HIV/AIDS Skepticism

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

Another horror story about Wikipedia

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/01/29

I received quite a few private messages after posting my view that Wikipedia is best understood as a cult. Here’s one of them:

“Dear Henry Bauer,

I just got around to reading your article as published on the Intersect website, and I can only applaud to your criticism of Wikipedia. Your description of it as sharing the features of a cult rings absolutely true to me. With a lifetime experience of observing various cults, both in the political and the religious spheres, I have no doubt that many Wikipedia members, and the most attached and influential among them, behave and think as if they belonged to a cult, albeit not only and necessarily in such a linear, pyramidal fashion as your article seems to suggest. There is much more to it than just Jimbo sitting at the top, and there are many ramifications that were born with a life of their own.

To be more specific, I embarked two years ago with my knowledge of ten languages or so on a tentative side-career as an editor of Wikipedia, in several of the localized versions. I’ll focus for now only on French Wikipedia, where I promptly headed into troubles and at the end I was properly deleted out of existence as an editor. It all started when I introduced in some articles a couple of references which were already well accepted and even the object of proper articles on Italian and English Wikipedia. This apparently went against the consensus on the articles’ contents on French WP, and I was very quickly exposed to public contempt and literally harassed by the local cult leaders/administrators, with the same language and mob following which always have characterized such entities. As it turned out, the most vociferous among these administrators had a particular attachment to the Catholic church and the current head of same said religion. When I pointed this out in the scuffle that ensued (arbitration procedure and the like), he promptly removed the contents of his own user page, but that didn’t lead his ire to abate.

Understand that this all happened within only a few weeks. That same administrator, probably believing that I wouldn’t be able to trace things on WP, made some disclosures to other users which revealed the existence of a semi-secret mailing system within Wikipedia. A mailing system that worldwide, it turns out, is only accessed by twenty or thirty admins endowed with special permissions and allegedly elected by their “peers”. As this referred specifically to my person, I demanded to see the mails’ contents. When this was refused to me (by other admins, under the guise of neutrality) and I both opposed the decision and questioned the existence of that system on my own user pages, the latter’s contents on French WP were first blocked, then erased.

I then brought this particular issue – Wikipedia’s secret mailing system – to discussion on the Wikimedia site, in English this time. The result was that I was also soon forbidden there. Asking help in Danish from one admin on Danish WP I had been in touch with previously and who happened to be listed among those elected few with access to the secret mail system, he responded irritatedly that he wouldn’t have anything to do with the issue. I then wrote to Jimmy Wales, who responded, seemingly concerned, that he would delegate the issue to the then head of Wikimedia Foundation, a French woman, as she would be able to understand what things were about. I never heard a word from her. I would never try to guess why!

In the meanwhile, my very existence as a user had been deleted from French WP, albeit not from the other localized versions. A very little indignity to suffer, considering that I hadn’t in the least built any kind of emotional tie to the institution, and especially when compared to the indignity of having those cult leaders claim to the mobs that my name (I had been foolish enough to use my own name, not a pseudonym) actually was only a pseudonym (a so-called sock-puppet, I believe) used by one of their long-term foes. Moreover, I was to discover that someone was using my name as a pseudo on some forum discussions attacking Wikipedia on the website of a Belgian newspaper, and that others the same place were accusing me (or my name, that is) of actually being… a Wikipedia administrator in disguise! The last indignity suffered was reading the contents of the mails from WP’s secret mail system that concerned me published on that same forum: anonymous email threats to bring Wikipedia and myself to a Belgian court for having introduced on French WP a reference to an historical fact that was there for everyone to see, free of any form of censorship, on Dutch WP.

So much for the cult, or rather for the dirty underwear all cults always end up trying to keep hidden, while they always manage to get entangled in them. While they weren’t nearly as dramatic, there were other issues on English Wikipedia, that also corroborate your own observations. But this mail was long enough, I believe, and for fear of boring you, I’ll pass on them for now.

Best regards,

Michel Tavir”

11 Responses to “Another horror story about Wikipedia”

  1. Timewalker said

    Nothing about this surprises me. Not because it’s Wikipedia, but because Wikipedia is a web community. They’re all like this. After participation in a variety of message boards and community blogs, I’ve come to the conclusion that the cult-like atmosphere is endemic and inevitable. There is always a consolidation of power around the site ownership and/or high-level moderators. There is always the ego investiture in being part of the “in crowd” of site culture, which causes cliques of members to enforce certain normative behavior. There is always intimidation and eventual banishment of people who don’t fit with those norms and who fail to show deference to the power structure. There are always eventual “cult purges,” wherein insiders start to conflict with each other driving some power figures out; often dramatically. There are always back-channel email lists, rife with malicious gossip and discussion of people who are slated for censure or banning. All of this is standard operating procedure for community sites. Maybe it’s the relative anonymity that fosters a culture that exaggerates some of the ugliest elements of human nature. That and the fact that you never have to look anyone in the eye. I don’t know.

