Wikipedia:Specialized-style fallacy

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Why doesn't the Manual of Style always follow specialized practice?

Although Wikipedia contains some highly technical content, it is written for a general audience. While specialized publications in a field, such as academic journals, are excellent sources for facts, they are not always the best sources for or examples of how to present those facts to non-experts. When adopting style recommendations from external sources, the Manual of Style incorporates a substantial number of practices from technical standards and field-specific academic style guides; however, Wikipedia defaults to preferring general-audience sources on style, especially when a specialized preference may conflict with most readers' expectations, and when different disciplines use conflicting styles.

– Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style/FAQ

The specialized-style fallacy (SSF) is a set of flawed arguments that are used in Wikipedia style and titling discussions. The faulty reasoning behind the fallacy of specialized style is this: because the specialized literature on a topic is (usually) the most reliable source of detailed facts about the specialty, such as we might cite in a topical article, it must also be the most reliable source for deciding how Wikipedia should title or style articles about the topic and things within its scope. This fallacy is used to attempt to justify a "local consensus" of specializing editors, often a wikiproject, for specialized-sourced article naming and styling that other editors and readers (often not unfamiliar with the field) find strange, impenetrable, inappropriate, and/or grammatically incorrect.

It is also called the reliable sources style fallacy (RSSF), since it is an argument sometimes made by editors who "over-defer" to specialized works on style matters that are beyond the specialization's scope. The argument does not always depend on explicit reliable sources, and may instead take the form of an appeal to tradition and ipse dixitism (e.g. "that's just how it's done in this field"). This argument forgets that Wikipedia is not a specialized reference work, but is a general-audience encyclopedia. The RSSF is the flip side, the other extreme, of the common-style fallacy about mimicking the style of journalistic writing.

A secondary implication of either version of the fallacy, sometimes stated explicitly, is a straw man argument: that disagreement with specialized naming and style preferences is a criticism of specialized sources or even a direct attack on the specialty and editors who work in that particular field. This particular SSF variant is the specialist straw man (SSM).

Why the SSF's underlying assumption about reliability is wrong[edit]

Put the interests of readers before those of editors, and those of a general audience before those of specialists ...

[The] practice of using specialized names is often controversial, and should not be adopted unless it produces clear benefits outweighing the use of common names ...

– Wikipedia:Article titles policy

The sources we use to verify content are not necessarily our best sources for style, even in cases where they may be reliable on certain style matters in specialized publications. Wikipedia and its Manual of Style, article titles policy, and related guidance draw primarily upon reliable general-purpose, broad-scope sources for editing guidelines. These sources include the best-accepted style guides for formal writing – like the current editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, the New Oxford Style Manual (a.k.a. New Hart's Rules), and the New Oxford Dictionary for Scientific Writers and Editors – and others, such as Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, the MLA Handbook, etc.; dictionaries and other encyclopedias; as well as observation of what is most commonly done in reliable general-audience publications like newspapers and non-specialized magazines and websites, and even in refereed academic journals that broadly cover multiple fields (e.g. Science and Nature).

Typical SSF wording is "we are guided by the most reliable sources in our field", as if the Wikipedia community in writing the Manual of Style were relying on novels and blogs. The most reliable sources on how to capitalize, italicize, hyphenate, or otherwise style the name of a subject or its subtopics in a general-interest work like an encyclopedia are reliable works on style and grammar in English broadly, not just usage in the specialty at issue. Specialized works are notoriously unreliable for this purpose, because in a great many fields they tend to reflect conventions for specialized publications that widely depart from grammatical and style rules of everyday English, for reasons usually specific to that sort of publication, tailored for that field's special internal needs, or simply aimed at very expedient communication between experts in the same speciality. There is also a natural tendency to capitalize, italicize, boldface, or otherwise emphasize things that are important in one's field of interest, to highlight their special importance in that context; this is a bad habit more of technical professionals than others.[1] That specialized context is not the encyclopedic context that Wikipedia presents to its users. Yet specialists may push for such stylization to extremes.[2]

The Wikipedia community supports specialized publications' stylistic recommendations when they do not conflict with widespread general spelling, grammar, and other expectations. We side with general, not specialized, practice when there is a conflict, because Wikipedia is the encyclopedia with the most general audience in the entire world, and is not a specialized publication or collection of specialized publications. Because Wikipedia is not paper, it need not limit itself to non-specialized information, and can be as rich in detail as we like, but the audience has not changed when we present specialized information. The Manual of Style most often does defer to style preferences espoused in academia, when those preferences are shared across multiple disciplines. The SSF is distinct from this is being the advancement of a style preferred by a narrow subset of disciplines (often just one), conflicting with other disciplines and with general usage.

