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…
Putting Up or Shutting Up on Wikipedia
As I’ve pointed out many, many times on this blog, almost all of Wikipedia’s editing and governance is done right out in the open, free for anyone to examine. The entire editing history of each article, every administrative action that has been taken, even detailed statistics are free for the asking. (There are a few exceptions – for instance grossly libelous edits are removed permanently from the record, for obvious legal reasons).
The pro-Sheldrake people seem almost comically reluctant to take advantage of this capability. You would think they would happily dig into the histories and statistics to find things that prove their point. Instead of investigating the actual data, they harp on out-of-context quotes from YouTube videos and other things people say or write. (Then they spin the meaning to suit).
But as I said, there is a bottom line on Wikipedia. And that is – what text actually made it into the article? That’s where the rubber meets the road on Wikipedia, in the actual article text. That’s the only thing that end users of Wikipedia ever see.
So if we look at editor productivity, maybe we can learn something about the motives or methods of the people involved.
Wikimedia maintains some tool servers (including some experimental ones) that can digest the Wikipedia logs in various ways. One tool called Contributors will show you a simplified list of everyone who has actually edited a given article. The results can be sorted by number of edits, when they first edited the article and when they last edited the article. We can use that to find the Wikipedia editors who have been battling over Rupert Sheldrake recently, and some interesting details about them.
Another handy widget called User Analysis Tool (aka supercount) can show basic stats for an editor, and break down their contributions to Wikipedia editor by what section in which they were made. The results here look like this, this is the graph of my contributions to Wikipedia.
The slices in this pie chart require some explanation. Everything on Wikipedia involves editing a page of some kind. To send someone a message you add some text to their User Talk page. To file a Request for Arbitration you add some specially formatted text to a very specific page in the Wikipedia space. User Analysis breaks down these pages by type.
So for instance, if an editor spends most of their time talking and arguing, you would see more edits of pages with “Talk” or “Wikipedia” in their type – these are the pages where all the discussion and administration happens. But if an editor spends most of their time actually productively editing Wikipedia and making it better, more of their edits will be in the “Main” or “User” type pages.
You may ask, why include “User” pages – aren’t those the user profile pages? Yes they are, but that is also the area where many editors maintain a “scratch” space to work on new articles. This is a technique I highly recommend to avoid conflict and misunderstandings with other editors when creating brand new articles. (Recently this practice has also been augmented by new page type called Draft).
So for purposes of this article, I broke the page types into two groups – article pages and talk pages. Articles include any edits in Main, User, File, Category, Template, Portal and Draft. All of these contribute to what end users of Wikipedia see in some way. Everything else went into the talk category, including “Wikipedia” (which is administrative stuff) and all the sections that have “Talk” in the name.
I chose two sets of seven editors each, based on names I see coming up repeatedly in Weiler’s and Viharo’s numerous blog posts, and also in the several administrative complaints. All fourteen of these people have spent significant time editing Rupert Sheldrake’s biography on Wikipedia in the last year.
|Pro-Sheldrake editors:||Skeptical editors:|
I deliberately avoided one or two involved Wikipedia administrators here, as admins have very different usage patterns from editors.
Finally, just to see how the numbers compare, I also ran the same statistics on the six most prolific editors in Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skeptics group. That includes Susan and myself, and four others. I am not going to name those editors, because I feel the pro-Sheldrake camp would harass them if they knew who they were. They are already harassing Susan and myself.
I compiled these statistics on the evening of April 14, 2014. I used the User Analysis tool to get the number of edits of each type made by each editor, and summed up the article edits versus talk and administrative edits based on the classifications above. The results are displayed in the graphic below, click it to see the actual Google Spreadsheet in your browser.
If you wish to check my work, of course the numbers will come out slightly larger as some of these people continue to edit. But you can click the editor’s names in the list above to get to the exact report where I gathered the numbers and see if the percentages come out the same.
Observation 1: Editing Versus Talking
There’s a clear difference that you can see in the percentages highlighted in blue on grey. The skeptics are actually contributing to Wikipedia in a useful way – more than half their edits are to content that the public actually sees. In contrast, the editors pushing an anti-skeptical message spend more than two thirds of their time talking and arguing!
Let’s contrast this further with the Guerrilla Skeptics. As I’ve said, none of them have ever edited Sheldrake’s biography, but how do they stack up in these stats? I found that this group had 9581 total edits, of which 86.9% were productive edits to articles, and only 13.1% were to talk and administrative pages.
This clearly negates the story being told by Weiler and Viharo (and by Deepak Chopra) that the Guerrilla Skeptics are spending their time harassing and annoying other editors. They can’t be – they’re too busy actually editing the encyclopedia.
Observation 2: Experience Levels
There is also a clear difference in experience between the two groups of Sheldrake editors. The seven non-skeptical editors only have about 1,400 total productive edits under their belt. In contrast, the seven skeptical editors are responsible for 97,000 total edits to the encyclopedia.
And this is not just a product of the age of these accounts. As you can see from the dates, both groups of editors have a couple of younger editors, but the rest date from 2008 or before. That’s plenty of time to learn the ropes. The average skeptical editor started in late 2007, but the average pro-Sheldrake editor started in early 2009. But even though they’ve been around for more than 5 years on average, the non-skeptical editors just haven’t invested the effort to build up any experience with Wikipedia. This explains a great many things.
