|Dr. Tyson (h/t: Wikipedia)|
He's also an agnostic - not an atheist. And while he says the public "God debate" is really not something he chooses to engage in much, he seems willing to disobey a rule so well-established in social media PR these days you might even call it one of PR's Ten Commandments - "thou shalt not edit thine own Wikipedia page."
About 36 minutes or so into the podcast, Dr. Tyson talks with Mooney about how he feels mislabeled as an atheist, and then makes an admission that makes an online PR flack like me raise an eyebrow:
It was funny – I don’t know who created my wiki page – but in there, a few years ago it said “Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist who is an astrophysicist” and I said “what… that’s not really..” so I said, so I put in there, “Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic” and then three days later or so it was back to “atheist.” So there’s an urge to claim me in that community. So then I had to – So I had to put it - word it in a way that would survive an edit so I said, “widely claimed by atheists, Tyson is actually an agnostic” so that managed to stick. I haven’t checked it lately but that’s how I left it off.(Note: the edits to which Dr. Tyson refers don't appear on his Wikipedia page today.) Let me be clear about something: I don't think what Dr. Tyson did is "wrong" - he took steps to correct the record as he sees it, and protect his own reputation. After all, this is essentially what I do for clients. When people write things about you, you have a right and an obligation to ask that those people get the "facts" right. And in a forum as public and influential as Wikipedia, Dr. Tyson is quite right to be paying attention.
But let's be clear about something else - this sort of edit runs counter to Wikipedia's guidelines about conflict of interest and "neutral point of view"edits. Dr. Tyson may view his action as simply correcting a minor point, but there is a clear public relations interest in a popular science communicator avoiding the unpopular, often misunderstood label of "atheist." It has been argued that Dr. Tyson's use of the word "agnostic" rather than "atheist" represents a distinction without a difference. And there's also a public relations interest in avoiding getting sucked into a debate over religious nomenclature.
Put it this way - If I, a public relations professional, were working for Dr. Tyson or the Hayden Planetarium or NOVA, and made exactly the same edits at exactly the same time, I'd be absolutely slaughtered for it. Companies and PR firms have been called out publicly for making far less substantive edits to their own or their client's Wikipedia pages.
The problem here isn't with anything Dr. Tyson did - the problem is with Wikipedia's guidelines. Wikipedia's relatively inflexible guidelines have created a situation where "neutral" third parties can purposely or inadvertently post inaccurate or misleading information about a person or company - and that person or company is essentially "forbidden" (or at the least strongly discouraged) from responding quickly on the same forum. No, Wikipedia should not be a place for people to post their CV's or companies to plant marketing materials and press releases. However, just as Dr. Tyson has a right to weigh in on what's being said about him without fear of being labeled as a whitewasher, companies and PR flacks have a right to do so as well.
I do think we should disclose when we're making edits or additions. Frankly, I have no problem with some special kind of citation that an edit to a page was made by the subject of that page or one of its agents. We should be using legitimate sources and follow the same rules as everyone else on this platform.
Wikipedia's popularity (and search engine optimization) has unquestionably positioned it as an unbiased and authoritative resource. It's increasingly cited in other publications. But even the "outs" you can find in Wikipedia's guidelines - things like "if a rule prevents you from improving Wikipedia, then break the rule" or "use common sense" - haven't made it acceptable for the subjects of pages to correct the record. We're left with contacting the Wikipedians and hoping that they'll get back to us before they deal with any of the 738 gazillion other pages on the site, and even then there's no guarantee that the matter will be dealt with appropriately.
This is crap. And it should change.