HIV/AIDS Skepticism

Pointing to evidence that HIV is not the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS

Beware the Internet: Amazon.com “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/04/11

A recent Colbert Report (TV Comedy Channel)  featured Steven Johnson and his book, “The Invention of Air”. Practicing one-upmanship, Colbert described a fictitious work whose title he appeared to make up on the spur of the moment. Johnson responded at once, “And tomorrow there’ll be a Wikipedia entry for it”.

I was pleased by this indication that the unreliability of Wikipedia has attained shibboleth status in the conventional wisdom of the popular culture. We teachers have long been troubled by the willingness of students, writing “research” papers or projects, to rely naively on material they gather off the Web. There have been serious discussions among academics for well over a decade, how to meld the desirable openness of the Internet with the quality control that serious work requires, but there’s no solution in sight. Quality control takes time and effort, and the Internet is free, and no one has devised a process by which Internet journals or other Web publications that generate trivial income can find the wherewithal to effect quality control.

The idealists who first created the embryonic Internet were research scientists who never imagined that the disinterested sharing of honest information among researchers, for which they created this medium, would almost at once be exploited by spammers, scammers, and hackers. I suspect that those who created Facebook and the like didn’t intend it to be used for purposes of identity theft. I imagine those who created blogging software didn’t do so in order to allow frustrated ne’er-do-wells to vent their spleen at their betters. Still, that’s what often happens. I imagine Amazon.com intended informative reviews of books to be posted, not character assassinations; and surely the creator of Wikipedia thought that it would attract idealistic, disinterested individuals wanting to share their authentic knowledge and understanding. However, in the words of Robbie Burns,

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain . . . .

A year or two ago, a friend I had acquired in the 1980s through a mutual interest in the Velikovsky Affair had sent me this e-mail:
“Henry,
FYI, you have a ‘stub’ entry in Wikipedia which begins ‘Henry H. Bauer is editor of the fringe science publication Journal of Scientific Exploration.’
Then lists your educational background, employment, and your 1986 and 2001 books, with links to your publications and personal webpage. . . .
It invites someone to add some ‘beef’ to this ‘stub’.
Just so’s you know,  L—-“

Around the same time, some of my colleagues in the Society for Scientific Exploration voiced concern over how the Society and its Journal (which I edited from 2000 until the end of 2007) was being characterized on Wikipedia. Fairly quickly we learned that it’s futile to attempt corrections if even a single person is determined to keep the entry to their liking, deleting or changing one’s corrections almost as soon as they are made. The procedures that purportedly safeguard Wikipedia against malicious entries simply aren’t up to the job of bringing objective and fair consideration, most especially where unorthodox views or anti-mainstream claims are concerned; no reasonable arbitration or compromise is feasible when one side comprises fanatical propagandists for their “truth”, for whom “all’s fair…”, “anything goes”.

As Steven Johnson indicated on the Colbert Report, Wikipedia is just another illustration that there’s no quality assurance on the Internet; nor could there be, given its great virtue of universal accessibility. Anyone who uses Wikipedia must surely learn quite quickly that there’s no quality control. There are two obvious corollaries:
1. You trust what’s in Wikipedia (or on the Internet in general) at your peril.
2. To correct mis-information in Wikipedia or on the Internet is literally impossible. Even should you succeed, after tortuous interactions with biased people, in modifying incorrect Wikipedia entries to be merely pervaded by bias and innuendo rather than gross factual errors, the same people who are determined to spread mischievous mis-information can just place what’s removed from Wikipedia on their own websites, on blogs, in discussion groups — and, just like at Wikipedia, they can do so anonymously.

So I stopped paying attention to my “biography”, or that of the Society for Scientific Exploration, or any such entry, in Wikipedia. (Which is not to say that everything in Wikipedia is bad, of course. On non-controversial matters the entries can be unexceptionable. The trouble is, unless you’re already familiar with a subject, you won’t know that a very different story might exist, that there exists a controversy not mentioned in Wikipedia.)

