I long ago gave up thoughts of trying to edit Wikipedia articles on TDG-related topics – reading through the history of some of those articles, it was quite obvious that there was a fairly large, and loud, contingent of pseudo-skeptics in place there who would soon revert any open-minded content, no matter how well referenced and written the piece was. Certainly there’s a place for keeping the ‘riff-raff’ out – you can’t include every strange thing that people believe – and as an alternative encyclopedia you want to keep most of it to mainstream, accepted thought. However, Wikipedia edits by pseudo-skeptics often over-step that mark, in order to bias articles towards mainstream opinion without fair representation of alternative views.
So I’ve been rather interested to watch the edits and reverts on the Wikipedia entry on trance medium Leonora Piper. After I wrote an article about Piper – centering on the weakness of the criticisms of the case made by the late skeptic Martin Gardner – a few edits were made to Piper’s Wikipedia entry to reflect Gardner’s lack of authority on the case, which were soon removed. According to user LuckyLouie, the reason for this was that “Wikipedia has a very clear policy of avoiding primary sources and instead using secondary sources that are at least one step removed from an event”, and “On Wikipedia we like our ‘informations’ to come from reliable sources…rather than an editor doing their own original research and coming to their own original conclusions.” I find the former policy rather mind-boggling – for instance, in this case it allows inclusion of Gardner’s (incorrect) opinions because they were mentioned in a New York Times book review (which is apparently considered by Wikipedia to be a “reliable source”), and yet my corrections of Gardner’s mistakes based on the original, primary documents is invalid:
Darklore, a journal promoting itself as “Forteana, hidden history, the paranormal” etc. is not a reliable or objective source of facts… There’s no shortage of fringe authors who believe in paranormal powers. – LuckyLouie (talk) 14:34, 15 November 2010
Welp, guess what Louie. There’s also no shortage of skeptical authors who don’t believe in paranormal powers, and who are held up to be reliable sources despite seemingly not knowing anything about the cases they are talking about. Gardner’s article should never, ever be cited by anyone as having any authority in the Piper case. This is not based on opinion, or belief in the paranormal – it’s based simply on Gardner’s inability to provide factual information.
I know my article is fairly long, so here below is a brief summary of things that Gardner is completely wrong about in his article. They can only be chalked up to either or both (a) almost complete ignorance of the primary sources, or (b) intentionally misleading readers. Note that the below list doesn’t even include the numerous instances of loaded language, innuendo, and omissions of important facts (some of which you will see if you read my entire essay). These are simply the things that he got wrong.
- Says that Richard Hodgson died in 1909. He passed away in 1905.
- Says writer George Pellew died in 1881. He died in 1892.
- Says Hodgson hired detectives to shadow Mrs. Piper and her husband after death of George Pellew in 1892. Hodgson hired the detectives years earlier.
- Says Piper’s trances “never occurred spontaneously”. Primary source explicitly says they did.
- Says trances “never began when she was alone or asleep”. Primary source says “the access has several times come upon her during sleep.”
- Says “whenever a sitter paid for a séance, she had no difficulty going into a trance.” Primary source says “Several times Mrs. Piper was unable to go into trance at all.”
- Says “cunning cold reading may account for most of Mrs. Piper’s hits.” Primary sources mention investigators considered cold reading as an explanation, but ruled it out.
- Introduces possibility of muscle reading by saying Piper “usually” held a client’s hand “throughout a sitting”. Primary sources say that contact was avoided where possible to remove chance of muscle reading.
- Says Piper’s eyes “were often only half closed, allowing her to observe reactions”. Contemporary skeptical source, which he quotes at length elsewhere, notes that in majority of sittings Piper’s trance conditions her head was buried in a pillow, with the eyes “not only closed but turned from the sitter.”
- Says other tricks Piper might have used included checking obituaries, birth and marriage records, real estate sales, and reference books. Ignores fact that original investigators kept identity of the sitter’s secret and they were introduced under false names.
- Says sitters talked freely during seance believing Piper was ‘asleep’, giving away information. Original investigators noted that they “made it a most careful business not to talk about anything connected with the experiments in Mrs. Piper’s hearing”.
- Claims (skeptics) Hall and Tanner’s six sessions with Piper were “recorded verbatim”. Hall notes “never in our own…sittings was any full record kept”.
- Reassures readers that skeptics Hall and Tanner “approached Mrs. Piper with open minds”. Hall introduces the book by saying “Spiritism is the ruck and muck of modern culture, the common enemy of true science and of true religion, and to drain its dismal and miasmatic marshes is the great work of modern culture… When genetic psychology has done its work, all these psychic researches will take their place among the solemn absurdities in the history of thought”.
- Says trance was a fake. Original researchers (including world-renowned physiologists) noted “by an almost universal consensus of opinion her trance is a genuine one.”
- Says William James “was flabbergasted” when he first heard of Piper’s talents. Original sources instead say that James was extremely skeptical.
I have no problem with my article not being referenced on Wikipedia. I’m not an acknowledged expert, and Darklore is certainly a ‘fringe’ anthology. I *do* have a problem with Gardner being referenced in the Wikipedia article. His work on the topic is riddled with factual errors, bias, and misrepresentation of the case. Yet another case of someone’s views being (wrongly) given note simply because they label themselves a “skeptic”. If Wikipedia editors have any desire to keep their articles factual, the Gardner references should be excised completely.