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Education The Internet Wikipedia Science

'Maybe Wikipedia Readers Shouldn't Need Science Degrees To Digest Articles About Basic Topics' (vice.com) 303

Wikipedia articles about "hard science" (physics, biology, chemistry) topics are really mostly written for other scientists, writes Michael Byrne, a reporter on Science beat at Vice's Motherboard news outlet. From the article: This particular class of Wikipedia article tends to take the high-level form of a scientific paper. There's a brief intro (an abstract) that is kinda-sorta comprehensible, but then the article immediately degenerates into jargon and equations. Take, for example, the page for the electroweak interaction in particle physics. This is a topic of potentially broad interest; its formulation won a trio of physicists the Nobel Prize in 1979. Generally, it has to do with a fundamental linkage between two of the four fundamental forces of the universe, electromagnetism and the weak force. The Wikipedia article for the electroweak force consists of a two-paragraph introduction that basically just says what I said above plus some fairly intimidating technical context. The rest of the article is almost entirely gnarly math equations. I have no idea who the article exists for because I'm not sure that person actually exists: someone with enough knowledge to comprehend dense physics formulations that doesn't also already understand the electroweak interaction or that doesn't already have, like, access to a textbook about it. For another, somewhat different example, look at the article for graphene. Graphene is, of course, an endlessly hyped superstrong supermaterial. It's in the news constantly. The article isn't just a bunch of math equations, but it's also not much more penetrable for a reader without at least some chemistry/materials science background.

'Maybe Wikipedia Readers Shouldn't Need Science Degrees To Digest Articles About Basic Topics'

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  • by thebes ( 663586 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:44PM (#55358057)

    Then feel free to "translate" it for Simple Wikipedia

    • Mike: "Well, it looks like I have more than answered your encyclopedia grievances..."
      Crow: "No!"
      Servo: "I miss complaining already!"

    • Then feel free to "translate" it for Simple Wikipedia

      This.

      There's nothing wrong with providing a more detailed explanation for any phenomenon on regular wikipedia, but they shouldn't be dumbed down. Learning any new field seriously often begins with reading a few dozen articles (whether academic papers or even wikipedia) and starting to learn how the jargony parts interact, and usually you don't understand what the concepts all mean at the beginning. Personally I don't think anyone should be able to graduate college without having done this in a field or two

  • Simpler? (Score:5, Informative)

    by RichardDeVries ( 961583 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:45PM (#55358063) Journal
    Simpler. [wikipedia.org]
    • by SeaFox ( 739806 )

      That's the great thing about Wikipedia, if you think the "Simple English" version of this article is not simple enough, you're free to edit it and correct this issue.

      Keep in mind there are concepts that cannot necessarily be reduced to levels that can be expressed in a Simple English article.

  • Science is hard (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:46PM (#55358079)

    Maybe not everything needs to be dumbed down to Popular Mechanics levels. I for one enjoy reading difficult articles on Wikipedia: even if I don't understand a quarter of a half of a them, I always learn something new one way or another.

    • Re:Science is hard (Score:4, Insightful)

      by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:54PM (#55358163)
      Maybe not everything *can* be dumbed down to Popular Mechanics levels in the first place. To use the examples in TFS, graphene is a popular buzzword today where you could talk people's ass off when it comes to what you could do with it if you had enough of it but the electroweak force is so utterly alien to us that you have to look for it in the heart of a complicated machine that creates conditions that are nowhere near this Earth. Why would anyone expect it to be any more digestible to a layman than the geometry of the space around a black hole?
    • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:57PM (#55358179) Homepage

      I have a Ph.D. in physics, and I find the average science article on a subject that I don't already know to be way too technical. They usually lack any sort of overview for non-experts.

      I do like technical detail in the article-- but not instead of the article.

      • Makes a lot of sense from a PhD in physics holder like yourself -- I mean, why go into all the nitty-gritty details on things most people will never understand just because a concept may be tough to understand properly?

        As a fellow student of physics and knowing that Wikipedia is open to all I will be suggesting this more broadly comprehensible revision:

        Electroweak interaction:
        Once upon a time there were separate ideas for how small particles would interact with each other if they were charged up differently

      • Fully agree. There are too many specialized technical microcosms that forget what they do involves others outside of their little fiefdom. It takes real talent to both deal with the jargon among peers and communicate that jargon to others effectively. Few people know how to do this well, and the ones that refuse to try shouldn't be viewed as being any smarter then the rest of us when they hide behind their jargon.

