The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

The Wikipedia Skeptics Problem


This is the second in a series of blog posts:  Please see: The Wikipedia Battle for Rupert Sheldrake’s Biography.   Rupert has also posted on this:  (here.)  Sandy has written a wonderful related post.  (Why Can’t We Talk About Morphic Resonance?)

The saga of editing Rupert Sheldrake’s Biography on Wikipedia continues.  Recently the whole mess spilled over onto the Wikipedia Admin page where skeptics were trying for the third time to have The Tumbleman banned.  I don’t envy the admin dealing with this.  My sources say he’s very experienced and objective and in the last few days he has been extremely helpful and fair.  Just as importantly, he appears to be at least somewhat informed about parapsychology, which is extremely important.  In any case, he’s got his hands full.  The complaint is resolved, and The Tumbleman will not be banned, but that admin page has started to look like it’s going to reach the size of a book.

The admin has come to the talk page now and has started to take full measure of what has been going on.  It looks like this will help greatly in getting the article to a neutral point of view.

This comment by The Tumbleman pretty much sums up the situation:

The edit warring is getting worse. editors with a clear bias are making changes with no clear consensus, edit war if their changes are reverted, and this isn’t getting anywhere. it’s just turning into this side vs that side edit war. I have never seen anything like this.

The Admin, who is beyond reproach, did make one statement about the Guerrilla Skeptics that surprised me:

I’ve known User:Sgerbic for a while and covered the forming of the Guerilla Skeptics for The Signpost back when I wrote for it. They do some good work, and they are a lot less scary than their rather combative name suggests.

This means that Wikipedia is aware that a skeptical organization is editing their site against their rules, but have taken no action against them.  They haven’t even bothered to ban the organizer.  If that’s the case then the only solution would be to have a similarly secretive organization in opposition to them.  Then two opposing ideologue groups would be battling for all of the alternative pages on Wikipedia.  Wouldn’t that be lovely?  I don’t think so, personally.  It has happened in other areas of Wikipedia and the results aren’t pretty.  No one wants Wikipedia to be the place where objectivity goes to die.  Yet what is the alternative?

There’s no question that the Guerrilla Skeptics are biased.  (Here’s their training/recruitment video) They are encouraged and supported by JREF and CSI, two of the most biased skeptical organizations on the planet and in the video there are several statements by Susan Gerbic, founder of the Guerrilla Skeptics that demonstrate a strong bias:

At 32:14:

“So they’re getting their information from here, so, we can control this, this is so powerful you don’t understand when you put one of these guerrilla skepticism edits up on Jenny McCarthy’s page or priceline, or walmart or just some of these pages you’re like glowing inside it’s so powerful to feel like I’ve made such an impact , hundreds of thousands of people can be reading my edit ,homeopathy, we’ve changed  that page drastically, the lead, the very very first couple of sentences of the page which most people it’s the only thing they read we use the word “quackery” I mean it’s so awesome” . . .

At 36:17:

“Nobody owns their Wikipedia page, we control the Wikipedia pages, the editors.  Everyone.  And because we’re organized and we have this project we as a skeptic since we’re focused on this we’re not updating bowling page or Internet fans or something like that, . . . this is our thing, we need to have this, scientific pages are pretty dang good they’re in really great shape but our spokes people, this isn’t done

On targeting Sylvia Browne’s Wikipedia bio: 56:21:

“And you look at this page and here’s her personal life and her children [motions to a small area on Browne’s bio page] and the whole thing [motions to the rest of the page] is just –US!-  I mean, it’s just overwhelming.  And you can go to her references and see all sorts of citations we have on here.  It’s on and on and on and on.”

If it isn’t the Guerrilla Skeptics on Rupert Sheldrake’s Wikipedia bio page, (and the skeptics all deny that they are members, and their supporters deny that they are on the page)  then it is an awfully good imitation.  Naturally   there is no way to be sure one way or the other.  However, editors are supposed to work together to achieve a consensus and then edit the Wikipedia page, but instead there appears to be a concerted effort by some skeptics to avoid consensus.  The page is still not even close to being neutral, but bits and pieces are starting to fall into place now that an admin has entered the fray.

Rather than concentrate on making this biography a better page, some skeptics are trying to ban contributors they don’t like.  It’s an indication, I think, of their lack of ability to contribute legitimate sources that support their assertions.  (There are some self described skeptics working on the page who can be gotten along with.)

