Concerns with Wikipedia
by Tom Butler
Wikipedia is hugely important as a means of documenting society and making that knowledge base available to anyone with access to the Internet. For the most part, it has been successful. The point of this article is that Wikipedia has the potential to enable special interest groups to exert undue influence on public opinion. This is most obvious in subjects that are not part of mainstream thought, what is referred to here as a Frontier Subject: The study, practice or experience of a phenomenon which has not been academically established as an accepted part of mainstream culture.
The reason this is important is that a search of the Internet for almost any subject presents a Wikipedia article as first or nearly first choice. Citizens, and especially children, will often learn about a subject from Wikipedia first, and that means they may be taught by special interests groups.
Treatment of subjects
Wikipedia rules governing content of articles are intended to assure a balanced disclosure of each subject in the detached style of traditional encyclopedias. Because the editors are seldom subject matter experts, everything in articles must be referenced. Consequently, the main rules used to control the tone of an article concerns the acceptability of the information source and neutral point of view of wording in the article. Original research is not allowed and journals for frontier subjects are virtually not acceptable. The problem is that it is the dominant group of editors that decides what is acceptable and who determine how a subject is characterized.
Virtually all material in Wikipedia articles is at least second hand, and often based on very outdated material. Because books are preferred over websites as being more academic, and it often takes years to publish a book, it is common to find book references that have long-since been outdated by new research published in journals and on websites. More importantly, references are often used that are unavailable to the reader, making it nearly impossible to verify that the included information is actually supported. Too often, it is not.
"Original research" means that what must be used is an article written by someone else about that research. Small and/or non-mainstream publications are considered "fringe," and are therefore easily discounted by an editor determined not to allow its use. In most frontier subjects, there are only small publications because of the immaturity of the field. Mainstream publications will not venture to publish a positive report about a nonmainstream subject. Also, book publishers will not invest the resources to publish a book intended as a serious research report unless there is a large audience. All of this means that collaboration in frontier subjects is accomplished via newsletters, self-published books and websites. The most current research information is too often on the same search engine page as hobbyists speculating about the subject from a point of view of "how it helped me today," rather than whether or not "it" has any validity in fact.
Wikipedia editing rules
Wikipedia has rules governing the interaction of editors such as the need to assume good faith and to be civil toward other editors. There are also procedural rules, such as how often and why an editor might change another person's edits. Perhaps most important are the rules governing what may be included in articles. For instance, Articles are required to be written from a neutral point of view and everything in articles must be based on verifiable references. The references themselves must not be out of the mainstream or self-serving to the author, and so there is also a conflict of interest rule.
An editor's failure to follow the rules is usually addressed by other editors, but if that does not work, then it is possible to bring an editor before a tribunal that has the power to ban an editor from making further contribution.
Who can edit articles
The policy of Wikipedia, or at least the dominant culture's policy, is that subject matter experts are discouraged from editing articles within their area of expertise. In fact, it is common for subject matter experts to be so abused that they soon stop attempting to contribute content. One of the Wikipedia founders, Larry Sanger, has even written the article, Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism, explaining the pitfalls of editors not using their real name (no accountability) and not being knowledgeable about the subjects they edit. His response was to begin Citizendium, which is a kinder and more dependable online encyclopedia which we urge you to support.
In fact, anyone can edit Wikipedia articles because anyone can register under an assumed name. However, if an editor is found out as a person who might in some way benefit from what is said in an article, that person is considered to have a conflict of interest and is strongly discouraged from editing associated articles. This is an important rule because in the case of frontier subjects, virtually all of the people who are knowledgeable about the subject are the same people who are leading study groups, have websites, have or might write a book or give a talk on the subject.
The skeptical community
By "special interest groups," I am generally referring to the members of Wikiproject:Rational Skepticism and those who are sympathetic to them. Based on my encounters with this group, they appear to be James Randi and Robert Carroll adherents. People involved with frontier subjects often document their dismay at how unreasonably closed the skeptical community is to new thought and how ruthless its adherents are in their efforts to make sure the general public understands that the frontier subject is impossible, and therefore, cannot be. People believing such things are branded as delusional or possibly fraudulent.
This tradition of pathological skepticism is now an integral part of Wikipedia and the online encyclopedia has given this community inordinate access to students of the world looking for material to write a term paper. The skeptical theme is that anything that is not explicitly defined by mainstream science must not be shown in Wikipedia to have any form of possibility. Review of any article in Wikipedia will show that the subject is carefully characterized as fringe and/or pseudoscience.
