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The Default of Fear

Summary:
Wikipedia’s article on gender bias on Wikipedia is fascinating at the meta-level.   It starts with basic facts: In a 2018 survey covering 12 language versions of Wikipedia and some other Wikimedia Foundation projects, 90% of contributors reported their gender as male, 8.8% as female, and 1% as other. Among contributors to the English Wikipedia, 13.6% identified as female and 1.7% as other.[5] Other studies since 2011, mostly focused on the English Wikipedia, have estimated the percentage of female editors at up to 20%.[3][6] Wikipedia’s articles about women are less likely to be included, expanded, neutral, and detailed.[7][8] A 2021 study found that, in April 2017, 41% of biographies nominated for deletion were women despite only 17% of published biographies

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Wikipedia’s article on gender bias on Wikipedia is fascinating at the meta-level.   It starts with basic facts:

In a 2018 survey covering 12 language versions of Wikipedia and some other Wikimedia Foundation projects, 90% of contributors reported their gender as male, 8.8% as female, and 1% as other. Among contributors to the English Wikipedia, 13.6% identified as female and 1.7% as other.[5] Other studies since 2011, mostly focused on the English Wikipedia, have estimated the percentage of female editors at up to 20%.[3][6]

Wikipedia’s articles about women are less likely to be included, expanded, neutral, and detailed.[7][8] A 2021 study found that, in April 2017, 41% of biographies nominated for deletion were women despite only 17% of published biographies being women.[9] 

Then we have a section on “Causes” – potential explanations for editors’ gender imbalance, anchored by Sue Gardner’s nine-point list:

  1. A lack of user-friendliness in the editing interface.
  2. Not having enough free time.
  3. A lack of self-confidence.
  4. Aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars.
  5. Belief that their contributions are too likely to be reverted or deleted.
  6. Some find its overall atmosphere misogynistic.
  7. Wikipedia culture is sexual in ways they find off-putting.
  8. Being addressed as male is off-putting to women whose primary language has grammatical gender.
  9. Fewer opportunities for social relationships and a welcoming tone compared to other sites.

Conspicuously absent from the list of possible causes is the default explanation, also known as the “obvious explanation” and the “common-sense explanation.”  Namely: On average, men enjoy editing Wikipedia much more than women do.  While the vast majority of both genders would find editing Wikipedia boring, the small minority of males who like creating and correcting articles on technical topics for free vastly outnumbers the even smaller minority of women who like creating and correcting articles on technical topics for free.  

The only time the article even mentions the default explanation is not in the Causes sections, but way down in “Reactions,” when it allows Heather Mac Donald to state the default explanation without further commentary:

The most straightforward explanation for the differing rates of participation in Wikipedia—and the one that conforms to everyday experience—is that, on average, males and females have different interests and preferred ways of spending their free time.

What makes all this fascinating at the meta-level?  Well, riddle me this: When you’re writing an encyclopedia article on X, why on Earth would you virtually fail to even mention the default explanation for X?  Even if the default explanation happens to be wrong, you would expect authors to clearly state, “The default explanation, surprisingly, turns out to be wrong.  Here’s why.” 

So what’s going on?  Getting meta, there is a default explanation for the failure to mention something’s default explanation.  Namely: Fear.  Since the default explanation is what immediately comes to mind, people naturally blurt it out.  Unless, of course, they bite their tongues lest they get their heads bitten off.

This is most obvious for religion.  If someone claims a miracle happened, the default explanation (as Hume pointed out) is that the “miracle” is bogus.  The speaker is either deceived or a deceiver.  If no one voices this default explanation, the reason is probably that they fear religious wrath.

The same goes for politics.  If someone claims that Our Dear Leader is the greatest man who ever lived, the default explanation is that this is absurd hyperbole.  The speaker is either deceived or a deceiver.  If no one voices this default explanation, the reason is probably that they fear political wrath.

And this, I warrant, is precisely what’s going on in Wikipedia’s article on gender bias on Wikipedia.  The default explanation is that the gender “bias” is no bias at all, but a reflection of the different ways that men and women like to spend their free time.  And the default explanation for the failure to even mention this default explanation is fear.  Fear of what?  Of feminist wrath, the wrath of their allies, and the feigned wrath of all the other people who hope to avoid becoming their targets.

Of course, I’m open to the possibility that this default explanation is wrong.  But if we don’t default to the default, that’s strong evidence in favor of the default.  And if calling it the default provokes a wave of anger, that’s practically settles the issue in the default’s favor.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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