Friday, April 04, 2014

Now it becomes clear

As I've previously mentioned, Wikipedia has a problem with topics that fall outside a tightly constrained, naive view of reality. That there are different opinions about such topics as homeopathy, parapsychology, or energy medicine, is not surprising. But it is disappointing (and on the verge of abetting libel when it comes to biographies of living persons) when an otherwise useful encyclopedia maintains a policy of presenting such topics with a systematic negative bias.

Attempts to edit these articles to provide more balance are summarily ignored, and even neutral, well-intentioned editors have been banned. Articles with citations only from unreliable, uninformed, or cynical sources might be useful for promoting favored ideologies, but only in an Orwellian world could such an encyclopedia be considered anything but a work of fiction. Indeed, this very blog was labeled an "unreliable source" when I've simply pointed out an easily demonstrable mathematical fact.

I used to wonder why those in charge of Wikipedia would allow such biases to persist. I imagined that they were simply uninformed at how a small group of enthusiastic fact-deniers had highjacked the system. But now something has happened that illuminates the problem.

On, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology posted a petition to ask Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, to "create and enforce new policies that allow for true scientific discourse about holistic approaches to healing." The ACEP posted this position because publications relevant to their interests have faced the same sort of systematic negative bias as articles on psi research. The response by Wales was as follows:
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.
Besides the snarky insult, this response reveals more than ignorance. It indicates that Wales has allowed his amygdala to trump his frontal lobes. He might benefit from re-reading his own guidelines on the "Five Pillars" of Wikipedia, especially the pillar recommending that articles are to be written from a neutral point of view.

ACEP provides an evidence page that shows there already is "work published in respectable scientific journals." Yes, energy psychology techniques seem strange, but so what? There are all sorts of things that are not well understood yet, but are nevertheless backed by solid empirical evidence (like psi). And in this particular case, the methods are not merely empirically intriguing, they're also clinical useful.

And so now it becomes clear why Wikipedia has become a bastion of reactionary lore. It assumes a quaint form of reality that would have been appropriate to promote in the 17th century, but that view is neither appropriate nor useful nor correct in the 21st century. As Tolstoy once said:
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.


Romeo Pov said...

Sadly, this is just the way it is. There's plenty of evidence that human intention causes a random system to behave in a non random way. This doesn't fit the Plato's Cave of materialism and therefore they will never accept it no matter how much evidence accumulates. Everything must emerge from blind, random material processes. Even though there isn't any evidence to support this notion, it must be the case. So Psi, Biocentrism, Quantum Mind or anything that looks at things differently is labeled hocus pocus.

Enfant Terrible said...

Dean, you wrote a whole book about evidence of entangled minds. But a recent article simply shows many flaws in almost all experiments of this type. And you don't do a critical analyses of these experiments in your book. You just say: "The “entangled brains” experiments have already been performed over a dozen times over the past 40 years by independent groups. And they work." Yes, but they have many metodological problems, and anyone who reads your book will think that these experiments are flawless, but they aren't. Don't you think you have a strong bias in not report these flaws? Don't you think this makes you a not reliable source either?
By the way, the article I am refering and which shows the flaws is "Anomalous Experiences, Psi and Functional Neuroimaging".
Best wishes.

Dean Radin said...

I would never suggest that any study is flawless, because there is no such thing as a perfect experiment. Indeed, one of the main benefits of independent replications is to identify potential weaknesses and fix them using improved methods.

I've recently reviewed all known brain-correlation studies for a chapter that will appear in the new Handbook of Parapsychology (to be published later in the year). My impression was that as a class of experiments those studies indicate that there's a there there. However, the designs and analyses used in the studies were too heterogeneous to perform a clear meta-analysis, so it is not possible to calculate a firm statistical estimate of the combined results.

The Frontiers article is a good, constructive critique. It focuses on six functional neuroimaging studies (not "almost all experiments of this type") and finds weaknesses in four of them. Note that "weaknesses" are not show-stopping flaws that necessarily invalidate the results. As the authors of the article mentioned, their critique was intended to help improve future studies of this type, which is a laudable goal.

Tony Sappanos said...

I've only recently stumbled across the evidence regarding the existence of psi, which I had thought previously to be impossible on any level. While I now accept the possibility of such effects, many of the people I know are not aware of the growing evidence.

