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I’ve mentioned previously how unreliable Wikipedia can be when it comes to entries on fringe topics or personalities (such as the famous trance medium Leonora Piper), as a result of heavy-handed editing by self-proclaimed ‘skeptics’. Now Rupert Sheldrake, who this year had his TED talk controversially removed from YouTube for allegedly being ‘unscientific’, has commented on how his own Wikipedia entry has been the subject of attention by a team of so-called ‘guerilla skeptics’, intent on portraying him in a certain (negative) way:

This summer, soon after the TED controversy, a commando squad of skeptics captured the Wikipedia page about me. They have occupied and controlled it ever since, rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation. At the beginning of the “Talk” page, on which editorial changes are discussed, they have posted a warning to editors who do not share their biases: “A common objection made by new arrivals is that the article presents Sheldrake’s work in an unsympathetic light and that criticism of it is too extensive or violates Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy.” Several new arrivals have indeed attempted to restore a more balanced picture, but have had a bewildering variety of rules thrown at them, and warned that they will be banned if they persist in opposing the skeptics.

…The Guerrilla Skeptics are well trained, highly motivated, have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules… They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.

As the Guerrilla Skeptics have demonstrated, Wikipedia can easily be subverted by determined groups of activists, despite its well-intentioned policies and mediation procedures. Perhaps one solution would be for experienced editors to visit the talk pages of sites where editing wars are taking place, rather like UN Peacekeeping Forces, and try to re-establish a neutral point of view. But this would not help in cases where there are no editors to oppose the Guerrilla Skeptics, or where they have been silenced.

If nothing is done, Wikipedia will lose its credibility, and its financial backers will withdraw their support. I hope the noble aims of Wikipedia will prevail.

This Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group (apparently they trace-back all links to their page to see what the crazy woos are saying about them…so hello there paranoid-guerilla-skeptic-type people!) is headed by Susan Gerbic, who in the JREF video below gives a lengthy talk on their goals and methods:

Gerbic describes how the GS group works as a pack to ‘game the system’ somewhat in order to get certain entries on to the front page of Wikipedia, as well as planning and execution of edits to certain pages. Slightly concerning is her tendency to talk in terms of “my skeptics”, “my editors”, etc. More concerning is her obvious desire to attack certain people (e.g. see discussion of the edits to the Bill Maher page), rather than simply present a fair and balanced entry.

The problem to me with Guerilla Skepticism is the feeling that we have a pack mentality driven by an ideology. It’s easy to say “but we’re just adding facts”, but that is an entirely different thing to presenting an informative and fair Wikipedia entry. The Leonora Piper entry (as it stands as of this moment) is a case in point – any person conversant with her life and the research done on her will tell you that page is an absolute travesty – it has cherry-picked quotes and facts, almost all exclusively negative in tone, and ignores almost totally thousands of pages of positive, or at least extremely interesting evidence and commentary. It may be fact-filled, but the page is entirely a propaganda piece designed to misinform (for the record, I don’t know whether the GS contributed to that page – I’m simply using it as an example of how leaning too far to the ‘skeptical’ POV is not necessarily the correct way to go about a Wikipedia entry). I want information, not ideology.

Craig Weiler has written further on this topic for those that are interested in reading more. Personally I’m not sure what the solution is – I have no particular ideology to push (rather than wanting the truth) so am not enthusiastic about tit-for-tat edits. Wikipedia has always been a handy resource that nevertheless required some care when it came to believing what you read on it. This Guerilla Skepticism project simply emphasizes Wikipedia’s fallibility.

Link: Wikipedia under threat

Update: Some skeptics are disputing that the Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia have done any editing on Sheldrake’s post. See the comment below.

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