Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 | ISSN 1556-5696

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The latest additions to MichaelShermer.com and SkepticBlog.org

the latest additions to MichaelShermer.com and SkepticBlog.org

NEW ON MICHAELSHERMER.COM
Shermer on Larry King Live
with the UFOlogists

A couple times a year, in between his celebfest of stars, Larry King hosts the UFOlogists who regale the talk show king with an endless parade of blurry photographs, grainy videos, and breathless tales of government coverups and conspiracies. Enter Michael Shermer to set things straight…
WATCH the video

NEW ON SKEPTICBLOG.ORG
Toward a Type I Civilization

In this week’s Skepticblog post, Michael suggests that the solution to our energy problems requires more than new technologies — it requires a new type of civilization.
READ the blog post

• FOLLOW MICHAEL SHERMER ON TWITTER

FREE AUDIO DOWNLOAD

a chapter from The Science of Good & Evil

In his book The Science of Good and Evil, Dr. Michael Shermer tackles the question of why we are moral? That is, what is the basis for morality, how do we know the difference between right and wrong, and from whence did good and evil come, god or evolution? In this free audio download of the first chapter, Dr. Shermer considers whether moral principles are sound because they come from God, or that God approves certain moral principles because they are sound on their own, and if therefore moral principles stand alone — separate from whether or not there is a god. That is, can morality transcend religion and human convention? Can we get past the binary choice of morals being either absolute (always right or wrong) or relative (anything goes)? Here Dr. Shermer outlines his theory of morality based on evolutionary principles and the fact that we are a social primate species who evolved moral tendencies toward altruism, cooperation, and pro-sociality, and that we really are moral animals. DOWNLOAD the sample MP3 (17MB)


In this week‘s eSkeptic, Daniel Loxton, Editor of Junior Skeptic (and the organizer behind What Do I Do Next? 105 Practical Ways to Promote Skepticism and Advance Science) addresses the importance of Wikipedia. Find out how grassroots skeptics can help ensure that Wikipedia is a science-based public resource.

Fix Wikipedia: make the people's encyclopedia a science-based resource

Is it Worth Paying Attention to Wikipedia?

Yes, it absolutely is. This is a shining opportunity for the skeptical movement. Wikipedia is among the most important public sources for almost any scientific, pseudoscientific, or paranormal topic. A Wikipedia article is almost always the number one Google hit for that subject.

Amazingly, any grassroots skeptic can make responsible improvements to that source at any time, easily and for free.

As you learn the ropes, move slowly & cautiously. Start small. Be bold, but edit carefully. Make a meaningful contribution to science & skepticism.

You can personally correct any Wikipedia article. As long as you can cite references, you can add the best available skeptical information to any article that needs it. When you add footnote references, you can even link directly to skeptical websites. You don’t need anyone’s permission. For simple text edits, you don’t even need web coding skills. Best of all, it’s rewarding and fun to use your skeptical knowledge to enhance an essential public resource.

Furthermore, we know from our internal traffic statistics that people really do follow up on the skeptical resources cited in Wikipedia articles. (More people find Skeptic.com through Wikipedia than through Google!)

For an in-depth primer, see “Why Skeptics Should Pay Close Attention to Wikipedia,” by Tim Farley.

How to Get Started

As a free encyclopedia anyone can edit, Wikipedia is an almost-utopian project — but it works. Why? Wikipedia has a culture of rules, and a vast community of editors who care about those rules. It’s easy for beginners to make mistakes, but (luckily!) the culture of Wikipedia is also easy to learn.

The key is that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It’s not a soapbox for you personally, for the skeptical movement, or for any other interest group. The standard for Wikipedia articles is therefore a “Neutral Point of View” or NPoV. (Wikipedia does have a special policy for pseudoscience that relaxes this NPoV standard, but Wiki editors should always strive for the highest degree of objectivity and rigor.)