Frankly, Wikipedia has a term for editors like this. Their jargon for it is WP:NOTHERE, which means these editors are “not here” to build an encyclopedia. The description of what that entails includes items such as:
Narrow self interest and/or promotion
General pattern of disruptive behavior
Treating editing as a battleground
Dishonest and gaming behaviors
Had I wanted to write tens of thousands of words on this I could point out numerous examples of each of those points using the words of these editors.
But as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. The low level of contribution (both overall, and percentage productivity) says it much better. These editors are simply not here to help.
And as for the Guerrilla Skeptics on this: they joined on average in late 2010. That’s nearly two years later than the average pro-Sheldrake editor, but they have more than 9 times as many productive edits.
Observation 3: Narrowly Focused
Notice the percentages in the third column of the table, under Sheldrake edits. That’s the proportion of those editors’ total work that went into the Sheldrake biography. For the pro-Sheldrake editors, 23.2% of their work collectively is about Sheldrake. Now notice the number for the skeptics: 1.3%.
This shows that the skeptics edit much more broadly on Wikipedia, while the editors on Sheldrake are much more focused on that one article. That’s a red flag on Wikipedia, sometimes labeled using the term single purpose account (WP:SPA).
I always warn new editors to avoid this label by editing across a broad range of topics. It’s a great way to get experience and it shows you are committed to Wikipedia as a project – not just to promoting your pet subject. (Plus it’s an easy way to find non-controversial places to gain experience). But zealots and trolls do not have the patience for that. They only see Wikipedia as a means to an end.
Observation 4: Joined In A Group
Now notice the second column of dates, labeled “First edit of Sheldrake”. It contains the date that editor first edited Rupert Sheldrake’s biography. On each side, six of the seven editors started editing it during 2013.
Of the first edit dates for the skeptics, two are in July 2013, and the rest are spread throughout the year – April through September.
Contrast that with the pro-Sheldrake editors. Four of the seven made their first edits to Sheldrake’s bio all in a four-day period between October 10, 2013 and October 13, 2013. Two more the following month. Is this merely a coincidence? Or were they piling on?
Further, both Rome Viharo and Craig Weiler have mentioned on their respective blogs having been specifically contacted by Sheldrake via email. Was Sheldrake (or someone acting on his behalf) recruiting people to edit his biography, in violation of Wikipedia policy?
Quoting from the policy known as WP:MEAT:
Do not recruit your friends, family members, or communities of people who agree with you for the purpose of coming to Wikipedia and supporting your side of a debate. If you feel that a debate is ignoring your voice, remain civil, and seek comments from other Wikipedians or pursue dispute resolution. These are well-tested processes, designed to avoid the problem of exchanging bias in one direction for bias in another.
As Wikipedia has strict rules about honoring when people choose to edit under pseudonyms, we may never know the answer to whether “meatpuppetry” was really occurring. But in Weiler and Viharo’s case, I think the answer is clear. They all but admit to it.
The pro-Sheldrake editors are not on Wikipedia to build an encyclopedia. They are there to argue, harass and troll skeptics. Despite having had Wikipedia accounts for years, they haven’t made an effort to contribute or even to learn how the place works. Instead they have piled on a single article, and caused the very controversy they are now trying to blame on skeptics. They may in fact have been recruited specifically to do this.
We don’t need a lengthy detailed analysis of their words to determine these facts. They are clearly seen in their edit histories, which shows they spend the two thirds of their efforts on Wikipedia talking to other editors and filing complaints, and have very little other experience with the project. Contrast that with the skeptics who spend 55% to 87% of their efforts actually editing the encyclopedia.
Finally, bravo again to the Guerrilla Skeptics, who have wisely stayed out of this imbroglio and focused on the important task of actually making Wikipedia better. The stats show that quite clearly.
Areas for Future Investigation
Skeptics know the world is a grey place, not black and white. There are certainly other elements to this controversy. I invite interested readers to look into them, and I may do so myself.
One relevant element I haven’t gotten into here are missteps by young editors unfamiliar with Wikipedia. Both Craig Weiler on the pro side, and Vzaak on the skeptic side joined Wikipedia immediately before editing the Sheldrake article. That’s a big red flag – and an article for another time.
But I will point out that Craig Weiler is rather egregiously unskilled as an editor. Despite writing thousands of words bragging about his heroic efforts to fight the skeptics, the truth is he has made only one single edit to Wikipedia! It wasn’t even a contribution, it was a deletion, and you can see it here. That Weiler holds himself out as some sort of expert on Wikipedia is a joke. He’s better at being a case study of the Dunning-Kruger effect as applied to Wikipedia.
I believe another aspect of what led to this controversy is there were too many editors working on this one article all at once. Again using the Contributions tool, I count 93 editors newly editing Sheldrake’s bio between April 14, 2013 and April 14, 2014. Conflicts are bound to arise when that many people are working on the same document together.
Could you imagine trying to edit a word processor document with 92 people looking over your shoulder? This is worthy of some further study – for instance, how typical is this of Wikipedia articles? Have other controversies arisen directly after an influx of new editors on an article? As always, the answers may be found in Wikipedia’s logs.
Update: I miscopied a couple of numbers from the spreadsheet into the body text, now fixed.