Despite this constant backlash by the pseudo-skeptics, is there any growing momentum within the public space and general scientific forum? This might be hard to answer with any satisfaction, but if there is any sort of truth to this it needs to be known.

Stephen Baumgart said...

Life was much simpler for me when I, like Jimmy Wales, trusted the professional skeptics to give a fair and balanced analysis of all things fringe. I didn't have to take reputational risks and didn't have to bother learning anything about "crazy stuff". But when I realized that the experimental evidence for psi is very strong and that it is theoretically justifiable as well, I had to go back and re-evaluate what I really know about a slew of other topics since I could no longer trust the skeptical movement. But this can be very, very difficult.

Take cold fusion. One student I knew once became interested in it. He said (paraphrasing), "I first read a proponent paper and became convinced it was real. Then I read a skeptical rebuttal which convinced me it was all bunk. Then I read a rebuttal to the rebuttal which convinced me it was real again. Eventually, I threw up my arms and decided the only solution would be to try the experiment myself". Such is a very typical response to a controversial topic. I've seen professional nuclear physicists having difficulty deciding whether cold fusion has any merit. For the record, what I heard is that they decided the experiments were being carried out poorly; however, further research is warranted. Since the student I knew was an undergraduate, he did not see his experiment to completion as far as I am aware.

Other topics are just as bad, if not worse. For example, if psi is a scientific hot potato, then UFOs are a live grenade. Finding the truth about them is like chasing the end of a rainbow. And there is the same morass of claims and counter-claims with the added craziness of conspiracy theories thrown in, too. And you can't run your own lab experiments to find the truth, unlike with parapsychology or cold fusion.

We as a society and scientific community need to do much better than Wikipedia's glib labelling of all controversial topics as "pseudoscience" or "pathological science". If there's a lot of smoke, there is probably some fire - but maybe not the same sort of fire proponents claim there is. But studying controversial topics in depth would leave so little time for Wikipedia edit wars that the experts would surely lose out.

Enfant Terrible said...

Hi, Dean
just a few comments:
01 - "It focuses on six functional neuroimaging studies (not "almost all experiments of this type")"
But the others experiments have flaws too (and big flaws). E.g., the 1965' experiment that you mention in your book: "One of the first such experiments was published in 1965 in the journal Science. That study reported that the EEGs of pairs of separated identical twins (two such pairs out of 15 pairs tested) displayed unexpected correspondences. When one twin was asked to close his or her eyes, which causes the brain’s alpha rhythms to increase, the distant twin’s alpha rhythms were also found to increase. The same effect was not observed in unrelated pairs of people."
Charles Tart seriously criticized this experiment:
"The reported experiment has three
major flaws. First, with only a single wall and 6 meters of space separating the subjects, the "receiving" twin may have been responding (subliminally?) to the experimenter's voice as he instructed the "sending" twin to open and close his eyes. Second, "gross inspection" as a means of scoring data in such a controversial area is obviously
unacceptable. Third, the authors
do not report even the most basic sort of descriptive data, such as number of trials under various conditions, much less any objective, statistical tests of
their results."
Don't you think that the skeptics have good reasons to still be skeptic of these results and that the evidence for entangled minds that come from the neuroimaging studies is today equal to zero or almost equal to zero? Like the authors said, "no firm conclusions concerning the psi hypothesis can be made on the basis of this corpus of functional neuroimaging data".

Synnøve Nordsen said...

Maybe the main flaw is to believe there can be 1 wiki that contains it all.

I recently observed (with horror) that the wikipedia pages written in the language of the country where I live, show a strong bias towards their mainstream opinion on what is wrong and what is right (mainly a competition by sheep to say the right things and earn rewards given by the right people).

There cannot be only 1 search engine, 1 "facebook", 1 "iTunes", 1 prime minister, but that seems to be the way people want it to be.

Simon Fraser said...

Well, I've found out first hand the wikipedia has a problem. I tried a number of times to edit the page 'Parapsychological Association' by putting it in the category 'Science'. I subsequently received a message saying that I was to stop doing it and that parapsychology could not be classed as science, despite its membership of the AAAS.

Dean Radin said...

