Wikipedia’s assault on scientific progress: The case of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

Wikipedia, the brainchild of Jimmy Wales, is supposed to be an objective source of knowledge. Every entry is expected to be researched and written with a sense of balance, fairness, and accuracy and supported with reliable references. However, for users who rely upon Wikipedia as their primary source for information, there is no way of knowing if articles reflect Wikipedia’s stated standards.

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Over the years, we have heard multiple complaints from experts with impeccable professional credentials who have been viciously attacked on their Wikipedia biographies. Some have had their reputations seriously stained and even destroyed, yet there is no viable channel for them to receive due process. Wales keeps his Wikimedia Foundation hermetically sealed from the encyclopedia that serves as the battleground for an army of volunteer editors.

We have been performing our own in depth investigations to determine the accuracy of these individuals’ claims of Wikipedia victimization. During the past year, we have spoken with present and past Wikipedia editors, former employees, and international celebrities who have been victimized on Wikipedia. All of these speak of the problems they encounter with Wikipedia’s editorial structure in their efforts to remove false, misleading and derogatory information from their personal biographical pages or from pages dealing with certain topics, such as medicine and health. Making even a minor successful change can often take well over a year, if it happens at all.

If even one of these accusations is accurate, it presents a problem. If all of these complaints are accurate, it represents a dangerous scandal that is systemic throughout the Wikipedia platform. The results of our independent research, which are carefully documented and legally vetted, indicate Wikipedia’s ostensibly open-access editorial policy is in fact one of the largest conspiracies on the internet.

Ever since Wikipedia came online, it has had its detractors. Increasingly, its reliability is being questioned by prestigious institutions and credible journalists, including the MIT Technology Review and the recently launched Wikipedia Project at Yale University. The most toxic Wikipedia editors now terrorizing and sabotaging the encyclopedia’s pages are often anonymous non-experts who identify themselves with an extreme form of scientific materialism known as Skepticism. These editors now control large numbers of Wikipedia entries dealing with non-conventional medicine, parapsychology, and doctors and researchers who advocate these disciplines.

As we have described and documented in the past, Skeptic editors do not limit their vitriolic attacks to Wikipedia pages dedicated to scientific and medical theories and practices they oppose. They also rule over Wikipedia’s biographies of important practitioners and researchers in these fields. Their intention is singular: to deny Wikipedia users access to reliable information about health modalities and leaders in these fields whom Skeptics have targeted as enemies. One person who has been targeted for over a decade is Dr. Rupert Sheldrake.

Sheldrake is a British biologist and author of over 85 scientific papers and 13 books. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry at Cambridge University and studied the history of science as a fellow at Harvard University. While at Cambridge’s Clare College, Sheldrake was the Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. He is credited with co-discovering the method of transportation of the hormone auxin in plants. He held positions at the world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Trinity College at Cambridge University and is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California. He was ranked among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013 by the Duttweiler Institute, Switzerland’s leading think tank.

In the opinion of many, including several Nobel Prize laureates, Sheldrake is one of the world’s most innovative post-modern visionaries, a scientist unafraid to think and research outside the confines of what are regarded as acceptable areas of scientific investigation. He is an ardent believer in the need for scientific experimentation and validation, but at the same time he does not share scientific materialism’s view that modern science knows with certainty everything there is to know in nature.

Early in his professional career at Cambridge, Sheldrake was regarded as “one of the brightest Darwinians of his generation,” according to an early exposé about the biologist in The Guardian. Today, he is a heretic with a price on his head among the Skeptic community. Wikipedia’s Skeptics have become Grand Inquisitors, pursuing scientists like Sheldrake who dare to investigate phenomena of which they disapprove. When the journal Nature reviewed Sheldrake’s first major book A New Science of Life in 1981, it deemed it a “book for burning.” Nature‘s review is prominently noted on Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page.

Sheldrake’s original Wikipedia biography, created in October 2002, was limited to two sentences and a link to his personal website: “Rupert Sheldrake (1942-) is a British biologist and author of several books. In his 1981 book A New Science of Life he put forward the hypothesis of formative causation which basically suggests that memory is inherent in nature.”

That’s it! Today, his biography has grown to 9 major headings and 12 subheadings. Instead of identifying him as a biologist — only noting this title in the past-tense — the article falsely identifies Sheldrake as a “parapsychologist” in the lead paragraph. Although he conducts experiments in telepathy, he approaches the topic from a biological viewpoint, in keeping with his scientific training. Reviewing the many thousands of edits made to his biography during the past 16 years is a lesson in how brutal and vicious the Wiki wars spawned by Skeptics can become.

Sheldrake’s Wikipedia “Talk” page begins with the warnings:

The subject of this article is controversial and content may be in dispute. When updating the article, be bold, but not reckless. Feel free to try to improve the article, but don’t take it personally if your changes are reversed; instead, come here to the talk page to discuss them.

