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An Edit War Is Brewing on the ‘Neuroticism’ Wikipedia Page After Being Cited in Google Employee’s Memo

"Indeed I myself came to this article after reading about the Google memo, which links to this Wikipedia page directly."

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Image: Shutterstock

Google software engineer James Damore's controversial manifesto, "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," has been public for less than a week, but already several Wikipedia articles that Damore referenced have become the subject of intense debate on the site.

Several of these pages have undergone significant edits. On one page, a paragraph about neuroticism in women versus men is currently being contested—undergoing edits, reversions, and then edits again. The talk pages, where Wikipedians discuss the rationale behind edits, have devolved into flamewars.

"The public is starting to smell the bullshit you're covering up. Own up to it. Delete it again and Wikipedia wil [sic] be exposed in the same fashion Google was, I guarantee it. And I won't even be involved," one person wrote in the space where Wikipedians are encouraged to explain their edits.

The existence of Damore's memo was first reported by Motherboard, and the full text of the document was later published by Gizmodo. On Monday, Motherboard obtained and published the most comprehensive version of the manifesto, including two charts, footnotes, and hyperlinks that indicate Damore's sources.

Damore cited several Wikipedia pages about topics like neuroticism, sex differences in psychology, and empathizing-systemizing theory, which is used to classify people into "empathizing" or "systemizing" buckets, and has been applied to predict people's affinity for STEM subjects. Damore wielded these sources in an attempt to strike down the belief that women are sometimes professionally harmed by gender biases.

"I'm simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership," Damore wrote in a version of the document (Because Damore allowed Google staff to suggest edits to the memo, it's possible that the version Motherboard published has since changed.)

After major news events, a flurry of edits to Wikipedia pages pertaining to those events usually follows. Sometimes, discussions on those pages can get so heated, the page has to be "protected," meaning the page can only be modified by certain users. But, in this case, because Damore used Wikipedia as his source in many cases, those pages have been subjected to similar editing battles.

Wikipedia allows anyone to make changes to an article, but erroneous markups are usually quickly reverted by other editors. In 2015, for example, several editors were banned by Wikipedia's arbitration committee for vandalizing information about Gamergate and feminism.

So far, only the page on neuroticism has received edits that are clearly related to Damore's manifesto and subsequent firing. According to Wikipedia, the article has received more than six times the amount of pageviews as it does on average—topping out at 15,574 pageviews yesterday. Between yesterday and now, the page has been revised 27 times, compared to its average of 4.2 edits per month.

A section that once stated "that, on average, women score moderately higher than men on neuroticism," was removed by an editor on Tuesday for relying on a single source, and "Poor use of neutral voice." The crux of the study, a theory called the "Big Five personality traits," has been both widely embraced and criticized across the scientific community.

Screenshot: Wikipedia

Just minutes later, this revision was reverted—placing the paragraph back into the original article. Then, soon after, another editor expanded the section, adding additional sourcing to the line: "Personality studies find that women score moderately higher than men on neuroticism, by approximately half of a standard deviation."

Screenshot: Wikipedia

The matter of sourcing was eventually raised on the article's Talk Page, where users can discuss an article's governance and edits. Some of the page's sources, one editor claimed, were outdated, and not enough secondary sources were included to contextualize primary materials.

"There is a bunch of fairly loaded content sourced to very old, primary refs. We use recent (less than 5 years old) reviews in good quality journals and textbooks," one editor wrote.

One contested source, "The Evolution of Culturally-Variable Sex Differences: Men and Women Are Not Always Different, but When They Are…It Appears Not to Result from Patriarchy or Sex Role Socialization," comes from a 2014 textbook edition called The Evolution of Sexuality. Another, "Gender Differences in Personality Traits Across Cultures: Robust and Surprising Findings," is from the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, but was published in 2001.

Seemingly unrelated to anything Damore referenced, editors are now also debating the categorization of "neuroticism" as a medical disorder, and, consequently, the use of allegedly non-medically reliable sourcing.

"Mental health is part of health. Content about epidemiology, risk factors, etc need MEDRS sourcing," one user wrote.

"Guys, I am trying to edit constructively and in good faith, all you're doing is ripping things out wantonly. It is getting to be very annoying," another user responded.

"All of this stinks of political overtones regarding timing of edits and the edits themselves," yet another user wrote.

"Indeed I myself came to this article after reading about the Google memo, which links to this wikipedia page directly. I added several sources to reflect the typical literature claim that the usual sex difference is 'moderate' at around half of SD --- did you intend to remove those cites also," the editor replied.

Meanwhile, a dedicated page for Damore's memo was created on Monday, and its Talk Page reveals that editors are already hard at work.