Rupert Sheldrake is a controversial Cambridge biologist who garnished notoriety in the 80’s for his publication of A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance. While the topic of his scientific hypothesis is not the subject of this study, a simple context is necessary to frame the events on Wikipedia.
Rupert’s ideas were both very popular at the time he introduced them to extremely disliked and passionately rejected by the scientific orthodoxy at Cambridge University. Ever since, Rupert has been more known as a scientist who plays the role of the heretic in science, denouncing the philosophical materialism adopted by most of the leading scientific thinkers of today. You can read a fair appraisal of this controversy here on Scientific American.
As such, Rupert Sheldrake has had a dialogue with members of skeptic organizations and the scientific orthodoxy for over thirty years.
I stepped into this dialogue between Rupert and his detractors while they were playing out on Wikipedia, per his direct request for help, in 2013.
Rupert Sheldrake expresses concern about Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Based on public record, the ‘wiki war’ on Rupert Sheldrake’s Wikipedia article started to rumble as early as June 20th, 2013, and not on Wikipedia itself.
Rupert Sheldrake’s monthly newsletter was emailed to roughly 4,000 members. It mentioned his friend Robert McLuhan, author of the book “Randi’s Prize: What Skeptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters.“
Rupert Sheldrake, as numerous consistent references on Wikipedia showed, has a thirty year historical record of a “spat” between he and “skeptic organizations” such as CSCIOPS, Michael Shermer, and James Randi.
Rupert Sheldrake also publishes literature about skeptic organizations and is highly suspicious of their intentions. Personally I cannot speak for his full history myself, but in the brief time I worked with Rupert the amount of vitriol and aggression against him I personally found alarming, as I am harassed three years after that event to this day by members of this community.
Rupert’s newsletter requested anyone with Wikipedia experience to reach out if they wanted to help.
Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia is a real organization of self declared skeptic activists whom are dedicated to their mission on Wikipedia and collaborate as editors on topics specifically related to the interests of skeptic activism.
Fundraising, online training videos, and the public recruitment of editors worldwide to improve Wikipedia to the ‘skeptical point of view’ are all apart of the activities this organization raises money for.
This creates a unique relationship with Wikipedia, for GSoW is an organization of editors who use the real estate value of the worlds largest encyclopedia to promote their own network of adherents and proponents, and even podcasts with the conflict of interest of agenda based editing.
Wikipedia, desperate for editor retention, welcome these skeptic organizations and skeptic editors, and my experience showed me likely to turn an eye against their abuses.
Considering Rupert Sheldrake personally has had such a long history dealing with these types of organizations, his news letter clearly stated that.
A few days after Rupert posted his newsletter, The Skeptical Inquirer posted to its blog with tens of thousands of members as well as a ‘tweet’ to their 20,000 followers on Twitter; “Rupert Sheldrake not happy with skeptics on Wikipedia. Guerrilla Skeptics vs. Guerrilla Woos?”
Three weeks later, there was a noticeable shift in the voice of Rupert’s article entry on Wikipedia with the arrival of Wikipedia editor Vzaak, whom has now changed their editing name to Manul..
July 14th, 2013 the ‘Skeptics’ begin to edit.
.The war over and battle for for Rupert’s page officially began on July 14th, 2013 when a Wikipedia editing account was created by User Manul, formerly Vzaak .
Manul, with no previous editing history on their account, popped up on Rupert’s article initiating this wiki war with a strike hard and low, making a ‘bold’ edit to the lead sentence without seeking a consensus.
Rupert Sheldrake, according to Wikipedia for the past 9 years, is a biologist and author.
Primary and numerous secondary sources supported this on Wikipedia. More sources supported this than any sources that would contradict it.
While a number of Wikipedia editors were eager to frame anyone who disagreed with them as a ‘pro Sheldrake fan boy’ who wanted to put pseudoscience in the article, the actual Sheldrake wiki war was over clear biographical facts which are matters of clearly recorded historical record, things not very controversial at all.
Manul completely re worded and rephrased the lead paragraph of Rupert’s biography. And in one day, within a matter of minutes, Rupert Sheldrake went from being an English biologist, which is his academic bona fide, to a ‘former biochemist’ who practices pseudoscience – all in the first sentence in the lead section.
