Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/06/19

OMSJ™ (Office of Medical & Scientific Justice) once again alerted me to something well worth reading: a study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association  revealing how unreliable Wikipedia is about matters of health and medicine. An editorial  in the Journal comments on the same issue.

I had first learned about Wikipedia when a friend alerted me that there was an entry about me. It turned out to have been composed by someone furious about my “HIV/AIDS denialism”, namely, a graduate student and member of  who had also posted at a nasty review — however soon withdrawn by him — of my book, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory.
Several of my friends had attempted to have the worst calumnies in the Wiki entry modified toward accuracy, but they were always defeated by the original miscreant, abetted by Wiki’s editors. And I learned that Wiki’s rules forbid one from correcting even factual errors in one’s own bio entry.

For some of what I’ve learned Wiki’s flaws, see Beware the Internet: “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation; The Fairy-Tale Cult of Wikipedia; Another horror story about Wikipedia; The unqualified (= without qualifications) gurus of Wikipedia; Lowest common denominator — Wikipedia and its ilk.

The obvious question is, why would anyone think that an “encyclopedia” could be at all reliable when it is written by whoever cares to do so? With “editors” “appointed” just because they want to be?
It could only be someone who is very simpleminded and naively ignorant about human beings.
Fifty years ago or so, that was exemplified by some science-fiction buffs: for instance, those who fell for Dianetics, a bowdlerized and over-simplistic take-off on psychology and psychoanalysis, and Dianetics’ progeny, Scientology, which adds to the pseudo-psychology the pseudo-religious notions of Theosophy and its ilk. The intellectual basis for these cults was no secret, they originated with L. Ron Hubbard, a successful author of Science Fiction.

Nowadays the Hubbard-role is played by computer buffs or computeroids (like Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia) who appear to believe that software programs and robots can be made artificially intelligent, that things designed and made by human beings can transcend the fallibilities of humans, and that anyone clever enough to use a computer is thereby qualified by integrity, knowledge, and wisdom to participate in creating an “encyclopedia”.

Others don’t agree. A petition at reads:
“Wikipedia is widely used and trusted. Unfortunately, much of the information related to holistic approaches to healing is biased, misleading, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. For five years, repeated efforts to correct this misinformation have been blocked and the Wikipedia organization has not addressed these issues. As a result, people who are interested in the benefits of Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique, turn to your pages, trust what they read, and do not pursue getting help from these approaches which research has, in fact, proven to be of great benefit to many. This has serious implications, as people continue to suffer with physical and emotional problems that might well be alleviated by these approaches.
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. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed ‘skeptics’ who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.
I pledge not to donate to your fundraising efforts until these changes have been made.”

The response from Jimmy Wales was:
“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.”

So Wales reveals himself to be an acolyte of scientism (Scientism, the Religion of Science) and wrong as well about replication and peer review; and a typical computeroid who believes that all that matters is that policies should be “spot-on”, whereas anyone with experience of working with human beings knows that it isn’t the policies that matter but who administers them and how.
Wiki’s policies are indeed splendid, and they would work just fine if the people contributing to Wiki were impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, and scrupulous in gathering all available information on any given topic and presenting it evenhandedly. Such people do not exist, however, and there’s no mechanism for impartial resolution of differences of opinion about Wiki entries. On any topic where there is a significant difference of opinion among sane and reasonably informed people, Wiki is at the mercy of the fanatical extremists who grab control of the pertinent entry.

Full disclosure on substantive matters:
Re “Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM)”:
I’m agnostic about acupuncture, knowing people who have been helped by it and others who have not, and having seen studies where fMRI and voltage measurements seem to show something significant about the classical acupuncture points.
However, I’m not a fan of “Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine” and their ilk and believe that any of their benefits reflect the placebo response.
Re Journal of the American Osteopathic Association:
Some decades ago I read Martin Gardner’s Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science and did not question his classification of chiropractic and osteopathy as quackery. Since then I’ve learned, and not only at first hand, that chiropractic can be very helpful in some instances of back pain, and that osteopathy is nowadays quite different from its origins.
A former colleague in the Chemistry Department is now president of the Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, and I learned that the curriculum of this College is the same as that of conventional Colleges of Medicine with the addition of 200 hours of instruction in manipulation: in other words, osteopathy nowadays is mainstream medicine plus chiropractic.



