Ideas Worth Fearing: TED and Wikipedia Censor Information

I love the TED Talks – the ongoing series of conferences whose slogan is “Ideas worth spreading.”   TED has become incredibly successful in the past few years, with over 800,000 subscribers on YouTube and 1.5 million monthly visitors to ted.com.  During the past few months I’ve watched TED presentations on whether school is killing children’s creativity, how it feels to experience a stroke, the publication bias in drug research, and the power of introverts, among others. Do you have a free 20 minutes? There’s a TED talk for that – one that will make you think, make you laugh, and maybe teach you something.

I also love Wikipedia; it’s my go-to source for an overview of any issue of which I know absolutely nothing. There’s almost always an article that answers my question (with over 4.6 million articles, that’s not surprising), and references that direct me to other sources I might want to investigate.

That’s why I put off reading Craig Weiler’s book, Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet. My life was already complicated enough without taking something simple that works, and showing me the behind-the-scene schenanigans of what’s really going on. But over the holidays I finally gave in. And now I can not un-read that book.

Censorship1In a previous article I briefly touched on the difficulties psi scientists experience in getting their research taken seriously, despite adhering to scientific protocols and standards that are as high – or higher – than those in mainstream science. But while the lack of recognition is aggravating, it is the deliberate misrepresentation of the facts and the ridicule that cause the most damage. Entire lines of scientific inquiry are dismissed as “pseudoscience;” young researchers self-censor their investigations so that they won’t hurt their fledgling careers; science becomes stunted and distorted.

Craig Weiler, a longtime blogger (The Weiler Psi) of psi phenomena, was naturally interested in the 2013 controversy when TED administrators removed the videos of two TED presentations from its site and withdrew sponsorship for a future TEDx event in which those same two speakers were also scheduled to participate . This was TED’s response to a small number of skeptics who launched a smear campaign, accusing scientist Rupert Sheldrake and author/archeologist Graham Hancock of practicing “pseudoscience.”

Skeptic1What were the objectionable presentations about? Both of the talks centered around the role of consciousness in physics – something that is not yet settled in science. Sheldrake’s presentation, “The Science Delusion,” talked about the conflict within science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason evidence hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a world view – and that the materialistic dogmas of modern science had come to inhibit free inquiry which is the basis of scientific endeavor. Hancock’s presentation, “The War on Consciousness,” broached what Hancock describes as a “radical possibility” that human beings’ development of consciousness was triggered by our ancestor’s encounters with visionary plants, and that certain traditional drugs, such as ayahuasca, can have beneficial uses if used correctly. He describes how ayahuasca has been used in Peru to cure people of additions to heroine and cocaine, and details his own experience in which an ayahuasca session cured him of a destructive, 24-year marijuana addiction (no, ayahuasca is not addictive). Perhaps more telling, both Sheldrake and Hancock spoke about man’s immortal soul.

The skeptics criticized both Sheldrake and Graham as promoting pseudoscience, and claimed that allowing these presentations would discredit the TED Talks. The TED Science Committee (it’s anonymous – TED doesn’t say who’s on it) took down the two talks claiming that they contained “serious factual errors that undermine TED’s commitment to good science.” After widespread condemnation, TED opened up a comment section so people could weigh in. Overwhelmingly the comments were in support of leaving the videos up and letting people decide for themselves. Both Sheldrake and Hancock offered to respond to specific allegations from TED – none were forthcoming.

Censorship2But it didn’t matter. Although TED put the videos back up on its page, they are located in an obscure corner of the website with no way of searching it short of knowing the link (others have put the videos up on Youtube so you can still watch them) – still a form of censorship. The TEDx event remained canceled.

Where does Wikipedia fit into this story? In his book, Weiler decscribes Wikipedia as “the resource from hell.” TED curator Chris Anderson actually referenced Wikipedia entries describing Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s work as pseudoscience when still contemplating whether to reinstate the videos and let the TEDx event continue, and it’s clear that TED’s Science Board also relied on the popular website. The role Wikipedia played in the TED controversy and continues to play in everyone’s daily life is important because of the sheer number of visitors it draws. Weiler reports that the Sheldrake biography Wikipedia page has about 180,000 views a year and Graham Hancock’s page has roughly 120,000 views a year.

The idea of Wikipedia – an online encyclopedia that has been created and is edited by volunteers – is wonderful. The reality, however, is a bit different. Says Weiler, “While Wikipedia is acceptable for bland, non technical, noncontroversial topics, it is a complete disaster on pretty much any other subject and especially those that people have differing opinions about.” Wikipedia’s arcane editing process has set the stage for this. Editing rules do not distinguish between experts and everyone else, nor can a secondary source be overruled even when directly contradicted by a primary source. In fact, experts are specifically asked not to contribute to controversial topics and for biographies of living persons. Stories full of frustration are common:

  • It is very difficult to make factual corrections to entries. After failing to get an edit through, one college professor was told by a Wikipedia, “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.” Link.
  • Wikpedia’s editors/administrators overwhelmingly lack knowledge of specialized subjects, but refuse to accept the knowledge of those who have it. One PhD scholar had added informational links to Wikipedia’s articles on the Acts of Paul and Thecla – the Wikipedia administrator who overruled him and deleted his edits was a 14-year-old boy. Link.
  • People find it difficult – or impossible – to correct factual information in Wikipedia entries on themselves. Link and link.

