November 7, 2006, 02:11 PM ET
Vanity, Thy Name Ain't Wikipedia
If you haven't heard of "NPA personality theory," well, you're not alone. The theory -- which argues that personality traits are coded into specific genes -- was developed by a doctor named Anthony Benis, and even Mr. Benis admits that scientists aren't sold on the idea.
But for quite some time, Wikipedia had an astonishingly thorough article on the topic, complete with photographs, diagrams, and an unusually detailed list of reference sources. Why was Wikipedia so authoritative on such an obscure subject? Because Mr. Benis wrote the article on NPA theory himself.
The article sat online for months, but Wikipedians recently decided to delete it -- ruling that Mr. Benis had violated a conflict-of-interest policy intended to keep the encyclopedia from becoming, in essence, a vanity press. Before the essay got axed, though, it was strongly critiqued by Daveydweeb, a Wikipedia contributor who complained on his blog that the piece had actually been certified as one of Wikipedia's best articles, thanks to "an extremely effective campaign" simulating grass-roots support for the piece.
Of course, nothing stays under the radar for long on the Web. Daveydweeb's blog post soon became the topic of a lengthy Slashdot discussion, in which defenders of Wikipedia clashed with pundits who took the NPA theory flap as the latest sign that the encyclopedia was not to be trusted. It wasn't exactly the John Seigenthaler incident, but Wikipedia still had a controversy on its hands.
Unlike the Siegenthaler saga, though, this one is all smoke and no fire, says Nate Anderson at Ars Technica. Wikipedia's natural process of weeding out its dross might not have worked quickly, but it eventually did its job. Mr. Benis -- who says he created the article only at the request of a Wikipedia user -- has now posted the piece on his own Web site. And Daveydweeb even apologized to the doctor, admitting that his attack on the NPA theory article was "sensationalist." According to Mr. Anderson, the incident is noteworthy only because it shows how quickly Wikipedia's parochial debates can be blown out of proportion.
But the debate over the article should be of interest to academics because of the light it sheds on Wikipedia's conflict-of-interest policy. It is in virtually everyone's interest for the encyclopedia to keep people from expounding on their own scientific theories. But in fields that rely more heavily on interpretive prowess -- history, say, or film theory -- conflicts of interest aren't so black and white. Should art historians refrain from commenting on a painter's influences for fear that they're pushing their own biases? --Brock Read