8 Responses to “Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense”

  1. Dan Kegel said

    I just spot-checked and didn’t find anything obviously wrong (though I have yet to plow through the huge Talk page).

    Can you list a couple of the bits you contest, and I’ll check and possibly correct them?

    • Henry Bauer said

      Dan Kegel:
      I appreciate your offer, but I concluded that it’s not worth my time to attempt to correct the Wiki entry on me and resolved to ignore it.
      So I’m not going to look at it again.
      One point I recall is its stating that I resigned as dean in order to fight affirmative action, when actually I resigned as dean about half-a-dozen years before political correctness arrived on campus and I joined the National Association of Scholars and edited Virginia Scholar to fight for traditional academic ideals. Part of that was to point to the hypocrisies perpetrated in the name of affirmative action, like setting quotas while denying it.

      • Dan Kegel said

        What year did you join the NAS? I can at least get that part right.

      • Henry Bauer said

        Dan Kegel:
        What difference would one small correction make? It’s not worth my time trying to find out whether it was 1991 or 1989 or whatever

  2. Mark said

    Hmmm…while I agree with the general idea of this post, I have some issues with some of the specifics, like your take on energy healing and what seems to come across to me as a slam on artificial intelligence.

    Anyway, I wanted to let you know, in case you didn’t already know, that there is a conspiracy of pseudoskeptics calling themselves “The Guerrilla Skeptics” that is, if memory serves me correctly, run through secret Facebook pages and is led by a pseudoskeptic named Susan Gerbic. You can look up their webpage, if you want. I think that there’s also a video on the internet, posted by the pseudoskeptics, of Gerbic lecturing her pseudoskeptic followers on, among other things, how to subvert the Wikipedia rules (like the rule against talking about Wikipedia strategy on secret Facebook pages, I believe, as an example) that are supposed to be in place to try to stop conspiracies, like The Guerrilla Skeptics, from doing this sort of thing. I would not be surprised if that dude that gave you such trouble was working with them, or inspired by them.

    • Henry Bauer said

      I hadn’t heard of these pseudo-skeptics before. They seem to be a very small in-group, judging by the trivia on their blogs.
      “My” grad student at AIDStruth was/is an HIV/AIDS vigilante rather than a general pseudo-skeptic, haven’t seen anything from him on any other topic.

      • Mark said

        Well, The Guerrilla Skeptics conspiracy may be small, but they seem to be getting more influential. The pseudoskeptic movement, as a whole, has been trying to manipulate opinion against alternative claims ever since the mid-70s, when the organization now known as CSI started under the acronym CSICOP, which is usually the time when the modern-day pseudoskeptic movement is considered to have started. I’m assuming that you’ve heard about CSICOP, before, and if you or any of your other readers haven’t, then you can look them up. Well, one of the offshoots, The JREF, holds a conference, every year, called The Amazing Meeting, or TAM. I believe that it was back in 2008 that a guy named Tim Farley started teaching pseudoskeptics, at TAM of 2008, some pointers on how to manipulate internet software to try to push their pseudoskeptic beliefs, as well as to try to harm alternative beliefs. Gerbic seems to have been inspired by Farley, but unlike Farley, who deals with a lot of internet software on his skeptic tools website, Gerbic and her followers seem more focused on manipulating Wikipedia, specifically. All of this is to the best of my memory, of course. Anyway, if you want to see some more about the sleaziness of The Guerrilla Skeptics conspiracy, here’s a good post:

        There are some other posts on that site about them, as well.

      • Henry Bauer said

        I’m thoroughly familiar with CSICOP and its ilk, see my Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2001. Also a description on p. 55 of my Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland 2012
        I’m a longstanding member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is the antithesis of the dogmatic scientism of CSICOP et al.

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