When, If Ever, Do Scandals Belong On A Scholar’s Wikipedia Page?


The various sexual harassment scandals and other controversies involving some well-known philosophers raise the question of how to determine whether information regarding such events is to appear in reference works about them, especially the world’s most popular reference, the constantly updated and largely crowd-sourced Wikipedia.

Consider the current Wikipedia entry for Thomas Pogge, who has been in the news lately concerning allegations of sexual harassment and unprofessional behavior. It is squeaky clean. Not one sentence fragment in the entire entry, as of this moment, alludes to any of this news. Perhaps that is how it should be, for now, or perhaps not? I’m not arguing one way or another here.

A look at the “talk page” for Pogge’s entry reveals some of the discussion taking place behind the scenes (apparently this part of the exchange took place in May):

Pogge wikipedia talk screenshot

A more recent discussion is more heated:

Pogge wikipedia talk screenshot 2

Respectful, non-libelous discussion welcome.

(Note: As per the comments policy, while pseudonymous posting is permitted, no handles may contain the word “anonymous” or “anon.” If not logging in via a social media account, a working and accurate email address is required; email addresses are not publicly displayed.)

 

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HighFive
HighFive
5 years ago

I mean, how else are you supposed to know whether women are telling the truth, amirite?Report

RoboticOwl
RoboticOwl
5 years ago

It seems reasonable to include them at least once “the dust has settled” (and perhaps sooner). Take McGinn, for instance – his page does briefly discuss the circumstances of his resignation, and I think it would be inappropriate not to include them.

There are features of the McGinn case that make it difficult to say why I think it is a clear-cut case of appropriate to include scandal information – the fact that the events are settled? The fact that what is described is not the scandal itself, but the legal proceedings? I’m inclined to think it is something like the latter that is the relevant consideration as I see it.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

If the allegations are proven and result in dismissal, prosecution, or some such, then YES, they should be on the Wikipedia page. These are professional failures and misconduct. To me, as a professional philosopher, such acts denigrate the profession. But overall, if it is published that Bertrand Russell had numerous affairs, Wittgenstein was likely gay, and so forth, what’s the issue if the stated claims are, in fact, true? These facts merely indicate the human frailties of intellectuals and do not diminish their intellectual accomplishments. Facts are facts. But before anything has been adjudicated or proven, the allegations ought not be published on such a page as Wikipedia.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

I am really glad that you think that being gay does not diminish one’s intellectual achievements. WTF?!?Report

Doc F
Doc F
Reply to  Ben
5 years ago

Apparently having heterosexual affairs IS a frailty, but having gay affairs is not?. I guess if you are looking to be offended, you will be. My comment about frailties was not aimed at being gay but ALL human frailties. Should I list them? Cheating, false witness, reading things into someone’s comments what was not there…I apologize if you all read something into my comment that I did not intend. But, historically, being gay in Witt’s time WAS considered more than a frailty. Moreover, this FACT of his life was long included in his biographies, even before being gay was not considered wrong, a disease, etc… My point was facts are facts, and if verified ought be included.Report

CHE
CHE
Reply to  Doc F
5 years ago

Eh? I am not aware of any of the mentioned philosophers — Wittgenstein, McGinn, and Pogge — having been denounced for having affairs. Wittgenstein never married, nor as far as I know was ever accused of cheating on anyone, and the other two stand publicly accused of *harassment.* Indeed, obscuring in one’s mind the difference between harassment and affairs may be the key ingredient in the pernicious psychology of such characters, together with healthy dashes of narcissism and cruelty.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Doc F
5 years ago

So your intention was to just mention being gay as one frailty among ALL frailties? Well that’s just great, man.

Seriously, stop digging. Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

I’m totally confused by this comment. For one, what Ben said. For two, I don’t understand the comparison between allegations of assault and affairs either. For three, both Wittgenstein’s and Russell’s wiki pages do include that information — and I presume we don’t have, e.g., court records proving that those who believed Russell had an affair with Vivienne Haigh-Wood were correct. Report

DocFE
DocFE
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

At last, someone who gets it. My comments as to Witt and Russell were nothing more than these things happened and thus were part of their history and lives. I am amazed that such a comment is interpreted as anti-gay and so forth. The fact is these were what they did, period, and are part of their histories. Nothing more. I neither said nor implied positive or negative judgements. The climate is such that if there is a hint of negativity about sexual orientation, intended or not, one is castigated. Suppose I noted that I am gay? Would it matter?Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

Being “likely gay” is a “human frailty?”Report

Chapman
Chapman
5 years ago

According to Wikipedia’s guidelines regarding biographies of living persons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Biographies_of_living_persons), “If an allegation or incident is noteworthy, relevant, and well documented, it belongs in the article – even if it is negative and the subject dislikes all mention of it.” This example is then given: “A politician is alleged to have had an affair. He or she denies it, but multiple major newspapers publish the allegations, and there is a public scandal. The allegation belongs in the biography, citing those sources. However, it should only state that the politician was alleged to have had the affair, not that he or she actually did. If the subject has denied such allegations, that should also be reported.” This is a sufficient condition, not a necessary one, but according to this condition, it would seem as though the current Pogge-related allegations belong on his page.

