Wikipedia founder responds to pro-alt-med petition; skeptics cheer
March 25, 2014 24 Comments
Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales this week sent a clear signal to skeptics who edit the user-created encyclopedia – he agrees with our focus on science and good evidence. He did this by responding firmly in the negative to a Change.org petition created by alternative medicine and holistic healing advocates. His response, which referred to paranormalists as “lunatic charlatans”, was widely reported on Twitter.
I’ve been recommending skeptics pay close attention to Wikipedia since the earliest days of this blog, almost six years ago. Susan Gerbic took up that gauntlet and created her wildly successful Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia project.
In the last year or so, the success of Susan’s project has gotten many paranormal and alternative medicine advocates riled up. They’ve repeatedly floated conspiracy theories that skeptics are somehow rigging the game on Wikipedia, or even bullying opponents off the site. Even personalities like Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra have gotten involved. None of these accusations have been supported by facts, and both Sheldrake and Chopra have been subsequently embarrassed by their own supporters’ rule-breaking behavior on the service.
With this response, Wales makes clear what I have been saying all along – the rules of evidence on Wikipedia are pro-skeptic and pro-science. If you are pushing an idea that science rejects, Wikipedia will reject it too. Read on for Wales’ exact words…
Skeptics have battled promoters of pseudoscience and nonsense on Wikipedia since the beginning of the site, long before this blog existed. As a result, the encyclopedia has developed extensive rules regarding evidence and what they call “fringe theories“, to guard against a flood of nonsense. The existence of these rules was one of the reasons I encouraged skeptics (who often are cynical about the accuracy of Internet information) to get involved.
Last year, led in part by Sheldrake, there seemed to be a wave of new complaints about the rules on the service. Much of it seemed to be in the psi or paranormal areas, but alternative medicine and “holistic healing” advocates got involved in December. They created a change.org petition entitled, “Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia: Create and enforce new policies that allow for true scientific discourse about holistic approaches to healing.” Here’s part of the text:
Wikipedia is widely used and trusted. Unfortunately, much of the information related to holistic approaches to healing is biased, misleading, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. For five years, repeated efforts to correct this misinformation have been blocked and the Wikipedia organization has not addressed these issues.
Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, left the organization due to concerns about its integrity. He stated: “In some fields and some topics, there are groups who ‘squat’ on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles.”
This is exactly the case with the Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), which are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed “skeptics” who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.
I pledge not to donate to your fundraising efforts until these changes have been made.
This petition has dribbled along for several months since it was posted, failing to reach the 10,000 signatures that were sought. (And, as some have pointed out on Twitter, the wording of this petition was not well chosen. By quoting Larry Sanger, who famously disagreed with Wales early in Wikipedia’s life and quit the project, they were almost sure to antagonize Wales. This tone-deafness and lack of research is not unusual, as skeptics know).
No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.
Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.
What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.
(Emphasis mine again).
Paranormalists and pseudoscientists take note: skeptics are not bullying you off Wikipedia. We are only enforcing the rules of evidence as clearly stated on the service. If you cannot provide adequate evidence for your ideas, they will not be accepted. So says Jimmy Wales, so say we all.
Update: Some additional reactions to this from around the skeptic blogosphere:
- Kylie Sturgess at Token Skeptic is “cheered.”
- Orac at Respectful Insolence calls it “epic pwnage.”
- Steve Novella at Neurologica says “we have standards. Deal with it.“
- I also found this CBC Community Storify that includes reactions from both sides.