    There was a good article in the New York Times recently on the implosion of the right-wing blog “Little Green Footballs”. It highlights some of the prevailing patterns that seem completely inevitable on any of these sites, across the political and ideological spectrum: vicious flaming, defamation, capricious banning and censorship, extreme polarization and black & white thinking, “Animal Farm” behavior, and website as totalitarian empire.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Timewalker: I agree. I think anonymity is a key ingredient. But blogs and discussion groups don’t claim to be authoritative, whereas Wikipedia does, and untold numbers of people use its entries and cite them.

      • Timewalker said

        That people use Wikipedia as an authoritative source on anything — other than, say, an episode guide for Star Trek — is horrifying. I know of no one in academia who will allow it as a source. It’s useful if you want overviews, dates, names, and timelines, although you still need to corroborate even that most basic information. Any academic pretensions on the part of Wikipedia are thoroughly laughable. Anonymity is definitely part of the problem with web communities, comment sections, and any other participatory internet forum. It leads to range of behavioral issues, and even threats of violence. (See Kathy Sierra) For a an information source, it’s outrageous. If you can’t verify the source of the information, how can you possibly evaluate the validity of that information?

      • Martin said

        Hi Dr. Bauer, There’s another thing, Wiki is just about unavoidable because Google in what appears to be almost a conspiracy is that it’s among the first 1 or 2 sites that come up when looking for information on a particular subject. Because it’s among the first of the sites listed in a search, it’s also the one chosen because it’s there. That’s good marketing. Whether Google actually works to put Wiki’s sites up there in the search, I don’t know.

      • Dave Smith said

        That is it in a nutshell Henry, Wikipedia is used and cited by so many, yet its contributors are mostly anonymous. This and a strict policy of not “outing” users creates an atmosphere in which conflicts of interest abound.

        A simple example is that of ScienceApologist (if you’ll pardon the pun…). He joined the Thunderbolts forum a couple of years ago, and posted inane comments all over the forum in direct violation of the site rules and guidelines. This included direct confrontation with Dave Talbott, myself and anyone else who dared ask him to account for his rantings with proper citations. The only citations he provided (from memory) were Wikipedia entries on things like “pseudoscience” and the like, which he himself had and still has a lot of input to. When I called him on his conflict of interest in the biography of Talbott, he denied any. So too Phaedrus7, who has spent the best part of three decades trying to discredit Talbott and anyone who associates with him. They make a joke out of the policies and guidelines, and mostly because they can hide behind their inane screen names.

        I, on the other hand, stand by whatever I have to say publicly, so I use my real name. Those who do not, deserve to have their credibility questioned.

      • Henry Bauer said

        Dave Smith: I couldn’t agree more. When I was still doing science, we had the option when reviewing manuscripts to sign our names or to remain anonymous to the manuscript author(s), and I always signed my name. I thought it would have been dishonest not to, but I was also aware that this was a useful device to force myself to be as objective and substantive and impersonal as I could possibly be. In this era of Internet anonymity, I’ve had the extraordinary experience of being publicly called all sorts of nasty names by a certain “A” while receiving civilly worded comments from “B” — even as both “A” and “B” are pseudonyms for the same person! And this same person apparently expects to be taken seriously!?

    • Michel Tavir said

      Comments very much appreciated, gentlemen and women, especially your description of the cult phenomenon, Timewalker. However, we shouldn’t let the fact that in most respects Wikipedia isn’t really that different from the non-virtual human world escape from our view. Off the cuff, from a potential profusion of case stories or studies, and more for the thoughts they awaken than for anything else:

      1. Almost to the last comma, your characterisations could apply to the almost caricatural fashion the Bolshevik revolution turned into Stalinism. Yet, there was no Wikipedia around at the time. Actually, it doesn’t take much digging at all before one realizes that your characterizations would apply perfectly well to most formal and informal groupings, not least in what goes by the name of “Western democracies”.

      2. In a recent peer-reviewed article (linguistics, cognitive neuroscience, statistics etc.) on PLoSone.org, backed by three supposedly fine learning institutions of the USA, it appears from the very first paragraph that the authors can’t make the distinction between a square mile and a square kilometer, specifically the sizes of Austria and Luxembourg. To verify this, I checked the area of Austria on a few localized Wikipedia sites, only to discover that not everywhere is the same value reported. They don’t differ by much, mind you: between 1 and 13 km2. And, depending on whether your language is Icelandic, Italian, Bulgarian or English, Danish, Russian, it’s 1.3 or 1.7% of the country’s territory that’s covered by water (German WP prudently refrains from mentioning the water). Now, my question is: which of the lacunae is worse in the degree of our concerns, PLoSone’s or Wikipedia’s?

