“Only question the important things.”
Karl Pilkington, The Ricky Gervais Show.
My intentional peeking into wiki wars began as a genuine curiosity. I wanted to discover how minority voices and dominant voices on a controversial Wikipedia article arrive at a consensus, primarily out of my own R&D as I am a developer of a consensus building platform.
I picked “Rupert Sheldrake’s Biography” to begin this journey on Wikipedia assuming that “skeptics versus fringe” cultural tensions would be benign in comparison to broader tensions like politics or religion.
Boy was I mistaken.
So my relationship with this peculiar “niche” community that I’ve inadvertently frustrated should be clarified.
This study has nothing to do with “skepticism” proper, I just happen to mention “skeptics” quite often in this study.
To me, the words ‘skepticism’, being ‘skeptical’, and being a ‘skeptic’ have variances in meaning that can easily cause misunderstanding.
Obviously most educated and professional people are natural skeptics.
I believe myself to be a skeptical person too.
‘Skepticism’ is a word often used to denote a general agnosticism of any claim without evidence.
This is not how the word ‘skeptic’ is used in this study.
“Skepticism” in this study is a form of activism.
I only refer to them this way because this is how they describe themselves.
Specifically the ‘skeptics’ as mentioned in this study are a small collective of editors on Wikipedia, and a predominant collection of editors on RationalWiki.
The behaviors of skeptic activists that I have encountered in this study are probably more influenced by privileged young white male angst rather than any true philosophical ideology, but that is just my personal impression.
.This study is not an indictment of Skeptical Activism or more broadly ideological skepticism in general
.This study is not an attack on the ideology of skepticism or even scientism.
I believe skeptic organizations do some good work. To me, much of the work ‘skeptic activism’ seeks to perform are genuine social services, and are helpful in exposing ‘frauds’ in fortune teller scams or quack research.
Skeptic activists such as James Randi and Penn and Teller have a strong credibility for this reason.
Additionally, Skeptical activism provides a strong voice against religious fundamentalism and their attempts to interfere with science in public education.
I believe all of this is valuable.
This study has nothing to do with the subject matters or individuals on Wikipedia these activists were engaged in.
This study is not informed or paid for by alternative medical research, psi or any fringe scientific research, or any known or unknown researchers or groups of researchers in that area.
This study just happens to deal with a small handful of skeptical activists on a Wikipedia article and details the tactics they use on Wikipedia to control an article.
Since this is a very active online group – I use this group’s activities on Rational Wiki and Encyclopedia Dramatica, even Reddit – to show the effects of toxic consensus building and the effects of online harassment and the steps online users can take in a ‘wiki war’.
.Skeptical activists versus “the fringe, the woo, and pseudoscience”.
The skeptical movement, like most ideological movements, also have (in their minds) ‘enemies’, and often these two distinct voices meet up on Wikipedia, attempting to arrive at a consensus together.
On Wikipedia, the skeptics call their opponents the “woo” and their leaders “fringe pushers” or “pseudo-scientists”. This creates a minority voice, editors on Wikipedia who edit a large section of topics from Religion, alternative medicines, some philosophy, fringe science, and even new emerging novelties such as cryptocurrency.
To me, this relationship between a minority voice (the woo) in relation to a dominant voice (the skeptics) really opened my eyes to a bias that previously I never knew existed.
Skeptics are avowed to exposing claims that exceed what they believe to be the scientific orthodoxy, and often offer the defense of science as their justifications for their actions.
The two individuals that I worked with to assist in them resolving their wiki wars are two of these such people, Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra. Both individuals do intentionally exceed current scientific orthodoxy, and my experience showed me that skeptic activists can be very reactionary to them.
I get attacked for some reason by skeptic activists merely by my association with these two individuals, as I defended their biographies on Wikipedia from what I believed to be abuse.
Because of the association, I too am called a crank and promoter of pseudoscience. My professional work is in design media and technology. I simply edited basic biographical, not ideological, facts on Wikipedia on two biographies of individuals they somewhat demonize. Applied to me the term loses any real meaning.
Words like ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘pseudoscientist’ are often quickly used as pejoratives to frame the points of view of those skeptics disagree with in consensus building on Wikipedia, sometimes even used as a weasel word to discredit an idea or individual.
Yet many of these “skeptics” I’ve chatted with have a remarkably superficial understanding of the very word they cherish to flame others with. For example, on RationalWiki’s “hit piece” article on me, they state “Viharo’s view of pseudoscience only looks at the idea of falsifiability, not the many other ways pseudoscience is defined, such as not having a significant support from scientists.” For a RationalWiki editor not to be aware that scientists use “falsifiability” to determine if something is scientific or not shows a frustratingly poor understanding of the very concept they wish to champion.
