Online science of interest to skeptics this week at #ICWSM

I know many tech-oriented skeptics are paying attention to the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this week, wanting to find out what’s next in Macs, iPhones and iPads. But I’d like to call your attention to a different conference – a scientific conference – also going on this week. The conference is the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, it runs through tomorrow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

ICWSM logoIt might surprise you to learn there is a great deal of peer-reviewed science going on around blogs, social media and other newer online technologies. Curiously, while I see skeptics blogging about studies in alt-med, psychology, biology or physics almost daily, I rarely see skeptic blog posts about studies on Internet technology. (There are exceptions, of course). I see much more interest in this among the computer scientists, data scientists and journalists I follow online.

I suspect one of the reasons is studies in older scientific fields have more application to pseudoscience, the paranormal and other things skeptics seek to critique. But this newer Internet research can address the methods and techniques of skepticism itself. Many skeptics these days do a great deal of our work online. We should take advantage of the available science in this area to make our online efforts more effective.

One nice thing about the AAAI conference going on this week is much of it is published online already – indeed, full copies of all the papers to be presented were available online before the conference started.  I find a number of them cover topics that will be of interest to skeptics. One of them is specifically about sending Snopes.com links to people on Twitter – a common pursuit. And another may confirm some things we know about trolls.

Let me give you a peek.

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Beware: tools for creating fake news (Virtual Skeptics)

Virtual Skeptics logoOn Virtual Skeptics this week I talked about the flip side of this website’s normal topic – tools to create misinformation instead of tools to debunk it. Of course any tool designed to work with real information can be used to distort as well.

We saw that this week when a news hoax was perpetrated via CNN’s “iReport” site – a place for citizens to submit journalism.  It was a poorly written prediction of apocalypse for the year 2041 which credible sources like Phil Plait quickly debunked. Many sites including Doubtful News chided CNN for taking 22 hours to notice and take down the bogus story.

But there are also online tools designed specifically for creating hoaxes like this. They are usually intended for playing pranks on friends and the like. A new one emerged this week, which was my topic on Virtual Skeptics. Since my segment is very short (just over 6 minutes) I thought I would go ahead and embed it here so you can see what was discussed.  Video and supporting links after the jump…

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Dennis Markuze (aka “David Mabus”) pleads guilty for the second time

Dennis MarkuzeEarlier today in Montreal, Dennis Markuze – better known to skeptics and atheists online by his online persona “David Mabus” – pled guilty to three counts including harassment, threatening a police officer, and breach of probation. The victim of harassment in this case was the author of this blog.

Paul Cherry in the Montreal Gazette was in court and has the full story:

Dennis Markuze, 43, a man who often uses the alias David Mabus when he makes threats, appeared before Quebec Court Judge Jean-Claude Boyer at the Montreal courthouse on Thursday where he entered a plea to three charges in all, including a breach of his probation.

The breach of probation charge was from his first guilty plea on May 22, 2012 and was what led us to campaign for his arrest the second time back in November 2012.  As my earlier blog post explained, the authorities were not supervising Markuze, and seemed unaware that he had resumed posting online in violation of his plea agreement.

The news article has more on Markuze’s mental state:

On Thursday, Markuze’s lawyer, Richard Bellefeuille, told Boyer that a psychiatrist who evaluated Markuze in February again attributed his actions to an abuse of cocaine and alcohol. The psychiatrist also noted that Markuze is being treated for a delusional disorder “which could explain his Internet activities.”

An expert at the Philippe Pinel Institute who examined Markuze earlier in the current case had determined that Markuze’s mental health problems could not be used as a defence if his case ever went to trial.

I had been told of the additional threats Markuze made at the time of his second arrest, but not their exact nature.  The article reveals that he told the police officer, “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the (World Trade Centre) twin towers in 9/11.”