        • So, give it a go and improve some articles. You may have to battle with revert artists a bit, but it is generally not that bad.

          For example, the RSA algorithm proof used to only have the obscure (and not quite correct) one line Euler Totient proof. So some time ago I put in a detailed proof based on Fermat's little theorem. It initially got reverted as too verbose, but with a little persistence my proof stuck and is in there still.

          On another score, I added the theory that the moon was created by an atomic

    • Re:Science is hard (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ebyrob ( 165903 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @04:00PM (#55358199)

      There's a difference between a difficult subject and obfuscation for a pretense of erudition.

    • Exactly, and I came here to post something similar. Why should it by Wikipedia's place to dumb it down enough for a mass audience, rather than displaying the nitty gritty that some of us are looking to obtain from such articles?

      This is all of course besides the fact that "simple.wikipedia.org" is a thing (something I had no idea of until I started reading these comments).

      • You can't really make something simpler than it is - but you can sure make something appear more complicated.

        Sometimes the writing is just shit. I've read the odd article about things that I already knew, and felt like I knew less after reading them.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        Encyclopedia: a book, often in many volumes, containing articles on various topics, often arranged in alphabetical order, dealing either with the whole range of human knowledge or with one particular subject: a medical encyclopedia

        Wikipedia takes the place of an Encyclopedia - which by definition is intended for the widest possible audience. The main purpose of an Encyclopedia is to provide introductory material to the widest range of topics. While you may have deeper information available, the primary r

  • Not worth the effort (Score:4, Informative)

    by itamblyn ( 867415 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:46PM (#55358081) Homepage
    Anytime I have tried to edit an article, my changes get reverted (without recourse) by a bot or some random wikipedia fanatic that refer to a set of rules I never agreed to or was consulted about. I don't have enough time in the day to deal with an internet edit war. If people want an easier to read article, change the edit policy.
  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:46PM (#55358085)

    First problem, Wikipedia. Not saying it cannot be fixed, but the way that articles are edited and the ability of an editor to win by simply out-camping everyone else is a problem.

    Second problem, some topics do not readily lend themselves to easy explanation. Perhaps Wikipedia should include more overview paragraphs, but unfortunately to understand some topics one really does need the underlying education.

  • Use Simple Wiki (Score:5, Informative)

    by brianerst ( 549609 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:48PM (#55358107) Homepage

    If you go to simple.wikipedia.org, you get much simpler articles on this sort of thing.

    There isn't a specific page for electroweak interaction, but it redirects you to Weak interaction [wikipedia.org], the text of which describes the electroweak interaction.

    The Simple page for graphene [wikipedia.org] is decent enough.

    • I learnt about Simple Wikipedia on Slashdot many years ago.

    • And you can already see the debate on Weak interaction's Talk page as to whether this is still "simple English", even without any single equation. ;)
    • I think the real answer is that there should be multiple articles. Not just simple.wikipedia.org. Each explicitly targeting a specific audience. Putting things into vague language vs equations or era relevant technical terms is where arguments start since people argue that their definitions are correct vs language in reality being fluid. You can have ten different articles and then the lay people that actually read the articles can vote for the most relevant for which comes up by default. Further users

  • I think we mat have reinvented a famous german encyclopedia in which the article about your subject was masterfull, and all the others completely obscure... for any given subject.
    • I think we mat have reinvented a famous german encyclopedia in which the article about your subject was masterfull, and all the others completely obscure... for any given subject.

      [citation needed] Only vaguely kidding, I have no idea which encyclopedia you're alluding to.

      • by davecb ( 6526 )
        It's a joke about germans loving precision, like asking for a 0.250000000" drill bit
  • I tried... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @03:53PM (#55358149) Homepage

    Well, what's supposed to happen is that someone should step in to edit the article and correct it. Many years ago, I was reading Wikipedia and thought an article could use some more information, and clicked edit and happily added helpful facts. I was contributing to the sum total of human knowledge! I was so proud.