The Arbitration Committee has authorized uninvolved administrators to impose discretionary sanctions on users who edit pages related to pseudoscience and fringe science, including this article.

Here we observe Wikipedia’s own Committee showcasing flagrant bias in identifying Sheldrake’s scientific research as “pseudoscience.”

In his book Science Set Free (published in the UK as The Science Delusion), Sheldrake undertakes a meticulous investigation into the fallacies of scientific materialism, which serves as the foundation of contemporary Skepticism. His premise is that a distinction should be made between the scientific method, which attempts to understand nature, and “philosophical materialism,” a subjective, biased dogma that is employed to discredit non-conventional medicine, parapsychology, and theories of non-localized consciousness as something other than neurological activity. According to Skeptic materialism, all of these disciplines and theories are unbelievable and therefore qualify as pseudoscientific. After reading Science Set Free, it is obvious why Wikipedia Skeptics attack it so ferociously. Sheldrake draws out Skepticism’s weakest arguments and dissects their irrational conclusions to prove their scientific unsoundness.

Science Set Free was widely reviewed both in the US and Europe. While Wikipedia editors suggest that positive reviews are limited to “outside the scientific community,” the book received favorable reviews in the Financial Times (by Oxford Fellow Sir Crispin Tickell), the journal for the Institute of Paradigmatic Reforms, and the peer-reviewed Journal of Vocational Education and Training. In a review of Science Set Free in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics, the reviewer writes, “the book is very interesting and thought provoking in more than one sense. The approach he takes is truly scientific: he places the facts, states the existing dogmas and provides phenomena that counters the dogmas, and questions the dogmas.” None of this praise can be added to his Wikipedia page without being immediately deleted by Sheldrake’s critics.

Real science has never been about certainty. “The search for knowledge,” writes Carol Rovelli, the author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, “is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty.” Sheldrake’s Skeptic critics, on the other hand, regard the established rules of orthodox science as the law of the land. Any deviation from these axioms, according to Skeptics, is apostasy. Following Francis Fukuyama’s discredited theory about the “end of history,” Skeptics now hail the dawn of the “end of science.”

What has made Wikipedia so unreliable and a source of disinformation in the medical sciences is that its editorial model discourages – even prevents – real experts from contributing. There is something seriously wrong when someone like Sheldrake is unable to correct his own Wikipedia page because of an anonymous administrator who has deemed himself the final judge of an article. Has Wikipedia has become so unmanageable that Wales or the Wikimedia Foundation cannot intercede to reign in the corruption, misinformation, bias, and propaganda plaguing so many articles? Or have Wales and/or the Foundation intentionally provided special editorial privileges to representatives of specific interests that prevent fair treatment of certain topics? Our previous investigative reports suggest the latter is the case. Wales is vocal about his personal embrace of Skeptic dogma. As a consequence, he allows Skeptics to judge anyone they deem “fringe” as liars and “lunatic charlatans” (his choice of words) and their research’s results as implausible and ridiculous.

Skeptics on Wikipedia not only prevent others from removing their criticism and defamation of non-conventional medicine, holistic doctors and parapsychologists; they also protect the pages of leading Skeptics.

Dr. Jerry Coyne, an American biologist, Skeptic, and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is known for his scathing attacks on religion, intelligent design, and scientists researching hypotheses that overlap with paranormal theories. Along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Coyne is a major proponent of New Atheism and takes pride in stating he is a “determinist.” According to those who have encountered Coyne, he is short-tempered and has been reported to stalk his opponents to prevent them from speaking at professional venues. Such was the case when he attempted to persuade a prestigious university to disinvite Rupert Sheldrake from presenting a lecture. Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci at City University of New York charges that Coyne “suffers from hero worship and a selective dearth of critical thinking.”

We mention Coyne because he is closely affiliated with the internet militant group Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, founded by his associates Tim Farley and Susan Gerbic. As we have documented elsewhere, the Guerrilla Skeptics control many Wikipedia pages with Wales’ blessing. Coyne has also had a long-standing conflict with Sheldrake, whom he has attacked in articles in The New Republic and on his blog. While serving on the Scientific Advisory board of TED Talks, Coyne and biologist PZ Meyers were responsible for censoring Sheldrake’s 2013 TED talk about scientific materialism’s ten erroneous dogmas and how its reductionist delusions hinder scientific advancement.

Craig Weiler, author of PSI Wars, TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet, describes the Guerrilla Skeptics as a “loosely knit secretive organization” that operates through private Facebook pages. Weiler investigated their “secretive” platform and discovered it relies upon intermediary links which conceal Skeptics’ real identities. Gerbic and her Wikipedia militants use online programs like Web of Trust and Donotlink to boost their own sites and the Wikipedia pages they control on search engines while downgrading sites about subjects they disdain, such as alternative medicine and parapsychology.

