Today we're going to look at a surprising relative newcomer on the World Wide Web: Conservapedia, a Young Earth Christian encyclopedia, built on the model of Wikipedia. But I caution you: We need to start by setting the stage with the appropriate tone. Let's browse to Conservapedia's article on the theory of evolution. What picture do you think they might have on this page? An image of a DNA helix? A picture of Charles Darwin? Wrong: It's a photograph of Adolf Hitler screaming into a microphone. No fooling. (Since this podcast was released, Conservapedia has edited that page, putting Darwin's picture at the top where it belongs, and moving Hitler way down toward the bottom of page, where he still doesn't belong. - BD)
Conservapedia's purpose is to be a conservative Christian version of Wikipedia that promotes Young Earth anti-science. But in an effort to distance themselves from this egregious intellectual dishonesty, they've posted a special page called How Conservapedia Differs from Wikipedia that lists an entirely different set of reasons for its existence, that makes no mention of any conservative Christian agenda, as if such a thing has never occurred to them. The page is mostly a list of false charges leveled against Wikipedia. They say Wikipedia is a money-making scheme; Wikipedia encourages long-winded, obfuscating articles; it contains gossip, journalists' "biased" opinions, obscenities and pornography; Wikipedia subjects its articles to extreme liberal censorship; the purpose of Wikipedia's talk pages are to create a forum for its editors to bully its users; and my personal favorite, that Wikipedia monitors the personal blogs of its readers and bans them from using Wikipedia if they exercise their free speech on their blogs!! Well, if nothing else, these charges certainly do distract attention from Conservapedia's Christian anti-science bias.
Another difference between the two is their size, both in number of articles and length. For example, on the date I checked, Google listed 50,000 pages on Conservapedia.com, and 14,200,000 on Wikipedia.org, giving Wikipedia almost 300 times the number of pages as Conservapedia. To get a fair estimate of the difference in comprehensiveness of their articles, I did a number of random searches. Wikipedia's article on Walt Disney is 8,570 words long. Conservapedia's article is only 195 words long, and contains little more than an anecdote about his wedding, a list of 8 of his movies, and a warning that since his death, The Walt Disney Company has promoted pro-gay activism. This was just one random search off the top of my head, and I was struck by Conservapedia's ability to siphon all the juice out of any topic until only the bitterest right-wing dregs remain.
But Conservapedia is not really about finding liberal skeletons in closets; it's really about promoting Young Earth fundamentalism. For example, their article on the planet Earth contains no fewer than 9 Bible references, and almost all of the external references are from (not scientific sources as you'd expect) but other Young Earth fundamentalist web sites, mainly AnswersInGenesis.org, CreationScience.com, and CreationOnTheWeb.com. The age of the Earth is given with a pretense of also presenting real science as follows:
Young Earth creationists believe, on the basis of the biblical account in Genesis and biblical geochronologies, that the entire Earth, including animal, plant, and human life, was formed in six days, around 4000 B.C. Mainstream scientific journals, committed to a naturalistic worldview, contend this view. Most scientists believe that the Earth formed by natural processes instead of being supernaturally created. However, as one scientist noted, “... most every prediction by theorists about planetary formation has been wrong.”
Note the assertion that the mainstream scientific journals "contend" the Young Earth story because they're "committed" to a worldview that is not about promoting Christianity. I commend Conservapedia for conceding that most scientists are not of the opinion that the Earth was formed supernaturally, but even then they throw in a quote from CreationScience.com that most scientific theories about the Earth are eventually proven wrong, and they bolster this quote with an argument from authority by crediting it to "a scientist".
Conservapedia has a fine article on radiometric dating. It says almost nothing about radiometric dating; it lists only five types, giving no useful information about what they are, what they're used for, or how and why they work; the entire article is simply a lecture that they are all uselessly unreliable. This argument is made with explanations like the following:
This formula depends on the laws of physics remaining constant over time... Some creationists have argued that God increased the rate of potassium-argon decay during the first few days of Creation, thus causing the potassium-argon dating method to give erroneously old date readings.
They didn't give a Biblical citation for that particular factoid. If some listener knows what authority they referenced that talks about God's manipulation of potassium-argon decay rates, come to Skeptoid.com and post it in the comments for this episode. If we're playing Name the Logical Fallacy, this is called a special pleading. A special pleading states that my claim is true because some higher power (that you can't comprehend) makes it true, no matter what you say. Potassium argon dating is unreliable because God will do whatever is necessary to make your readings wrong. Really.
