A Closer Look at the Neutral Point of View (NPOV)

Wikipedia and the quest for neutrality on controversial entries like "Abortion" and "George W. Bush."
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"The Hive" (September 2006)
Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history's biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge. By Marshall Poe

The mainspring of Wikipedia is the NPOV, or “neutral point of view,” for it encourages cooperation among the encyclopedia’s contributors. Neutrality is rarely an issue in most Wikipedia entries—only lutenists, for instance, have the expertise to divine partiality in the “Lute” article, and they are not known to be a very argumentative bunch. For the most controversial issues, however, NPOV is constantly invoked as contributors parse sentences, clauses, and words in search of bias.

Take the “Abortion” entry. The original version, created in December 2001, opened in seemingly neutral terms:

Abortion, in its most commonly used sense, refers to the intentional early termination of pregnancy, resulting in the death of the embryo or fetus. The term can also refer to the early termination of a pregnancy by natural causes (spontaneous abortion), or to the cessation of normal growth of a body part or organ.

“Commonly used” indeed, but not commonly enough for the partisans in the abortion debate. Since the entry was created, more than a thousand contributors have created 5,963 distinct versions of the article. The opening definition has been altered hundreds of times, and every significant term in it has been analyzed.

In May 2005, for example, Wikipedians agreed that abortion “generally refers to the use of surgical procedures or drugs,” but they couldn’t find the right NPOV terms to describe what the “procedures and drugs” were used for. A struggle broke out on May 10 when a new unregistered user—identified only by the IP address, “214.13.4.151”—replaced “[to terminate] a pregnancy” with “to destroy a living human fetus.” The next day another user, “Proto,” eliminated the word living, citing POV concerns. The anonymous pro-lifer countered that living should stand because fetuses—like tumors, which are also removed in medical procedures—are clearly alive. Proto responded that living is inherently POV because it implies a stance on when “life” begins, and this is something that serious people disagree about. Proto’s argument seems to have carried the day, because living was dropped from the definition.

The debate moved on. Over the next week, nine users suggested no fewer than twenty-nine different options, including (in chronological order):

* “to kill a human fetus, thereby terminating pregnancy”;

* “to eliminate a human fetus or embryo, thereby terminating pregnancy”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by killing a human fetus or embryo”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by removing a human fetus or embryo”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by removing an embryo or a fetus”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by destroying and removing a human embryo or a fetus”;

* “to terminate pregnancy by removing an embryo or a fetus”;

* “to remove an embryo or fetus, and thus terminating a pregnancy”;

* “to destroy and then remove an embryo or fetus, thereby terminating a pregnancy”;

* “to destroy and then remove a human embryo or fetus, thereby terminating a pregnancy”;

* “to terminate a pregnancy accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus”;

* “to end a pregnancy, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the human embryo or fetus”;

* “to end a pregnancy by removal of a embryo or fetus”;

* “to remove an embryo or fetus thus terminating the pregnancy”;

* “to end a pregnancy by removal of a embryo or fetus”;

* “to remove an embryo or fetus, thus ending a pregnancy”;

* “to end a pregnancy, associated with the death of the human embryo or fetus.”

Such negotiations never really end. As new participants enter the fray, the struggle always begins anew. In this instance, the “to end a pregnancy, associated with” formulation—introduced by the same 214.13.4.151 who started the struggle—survived untouched for five days until a new user (“69.109.180.162”) preferred a phrase without the word death.

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 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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