Skeptical sourcing, -the sources skeptics cite to prove a point- has been bad for as long as there have been skeptics and it’s no better on Wikipedia than anyplace else.  Susan Gerbic’s training/recruitment video for the Guerrilla Skeptics highlights this problem.  At about 1:04:40 Susan Gerbic makes this statement:

I can’t give my opinion on Wikipedia but I can through our spokespeople give an opinion of how I feel about a topic  and so on so I’m writing through other people but I need that content first from the JREF or the CSI or from Ben Radford or from Ray Hyman whomever, I need the content first.  And then I can [edit the page.]

Much of skeptical sourcing is merely skeptics citing opinions from notable skeptics or from articles in skeptical publications.  Rarely do they venture far outside of the skeptical echo chamber to get their information. A good example of this can be found on a Guerrilla Skepticism blog post by Susan Gerbic that outlines a strategy for attacking a Wikipedia article on Pet Psychics which includes references to experiments by Rupert Sheldrake, who she names in her article.  Their sources are:  Richard Wiseman, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, whose replication of the dog experiment was soundly refuted;  Joe Nickell, writing for The Skeptical Inquirer; and Karen Stollznow writing for the . . . Skeptical Inquirer.

The list of notable skeptics and their organizations is so small that it fits on a Wikipedia page.  Of those listed, some skeptics are dead, most are not scientists, some are less notable than me and only four are scientists who have a legitimate claim to some expertise in parapsychology.  James Alcock, who has published very little in the field and isn’t taken seriously, Susan Blackmore, who has not been active for many years, Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, both of whom are current and have published in the field.   (There is actually a fifth who is current as well.  They left Chris French off the list.)

Of those three skeptics who are scientists current in the field of parapsychology, none of them considers it a pseudo science and they agree that psychic ability is proven by ordinary standards.  (They think the standards should be higher based on how extraordinary the claim is.)  Every peer reviewed paper criticizing experiments in parapsychology that they have written has been rebutted.  Their work in parapsychology is controversial to say the least.  Very few scientist skeptics conduct parapsychology experimental replications.  (This is a problem everywhere.  Replications are unlikely to get published in general.)

Since alternative sciences are mostly shut out from mainstream consideration, the evidence isn’t examined closely in many mainstream scientific discussions.  In other words, there very very few solid scientific sources for skeptics to work with. There are no sources that sufficiently support statements about parapsychology or many other frontier science such as “this is pseudo science” “rejected by the scientific community” or “negatively impacts the public understanding of science.”  No one has ever gone to the trouble to try to prove these things scientifically.  And it’s very doubtful that it’s even possible.

So skeptics have to resort a lot of the time to sources that are created “in house” so to speak.  These come in the form of skeptics being interviewed, skeptical articles, newsletters, blogs by notable skeptics, etc.  This is especially true on Wikipedia when it comes to psychics.  It is very tough to make the case that any of them are frauds or deluded without resorting to opinion or the Million Dollar Challenge.  Mainstream sources generally stay away from landing on one side or the other of this debate because of either liability issues or fear of losing audience by being too skeptical.

This is undoubtedly why the Guerrilla Skeptics work so closely with CSI and JREF.  Without the sourcing from these two reactionary organizations or their fellows and other skeptical organizations, many of their assertions would be just about impossible to make.

Some of the skeptical organizations are simply not notable, but have Wikipedia pages and are included as skeptical sources.  Examples include The Skeptic’s Dictionary, which is the work of Robert Todd Carroll,  Quackwatch, by Stephen Barrett and What’s the Harm? by Tim Farley. (He has rebutted my first Wikipedia article here.)  These websites are basically one person rants.  None of these three websites make any attempt to be neutral or objective and provide nothing more than an example of what a few wildly biased skeptics think.

This demonstrates the problem that occurs when skeptics are allowed to dominate the conversation.  (This is far worse on Wikipedia than almost anyplace else.)  A look at their sourcing reveals that their claims of speaking for the mainstream are far more exaggerated than they would like to admit.

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12 comments on “The Wikipedia Skeptics Problem

  1. John Browning
    November 10, 2013

    I believe the real problem is that the common person believes that what they read on Wikipedia is accurate. I have long considered the content of Wikipedia to be the opinion of 12 year olds around the world. If that message could be spread a little wider, problems like this would not be so rampant.