Manul then introduced an editorial argument to the page by decree: The Wikipedia guideline known as WP:FRINGE gave them the authority to frame Sheldrake’s very own academic career, a matter of biographical facts.
Manul first post on Wikipedia was indeed the first shot fired.
Within 8 hours, an edit war was already forming.
An anonymous IP edit reverted Manul, who in turn reverted back – and Manul has controlled the page ever since as of this writing. Previous to this activity, Manul had no prior editing history on their editing account, yet began this account with a very shrewd knowledge of how Wikipedia works.
Once analyzed, its easy to see why Rupert Sheldrake or any of his supporters would be concerned if ‘the skeptics’ took over his page – sources combined with evidence of editorial behaviors on Wikipedia showed the ’30 year cat fight of notable proportions’ with skeptics was about to be taken to his very own biography on Wikipedia.
The skeptics believed this was an article their unique point of view should govern, and believed Wikipedia’s guidelines perfectly supported them in doing so. I didn’t believe that allowing an article to be dominated by one particular point of view is a responsible editorial decision and taking more caution with the voice would be more responsible.
What I did not realize was how vitriolic the skeptic editors could be in a consensus process.
“Rupert Sheldrake ‘is not a scientist or a biologist, he is a pseudoscientist!”
Sources on Wikipedia showed that this has been the position of Skeptic organizations regarding Sheldrake for over 15 years. For some reason many skeptic organizations and members of the scientific orthodoxy have a difficult time referring to him as an actual biologist. Perhaps they feel he has betrayed science or biology, I am not sure, but I found this specifically to be the achilles heel in how Rupert was being treated on Wikipedia, and at first my direct encounter showed me these editors on Wikipedia held somewhat extreme viewpoints.
This was interesting, because many sources in Rupert’s Wikipedia article itself showed how this treatment and assessment of Rupert Sheldrake has often been criticized in academic journals and even dissertations [Link to paper] as to the ‘extreme’ reaction to Rupert by some members from these organizations from the scientific community and skeptic organizations.
These were the type of sources that were being suppressed in his Wikipedia article.
Sources on Wikipedia also showed that Rupert has intentionally played the role of the ‘heretic’ in science, and has a unique voice within the scientific community because of it.
Other references showed that he is embraced by the scientific community for playing that role – and the luminaries of that community have been known to engage him cordially and directly as a peer, even if they disagree with him. So it was very hard to pin down Rupert biographically speaking.
After reviewing all of the sources on the page – many of them which contradicted each other, it was clear that Rupert Sheldrake’s article required particular care, and any problems on the article were resolvable by applying a neutral voice which Wikipedia already had very clear guidelines for.
The problem I encountered however was the dominance of editors on the article who were enforcing a very ‘skeptic point of view’ SPOV interpretation, an extreme viewpoint based on all sources on Wikipedia.
Introducing a more neutral voice to the article would be a delicate operation for the community. Making it problematic was the evidence that the ‘extreme’ side of skepticism had a few agenda based editors forcing the article towards that particular interpretation.
Now Rupert’s article on Wikipedia reflected the point of view of his detractors, contrary to ‘Neutral Point of View’ editorial policy.
.Was this a fair and neutral portrayal of his professional credentials?
From my point of view, and based on the evidence in the sources and my own research into sources, it wasn’t. Additionally, that Rupert’s critics would be able to dominate his biography flew in the face of responsible editorializing.
It just seemed like a clear violation of Wikipedia’s ‘Biography of a Living Person’ and ‘NPOV’ guidelines. That guideline is the closest thing to a ‘rule’ that Wikipedia has – to protect living persons from libel or harassment through the encyclopedia.
This was a radical shift – one surely to instigate a tit for tat between supporters and detractors on Wikipedia, and that’s what happened.
Wikipedia Policy: Be CIVIL
WP:CIVIL guides editors to be cautious before making an edit, especially a major one, and to discuss in ‘Talk’ first to try to find a consensus first before editing. Additionally, it can be perceived as a edit war or disruptive editing by other editors. That Manul made a radical change before they sought a consensus around that change is not considered very ‘nice’ in Wikipedia culture.
