Friday, 30 January 2015

On discovering that I have a RationalWiki entry

I was surprised to learn recently that I have acquired a page of my own on the website RationalWiki (RW) which prides itself, according to its subtitle, on ‘Cleaning up toxic waste spills in the waterways of public discourse!’  So if you are targeted by them you can assume that you fall in the category of toxic waste.  Putting aside this unattractive image, what does their entry on me say (as it stood on 27 January 2015)?

It starts gently enough: ‘Tom Ruffles is a British paranormal writer and Communications Officer for the Society for Psychical Research.’  The second half is definitely true, while the first half is debatable as I have written about quite a bit more than that, but I’m not quibbling.  Then there are some random facts extracted from my entry on the SPR website’s trustees’ page, under the heading ‘Psychical Research’:

‘Ruffles joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1987. He has co-designed the current SPR logo. He has worked as a Book Reviews Editor and as their Communications Officer. He was involved in the Anglia Paranormal Research Group and has contributed to the Fortean Times. A firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal, Ruffles is the author of the book Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife (2004).’

For good measure the following is taken from the ‘Major activities’ section of my blog: ‘Ruffles currently manages the Society for Psychical Research facebook page.’  As I wrote my SPR trustees’ entry I can vouch for the accuracy of RW’s inelegant précis, with one glaring exception: my entry does not say that I am ‘a firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal’.  As we shall see, the anonymous RW contributor inferred that from links I have posted on the SPR’s Facebook page.  I certainly wasn’t asked for my views.

So what have I done to merit the attention of RW?  My guess is that it was because a number of the links I have posted on the SPR’s Facebook page have been critical of Guerrilla Skeptics, an organisation with a similar mind-set to RW’s, and because I wrote a sympathetic review for the SPR website of a book by a bête noir of RW’s, Craig Weiler's Psi Wars.  My reason for thinking so is because at this point the RW entry veers off into strange territory.  Under the heading ‘Conspiracy theories’ we find:

‘Ruffles has re-blogged [referring to the SPR’s Facebook page] and supported the conspiracy theories of Deepak Chopra, Craig Weiler and Rupert Sheldrake that materialists and skeptics have highjacked Wikipedia to upload skeptical material on paranormal-related articles.

‘Ruffles has positively reviewed a conspiracy theory book written by paranormal blogger Craig Weiler which incorrectly claimed that the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia and related skeptic groups were ruining parapsychological Wikipedia articles.’

To support the contention that I have ‘re-blogged and supported’ said conspiracy theories there are a number of links provided in the references to blog posts which I had included on the SPR’s Facebook page.  The first is to a blog post by Weiler, ‘Chopra Vs. The Wikipedia Trolls, er, Editors’; the second is to another Weiler blog post, ‘The Guerrilla Skeptics: Taking Creepy to 11’ (you can see why they dislike this guy); the third is to a post on another blog, ‘Rupert Sheldrake talks about "Guerrilla Skeptics" (VIDEO)’; and the fourth is to a post by Robert McLuhan (an SPR Council colleague), ‘Guerrilla Skeptics’, on his Paranormalia blog.   I need to make two points here.

Firstly, the reason I posted links to these specific items on the SPR Facebook page is because at the time Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skeptics were making a lot of news, and I link to items that are topical.  Secondly, I try to include as wide a range of links as possible on the Facebook page, representing all shades of opinion.  The SPR has no corporate views, and I do not promote a ‘party line’.

This can be a difficult balancing act.  I have been berated by both sceptics and psi proponents for posting ‘rubbish’ – that is, material with which they personally disagreed.  I try to be neutral and include anything that is relevant, and likely to be of interest to visitors to the page.  I don’t always succeed, but the Facebook page (as well as the SPR’s Twitter feed, which RW ignored), have I hope become lively sources of information and discussion in the field.

That the links I post cover a broad swathe is evidenced by the fifth RW reference to posts which I have included on the SPR’s Facebook page.  The RW editor cannot have scrutinised it carefully, assuming it was more criticism of the Guerrilla Skeptics.  Its title is ‘Guerrilla Skeptics create and update Wikipedia pages (including mine)’, but this one was written by Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True, and was extremely enthusiastic about the Guerrilla Skeptics!  Just because I link to something on the SPR’s Facebook page does not mean that I am endorsing Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake, Craig Weiler or Jerry Coyne.

What of Weiler’s book, and my review of it?  I tried to be even-handed, noting where I thought he had gone too far, but broadly sympathising with his contention that there was a conspiracy (and Gerbic has referred to her ‘secret groups’ of editors, which sounds kind of like a conspiracy) by opponents to manipulate Wikipedia pages to which they objected.  Even if it the efforts are being conducted by lone individuals, it is clear that there are concerted efforts to damage those pages.

There has been an attempt to distract attention from this manipulation by banging on that it is wrong to say that the Guerrilla Skeptics had edited Rupert Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page.  Referring to my review of Psi Wars, the RW writer adds the following comment in a footnote:

‘Ruffles endorsed Weiler's conspiracy theory here [i.e. in my review of Psi Wars].  However, according to the skeptic Tim Farley, “none of Susan's editors are editing that article [Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page]. It's completely a conspiracy theory” and also see refutation of the conspiracy theory from the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia founder’.