To help maintain this, Wikipedia requires reliable third-party citations for opinions and statements of fact. It also requires that notable criticism of any group or concept be described (with citations), and that topics be accurately placed in context against the prevailing current of expert opinion. (Wikipedia’s NPoV policy requires that articles not give “undue weight” to fringe positions.)

These responsible policies open great opportunities for skeptics to contribute. When paranormal assertions are made without support from reliable references, these statements can be flagged for citation — or, where appropriate, removed. Where a paranormal article fails to acknowledge scientific criticism, or fails to place a fringe position in its proper context, this criticism or context can be added. Furthermore, citations can link to relevant skeptical resources.

Before getting started, please familiarize yourself Wikipedia’s formatting rules and Manual of Style.

Then, just go to the Wikipedia article for your favorite paranormal topic and see what needs fixing!

Edit Boldly—But Be Careful!

Wikipedia has a policy called Be Bold! If you see something wrong, fix it! Your corrections are not an imposition — they are the engine that drives Wikipedia.

But editing Wikipedia is still editing. By its nature, editing other people’s hard work calls for extreme care. As you learn the ropes, move slowly and cautiously. Start small.

Stick to the NPoV wherever possible. When a topic is “generally considered pseudoscience by the scientific community,” Wikipedia’s policy on pseudoscience allows the article to state that scientific verdict and label the topic as “pseudoscience.” Nevertheless, you should strive to remain objective and to avoid loaded statements. Avoid statements like “Astrology is fraudulent nonsense.” Instead, find relevant sources and cite them, as in this example:

Astrology is generally considered a pseudoscience by the scientific community. Skeptics argue that the concept is implausible,1,2 unintelligible,3 and unsupported by evidence.4,5 Notably, large scale tests such as (describe one) have failed to reveal any astrological effect.6 There is also strong disagreement within the community of astrologers. Some proponents contend that X,7 while others believe Y8 or Z.9

See a typo? Don’t even hesitate: hit the “edit” or “edit this page” buttons and make the change. Likewise, if you find vandalism (such as random obscenities) or obvious nonsense (“Uri Geller is a pterodactyl”) remove these immediately.

As you get the hang of it, you may wish to start adding “citation needed” flags, adding relevant references for disputed or unsupported assertions, or inserting new material. Take your time, and remember that Wikipedia has an error-correction mechanism: if you make a mistake (or push too hard) another editor is liable to reverse your edits.

You may eventually work your way up to more ambitious efforts, such as adding new articles. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to science and skepticism — right now, today. Wikipedia is only a click away, so get started!

Why Haven’t Skeptics Acted on this Before?

Actually, many skeptics are already working to ensure that skeptical subject matter is discussed responsibly on Wikipedia. In addition to the thousands of individual skeptics who make an occasional edit, there are also organized efforts underway.

One effort you may wish to join is the Wikiproject Rational Skepticism, a voluntary association of skeptical Wikipedia editors. These editors keep a watchlist of articles of interest, cooperating to keep an eye on those for improvement and ongoing maintenance.

This sort of vigilance is very important. Like you, paranormal proponents (or even deliberate con men) can change anything they like at any moment. An article that was fine yesterday might be crazy today — and it will stay crazy until an editor like you checks it and fixes it.

You may also be interested in a lower-traffic project external to Wikipedia, called Skepticwiki. This is a standalone, explicitly skeptical encyclopedia project that shares the format of Wikipedia.

Topics to Tackle—or Avoid

Many skeptical Wiki editors tackle topics about skepticism: pages for various skeptical organizations and publications, or for prominent skeptics. Those efforts are very useful, but you may wish to concentrate on the areas where a skeptical eye is really needed — articles for paranormal topics.

When people turn to Wikipedia for information on iridology or “reptoids” or chiropractic, that article may often be the only source they consult. Or, if they do consult further sources, these may often be the sources cited in the Wikipedia article. Either way, paranormal proponents have been quick to load Wikipedia with content and citations that are friendly to their own claims. Sometimes, these articles are virtual commercials for paranormal industries. In those cases, skeptics can perform a valuable public service by bringing paranormal articles up to the NPoV standard with descriptions of skeptical criticism and references to relevant skeptical sources.

