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Interview with social media expert and Wikipedia critic, Rome Viharo exposes cyber bullying tactics employed by dogmatic Skeptics on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia-rupertJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with social media consultant and Wikipedia cyber bullying victim Rome Viharo.  During the interview Viharo discusses the changes he sought to make in the bio page of biologist Rupert Sheldrake:

Rome Viharo:  Personally I have no interest in promoting Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas or his hypotheses and I really can’t say scientifically if they’re valid or invalid.  That was never my argument.  My arguments were always on what’s called the “lead section,” which is just describing the basic information about the man. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist, author, and lecturer.

I was offended because these editors were basically abusing the metadata, the first sentence of the paragraph, to immediately frame Rupert Sheldrake in a light that is just biographically not true but in a way where he has no credibility after the first sentence.

So when I joined the page, what I found offensive was “Rupert Sheldrake is a former biologist,” right? So I just found that offensive and I was like, “Where is the source that he’s a former biologist? Where is the evidence of this?” So all I was trying to do was really just change the lead section.  There are so many scientific publications that refer to him as a biologist.

Alex Tsakiris:  Well, it’s absurd. He has dozens and dozens of scholarly, peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. I think he’s published in Nature, if I remember correctly.

Take line two from the Wikipedia entry. It’s just unbelievable. “From 1967 to 1973 he was a biochemist and cell biologist at Cambridge University.” Well, what happened after that? He stopped being a biochemist? He’s not being a biologist? It’s just absurd.

Rome Viharo:  It’s like something from a Monty Python movie.

Rome Viharo’s Website – WIKIPEDIA, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

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Rome Viharo:  Me personally, I have no vested interest in promoting Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas or his hypotheses and I really don’t know. I can’t say scientifically if they’re valid or invalid and that was never my argument. I was never arguing like pro his ideas. My arguments were always just on what’s called the “lead section,” which is just describing the basic information about the man. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist, author, and lecturer.

So why I was so offended is—and this is the metadata on Wikipedia—is that these editors were basically abusing the metadata, the first sentence of the paragraph, to immediately frame Rupert Sheldrake in a light that is just biographically not true but in a way where he has no credibility after the first sentence.

So when I joined the page, what I found offensive was “Rupert Sheldrake is a former biologist,” right? So I just found that offensive and I was like, “Where is the source that he’s a former biologist? Where is the evidence of this?” So all I was trying to do was really just change the lead section. I never was arguing for his theories, if they were valid or invalid. Even just getting him his proper credentials academics. Like Cambridge University refers to him as a biologist. There are so many scientific publications that refer to him as a biologist.

Alex Tsakiris:  Well, it’s absurd. He has dozens and dozens of scholarly, peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. I think he’s published in Nature, if I remember correctly. He’s published in some of the most respected biology journals.

Take line two from the Wikipedia entry. It’s just unbelievable. “From 1967 to 1973 he was a biochemist and cell biologist at Cambridge University.” Well, what happened after that? He stopped being a biochemist? He’s not being a biologist? It’s just absurd.

Rome Viharo:  It’s like something from a Monty Python movie. That was inherently where I was focusing my arguments, just on the lead section. I created a sandbox. The thing is I was making this argument but so were many other people. I personally do not identify myself as like a pro-Sheldrake supporter. You know, Craig Wheeler was involved in the page and he writes a blog about psi and telepathy and things like this, so he was arguing from that perspective.

But even the people who were arguing from that perspective, no one had any problem with having any criticisms of Rupert Sheldrake on the page, right? There are a number of scientists who have said very critical things about him. They refer to his work as pseudo-science and all these things. No one was arguing against that. Everyone wanted that on the page. It’s an encyclopedia. It’s notable. It should be there.

Alex Tsakiris:  Hold on a minute. Maybe it’s notable, maybe it’s not notable. There’s a lot of controversy about that. I think one of the things you bring to this discussion, the perspective you bring, is as a media consultant and as someone, as you explain your story, who is neutral on the topic. I can get pretty heated if we want to talk about pseudo-science so I don’t want to go there necessarily.

I want to stick to what you were just saying about the real story here is about Wikipedia and about it has been rigged. How the game has been gamed by these folks and how it’s consistent. It’s not just about Sheldrake. The broader question that we have to ask ourselves when we dig into it is, what does this say about science?

