case basis using our Dispute Resolution process.

Objection: how are we to write articles about pseudoscientific topics, about which majority scientific opinion is that the pseudoscientific opinion is not credible and doesn't deserve serious mention?

If we're to represent the sum total of "human knowledge" --then we must concede that we will be describing views repugnant to us without asserting that they are false. Things are not, however, as bad as that sounds. The task is not to describe disputes on some bogus view of fairness that would have us describe pseudoscience as if were on a par with science; rather, the task is to represent the majority (scientific) view as the majority view and the minority (pseudoscientific) view as the minority view, and, to explain how scientists have received pseudoscientific theories.

Objection: what about views that are morally offensive to most Westerners, such as racism and Holocaust denial? Surely we are not to be neutral about them?

We can include discussions that present our moral repugnance to such things; in doing so, we can maintain a healthy support for the neutrality policy by attributing the view to prominent representatives or to some group of people. The group might be "nearly all scholars" or even "nearly everyone." Others will be able to make up their own minds and, being reasonable, surely come around to our view. Those who harbor racism, sexism, etc., will not be convinced to change their views by a biased article, which only puts them on the defensive; on the other hand, if we apply our neutrality policy consistently, we might give those with repugnant beliefs insight that will change those views.

Objection: Those who rely on pseudoscience use lies, innuendo and numerical majorities of its followers to force their views on anyone they can. If this project gives equal validity to those who claim that the Holocaust never occurred, it will (inadvertently) legitimize that which only can be termed evil.

We do not "give equal validity" to repugnant views. We must represent them qua encyclopedia writers; but that does not stop us from representing the majority views as such; from explaining the strong arguments against the repugnant views; from describing the repugnance that many people feel toward them; and so forth. Hence, Citizendium does not take a stand even on such obvious issues, but it will not look as though we had accorded equal credibility to unscientific or repugnant views. Instead, they will be placed into their full context, making it impossible to conclude that Citizendium authors have any special affection for wrongheaded views.

Objection: there are some people who are completely, irremediably biased. Will I have to go around and clean up after them

People who engage consistently in biased writing, without making an honest attempt at neutrality, will be removed from the project. See Constabulary Blocking Procedures.

Objection: how can we avoid endless warfare over neutrality?

We should never debate about how the Citizendium should be biased. It shouldn't be biased at all. The best way to avoid warfare over bias is to conceive of our roles as diplomats. We have to make it our goal to understand each others' perspectives and to work hard to make sure that those other perspectives are fairly represented. When any dispute arises as to what the article "should" say or what is "true," we must do our best to step back and ask ourselves, "How can this dispute be fairly characterized?" This has to be asked as each new controversial point is stated. We are undermining the credibility and peace of Citizendium if we edit it so that it reflects our own idiosyncratic views, and then defend those edits against all comers; instead, we must come to a reasonable compromise about how a controversy should be described.

Objection: what if, in order to write any of a series of articles on some subject, we must make some controversial assumptions? That's the case, e.g., in writing about evolution. Won't we have to hash out the evolution-vs.-creationism debate on every such page?

No. There are virtually no topics that could not proceed without making some assumptions that someone would find controversial. This is true not only in evolutionary biology, but also philosophy, history, physics, etc.

It is difficult to draw up general principles, but the following might help: there is probably not a good reason to discuss some assumption on a given page, if it is best discussed on some other page. For example, in an article about the evolutionary development of horses, we would not need to discuss creationist theories of evolution. If there is a significant creationist literature on equine evolution, it might be placed on a special page of its own.

Objection: I don't want to write for the enemy. Most of them rely on stating as fact many things which are demonstrably false. Are you saying that, to be neutral I must lie, in order to faithfully represent the view I disagree with?

No. You aren't claiming anything, except that "So-and-so argues as follows." This can be said with no moral compunctions, because you are attributing the claim to someone else. At least in the humanities, scholars are trained so that, when trying to prove a point, one must bring forth counter-arguments that seem to disprove one's thesis, so that one can explain why the counter-arguments fail. Such training also gives one a better knowledge of source material and what may have been rejected over the years. Something like the neutrality policy is just accepted among scholars, in some contexts--and in those contexts, if it isn't adhered to, or if only those facts that prove a particular point are used, one might lose one's reputation.

Books

Some books are written to present a single viewpoint, sometimes one that others will find mistaken or objectionable. Hitler's Mein Kampf for example promotes profoundly distasteful sentiments and propogates propaganda and misinformation. How do we write about such books without the article appearing to endorse such views?

An article about a book should not be a precis of the book, although it may and probably will summarise its scope, and include quotations. The article should state what is notable about the book (with references to published book reviews and any media attention). If its contents are controversial, disputed or offensive to some, the article should state that without discussing about the merits of the argument. An article about a book is an article about a book, not an article about an argument. An article on Mein Kampf should declare that it is antisemitic, link to articles on antisemitism, but is not the place to discuss objections to antisemitism, and must certainly not appear to be endorsing antisemitism. Indeed no article about any book should include an editorial endorsement of its contents.