Of course, there is a difference between what we ought to do in order correctly to follow Wikipedia’s guidelines and what we ought to do in order correctly to follow the dictates of the correct theory of morality (some version of Kantianism, I’m sure we all agree). It might be the case that following Wikipedia’s guidelines requires us to perform immoral actions either in terms of commission or omission. So long as no one is publishing things on Pogge in order to merely use him–for, e.g., gossipy reasons (and I doubt someone would do that)–there would at least be nothing morally wrong with including material about the allegations. Further, if someone took the (plausible) position that the best way to respect members of the profession was to educate them about potential threats to their safety, it might, in fact, be outright obligatory to include such material.

It’s also noteworthy that Wikipedia’s guidelines are themselves a crowd-sourced set of regulations and best-practices suggestions, and so their current form and content aren’t essential to Wikipedia, i.e., they could (and prob. will) change at some point as people deliberate over them. Report

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton
Reply to  Chapman
5 years ago

Well then I guess it depends on what the definition of “is” is.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Including these scandals on philosopher’s Wikipedia pages would be consistent with the way everyone else gets written up on Wikipedia. That being said, I am not in favor of including these scandals on philosopher’s Wikipedia pages. Publicly shaming individual wrongdoers who have already been officially punished is not generally constructive and does not convey the general extent of any problems one wishes to address.Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I’m a little fuzzy on what sorts of things you take to be “generally constructive” when it comes to their inclusion on someone’s Wikipedia page – what exactly is it that we’re constructing and why is this construction generally hindered, rather than helped, by including this sort of information?

As to conveying the extent of any problems one might wish to address, assuming by “problems” we mean philosophers sexually harassing people, I would think that scrubbing this sort of thing from Wikipedia biographies of philosophers, if it’s going to make any difference with respect to conveying the extent of the problem, is only going to make it harder to do so, rather than easier. At best it will have a neutral effect, I would think.

In other words, I’m having difficulty imagining how documenting sexual harassment on the Wikipedia pages of sexual harassers will make it harder to convey the general extent of sexual harassment in philosophy. Is the idea that, by explicitly including this information on some Wikipedia pages, this would imply that anyone whose Wikipedia page doesn’t mention sexual harassment is not a sexual harasser, and this would be bad because so many more philosophers with Wikipedia pages are sexual harassers than could plausibly be noted as such on their Wikipedia pages? Or is perhaps the idea that, by listing individual instances of sexual harassment rather than having a special Wikipedia page for sexual harassment in philosophy, this will give the impression that these are isolated incidents when in fact they are not? Or is there some other reason to worry that I’m missing?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Danny Weltman
5 years ago

Danny, to take your points in order. Firstly, I’m not committing myself to anything being “generally constructive” on someone’s Wikipedia page. I think that some things are, but that doesn’t seem relevant to the issue here. Secondly, I never claimed that omitting such information would make it easier to convey the extent of sexual harassment in philosophy and that including such information would make it harder.Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I’m not sure why you say that it’s irrelevant which things are or aren’t “generally constructive” on a Wikipedia page. I thought you mentioned the fact that including this information wouldn’t be “generally constructive” by way of explaining why it ought not to be included. If you mentioned this fact for some other reason, then I agree that it’s irrelevant, but then we’re back at square one, which, as you note, suggests inclusion rather than exclusion, because this is what Wikipedia does for everyone else.

As for the effects of omitting the information, I realize that you never claimed anything about what effects this would have. You didn’t say anything about why you thought it was important to note that omission ” does not convey the general extent of any problems one wishes to address.” Thus I was forced to guess about the relevance of that statement. I suggested a couple options but you’ve ruled them out. I ended my post with a question about whether there was some other reason that I was missing, and you haven’t provided another reason. If there is one, I’d be interested in hearing it. If there isn’t one, then again, we’re back at square one, and the information ought to be included, right?

