An aggressive group of skeptical ideologues has taken control of Rupert Sheldrake's biography page on Wikipedia. Their ultimate goal is to control all available information across the collaborative encyclopedia.
Blogger Craig Weiler details his experience of becoming involved with the editing process of the biography page and the overall controversy on his blog, The Weiler Psi.
Sheldrake was involved in a controversy in March of this year after giving a speech titled "The Science Delusion" at TEDxWhiteChapel in January. His speech focused on the materialistic dogmas of modern science, and was attacked by members of the skeptical movement and longtime critics of Sheldrake.
TED fell in line with the skeptics and removed the video, along with Graham Hancock's speech "The War on Consciousness." The comments section for Sheldrake's video were generally in favor of leaving the video up so that viewers could make up their own minds about the content.
TED refused to falter from its opinion, citing a list of reasons for the removal of the videos that were submitted by its anonymous science board. Following its decision, TED was lambasted by commenters for removing the talks and providing reasons that were not well thought-out.
After the TED controversy had died down, Sheldrake outed a group of skeptics known as the Guerrilla Skeptics in a newsletter. This group devotes its time and energy to modifying Wikipedia entries so that they reflect a skeptical point of view about psychic phenomena and considers research on these subjects as pseudoscience.
A concentrated attack on Sheldrake's Wikipedia biography began after he called attention to the Guerrilla Skeptics in his newsletter. The biography was relatively stable and neutral in June, but has drastically changed in an effort to cast him in an unfavorable light.
Weiler explored accusations and citations that were published on the biography page and found that the sourcing for them were weak. He wrote about these findings on the Wikipedia Rupert Sheldrake Bio talk page, under his own name, and was harassed for his contribution to the discussion.
Since anyone can edit Wikipedia, there is a rule that only secondary sources are allowed because primary sources need to be interpreted. Controversial Wikipedia entries result in a number of conflicting sources, and it requires some subject knowledge to parse through them.
The edit war on Sheldrake's biography is not an isolated problem. There is a large number of ideologues that desire control of Wikipedia, especially over all the "fringe" topics. They typically do not promote their own viewpoint, and instead focus on attacking viewpoints they disagree with.
An editor named The Tumbleman, who appeared knowledgeable about parapsychology, wrote in support of an objective discussion concerning Sheldrake's reputation. He attempted to portray a neutral view of Sheldrake and his scientific theories, and addressed the biases of the skeptics. He was vehemently opposed by the skeptics, who collaborated on an effort to ban The Tumbleman.
An administrator for the Wikipedia talk page wrote comments that were in favor of the Guerrilla Skeptics, which led Weiler to comment, "This means that Wikipedia is aware that a skeptical organization is editing their site against their rules, but they have taken no action against them."
The constant efforts to get The Tumbleman banned were eventually successful. He was labelled a troll and permanently banned from Wikipedia, following an insupportable accusation of creating a secondary account for the purpose of sockpuppetry. The story of his banishment can be found at The Trial of Tumbleman.
Weiler writes, "If the episode of Tumbleman's exile to arbitration and then getting banned has shown me anything, it's that these ideologue skeptics are organized. I have to just stand back and admire how well they game the system to their advantage. Man, these guys own Wikipedia."
The banning of Tumbleman seems to closely mirror an ostensibly satirical Wikipedia article on how to ban a point of view you don't like. In his latest blog entry, Weiler posts excerpts from this article, commenting that he has "no doubt that every administrator on Wikipedia is aware of this How-To list. It’s right out in the open where everyone can see it, yet they seem to turn a blind eye when this happens."
Wikipedia lost 50,000 editors in 2009, and according to Weiler, "It’s easy to see why: they’re being either actively chased off or quitting out of sheer disgust and/or frustration. Facing off against a single troll is hard enough, but on Wikipedia a single editor might find themselves going up against as many as a half dozen of them, all working together."
Since knowledgeable editors with expertise on a particular subject are not allowed more editing power than an organized massive group of biased skeptics, a topic page can be swiftly and effectively hijacked. For more on the notable strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia, see Researching with Wikipedia.
An ideal result of this edit war would be a biography page that provides an objective representation of Sheldrake and his scientific theories. However, it may be a while before it appears on Wikipedia, because it is currently controlled by a large group of people that only want their biased opinions to be available.
Image by Stefan Schinning, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.