Pseudoskepticism, Denial, and Disruption

My conversations with scientists have led, sometimes, to strange byways, sometimes passing through the sewers of the internet. This is a long story, of interest, perhaps, to only a few. I need to be careful about this, because involvement with wikis can be dangerous to mental health. They can be highly attractive. The promise of Wikipedia was intoxicating. Wikipedia has created an amazing project, but there is a problem.

Wikipedia was started and policy was developed by techies, with experience with open software, where relatively small, focused interest groups could develop high consensus. This community favored anonymous editing (whereas academia depends on personal reputations of authors), out of extensive internet experience where anonymity was normal. An excuse was that contributions should be possible from people living under oppressive conditions. That’s noble, and certainly doable, but the problem is that administration also was anonymous. This is like an anonymous publisher: such sources are unreliable. Encyclopedias were always based in academia, written by academics, and edited by a responsible publisher. The Wikipedia theory is that articles would be based on reliable sources, but this carries an assumption: that the Wikipedia editors would understand the sources and how to balance them. They often don’t.

(One of the problems I encountered was that even where sources on cold fusion were available as preprints, linking to the preprints was prevented, on a (false) claim of copyright violation, resulting in a situation where most readers could not verify the article against sources. In one case, involving another topic, I was suspicious about a claim from the source, from a medical journal. I went to a medical library and, sure enough, the source had been drastically misrepresented, and this had not been caught for years. The editor was reading their own opinion into the source.)

Further, the decision process on Wikipedia is ad-hoc discussion. In theory, a discussion is closed by a neutral individual, based on the arguments, not votes. In reality, votes are considered, and in reality, closers are not necessarily unbiased, and there is no structure for ensuring that activity actually follows policy, rather than the prejudices or desires of the core community, or, worse, of an involved faction, which can readily amass comments, without any special effort, through the effect of watchlists.

In reality, to understand arguments on complex topics can take expertise, or willingness to study, and “wiki” means “quick.” I found fairly quickly that detailed study was detested, and especially by factions that had already-established opinions based on knee-jerk reactions or social affiliation.

I documented such a faction in the Arbitration later named Cold fusion 2 , though it was not really about cold fusion, it was about administrator abuse, and the administrator in question lost his tools over his actions. That page is “courtesy blanked”? Courtesy to whom? The “cabal,” of course. My full evidence page, linked in the historical archive appears as deleted. See the deletion discussion where the ”strong decision was to blank the page (which leaves content accessible), not to delete it, and to move it to an arbitration subpage, leaving a redirect in place, so it could be found as linked from the case evidence page. Following the trail there, the page still exists as Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Cold_fusion_2/Evidence/User:Abd/Cabal

What was deleted was the redirect, so the page becomes difficult to find. That was deleted with no explanation by Hu12, an antispam fanatic with whom I had tangled when he blocked a user who was adding useful and proper content. (It looked like spam because it was links to a web site, but that was an academic site hosting content of high value, appropriate for external links to many articles.)

Wikipedia administrators can be vicious. I remember that when I saw what Hu12 had done to this European user, working hard to try to improve the project, I actually cried. Yet these people are rewarded and encouraged.

I could go on and on about my personal experience on Wikipedia, it represented years of investment, but I ultimately concluded, that, in spite of the promises, Wikipedia was a lost cause, it had become heavily infected with factions that included administrators, and that were so strongly entrenched that they had the power to ban almost anyone who crossed them. And the structure had become highly resistant to any change that would spread out power — and operate more efficiently. This is all well-known to highly experienced Wikipedians.

In any case, I then worked for some years to establish Wikiversity as a safe refuge for people who wanted to create educational materials, or simply to discuss subjects (which is prohibited on Wikipedia, but which, obviously, is encouraged in academia.) Wikiversity allows subpages in mainspace, and I pioneered the creation of “owned” or “managed” subpages, on topics, neutrally presented at the top level, and always attributed, thus allowing subpages to include opinion, and, as well, discussion as in a academic seminar. With a number of successful examples, this avoided the high conflict that readily arose on Wikipedia, where there is competition for limited article text space to reflect this or that point of view — or to remove point of view. The faction I confronted, the “cabal,” has a strong point of view that it pushes, but it pretends that its point of view is “mainstream.” Sometimes, indeed, it is, but the reality is that it’s still a point of view, nevertheless, with incorporated bias. What actually gets into trouble on Wikipedia is “minority point of view,” whereas “majority point of view” can be pushed with little consequence. Weak sources will be allowed for the MajPOV, whereas even strong sources that seem to support the MinPOV will be excluded.

