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 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 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.

It continues:

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.

(Emphasis mine).

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).

This week Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia who is still Chairman Emeritus of the foundation which runs it, responded with this entirely pro-skeptic answer:

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:



25 thoughts on “Wikipedia founder responds to pro-alt-med petition; skeptics cheer

  1. sgerbic

    You have to add the word “quantum” in a few times if you want to read that in Chopra’s voice.

    Thank you Tim for the very kind words, we sure have pissed off a few paranormal groups. It is sad (but interesting) that there is such a division over well written and clear rules about what exactly is allowed on WP. It just shows how clearly words have two meanings to the different groups. In the petition they state that CAM helps people, skeptics just can’t accept that.

    I do think that one problem with WP editors is that they insist that they communicate with people in a “insiders” language with WP:SOMETHING HERE link love. When speaking to other editors I understand why we use that shorthand, but when communicating with new editors and people writing on talk pages but have no clue what they are doing, we need to speak to them in plain English.

    I think someone could easily do a massive study on just this division, I would love to read those conclusions. I’m sure it might help us understand how maybe we can communicate better and maybe come to an understanding.

  2. Joseph Liberali

    Reblogged this on L1b3ra70r and commented: writer Tim Farley breaks down wikipedia’s latest controversy over holistic medicine versus skeptics in his blog. Interesting read.

  3. cbooth2004

    The word “skeptic” does NOT mean “dogmatic antagonist”. It means questioning until convinced by reason or evidence. It requires that the process must be rigorous. It also requires that those on all sides of the question have rigorous support for their positions, or those positions are discredited.

    That is all.

    If the charlatans and snake-oil peddlers can’t rise to the level of rigorous evidence and reason, let them go start their own ‘pedia. They can call it Woo-pedia.

  4. Sean Brockest

    I know this is a passionate topic, but maybe get someone to proof-read it :)

    “…. and Chopra have been subsequently been embarrassed ….”
    ” …. Wales clearly makes clear what I have been saying ….”

    Great article otherwise.

  5. Schmilblick

    Reblogged this on Faisons Avancer Le Schmilblick and commented:
    (in English) Jimmy Wales responded firmly in the negative to a petition created by alternative medicine and holistic healing advocates. His response, which referred to paranormalists as “lunatic charlatans”, was widely reported on Twitter.

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  7. SkepticalRaptor

    Under another pseudonym, one that I worked hard to set up to maintain anonymity on Wikipedia, I was one of the top editors. I had several run-ins with Jimbo Wales who does not practice what he preaches, punishing scientific editors who lose their cool with constant reverts and anti-science edits.

    There was an example of a “scientist” who invented something for something (it’s been 5 or 6 years, so details are fuzzy), who was self-promoting his garbage through an article on Wikipedia. There were no peer-reviewed articles supporting the garbage, but because the promoter seemed to have proper credentials, Jimbo, who rarely edits, got deeply involved. And the ideas bordered on denying the basics of germ theory.

    There are more anti-science people running the show at Wikipedia than is well known. The Arbitration Committee, that adjudicates disputes, typically finds against anyone who is less than civil in an editing situation rather than who has the science right. Now maybe one should be civil and scientific, but it’s not like everyone is going to be Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    A lot of the admins who more or less police Wikipedia are, as a group, thoroughly incompetent. They may get involved with an article undergoing an edit war, and decide to find against the science, just to get their way.

    And go look at the acupuncture article. It is nothing more than woo X 1000. If the woo-pushers are using that article as their example, then they’re nuts.

    I hate Wikipedia. Yes, some articles are pretty well done. But it takes a lot of work to determine which are well done and which aren’t, so you end up doing your own primary research. Or you don’t, and just accept the fact that acupuncture works.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Raptor, this is precisely why we need as many skeptics as possible to get involved and to stay civil and follow the rules. Yes, we are going to lose some battles and there are some unreasonable people involved in Wikipedia, but it’s too important a resource to just leave it to the other side.

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  10. Paul Crombie

    Ya know, there are a lot of us out here who need a well of pure clean truth. We are bombarded constantly with junk in our lives. Nonstop cultural voodoo. It seems everybody wants a piece of me and my pocketbook. I appreciate the efforts of Skeptic Society, Wikipedia, et al. I need some form of bedrock to count on.

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  13. Fritz Miller

    tapping on acupuncture points maybe woo but it works. I would rather be woo and on the fringe and happier–and healthier than skeptical scientific and sad. As a physcian and a patient I was sicker and had side effects when I was on a variety of chemicals prescribed by my doctors. Now tapping every day I am off most medications have fewer side effects and have far less health care costs.

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