Vincentian Encyclopedia:Neutral point of view

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

Neutral point of view (NPOV) is a fundamental principle of the Vincentian Encyclopedia.

All Vincentian Encyclopedia articles and other encyclopedic content, with the exceptions of Reference Shelf and some Vincentian Wisdom material, must be written from a neutral point of view, which means that all significant views published by reliable sources have been fairly represented. This is non-negotiable and expected on all articles, except as noted, and of all article editors.

Reasoning behind NPOV

Vincentian Encyclopedia is a general encyclopedia of knowledge about the Vincentian Family, which means it is a representation at some level of generality. But people disagree about specific cases; for any topic on which there are competing views, each view represents a different idea of what the truth is, and insofar as that view contradicts other views, its adherents believe that the other views are false and therefore not knowledge. Where there is disagreement about what is true, there is disagreement about what constitutes knowledge. Vincentian Encyclopedia works because it is a collaborative effort.

To sum up the primary reason for this policy: Vincentian Encyclopedia is an encyclopedia, a compilation. But because Vincentian Encyclopedia is a community-built, international resource, we cannot expect collaborators to agree. We should, both individually and collectively, make an effort to present conflicting views fairly, without advocating any one of them -- with the qualification that views held only by a tiny minority of people should not be represented as though they are significant minority views and perhaps should not be represented at all.

There is another reason to commit ourselves to this policy. When it is clear to readers that we do not expect them to adopt any particular opinion, this leaves them free to make up their minds for themselves, thus encouraging intellectual independence. Totalitarian governments and dogmatic institutions everywhere might find reason to oppose projects such as Vincentian Encyclopedia. If we succeed in adhering to our non-bias policy the presentation of many competing theories on a wide variety of subjects suggests that we, the editors of Vincentian Encyclopedia, trust readers to form their own opinions. Texts that present multiple viewpoints fairly, without demanding that the reader accept any particular one of them, are liberating. Neutrality subverts dogmatism. Nearly everyone working on Vincentian Encyclopedia can agree this is a good thing.


Explanation of the neutral point of view

The neutral point of view

As the name suggests, the neutral point of view is a point of view, not the absence or elimination of viewpoints. The acronym NPOV does not mean "no points of view". The neutral point of view is neither sympathetic nor opposed to its subject: it neither endorses nor discourages viewpoints. Debates within topics are described, represented and characterized, but they are not joined. Background is provided on who believes what and why, and which view is more popular. Detailed articles might also contain the mutual evaluations of each viewpoint, but studiously refrain from asserting which is better. NPOV is the fair, analytical description of all relevant sides of a debate, including the mutual perspectives and the published evidence. When editorial bias toward one particular point of view can be detected, the article needs to be fixed.

The neutral point of view is a means of dealing with conflicting verifiable perspectives on a topic as evidenced by reliable sources. Where multiple or conflicting perspectives exist within a topic, each should be presented fairly. None of the views should be given undue weight or asserted as being judged as "the truth". In this way, the various significant published viewpoints are made accessible to the reader, not just the most popular one. It should also not be asserted that the most popular view, or some sort of intermediate view among the different views, is the correct one to the extent that other views are mentioned only pejoratively. Readers should be allowed to form their own opinions.


Bias

NPOV requires views to be represented without bias. Although all editors and all sources have biases, what matters is how we combine them to create a neutral article.

A simple formulation

Assert facts, including facts about opinions—but do not assert the opinions themselves. By "fact" we mean "a piece of information about which there is no serious dispute." For example, the date of the death of Vincent is a fact. That there is a Company called Congregation of the Mission is a fact. That Elizabeth Seton was foundress of the Sisters of Charity is a fact. No one seriously disputes any of these things. So we can feel free to assert as many of them as we can.

In contrast, a value or opinion is something which can be disputed. There are bound to be cases on the border between fact and opinion where it is not clear that an alternative point of view should be included. However, there are many propositions that very clearly express values or opinions. That Frédéric Ozanam was the 19th century layman who most understood the idea of Evangelizing the Poor is a matter of opinion. That Pierre de Bérulle was the outstanding spiritual director of the 17th century is an opinion. That Elizabeth Seton was the first United States-born person to be canonized is a fact. That Gianna Beretta Molla's life might have been spared by better post-partum care is a value or opinion.