Another place for mischief on the Internet is Amazon.com. Anyone can post “reviews” of books. I think the first time I realized this was with the intemperate reaction from HIV/AIDS vigilantes to Rebecca Culshaw’s fine book, “Science Sold Out”. In particular, there was a long rant from AIDStruther Kenneth W. Witwer, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins; Witwer’s piece was quite striking in describing as mis-statements of fact what are demonstrably accurate statements of fact, for example, that “HIV prevalence in the US has remained constant since at least 1985” — the accuracy of that statement of Culshaw’s can be checked by anyone who cares to look at the original sources (several of which are cited at p.1 of my own book).

The same Witwer later posted an equally calumnious “review” of my book. Unfortunately I didn’t make a copy of it at the time, and it was later withdrawn. But around the same time, my friend alerted me that my Wikipedia entry had now been made even more derogatory, and he copied me on his e-mail to someone who is interested in these matters:

“J—,  Subject editor on Wikipedia is a very ornery dude who insists on phrasing everything in Henry Bauer’s entry as negatively as possible.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_H._Bauer&gt;
He insists, among other things, on calling J. Sci. Explor. ‘a fringe science publication’ after I changed it to something like ‘a scholarly, refereed journal that published material mostly ignored by mainstream science’.
… Got any suggestions for how to deal with this obstinacy and mean-spiritedness?
The NIH URLs used to rebut the claim that HIV does not cause AIDS are b.s., worthless propaganda, unsigned, and unsourced. How to deal with these as sub-prime sources?  The editors who are opposing Bauer seem to think that medicine is infallible as though it never made any mistakes on the cause of ulcers or cholesterol causing heart disease….
L—-”

When I checked “my” revised “biography”, I found much the same calumny there as had been in Witwer’s “review” on Amazon.com.

I suppose each one of us has to learn about this sort of thing for himself, but perhaps this blog post may be of some use to those who haven’t encountered such Internet untruths themselves or haven’t thought about it. I started drafting what I’m now writing after receiving an e-mail from someone who has been studying the HIV/AIDS arguments as an academic project and as an outside observer:

“Dear Professor Bauer,
It seems I have just been causing more trouble.
I have tried to defend you on Wikipedia, despite kind warnings from one “ludwigs2” that the more I accomplish, the more the ‘anti-fringe’ crowd will push back (in this long thread).
Before, your article stated that ‘Bauer hypothesises that African Americans are more likely to test HIV-positive because of supposed genetic mutations’, to which I objected because I thought that ‘mutations’ should be replaced by ‘adaptations’, and that your reasoning and your words in support of this view should also be presented. After all, one wouldn’t say that dark skin is due to a ‘genetic mutation’. Now, that part is unchanged, but additionally the article says ‘Bauer claims that African Americans are more sexually promiscuous and use more illegal drugs than other groups, but says sex and drug use are not involved in AIDS since, according to him, Native Americans are also sexually promiscuous and have high drug use but do not often test positive for HIV (p.64)’ which is even more egregious in my view, since it neglects to state that you were associating both groups with risky behaviour via poverty, and besides which my impression of that passage on p. 64 of your book was that it was a hypothetical line of reasoning which you contradict elsewhere. . . .
Best wishes and sorry for what is happening on Wikipedia,
F——–”

Well, yes, that stuff about promiscuity and drug abuse that, I’m told, is (or was for a time) in Wikipedia is the very opposite of what I argue in my book, the earlier articles, and my blog posts. Still, the Wikipedia entry gives the title of my book, so interested people can look into it for themselves, and there are links to my personal website and to several of my publications; anyone who cares to use those links and go to those source can easily get accurate information. As for the calumny directed at me by people who are afraid to attach their names to it (which includes the administrators or subject editors at Wikipedia), I said a little about it in “Defenders of the HIV/AIDS Faith: Why Anonymous?”, 6 November 2008:
“But why would AIDStruth groupies and other supporters of mainstream views be unwilling to communicate openly and honestly? What are they afraid of? Do they sense subconsciously that they have no substantive grounds to stand on and that they must fight by innuendo and attempted character assassination? Why are they ashamed to let others know who they are?”

But perhaps it’s even more astounding when people like Kenneth W. Witwer (and Seth Kalichman, J P Moore, Mark Wainberg) are apparently NOT ashamed of openly and publicly directing abuse at those whose arguments they cannot counter.

