Wikipedia’s Science Articles Are Elitist

Maybe Wikipedia readers shouldn’t need science degrees to digest articles about basic topics. Just an idea.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

As science journalists, we aren’t all neuroscientists, astrophysicists, and-or climate scientists. Which is to say that at least some of the time we’re learning about this stuff alongside you, the reader. And in the course of that learning, we may happen upon a Wikipedia page for, say, nonribosomal peptide. Good journalists know well enough that Wikipedia is in itself not a reliable source, but a page’s references section can wind up being a solid repository of links to sources like to be reliable. With that disclaimer out of the way: Yes, I look up science stuff on Wikipedia.

As such, I’m a regular witness to something that until recently I’d had a hard time articulating. What changed was an episode of the podcast Breaking Math about the very long-standing problem of science and elitism. In making the general point that science uses its intrinsic difficulty as a mechanism for enforcing an otherwise artificial exclusivity, one of the hosts noted something I’d been observing every day without it quite registering: Wikipedia articles about „hard science“ (physics, biology, chemistry) topics are really mostly written for other scientists.

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.

read more