Oddly, the best Wikipedia topics for beginners are the most obscure. High-profile topics (like “CSICOP,” or “homeopathy”) attract lots of attention and edits from proponents and critics alike, leading to relatively neutral articles. That’s Wikipedia’s error correction mechanism in action: lots of critical eyes. Often, those topics stabilize to a tense compromise, watched like a hawk by opposed editors, with long arguments over small changes.

On lesser-known subjects, paranormal proponents have the freedom to make sweeping, biased, and wildly unsupported claims. These low-quality articles stand unchallenged until a skeptic eventually happens to review them. Finding and fixing these is fun and satisfying for skeptical editors. Because those articles are so bad, they are easy to improve — and edits will tend to stand for a longer time.

22 Comments »

22 Comments

  1. Raquel Baranow says:

    Lol, I got kicked off Wikipedia, see why here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Raquel_Baranow

  2. Drew says:

    What about a commercial purveyor of expensive products promoted by pure fraudulent advertising who is historically likely to sue authors of citations which expose them? What would you suggest or caution?

  3. Ramesh Raghuvanshi says:

    Occasionally I referred to wikipedia, What references I want got there .yes occasionally expert must revise the information, as information is changing so fast expert must change them.What may be that wikipedia is very great idea.

  4. Ian Dodd says:

    Loved this appeal to skeptics to take responsibility for having input into Wikipedia. I have long been a fan of the Wikipedia concept and have been watching it grow and evolve to the point where it now has a certain amount of “cred”. The key to it all, as the author says, is “Wikipedia’s error correction mechanism in action: lots of critical eyes.” Kinda like the scientific method in general, eh?

    My wife is generally sympathetic to alternative medicine. After I chided her about taking arnica pills for muscle aches after a workout, I went to get collect some skeptical information about homeopathy for her to read. After looking at several sources, I decided the Wikipedia article pretty well summed it all up in one location. It was generally NPoV, well cited, and easily digestible. Is she a born-again skeptic? No. But she now understands the difference between 1X and 30C and is much less likely to buy into something just because her na-na-wu-wu friends tell her it’s the greatest thing.

    Thanks for encouraging skeptics to start employing this powerful tool to start getting a toehold in the cracks of closed minds.

  5. Dave Hitt says:

    It sounds like a good idea, but in my experience it’s a waste of time.

    I tried making corrections to outright falsehoods on their “Passive Smoking” page. The fact that they changed the name from “Second Hand Smoke” to the loaded phrase “Passive Smoking” tells you all you need to know about their editorial bent. On several different occasions I’ve edited small portions of the page, sometimes to make the statements more neutral, sometimes to correct errors. In *every* case the changes were reverted within two hours.

    They used to have a section on the Helena study, which was deeply flawed if not outright fraudulent. When people persisted in adding real facts about it, they simply removed it from the page.

    Other people have tried editing this page, some with a heavy hand but most with a light touch, and the results are always the same. The nicotine nannies camped out there simply won’t allow any changes that challenge their beliefs.

    If you want to know George Washington’s birthday or the name of Winston Churchill’s parents the Wikipedia is a great resource. But every page with controversial information is jealously guarded by True Believers who simply won’t allow any facts they don’t like to remain there. You have a life, they, evidently, don’t, so you’re likely to find editing pages, even carefully and with verified facts, is a complete waste of time.

    • Don says:

      The fact you find “passive smoking” to be a loaded term certainly says a lot about your (non-neutral) point of view.

      • Quentin Hudspeth says:

        Well, “Passive Smoking” is more loaded than “Secondhand Smoke”. The phrase “Passive Smoking” is action oriented, thanks to that little gerund. It implies that a person is smoking just by being in the vicinity of another who is actively smoking. “Secondhand Smoke” does not have that weight to it. It simply describes a cloud of smoke as previously used.