It is essential to remember that the skeptical community believes that it is executing the will of mainstream science to protect the community from being deceived. They edit from this perspective even though they seldom actually know anything about the subject. But the irony is that people who research frontier subjects are necessarily very careful about their assumptions because they know that they are examining something that is not commonly accepted as reality. One might even argue that such researchers are super critical of their work, and from personal experience, it is easy for them to assume others are equally critical about what they believe. In fact, the skeptical viewpoint is based on assumption and seldom on empirical evidence. The inescapable conclusion is that the most aggressive skeptics have adopted a faith-based viewpoint and their argument is an emotional one cloaked with the authority of science. This is the same working one could use for religious belief.
It is common for skeptical editors to denounce anyone who studies frontier subjects as morons, idiots, deluded, or even more libelous, charlatans and frauds. There are administrative-level editors and procedures to request help from such abuse, but in many instances, complaints are answered by a barrage of comments agreeing with the original insult and adding many more disparaging words to the list. In the end, it is an inescapable conclusion that Wikipedia intends to maintain a civil work environment, but is unable to apply existing rules to protect editors from other editors. The common term is "poisoned atmosphere."
Why this is important
You will notice that this article is on a website dedicated to Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), but is written to accommodate any subject that involves new ideas or interest in observed but unexplained experiences. It could be argued that EVP is the fringe of the fringe, and even the fringe shies away from it. The fact is though, our study of EVP is producing a fast growing database of empirical evidence. The AA-EVP is funding research by academically trained scientists, but funding is almost nonexistent compared to that available for mainstream subjects. An important reason funding is not available is that the popular wisdom of mainstream culture is shaped by mainstream science and opinion setters, such as the late Carl Sagan ... and authoritative sources of information such as Wikipedia. The money goes with the interest, and it was not until after the movie, White Noise introduced the world to EVP that research grants became available in our field.
The Internet provides extraordinary access to the public making it possible for a determined, but very minority group of people to have extraordinary influence on what people believe. It is not realistic to think that private websites can be controlled, but Wikipedia is publically funded and affords public access to virtually everything that is written in its pages--as you will see, both administration pages and articles.
What can be done?
Whatever your subject, learn to talk about it in terms that a person new to the subject will understand. Giving talks, writing articles, being on talk shows all give opportunities to learn what works and what does not. People usually know what they mean, but often fail to communicate that meaning. Much of the criticism of the frontier subjects is due to the failure of people who study them to communicate what they are and why they are important.
Maintain the viewpoint that the subject is an observed phenomenon and that there is a need to study what it is. Avoid a single conclusions by clearly explaining the working hypothesis that best explains the evidence at this time and always try to leave the discussion open for alternative explanations. Do not seem to be determined to prove anything. Let the evidence determine the next step.
Establish a presence on the Internet with an informative website. It need not be slick or even pretty so long as it looks professional, conveys a sense that you are level-headed and that you know what you are talking about. Keep it current. If there is empirical evidence for some parts of what you want to say, then clearly explain that. If parts of it are based on assumption or belief, then clearly explain those parts and clearly distinguish the two. A good indication that you may need to explain the difference is if you use an assumption in the same paragraph with empirically supported information. Make the difference clear to maintain your integrity. Probably most important is that the articles that others might link to for citations are stable. Credible articles that can be referenced in other work have become an important replacement for scholarly books in frontier subjects.
Seek critique and feedback from friends, or even better, from webmasters for other frontier subjects. Mainstream science has a system of societies, universities and publications that enables collaboration and archiving of the knowledge base. This is missing in for most frontier subjects, so it is important to establish a culture of cooperation amongst interested people. This article is about an issue that is common to all frontier subjects and it is not necessary for us to have common subject matter interests for this issue to be addressed.
Write an article about your subject that is suitable for an encyclopedia and include it on the website. For all of its faults, Wikipedia is a good place to see what formats works best. This article is not to prove your point in any way. It is intended to be a clear explanation of what your subject is without characterization as to its validity. Perhaps people outside your circle of experts should help draft the article because it needs to be a serious "What I would like to see in Wikipedia" article that is written from a neutral point of view with good, solid references. The good should be shown with the bad. Seek and include viable alternative explanations. This article may also make an excellent "white paper" to be used as a handout at conferences.
Put the "Concerns with Wikipedia" logo with a link to this article on your website (http://atransc.org/articles/articles_wikipedia.htm). Alternatively, write an article warning people about Wikipedia yourself and use this logo to link to that article. It is worth noting that the content of this web page is "copyright free" (Creative Commons) for you to us as you see fit; however, an important point to remember is that the more links there are to this page, the higher it will be in the search engines and the more people will read it. This is all about public education.
We do not recommend that anyone becomes an editor at Wikipedia. Until the environment has become more civil, we feel that the anger you will certainly come to know will do more harm than good. We recommend Citizendium if you want to contribute to an encyclopedia and Wikisynergy is especially good for frontier subjects. Wherever you edit online, always use your real name. Reading the essay about the Lord of the Flies will tell you why we feel Wikipedia is able to sustain such a gangland-like atmosphere amongst editors.