User Manul’s first comment on the ‘talk’ page was ‘there was a bias‘ on the article in question. Ironically, this was also my first comment editing Rupert’s article, which Manul used as evidence that I was trolling Wikipedia. Manul, also giving this tort reason with a WP:POLICY tag for support, invited any editors to improve on her change without altering its WP:FRINGE application, establishing a ‘new sheriff’ was in town and anyone who disagreed was technically in violation of WP:POLICY
How Wikipedia editorial decisions are made, Wikipedia ‘Talk’ functionality.
Each article on Wikipedia has two core features. The first feature is the article entry itself which is what the significant majority of people consume when they discover a Wikipedia article.
The second feature on a tab to the right is called ‘Talk’. Once selected, all of the discussion around the article amongst the editors is discovered. ‘Talk’ pages are not discovered by readers of Wikipedia unless selected. When you engage on ‘Talk’ you are making an editorial decision, statement, question or concern, based on Wikipedia policy and sources available. From here, a consensus forms on what goes in the article.
‘Talk’ is obviously a ‘discussion forum’ albeit with a very confusing and challenging format for new or curious users to adopt. Its very clunky and feels like it was designed in 1998. New users are always likely to split comments or miss signatures, as what happened to me when I joined Rupert’s article. Once a user understands how to follow and participate in a discussion on Wikipedia, the ‘Talk’ section itself is where anyone can find out what is really happening behind the scenes in the creation of the entry and participate – if they understand how the formatting works.
Manul did not ‘Talk’ about a clearly contentious and challenging edit to the community before they arrived and changed the lead sentence on Rupert’s biography without seeking a consensus first – not a very WP: NICE thing to do.
Drama now came to the Sheldrake article, a line was drawn in the sand and Manul welcomed anyone to try to cross it.
Wikipedia noticeboards, where some conflicts are discoverable on Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia noticeboards are popular to any editor or admin seeking out instances like Sheldrake’s article in mediation, either to help or simply watch and follow the drama.
Not all talk pages are dramatic by any means – most may contain very little or non controversial discussion. Hard science articles, Geographies, mathematics or purely academic articles seem to be the most sound.
However on a heated article or controversial topic the ‘Talk’ page will allow any one to discover a lively event occurring. These can be found in articles about political subjects, historical or current events, religious articles or articles with a religious theme, philosophical articles, alternative medicines, certain biographies, and what are referred to as ‘fringe’ subjects like parapsychology, astrology, or any subject that would qualify as ‘pseudoscience’ by the ‘mainstream scientific’ point of view.
This case study is documenting a ‘peculiar problem’ regarding Wikipedia guidelines, editor harassment, and Manul’s ‘bold edit’ highlights the problem.
This case study takes place in the article of a controversial biography of a living person – which is governed on Wikipedia by one set of guidelines called WP:Biography of a Living Person, or WP: BLP .
BLP informs editors to take great care with the biography of a living person, that its ‘very important’ to get it right. Slanderous, libelous, or opinionated descriptions of well known individuals is a source of many Wikipedia issues.
The conflict arises in this particular biography because this article is about an individual who engages in scientific research, authoring, and lecturing on what are considered ‘fringe’ subject matters.
Fringe ‘topics’ are governed on Wikipedia by another policy called WP:FRINGE. This means that articles which contain ‘fringe’ subject matter must reference the mainstream scientific viewpoint on those subjects.
Fringe subject matters can include anything from cold fusion to parapsychology to countless subjects most of us have never even heard of.
The skeptics were arguing that this WP guideline that govern articles about fringe subjects should be the voice Rupert Sheldrake’s biography.
What make the problem of the Sheldrake article difficult as an editor is that on one hand, you have a Wikipedia guideline that says fringe topics should be held in light of the ‘mainstream scientific point of view’ – and then on the other hand you have a biography of a living person – a notable scientist who has a notable history of criticizing the mainstream scientific point of view and whose research purposefully deviates from it. Making matters worse, he’s been a target of skeptical activism for 30 years.