The SSF not only errs in considering specialized sources reliable for encyclopedic style, but also in assuming opponents of a specialized style to be "generalist" editors, with inadequate understanding of the specialty field, interested primarily in applying rigid, simplistic rules with no regard for specialists' rationales. In fact, many opponents of specialized styles are themselves specialists, who understand that idiosyncratic and conflicting stylistic "specialisms" are distracting to encyclopedia readers and diminish the general accessibility of articles covering any topic in any specialty. In short, if every speciality is permitted to apply unusual stylization to whatever it wants to, then eventually virtually everything would have weird stylization applied to it, and editors would spend much of their time fighting about which stylization to apply instead of actually working on producing an understandable encyclopedia.

How the SSF works[edit]

The core tactic of the specialized-style fallacy is to claim that any disagreement with the specialist's very strongly held and argued preference with regard to their specialty, or disagreement with the underlying premise that reliable sources on specialized facts are the most reliable sources on style when the specialized topic is involved at all, is [cue dramatic music here] necessarily also an accusation that the specialized sources are faulty, inconsistent, don't exist, or don't say what they say. Alternatively, the claim may be that those who disagree with the specialized-source preference are criticizing the specialty itself and/or editors who come from that field. Next comes an attempt to shift debate into a long-winded proof against arguments no one actually made about the value of these sources or of this specialty. This will sometimes be done using emotive, even insulting language that generates heated responses and tends to derail discussions; the likelihood of this increases with the frequency of disagreements about the specialized practice under scrutiny, and with the rise in general consensus against it.

Every reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that material is presented in the most widely understandable manner possible.

– Wikipedia:Make technical articles understandable

Many specialists make this error, being too concerned about their own specialized interests versus the broader ones of the encyclopedia, its readers, and its more general editorship; they are effectively writing for the wrong audience, the specialized one. They tend to be convinced that anyone who disagrees with their pet stylistic or naming scheme is surely ignorant and simply can't understand or is just too much of a rube to care. A few of them will even say so dismissively.

Specialists may be anything from academics in a particular field, to devoted fans of a particular fiction or gaming franchise, to adherents of a particular religious or political point of view, to hobbyists of any kind, to students steeped in a particular pedagogical camp, to employees of a certain company or agency/ministry, to players of a particular sport or devotees of a specific team. If it has its own body of insider publications/sites and jargon, it is a specialty, and will have specialists. Fortunately, most of them do not engage in the SSF. Most specialists don't have any stylistic agenda to push, consciously or otherwise. Most Wikipedians are specialists of one or more kinds, and we always need to keep this in mind. There is no such thing as a conflict between "generalists" and specialists here, only between the Wikipedia community as a diverse, broad population, and specialists on a particular topic who are going a little too far. It's a "can't see the forest for the trees" problem of priorities and focus, not a mental disorder or (inherently) a bad attitude.

Specialists even unintentionally engaging in the SSF have a tendency to attempt to repetitively re-explain their belief that their specialty's preferences are absolutely paramount in Wikipedia articles in that field, simply because that's how the specialists write off-Wikipedia. They may thus dismiss or ignore, without fully engaging or addressing, any arguments by others that what is appropriate and standardized in specialized literature often has nothing at all to do with how Wikipedia should be written for a general audience. This argument may be lost on them for some time, even indefinitely, drowned out by sheer disbelief at the stupidity of anyone who cannot see that the only way to possibly write about "their" topic is their way. They may exhibit what can seem like signs of fanaticism about or rampaging obsession with the style issue, especially when debates become protracted and their opponents become less patient and more judgmental. When pushed to frustration themselves, specialists on a style mission may actually resort to psychodrama and debate-skewing histrionics, even appeal to pity like threatening to quit Wikipedia, if their preference is not upheld as that of Wikipedia itself, or proclaiming that Wikipedia is going down the tubes and should be replaced by something "more reliable" (i.e., friendlier to unreasonable demands made by some members of their specialty).

Close-up of a gorilla's face
Chest-beating to drive away the opposition is very effective – if you're a gorilla.

