Skeptical editing of Wikipedia has gotten some attention in the media lately. I covered part of it in my piece on skeptic complaints. I am working on a longer post that digs into the entire history of how Rupert Sheldrake and a handful of paranormal bloggers created this manufactroversy. (Spoiler alert: it’s largely due to misunderstandings of how Wikipedia works).
But before we get to that, how about an entertaining side drama involving Deepak Chopra?
Early in November, Deepak Chopra used his column on SFGate (cross-posted to his blog and elsewhere) to add his voice to the chorus coming from the Sheldrake camp. The multi-part post quickly branched into a variety of criticisms of skepticism in general, but that first post on November 3rd devoted a number of paragraphs to the false accusation that skeptics in general (and Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skeptics in particular) were responsible for a “concerted attack” on Sheldrake’s biography. Steven Novella and Jerry Coyne both replied to Chopra on their blogs. Coyne also reiterated his points in an expanded article on The New Republic and sparked a rather hilarious (and fallacy-laden) reply by Chopra.
A few days after Deepak’s original post, an interesting footnote to this drama played out deep in the recesses of Wikipedia’s administrative pages. I mentioned it on Skepticality, but it hasn’t been covered in news media so far as I have seen. It involves a pseudonymous editor, a quickly retracted open letter by Chopra, and a blatant five-year abuse of Wikipedia’s clearly stated conflict-of-interest rules.
Chopra is legendary for applying quantum physics anywhere and everywhere he can make it fit in. At the end of this, you’ll wonder if perhaps he (or his staff) believes that quantum mechanics applies to ethics rules as well. Read on for more…
Wikipedia is strongly committed to honoring the privacy of its editors. If an editor chooses to use a pseudonym and not reveal their real name, other editors are exhorted to respect that. One can be sanctioned if they don’t.
As a Wikipedia editor myself, I am going to attempt to honor that commitment in this post. However, as a skeptic I feel compelled link to supporting material here as needed to provide evidence supporting the facts being put forward.
There is a particular Wikipedia editor discussed here. Please do not post the editor’s real name, personal information or any other identifying information in the comments here or elsewhere as a result of this post!
I do not want this to turn into some sort of retribution. It is entirely possible this editor was profoundly misguided about what the rules mean (just as Chopra profoundly misunderstands the word “quantum”). I’ve seen lots of misunderstandings about Wikipedia rules by both skeptics and non-skeptics. Lets apply the principle of charity whenever possible.
Conflict of Interest
Wikipedia attempts to present a neutral and accurate representation of the world. But naturally there are those who would seek to distort this to suit their own ends – be those commercial, political or even pseudoscientific. To that end, Wikipedia has a clear rule on conflict of interest (COI). Here’s an excerpt:
COI editing involves contributing to Wikipedia to promote your own interests, including your business or financial interests, or those of your external relationships, such as with family, friends or employers. When an external relationship undermines, or could reasonably be said to undermine, your role as a Wikipedian, you have a conflict of interest. This is often expressed as: when advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.
(Emphasis theirs). COI editing of Wikipedia has recently been in the news. A public relations firm named Wiki-PR was caught using hundreds of sock-puppet accounts to create and edit articles for their paid clients. They were not following the COI rules and have since been threatened by Wikipedia’s attorney.
In my presentations on Wikipedia, I’ve always emphasized following the rules carefully. That includes the WP:COI guideline. Because of my relationship to the James Randi Educational Foundation as a Research Fellow (starting in 2011), I personally avoid editing the biographies of James Randi, D.J. Grothe and the foundation itself. I advise other skeptics to also abide by this, and I very often find it necessary to remind people to never edit their own biography.
The Chopra Connection
When Chopra jumped into the Sheldrake controversy on November 3, I was a little surprised on some level. There have in fact been a large number of edits on Sheldrake’s article since June, which at least lends superficial support to the idea there is controversy there. But the level of editing on Chopra’s article is not similarly high. Why was Chopra taking this so personally? The reason became clear just a few days later.
