Sunday, 10 March 2019

The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Skepticism, Woo, Wikipedia and Beyond

Let me state from the outset that I very much appreciate the utility of, and need for, healthy skepticism – at Wikipedia, in the world at large, and in my personal life – especially in areas where practises and ideologies may be medically, personally, socially or culturally harmful. The emphasis here, however, is very much on the word "healthy", in both camps. A self-confessed libtard, I write, having played minor working roles in the fields of physics, electronics and computing, and having an amateur interest in the study of Eastern action-philosophy as applied in the modern West, and both traditional and modern psychology.

In December 2013, things came to a head at Wikipedia – though not for the first time and certainly not for the last – between adherents of certain fields that are considered by mainstream scientific consensus to be pseudoscience, and skeptics: "After what appears to have been several years of trying to skew Wikipedia coverage of their field to something more favourable, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP) took it upon themselves to petition Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales to change Wikipedia policy." The petition at called for "fair-minded referees".

In response to this, on 23 March 2014, Jimmy Wales replied:

"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."

This gave rise to an essay on Wikipedia entitled "Lunatic charlatans", which continues, and takes up the challenge:

"This unapologetic endorsement of the NPOV (Neutral Point of View) policy on pseudoscience and the policy on fringe science is the clearest indication yet that Wikipedia's robust response to cranks, quacks and charlatans is solidly in line with Wikipedia's foundational goals. We should document these things, we should politely explain why we will not follow the line of Natural News, Mercola and Dr. Oz, but will instead follow reputable scientific sources. If science rejects your favoured alternative therapy, Wikipedia is not the place to fix it. Instead, come up with robust, replicable scientific evidence, published in reputable journals, and then we will tell the world all about it."

Fellow Wikipedia editors are also invited to add a user box to their profile pages which features a red "stop sign" (a red circle with a diagonal bar) superimposed over the image of a yellow rubber duck (a reference to "quacks"), and accompanied by the words "This user resists the POV pushing of lunatic charlatans" (the input of militant skeptics not being considered POV-pushing). In addition, there is a project at Wikipedia that specifically deals with scientific skepticism, and their members, too, have their own (neutrally-worded) identifying user box.

Such wording does concern me, because if we were to transpose the gist of this essay into another field, it is akin in certain ways to saying: "As a political scientist and ultimate arbiter of fact, I treat libtards with the utmost fairness, integrity and objectivity." I mean, if that doesn't ring any bells in the cerebrum or in the heart, then there's something wrong somewhere.

Nevertheless, in the case of blatant pseudoscience and patent cranks, the subject of this essay appears on the surface to be a perfectly laudable and much-needed effort, and an entry on the talk page of the essay entitled "Yes. We are biased" adds to the explanation, beginning: "So yes, we are biased towards science and biased against pseudoscience. We are biased towards astronomy, and biased against astrology ..." and lists a long string of scientific subjects and their pseudoscientific counterparts.

However, the skeptics' attention is not merely confined to pseudoscience and fringe topics (such as anything paranormal), but to any number of topics – and also BLPs (Biographies of Living People), where extra care has to be taken not to unduly denigrate or defame the subject – in fields that might more charitably be considered unorthodox, heretical or "free inquiry", as well as many aspects of spirituality and religion (whether "New Age", right-wing/fundamentalist or simply "cosmic woo"), and "pop psychology".

Let's not forget, however, that there is often great value in "free inquiry", and that many of the world's advances and paradigm shifts have been made by thinking outside prevailing paradigms, their associated ideologies, and the potential paradigm paralysis or fixation of their practitioner-authorities and adherents. As the American inventor, Thomas Edison stated: "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." and "Great success is built on failure, frustration, even catastrophe." And as the American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist, Buckminster Fuller said: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." So let's be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

At Wikipedia and more generally on the world wide web, this growing polarization has led to a huge number of minor skirmishes and some major battles, not only between adherents and skeptics but also with otherwise uninvolved editors who have wittingly or unwittingly found themselves on the battlefield, in an attempt to mediate or find what seems to them to be a sensible NPOV compromise. One of the biggest challenges here would be the idea from Wikipedia's guidelines on fringe theories that the pro:con ratio has to be proportionally skewed in favour of mainstream sources and consensus, which can result in Wikipedia articles that really and repeatedly hammer the article's subject, or suffer death by a thousand cuts.

If you look through some of the edit summaries, especially the talk page entries, and also the administrative noticeboards (though users tend to be more guarded and better behaved there), you'll see that even relatively-moderate editors sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of name-calling for raising questions about "the established consensus" between editors – epithets from certain more-militant skeptics including "pseudoscientist", "woo-monger", "loon", "lunatic charlatan", "fanboi" and "troll" or simply "fuck you!" on the one side, and "pseudoskeptic", "evangelical scientism" and "missionary zeal" on the other – these latter accusations, though in the minority, being particularly ill-received, perhaps because they are the cause of greater cognitive dissonance, since if not God, then Truth and reality-based consensus "... is on our side".