In effect, I took your first post to be offering two reasons not to include this information even though generally Wikipedia includes this information, but now your second post seems to suggest that none of these is in fact a reason, so I’m a little unclear on how you’ve reached the conclusion that the information ought not to be included.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Danny Weltman
5 years ago

Danny, to take your points in order. Firstly, I never claimed that it is irrelevant which things aren’t generally constructive. Secondly, claiming that an act isn’t generally constructive does not imply that it makes things worse for combating sexual harassment. However, there is a general principle that we don’t hurt people unless doing so provides benefit that outweighs the harm. Once someone has been punished for their crime, advertising their guilt should only be done if we think it will be beneficial overall. Convictions for sexual harassment should only be published on Wikipedia if we think that doing so sufficiently aids the fight against sexual harassment.Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I’m having trouble reconciling your claim on the one hand that “[you] think that some things are [generally constructive], but that doesn’t seem relevant to the issue here” with your claim on the other hand that “[you] never claimed that it is irrelevant which things aren’t generally constructive.” I don’t think this matters, so I would have let it go, but I think I’m more or less incapable of responding to a series of two points without addressing the first, just for completeness’s sake.

As to whether putting this stuff on Wikipedia aids the fight against sexual harassment, I guess you have a much more worked out view on the empirical situation than I do. I frankly have no idea whether including this information on Wikipedia would have any impact in one direction or the other. All I really have to work with is my extremely limited experience as a dude graduate student, who never gets sexually harassed, but from that I can tell you that before I became a graduate student and ended up immersed in the culture of philosophy, I had no idea that sexual harassment was at all an issue in the profession, because the only place this stuff ever gets talked about is on blogs like these (which I certainly didn’t read before becoming a grad student) and among people like us (whom I rarely talked to, with the exception of my professors, who didn’t mention it for the same reason they didn’t mention any of the thousands of other things they could have told me about the profession, or about anything, really).

Not knowing about sexual harassment in the profession didn’t have any negative impact on me, because, again, I’m a dude, but I imagine if I were a woman it would have been good to know about this sort of thing so that (for instance) I could either avoid sexual harassers and the institutions they are at when applying to grad school, or at least come prepared with questions when I visited those grad schools, and also so that I could know more generally that this is a thing I should be asking about. Perhaps if I were a woman my professors would have alerted me to ask these sorts of questions before I visited grad schools, or perhaps I would have stumbled onto a blog like ‘What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?’ before becoming a grad student, but if not, having this sort of thing on the Wikipedia page for contemporary philosophers (pages that I certainly DID visit, because Wikipedia, unlike all the philosophy blogs, is the sort of site I knew about) would certainly have been helpful in terms of helping me avoid sexual harassment.

Again, though, I honestly have no idea. It kind of boggles my mind that anyone would think they have a good enough grasp on the factors involved to be able to come down one way or another on whether including this information on Wikipedia would help combat sexual harassment. There seem to be so many unknown factors that I couldn’t even begin to take into consideration in terms of arriving at an overall judgment. Moreover, I could have this worry about any fact included on Wikipedia: will including X in Wikipedia article Y serve goal Z that I wish to further? If I had to edit Wikipedia articles like that, I don’t think I’d ever arrive at a conclusion about any given sentence! In the face of that sort of worry it seems more sensible for Wikipedia simply to report the facts. I don’t want to say that just writing down stuff that happened is always good or neutral, but in this particular case (when the facts are already a matter of the public record anyways) it seems like the default makes sense, right?Report

Adriane Rini
Adriane Rini
5 years ago

Heard of Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers?
The juicy gossip pages of the ancient world. I’ve always loved the entry on Aristotle, but others are far more salacious.

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D5%3Achapter%3D1Report

Jane
Jane
5 years ago

It’s generally considered to be needlessly hurtful to spread unflattering stories about people while they’re alive, and in poor taste to spread such stories about the recently dead.

When the people and those close to them are long dead and hence unlikely to be harmed much by revealing and discussing these juicy stories, the same considerations give us less reason to refrain from discussing other people’s private lives.