Leaving aside the incoherence of that last part, I think it is clear that the Guerrilla Skeptics have not edited Sheldrake’s page, and I never said that they had in my review, so the RW reference to it is irrelevant, but that does not mean there isn’t a widespread, systematic effort by like-minded individuals, organised or not, to block sympathetic attempts to edit pages they characterise as pseudoscience.  I have had first-hand experience of obstruction when trying to improve the SPR’s Wikipedia page, and it is because of this type of difficulty that there are efforts to by-pass Wikipedia and construct online encyclopaedias that are not open to vandalism and contain reliable information.  One of these is an initiative of the SPR.

Actually, I refer to Guerrilla Skeptics once in my review of Psi Wars, but not to any claim that they edited Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page.  I said:

‘This is all useful information but when Weiler is being particularly combative his passion can run away with him: it isn’t helpful to say of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia that “much of what they do is fairly evil”, whatever one thinks of their approach.’

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Weiler’s position, yet the RW view is that because Weiler thought the Guerrilla Skeptics had edited Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page, the only reasonable act would have been to rubbish the whole of his book as the product of an unsound conspiracy (that is, automatically untrustworthy) theorist.  It’s a cheap tactic by any standards, lobbing a red herring in to distract attention from the strengths of a critique.  Another is focusing on Weiler’s day job as a handyman, thereby implying that his views on psi and scepticism have no significance – really, who cares whether he’s a handyman or not.  It’s the points he makes that count, his construction skills are irrelevant.

The error that the RW editor has made in trying to put together a page on me is in assuming that writing about or linking to something is the same as supporting it.  It doesn’t follow, but the assumption does indicate the impoverished world-view of RW.  The website cherry-picks facts (notably omitting any mention of my academic qualifications when giving a thumb-nail sketch of my activities because they would bolster my credibility) to paint a particular picture, a stark black-and-white one without nuance.  It is a case of either being explicitly with the RW programme, or being against it.  There is no middle ground.

I put a link to my RW page on the SPR’s Facebook page, to see what people thought.   One person noticed the cherry-picking, ignoring those Facebook links that are sceptical in tone.   Someone else thought that being given a page on RW was a badge of honour, I suppose on the grounds that I must be doing something right for them to notice.

I was a bit surprised to find myself on their radar and wasn’t sure at first whether to be amused or irritated at the assumptions in the RW entry, but on balance, now my initial surprise has worn off, it all seems irrelevant.  RW is for true believers who are talking to themselves while the real (not pseudo-) sceptics get on with the business of trying to take a scientific approach to the subject matter in which they are interested, rather than dismissing it a priori because it doesn’t conform to their own particular world-view.

Update 9 February 2015: On discovering that I no longer have a RationalWiki entry

Ah, fame is fleeting.  I have discovered that my RationalWiki page has been deleted and the details combined with those of the Society for Psychical Research, presumably on the grounds that I am not weighty enough to merit my own entry.  Strangely though I have a subheading to myself, the only person with one.  It has the bizarre effect of making me look a more significant figure in the Society’s history than say Sidgwick, Myers or Gurney, who are only mentioned in passing.  Despite this reworking there are still unsupported assertions in my entry, despite the RW author having actually read my 30 January post rebutting the original RW entry on me; I know this because it is now listed in the references (with a link, thank you for that).

The new version (as at 9 February 2015) still says that I am a firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal and still has the bit about it being wrong to say that the Guerrilla Skeptics edited Rupert Sheldrake’s page, when I have never said they did.  There is a fresh charge: using this blog post as a source it claims that ‘Ruffles has complained that RationalWiki described Weiler as only a handyman, not a scientist’.  Someone is going to have to show me where I complained about that.  I don’t think I have ever said that Weiler is a scientist and should be described as such, all I said was that his day job is irrelevant to the points he makes in his book.  Cavalier distortions like that indicate why RationalWiki is not a source to be trusted.

The tendency to be able to determine things without any evidence is demonstrated in the SPR entry as well.  Thus we read (as it also stood on 9 February 2015, these pages seem pretty dynamic) that:

‘The SPR claims not to hold any corporate opinions on the paranormal as it's [sic] members have a variety of beliefs or lack thereof about the reality and nature of the phenomena studied; however by reading over the publications of the SPR you can see that most of the members believe in the existence of the paranormal.’

How can you tell that by merely reading its publications, containing articles written by individuals who may not be members, and who would in any case represent a small proportion of the membership?  To make such a charge credible requires some kind of properly-conducted survey.  It may be true, it may not, or more probably its members, with a finer sense of discrimination than shown by the RW author, have a range of opinions on a range of topics subsumed under that umbrella.  It’s not, to labour the obvious, but a point which eludes the RW people, a monolithic subject towards which one automatically takes a binary position, either believing in ‘the paranormal’ or not.


‘The SPR has had a number of skeptical members but this seems to have declined in recent years. … Apart from a few skeptical members many members of the SPR seem to be very gullible and fall into the trap of magical thinking about some of the phenomena investigated, rejecting natural explanations for paranormal ones.’

How does one work out the decline in sceptical membership and the attitudes of those benighted souls that remain?  Again you would need an independent survey with a rigorous sampling mechanism to determine the range of attitudes, but as far as I’m aware none has been conducted among the SPR’s membership, and no evidence is supplied for the gullibility claim, with its weasely ‘seem to be’.  If those they criticise made such sloppy assertions, RW would be over them like a shot, and rightly.  My guess is that RW is mainly run by undergraduates with more zeal than knowledge, limited copy editing skills, and a simplistic understanding of how people work.  But I would want to do a survey to be sure before making a firm pronouncement.