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  3. PJ
    October 16, 2013

    Craig, thanks for the work you’re doing on Sheldrake’s wiki page (and these excellent blog posts, as usual). I’ve been checking up on it every so often, and- I don’t know how or where you guys get the patience to deal with that. I’m a huge admirer of Sheldrake and it really frustrates me that anonymous editors can tinker with his biography and impugn his reputation in such a way.

    I think wikipedia needs to do away with biography pages. All matter of topics and issues is fine, but to potentially put peoples’ personal histories in the hands of people like the kind you’re currently dealing with is difficult for me to swallow. I’m surprised this hasn’t been brought up as an issue with wikipedia critics more in the past. After all, the controversies with wikipedia have always been with biographies. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m missing something.

    Anyway, thanks again. Let me know if I can be of help in any way. Take care.

  4. Tom ButlerTom Butler
    October 14, 2013

    Craig,
    After being remained about the futility of trying to reach consensus with Wikipedia editors, my natural reaction is to take my efforts for balanced reporting elsewhere. Perhaps a wiki titled: “Wikipedia Truth Watch.”

    The awful truths about Wikipedia are:

    In their devotion to mainstream ideals, skeptical editors are well organized and help one another while more moderate editors are not inclined toward activism nor are they inclined to organize.

    Reliable sources are required for every statement of substance; however, that rule is used to say that virtually all publications supporting the study of things paranormal are not allowed as references while virtually any publication negative toward things paranormal are allowed–This is a result of skeptic control of the encyclopedia.

    Moderate editors are easily ran off, either by simply wearing them down with wiki-lowering or outright banning them.

    If an editor is discovered to have more than the average experience in a subject, it is easy for skeptical editors to ban the editor from contributing to the article based on conflict of interest, it is true or not.

    Editors are discouraged from using their real name. Without the need to protect personal reputation, editors are free to be as aggressive, mean spirited and deceptive as they wish. Thus, it is common to have a pack of college kids control an article by any means. If the identity is known, aggression toward an editor is likely to continue beyond Wikipedia.

    Any off-hand comment by any authority figure can be taken out of context as a reference. Even if the scientist changes his mind and admits the phenomenon is real, the off-hand, negative comment will be available forever as a reference.

    Understanding is changing very rapidly in the study of things paranormal, yet because of editing rules, articles will always be out of date. All the dominant editors intend is to not allow an article to show the subject in a positive light. The good thing is that accuracy, currency and usefulness is irrelevant and articles rapidly slide into obscurity making non-Wikipedia article more attractive to readers–if they are well designed.

    Articles are not stable, as a new editor can come along at any time and make substantial changes. At least for paranormal subjects, this makes Wikipedia very unreliable and it is increasingly seen as intellectual laziness to use it as a reference. Yet, our children accept its contents without question.

    A final note: the Internet has given skeptics access to the public and they know how to make the best of it. By comparison, paranormalists are not well organized and their message is diluted by this lack of unity. An online search for virtually every paranormal subject brings Wikipedia at or near the top, making it a most powerful tool for social change. This has consequences since the skeptical groups are working to make pseudoscience seen as a danger to society. Reading literature form the USA and other governments, it is clear that they are succeeding. It is possible that the study of all things paranormal could be subject to government attention as was seen with Wilhelm Reich (orgonelab.org/fda.htm).

    • craigweiler
      October 14, 2013

      You seemed to be very experienced with Wikipedia and you have some very important points to share. It would be helpful to me if I knew your Wikipedia resume. Would you mind giving me some detail about your background on Wikipedia?

    • obrlnews
      October 20, 2013

      I am the author of that item on the FDA’s war against Wilhelm Reich, and just published a new book on the subject “In Defense of Wilhelm Reich” which details a war against fact and truth in Reich’s biography and science which makes the attacks against Sheldrake appear as child’s play. Not only are the Wikipedia pages all slandered up, but entire new books devoted to slandering Reich have appeared from major publishing houses — ie, “Adventures in the Orgasmatron” by C. Turner — who are in turn affiliated with all the “top” newspapers who never have a bad thing to say about the FDA, or Big Medicine, or Big Government, etc.