On November 6 a Wikipedia editor (indirectly) raised a complaint regarding Chopra’s biography on Wikipedia’s Conflict of Interest Noticeboard (WP:COIN). This is the standard procedure to follow if you believe another editor has violated the COI rules. However, instead of raising it themselves (which anyone can do) this editor raised it through an addition to a July 15, 2013 ticket submitted to Wikipedia’s OTRS. This is a volunteer-run “ticket” system used to respond to any sort of requests the Wikimedia Foundation gets, such as requests for licensing, complaints, requests from press or law enforcement and so on. It’s not clear why this request was sent through OTRS, though since OTRS tickets are not public, one might speculate.
You can see the actual COI discussion (now archived) here – like the vast majority of Wikipedia administrative actions, it is public and permanently kept. It’s long so I’ll summarize: because of some comments made about pseudoscience and what Wikipedia calls “fringe theories” made in the course of their editing, an editor using the name Vivekachudamani accused two other editors of having a conflict of interest regarding Chopra. Mention of their possible affiliation with Guerrilla Skeptics was made. (As far as I can determine, neither editor is affiliated – both Alexbrn and Binksternet first edited Wikipedia in 2007, four years before Guerrilla Skeptics was started. Both have denied involvement).
The actual COI complaint against the two other editors was dealt with in short order. Among the comments from experienced editors included: “this report looks completely spurious” and “there is nothing in the complaint whatsoever.” But in dealing with the complaint, the other editors’ curiosity was obviously piqued. They started looking around. I did too.
The Editor in Question
The editor who filed the OTRS ticket uses the login name Vivekachudamani. The name refers to an ancient Sanskrit poem about Hindu philosophy, and thus is clearly a pseudonym. Since this person started editing on December 7, 2008 they have made 189 edits, and 112 of those were to actual public articles (as opposed to discussion and other administrative pages which few see).
The user contributions history for this editor shows that all but two of those 112 edits were to the article “Deepak Chopra” – his biography. The two remaining edits were to add Sanjiv Chopra (Deepak’s younger brother) to the list of notable faculty of a particular hospital.
Clearly whoever this editor is, they have an intense interest in the Chopra family. In fact, one of numerous acronyms thrown around in Wikipedia jargon – SPA – clearly applies here. It would appear this is a Single Purpose Account.
I always advise skeptics to avoid the perception of being an SPA by contributing to non-skeptic-related parts of Wikipedia. Although there is no hard-and-fast rule against being an SPA, accounts which behave this way are often justifiably the target of suspicion of conflict of interest. And so it was here.
Could the accuser be guilty of the very thing they accused?
A Retracted Open Letter from Chopra
During the COI discussion, a link was posted by the OTRS volunteer to a web page on the Chopra Foundation website entitled “My Open Letter to Wikipedia” and dated November 7, 2013. Google indexed it the same day at 15:50 UTC and the OTRS volunteer linked to it at 18:36 UTC.
But by 18:51 UTC on that same day it had already been removed from Chopra’s website. (One of the editors even commented: “Whoa – that’s been taken down pretty quickly!”). The page originally resided at this URL: http://www.choprafoundation.org/science-consciousness/my-open-letter-to-wikipedia/ (that page now returns an error). There is an internet web page archival service (I’ve written about them before) that has a copy of this page, and it is from that archived copy that I am quoting here. (Do not attempt to link to the archived copy in the comments, per my warning above).
Here are some excerpts from Chopra’s letter:
I’d like to address the unfair and slanted editing of my Wikipedia article. As much as I and the Chopra Center support the ideal of a democratic, open-sourced encyclopedia, serious attention should be paid to bullying editorial gangs who use Wikipedia to further their skeptical agenda. News stories are already appearing to this effect, including a recent spot on BBC World News.
To that end, I’ve attached a letter directed to you from [redacted]….
The part I’ve redacted there is the name of a person. Please respect my editorial decision here, per the warning above.
The letter goes on to tediously defend a particular edit involving the highly dubious Journal of Cosmology, I won’t bore you with the details. Chopra here defends the use of this bogus source by citing the eminent scientists who were editors and co-authors on the paper in question. He claims that somehow if he is a “purveyor of pseudoscience” then they must be too. As Steve Novella pointed out in his reply to the New Republic article (and Steven Salzberg also said on Forbes) this is an entirely fallacious argument. Instead of providing a real response, Chopra is simply arguing that since he can be found in the company of scientists, he must be one too. This is absurd.
