Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet
By Craig Weiler
From the author’s website: In journalistic fashion, Craig Weiler relates what began as a seemingly harmless attempt to make sure that TED talk videos maintained a high standard and how this exploded into a wild scientific controversy. When the nonprofit company took down one of their YouTube videos by scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who had given a speech on the philosophy of science, they ignited a fierce discussion that eventually grew to include hundreds of people spanning the globe. For a while, ordinary folks, distinguished scientists, Internet trolls and even a Nobel Prize winning physicist all got together to hash out the greatest scientific controversy . . . ever.
Further information on the author and the book can be found here:
Psi Wars. Published by Craig Weiler, December 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1494389000
Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles
NB The SPR does not possess corporate views. All opinions expressed are the reviewer's, not the Society's.
Craig Weiler is well-known from his blog The Weiler Psi and he has brought together his thoughts on the state of scepticism and the ways in which it attempts to control the public discourse over topics it deems to be pseudoscience (acting as arbiters of what falls into that category). He uses as his main pegs two controversies: the long-simmering one over the distortions injected into Wikipedia pages that deal with psi-related matters; and the one which occurred when the TED organisation found itself in hot water for trying to drop from its website videos by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock after some critical voices raised questions about their scientific validity, a hasty and ill-thought out series of acts that showed it to be unprepared for the resulting backlash.
As well as these more obvious manifestations of the friction between the two sides Weiler covers some examples of what he considers to be sound parapsychological research - Ganzfeld, Sheldrake’s staring studies and RNG studies. On the other side he considers in depth the flaws of the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, an analysis which refutes those sceptics who wonder aloud why, if psychic abilities exist, nobody has claimed the money. He also looks at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the website The Skeptic’s Dictionary (actually more an encyclopaedia), the last a good example of the sort of one-sided account that the uninitiated can unfortunately assume to be authoritative when putting a term into a search engine. In giving these examples, plus others which exhibit the seamier side of scepticism, he paints a picture of distortion, evasion, cherry-picking, ignorance of the subject being criticised and frequently extreme contempt for the subject and its defenders. He also shows how efficient organisation allows pseudo-sceptics to use these resources so that they feed off each other, thereby creating a spurious sense of authority.
In the case of Wikipedia he shows how they have a lock on pages they consider pseudo-scientific, which they will maintain against any efforts to improve them by trying to include other perspectives. (As a basic example the Wikipedia page for Sheldrake currently begins: ‘Alfred Rupert Sheldrake is an English author, lecturer, and researcher in the field of parapsychology known for advocating his pseudoscientific “morphic resonance” concept.’ Try removing the word ‘pseudoscientific’ and see how long you wait before it is changed back.) Even worse, editors whose methods are considered unsound will find themselves first frustrated as they try to make edits, then characterised as trolls, and then blocked, their complaints dismissed as manufactured.
Weiler even had the surreal experience when trying his hand at editing of being accused of stealing the identity of the ‘real’ Craig Weiler and trying to make him ‘look bad’! Experts find themselves on a level playing field with non-specialist editors, their expertise considered to be no more valid (you can check out the examples by looking in the index under ‘nincompoops’). I feel sympathy because I too have had personal experience of the frustrations of dealing with Wikipedia, when C J Romer and I tried to improve the SPR page and found ourselves dealing with an anonymous editor who reversed every alteration we made. The aim seemed to be to maintain the page in an uninformative state, and despite a great deal of effort by us our opponent won by being more obsessive than we had the patience to be.
The TED fiasco showed how things can so easily get out of hand but it points, Weiler feels, to a changed landscape in the conflict. The TED administrators who caved in to critics and removed the talks that Sheldrake and Hancock had given at TEDxWhitechapel must have thought that the controversy would go away, or else they would have approached it with greater subtlety instead of just charging in without assessing the implications of their actions. Even when that proved to be not the case they thought that quarantining the talks on the TED website, away from the ‘proper’ videos, would solve it. Instead they were wrong-footed at every step, and their lack of confidence in their position is clear from their silence when both Sheldrake and Hancock offered to debate with either TED boss Chris Anderson or the anonymous science board behind whom TED executives were hiding when trying to manage the crisis. Weiler provides a useful summary of the lengthy, convoluted and often ill-tempered debate that occurred mostly on web discussion boards and which one had to have a particular interest in to follow with any degree of energy.
