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Wikipedia reveals Top 10 most contentious people

By Gregory Kohs
 What do Barack ObamaQueen Elizabeth II, and Miley Cyrus have in common?  They, along with other famous and not-so-famous personalities help round out the Top 10 Most Contentious people list, as calculated from underlying Wikipedia data.

We engaged the volunteer services of Wikimedia Toolserver expert MZMcBride to uncloak a very interesting discovery — which English-language Wikipedia biographies of living people have generated the most back-and-forth discussion on their article “Talk” pages?  As most Wikipedia insiders know, while the Wikipedia biography articles can be temporarily stocked with misinformation and libel, if you want a historically preserved glimpse at the really ugly stuff about notable people, you head to their Wikipedia Talk page.  Because article Talk pages are where Wikipedia contributors publicly discuss their editing disagreements, these pages are a clear indicator of how contentious is the subject of the discussion.


So, Wikipedia’s data reveal that the Top 10 biographies generating the most protracted editorial battles are, in order:

  1. Barack Obama (37,532 edits to Talk page)
  2. Sarah Palin (27,932 edits)
  3. George W. Bush (22,070 edits)
  4. Prem Rawat (18,575 edits)
  5. Ann Coulter (7,832 edits)
  6. Glenn Beck (6,964 edits)
  7. Queen Elizabeth II (6,530 edits)
  8. Miley Cyrus (6,446 edits)
  9. Stephen Barrett (6,406 edits)
  10. Jimmy Wales (6,215 edits)

Most of these personalities are household names, so it’s not terribly surprising to imagine how much contentious discussion they might generate.  It gets very messy trying to create a biography with a “neutral point of view” when Wikipedia volunteers with embattled opinions duke it out with each other, even while paid agents with their own covert agendas are attempting to skew the article.

Noticeably, a few of the names on this list — like Prem RawatStephen Barrett, and Jimmy Wales — may not be as familiar to everyone.  Respectively, Rawat is the charismatic leader of a global religious and meditative movement, whose Wikipedia Talk page has gotten so full, it’s had to be archived 45 times and even has its own topical index.  Barrett is co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud, and he runs the website Quackwatch.  His Talk page has been archived 15 times, so far.  The last potentially unfamiliar name on this list is Jimmy Wales.  He was the minor co-founder of the Wikipedia project itself (along with lead co-founder, Larry Sanger, who championed the idea of an openly-edited wiki encyclopedia, asked Wales to install some freeware on a server, named it “Wikipedia”, issued the first public call for participation in the project, and shepherded many of the policies and guidelines that still govern Wikipedia today).  After Sanger left the project, Wales would later imagine himself as “the founder” or, even more ridiculously, the “sole founder” of Wikipedia.  Wales’ article receives so much controversial banter because Wales habitually contradicts established documentation about his life.  Wikipedia editors have argued back and forth about his birthdate, about the founding of Wikipedia, about Wales’ history as a pornography re-publisher, about his marriages, his net worth, and his public breakup after a secret tryst.

More heat than light?

One interesting way of looking at this Wikipedia data is to calculate a ratio of biography Talk page edits (the “heat”) over the number of page views the biography itself receives (the “light”).  Looking at page-view statistics from June 2011, the Top 10 list could be thusly re-ordered by their “Argumentative Heat-to-Light ratio”:

  1. Stephen Barrett (3.679 ratio of Talk page edits to biography page views)
  2. Prem Rawat (3.455 ratio)
  3. Jimmy Wales (0.168 ratio)
  4. George W. Bush (0.087 ratio)
  5. Sarah Palin (0.085 ratio)
  6. Barack Obama (0.069 ratio)
  7. Glenn Beck (0.055 ratio)
  8. Ann Coulter (0.047 ratio)
  9. Queen Elizabeth II (0.012 ratio)
  10. Miley Cyrus (0.011 ratio)

If you are wondering who tops all of the English Wikipedia for this “Heat-to-Light ratio”, it is Israeli physicist Nahum Shahaf, with nearly 500 Talk page edits, but only 79 article page views last month, giving him an amazing 6.304 ratio.

Top 100 list

Various readers of this article have asked for the Top 10 list to be expanded into a Top 100 list.  Let it be done!


Photo credit:  
Images were derived from Creative Commons sources 

4 comments to Wikipedia reveals Top 10 most contentious people

  • EricBarbour

    Barrett’s “popularity” is, of course, because Wikipedia attracts all kinds of medical crackpots, who despise Barrett as their arch-nemesis. Sadly, they find their attempts to piss on Barrett via BLP are auto-thwarted by the numerous quack-hating Wikipedians, such as OrangeMarlin, lunatic transgender activist Andrea “Jokestress” James, and the bizarre reindeer-eating BullRangifer. The latter two have edited that article hundreds of times. Plus an utterly forgotten geek named NATTO, who disappeared in 2006.

    Since 2010, the interest in (and vandalism of) Barrett has declined dramatically. Perhaps the quacks have given up, or (more likely) interest in editing Wikipedia is dying off.

    This is the comedy of the Wiki Way. Popularity or importance of a public figure has little or nothing to do with the popularity of the editing of his article–if someone is obsessed with defaming (or glorifying) said figure. Wikipedia is made for defamation.

    I’d talk about Prem Rawat, but it’s too damn depressing.

    • Warron

      It goes both ways. Barrett’s credentials as an expert witness have been attacked, and it’s been ruled in court that he was deliberately swamping opponents with frivolous lawsuits. He’s also apparently been testifying as an expert witness even though he’s not qualified to. It’s difficult to find information on this as every site on Barrett is either run by alt-medicine opponents (who trivialize the whole thing if they bother to mention it at all) or alt-medicine proponents (who make lots of personal attacks and aren’t very credible). But the point is that if people are editing the article to suppress legitimate criticism, while that’s not as bad as defamation, its still a problem.

      Also, the two groups mentioned are probably the only ones editing the article, and if you rely on Wikipedia you may not even be aware of the controversy since all the edit-warring happens behind the scenes.

  • Cla68

    I looked at the Barrett article history, and it does often seem to be a battleground between alternative medicine advocates and WP’s militant supporters of “mainstream”, Western medicine (I put mainstream in scare quotes because, after living in Japan and S. Korea, I now know that there are societies and cultures in which alternative medicine is more often mixed-in with Western medical practices and is more commonly accepted than in the West). These are the kind of battles which hinder WP’s attempts to become a credible encyclopedia, because more neutral, objective participants leave.

  • Rumiton

    Maybe someone can tell me where I am going wrong, but looking at the Prem Rawat article as an example, I can find only one edit to the talk page in June 2011, while the article was looked at 5377 times that month. This is a minuscule heat/light ratio. Did someone get the fraction upside down?