Collections of specialists, typically in wikiprojects, may attempt to exert an extreme level of control over articles they consider within their scope, and badger other editors to do things the specialists' way, often citing "guidelines" written by the project, specifically for articles on topics within the scope of the specialty, and which do not agree with mainstream, site-wide Wikipedia guidelines and policies. Such behavior is rarely initiated in bad faith, but can become quite problematic over time, especially if the most activist and combative of the specialists at a topical wikiproject decide amongst themselves to become entrenched, even to publicly threaten to engage in strange protests, like going on an editorial strike, if they don't get their way. When their heels are dug in this way, they believe they are acting as defenders of the faith against any disagreement with their specialized practice, however reasoned, or criticism of their behavior in their attempts to maintain and justify that practice, through obstinate filibustering or outright advocacy against what they see as a rising tide of mean-spirited hostility. Many SSF cases begin as such attempts at protectionism and simply go off the deep end, alienating more and more other editors.

A formerly common result of group action of this sort is a fait accompli, whereby the majority of articles within the scope of the specialty may be edited by the specialists to conform to the specialized-source style practice, through a combination of edit-warring, using the SSF in edit summaries to confuse other editors into yielding, and the fact that most editors who don't focus on that specialty won't care enough about the disagreement at any given article to get into a lame, protracted dispute about it, but will just roll their eyes and walk away. No one likes chest-beating except at the zoo. The group may then declare that the specialized practice is "normal Wikipedia practice" or a "standard operating procedure" in "their" articles (having chased off any who disagree), and should thus be enshrined in the MoS as "how it's done". They forget that MoS is a prescriptive and proscriptive internal guideline, based on a descriptivist interpretation of reliable sources on grammar and style; MoS is not a vote, not a bureaucracy, and not itself descriptivist, much less based primarily on specialized sources. MOS is an internal style manual for mooting style disputes and getting on with content writing; it is not style advice for the world, and it cannot possibly agree with all of the world's style advice since a large amount of it conflicts from source to source and audience to audience.

When the SSF is most disruptive[edit]

Rarely, but very disruptively, the specialized-style fallacy is deployed intentionally, as a strategic form of ideological and debatory verbal combat, especially to short-circuit the normal formation of consensus if it looks like the broader community is leaning away from the preference of an angry specialist or (sometimes) group thereof. An attempt may be made to employ the SSF to disrupt a proposal, poll, RfC, XfD, or other consensus discussion, to mire it in distracting arguments about the veracity of various sources, if any did not notice the bait and switch, and fall into the argue-round-in-circles trap. Added to that pile of posts will be all those that refute that any of this nonsense is relevant, posted by those who did recognize it as blatant misdirection to a straw man. The combined wall of text could then result in a "TL;DR" situation that could derail the discussion, make it too difficult for incoming editors to figure out what the issues are, and confuse many of the extant participants, making it difficult to restart the consensus-building. When done by a group of like-minded specialized-style advocates, the SSF can even be used in an attempt to create a false consensus through vote-stacking.

On freewheeling Web forums and Internet mailing lists, such a tactic would rarely work, because it would be recognized as an obvious form of trolling. But because Wikipedia has a unique and formal guideline about assuming good faith, many editors will attempt to reason with SSF posters and reason against their arguments and straw men, sometimes at great length. That clouding, draining expense of time, energy and verbiage is the whole idea when SSF is undertaken in bad faith. (More often, it's what we could call "grey faith", a "the ends justify the means" use of inappropriate behaviors to try to achieve well-motivated goals; but it's not any less disruptive.)

Worse yet, some may attempt to repeatedly exploit Wikipedia's "assume good faith" default; this is a form of gaming the system. In this case, the SSF is also used as a red herring fallacy, to cloud debate further by asserting even after discussion has moved on that the debate is actually still about what specialized sources do. In this hybrid "I didn't hear that" siege, the SSF claim is inserted as often as possible into the debate, no matter how many times it is refuted – in any new subtopic that opens, in false response to every question, in any !vote as the commenter's only real content, in SSFer-created new subthreads declaring what the "real" issue is and that the preceding debate is a conspiracy to silence the specialists, in counter-polls that don't have a snowball's chance but divide attention or are stacked through on-wiki canvassing and off-wiki coordination via e-mail or outright "meatpuppetry", and so on.