And, of course, the MajPOV faction will claim that there are no sources for the MinPOV.

Wikipedia has standards for determining what is “Reliable Source.” The basic standard is that it is independently published, by an independent publisher (not some publisher with a particular axe to grind). For scientific topics, the “gold standard” is peer-reviewed secondary sources (i.e., reviews of a topic) or academic publications. The identity and opinions of the author are not particularly relevant to “reliable source,” it should be the publisher that matters. More recent sources should be given greater weight than older sources of equal strength otherwise. (Because science moves on.)

But with cold fusion, of interest to this community, old sources are asserted by the MajPOV faction, and newer sources, in spite of being fully “Reliable Source” by the standards, have been excluded, and editors with the skill to go through dispute resolution process — arcane and difficult — have been banned, or threatened such that they gave up.

As I recall, just before the “community” (a familiar collection of users) topic-banned me on cold fusion, I had just gotten Reliable Source Noticeboard approval for the 2010 Storms review, against a series of phony arguments from the faction, but it was useless, because the faction excluded it anyway. Since the ban of Pcarboon and myself, I don’t think any user has had the skill to take this faction to the Arbitration Committee … and it can be useless anyway, because … the Arbitration Committee itself is highly prejudice toward the faction. I saw a steward take this faction to arbitration, an enormous effort, and with very little useful result. It shouldn’t be so hard! But that is Wikipedia, where “no bureaucracy” means everything is difficult when there is conflict. Sure, making a spelling correction is simple!

Users on the MajPOV side rarely are banned, though there is a major exception; and the faction then went on to unban him and he went back to the same behavior as if nothing had happened.

So, one of the resources I founded was on Wikiversity, on Parapsychology. This is a topic that the faction attempts to beat to death on Wikipedia. At various times, an editor would show up on Wikiversity and attempt to get the resource deleted, but that was rare. No “skeptic,” as these people style themselves, attempted to identify and balance any failure of neutrality. They simply attacked and insulted.

Recently, however, it came to may attention that a subpage of the resource, a major long-term project of a particular user (balocked on Wikipedia, as commonly happened) was deleted, and the user was blocked on Wikiversity. Yet he had not been disruptive on Wikiversity, and attempts to delete that resource before had failed. What had happened?

I investigated, and uncovered a massive collection of sock puppets who had impersonated this user on Wikipedia, bragging about the Wikiversity resource and thumbing his nose at an administrator. That administrator obviously did not suspect what should have been suspicious: a banned user registering accounts with names similar to his and claiming to be him, and calling down the thunder. This was after a Sock Puppet investigation that had been started by a bald SPA, an account that registers and immediately dives into high conflict. He actually admitted being a sock of another user, but nobody really paid attention there.

So I went to the meta wiki, and requested that a steward check these accounts. There had been massive impersonation. The user who filed the original report was the same user as behind all those impersonation socks. Later, he actually admitted that he “had to” create those socks to call attention to the actual sock puppetry of the blocked user. Researching this, I tracked the puppet master back to a family of socks, of the original user Anglo Pyramidologist. That family is enormous, it is over two hundred accounts, and some of the names were familiar to me. These users had been highly disruptive, and often sucked other users (perhaps MinPOV, but in some cases simply standing for neutrality) into conflict and then got them blocked.

I was then attacked on Wikiversity and on meta by an avalanche of socks. As the master started to suffer collateral damage (he claims to be running four accounts on Wikipedia still), he stopped on WMF wikis, but transferred his activity to RationalWiki, where he created an article on me, and then an article about the “conspiracy theory” of sock puppetry. He created a flood of socks there, but complained vigorously about “doxxing” “stalking,” which is precisely what he had done for years.

I was a sysop on RationalWiki (which they give to just about anyone who isn’t brain-dead or a vandal). As a result of the flood of complaints from the socks, David Gerard, whom I’ll get to, de-opped me. He gave no reason, but … David Gerard had long wanted me de-opped, but didn’t have the support for it first time he tried.

(A possible excuse was an article he deleted, but … I did not create that article, it was created by the sock puppets. I had discussed this fact on the Talk page, which was also deleted. There was no claim of my using sysop tools improperly, and what I had actually done could easily have been done without them.)

On RationalWiki, having one’s sysop tools removed is called being “promoted.” I take it that way. I no longer have any responsibility at all for what happens on that site. If the situation remains as it is is today, whatever shred of integrity the structure there had has been demolished. They claim to welcome differing points of view. They do not. And this then will take us to the whole topic of pseudoskepticism, which is a form of hypocrisy, where profession and reality are at odds.