    Much like the time that you tried to edit Wikipedia, the same thing happened. I checked the next day and my information had been deleted. I was, honestly, kind of hurt. I never found out what happened until years later. See, to edit Wikipedia articles, you need to be a "Wikipedian". A Wikipedian is someone who participates in the Wikipedia community. The general public isn't really welcome, despite all the high-sounding rhetoric from Jimmy Wales. Perhaps once long ago, when Wikipedia needed to be filled out, this might have been partially true, but now that it's basically finished, contributions from the public are less welcome than ever. The article owners can be very jealous about "their" articles.

    I thought about becoming a Wikipedian, but it just seemed like too much effort. Plus from what I've seen other Wikipedians seem like hypersensitive nerd jerks, the kind I escaped from. I just checked the page I tried to help, and sure enough it looks like it hasn't been updated since 2008. Tons of broken links and outdated information. I'd include the link here but it's a highly specific topic and you might be able to puzzle out who I am.

  • I want the details, not some pop science. Wikipedia articles are a very good source for looking things up. I hope they stay as they are, an overview in the beginning and then the compressed details afterwards.
  • I read the Wikipedia article on the electroweak force. It wasn't bad, the formulation and lagrangian sections are understandable by anyone with an undergraduate understanding of calculus, you don't even need a background in physics (though you would to understand the implications). It's actually less arcane in my opinion than some other sources that do a poor job of defining each variable rather than assume you can figure it out on your own. That said there is room for a basic tl;dr of the article which
    • by Yunzil ( 181064 )

      It wasn't bad, the formulation and lagrangian sections are understandable by anyone with an undergraduate understanding of calculus,

      I have an undergraduate understanding of calculus and don't understand the math in that article at all.

      Maybe you meant a PhD understanding of calculus.

  • Statistics Too... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @04:03PM (#55358229) Journal
    I've read some pages concerning statistics that have math operations I've never seen before. I've done differential equations in the past. I know what a mean and standard deviation are. I'm familiar with many math concepts. This was completely foreign to me. There was little to no explanation as to what it was.
    • Yeah, I studied calculus, discrete math and linear algebra as an undergraduate, and I can't make heads or tails out of articles that I think I ought to be able to... I'd like to at least know which other book(s?) I should read in order to be able to understand the wikipedia articles.
      • Yeah, I studied calculus, discrete math and linear algebra as an undergraduate, and I can't make heads or tails out of articles that I think I ought to be able to... I'd like to at least know which other book(s?) I should read in order to be able to understand the wikipedia articles.

        Exactly! There's a gap in the knowledge. There are many rudimentary articles and then there are some articles that are incredibly complex, with nothing in between.

      • This is the "math notation problem" as I call it...

        Mathematicians often use ambiguous non-standardized notations, and it seems to me that its in order to impress other mathematicians. Just within calculus alone there are multiple competing notations, none of them are actually standardized, and every variable is a single greek letter completely disconnected from what the variable is, while other greek letters serve as operators.

        We literally have not progress one bit since Newton and Leibniz wrecked math
      • by mbone ( 558574 )

        Yeah, I studied calculus, discrete math and linear algebra as an undergraduate, and I can't make heads or tails out of articles that I think I ought to be able to... I'd like to at least know which other book(s?) I should read in order to be able to understand the wikipedia articles.

        It's a rare article that doesn't have references. I would start there.

  • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @04:11PM (#55358297) Journal
    The Wikipedia article linked is exactly what you would expect from an encyclopedia entry. A few paragraphs of introduction about what the electroweak force is, the people who wrote the theory and the experimental evidence which backed it up. Then it launches into a more detailed description of what EW interactions are, EW symmetry breaking etc. which has to be at a more technical level because otherwise you are leaving out information which is not what an encyclopedia is supposed to do.

    If you want explanations of topics which are accessible to the general public then you do not go out and read an encyclopedia you go and read a book designed to simplify complex topics enough that non-scientists can digest them. So if you want a general public level explanation of EW interactions on the web go to something like the particle adventure [particleadventure.org] and they'll have what you want there.
  • There are topics that cannot be understood without at least some scientific background. Dumbing them down is a disservice to everyone. Maybe people that do not have that scientific background should realize this is a limitation on their side and stop demanding that others simplify things for them? While the arrogance smart and educated people often display is pretty bad, what is worse is people that assume that they are capable of understanding everything, and that if they do not, then it is the fault of th

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @04:15PM (#55358329) Homepage

    Jargon has a definite place in the world.