This can happen in more than one place – anywhere the topic comes up, or in new threads anywhere the specialist thinks the audience may be more sympathetic or just unaware of the nature or existence of prior debate about it – article talk pages, dispute resolution, the village pump, user talk, administrative noticeboards, policy and guideline talk pages – anywhere. It is a memetic, written form of denial of service attack, flooding all "editorial ports" to the real issue with angry and plaintive specialist "noise". The goal is to generate as much heat about the spurious issue as possible while shedding no light on the real one (that Wikipedia is a general-audience publication for a general audience, not a hostage to any specializations' demands). When used in concert with alarmist-worded canvassing of other such specialists, sometimes even those who have not been actively participating, into an editing bloc or faction, which they may figure cannot be stopped in time to make a difference, the combination may be intended to flatline even a major site-wide debate. Fortunately, steps can be taken to anticipate and curtail this effect.

Disruptive SSF is a cyclic process of smoke-bombing the targeted debate by raising the bogus "issue" of a supposed attack on specialized sources and specialists themselves – a straw man to beat with sticks to distract from the real debate – thereby producing lots of replies, pretending not to hear them, and re-clouding the discussion any time it starts to clear. The SSFers simply repeat this pattern as often as necessary, to inspire enough paragraphs of objectors re-re-re-explaining that this is not the real debate topic and has already been addressed, thus generating a confusing, drowning pile of noise, screenful after screenful. This effect is often enhanced by incivility, to raise the tempers of other participants and increase the verbosity and heat of their output.

The "ARBATC" Arbitration Committee case has resulted in heavy-handed discretionary sanctions being authorized to stop style and article-title debates from getting out of hand, by any administrative means deemed necessary, including lengthy topic-bans and even indefinite editing blocks. Consequently, in today's Wikipedia, the goading of other editors into civility lapses over SSF matters has serious anti-collaborative ramifications that may drive some editors away permanently, and undermine the processes of Wikipedia self-governance that rely on genuine consensus building and dispute resolution.

Intentional use of the specialized-style fallacy in anything akin to this manner is one of the clearest examples of tendentious editing in Wikipedia, and it is certainly a form of bad-faith conduct.

What to do about the SSF[edit]

Assume good faith and attempt to deal with any raised concern, the first time it is raised, as clearly and forthrightly as possible. At this stage you don't know, after all, whether any given discussion point is being raised in earnest or is the beginning of an SSF, even if the party raising it has previously engaged in an SSF. It's almost always the former; specialists may feel strongly about specialized matters and fall into SSFs, but most of them really are here to help write an encyclopedia and are not single-mindedly obsessed with nomenclatural and style debates about a pet topic.

If the same issue is re-raised, point the specialist to the previous discussion where the issue was already addressed, and/or quote from it, and ask the specialist to please explain what they feel was not addressed the first time around; it is very likely that the person simply wasn't aware the issue has already been discussed, or that they were, but haven't yet articulated their own argument fully or understood those of others well enough, so some further discussion should clarify.

If it comes up a third time you may well be dealing with an SSFer. Continue to assume good faith, but cite this essay, in gentle terms, e.g. "This is starting to look like the specialized-style fallacy to me. Why do you keep re-raising the idea that your journals trump basic style guides on this issue, after it has already been addressed, here and here?"

A fourth time is almost certainly SSFing, and you may as well say something to the effect of "Just more WP:SPECIALSTYLE pleading; ignoring and moving on." At this point do not engage the SSF wiki-troll with longer responses, or you are giving them precisely what they want and helping derail the very debate or other process you want to protect.

While SSFing can sometimes raise specific policy issues, usually in combination with forbidden behaviors like canvassing and personal attacks, which can be addressed at WP:AN/I, the SSF tactic itself is simply disruptive and a pain. There's not much to do against it systematically, other than decline to enable it.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McMurrey, David. "Highlighting and Emphasis: Cue Readers About What to Do, What's Important". Online Technical Writing. "Capitalization" section. Retrieved 13 January 2018.

    In technical publishing, there seems to be a running battle between technical writers and technical experts over capitalization. Technical experts like to use initial caps for practically every component and process in a system. Also, technical experts (and management) typically use all caps for text they consider important and want readers to attend to. Meanwhile, technical writers and editors (rightly) insist on using caps for proper names only. ... As a technical writer, hold the line against capitalization. Capital letters are distracting .... Capital letters create a busy text, which sends lots of unnecessary signals. Capital letters are traditionally intended for proper names ...

  2. ^ For an example of extreme "specialist capitalization" at work, since how much of it had to be cleaned up at a single article, see Glossary of power generation, in this version.