Monday, October 29, 2012

The Conspiracy of Wikipedia

Received a tweet from my friend and fellow "skeptical activist" Bob Blaskiewicz.  If you don't already know Bob, you should, he is on my "people to watch" list along with a short list of other names.   Amongst other projects, Bob writes a conspiracy theory column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine as the "The Conspiracy Guy"  I'm sure he's on a lot of other people's watch lists also, probably grouped in the shadow government category. 
Bob was telling me about some UFO conspiracy person who is complaining about Wikipedia.  I ventured over to the blog and was pretty amazed to read all about motivations I didn't even know I had. 
Here is the link to the article I'm about to talk about.  I've broken it in half, and you can restore it in the address bar.  Tim Farley uses a no-follow code to make it so that when you are posting to a paranormal site, they won't be able to follow the URL back to where you posted it.  I don't really know how to do this, but Tim's blog skeptical software tools explains it and much much more. 


 Below are some of the highlights of Coppen's blog along with my comments.
Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown as the online phenomenon that apparently allows the truth to be managed democratically; but over the past year it has also been exposed as a real-life "Ministry of Truth". Worse: people have been arrested and terrorised due to incorrect information being posted on this free Internet encyclopaedia.

True, Wikipedia has become an online phenomenon.  At its best it is a repository for the facts.  We do try to work with editors who have other agendas, there is a lot of back and forth on controversial topics, but eventually the citations should win out.  Usually this leaves supporters of the paranormal frustrated and angry. 
The "arrested and terrorised" comment he refers to is about a gentleman who was stopped from freely traveling because his Wikipedia article had a reference to him being a terrorist.  Obviously we guerrilla skeptics are against vandalism in all forms.  We also understand that we are dealing with real people and don't want reputations harmed.  I'm not sure how likely it is that travel is really being halted because of what is read on Wikipedia, Coppen is a man known for conspiracy theories, he probably knows better than I, so I'll just give him this one.

On 15 December 2005, various media sources reported that the open-access encyclopaedia Wikipedia was about as accurate as the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, at least for science-based articles. This was the result of a study by the journal Nature, which chose scientific articles from both encyclopaedias across a wide range of topics and sent them for peer review. The reviewers found just eight serious errors. Of those, four came from each site. They also found a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, there were 123 such problems with Britannica and 162 with Wikipedia. That in itself is a staggering conclusion, which translates as averaging out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia, or three versus four mistakes. That, of course, is not "as accurate" as the newspapers reported – thus showing misleading statements in the newspapers' headlines.
 Well I guess this might be a win for Wikipedia if true.  I have problems when people compare Wikipedia to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Maybe to the Britannica on-line site but not the book version.  Wikipedia can change hourly whereas Britannica only yearly.  

Also I think this might be a problem with small sample size, he does not state how many articles were selected, but only finding 8 errors.  And no idea what is meant by "serious".  Finding errors, omissions and misleading statements of 162 Wikipedia articles, again how many articles were reviewed, and what criteria was used to determine errors?  Are we talking about spelling, math, citations or what?

Coppen infers that these errors equal 3.86 errors (per subject?  or did they count all the errors on the page? To Coppen it is "staggering", without clearer examples I don't know if he and I have the same definition of that word.

Jack Sarfatti considers himself to be a victim of the service and even considered litigation at one point. He found that certain libellous information had been posted about him. Of course, he, like anyone else, can go in and alter that information, which is what he tried to do. He tried posting at various times of the day, but each time, within minutes, the changes were undone – suggesting that the Wikipedia moderators were constantly monitoring certain pages. When he dug further, he came to the conclusion that Wikipedia seemed to be in the hands of a group of sceptical minds, intent on making sure there were no mysteries and no conspiracies.

No, Coopen's is incorrect.  Biased people can not just go into a page and edit.  I mean they can do it, but it is frowned on.   There are several good reasons for this, I'll use Jack Sarfatti as an example.  Firstly we do not want Sarfatti to hide, embellish or exaggerate part of his biography.  Secondly, even if what Sarfatti is correcting is legit, like his birthdate, birthplace or where he got his degree, how do we know it is the real Sarfatti doing the editing?  Should Wikipedia contain a registration screen for new accounts that includes you're Social Security number and a team of editors to check it? Thirdly, we can't just add or change info unless there is a citation proving the edit. Otherwise we would just have nonsense pages.
I guess to someone wrapped up in conspiracies, having someone revert you're edits in “minutes” at “various times of the day” would look like they were being watched. I don't know about constantly monitoring a page, but most non-editors are unaware that we can with one click add a page to a watchlist, that when refreshed tells us when a change is made. It only takes two clicks to undo a change, I guess that looks magical also. I suppose Sarfatti envisioned a team of Wikipedia editors wearing all black with dark sunglasses gathered around iron tables in a unused warehouse somewhere. They would have to move around the country to avoid I.P. Addresses being traced I suppose.

The reality is more mundane I'm sorry to say. Editors all across the world (who probably don't even know each other) sitting at their office desk at work, venture over to their Wikipedia account during a lull in the workday, click on their watchlist and say “Damn, not again”. They might even be trying to leave notes on his user page but it does not exist. Maybe on the talk page is a conversation between editors about how best to keep the page in good shape. I haven't looked, so this is all just speculation. It also is likely that one of the Wikipedia bots (robot) changed the page.

This last sentence “Wikipedia seemed to be in the hands of a group of sceptical minds, intent on making sure there were no mysteries and no conspiracies. “ makes me suspicious that the edits that Sarfatti was making were not corrections to his birthdate, but tying to add in material that should not be there.