Strangely enough – and setting aside the assertion of mystics that what we commonly call "the real world" is in fact an illusion – there are many benefits to be gained from certain immersive spiritual and mystical studies: not least the development of patience, sincerity, empathy, respect and trust, without which one cannot be of real service to others; the development of flexibility, cognitive fluidity, cognitive fluency, intuition, insight, liberality, compassion, altruism, philanthropy, sometimes polymathy, grace, love (always love, in a range beyond the sensual and the romantic), "peace", and "unity"; partly through a reduction in certain technical impediments to progress such as ignorance, impatience, egotism, bias, narrow-mindedness, black and white thinking, greed, hypocrisy, vanity, pride, stress, over-emotionality, and over-intellect. But, of course this is just more "cosmic woo", or "soft science" at the very best, to those who have not tasted the fruit and not "walked the walk".

To my mind, the constant to-and-fro about POV-pushing is a symptom or signal of more deeply-rooted causes, such as the escalating and deeply polarized ideological battles for "hearts and minds" between fringe and skepticism, free inquiry and orthodoxy, conservative and liberal; and it is such attitudes and mind-sets (as witnessed especially in talk page name-calling) that are often driving the overall pattern of editing behind the scenes as well as individual edits (effectively "gaming the system" and yet still presenting a strong and compelling argument and being seen as adhering to and not breaking the rules). Is it a case of "all is fair in love and war"?

Hence the combatants and the aggrieved alike often resort to administrative noticeboards at Wikipedia – and also to a growing number of web sites, blogs, social media pages and chat, which deal with one side or other of such issues, to point out deficiencies in the system, air grievances, draw up battle plans, and denounce one-another. Yes, I know: Touché! Mea culpa!

I simply have qualms about being a prisoner to closed, confined and mechanistic models of reality, and the glorification and militarization of systemic bias on either side, wherever these things act to the detriment of redeeming faculties such as nuance, empathy, mutual respect and cultural "richness" and diversity, which recognize that as human beans (and Wikipedians), "we are all in the same boat".

NPOV is as much about professional attitude and mind-set as it is about the resultant action.


Image: The Last Judgment (Das Juengste Gericht).
Image author: Tom Schulhauser.
Image licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Hello Eric,
    I read a few articles about the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology petition and came across this.

    “Interestingly, the petition also cited Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who has since left the project, as proof that the site needed an overhaul of its policies:

    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.

    Ars contacted Sanger about the use of his name in this argument, and he offered a more nuanced take on the petitioners' request:

    “Wikipedia's neutrality policy, at least as I originally articulated it, requires that CAM's practitioners be given an opportunity to explain their views. At the same time, the policy also requires that more space be given to mainstream views that are critical of CAM, precisely because such critical views are held by most medical health professionals.
    I am as big a defender of rationality, science, and objective reality as you are likely to find. But I also think a public resource like Wikipedia should be fully committed to intellectual tolerance and
    the free exchange of ideas. That, together with an interest in providing a way to resolve disputes, is just what drove me to advocate for and articulate the Wikipedia's neutrality policy. I have confidence that if CAM's advocates are given an opportunity to air their views fully and sympathetically—not to say they should be allowed to make Wikipedia assert their views—and skeptics are also given free rein to report their explanation of why they think CAM is a load of crap, then a rational reader will be given the tools he or she needs to take a reasonable position about the matter.

    Putting all ideas on the table—but giving more space to the mainstream views and putting less emphasis on the alternative views—might be problematic in practice. Requiring that Wikipedia sources
    be based on third-party, published, and often peer-reviewed work is an easy way to at least make a passing effort at disseminating high-quality information. But how would space be doled out to advocates of alternative theories, who are just as certain about the rightness of their ideas as any scientist, if that guideline became more flexible? Would they be allowed to present their views in a set number of paragraphs? Or as a percentage of the number of words written about mainstream theories? Such a setup might be a slippery slope to what's been termed "false balance," a subject on which Ars has written at length before. In that scenario, views that have been ignored for a reason are given undeserved light to create the illusion of an even playing field.

    That last paragraph reminded me of a quote on the Wikipedia page for Larry Sanger.

    “Sanger left Wikipedia in 2002, and has since been critical of the project.[16][17] He states that, despite its merits, Wikipedia lacks credibility due to, among other things, a lack of respect for expertise.”

    James Faint

  2. Many thanks for your thoughtful, reasonable and nuanced input, James. It's much appreciated.