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.