        Personally, I think it’s a good change. But it is certainly a change away from neutrality.

        • sgerbic says:

          If a Wiki page is involved in a “edit war” which sounds like what you are describing then bring that to the attention of Wiki staff. It can be stopped and the page kinda “froze” so only specific people can edit.

          Also in the discussion area of the page there is probably a lot of talking about the changes and revisions. You should involve yourself in that conversation and (like adults) discuss the issue.

          It can be resolved! Throwing your hands up in the air isn’t enough to cause real change.

  6. Scott Replogle says:

    Two points:
    Ian Dodd’s point, ““Wikipedia’s error correction mechanism in action: lots of critical eyes.” Kinda like the scientific method in general, eh?” is also why free markets work, not to mention evolution. Successful complex systems need feedback mechanisms. Top down, central control of such systems doesn’t work well as Dave Hitt points out. See Michael Shermer’s book, The Mind of the Market.

    Also it would be interesting to see who gets to define “fringe positions” (Wikipedia’s NPoV policy requires that articles not give “undue weight” to fringe positions.) in relation to politicized science like Global Warming.

  7. badrescher says:

    I did some editing of wikipedia a few years back and occasionally do now, but I find the interface really difficult to work with.

    I have a friend who is vigilant in a couple of areas, but it is an uphill battle. It is especially difficult when people try to stick wedges in and the “woo” is not apparent (e.g., vaccines have side effects). Sources have become a contentious issue and the opposition is relentless.

    I sometimes think that less regulation of it would be better. Easier for them to change means easier for US to change…

  8. Steve Coles says:

    I heard on NPR radio this morning that an ancient Indian superstition is that during a Total Solar Eclipse the water will be poisoned and kill the children. So not everyone was happy when Asia experienced a solar eclipse yesterday. How could such a superstiton stand the test of time 500 years after the Copernican revolution? — Steve Coles, M.D., Ph.D., 07/22/09; 3:00 PM PDT; Los Angeles, California. Please reply to: scoles@ucla.edu

  9. Steve says:

    Some WP articles on pseudoscientific and paranormal topics are biased and lack balance. For example, I am very knowledgeable about the Shroud of Turin. The WP page on that topic is very unbalanced: most of the claims and citations support the Shroud’s authenticity and these could be easily refuted but are not. Instead, a brief and quite inadequate skeptical response is provided in most sections.

    Years ago I edited some parts of the Shroud article maintaining strict objectivity and neutrality, but unfortunately sometimes citing my own work, but my edits were deleted for violating several WP policies. I also cited other authors but these were also gradually removed. I don’t want to get into a revert war and can’t watch that or any other topic’s article every day, so I just stopped caring about it. My experience with WP has been that the administrators will cite any of a dozen policies to remove what you have edited, even when your changes make the content much more accurate and precise. Why take the time to edit articles when what you write will be deleted the next day by some officious and ignorant administrator, or reverted by a pseudoscientist and left that way for a month until I have time to check it again.

    The problem with WP is their reliability and verifiability policies: “Wikipedia articles should rely primarily on reliable, third-party, published sources” and “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true.” My objection is not excluding truth as a criterion–truth is often relative, obscure, ambiguous, or disputed. My objection is about the so-called “reliability” of cited sources. WP often relies upon cited newspaper articles, Web pages and site, and reports written by pseudoscientists. The Shroud of Turin article uses plenty of these (many of the pro-authenticity Shroud proponents have scientific and engineering training and have created an enormous literature published in both legitimate and pseudoscientific journals, so citations supporting authenticity are easy to come by; in contrast, anti-authenticity articles are rare because most scientists couldn’t care less about the Shroud).

    The result is that WP articles about paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects are often misleading and unbalanced that they misrepresent our best scientific knowledge of something. One major exception is Creationism; WP does an excellent job with this topic, and ID Creationists have long complained. As readers may know, a common journalistic standard with controversial topics is to give both sides equal time in an article, and to be objective and keep a neutral point of view. WP does this, and I don’t consider the results to be any better than some sensationalistic science reporting.