Vincentian Encyclopedia is devoted to stating facts in the sense described above. Therefore, where we want to discuss an opinion, we attribute the opinion to someone and discuss the fact that they have this opinion. For example, rather than asserting, "Frédéric Ozanam was the 19th century layman who most understood the idea of Evangelizing the Poor" we can say: "Many people in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul believe that Frédéric Ozanam provides the best example from the 19th century of evangelizing the poor," which can be supported by references to publications or surveys. Similarly, "Some historians believe that Frédéric Ozanam's mediation in student riots at the Sorbonne in 1852 was crucial to ending the riots" is also verifiable as fact. The first example asserts a personal opinion; the second and third instances asserts the fact that an opinion exists, by attributing it to reliable sources.

It is not enough to discuss an opinion as fact merely by stating "some people believe..." This is often referred to as "mass attribution". A reliable source reporting that a group's opinion must accurately describe how large this group is. In addition, this source should be written by named authors who are considered reliable.

There are usually disagreements about how opinions should be properly stated. To fairly represent all the leading views in a dispute it is sometimes necessary to qualify the description of an opinion, or to present several formulations of this opinion and attribute them to specific groups.

A balanced selection of sources is also critical for producing articles with a neutral point of view. For example, when discussing the facts on which a point of view is based, it is important to also include the facts on which competing opinions are based since this helps a reader evaluate the credibility of the competing viewpoints. This should be done without implying that any one of the opinions is correct. It is also important to make it clear who holds these opinions. It is often best to cite a prominent representative of the view.

Achieving neutrality

A Vincentian Encyclopedia article must have one definitive name. Redirects may be used to address this technical limitation in situations where non-controversial synonyms and variations exist. The general restriction against POV forks applies to article names as well. If a genuine naming controversy exists and is relevant to the subject matter of the article, the controversy should be covered in the article text and substantiated with reliable sources. Otherwise, alternative article names should not be used as means of settling POV disputes among Vincentian Encyclopedia contributors. Also disfavored are double or "segmented" article names, in the form of: Poverty/Strategies; or Poverty (Strategies). Even if a synthesis can be found, like Strategies on the topic of poverty, or Poverty (Various strategies), it may not be appropriate, especially if it is a novel usage coined specifically to resolve a POV fork.

Sometimes the article title itself may be a source of contention and polarization. This is especially true for titles that suggest a viewpoint either "for" or "against" any given issue. A neutral article title is very important because it ensures that the article topic is placed in the proper context. Therefore, encyclopedic article titles are expected to exhibit the highest degree of neutrality. The article might cover the same material but with less emotive words, or might cover broader material which helps ensure a neutral view (for example, renaming "Criticisms of Abelly hagiography" to "Abelly biography - historian views"). Neutral titles encourage multiple viewpoints and responsible article writing.

Where proper nouns such as names are concerned, disputes may arise over whether a particular name should be used. Vincentian Encyclopedia takes a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach in such cases, describing corporate entities such as cities and states by the names by which they describe themselves (or by the English-language equivalent). Where inanimate entities such as geographical features are concerned, the most common name used in English-language publications is generally used.

Article structure

Sometimes the internal structure of an article may require additional attention to protect neutrality and avoid problems like POV forks and undue weight. Although specific article structures are not as a rule prohibited, in some cases the article structure itself may need attention. Care must be taken to ensure the overall presentation is broadly neutral.

Examples that may warrant attention include:

  • "Segregation" of text or other content into different regions or subsections, based solely on the apparent POV of the content itself; Article sections devoted solely to criticism, or "pro and con" sections within articles are two commonly cited examples. There are varying views on whether and to what extent such kinds of article structure are appropriate.
  • Arrangements of formatting, headers, footnotes or other elements that appear to unduly favor a particular "side" of an issue. For example, some contributors advise against article sections devoted entirely to "criticism," although some assert that such sections are not always inappropriate.
  • Other structural or stylistic aspects that make it difficult for a neutral reader to fairly and equally assess the credibility of all relevant and related viewpoints. Commonly cited examples include articles that read too much like a "debate", and content structured like a resumé.

