I’ll get to Wikipedia in a moment, but first a little background. One of the more depressing aspects of my job as a Parapsychology journalist is dealing with the skepticism. It’s not that skepticism isn’t warranted when dealing with the paranormal, it absolutely is, it’s that the vast majority of skepticism is just . . . bad. Any open minded person arguing with people who are strongly skeptical quickly realizes that their claim to being tough minded and objective is really just stubborn people never admitting to being wrong. It’s not critical thinking, it’s just . . . tedious.
Where skepticism really goes off the rails is when it becomes a belief system. This is what I documented in my book PSI WARS: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet. The skepticism has become more of a fringe atheist religious-like crusade to bring rationality to an increasingly irrational world, it seems like it should be a good thing. Who doesn’t want more rationality? Amiright?
In practice, what they do is properly called pseudoskepticism, which isn’t a careful analysis of specific objections, but rather a general dismissal of both people and subjects that they disagree with. Even the word “rationality” becomes a sort of dog whistle.
In their case rationality refers to a very specific belief system that these skeptics fully embrace: They believe in a material universe. (This is increasingly up for debate as quantum physics repeatedly demonstrates that the universe is entangled and not locally real. As Rovelli pointed out, even physics itself is relational.)
This materialistic belief, which is at the core of this true believer skepticism, leads to assumptions about reality which these skeptics hotly defend. They believe that psychic ability can’t possibly exist and its study is pure pseudoscience (another skeptic dog whistle); holistic medicine is nonsense and is also pseudoscience. One finds this all over Wikipedia now. Reddit User Hastener_Of_Days wrote this assessment.
The way the terms "pseudoscience" and "fringe" are used on Wikipedia, is now akin to jewtagging. It's really quite disgusting. In the Wikipedia coverage of any of these areas, most notably Homeopathy, readers are treated like children, and are quite literally beaten over the head and forced to a conclusion. This is distinct from the original Wikipedia model of neutrality, where you simply present the facts, in due proportion to their reliability, and trust the reader to come to the right conclusion.
When you travel down the rabbit hole of this organized skepticism it gets really weird. Congratulating children on discovering that Santa Claus isn’t real; attacking naturopathy, (the science of promoting self healing in the body. It’s a licensed profession found in many hospitals); licensed chiropractors (found everywhere, accepted by insurance companies) are also apparently pseudoscience to them for . . . reasons. Religion is an infantile belief that does more harm than good. Religions are responsible for most wars.
And now that we have that out of the way, it’s time to discuss Wikipedia and the Paranormal.
Bias and Lack of Scholarship
If you concentrate on Wikipedia articles about holistic medicine, or the paranormal, you’ll find that most of the articles are not just written from a skeptical point of view, but one that is strikingly similar to that of a particular skeptic organization.
Wikipedia, for example claims the following about parapsychology:
Criticized as being a pseudoscience, the majority of mainstream scientists reject it. Parapsychology has also been criticised by mainstream critics for many of its practitioners claiming that their studies are plausible in spite of there being no convincing evidence for the existence of any psychic phenomena after more than a century of research.
What is wrong with this? What’s not wrong with it? Parapsychology isn’t a pseudoscience. The Parapsychological Association is an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Here is a quote from a paper by a very skeptical critic who has worked with parapsychologists and is familiar with the research:
Parapsychology at its best—as exemplified by, for example, the articles in the Journal of Parapsychology—appears to meet most if not all of the benchmarks of true science as opposed to pseudoscience.
His views are shared by other skeptics familiar with the research such as Richard Wiseman and Susan Blackmore. When you limit your search to the tiny handful of critics who actually engage with the research you come away with an entirely different take on this scientific field.
Some of their citations to back up this Wikipedia article are over over 30 years old, others are just someone’s opinion that they wrote down, unsupported by evidence. One says the opposite of what they’re claiming. This isn’t what valid citations look like; it’s just Wikipedia editors scrounging up whatever they can find to support their weak argument.