12 Responses to “Beware the Internet: Amazon.com “reviews”, Wikipedia, and other sources of misinformation”

  1. Frank said

    Franklin C. Spinney, a former Pentagon analyst, has some interesting observations on what he calls “incestuous amplification,” which I suspect might in part drive the zealous censors at Wikipedia:

    At the heart … is the deliberate corruption of information on such a vast scale that it overwhelms the mind of the educated layman to make sense out of it. This of course is no accident. Overloading other people’s minds results in enormous leverage to the faction doing the overloading … Moreover, the very process of constructing the Potemkin village of misinformation creates a world view that captures the imagination and thinking of its builders … some of the scam artists become true believers … [this] self delusion is very familiar to old line reformers … We called it incestuous amplification — or the process by which a decision maker’s orientation, or his interior model of how the world operates, distorts his observations of external events to such a extent that he sees and acts on what he wants to see, rather than the external world as it is. When this happens, the whole decision cycle insensibly becomes disconnected from the external environment it purports to cope with, and the inevitable result is confusion, chaos, and in the presence of menace, it can even devolve into panic … incestuous amplification becomes a recipe for a catastrophe on a humongous scale … The really scary thing about this kind of behavior is the self-organizing character of the evolving catastrophe, or what I call the anatomy of decline. It evolves more from the bottom up via a process of trial and error than from a top-down conspiratorial design.

  2. Sadun Kal said

    Yes, that’s a nice explanation of self-delusion. This interesting video is also related:

    “In the lingo of stage magicians, illusionists, and mentalists, a shut eye is a performer who becomes so adept at the illusion of mind reading that the performer comes to believe that he or she actually possesses psychic powers.”

  3. Martin said

    Hi Dr. Bauer,

    The difference between the establishment media (TV, Radio, most Newspapers & Magazines) and the Internet is that we can listen/read which slant on what’s happening that we agree with — that’s news? If the New York Times (and other establishment media) reporting of AIDS is the result of political correctness/corporate influence, what other things reported that we should take seriously can we believe? The use of the Internet exclusively for actual academic scientific research is lamentable but if the Internet is used to look for the existence of other points of view which can be verified and found to be valid it could be useful for advancing a person’s work.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Martin:

      Yes, definitely, the Internet is invaluable for learning that other viewpoints exist. The trouble is, one needs to have learned to look for that possibility; and then one needs to be able to make judgments. I don’t think we do a good job of educating, of leading students to engage in really skeptical, critical thinking; and our media don’t provide any noticeable “continuing education” along those lines. There’s not much thinking for oneself around, and unfortunately the more independent thinking there is, the better a democracy can function, in my view — not to forget that medicine and science would be better if researchers thought for themselves, including about what they do, more than they apparently do overall.

  4. Sepp said

    Yes, Wikipedia seems to have serious trouble finding what it calls “neutral point of view” because, of course, no one is “neutral” on any subject. We all have our pet peeves or our preferred theories and tend to defend those against anyone who would make us look at contrary evidence. Amplify that idea by an order of magnitude or two, and you have Wikipedia’s “neutrality”.

    Wikipedia, by necessity, depicts the world as it is understood by a clique of people who love to see their version of events prevail. A discussion of this trend with regard to “global warming” is in the following article:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/08/opinion/main4241293.shtml

  5. Neutral Observer said

    Re Wikipedia, it could be interesting to point out the striking differences between articles like

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIDS_denialism

    and

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Moon_Landing_hoax_conspiracy_theories

    Starting with the titles… (why isn’t the second one “Moon Landing
    Denialism”?)

    And although the second article seems somewhat biased against the
    conspiracy theories, it at least describes most of their major
    premises before giving rebuttals. The first one just talks about how
    dangerous and discredited AIDS “denialism” is, with no substantive
    description of the dissident theories.

    The revision history of the pages shows different kinds of edits and
    reversions, and even the history of the *discussion* pages is
    different, with posts to the “AIDS denialism” discussion being
    regularly removed for saying the same kinds of things about the AIDS
    establishment as the “anti-fringe” editors say about dissidents:

    (scroll down)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:AIDS_denialism&diff=275657134&oldid=275656551

    So Wikipedia readers have to be really motivated to see some of the
    suppression that is going on.

  6. Dave said

    I once had a lively dinner with Yale Professor Serge Lang, who was an absolute stickler for logical expression of ideas and argument. If you followed simple logic, on whatever point you were making, he loved you. If you strayed, he went postal and couldn’t even finish his meal.

