There Probably Is An Afterlife
A Movement Building

The Battle for the Internet

I’ve just finished Craig Weiler’s new book Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet, and what a shocking read it is. Craig is a blogger on psi topics who has closely followed two related controversies of 2014, the censoring by TED of video talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, and the adulteration of psi pages on Wikipedia.

These episodes have brought to a head the tensions that have been building up for years over pseudosceptic behaviour, and Craig has been involved both as an observer and a protagonist. We know the story, sort of, but it hasn't been told with so much force and in such relentless detail.

As is by now fairly well known, the TED administrators succumbed to sceptics’ complaints against Sheldrake and Hancock with an entire lack of critical sense, removed their talks, and then, faced with a storm of indignation, tried to compromise by giving space to hostile comments, while lamely clinging to the verdict of their science ‘advisors’ that both men were guilty of ‘pseudoscience’. As is so often the case with knee-jerk sceptics (in pretty much any area), they attributed positions to Sheldrake and Hancock which neither held, and made assertions that were frankly slanderous.

Craig includes a lot of context for this, including a blow-by-blow account of the subsequent cancellation of a planned TedxWestHollywood event called ‘Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm’ that left the organiser seriously out of pocket. There’s a lot else besides. The narrative is interspersed with chapters that deal with such things as the scientific background on consciousness, facts about parapsychology and scientistic scepticism, also the most complete and up-to-date debunking I’ve yet seen of James Randi and the famous Challenge. There are also sections on the CSI /CSICOP and Robert Todd Carroll’s so-called ‘dictionary’, a collection of uninformed sceptical musings which, alas, is treated on Wikipedia as a key reliable source.

Later chapters turn to the Wikipedia drama that unfolded during the summer, when hostile editors first degraded Rupert Sheldrake’s page in an attempt to destroy his reputation, then fiercely rebutted attempts to revert the changes, and finally tried to get sympathetic editors banned as trolls and sock-puppets - with some success. The book catalogues some of the most egregious problems, for instance the way credentialled experts on a given subject, including university professors and Nobel prize-winners, find themselves at war with dimwits who think they know better, and who use wiki-lawyering skills to get their way (this covers examples besides parapsychology). As far as Wikipedia is concerned the majority view is always the right one – which historically is indefensible.

There are some interesting demographic stats:

According to a thesis paper by Spanish researcher Filipe Ortega143, Wikipedia lost almost 50,000 editors in 2009. The core group of editors has picked up the slack. Who is this core? It is 87% male with an average age of 26.8 years. This hardly is the demographic to entrust with the world’s knowledge. In the real world we would never tolerate people that young being entrusted with the accuracy of an important encyclopaedia.

One of the best sections of the book is an analysis of pseudosceptic thinking. An odd characteristic is that their statements about what parapsychologists believe don’t match statements by the parapsychologists themselves in their books and articles, as with the TED administrators. They seem unable to read straight – it’s as though the material they are reading transmogrifies in the passage from book to brain, so that it conforms to their own prejudices.

Unkind readers (read militant sceptics) will call the book a rant. If so it’s several orders of magnitude better than the excitable, uninformed slander that characterises sceptic articles like this one by Coyne, and which truly deserves the term. Craig’s arguments are not just clear and orderly, they’re powerfully backed up by detailed research.

Really this is about politics. As Craig remarks, and I completely agree, ‘The skeptics are to science, what the Tea party is to Republicans. They’re on the same side, but their radicalized attitude, just as with the Tea Party, presents both a solid base of support and sends moderates running in the other direction.’ As with the Tea Party, one gets the sense of a sceptic movement that is becoming ever more extreme, which is bringing the controversies out into the open.

I know some of Paranormalia’s readers follow up my recommendations about new books, at least some of the time. From the comments that many of you have made over the years I think this is one that you will certainly appreciate.

Comments

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I'm glad to see that Craig Weiler isn't letting this go. Hopefully it will develop into an larger, organized counter movement.

I don't think the hysterical, and downright vulgar bitterness of the militant sceptics can be overestimated; it's their Achilles heel. Intelligent, civil, yet witty responses from folks like Weiler and others in the spiritual/paranormal community need to be rallied around and supported.

I desperately wish we had an organization similar to CSI that could speak out to the mainstream. Such an organization would have to be more of an invitation only fraternity, rather than an unwieldy mob-like organization open to everybody. Let's face it, we do have our fringe, and the most damning thing about CSI is that it's almost all fringe. We need our better scientists and journalists, who know and respect each other, to band together and speak out as a monolithic voice. I think it can be done.

Now, off to download the book...

"I desperately wish we had an organization similar to CSI that could speak out to the mainstream"

Rabbitdawg, I agree. That is something that the SPR, PA etc. could, perhaps, have been coordinating decades ago and they're not. Why? I suspect that part of the problem could be that, these are scientific organisations that, quite properly, hold no corporate opinion. Also the sort of political thuggery indulged in by the skeptic organisations is deemed 'unscientific' and not worth dignifying by much comment.

So it all tends to be left to individual members of those organisations to act of their own volition. And, of course, as been mentioned before here. Serious researchers and genuine 'sceptics' (Truzzi being the best example) tend not to be that driven ideologically.

Hi Robert,
Thank you for the great review. As I'm sure you know, there is no way to know how a book is going to be received once it's written and out the door.

Thanks again,
Craig

It is pathetically hypocritical to bring the Tea Party into this discussion. Skeptics learn everything the know about paranormal phenomena from other skeptics and are woefully misinformed on the subject. Liberals learn everything they know about the Tea Party from other liberals and are likewise misinformed. Before you make statements about the Tea Party please go to the Tea Party web sites and learn something about them from original sources.

Thanks

That's a good enough recommendation for me.

I have to say my own dealings with the the SPR left me feeling it was somewhat moribund.

A year or so ago, Phillip Roth came across a Wikipedia article about the origin of his novel Human Skin. Roth wrote to Wikipedia to correct them. They refused to change the article. Apparently, he was an insufficient source for the origin of his own novel.

It took Roth publishing a letter in the Mr York Times to get them to make the change. Tells you what you're dealing with...

I could have written a lot more.

It would be possible to write an entire book just about all the things wrong with Wikipedia. People have been raising objections for many years and I had the luxury of picking and choosing from the stories that were available. It was just the tip of the iceberg.

Yes Craig, and it's a bloody big iceberg, at that!

Thanks BTW for doing a lot of the stuff re this that you have (and others working in the background). It's very much appreciated by me, and by many, many other people too - I'm sure!

Thanks Robert. I have ordered the paperback version of the book after reading the sample and comments on Amazon (especially the one asinine anonymous commenter to the reviews). I have personally experienced the trolls on Wikipedia, on my site and on a few other parapsychological websites. I know what damage they can do. Thanks!

All internet discussion and argument is not rational discourse but mental masturbation. Go home and grow and live within your own mind as, in the final analysis, we all do anyway. We are all ephemera.

Well thanks for your contribution david.

For 'mental masturbation', maybe read 'emotional self-pleasuring' ;) I've no doubt that it does apply in many cases - online and otherwise. People who are interested purely in the emotional arousal they get from 'debate', rather than the actual facts.

Well I for one, think I've learned a great deal from online discussions and debates.

I've got to know some very knowledgeable people too.

Me too Paul. It seems apparent to me that some (including those in the skeptical Wiki-fiddling dep't) are driven slightly differently when they go online to 'discuss' these things, though.

It's a rather unedifying image that's been haunting me for years!

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