Chopra goes on to link to his aforementioned SFGate post and concludes with:
Because of the guerrilla skeptics’ control of Wikipedia pages they disagree with, I was compelled to write the following article, The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism. As you are no doubt aware, the non-neutrality of some Wikipedia editors is a growing concern and the problem will only grow larger unless Wikimedia Foundation makes a top-down decision to enforce their BLP neutrality policy. I am sincerely and respectfully requesting you to take this action now. If you are unwilling to enforce your own neutrality policy, then it seems the only fair alternative is to immediately remove the page permanently. You have indicated that the Wikipedia community wouldn’t agree with that, but I’m sure Wikimedia Foundation has the option to make that executive decision independently.
In other words, if he can’t get what he wants in the article, he wants the article deleted. An bizarre attempt to take someone else’s ball and go home.
A Revealing Error
The most interesting part in the open letter, is the attached “letter” (actually, an email) from the person whose name I redacted. In that email, part of their complaint to the Wikipedia OTRS, they write:
Here’s an update on Chopra’s page. On November 5, I put up this entry:
There follows a tedious description of a series of edits, which through cursory examination of the edit history of the Deepak Chopra article, can be tied to the aforementioned Vivekachudamani account. The wording “I put up this entry” is clear. In fact, the OTRS volunteer commented in the COI discussion:
Note: this may be moot, as a COI may have just been declared here (Note the email came through OTRS – the only person with access was Vivekachudamani)
In other words, in his opinion, Vivekachudamani had just declared a conflict of interest on themselves by posting this. This ran counter to Vivekachudamani’s own repeated denials during September and October of any personal conflict of interest which you can read on their own Wikipedia user page. That sparked some more digging.
Binksternet turned up a short biographical sketch on an unrelated website matching the (redacted) name in the letter, in which a person with the same name claims to have spent the last 15 years working with Deepak Chopra on various projects. (No, I will not link to it, but I have seen it myself and have a copy archived). Vivekachudamani appears to admit this connection, but downplays it writing in the COI discussion:
Have fun guys. That blurb was more fantasy than fact, and based on a school board interview that was sexed up. I actually index medical textbooks and other technical manuals. I once did some research that Chopra happened to use a long time ago, but he probably doesn’t remember it…. But hey, go crazy with this. You score double points for embarrassing me to Chopra as well for pretending involvement that wasn’t there.
Naturally, I and the other editors were dumbfounded that this person was defending lying about a conflict of interest by claiming that they lied about their background in the context of a job!
Finally on November 8, Vivekachudamani gave in:
In last 24 hours I have been talking with and emailing Chopra’s office and Dr. Chopra himself. In large part, trying to explain the “copy editor” comments. So after all that connecting, I can officially announce that I am now a Connected Editor. The good news is that he has a sense of humor and said this kind of thing happens quite often. He then offered a research project to me starting next week. Maybe because he felt bad for his part in inadvertently toasting me as an editor. Anyway, that means I really do have a COI with the subject now. Once I figure out how to stick the COI after my name It’ll show up in my signature. This new status actually accords with my desire to step away from an active role on this page anyway.
At that point, the COI investigation was closed and a conflict of interest was officially declared – not on Alexbrn and Binksternet, but on Vivekachudamani – the original accuser. And now, if you examine the talk page for Deepak Chopra, you will see this warning:
I’ve written it before, and I’m sure I’ll write it again: the source of most complaints about Wikipedia is a misunderstanding of the rules of the site, not collusion or misbehavior.
Do some Wikipedia editors misbehave and go outside the rules sometimes? Absolutely. But there is no mass collusion by skeptics to keep our competitors down. We are just following the rules as written.
In this case, a copy editor and researcher for Deepak Chopra, attempting to “right great wrongs” in Chopra’s biographical article over the course of five years, has completely misunderstood what constitutes a conflict of interest. Now that the person is outed, they won’t be editing Chopra’s article any more.
I guess they’ve transitioned into a different quantum state.
This week there has been an #askdeepak hashtag about, in which Chopra answers questions. This morning I asked about this:
No answer as of yet.
Update: Still no answer, but I discussed this post on the #VirtualSkeptics webcast 68.