I think one of the ongoing debates we have on this show and with forward-thinking scientists is we have this perception sometimes because the Internet does have this long tail and it does allow more voices and more variety of voices. We have this sense sometimes that things are getting better, that a paradigm change is coming. We’re more open to new ideas. I think when we run into something like this, we have to acknowledge that in a lot of ways science is worse than it was. That power through the Internet has been consolidated in some respects into the hands of a few people like this who can rig the game.

Let’s talk about what this might mean for science or what the broader implications of this are.

Rome Viharo:  I’m not sure how much it affects science as how it affects knowledge.

Alex Tsakiris:  Just to jump in here, I didn’t say, “How does it affect science?” I said, “What does it say about science?” What does it say about our perception that we have that the Internet is going to somehow liberate us from the narrowed perspective that science and materialism sometimes gives us? It’s kind of a rhetorical question.

To me, it says that science isn’t as well off as it seems and Sheldrake’s latest book, Science Set Free, is an extension of that condemnation of science and science’s inability to get out of its own nest and pull itself up by its bootstraps.

Rome Viharo:  I see what you mean now. I actually agree with that. I personally wouldn’t call it science. I would call it just philosophy. There’s this philosophy of scientific materialism that’s referred to as “scientism” or “physicalism.” It draws from a lot of knowledge that science provides but it is a philosophy and I think what this does say is that there is a bias of this philosophy.

I do believe it’s entrenched in Wikipedia. My own personal experience has actually provided that to me, where you have this really rigid philosophical bias that takes science and treats it like a fundamentalist religion person would treat their religion. How they would treat Christianity. We’re right; we can break any rules that we want because we’re right anyway. It doesn’t matter. Anybody who disagrees with this, not only are they wrong as people but they’re ignorant, they’re stupid, and we can abuse them. That is a pattern and I have seen it happen on Wikipedia.

In addition to that, I was exposed on Wikipedia—me personally. They outed me as a person and now they have created this hit piece on me on RationalWiki. I’m sure you’re familiar with RationalWiki. It’s everything but rational, right? There probably isn’t that many editors involved in RationalWiki but they’re these really aggravated people who adhere to this specific worldview and they use it to basically abuse people.

There’s this very abusive, libelous piece on me on RationalWiki right now. It shows up really high in searches. It’s harmful to me professionally. What it says to me is if this philosophy–or however it’s referred to, these people who are part of this—I really don’t know what to call it, Alex. Is it a skeptical movement? Are they Atheists? I have no idea. But if they’re simply promoting science, which is based on empiricism, logic, rationality, why do they need to do all these dirty tricks to get their point across? Why do they need to abuse people? Why do they need to defame people to make their point?

Alex Tsakiris:  I think that’s really the more interesting issue and I think we can sit on the sidelines and go, “Oh my gosh, isn’t this horrible and will things ever get better? These crazy skeptics!” The thing I always point out to people is the dogmatic skeptics, the fundamentalist Atheists, who these people represent, are really the tip of the spear for scientism. We always want to do like you did and say it’s really not a problem with science, is it? It’s a problem with scientific materialism. It’s a philosophical issue. No, forget it. It’s about science.

If we’re going to talk in general terms, science media has been completely co-opted by this point of view. The reason I’d come back and say it’s the tip of the spear is because you don’t see scientists rushing to the aid of Rupert Sheldrake just on principle saying, “Hey, this is a colleague of ours. This guy is clearly a biologist. He’s a Cambridge Fellow. We need to defend this.” No. They sit on their hands and silently cheer. Some of them sit on their hands and hope the arrow doesn’t point to them next.

So it’s really akin to what you were talking about with religious fundamentalism back when they were bombing abortion clinics. Of course there was an outcry of “Stop the violence” from other Christians. But there wasn’t too much of an outcry, right? There’s a lot of sympathy. “Well, we can certainly understand how upset people are by all those babies dying.”

So these frontline soldiers, these tip of the spear of an ideological debate, I think we have to be careful when we separate them and bifurcate and say, “Well, they don’t really represent science.” Yeah, I think they do. They form a pretty good representation of the crazy scientific materialism that really grips science as we know it right now. I don’t see any relief from that.

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