I use Wikipedia a lot in my journalism work, and I must say I've always found it an excellent resource. I know it has to be treated with caution, but in practice I assume it will be more accurate than not. So mostly I take it on trust.
Recently I've been poking around on the site to see how psi topics are presented. My impression is that a novice would come away with a pretty jaundiced view. It's obvious that sceptics are busily re-editing articles in their favour, and a reader has kindly sent me a link that shows how they do this. It's a project called Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, run by Susan Gerbic, who recruits sceptics to give pages a makeover, both those that publicise their own side (ie debunkers, key sceptic figures, etc) and also the opposition's (celebrity psychics, paranormal claimants, etc).
This is a specialised activity and Gerbic's blog gives tips and techniques. Recently she's gone global, getting sceptics to edit foreign language pages. It's all about creating perceptions - or I suppose they would say 'correcting'. The use of the word 'guerrilla' underlines its essentially hostile nature, but of course in their view the battle against superstition is just that, a battle. So they'll use whatever weapons come to hand.
And Wikipedia presents a rather large opportunity. It's easy to deflate a positive perception and replace it with a negative one. We encounter it all the time in sceptic discourse. The use of a 'however' qualifier at the end of a paragraph is often all it takes: 'Believers say they have uncovered X effect, however more careful researchers . . .' Look at this paragraph on remote viewing from the entry for 'Parapsychology':
Several hundred such trials have been conducted by investigators over the past 25 years, including those by the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR) and by scientists at SRI International and Science Applications International Corporation. Many of these were under contract by the U.S. government as part of the espionage program Stargate Project, which terminated in 1995 having failed, in the government's eyes, to document any practical intelligence value. PEAR closed its doors at the end of February 2007. Its founder, Robert G. Jahn, said of it that, "For 28 years, we've done what we wanted to do, and there's no reason to stay and generate more of the same data." However, physicist Robert L. Park said of PEAR, "It's been an embarrassment to science, and I think an embarrassment for Princeton".
This is cleverly done. One can see how an essentially neutral description might have been mucked about with by suitable insertions, particularly the rhetorical declaration at the end.
Always the aim is to round off any claim with a counter-claim. So in the section in 'Parapsychology' on random number generators a claim about meta-analyses consistently showing a statistically significant effect is followed by this:
The most recent meta-analysis on psychokinesis was published in Psychological Bulletin, along with several critical commentaries. It analyzed the results of 380 studies; the authors reported an overall positive effect size that was statistically significant but very small relative to the sample size and could be explained by publication bias.
In other words, where the original claim was a general comment about many studies, this is a detailed comment about a single study. But precisely because it is detailed, it gives the impression of being more authoritative.
An awful lot of the sceptic material is just hostile opinion and rhetoric- as Park's comment above. In at least some cases this should be challenged.
In a review of parapsychological reports Ray Hyman wrote "randomization is often inadequate, multiple statistical testing without adjustment for significance levels is prevalent, possibilities for sensory leakage are not uniformly prevented, errors in use of statistical tests are much too common, and documentation is typically inadequate".
Yes, Ray Hyman did write that in his review, but that's the only uncontested statement here. Citing a reference does not magically convert his hostile opinions into facts. Trouble is, this will not be at all clear to the casual reader.
According to the skeptic Robert Todd Carroll research in parapsychology has been characterized by "deception, fraud, and incompetence in setting up properly controlled experiments and evaluating statistical data."
In what world could someone like Todd Carroll, a compiler of spectacularly biased and poorly informed encyclopedia entries, be considered a serious authority? If this sort of thing is allowed on Wikipedia then what's to stop me inserting remarks like, 'According to psi-advocate Robert McLuhan, this type of critical commentary is tendentious tosh by people who haven't a clue what they're talking about."
We can't really complain about hostile editing, as long it stays within the Wikipedia guidelines for editors, which Gerbic seems committed to doing. As she sees it, it's all about insisting on backing up claims with evidence, which is what sceptics are all about. In fact I've even seen it suggested that Wikipedia is by nature a sceptical endeavour, since it depends on evidence. Some seem to have taken heart when its founder Jimmy Wales came out against homeopathy, a subject that infuriates them more than almost anything else.
I'm not sure how worked up I can get about Wikipedia's view of homeopathy or about celebrity psychics, who can look after themselves. Still, it's a pity that this key source for learning and education is so compromised as far as serious parapsychology is concerned. There is of course plenty of information about parapsychology, but little that isn't gummed up with sceptic disdain. Even aside from that, it looks rather flat and lame. What's to stop editors giving quotes from credible people - scientists, psi-researchers, experients who are well-known in other fields - that give their own enthusiastic responses? Why are the dullards, ignoramuses and professional nay-sayers getting such a free run?
We need to make it clear that our evidence counts as evidence. At the very least, if sceptics insert a long section at the end of an entry that promotes their views exclusively, under the heading of 'Criticism' or some such, then it seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to add a following section headed 'Responses to criticism', in which the key points would be rebutted, at leisure and without constant heckling.
I did briefly consider making contributions of my own, but where does one start? This is clearly a job for a specialist. We need our own Gerbic to help create a co-ordinated effort. For all I know, some-such project is being planned, in which case I look forward to hearing about it, and good luck!
The danger of course is getting into a tiresome tit-for-tat, with teams of rival guerrillas coming out at night and trashing the opposition's most recent efforts. In that case the victor would be whoever runs out of steam first. Actually I don't think it need come to that, and Wikipedia surely has ways of dealing with it. We don't need the last word; all we need to do is to put the carping in perspective, and ideally encourage readers to check out the subject for themselves in other sources, where they aren't going to be distracted by noisy sceptics.