    I noticed that the Daily Telegraph has recently published some articles that claim–using evidence that has long been disputed and shown to be false–that the radiocarbon dating of the Shroud was wrong and it is much older than thought. One of these articles is cited in the WP article. The Telegraph also recently wrote an article that said the evolutionary Tree of Life is dead and scientists are quietly abandoning it, a claim that is totally false.

    If you want to become involved with WP, get on the good side of the administrators so they will protect your work and fend off your opponents who will also be editing your work. Just be aware of what you will be getting into–it can be a maddening process. I find it more fulfilling to write for my own websites and blogs where the quality of my work is not damaged by others.

  10. Lisa Hager says:

    Thanks for this excellent article. I teach research methods in psychology and one major focus at the beginning of the course is teaching my students about science and pseudoscience. Your article has provided me with a wonderful learning opportunity for my students. I plan to have them look at some pseudoscientific topics on Wikipedia and then to do some literature searches to find primary sources to refute or support the information available on Wikipedia. I will then have them edit an entry (which they may or may not publish on Wikipedia). This will provide a great opportunity to work on several objectives for the course: writing, skeptical inquiry, literature search, and understanding the difference between science and pseudoscience. Additionally, it uses a tool–Wikipedia–with which they are all familiar. I can’t even count how many times something from Skeptic has helped me with my teaching. Thanks again.

  11. Daniel Loxton says:

    Lisa, that’s a wonderful idea! Thanks for letting us know.

  12. Andy Odell says:

    The correct way to prove a theory ‘correct’ is to set out to disprove it, and fail. NOT to set out to prove it correct.

  13. John Długosz says:

    I was #42 to sign up for Project Rational Skepticism, a long time ago. I started removing total nonsense and putting in statements at the beginning that this is not true. I was disgusted at how I was reverted and slammed for being NPOV. They had no policy for being “right”, and treat POV’s equally. Now at least they officially have the policy you mentioned to flag pseudoscince as such.

    At some point Wikipedia cracked down on making sure everything was cited with references. But, _anything_ said somewhere else is a reference, even a total nut-job web site. OK, that got changed to “publications” etc., but there are wacky print magazines that pretend to be journals, and citing them is somehow equal to a real medical journal.

    The only way an article on such a subject can be kept up is if someone adopts it and monitors it regularly. Perhaps we should have a call to adopt an article.

    I just hope it continues to improve. Like you said, it’s the one-stop of information for a lot of people.

  14. JJM says:

    I sometimes go to Wiki in hope of finding references. Nothing else, even some historical date can be wrong in the text.

    I became disgusted with Wiki when I saw the article on “naturopathy” several years ago. It began “Naturopaths are medical doctors.” I corrected that to “Naturopaths are not medical doctors.” That is not controversial, they think they are better than MDs. Yet, it was reverted within minutes- and called sabotage. I came to realize that most of the pages on quack topics were controlled by quacks. A couple months later, the claim about medicine was simply gone. Editing is a waste of time.

    Also, the NPOV standard is ridiculous. It is akin to journalism’s “equal time” provision. Sometimes there are not two sides to a story, and the public is not well-served by spreading manufactured controversies. The Wiki article on naturopathy should not be a give and take- it is factual to simply say that it is quackery that offers no reliable health advice.

    • d says:

      You should have removed “naturopaths are medical doctors,” when you saw it since it’s untrue. Changing it to “naturopaths are not medical doctors,” doesn’t add anything to an article. That’s probably why it was reverted. Someone thought it was vandalism.

  15. chris says:

    Wikipedia is the Astrology of the internet. Pretending to be something which it isn’t. A good start on a topic giving the neophyte researcher a list of topics to investigate but the NPoV is simply code for “the cabal”. Anything deviating from what we all know to be true (e.g. Iraq had WMDs and the like) is censored. Better to take a trip to the library and do some real research.

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