To spend time now discussing whether Woodrow Wilson had a lover is of historical interest. To discuss instead whether Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders does strikes one as vulgar and prurient and trashy, and an intrusion into someone else’s private affairs. For similar reasons, while it may be interesting to discuss the sexual tendencies of the ancients, or even of Russell and Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir, it seems wrong to apply that same freedom in digging through others’ dirty laundry when we are talking about living or recently deceased philosophers.Report

CHE
CHE
Reply to  Jane
5 years ago

The recent public accusations are not “juicy.” They’re not about people having “lovers.” They’re not about “sexual tendencies.” They’re not about “private affairs” or “private lives.” They concern professional misconduct in the form of harassment of students and colleagues. Discussing them as love or sex does harm to victims and our community.Report

Jane
Jane
Reply to  CHE
5 years ago

Sorry, wasn’t implying that the issues today concern people having lovers. But a certain cross-section of the public has always loved to discuss scandals involving people making inappropriate sexual advances, etc. The accusations that have been leveled against members of the profession are serious, and I hope that they are investigated and dealt with seriously. But the stories are nonetheless juicy for a certain prurient readership. It is to a large extent the immorality of the acts of which these people have been accused that makes the public accusations juicy in the way I meant.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Jane
5 years ago

Even if that’s right (that it is “juicy” because immoral) the kind of act under consideration bears on whether and how it is appropriate for public discussion. Political corruption, for instance, may be immoral for precisely the same reasons it is of public concern. As CHE noted, the accusations are not about having lovers; they are about professional misconduct, and this is a relevant difference. Report

Jane
Jane
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

Thanks, Kathryn. You make a good point. I agree now that we need to differentiate between scandals that are of *merely* juicy interest for those with a taste for gossip, and scandals that have to do with the person’s fitness qua whatever it is that person is most famous for. More precisely, having affairs or partaking in an unusual private sex life is nobody else’s business, but things that count as wrongdoing in one’s own profession (like political corruption, in your example) are in a different category.

At the same time, it seems clear that we have to distinguish between allegations of professional wrongdoing and genuine findings of professional wrongdoing. For instance, Barack Obama has been accused of committing fraud on his way to the presidency by falsifying his birth certificate, and also of many other things by Right Wing pundits, who say they have clear evidence of this. But none of these allegations appear on Obama’s Wikipedia page, and rightly so, because they have never been confirmed in light of an unbiased investigation by a proper adjudicating body. Similarly, if several other people in the profession were to publicly and repeatedly allege that you had stolen our manuscripts from our computers and published them under your own name, then the mere ubiquity of that accusation should not be grounds for adding the scandal to your Wikipedia page. A proper verdict is needed.

To sum up, it seems to me now that scandals should not be mentioned on a philosopher’s Wikipedia page except in two cases. The first case is that the philosopher in question and his or her friends and close relatives are long dead or that the philosopher has clearly endorsed of public discussion of the scandal. The second case is that the scandal involves allegations of actions that genuinely make the philosopher unfit qua philosopher (just as political corruption makes the corrupt person unfit qua politician), AND that the allegations have been either openly confessed by the philosopher or else established as true by an appropriate and unbiased adjudicating committee.

Report

Lillith
Lillith
Reply to  Jane
5 years ago

FYI, via the footnotes, the allegations ARE mentioned on President Obama’s wikipedia page. Including an article entitled “More birther nonsense,” and two links pdfs of his birth certificate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_ObamaReport

Jane
Jane
Reply to  Jane
5 years ago

Interesting, Lilith. But should it be? And should such things be reported on Wikipedia pages in a way that seems to give them credibility (unlike the “More birther nonsense” footnote)?

To continue an analogy I raised earlier. Suppose that someone accuses a philosopher, let’s call her Kate, of hacking into his computer and stealing a manuscript. Other people start telling similar stories about her. Are these stories legitimate? Or do these people have a beef against Kate? Or maybe they’re looking for attention? No good evidence is ever presented to substantiate these claims, let’s say. But the accusers make quite a scandal out of it. And the accusations, if true, would be pretty damning.

So my question is, IF that were to happen, would it be right to include the accusation on Kate’s Wikipedia page? On the one hand, if the accusations are true, then perhaps that’s relevant. But on the other hand, these charges were never substantiated; and if they’re false, don’t we owe it to Kate not to smear her again on the same false charge?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Jane
5 years ago

“No good evidence is ever presented to substantiate these claims, let’s say.”

This doesn’t seem analogous to the question at hand. Good evidence may be presented while falling short of incontrovertible proof. And if similar evidence were presented in support of multiple allegations of plaigarism, I would be surprised if no mention were made of the allegation, because it seems to me that such mention would be appropriate.Report

Jane
Jane
Reply to  Jane
5 years ago

I’m afraid I don’t understand, Kathryn. What sort of evidence of plagiarism are you thinking of that’s analogous to the evidence of wrongdoing in the Pogge case?Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
5 years ago

Jarring to have recently watched that film “Spotlight” on the Catholic Church sexual abuse cases and then to read the attitudes expressed by some (most?) in this thread. Scary, too, honestly. Report