Undue weight

NPOV says that the article should fairly represent all significant viewpoints that have been published by a reliable source, and should do so in proportion to the prominence of each. Now an important qualification: Articles that compare views should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views, and may not include tiny-minority views at all. For example, an article on the Earth (admittedly an unlikely topic for this project) would not mention modern support for the Flat Earth concept, a view of a distinct minority.

Undue weight applies to more than just viewpoints. Just as giving undue weight to a viewpoint is not neutral, so is giving undue weight to other verifiable and sourced statements. An article should not give undue weight to any aspects of the subject, but should strive to treat each aspect with a weight appropriate to its significance to the subject. Note that undue weight can be given in several ways, including, but not limited to, depth of detail, quantity of text, prominence of placement, and juxtaposition of statements.

Minority views can receive attention on pages specifically devoted to them. But on such pages, though a view may be spelled out in great detail, it must make appropriate reference to the majority viewpoint, and must not reflect an attempt to rewrite majority-view content strictly from the perspective of the minority view.

Balance

When reputable sources contradict one another, the core of the NPOV policy is to let competing approaches exist on the same page: work for balance, that is: describe the opposing viewpoints according to reputability of the sources, and give precedence to those sources that have been the most successful in presenting facts in an equally balanced manner.

Fairness of tone

If we are going to characterize disputes neutrally, we should present competing views with a consistently fair and sensitive tone. Many articles end up as partisan commentary even while presenting both points of view. Even when a topic is presented in terms of facts rather than opinion, an article can still radiate an implied stance through either selection of which facts to present, or more subtly their organization.

We should write articles with the tone that all positions presented are at least worthy of unbiased representation, bearing in mind that views which are in the extreme minority do not belong in Vincentian Encyclopedia at all. We should present all significant, competing views impartially.

Characterizing opinions of people's work

A special case is the expression of aesthetic opinions. Wikipedia articles about art, artists, and other creative topics (e.g., musicians, actors, books, etc.) have tended toward the effusive. This is out of place in an encyclopedia; we might not be able to agree that so-and-so is the greatest guitar player in history. But it is important indeed to note how some artist or some work has been received by the general public or by prominent experts. Providing an overview of the common interpretations of a creative work, preferably with citations or references to notable individuals holding that interpretation, is appropriate. For instance, that Shakespeare is widely considered one of the greatest authors of the English language is a bit of knowledge that one should learn from an encyclopedia. Public and scholarly critique of an artist or work, when well-researched and verifiable, helps to put the work into context and enhances the credibility of the article; idiosyncratic opinions of individual Wikipedia contributors, however, do not.


POV forks

A POV fork is an attempt to evade NPOV policy by creating a new article about a certain subject that is already treated in an article, often to avoid or highlight negative or positive viewpoints or facts. This is generally considered unacceptable. The generally accepted policy is that all facts and major Points of View on a certain subject are treated in one article.

Let the facts speak for themselves

If you do not allow the facts to speak for themselves you may alienate readers and turn them against your position.

Attributing and substantiating biased statements

Sometimes, a potentially biased statement can be reframed into an NPOV statement by attributing or substantiating it.

For instance, "John Doe was the saintliest Senator in the United States Congress" is, by itself, merely an expression of opinion. One way to make it suitable for Vincentian Encyclopedia is to change it into a statement about someone whose opinion it is: "John Doe's saintliness has been praised by the Archbishop of Doe-ville" as long as those statements are correct and can be verified. The goal here is to attribute the opinion to some subject-matter expert, rather than to merely state it as true.

There is a temptation to rephrase biased or opinion statements with weasel words: "Many people think John Doe was the holiest Senator." But statements of this form are subject to obvious attacks: "Yes, many people think so, but only unholy people"; and "Just how many is 'many'? I think it's only 'a few' who think that!" By attributing the claim to a known authority, or substantiating the facts behind it, you can avoid these problems.




Common objections and clarifications

Common objections or concerns raised to a neutral point of view policy, including the following, are dealt with in Wikipedia's Neutral point of view/FAQ.

  • There's no such thing as objectivity
  • 'The neutrality policy is used sometimes as an excuse to delete texts that are perceived as biased.
  • What about the case where, in order to write any of a long series of articles on some general subject, we must make some controversial assumptions?
  • Editorship disputes

Sources

Source for information on this page

Much of the content on this page is based on the Wikipedia article on How to copy-edit. All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. (See Vincentian Encyclopedia:Copyrights for details.