Skepticism about science and medicine

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Posts Tagged ‘Wikipedia unreliable’

Knowledge, understanding — but then there’s Wikipedia

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/07/17

I’ve had much occasion to comment on the unreliability of Wikipedia on any topic where viewpoints differ (The Wiles of Wiki; Health, Wikipedia, and Common Sense; Lowest common denominator — Wikipedia and its ilk; The unqualified (= without qualifications) gurus of Wikipedia; Another horror story about Wikipedia; The Fairy-Tale Cult of Wikipedia; Beware the Internet: “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation).

However, yesterday morning’s Public Radio warned me that I should question Wikipedia’s reliability even over what might seem to be objective factual data. Many media ran the same story, for instance the Sydney Morning Herald.

The revelation was that 8.5% of all Wiki articles, some 2.7 million of them, were “written” by one individual, Sverker Johansson: “On a good day the output can be as high as 10,000 articles”. “His claims to authorship are contested however, as they were created by a computer generated software algorithm, otherwise known as a bot. Johansson has named his Lsjbot”.

The Public Radio piece included comments from Jimmy Wales, Wiki’s founder, who said that this was actually nothing new, that “bots” had been used to “create” “content” from the very time Wiki was first established.

Johansson said that his motive is to bring knowledge to the widest possible audience.
An obvious question would have been, what is meant by “knowledge”?

A primitive answer might be, knowledge consists of facts, things that are indisputably so.
For example?
Well . . . . That all humans are mortal?
Hard to quarrel with that one, though quibblers might suggest a dependence on the definition of “human” and on the status of gods who sometimes take human shape.
So how about “the Earth is not flat”?
No quibbling there, provided we ignore as irrelevant any technicalities that concern only topologists and their multiple dimensions. But such negatives are not particularly informative, and surely “knowledge” implies being informative.
So should we have said “the Earth is spherical”? No, because quite important characteristics and phenomena depend on the fact that the Earth is not exactly spherical.

The point is, I suggest, that there’s no such thing as purely factual knowledge, because that isn’t informative. Data have meaning only in some context.
One might say that there are two kinds of knowledge, map-like and story-like. Maps tell you how to go somewhere, but give no reason for doing so, no meaningful context. Stories, on the other hand, many not be factually accurate in every respect, but they convey meaning, understanding. As Steven Weinberg has put it, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. Pure facts, data, convey nothing that’s meaningful for us human beings; context, relationships, emotions, ethics, morality are what give meaning to facts.

Bots, robots, computer programs, “artificial intelligence”, “information technology” are inherently incapable of delivering meaningful knowledge, or of judging whether or not certain data are meaningful or whether they are nonsensical.
It follows that Wikipedia ought to restrict itself to things that matter to computers, automata, robots, bots.

The usefulness of Wikipedia — of anything that claims to be informative — depends inescapably on the inescapably human judgment that went into selecting and vetting what is presented as “knowledge”, even if that has the appearance of purely “objective” data.
In the earliest days of the computer-obsessed era, a principle was recognized that contemporary computeroids like Wales should re-learn: GIGO, garbage in = garbage out.

There are no databases or other repositories of supposed fact that can be relied on not to contain errors and misleading “facts”, and only human intelligence, common sense, and judgment are capable of detecting them. I learned about that early in my research career, when I was studying photolysis of organic iodine compounds. Nitric oxide, NO, could be used to combine with iodine atoms, so I searched for information about NOI, nitrosyl iodide, in the index of Chemical Abstracts, the universal source of information about chemical matters in pre-computer days. I was astonished to find that a cited source turned out to be an article not about NOI but about NaI, sodium iodide. I assumed that whoever had “written” that article had dictated to a secretary and then failed to proofread. I doubt that such errors no longer occur, albeit perhaps owing to flawed speech-recognition software rather than secretaries.
Beyond that, how is a computer or a bot to figure out whether or not the Earth should be described as spherical?
And how much more misleading would a bot be about more complex matters?
Could a bot recognize that the conclusions of a published, peer-reviewed article are not to be believed because the statistics were incompetent, or the protocol inappropriate?

Automated procedures cannot deliver reliable information. They can search databases, but they may just be collecting Garbage Input. Imagine what “purely factual” information computers would glean about HIV/AIDS, say, since just about everything in the mainstream literature has been misinterpreted (The Case against HIV).

Sadly, the computeroid nonsense doesn’t stop with Wikipedia. Books are “written” in the same way:
“Phil Parker, who is purported to be the most published author in history, has successfully published over 85,000 physical books on niche topics such as childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Each book takes less than an hour to ‘write’. In fact the writing is carried out by patented algorithms which enable computers to do all the heavy lifting.” “The books — typically non-fiction and on extremely niche topics — are compiled on-demand, based on publicly available information found on the internet and in offline sources” (Automaton author writes up a storm).
Not everyone would agree that this technique can produce non-fiction, something that is not fictional.

“Bots may also be writing the journalist out of the future of journalism. Ken Schwencke, a reporter on the Los Angeles Times, has created ‘Quakebot’, an algorithm which automatically creates and publishes a story on the newspaper’s website every time an earthquake is detected in California” (This is how Sverker Johansson wrote 8.5 per cent of everything published on Wikipedia).

This is how the world will end, not with a bang, not with a whimper *, but through the abandonment of thinking under the spell of computeroids and their bots.


* See “The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot

Posted in media flaws | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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.


Posted in conflicts of interest, media flaws, medical practices, peer review, scientism, scientists are human, unwarranted dogmatism in science | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

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