As in previous stages of this long case (in which skeptic activists had to exhibit patience at every step) we will have to wait for a full resolution. Sentencing has been set for November 21 (six months from now) to give time for the Crown to verify that cocaine and alcohol abuse “are the only problems Markuze has.”

I sincerely hope that investigation will finally result in Markuze getting the treatment he clearly needs.

Misleading posts in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed verge on trolling

Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra, photo by Mitchell Aidelbaum licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Susan Gerbic contacted me the other day. She was confused by an unsolicited message she had received from none other than Deepak Chopra on Twitter. To save you the click – it’s just a bare URL in a tweet, no other explanation. Presumably Chopra wants Susan to read that blog post?

More on that later, but I told Susan I’d seen odd behavior before in Chopra’s Twitter feed. He sometimes seems almost obsessed with the idea of getting those who criticize him to read his columns and blog posts. I had made a note to myself to investigate this as part of my bad behavior series. I thought it would be an interesting follow up to my previous post about Deepak Chopra’s employee acting as his sock-puppet on Wikipedia.

It used to be that digging around in old tweets was very difficult, because Twitter’s search function only went back a few weeks. But last year Twitter enhanced search to include years of old tweets. Using Twitter’s advanced search function (which has also been recently enhanced), I dug deeper into Chopra’s Twitter feed to see how often he does things like this.

What emerges is a sad pattern of a man who has almost 2 million followers (and a verified account!) acting as if it is vitally important his followers see that he is debating with certain key atheists on Twitter. He also seems bizarrely obsessed with getting certain people to read his blog. In the process I believe he’s skirting the Twitter rules on spam, and encouraging bad behavior in some of his co-authors as well.

So let’s use that enhanced Twitter search and look a little deeper….

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When you’re not here to create an encyclopedia, your Wikipedia statistics show it

Rupert Sheldrake at a conference. Photo by Zereshk licensed under a CC BY 3.0 license.

Rupert Sheldrake at a conference. Photo by Zereshk licensed under a CC BY 3.0 license.

I’ve been promising for a while to follow up on the Rupert Sheldrake Wikipedia controversy that exploded in the press and the blogs last fall. (I’ve previously written on this topic in two different posts). What’s kept me from writing this follow-up is the huge volume of debate back and forth that has gone on. Frankly, it is quite tedious to wade through and it is hard to cut through the bull to make any sense of it. It is also spread through numerous blogs and various back pages of Wikipedia, so it isn’t even all in one place.

And it continues today. Just this past weekend one of the pro-Sheldrake editors filed a Wikipedia Request for Arbitration regarding the matter, listing all sorts of complaints about alleged wrongs by skeptical editors. This person even dragged my name into it simply on the basis of my blogging here (which of course is protected free speech) even though I’ve never edited the Sheldrake page myself! The request was curtly denied.

It’s almost as if all of this was intended to be hard to grasp – and maybe it is. I’ve long had the sense that a large part of this was a drummed up manufactroversy created deliberately by the Sheldrake camp. I hate to use an overused word, but it really feels like some of these people are simply trolling Wikipedia.  But is there a way to succinctly demonstrate that?

The other side certainly isn’t succinct – Craig Weiler has blogged at least nine times on the subject of Wikipedia (plus more on other Sheldrake issues). That’s over thirteen thousand words. Rome Viharo has built an entire website around the controversy, containing another thirty five thousand words (largely nonsense). He’s also attempted to troll me on Twitter and within the comments of this blog.

It’s all so tedious. It makes me want to say, “Enough arguing, either put up or shut up!”  And that got me thinking – if you apply “put up or shut up” to Wikipedia, what does that mean? I think I have an idea.