    He identified 2 simple, foundational problems with modern intelligentsia: (a) Failing to distinguish between facts and opinions and (b) Asserting a “fact” without supporting evidence.

    Example: The mainstream likes to assert, as fact, that HIV causes AIDS. Of course, this is an opinion, not a fact. More so, if you indulge them, and ask them for the supporting evidence for this “fact,” you get a lotta flak, blank stares, or ad hominem attacks.

    I like to stay simple. What is the scientific evidence for the proposition that AIDS is caused by a new retrovirus? And, What is the evidence against it?

  7. Sadun Kal said

    This might be of some interest, related to Wikipedia:
    http://condeve.blogspot.com/2009/04/lemmings-bible.html

    • Henry Bauer said

      Sadun Kal:

      Thanks, yes, it is pertinent.

      The question of whether to reflect what’s common by contrast to what would make better sense has long applied to dictionaries. Language does change with common usage, and eventually dictionaries will reflect those bits of common usage that have worked well. However, when a dictionary becomes too “up-to-date”, too anxious to include new stuff, it can work against the usefulness of language. A standard instance of this is when Webster’s 3rd, long ago now, included “uninterested” as a proper meaning for “disinterested”. Disinterested” — free from conflicts of interest — is an important concept and needs that word.

      What the Wikipedia defenders of “reflecting society” do is to reflect the lowest common denominator of society instead of the best that contemporary society has to offer.

  8. Henry Bauer said

    Psychologist finds Wikipedians grumpy and closed-minded
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16349-psychologist-finds-wikipedians-grumpy-and-closedminded.html

    (article in NEW SCIENTIST I’d forgotten about)

    01:00 03 January 2009 by Peter Aldhous
    For similar stories, visit the Mental Health Topic Guide

    Disagreeable and closed to new ideas – that’s the picture that emerges of contributors to community-curated encyclopaedia Wikipedia from a survey of their psychological attributes.

    Led by Yair Amichai-Hamburger of the Sammy Ofer School of Communication in Herzliya, Israel, a team of psychologists surveyed 69 Israeli contributors to the popular online encyclopedia, comparing them with a sample of 70 students matched for age and intensity of internet use.

    All were given a short questionnaire called Real-Me, which tries to determine whether people prefer to express themselves in the real world or online, and a personality survey that gave ratings for five traits: openness to experience and ideas, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
    Internet living

    As Amichai-Hamburger expected, the Wikipedians were more comfortable online. “They feel the internet is a more meaningful place to them,” he says. But to his surprise, although Wikipedia is founded on the notion of openly sharing and collecting knowledge as a community, they scored low on agreeableness and openness.

    “Wikipedia in a way demonstrates the spirit of the internet,” Amichai-Hamburger says. “People contribute without any financial reward.”

    Amichai-Hamburger speculates that rather than contributing altruistically, Wikipedians take part because they struggle to express themselves in real-world social situations. “They are compensating,” he suggests. “It is their way to have a voice in this world.”

    This is consistent with previous research on online communication, says Scott Caplan of the University of Delaware in Newark, who suspects that heavy users of sites such as Digg and Twitter may have similar characteristics. “People who prefer online social behaviour tend to have higher levels of social anxiety and lower social skills,” he says.

    A recent study of YouTube users also suggested that contributors – people that upload videos – have egocentric rather than altruistic motives. Users whose postings received more hits were more likely to continue uploading videos.

    Amichai-Hamburger is now surveying users of social network Facebook to see if sites based solely on friendly social interaction attract a different, more agreeable, type of person. “That would be interesting,” says Caplan.

    Journal reference: CyberPsychology & Behavior (DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2007.0225)

  9. Sadun Kal said

    🙂 Nice. That Wikipedians’ priority is to express themselves within that virtual environment and be a part of a community instead of striving for objective accuracy is also evident by their actions and the attention they pay to their profiles and things like that. See a few of these anti-skepticism wikipedians for example:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Keepcalmandcarryon
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Natalie_Erin
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Verbal
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Orangemarlin

    They give each other little awards (stars), they express themselves through their userboxes etc… They spend so much time editing all the articles and they end up feeling intensely connected to the website and their virtual friends. It’s actually a lot like a social networking website, in my opinion. Except that the more influential networks get to decide what the “truth” is.

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