And lastly, we see the claim that there is no convincing evidence. Here is a paper that Wikipedia editors seem to have mysteriously failed to cite despite the fact that it’s extremely well known within the field:
Parapsychology is an area of expertise for me; I can see the flaws in articles like this because I know what’s missing and where the editors are making claims that I know aren’t true. I have read many of the documents they’re referencing, I know who’s who in this field, when someone is just a poser and who is the real deal.
It’s Worse than Mere Incompetence
The Wikipedia editors had to go out of their way to make this article as blatantly false as it is. This isn’t incompetence; it’s deliberate. And it isn’t a one off either. The vast majority of articles related to parapsychology of any substance are treated this way, including biographies.
This extends into articles about the paranormal, including psychics and mediums and also pretty much any holistic medicine or holistic medical practice you care to name. They are so littered with references to criticism that you’d think this was a gossip column and not an encyclopedia.
To understand why Wikipedia is horrifically inaccurate and/or misleading about paranormal topics and holistic medicine, you need to understand the connection between the editors and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).
The Link between Organized Skepticism and Wikipedia
CSI is an organization dedicated to skepticism. They publish the Skeptical Inquirer and came into being at a convention of the American Humanist Association in 1976. It was founded by Paul Kurz and Marcello Truzzi. Truzzi left the organization after realizing that impartiality wasn’t the goal.
Because the organization is driven by a non mainstream atheistic belief that the paranormal is impossible and that they, the chosen few, are providing rationality to an increasingly superstitious and irrational world, this has led to their never ending battle against an increasingly convincing body of scientific evidence, with at least one of their leading skeptics grudgingly conceding first that parapsychology is a real science and then that the results of some of the experiments are valid.
And as I said earlier, they dismiss chiropractic care, naturopathy, acupuncture and other generally accepted holistic medical practices as pseudoscience. For those interested in a longer read of their history, here is an article by the late Guy Lyon Playfair. (here) There is also an accounting of their deliberate attempt to suppress the results of an experiment they conducted when they didn’t get the results they wanted. (here)
This cultist skeptical organization and others like it, form an echo chamber where they cherry-pick their way to conclusions they want, often relying on their own members to form the arguments and then citing those as proof. They pounce on positive portrayals of psychic ability or holistic medicine, making sure to write articles and then seek media attention to promote their viewpoint.
The Guerrilla Skeptics of Wikipedia
Out of this toxic stew, the Guerrilla Skeptics of Wikipedia was born. I first found out about them after I’d finished reporting on parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake’s dust up with TED talks and had started writing my book about the controversy in 2013.
Sheldrake, at the time, was the subject of a great deal of controversy after his TED talk was banished to the hinterlands of an unsearchable corner of TED. He is notable enough to have a Wikipedia page written about him and his Wikipedia page got worse in proportion to the increase in fame he was experiencing. A few Wikipedia editors with an agenda had targeted him and were making changes to his biography to portray him as a pseudo scientist and quack.
It was strongly suspected by journalists who cover this subject, Greg Taylor of the Daily Grail, myself and Robert McLuhan, who works with the Society for Psychical Research, that the Guerrilla Skeptics had a hand in this. They never admitted to it and they operate in such secrecy that this could never be factually established. Susan Gerbic, founder of the Guerrilla Skeptics wrote in the Skeptical inquirer:
Plus, when asked, I always refused to offer transparency of who our members are, what conversations we have been having, or what pages we have worked on.
The Problem of Secret Editing Groups
Except for Gerbic herself, who uses her real name on the platform and personally operates in the open, no one really knows who they are or what they’re doing. That this has been allowed to exist on Wikipedia is a clear demonstration of the flaws inherent in the platform. So what is the problem of an organization like the Guerrilla Skeptics? A reddit user familiar with Wikipedia outlined the issues:
With the advantage of being able to coordinate in private without anyone on Wikipedia knowing these people are acting as a group, it is if course suspected that GS [Guerrilla Skeptics] breaks any number of really quite important Wikipedia rules. Rules against canvassing, rules against vote stacking, rules against using blocking powers in your own interests, and rules that say you must declare any relevant conflicts of interest.
