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…
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…
Some 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.
I try not to encourage the link-bait over at BuzzFeed (even just for fun) but one “listicle” posted last Thursday got lots of attention among the UK people I follow. It is titled “12 Spectacular Acts Of Wikipedia Vandalism” and I have to admit it contains some pretty funny stuff. The list includes Ernest Hemingway as the author of a children’s book and the First Law of Thermodynamics reinterpreted through Fight Club.
People love to point out weird things that make it into Wikipedia. When it’s not being played for humor (as it is here) often the purpose is to call into question Wikipedia’s accuracy. But one thing that these posts often leave out – how long does vandalism like this hang around on Wikipedia? Some articles are constantly being edited, and if a piece of vandalism is removed immediately, how much damage can it do?
So just for fun, I decided to seek out each of the pieces of vandalism that BuzzFeed highlighted and find out. Just how likely were you to stumble on one of these pieces of vandalism unaware?
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.
Susan Gerbic and I have appeared together on both the Skepticality and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcasts to state our side of the story.
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…
Last week Google introduced a new feature to their flagship search product, which is called Google Knowledge Graph. I believe it has only rolled out for users in the United States so far, so you may not see it if you live elsewhere, yet.
There are several interesting aspects of Knowledge Graph, and I encourage you to read more about it. The technology behind modern search engines is surprisingly complex, and this is the latest advancement.
But one of the main user-visible features of this product is a panel that you will see on the right side of many search results. This panel shows a summary of what Google believes you are looking for. The aim is that many times the answer you seek will be right there on the results page.
Because this new feature draws a great deal of information from Wikipedia, all the great effort by Susan Gerbic and the other skeptics who work on her skeptic Wikipedia project is now paying off in yet another big way.
Let’s look at a few quick examples…
This is the second in a series of articles aimed at first-time editors of Wikipedia, but also contains tips useful to anyone who spends time on that site. Please be sure to read Part I, here. Come back the same time next week for the next article in this series.
In the first part of this series, you set up your account on Wikipedia, and began to add articles to your watch list. You should be comfortable with looking at the watch list regularly, and recognizing the types of editing activity that typically occurs across the articles you have chosen to watch.
In this second part, you will begin to use your watch list as a practical tool to find places where you can pitch in and help. We will continue slowly building up your level of activity over time, and before you know it you’ll be making very significant edits to Wikipedia.
As I explained in the first part, the reason for this slow build is give other editors a chance to develop trust in you. Or even if they aren’t aware of you, by the time they notice your edits you will have a significant history built up. That will help them understand that you are not a vandal but someone genuinely interested in improving the quality of information on Wikipedia.
This week, we start to create that edit history.