      And as a point of natural science, Sheldrake’s Morphogenic Field has quite a lot of similarities to the older Burr Electrodynamic Field, and to Reich’s orgone energy — the later of which today has plenty of corroborating evidence, including double-blind controlled experiments in mainstream journals or venues. For a peek at that evidence, see the on-line Bibliography On Orgonomy:
      http://www.orgonelab.org/bibliog.htm
      Or review my published papers, available as PDF downloads, from academia.edu:
      http://orgonelab.academia.edu/JamesDeMeo

      There are Billions in revenue at stake with all this, in how all these discoveries threaten to bring in a new form of energetic medicine, which will resolve all sorts of biological and health/sickness mysteries, and also offer cheap remedies. Nobody in Big Medicine wants that!

      Cheers,
      James DeMeo, PhD

  5. Mike Aparicio
    October 14, 2013

    Craig: Thanks for keeping us aware of how skeptics are converting Wikipedia into another inquisitorial means.
    We all know a true encyclopedia has no bias and just provides as much information on a subject as available.
    I want to make you aware Wikipedia supports several languages and the pages for any item are different and contain substantially different information. I have checked the Spanish version of the Rupert Sheldrake page and it is totally different. I placed some comments there and I will see how it goes.
    I strongly hope the admin at Wikipedia will finally take care of the skeptic invasion and their inquisitorial maneuvers.

    • craigweiler
      October 14, 2013

      I strongly hope the admin at Wikipedia will finally take care of the skeptic invasion and their inquisitorial maneuvers.

      Don’t hold your breath.

  6. outrejoe
    October 13, 2013

    Craig,

    Just want to let you know how thankful I am that you are doing what you’re doing in the world. May the ridiculous antics of the guerrilla skeptics someday be exposed to the scientific community-at-large for what they are, and may it help erode science’ unquestioned faith in the Skeptical Movement as the “official” source of information concerning science’ inquiry into the paranormal.

    Joe

  7. Pingback: The Wikipedia Skeptics Problem | Richard Presser's Blog

  8. Eugene Pustoshkin
    October 12, 2013

    Thank you for covering this. I enjoyed your article. I also would love to hear more about the conclusion you make (perhaps, in a new post?):

    “This demonstrates the problem that occurs when skeptics are allowed to dominate the conversation.”

    Indeed, this has been a big problem when skeptics (or motivated people who claim the skeptic role) dominate any discussion with their (often misguided) deconstruction. I think there is a need in the birth of new habits in our cultures that aim at appreciative criticism, the criticism that highlights important areas and appreciates the achievements. Of course, it is difficult to achieve when there is so much motivation invested into supporting one’s favorite worldview (myth or dogma), disguised as something else (e.g., as “skepticism”).

    Destructive skepticism is a needle, it’s addictive . . . We in our societies need to become increasingly aware of this at a cultural level.

    Your articles support this emergence of new awareness. The structure of scientific revolutions follows its pattern and starts to register more and more anomalies. We need to learn how to work with consciousness and culture more effectively: not just providing third-person evidence (which is important but not enough), but doing pragmatic work of new 21st-century Enlightenment of impacting lifeworlds (minds and cultural trends), learning ways how to productively inform society about dramatic shifts in our understandings of reality (and about the integrative pluralism of those understandings, meaning that each understanding could have some, if partial, truth).

  9. Robert
    October 12, 2013

    Wikipedia has problematic skepticism in general. Modern scientific material reductionism has hijacked virtually every entry. Ancient traditions who have been trying to lay out their approaches and beliefs always have a customary “this is not backed up by modern science and is viewed as pseudoscience” entry put in there. It happens in medical threads, herbalism, even things like qi gong which acknowledges the basis of energetics.

    I can’t count the number of times that a super effective herbal remedy doesn’t get its factual history included on Wikipedia, yet instead gets a condescending entry referring to it as “folk medicine”.

    This is about the war on information and who has the privilege of declaring “correctness”. The war is far from over. The internet has blown everything wide open and made it impossible for “experts” to maintain authority on anything, but they’re trying hard.

    Just like the Church had control over the dominant epistemology for 2000 years, material reductionism is trying to assert dominance now. If humanity is going to overcome intellectual limitations and start embracing new frontiers of understanding, these control freaks must be dealt with.

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This entry was posted on October 12, 2013 by in parapsychology, Psi Wars, Skeptics and Skeptic Arguments, Wikipedia and tagged , .
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