The rules that essentially ensure that Wikipedia is a level playing field for all editors, equal under the wiki law, given the same opportunity to propose and defend their edits as anyone else, and letting the benign force of consensus result in the best edit for Wikipedia.
Even other Wikipedia editors are sick of them and put them on trial. But on a platform that allows anonymous editors, all kinds of shenanigans can take place which cannot be prevented. This includes individuals being both editors and their own administrators under different names, organized editing to capture administrative positions and control arbitration processes.
If they have succeeded at this, they can then ban other editors over disagreements by misusing Wikipedia’s own rules. A product of anonymous editing is that a secret group can gain de facto control over information on sections of the encyclopedia.
Wikipedia Cannot Prevent This
Wikipedia’s enforcement abilities are limited to banning specific editors. Even if they had decided to ban the Guerrilla Skeptics entirely they could not have done so. They don’t know who the members of the organization are; nor would it help if they did know. Banned members only need to come back under a different name. They can ban IP addresses, but it’s easy enough to get around that.
I see little reason to doubt that they are behind the steady degradation of paranormal topics on Wikipedia. when one sees the Wikipedia treatment of various paranormal subjects, one finds many references to articles by CSI fellows, Skeptical Inquirer articles and other sources that are unique to the skeptic community. Various members of CSI and their editors have favorable Wikipedia pages, while their paranormal and parapsychology counterparts are either omitted or their Wikipedia pages contain a lot of skepticism. This type of editing is literally their mission.
Guerrilla Skeptics = The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
If one needed further proof of the connection, one needs to look no farther than the Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of CSI. Gerbic writes for it and they have a page for her. She’s described as their Wikipediatrian. It’s safe to say that her views and theirs align.
The result is that there’s a never ending stream of edits to paranormal articles on Wikipedia that all look like they were written by people from the same group with the same agenda. It might be acceptable if it was all out in the open, but the fact that it’s being organized by a group that claims to be benign, but collaborates in secrecy creates serious credibility problems for Wikipedia.
Their secrecy is a double edged sword. On the one hand they have plausible deniability, but on the other hand there is absolutely no reason to trust anything Gerbic says. “We operate in total secrecy, but you can trust us.” is not convincing to any objective party.
Fair Minded Scholarship is Missing From Wikipedia
For many of these articles, particularly for anything related to parapsychology, there are a number of knowledgeable people who could contribute sufficient documentation to balance the articles, but have been shut out of the process. They have run into coordinated efforts that rebuffed their attempts and in some cases, kicked them off Wikipedia, solely for scholarly disagreement. They are simply shut out of the process. I documented a couple of these cases in my book, and I know of others.
You have to be organized to do that. It takes several people working together to kick someone off that platform. And the only organization that exists on Wikipedia with the means and the motivation is the Guerrilla Skeptics. It would also partly explain why they operate in secrecy because ganging up to kick people off the platform for the kind of disagreement that is supposed to be a normal part of the Wikipedia process is frowned upon, to say the very least.
Wikipedia Can be Fixed
All of this could be fixed with a couple of changes to how Wikipedia is edited.
- Require people to use their verified real name to edit. So many problems can be solved by just this one thing. When people are tethered to their online behavior, they tend to be less obnoxious.
- Ranking by real world expertise. Once Wikipedia limits people to using their real names, they can be ranked by their real world expertise and removed from discussions where they have nothing important to contribute. If an area has a governing body, they have the final say. Encyclopedia articles are supposed to tell you about the subject matter and the best people to do that are those that are experts in that field. True experts generally know what the evidence is, both for and against their subject.
Do those two things and many of Wikipedia’s worst problems will go away. People with actual expertise will be able to edit and trolls will be powerless to stop them.