They have a page of rules for editors, but predictably, they call it the Commandments. Most of them are good, what you'd expect from a wiki; like always cite your sources (though almost all sources cited in Conservapedia articles are from Young Earth Creationist web sites), your posts should be clean, concise, no foul language, no personal opinions or advertisements. But I thought this was funny:
When referencing dates based on the approximate birth of Jesus, give appropriate credit for the basis of the date (B.C. or A.D.). "BCE" and "CE" are unacceptable substitutes because they deny the historical basis.
It's actually more than just funny. CE and BCE, similar to the better known BC and AD, stand for the "common era" and "before the common era" of the proleptic Gregorian calendar. It is the international date standard ISO 8601. BCE and CE have been in use since the year 1615, beginning with non-Christian cultures, and has since become the international standard because it does not force everyone to comply with one particular religious standard. When he read a student's paper that used common era notation, Christian activist Andrew Schlafly founded Conservapedia in 2006, initially as an online resource for homeschooled Christian students.
Schlafly felt that teaching evidence-based science represents a biased view that wrongly excludes Christianity, and so his vision of Conservapedia was to avoid this bias by looking at every topic through a conservative Christian perspective. And the more you go through Conservapedia, the more you see that avoiding bias is what it's really about; but a very curious and specific brand of avoiding bias. It avoids the bias of giving fact more validity than fiction. Throughout its articles, Conservapedia presents both the Young Earth version of a subject, and then the scientific version, and treats them more or less equally, as if fallacy is no less valid than fact. To find another example, I looked up Tyrannosaurus Rex to see what Conservapedia has to say on when it lived:
Young Earth Creationists believe that they became extinct sometime since the Great Flood, dated to approximately 4,500 years ago.
Evolutionary scientists believe that the T-rex lived at the end of the Cretaceous period, dated to approximately 65 million years ago, and that modern birds are the descendants of dinosaurs such as T-rex.
You might as well say "One small extremist religious fringe group believes X, but science tells us Y." Conservapedia presents these as equally weighted, competing theories which should both be taught to students under the guise of "presenting both sides of an issue". Science does not have two sides. Science has one side. If Conservapedia truly wants to avoid bias, then why are they only presenting the Young Earth fundamentalist belief alongside science? Why not also present the Islamic story, the Mandinka story from Africa, the Voodoo story, the Hawai'ian story of Pele, or Scientology or Raëlism? I'll tell you why. It's because Conservapedia exists only to promote Christian Young Earth anti-science.
Why would anyone want to teach anti-science? The vast majority of Christians worldwide accept the evidence-based age of the Earth and the universe, and accept modern sciences, and many work in scientific fields. What do most Christians think of Conservapedia? Do they feel it gives them a bad name? Are they primarily supportive of its proselytzing mission, and less concerned with the accuracy of whatever facts it presents?
My sense is that most Christians are not really aware of Conservapedia. Its take on science certainly does not represent that of most Christians, let alone most conservatives, since we know that the Young Earth crowd is only a small fringe minority. The danger is that Conservapedia's mere presence and self-assertion of unbiased authority might mislead an uninformed web surfer into accepting that some of these Young Earth myths are valid science, or even just give the impression that the Young Earth thing is more widely accepted than it really is. Both of these are crimes against intelligence, and anyone who contributes to Conservapedia is guilty of willfully eroding the collective intellect, to the detriment of all.
Irvin, D., Sunquist, S. History of the World Christian Movement. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001. p. xi.
Johnson, B. "Conservapedia - the US religious right's answer to Wikipedia." The Guardian. 2 Mar. 2007, International section: p18.
Robbins, S. "Conservapedia Calls Black Holes and Dark Matter Liberal Pseudoscience." Exposing Pseudoastronomy. Stuart Robbins, 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2012. <http://pseudoastro.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/conservapedia-calls-black-holes-and-dark-matter-liberal-pseudoscience/>
Simon, S. "A conservative's answer to Wikipedia." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 19 Jun. 2007. Web. 19 Jun. 2007. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jun/19/nation/na-schlafly19>