      3. I don’t think that we should focus exclusively on the anonymity/pseudonym factor as being at the core of the problem. Whether we like it ot not, there are many people all around the world who have some very valid and serious reasons for not wanting their real names to get “outed”. At different times and for different, and not so deadly, reasons – running my own business and not wanting any interference from the opinions I was expressing, for one, or having the status of an immigrant in a country whose politics I didn’t agree with, for another – I frequently have made use of pseudonyms. A rule against this was once used as a pretext to deny me any further participation on the forums of one particular mainstream media, regardless of the fact that my opponents in the discussions might have used or most likely were actually making use of pseudonyms. The subtle difference resided in the fact that theirs were “plain” (i.e. akin to John Smith, and thus innocuous and untraceable) whereas mine obviously was a pseudonym for all to see. Maybe not so coincidentally, the views expressed by my opponents were in line with the discrete political changes taking place behind the scenes at management level in that media institution. On the other hand, when I got an opportunity to “out” myself, on Wikipedia this time, and made full use of it, oh well, I’ve described the bizarre consequences in my mail to Henry, like having others impersonate me. Some even went as far as creating out of nothingness 18th-century individuals bearing my surname (which has a rather unique history) on some of those genealogy websites. Talk about virtual reality!

      4. On the lighter side: as a child I was taught to read at an early age, and my grandfather’s massive multi-volume Larousse encyclopedia from 1936, comparable to the British Encyclopedia, quickly became staple food for my insatiable curiosity. I can’t tell exactly when it dawned on me that anything related to sex was absent from the Larousse’s pages, and that any article about the colonized people of the world, those from Africa in particular, was exclusively written from the colonizing powers’ Weltanschauungen. It took quite a bit of assiduousness to figure both aspects out, and believe me, it wasn’t the first of Larousse’s two shortcomings that required the most effort. What am I getting at? In the world of Wiki-the-Cyclopedia, everything is potentially there for anyone to access. Or so it seems. In tyrannies, or dictatorships, or the world of Larousses, it is pretty obvious that censorship exists and its do’s and don’ts are relatively well-defined. In the world of pseudo-democracies, illusory consensus, manipulating lobbyism and Wikipedia, people are made to believe that borderlines are non-existent, whereas they are only well hidden. Nothing Chomsky and Herman didn’t describe a long time ago.

  2. Martin said

    Hi Dr. Bauer, While this experience is not related to the current post (and you may answer me in “private” communication via my email if you would like).

    This morning when having breakfast (on weekends) at a favorite restaurant in Harvard Square, the nice couple sitting next to me were having a nice conversation of various topics when I started talking about my own skepticism on AIDS. Well, the husband of the nice lady just happened to be a virologist at Harvard — well, I don’t think I have to possess an in-depth knowledge of virology to criticize the current pseudoscience of AIDS. When I mentioned Peter Duesberg, the guy fairly bristled! Duesberg was a quack! He told me that retroviruses are definitely a cause of cancer and that he has worked directly in the field. He told me it’s all in Pub Med. (It must be pretty well buried in there somewhere.) I have read a number of books on the subject — mostly from skeptics. He said I’ve been reading the wrong books. And the fact I wasn’t a virologist (according to him and his wife) didn’t help. I guess the idea of a public debate between a respected virologist of the establishment and Peter Duesberg would in the words of Anthony Fauci — give credence to Dr. Duesberg’s point of view — thou shall not have this happen!

    • Henry Bauer said

      Martin: Well, what you say is relevant re “experts”, and that’s what Wikipedia aspires to 8) .
      How old were these people? In any case, maybe you should try to keep better company. 🙂
      That someone has worked in an area is more likely to make them unthinking about it than thinking. 😉

      • Martin said

        Hi Dr. Bauer, The couple were not youngsters – i.e. they were at least in their 60s — I believe the virologist definitely represented the AIDS establishement. They were particularly hostile towards Thabo Mbeki — which I took disagreement with and cited the vast difference between the numbers reported by the Establishment as nothing more than computer estimates and were (as you have also cited) 25 times greater than the actual numbers if they could even be attributed to authentic AIDS. Of course this virologist probably rarely encounters in real time someone who has an opinion on the subject very different from his or the people whom he associates with on a regular professional and social basis. This guy was not happy having to deal with a skeptic and he left the restaurant more than likely with an unpleasant taste in his mouth. Why a person who is supposedly a scientist must get upset when questioned like this really doesn’t make much sense to me. When I listen to Dr. Duesberg debate someone on the other side (some of the radio programs on David Crowe’s website), he doesn’t get mad or lose his temper at all, in fact he remains quite composed — you can’t think clearly in a debate unless you are composed.

  3. Biographies on Cherie Nutting and Bachir Attar of The Master Musicians of Jajouka.

    For years these two bios were continuously vandalized and the information was inaccurate and incomplete.I continually asked for help with this from the Wik team.I am not very good on the internet and explained this.I was told by a man named Joe Daley to make the corrections myself as they were busy volunteers.I had trouble entering from my email and so did so with Bachir Attar’s name and I told the Wik team about this.Suddenly I was erased for deleting the false statement that Bachir Attar drank Vodka, which someone kept placing in his resume and I added some completely accurate and authorized information on our resumes.I was deleted for “lying”.I was able to support the info with letters and contracts and publications yet I am still deleted after wasting many weeks of time trying to rectify this.I really think that the Wik team does not know what it is doing and I do hope that a better “Who’s Who” will come about with workers who investigate their sources properly.All statements made for both biographies were easily verified if one tried to do so.
    Cherie Nutting

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