Next problem to resolve in the article is that Rupert Sheldrake is a formally trained and published scientist with over 80 peer reviewed publications, with a Phd in Biochemistry from Cambridge University and a Frank Knox Fellow in Philosophy from Harvard. He is from the scientific mainstream.
To frame his biography in the view of the scientific mainstream, which is considered neutral in matters of science – would simultaneously mean that Wikipedia would give a biased voice to his biography which has a notable history of criticizing the scientific mainstream, forcing Wikipedia to ‘take sides’ in an ideological conflict and resolve that conflict on a biography page – presenting that page with how Rupert’s critics see him.
Add an additional ‘quark’ to the problem – Rupert’s notable works span beyond just his scientific hypothesis or his research. Rupert Sheldrake writes a critique of the philosophy of science itself, making much of his commentary philosophical, not necessarily scientific in nature. Applying WP: FRINGE guidelines to articles of a philosophical tone are awkward to say the least and at best a draconian viewpoint on the role of science.
This entire ‘battle’ on Wikipedia for ‘who’ Rupert Sheldrake comes down to the inclusion of one word, biologist.
Sources are conflicting just as much as editors are conflicting
Rupert Sheldrake refers to himself as a biologist. His degrees are from Cambridge and Harvard. On Wikipedia, this would be considered a primary source. Secondary sources that support Rupert Sheldrake as a biologist are Cambridge University, a number of academic papers and peer reviewed journals, articles, documentaries, television and radio programs, and books.
There are a handful of sources listing Sheldrake as a parapsychologist, conflicting with primary and other secondary sources. There are a few sources that refer to him as a pseudoscientist and a former biologist, however many of those are from skeptic activist publications or members of organizations that promote skeptical activism.
If Rupert Sheldrake is a parapsychologist, or he researches claims of telepathy in humans and animals – then the sceptic activists argue that WP: FRINGE applies because parapsychology is covered under that guideline and parapsychology is automatically defined as pseudoscience on Wikipedia.
This is almost an unsolvable problem within these two guidelines on Wikipedia as in this instance they are contradictory and inherently irrational. Manul’s edit to Sheldrake’s article completely highlighted this problem.
Manul apparently is an experienced Wikipedia editor before the account Manul was created but what ever their past history, it was masked by a fresh account showing all activity to occur after July 15th, 2013, with no reference or link to her previous work on Wikipedia. All of Manul’s first 200 edits on Wikipedia were solely on the Sheldrake article, and the Sheldrake article was Manul’s prominent editing focus. The remainder of Manul’s edits have all been to articles of a skeptical activist interests. On Wikipedia, this is referred to as a ‘single purpose account’ or an SPA.[ref]
That a single purpose account was created on Wikipedia to drastically change the framing of Sheldrake’s biography page on Wikipedia has gone unmentioned as aggressive editing. Linking this account to an editor with an editing agenda intent on slanting Sheldrake towards a particular framing used by his detractors.
Around a week Manul’s first edit and the small edit war that ensued, they were joined by Barney the Barney Barney and within weeks a batch of new editors came to Rupert’s page at this time, some of them issuing warnings to any pro Sheldrake supporter. By the first week of August, an official edit war was underway between Skeptics and pro Sheldrake supporters, with Rupert’s supporters getting the brunt end of the kick.
This is why Rupert Sheldrake asked for my advice. He specifically emailed me regarding harassment – he claimed that skeptic editors were harassing other editors away from his article. I wanted to investigate his claim and see for myself.
In case there is no confusion – Wikipedia We Have a Problem is not meant to be an indictment on skeptic ideology. It has been a source of frustration for me that addressing issues of agenda based harassment on Wikipedia gets clouded, I often get looped into ‘pseudoscience promoter’ because I have engaged skeptic editors on Wikipedia.
So with that in mind, was the activity and harassment occurring on Wikipedia’s Sheldrake article the work of the GSoW? I would imagine that would be anyone’s first guess, since they fundraise for their organization which bills itself as ‘Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.’ It’s what Rupert mentioned to me in his email. I could not tell one way or another if they were directly involved or not. How could anyone tell? They claim to be on Wikipedia, why not Rupert’s article? Additionally, GSoW has a private chat room and does not offer any transparency into their membership or editing strategy.