There can be little doubt that Coyne’s, Gerbic’s and Farley’s efforts are having an enormously deleterious impact on Wikipedia’s credibility. In one of Gerbic’s training videos, she states:

“So they’re getting their information from here, so, we can control this, this is so powerful you don’t understand when you put one of these guerrilla skepticism edits up on Jenny McCarthy’s page or Priceline, or Walmart or just some of these pages you’re like glowing inside it’s so powerful to feel like I’ve made such an impact , hundreds of thousands of people can be reading my edit, homeopathy, we’ve changed that page drastically, the lead, the very very first couple of sentences of the page which most people it’s the only thing they read we use the word “quackery” I mean it’s so awesome”

And Gerbic doesn’t hold back her acknowledgement that her Guerrilla Skeptics own Wikipedia pages:

“Nobody owns their Wikipedia page, we control the Wikipedia pages, the editors. Everyone. And because we’re organized and we have this project we as a skeptic since we’re focused on this we’re not updating bowling page or Internet fans or something like that . . . this is our thing, we need to have this, scientific pages are pretty dang good they’re in really great shape…”

According to Weiler, Gerbic also presented a strategy for Skeptic militants to “attack” the Wikipedia page about “Pet Psychics,” which referenced Sheldrake’s research. Weiler concludes, “Much of skeptical sourcing is merely skeptics citing opinions from notable skeptics or from articles in skeptical publications. Rarely do they venture far outside of the skeptical echo chamber to get their information.” In no uncertain terms, Wikipedia distinguishes reliable and unreliable sources for reference purposes. Skepticism’s newsletters, magazines and blogs do not qualify as legitimate, objective references. They are not peer-reviewed. None are acknowledged as mainstream publications. And their articles speak to only a tiny segment of the English-speaking public. Nevertheless, these sources are repeatedly found throughout Skeptic-controlled Wikipedia pages and serve to promulgate their narrow perception of science and discredit others.

Negative reviews of Coyne’s book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American. The Journal‘s reviewer, John Horgan, writes, “Coyne’s defenses of science and denunciations of religion are so relentlessly one-sided that they aroused my antipathy toward the former and sympathy toward the latter… He overlooks any positive consequences of religion, such as its role in anti-slavery, civil-rights and anti-war movements. He inflates religion’s contribution to public resistance toward vaccines, genetically modified food and human-induced global warming [. . .] Mr. Coyne’s critique of free will, far from being based on scientific ‘fact,’ betrays how his hostility toward religion distorts his judgment.” He concludes that Coyne’s book “serves as a splendid specimen of scientism…. This sort of arrogance and certitude is the essence of scientism.”

According to Wikipedia’s criteria, both the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American are reliable sources. Nevertheless, attempts to cite criticisms about Coyne’s work is removed by the Skeptics guardians of his bio. The same is true for all of the big names in the Skeptic movement, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and James Randi, as well as the movement’s more prominent medical doctors such as Steven Novella, David Gorski and Paul Offit. And there is plenty of criticism to cite for each of these individuals to bring balance to their biographies and permit users to decide for themselves. Just as factual evidence and references are not permitted to support the scientific credibility of alternative medicine, parapsychology, or their proponents, nor can factual criticism of Skeptic leaders be added to give Wikipedia users a more accurate image of who these people are and what they stand for.

For over a decade, Wales has been repeatedly warned about the behavior of the Guerrilla Skeptics and ideologically-motivated editors like them. He is fully aware that their editorial assaults violate Wikipedia rules. But he refuses to stop Skeptics from adding demonstrable falsehoods to biographical articles or using unreliable references to perpetrate smear jobs.

Consequently, Wikipedia is a rigged sham of an encyclopedia. For over a decade, Jimmy Wales has turned his back on a crisis in the nation’s health, enabling a small group of radical scientific fundamentalists to dominate the discourse on medicine. In Skeptical About Skeptics, Sheldrake writes, “Skepticism is also an important weapon in the defense of commercial self-interest.” Skeptics on Wikipedia, according to Sheldrake, are applying the very same tactics used by the tobacco industry. The goal is to generate doubt about cheaper, safer, effective, less-toxic natural remedies that may compete with the pharmaceutical industry and its culture of drug-peddling. To be clear, Skeptics, whether or not they receive direct funding from drug companies, are ardent supporters of the private medical industry and the drug-for-every-disease paradigm. And Wikipedia has served as a perfect vehicle for Big Pharma to smile, sit back, and enjoy Skeptics’ efforts to turn people away from healthier, non-conventional medical regimens.

It is our hope that legitimate journalists as well as legislators at federal and state levels take heed of this problem. It is our opinion that the public has been misled, if not outright lied to, on issues regarding non-conventional medicine, genetically modified agriculture, vaccines, parapsychology and the science of consciousness. This has serious consequences not only for those who question the authority of commercialized science but also for anyone interested in protecting and improving people’s health and advancing scientific discovery.

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