This makes their arguments online sometimes difficult to parse through the personal attacks from any valid philosophical or scientific criticism. There appears no consistency to how they use their own terms as they are all abused as a form of “snark”.
Meet the minority voices on Wikipedia.
Some minority voices on Wikipedia are gender based, like women. So many articles may run a male bias. Other minority voices on Wikipedia are entirely dependent on which voices on Wikipedia control the consensus.
When it comes to the skeptic editors on Wikipedia, they are dominant voice across a large swath of articles. One of the problems with this is just how many “minority” voices they encounter because of it.
Based on my experience, you, me, or anyone we know can easily become labeled as “the woo” on Wikipedia, and receive the snark from a skeptic if you’re interested, or even curious, in at least one of the following; Freudian, pop, or Jungian psychology, philosophical dualism, perennial philosophy, philosophical holism, ‘alternative’ medicine like Chinese medicine or Ayurveda, healing ‘arts’, occult or esoteric studies (astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, etc), self help movements (Tony Robbins, EST, the Forum, Scientology, etc), any form of spirituality, religion, yoga, martial arts, indigenous beliefs or practices, cryptocurrency, trans humanism, longevity, psychedelics or psychedelic philosophy (Tim Leary, Terence McKenna, etc), meditation practices, futurism, fringe sciences such as ‘cold fusion’, and of course UFO’s, psi, psychics, channeling, ghosts, supernatural big foot type creatures, goblins, and lock ness monsters.
Making this cultural problem complex, there is a wide variety of different points of view, acceptance, cultural and academic viewpoints in many of these areas skeptic activists are prone to find.
While ‘skepticism’ may be an organized movement with a consistent voice that centers around a scientific orthodoxy – the realm they consider ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘woo’ is the exact opposite, having countless voices, perspectives, cultural biases, and philosophical backgrounds.
.Pseudoscience vs Pseudoskepticism, a ‘sub culture’ war happening online.
A pejorative term for the skeptical movement is called ‘pseudoskepticism’ – inferring that a ‘skeptical’ point of view is biased towards a strict philosophical materialism, physicalism, or scientism and not a genuine brand of philosophical skepticism.
This is also sometimes referred to as ‘scientism’, a belief system and philosophy that is comprised solely within the boundaries of orthodox science.
This term when used infers that many in the activist skeptic movement are not truly skeptics as they are not skeptical about their own ideology, just the ideologies of all other belief systems.
This creates a tension, a cultural war between philosophical materialists and everyone else.
These distinctions are necessary to understand the tensions landscape of editors and abuses involved.
This was the ideological landscape I walked into in this “wiki war”.
.I’m biased too (but I try not to be)
Honestly, one of the experiences that amused me so much in this story is that I was being harassed and targeted online simply because I was suspected of having personal views that do not conform to scientific orthodoxy.
This often followed with strange paranoia’s about me. Totally cartoon each and every one of them.
At one point one Wikipedia editor literally suggested I was involved with a cult, and viewed me as a brain washed follower, promoting the message of pseudo science, making me a “dangerous person”.
To me this was a little Orwellian, as it was constrained and permitted by Wikipedia’s policy and community.
I admit I find it very hard to relate to those who are so easily threatened with the knowledge that others may believe the world to be differently than they, and because of this I found myself in the awkward position of having to defend my beliefs and views as if some strange witch hunt, something I’ve never experienced before.
Luckily for me, what makes it easy for me to navigate this peculiar ideological war is the honest fact that I’ve hardly any beliefs at all.
Which partially is where I have at times found my own personal amusement.
Sometimes I might play with it a little bit, like an season of Fargo or an episode of This American Life, but my intention is to always tell it responsibly.
I’m an agnostic. Influenced heavily from the Robert Anton Wilson school of thinking on the subject.
This means that I am not just agnostic about religion, I am agnostic about everything.
If I had to, I would identify as an agnostic humanist, I guess.
But only if I was required to, or I was asked.
No one even asked.
If you’ve put your faith in “skeptic activism” being the defender of empirical, rational thinking on Wikipedia, you’re probably disappointed with the outcome of this study.
Don’t let this story ruin your “faith” in being skeptical. I openly invite scrutiny. Question everything in this study and check the events on Wikipedia recorded for you to see for yourself.
It is a valuable tool, skepticism – especially applied the authorities who rule Wikipedia’s communities.