Read on to find out what it is…

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Wikipedia founder responds to pro-alt-med petition; skeptics cheer

Jimmy Wales, photo by Andrew Lih licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

Jimmy Wales, photo by Andrew Lih licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

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…

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The Skepticism Convention Guide opens events up to all

Lanyrd logoTwo years ago this month here on the blog I introduced skeptics to Lanyrd – a website that compiles information about multiple speaker events like conferences, symposia and workshops. It can compile all the info about an event in one place for easy reference by attendees and others.  Since I’ve been promoting the site, it has been adopted by many skeptic organizations.  It has become the official scheduling application for The Amazing Meeting, several Center for Inquiry events, Skepticamp, Germany’s SkepKon, Skeptics of Oz and more.

As a convenience to skeptics and skeptic event organizers, I and others have been curating what Lanyrd calls a “guide” – a special list of just the skeptic conferences that are upcoming and listed on the site. The guide acts as an entry point to Lanyrd for skeptics.  It has other uses too, for instance an RSS feed from this guide automatically populates the list of upcoming skeptic conferences that is visible on the right here at the blog.

Of course, numerous skeptics cannot attend these events in person due to cost or travel involved or for many other reasons. Some skeptics only attend them rarely. If you fall in this category, you might wonder why I mention Lanyrd repeatedly here, on my blog and on the Virtual Skeptics webcast.

Last week I launched social media feeds associated with the guide, to promote its value better.  Let me explain why I think this is a useful thing for all skeptics, not just those who regularly attend these events.

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See how to debunk viral photos in seconds using image search

Google Image SearchBack in August I wrote about how Google Image Search and other reverse image search engines are a valuable tool to debunk viral hoaxes. Last week yet another example popped up that shows just how easy these types of debunks can be.

The new example involves social media posts about animal rights and animal testing. Photos of suffering animals are always compelling, and often go viral. While most people sympathize with the animals pictured, there is a secondary lesson here – don’t forget to apply skepticism to viral content even when the message confirms your own beliefs and pet causes.

I’m an animal fan myself – we have both a dog and a cat in our household. The purpose of this post is not to criticize animal rights activists, but show how to verify photos. So lets see how it’s done.

Warning: If you are particularly sensitive to pictures of animals in medical situations, you might not want to see the photo in this post. Try reading my previous post on this topic instead.

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RBUTR supports more browsers, adds a universal linking toolbar

RBUTR logo

Some exciting new additions to RBUTR have been announced in the last few weeks. The folks on the team behind this skeptic favorite have been busy!

RBUTR is an excellent skeptic tool that I’ve written about here before. It is a service that links web pages to other articles which rebut them (hence the name). Skeptics could do well to both evangelize the tool to the general public, and to populate it with links to good skeptical content.

RBUTR works via a browser add-in: a small piece of software that adds new functionality to your web browser. When you navigate to a new web page, the add-in looks up whether there are any rebuttals to that article or content and gives a visual indication at the top of the browser window.

One limitation of browser plugins is each one is usually only compatible with one browser. Since its launch, RBUTR has only been available for Google’s Chrome browser, which limited the product’s reach. Statistics on browser usage vary widely, but Chrome’s market penetration varies somewhere between 15% and 40% depending on whose numbers you believe. But whichever set of numbers are correct, the majority of Internet users are using other browsers.

Now the RBUTR team have made several new additions that significantly widen its reach – two additional browsers and more.

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Why do people volunteer to edit Wikipedia?

Wikipedia IconSome economists have long been a bit puzzled at the astounding success of Wikipedia. Standard economic theory wouldn’t predict that such a project would thrive without some form of remuneration for the participants.

There are other projects based on peer production that seem to fit economic theory better. For instance, contributors to open source software who are seeking jobs in the computer industry can list their contributions on their resume. But what, if anything, do people get back when they contribute time to Wikipedia?

Since I regularly encourage skeptics to contribute to Wikipedia, either on their own or through organized projects like Guerrilla Skepticism, the answer to this has interested me. Understanding motivations that work would help us understand how to motivate others.

Recently some researchers at Sciences Po, Harvard Law School, and University of Strasbourg created a series of experiments to get to the heart of this problem. What they found is pretty interesting.

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