Who are the editors of Wikipedia?  Of the active core (defined as those who make at least 100 edits/month or 4/day – not difficult to do on Wikipedia), 90% are males under the age of 26, often students without jobs: thus a small group of dedicated, but not very educated, young males is determining the content of the world’s single largest compilation of knowledge. (One commenter on Weiler’s blog described the process of editing Wikipedia as a “worldwide dick-swinging competition.”) They are, however, quite territorial, and tend to stake out articles on specific issues as their own, often rejecting edits made by others. If the subject matter is controversial, the resulting Wikipedia entries are often slanted in favor of the belief system of the specific editors.

The issue of psi phenomena is a prime example of slanted reporting in Wikipedia. The editor or group of editors who work on psi phenomena and related entries appear to adhere to the materialist worldview, i.e., that everything about human beings can be explained by physical and chemical reactions in the body, and negatively slant Wikipedia entries that would suggest otherwise. Examples:

  • LifeAfterLifeDr. Raymond Moody coined the term “near-death experiences” in his groundbreaking book, Life After Life, in which he asserted that the experiences of his patients constituted evidence of life after death.  In addition to being an author, Moody is both a medical doctor and a Ph.D. in philosophy who gives lectures, speaks at conferences and medical schools, and trains hospice workers, clergy, psychologists, nurses, doctors and other medical professionals on matters of grief recovery and dying.  In 1988 he received the World Humanitarian Award in Denmark.  But what does Wikipedia say about Moody?  The biographical entry on Moody in Wikipedia devotes a separate section to the “reception” of Moody’s work – all of it is dismissive.
  • Dean Radin has a master’s degree in electrical engineering (with honors in physics), as well as a PhD in psychology.  He has held appointments at Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, University of Nevada, Interval Research Corporation, and SRI International.  Radin has given over 300 interviews and talks, including invited presentations at Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Princeton, and the Sorbonne, for industries including Google and Johnson & Johnson, and for U.S. Government organizations including the U.S. Navy and DARPA.  Also an author of several books, Radin established the reality of psi phenomena in his seminal work, The Conscious Universe. The Wikipedia entry on Dean Radin, however, only cites skeptical comments of his work.

On the other hand, the Wikipedia entry on paranormal debunker James Randi (aka The Amazing Randi) has nothing but flattering comments. Those who conduct psi research are critical, claiming that Randi’s “tests” do not meet scientific standards or follow accepted protocols, that his claims are commonly overblown, and that he deliberately misrepresents research. Rupert Sheldrake’s experience is typical. He writes of how Randi was quoted in a Dog World magazine article saying that the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) had tested claims related to canine ESP (Sheldrake has done leading-edge research on dogs knowing when their owners were on their way back home), and had failed to find any evidence that would support it. When Sheldrake asked Randi for details on this research, Randi did not reply. Sheldrake then asked members of JREF’s Scientific Advisory Board for details on JREF’s tests. The Science Advisory Board, however, had no knowledge about any canine ESP testing supposedly carried out by themselves, and advised Randi to send a reply. His email to Sheldrake said the tests were not conducted by the JREF, but took place “years ago” and were “informal.” All records had been lost. Randi wrote: “I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so.” Randi also claimed to have debunked one of Sheldrake’s experiments with a dog, part of which was shown on television. Randi later admitted he had never seen the tape.

Wikipedia also has an entry that lists topics it characterizes as pseudoscience. While some of the topics do indeed belong on that list (ex: Modern flat Earth beliefs), the inclusion of others is a sign of a deep-rooted prejudice against anything that presents a challenge to a materialistic worldview. Among things that Wikipedia labels as pseudoscience include: acupuncture, hypnosis, psychoanalysis, subliminal advertising, alternative medicine, and chiropractors – as well as any and all things that might fall into the paranormal.

What these stories regarding the TED Talks and Wikipedia tell us is that science – and humanity’s understanding of itself – is in transition… and that the skeptics are fighting any challenge to their view that only the material exists, and that anything spiritual is a delusion of weak-minded individuals. It’s little known that the original psi research conducted over a hundred years ago was not focused on proving that ESP is real, but on finding evidence that would answer “the survival question” – whether there is life after death. Are you more than a package of blood, bones, nerves and chemicals? Are you more than your physical body? Do you have a soul? These are the questions to which extreme skeptics are responding “NO!” And that is why they are attempting to control the information that you and I see.

And now what should we do?

Deepak Chopra, author and a doctor of both traditional and alternative medicine, has also been the victim of Wikipedia’s negative slant on anything at odds with a materialist worldview.  In a blog entry, however, Chopra stated that he believes that Wikipedia’s editing guidelines are actually sensible, and that although it would be a long process, we should continue to contribute information faithfully and genuinely, seeking to represent knowledge and nothing more. In time the article will become a fairer and more accurate representation.

InternetCraig Weiler is also surpisingly positive about the future of information distribution on the Internet, but advises “The only way to win is to not play.” According to Weiler, the Internet is a giant arguing machine, one that has produced a new phenomenon – “The Age of Internet Debate.” Although we will always have controversies like TED, individuals now also have commenting capabilities on most online articles where we can weigh in with our opinions, as well as access to tens of thousands bloggers and free thinkers. We no longer live in small towns where everyone thinks alike: if someone in Australia has a great idea, we can learn about it just a few moments later. So go ahead and learn from the Internet – just remember to keep your mind in gear.

 

 

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