“Indeed, when you consult a variety of subjects on Wikipedia, you will notice a certain "mindset" that excludes certain opinions.”
If he means a mindset that includes making sure vandalism does not exist, and that only correctly cited material is allowed, then I plead guilty, I also plead guilty to having an agenda of wanting to make sure the articles are factual. I and my team choose to work on the pages of our skeptical spokespeople, in the same way that a chess or bowling enthusiast wants to work on their people's pages.

Rennes-le-Chateau and Priory of Sion mysteries (which are at the core of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code) and is responsible for most of the Wikipedia entries on the subject. Some of these entries are blatantly biased and others contain serious factual errors. In both instances, I adjusted the wording and removed the errors. At no point did this mean that the Priory was depicted as genuine – far from it. In fact, I felt that an error-free posting would actually bring enhanced value to the entry. In this case, the entries remained up for a number of months, but then were returned to their negative, erroneous entries. The "Wikipedia Police" should have seen that the new entry was less neutral and more biased than what was on there, but they did not revert to the previous version. The question is: why prefer erroneous information over more neutral wordings? No wonder that experts find numerous errors in every article on Wikipedia...when Wikipedia seems to prefer to promote errors over factual statements.
“Wikipedia Police” really? Is he talking about the 100 admins that are trying to watch the hundreds of thousands of pages? What Coppen considers “blantly biased... serious factual errors” may be just his opinion and no one elses.
“ No wonder that experts find numerous errors in every article on Wikipedia” (need citation)

Concerning Corpus Hermeticum, “Wikipedia moderators removed the section themselves, stating that I needed to give "more sources" – though I had actually given more sources than most of the other statements that maintain the status quo in this entry”. You have to add in citations to prove you're statement.

“Paul Joseph Watson of Prison Planet has noted there is a concerted campaign to erase the 9/11 Truth Movement. Furthermore, pages which they and like-minded individuals created, such as "List of Republican sex scandals", "People questioning the 9/11 Commission Report" and "Movement to impeach George W. Bush" were all deleted. “

Really? I can't imagine why. Wonder if there are a lot of secondary sources to prove that these pages are relevant. Maybe they could have a category page instead?

The first-mentioned page might indeed not be seen as important in an encyclopaedic environment, but the "wiki" (a page in the encyclopaedia) for Dylan Avery, the producer of the most-watched documentary film in Internet history, clearly merits a biographical page on an online encyclopaedia. Wikipedia, however, thought otherwise.

Again he assumes that there is some kind of police out there trying to keep out pages of reputable, noteworthy people. I can assure him that there are all kinds of pages that exist for controversial non-skeptics. Many of which the skeptical community keeps vandalism free. If there are enough citations and secondary sources for an individual or organization to prove the noteworthiness then no one will be able to keep it out of Wikipedia. If someone wants to write a well-sourced page for Avery then I'll completely support that.

Sarfatti commented on a private email list: "They have set up a Virtual Shadow Government in which they now have their own courts to adjudicate 'litigation'." He made the point that the theory is that whoever controls the Web controls the Earth – and there is indeed that potential. Perform a Google websearch and if Wikipedia has a result on what you search for, the Wikipedia entry will come up on top. So whatever you want to know, you will probably Google it and find it in Wikipedia. "Googlepedia" thus has a virtual monopoly on information and does indeed, as Sarfatti said, control the Web – and knowledge.

Wow! A Shadow Government! Damn where do I sign up? Other than that I mostly agree with the rest of this statement. Wikipedia is powerful. Having well-written and correctly cited pages is a major influence on human knowledge world-wide. No argument from me.

Googlepedia offers a one-stop shop for teachers and anyone else who wants to find information.
Again no argument from me.

Teachers have stated that this is exactly the case. What is in Wikipedia – and the opinions expressed therein – is almost directly passed on to students. It begs the question as to why there is still a need for teachers, as students are equally able to do a websearch...
And students are more likely to check other hits, perhaps being more realistic about the expectations of Wikipedia – which for many teachers seems to have become gospel.
No idea on teacher's opinions of Wikipedia other than my years in college when the professor instructed us to not use it as a citation. I'm positive that students use Wikipedia as the first place to check when trying to get background on a subject, also to find relevant links needed to do better research. And I'm sure there are students that are just copying and pasting. (probably some teachers also) This is why we need to make sure that Wikipedia is in excellent shape. We can not control human nature.

Coppen goes on to explain that some people and organizations sometimes edit pages to make themselves look good. Well duh. Does it mean there is a conspiracy? Would like to see the citation on that.

So, welcome to WikiWorld, a realm where inconvenient truths can easily be removed, while erroneous information – convenient lies and disinformation – can be entered in the encyclopaedia with emotionally upsetting and even worse consequences for the people involved.
This is the modern Ministry of Truth which, together with the liars and no doubt some mentally unstable people, has been put in charge of rewriting history. It labels itself as the "Free Encyclopaedia", but perhaps the world should be freed from this encyclopaedia before the old proverb is converted thus: "There are lies, damned lies, statistics, and then there's Wikipedia."
The problem with Wikipedia is not that it exists, but that it has become the cornerstone for researchers scanning the Internet for information and blindly copying from Wikipedia entries, wrongfully assuming that they are neutral and correct. It has become the "Ministry of Information", the "one-stop information shop" of the Internet, but no one should fall for the "Newspeak" of a title. Wikipedia has made the task for those seeding disinformation and removing dissenting views easier, more direct and even more anonymous. Lies and Wikipedia, indeed...

Well some of what he is saying is true, we need to remain vigilant and check out watchlists. Also when reverting a unsorced edit or something biased, remember that most people do not understand the rules. To them, it does look like a conspiracy of “mentally unstable people... rewriting history”. Always remain polite and state you're reasons for you're revert. And always assume “good faith”.

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