But I also found Wikipedia has its own ‘Fringe’ noticeboard, where editors who identify with Skepticism on Wikipedia gather to meet, share links and references, and request support from one another on various articles they are working on. By August 7th, the skeptic notice board group were already there. Additionally, skeptics have been vocal for years about the value of encouraging skeptics to edit Wikipedia articles, at least as early as 2011. There is no question skeptics are on Wikipedia. They claim to be on Wikipedia. Ironically, when I or other bloggers mention this, we are quick to be called ‘conspiracy theorists’ by a number of those self identified skeptics.
I asked Manul and Barney the Barney Barney in October of 2013 if they were GSM on their talk pages asking them to clear this up. Manul never responded, and Barney the Barney Barney gave a somewhat stumbled denial. Next, I was taken into an administrative request to block me from Rupert’s article, my inquiry into their behaviors lead to charges of ‘conspiracy theory’ from the community of skeptics.
I’m not sure how anyone can tell who is a GSoW editor or not, however Susan Gerbic and the GSoW have since denied they are involved. I have no reason to doubt Susan Gerbic’s denial. Manul later denied this on their talk page as well.
A number of skeptic bloggers have seized this for some perplexing reason. When confronted with patterns of abuse happening on Rupert Sheldrake’s article, myself and others are declared to be ‘conspiracy theorists’ for mentioning skeptic involvement.
These are the sort of tactics I have noticed skeptic activists perform online. My experience shows me they can be remarkably aggressive. It reminds me of political organizations, mis framing people to extreme positions, somewhat akin to jingoism and propaganda.
If GSoW was never editing Rupert Sheldrake’s page, that does not mean the issue with agenda based skeptic editors is non existent. Jerry Coyne and a handful of skeptics leaped on Sheldrake for this, seeking to discredit him further in the New Republic, defending the Wikipedia article. Even on my Rational Wiki article, written about me for participating in Rupert’s article, claims that Wikipedia we have a problem publishes a ‘conspiracy theory’ about organized skeptics on Wikipedia.
No matter what group it was or if it was just a ‘kismet of skepticopia‘ who they were or what group is the superficial component of the problem. Talking about harassment happening on Wikipedia is not a conspiracy theory. Its important that I continue to clarify, this study is not an indictment on the skeptic ideology, or even more broad skeptic activism.
These editors, in my opinion, were ideological agenda based editors who share a specific ideology in common who took extreme steps to control editing permissions. That they are a ‘group’ that are skeptical activists is not in question. This is a matter of historical note, and not any sort of accusation. It’s their behaviors and editorial arguments that distinguish them, not just their ideologies. That they may express an ‘extremism’ or ‘activism’ is really not for me to judge, but fair for me to note.
Between July 2013 and November 2013 – Rupert’s Wikipedia article has since received a considerable amount of press – from the BBC to the New Republic and Forbes to heaps of blogs and podcasts starting with big ones like the Huffington Post and continuing down to every notable Skeptic blog on one side to every notable parapsychology or pre Sheldrake blogs on the other. Deepak Chopra and Jerry Coyne joined the the list of known supporters respectively to each side, amplifying the debate online.
September – Enter The Tumbleman
So when I discovered this ‘ideological’ battle occurring on Sheldrake’s page in September of 2013 I found the ‘perfect storm’ wiki war, and one in which I did not feel intimidated participating in editorially. I was very eager to assist in consensus building in such a challenging setting, and my nerdy side thrilled to engage is such a wonky editing operation.
I was also very naive – as I assumed that this was a benign topic for a wiki war – I had no idea how active skeptic activities are online at the time, or how much it would alter and change my life for engaging with them.
Although I first went on the page in early September to leave a few comments and perform one edit, primarily just to familiarize myself with the personalities and landscape – I was more focused on preparation and research than any actual discussion on the article itself.
My study continues with spending weeks researching both Wikipedia’s guidelines and policies and the subject matter of the article.
My study concludes – for building a rational consensus on the Sheldrake article, I was harassed, libeled, outed, shamed, and within 5 weeks banned indefinitely off of Wikipedia.
Read next chapter: Enter Tumbleman