Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
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:
“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” . . .
“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.