Wikipedia:Lunatic charlatans

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In December 2013, after what appears to have been several years of trying to skew Wikipedia coverage of their field to something more favourable, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP) took it upon themselves to petition Jimmy Wales to change Wikipedia policy. Posted on Change.org with a view to get 10,000 signatures, the text of the petition includes this:

Wikipedia is widely used and trusted. Unfortunately, much of the information related to holistic approaches to healing is biased, misleading, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. For five years, repeated efforts to correct this misinformation have been blocked and the Wikipedia organization has not addressed these issues. As a result, people who are interested in the benefits of Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique, turn to your pages, trust what they read, and do not pursue getting help from these approaches.

Some might say "mission accomplished". The entire point of Wikipedia is to give dispassionate information, and in the case of alternative medicine, Minchin's Law states that there is no alternative medicine that provably works, because any alternative medicine which provably works, is by definition no longer alternative.

By definition”, I begin
“Alternative Medicine”, I continue
“Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?
Medicine.”

Tim Minchin, Storm

The petition title was:

Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia
Create and enforce new policies that allow for true scientific discourse about holistic approaches to healing.

Of course, the problem is precisely that Wikipedia does have such a policy. Fringe subjects are covered according to the reality-based consensus. We do not document Nessie as an elusive plesiosaur, crop circles as the work of alien visitors or homeopathy as a clinically effective form of medicine, because in every case the more parsimonious explanation is that they are complete bollocks.

The petitioners invoke the quack mantra du jour in respect of skeptics:

Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), [...] are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed “skeptics” who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.

Ironically, as noted on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast, the skeptic community is pretty much the only group that does engage in scientific discourse with cranks. There is little prospect of real scientists wasting time investigating the conjectured effects of hypothetical forms of energy which have never been observed or measured with any instrument. Science does not investigate "subtle energy" and will not do so until it is quantified in Joules. This argument is just an extension of the "Galileo gambit", ignoring the fact that in order to don the mantle of Galileo it is not enough to be persecuted and ridiculed: you must also be right. Or as Carl Sagan said:

[T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

Wales' response was epic:

No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.

Wikipedia's policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals - that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.

What we won't do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of "true scientific discourse". It isn't.

Jimbo Wales, March 23, 2014

The story has been widely covered in the press, one of the few occasions where Wales has spoken out publicly about a contentious matter of Wikipedia content policy. One prominent previous example is the policy on biographies of living people.

This unapologetic endorsement of the NPOV policy on pseudoscience and the policy on fringe science is the clearest indication yet that Wikipedia's robust response to cranks, quacks and charlatans is solidly in line with Wikipedia's foundational goals. We should document these things, we should politely explain why we will not follow the line of Natural News, Mercola and Dr. Oz, but will instead follow reputable scientific sources. If science rejects your favoured alternative therapy, Wikipedia is not the place to fix it. Instead, come up with robust, replicable scientific evidence, published in reputable journals, and then we will tell the world all about it.

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No Quacks logo.png This user resists the POV-pushing of
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