I will look at the Wikipedia article on RationalWiki. It is a puff piece, with weak sources asserted to make RW look good. Many Wikipedia editors have accounts on RationalWiki, and the nature of the site is that we can see, there, how these editors actually think, since the site might as well be said to have an incivility policy: if it is not uncivil, it’s boring, so get rid of it! David Gerard has mostly avoided showing his true positions on Wikipedia. However, I will now study the behavior of the entire faction, as it relates to the abusive socks. They have enabled these disruptive users, because, I assume, they serve their purposes, as attack dogs.

I found this Huffington Post article: Wikipedia and Deepak Chopra: Open-Source Character Assassination, it was linked from this Wikipedia Arbitration Enforcement page. which concluded with a ban of the editor know to be the author of the HP post from the topic of Deepak Chopra. This has been going on for years. Blatant POV-pushing by a faction of editors, some of whom apparently do have off-wiki connections, is ignored, while what is considered MinPOV-pushing is sanctioned. In this case, the “POV” may actually be neutrality. The offense of the author, on the face, was a conflict of interest due to being a director of ISHARonline.org. However, the conflict of interest had been declared, and the assumption that someone with a conflict of interest, some presumed bias, should not even be allowed to discuss the article, has been common. Unless they are pushing MajPOV. Then it seems it is okay. This leads to articles being managed by people who are not only not expert, but who are not informed by experts, since most experts will have some kind of conflict of interest, and often strong opinions.

The AE report was brought by Manul. In my study of the sock puppetry impersonation case, the name of Manul was mentioned (though not with any claim of improper behavior). The socks went crazy over it. Why? Was a nerve touched? So I’m looking at Manul. The user changed his name, and did not make it obvious, and, in fact, one of the claims against that author was that he had used both names. Why had he changed his name? The request. It alleges “Off-wiki harassment, bullying.” Yet the targets of the kind of editing Manul has promoted or enabled have actually been harassed, long-term, and intensely. See the RationalWiki articles on Deepak Chopra and Rome Viharo. (I’m not going to link to increase their google ranking.) All that changing the name would do is to create confusion, as it did for me when I was reviewing the Sock Puppet Investigations page for Blastikus (Ben Steigmann). I saw one name, and then another. Okay different users, right? No. The first user name came up with no account. I had to dig to find out who had actually made the edit. Most people would simply continue with the assumption. And so this faction hides what it does, making it less obvious that it is a small group, not at all the general Wikipedia community. When regular editors show up, they are bullied away and soon give up. Affiliation with that Chopra group, Bad, get rid of him. Affiliation with the Guerilla Skeptics, Good, helping improve Wikipedia? From a point of view, the “skeptical point of view,” that begins with assumptions of bogosity and “pseudoscience” and then digs up what ever evidence can be found for it, no matter what the actual balance is.

(For a time I thought that the Guerilla Skeptics were involved in some of the impersonation sock puppetry. Probably not. But it was done by a person who likely has had communication and some encouragement from them. At least he seems to claim that. They have never spoken out against abusive editing by people supporting their point of view. So they do bear some level of responsibility.)

However, see the RatWiki article on the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia. This is hilarious:

Despite the name “Guerrilla Skepticism”, the edits actually being made by the group were rather tame and typically uncontroversial, such as improvements to biographies of high profile skeptical personalities like Carl Sagan or additions of criticism to balance fringe claims in articles like Chupacabra.

However, there was never any evidence the GSoW group had ever edited the Sheldrake Wikipedia article. In fact, the editor who did most of the editting [sic] to the article (Vzaak) posted a response to many of Sheldrake et. al.’s points.[13][28] According to skeptic Tim Farley who investigated the edits:[13][29][30]

[T]he central claim, that Guerrilla Skeptics are controlling Sheldrake’s bio, is demonstrably false. It is a classic conspiracy theory. I asked Susan Gerbic directly, and she confirmed that Sheldrake’s bio was not on their current project list. But you don’t need Susan’s word, just search for the name “Sheldrake” at the project blog and you find only a post about a related article, and no indication they had worked on Sheldrake’s bio. (Believe me, they’re not shy about showing off their work – it’s part of their outreach efforts). Look in the editing history of the people actually editing Sheldrake’s article, and you’ll find only cursory overlap with articles the Guerrilla Skeptics have bragged about editing.

Vzaak is Manul, intensely defended by the sock puppet army. At this point, the evidence I have seen points to Tim Farley as involved with not only GS, but also possibly the impersonation sock puppet faction. The issue is not what is on the “GS list” but how factional editors behave.

Farley is Wikipedia user Krelnik.

I intend to much more deeply study this.