Enfant: Any study can be criticized. But there's a big difference between a design weakness and a fatal flaw. The former might be a problem; the latter is definitely a problem. In the present case we are talking only about possibilities. I.e., a common skeptical tactic is to suggest that maybe there was subliminal leakage, maybe the subjects or the experimenters cheated, maybe the paper doesn't describe what really happened, maybe the statistics were flawed, maybe ... ad infinitum. In other words, it is always possible to find a reason to remain doubtful. That's why people conduct replications.

My own confidence about these studies comes from two sources. The main source is my own experiments. I've seen these effects first hand (in a moderately strong statistical sense) where I had full control of every aspect of the experiment. The secondary source is my reading of all of the published EEG correlation experiments, the fMRI studies, the DMILS studies, the ganzfeld studies, Rupert Sheldrake's "feeling of being stared at" studies, and the Rhine-era ESP card telepathy studies. I personally know many of the investigators who conducted these studies, and I've worked in or visited many of the labs where this work took place. Some of the experiments were better controlled than others, but when considered as a composite set of studies investigating the same underlying phenomenon, my assessment is that there is a repeated, converging pattern pointing toward a genuine phenomenon that looks an awful lot like the traditional idea of telepathy.

The Thought Criminal said...

Jimmy Wales is not interested in an objective reference work, if he were then he wouldn't ignore some of the enormous problems of Wikipedias in other languages being controlled by Stalinist dictators in the former Soviet states and domination of the Croatian Wikipedia by overt neo-Nazis.
Of course the government of Azerbaijan is not the first repressive government of an oil-rich former Soviet republic to have shown an active interest in controlling their language version of Wikipedia. The Kazakh Wikipedia, often held up by Wales as a model for the smaller language versions of Wikipedia, owes its growth to a similar initiative spearheaded by figures in Kazakh President Nazarbayev’s administration.

"The result has been that much of the content of the Kazakh Wikipedia is now a mere copy of the state-published Kazakh National Encyclopedia, a work not known for its pluralist credentials, and that WikiBilim, an organisation that features a picture of Karim Massimov, Nazarbayev’s chief of staff, in the header of its website, claims to be “administrating” the Kazakh Wikipedia. Wales’ response to that situation was to name the coordinator of the Kazakh Wikipedia effort Wikipedian of the Year."

The best thing that could happen with Wikipedia would be for it to be generally discredited and the experiment in crowd sourcing a CREDIBLE reference work declared a failure and for the things that are credible associated with it IMSLP, for example, take up an independent existence apart from Wikipedia. Oh, it could just die, that might be good too.

You might not get what you pay for but you sure as heck don't get what you don't pay for, like honest editing and general editing.

Lawrence said...

Important not to miss the bigger picture, Wiki is just an extension of establishment 'thinking' and propping up the status quo across the board, that is in the world of the Internet. In other words, as with the media, print and broadcast, so goes Wiki. It is naive, even counter-intuitive, to expect Wiki to be a bastion of fair play, moderation and truth seeking across all spheres of human endeavour and at the same time, have a broad appeal as the biggest public encyclopedia on the web. In principle, where goes popular appeal, goes establishment views and that is inclusive of scientific materialism in the domain of science.

Wiki is not any worse than the mainstream media on average, when it comes to controversial topics in politics and science. It is pretty much the same - persistent bias, whitewashing, agenda driven. Wiki is just more comprehensive, being an encyclopedia.

The trick is not trying to reform or change Wiki, which is impossible; it's educating people about Wiki's dishonesty and censorship. That is why there are alternative and specialized sources on the web when it comes to these kind of things. Yes alternative sources (I'm not talking about the whacky conspiracy stuff in science and politics) are on the margins and far lesser known, however that is the nature of it. The popular sources on the Internet and the media are always going to be full of so much bunkum, because the establishment positions across the board in society at the level of politics, economics, and science (and even humanities) are built on a mountain of garbage. Wiki does not happen in a social vacuum.

Dean Radin said...

> It is naive ... to expect Wiki to be a bastion of fair play ...

If Wikipedia honestly advertised that its goal was to reflect interpretations of the status quo by people who have no expertise, then I'd have no problem with it. It would then be clear to all that the point of Wikipedia was to be a ridiculously large, amateur version of The Onion. Which it is.