However, TED’s shabby treatment of Sheldrake and Hancock wasn’t the end of it. Weiler climaxes the book with an account of the last-minute withdrawal of TED’s support for a TEDxWestHollywood event called ‘Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm’, an act even worse than the Whitechapel debacle. Sheldrake and Hancock weren’t put to any loss (in fact their reputations probably benefited), whereas after a year of discussions and preparation the organisers of the Hollywood event were informed that they could not use the name a mere two weeks before it took place because TED had concerns about some of the speakers who ‘didn’t meet their guidelines’. The resulting loss of sponsorship would have left the organiser Suzanne Taylor seriously out of pocket. Weiler reprints email exchanges between TED and Taylor which show that they thought she would just go away, whereas she held out for some compensation, and the show went ahead. Once more TED comes out of it very badly. One might usefully modify its proud boast - ‘ideas worth spreading’ to ‘as long as they don’t frighten the horses’. As a result of these scandals the TED brand was tainted and in the eyes of many has not fully recovered.
This is all useful information but when Weiler is being particularly combative his passion can run away with him: it isn’t helpful to say of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia that ‘much of what they do is fairly evil’, whatever one thinks of their approach. There is also scope for misunderstanding. He is talking throughout about pseudo-sceptics rather than the moderate sceptics who adhere to what scepticism should be, i.e. an open-minded and impartial enquiry. Unfortunately for brevity he usually simply refers to his target pseudo-sceptics simply as sceptics, and it may come to seem to the inattentive reader that he is lumping together all varieties of scepticism. Those not aware of the shades within that term might think that Weiler is treating them all equally as members of an unreasonable group out to put parapsychology down as an assault on reason. He is on safer ground when he refers to ideologues, those who consider that they do not need to look at any evidence that might be contrary to their views because they already know it is rubbish, as this encompasses a narrow, but disproportionately influential, section of sceptical opinion.
Weiler is probably over-optimistic about the prospects for a collapse of pseudo-scepticism. The positions are as polarised as ever, and that is unlikely to change in the short term. It may be quite some while before there is any kind of consensus, and in the meantime the same rhetorical tricks will be used to demean anyone considered to be purveying ‘woo’ and marginalise their arguments. Both sides are stuck in an ingroup/outgroup perspective in which it is easy to see those on the other side of the fence as sharing more characteristics than possessing ones that differentiate them. Such a situation is not conducive to nuanced discussion.
As a minor indication of how pseudo-sceptics can treat their opponents, it is interesting to look at Weiler’s page on the organ of balance and fair play that is RationalWiki. After saying that he is ‘known for posting anti-skeptic rants on the internet’, it goes on to say that ‘His current occupation is working as a handyman’. That sounds like he will come round and put up a shelf or fix a leaky tap. Yet the line underneath quotes him as saying ‘I am currently in transition from being in construction’, which sounds a bit more than being a handyman. Perhaps he’ll put up a shed too. However, the biographical page at the back of Psi Wars describes him thus: ‘Craig runs a small successful construction business’ and he ‘also built his own house’. That is a bit more than being a handyman, and illustrates how misleading tactics can be used to denigrate those considered to be ‘woomeisters’, a phrase itself that encapsulates a sneering mindset.: ‘what does Weiler know about psi, he’s just a handyman, anyway he rants so we can safely ignore anything he says.’
An obvious question is, if these nasty pseudo-sceptics are so good at this, why aren’t the other side? Why moan about the unfairness, why not do something? One answer is that parapsychologists spend time doing parapsychology rather than editing Wikipedia pages, so the ideologues have greater leisure that they use to ensure they remain in control. There may also be personality variables at work which make them more efficient at repetitive tasks. In any case, there are moves to side-step the problem by setting up channels of information immune to this type of interference. One that is already running is WISE, the World Institute for Scientific Exploration, which is producing what it calls a WISEWiki, an alternative to Wikipedia that will use vetted contributors rather than allow a free-for-all. The SPR has a similar encyclopaedia idea on the drawing board, but with invited contributions.
Such resources will act as a more reliable counterpoint to what is currently available, though it is hard to see how they will ever beat Wikipedia in the search engine rankings and reach a large number of readers. Even so, the future is looking more promising for those who would like to see evidence stand on its own, rather than be filtered through biased lenses. While we wait for these initiatives to bear fruit, Weiler’s book is a valuable exposé which shows that what the casual browser might think is ideologically-neutral scientific information is anything but. In order to take full advantage of the links with which the book is crammed, it is one that is best read in its e-version.