Navigation guide for Wikipedia
The most important thing anyone can do to help attract serious research is to become personally educated about the field of study and how people react to it. What are the arguments used to discount the work? Insight into this can be found by reading the Discussion page associated with Article pages in Wikipedia--in effect, by looking behind the curtain. Read the History of both pages. For instance for on the history page for the article on the Institute of Noetic Sciences, you can see (may be in the archive now) that on March 16, 2007, Dean Radin was in an edit war with skeptical editors over the opening phrase "The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) is a non-profit research institute that engages in scientific research ...", which the other editors wanted to have read as "...(IONS) is a group that attempts to use scientific research." By changing the perspective of "engages," which is fact and conveys intelligent action, to "attempts," which is not true but does indicate the probability that IONS is amateurish and does not succeed in applying the scientific method, editors hoped to cast doubt in the readers mind about the authenticity of IONS. This is an example of characterizing a subject to cast doubt, rather than simply reporting about what it is as a subject and without attributing truth or lie.
This is a very important point: the skeptical community has even managed to establish an article category of pseudoscience. The term is usually used to reduce the credibility of frontier subjects, and is generally considered a derogatory term. Likely your subject is on the list or will soon be added. Qualifying term or phrase that implies unscientific thinking or practices are routinely used to suggest through innuendo that the subject is not credible. Something as subtle as relating a subject to religious or spiritual subjects effectively changes a frontier subject from an effort to apply good science to understand something, to a belief system that is not to be taken seriously.
Editors are supposed to sign their posts in the discussion pages. By clicking on the editor's name at the end of the post, for instance Joshua Schroeder (talk), you will go to the editor's personal page. Every editor has one and it is considered off-limits for others to post anything there. You will first see that Joshua Schroeder (SA) does not much like what he prefers to characterize as fringe subject or "believers," and that he is dedicated to protecting the status quo as he understands it to be defined by mainstream science.
If you click on the "(talk)" after "Joshua Schroeder," you will go directly to his discussion page. It is there that Administrative-class editors (Admins) alert editors about formal complaints or issue warnings and advice. It is educational to see who is commenting there and why. For instance, SA has become one of the most forceful editors in the frontier subjects and it is common for other editors to first say how much they support his work and then to ask that he helps them in a subject matter dispute somewhere in Wikipedia. SA has had so many warnings, block notices and complaints about his incivility that he has begun deleting negative comments. He also does not keep an archive of old posts, but by finding an old post on the talk history page, and clicking on the "(last)", it is possible to get the flavor of what others are really saying to him. The subjects are usually listed at the right of who has made the post.
You can see what an editor has been doing in Wikipedia by clicking on "User Contribution" in the "Tool Box" at the left. This is a good way to assess what the editor is interested in, and in SA's case, you will see that just about every frontier subject is of interest to him. He is a student astronomer and is also interested in any article that addresses cosmologies and theories in physics that are not in agreement with his views.
There is a virtual labyrinth of administrative and policy pages in Wikipedia. One sure way to navigate the maze is to follow comments from interesting editors. For instance, an editor might make a complaint about incivility at Wikipedia:Wikiquette alerts. Someone will warn another about civility with, "You have violated WP:CIVIL," which is a link to the Wikipedia:Civility page containing the policy. (Please note that the policy is also edited and has been occasionally diluted by editors wanting to be allowed more leeway in how rude they are to others.
Another good place to look is the Request for Arbitration pages. Two important ones are Paranormal and Martinphi-ScienceApologist. [Science Apologist is now Joshua Schroeder] Both have several associated pages for evidence and such, and although painful to read, they offer an important lesson for all of us. There are others, such as the Incident notice board and the Arbitration enforcement board.
It is evident that there is a skeptics group and a "proponent" group in Wikipedia. The skeptics are very well organized and ruthless in their treatment of anyone with whom they disagree. They have driven off almost all of the "proponents," even though the people who oppose them mostly just want their subject honestly reported, rather than cast in the shadow of "it is not supported by mainstream science and is therefore impossible." This difference in tactics is well-illustrated by the interview between a person dedicated to balanced articles and ScienceApologist.
It is important to keep in mind that Wikipedia is not the evil empire, it is a very important tool that needs a few changes to keep it from being a platform for social engineering. It really is not realistic to say that one person is at fault. This is especially true with such a large enterprise involving so many independently thinking people, but it is evident that the skeptical community is out of control, and that as long as people can insult people with impunity and ignore consensus and balanced reporting, it is essential that the public be told that the online encyclopedia cannot be trusted as a knowledge base.
Wikipedia has the potential to be an important research tool, especially for mainstream subjects. It should be noted that articles about frontier subjects are often biased by the dominant group which tends to be skeptical.
Articles are apt to be drastically changed by warring factions, so only use them as research tools and not for reference. Always examine the talk page of articles to see if it is stable or if editors are fighting over content.
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