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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A butterfly flaps its wings on Twitter, and a vaccine map goes viral

CFR vaccine preventable diseases mapIf you follow the problem of vaccine denialism (like most skeptics do) and are on social media, you probably saw a cool interactive global map of disease outbreaks this week. It was created by the Council on Foreign Relations – there’s a picture of it here and a link below the fold.  

Just in the last week it was posted by many major websites including Kottke.org, Mother Jones, L.A. Times, The Verge, Wired, The Atlantic Wire and even Forbes. And of course all those posts – and the direct link to the map – were being wildly passed around on social media.

Whenever I see something like this going viral, I dig a little bit before I retweet or repost it.  Sometimes there’s a better version of the post to link, or the one you saw didn’t attribute it to the original author correctly. I like to make sure I send out the best possible version of something, not just the first one I saw.

When I dug into this vaccine preventable illness map, I found out an interesting thing that almost all of the major media posts missed. Namely, this map is not new.  In fact, it’s over two years old – it was released in late October 2011 as this press release indicates.

So why the heck is it going viral now?

I did a little digging and found an interesting thing. Most of the major media posts can be traced back to a single influential blog. And that blog’s post can be traced back to a single Twitter post that set the entire chain in motion.

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Don Colbert’s Divine Health caught paying bloggers for affiliate links

B Vitamin Supplement by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

B VItamin Supplement by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

My recent pieces on the Wikipedia shenanigans around Rupert Sheldrake‘s and Deepak Chopra’s biographies have got me attuned to pseudoscientists and paranormalists not playing by the rules online. Suddenly I’m noticing examples of this left and right. (I guess that’s confirmation bias for you). And so here’s another in what will no doubt become a series of pieces on the bad guys skirting the rules online.  We will get back to Sheldrake et.al. soon enough, as I have promised an update. But for now lets take a break from the topic of Wikipedia for a bit and look elsewhere.

My subject this time is Don Colbert, M.D. who practices “anti aging and integrative medicine” at his Divine Health Wellness Center in Orlando, Florida.  If there weren’t enough red flags in that sentence for the skeptics reading this, know that he “has been featured on Dr. Oz” and on “many prominent Christian TV programs.”  In typical fashion one of his websites tries to sell you a wide variety of supplements that make fairly vague claims about weight loss and immune support. His separate clinic website mentions chiropractic, something called “Multi-Dimensional Brainwave Therapy” and “Emotox – Allergy Testing” which apparently uses a “cold laser” to treat allergies. And to top it all off, Orac reports that he’s anti-vaccine to boot. This guy is not a friend of science.

The rule violation in this case may involve the dirty practice of buying links online. It was all uncovered by former CNN medical correspondent Andrew Holtz of Holtz Report, who ran a bit of an online sting.  He caught someone trying to promote Dr. Colbert’s online store via means that certainly violate journalistic ethics and may lead bloggers to violate FTC guidelines. But does it violate Google’s rules too? Let’s find out…

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Follow me on TwitFaceTumblTubeGram! Why? Here’s why.

Social Media IEver wonder why big brands and major websites often have an array of icons somewhere on their homepage, leading to popular sites like YouTube and Twitter? Follow us on Twitter! Like us on Facebook! It all seems so needy and desperate, as if the business or site has a self-esteem problem.

And why try to lure you off to another site? They’ve got you there on their site looking at their stuff, which is usually a big part of the battle in promoting anything on the Internet. Wouldn’t getting people to go elsewhere be entirely counter-productive? Well, maybe. But there is a method to their madness.

You may be inclined to say, “Well social media is the thing these days, that’s all it is.” But there’s more to it than that.

If you are trying to promote anything – be it a charity, or a good idea, or a product – a key technique on the modern web is to maintain a presence on as many popular sites as you can manage. In this post, I will attempt to explain the rationale behind that, and how you can take advantage of it in your own efforts.

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