    1) It allows to you discuss things with the immense level of accuracy needed for discussing complex topics. Business talk about 'enterprises' so as to include both corporations and non-profit organizations.

    2) When talking to other experts, it demonstrates familiarity and knowledge, proving expertise. When talking to other computer experts, if you mention SaaS (Software as a Service) they know you are technical, while if you say Cloud, you are more likely corporate.

    3) When talking to non-experts it makes them think you are an expert - irregardless of whether you are one or not. Con men and smarmy types love to abuse it in this way. But if they run into a real expert they get laughed at.

    Wikipedia is supposed to be for the general population, not an expert. As such, using jargon (and math) is excessive. It should be limited, or at least placed after a full non-technical explanation.

    • I use terms of art.
      You use jargon
      They use technobabble.

  • Like particle physics.
    Since when was that a basic topic? Yeah, those things referred to as atoms, so small most people can't comprehend how small they are, it's a topic about the even smaller things that make up the things that make atoms, and how they interact with each other to do that.

    It's totally a "basic topic"

  • It's a lot of work to write an article about a very complex subject, clearly and concisely. Expecting people to do that for free may be expecting a little too much. Not saying it will never happen - just that the effort required to review, clarify & iterate on the topic would have to be a real labor of love if you're not going to pay anything for the hours of work that would take.
  • by irrational_design ( 1895848 ) on Thursday October 12, 2017 @04:32PM (#55358497)

    "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." - Albert Einstein

    I have found this to be true in my life. Sometimes I think I understand something, but when I try to explain it in a way a child (or even teenager) can understand it I find that I really don't understand it as well as I thought I did. If I then go back and study it further and really try to understand it myself I find that eventually I understand it well enough that I am able to explain it in terms that are comprehensible at most age levels. This often means using analogies and simplifying to the level of the listener, but it is doable if I understand the topic well enough. I suspect the problem with wikipedia is that authors of the articles understand the material just enough to write an article, but not well enough to write it so it is accessible by a lay person (say an 8th grade reading level).

  • I'm a career scientist and I often use wikipedia to get some basic information on a topics where I'm not already familiar. its quite useful to have real technical information in the articles rather than just an basic introduction.

    Many articles do have basic introductions - but sometimes that isn't all that practical. Expecting a simple layman's introduction to electro-weak interactions may be too optimistic. There are probably a few people who could explain it that way, but most experts would not be able t

  • This is a topic of potentially broad interest; its formulation won a trio of physicists the Nobel Prize in 1979.

    Winning the Nobel prize means the work was one of the most IMPORTANT advancements for mankind. That does not mean that the general public and people with limited physics or math background should be interested or could meaningfully understand the work or much of the motivation behind this without getting their feet wet in other topics first -- you should be a college Physics I or Physics

  • ... isn't that some of the articles are too technical---some are by necessity. My complaint is the references found at the bottom of the articles. Authors lard up the article with links to other external web sites/pages and that's great---you tend to want to read references to help clarify articles. (Okay... I do). The problem arises when you try and follow the supporting links and they are simply not available any more. You wouldn't lose a lot of bets about citations in newspapers or other "popular" press

    • Unfortunately for references they're dependent on 2nd-reporters of information. I do find that most reference links are dead, or they reference a book that nobody's heard of that's also out of print and probably nobody verified that it actually says anything like that on page WHATEVER.

      Sorry, I don't have any solutions that are legal.

  • Maybe if you can do better, you should hit that "Edit" button and do so! Or you can continue to bitch that other's should work the way you want them to, for free. I don't think the latter will get you far.
  • There are lots of super basic articles and videos on science that use no math at all

    There are graduate level articles and videos using difficult math that the student is assumed to know

    I find it very difficult to locate articles and videos that gently introduce the math to an engineer like me who knows engineering math, but never studied things like tensor calculus

  • Just look at the end of the Wikipedia article for Bremsstrahlung : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    There is the biggest equation I've ever seen, followed by "However, a much simpler expression for the same integral can be found in [25] (Eq. 2BN) and in [26] (Eq. 4.1)." The two references are to unlinked (and probably paywalled) papers...

  • I appreciate the articles not being pap. When I am working I frequently have to look up technical details on various subjects, and its nice to have descriptions that actually have some technical details. It is, to me, what makes it useful.

    Keep the level as it is. If there is a need for more basic descriptions, expand the introduction.

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