Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Wikipedia and its Prejudices: A Recent Example

Not reliable enough for Wikipedia
Wikipedia has a reputation for displaying bias against certain subject areas, and how it can work was demonstrated to me this week.  On 27 March I received a message on my Wikipedia ‘talk’ page headed ‘Information on forgotten members of the SPR’.  Signed by a ‘JuliaHunter’ (sic), it proceeded without preamble:Have you got any information on some of the original council members of the Society for Psychical Research, such as the electrician Desmond G. Fitzgerald (1834-1905)? See the talk page for the SPR.’

This came as a surprise because I had forgotten I had a Wikipedia talk page.  It dates from when, some years ago, I tinkered with a couple of articles on the site, notably the one on the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Thanks to my edits being consistently reverted by someone who it seemed to me had a strong desire, allied to obsessive patience, that the article should be as unhelpful as possible, I had abandoned the effort and had not participated in Wikipedia editing since.

It happened that I had come across the name JuliaHunter several days previously when I noticed a new, very brief, Wikipedia page on Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo (1868-1954), described as ‘a Russian psychical investigator and skeptic’.  Compiled by this JuliaHunter, it is entirely inadequate and ignores the lengthy affectionate obituary printed in the May 1954 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) by ‘W.H.S’ (W. H. Salter), though JSPR papers by the Count are listed.  There was a reason why Salter’s obituary could not be used even if JuliaHunter was aware of it, to which I shall come.

Thinking that JuliaHunter was merely gathering information on early SPR Council members I wrote back, referring to the SPR’s online library, the Psypioneer journal, and various academic books I thought she (assuming the writer was a female, something that is not necessarily the case with an online persona) might find worth looking at for her research.  I was surprised to receive a response which read in part:

‘Thanks for the reply, Unfortunately anything in the SPR journal or the Psypioneer (which I have read) and other parapsychology journals cannot be cited on Wikipedia, because they are not considered reliable sources per WP:FRIND or Wikipedia:RS. Also Wikipedia rules on WP:FRINGE balance forbid this sort of thing, this is a mainstream encyclopaedia that deals with reliable academic sources on such topics. This is why SPR journals or other fringe journals should only be mentioned in the "further reading" sections of articles or cited if they are quoted in secondary independent sources which is rare.

‘I have no problem with citing academic books from the SPR like Alan Gauld's or Archie Roy etc. Academic or scholarly books that can be cited on the history of the SPR are Shane McCorristine, Janet Oppenheim, Roger Luckhurst, Trevor Hamilton etc...’

Hence, in the example above, it was fine for the Wikipedia entry to cite Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo’s own JSPR papers in a further reading section, but it could not draw on Salter’s obituary, even if it was more informative, and authoritative, than the secondary sources upon which the Wikipedia article was based (after all, Salter knew him personally).

There was quite a lot more in JuliaHunter’s reply to me, but I knew that she had not accessed the SPR’s publications; she referred to an item in the SPR’s Proceedings, Fraser Nicol’s ‘The Founders of the SPR’, March 1972, pp. 341-367, in these terms:  ‘In Frazer Nichol's (sic) 1972 SPR paper (I have limited access on Google books) The Founders of the S.P.R, he says…’ before going on to talk about her uncertainty over resignations by Spiritualists from the Society in the 1880s.  She was struggling with Google Books despite Nicol’s paper being available in its entirety – not some ‘snippet view’ – in the SPR’s online library.  Later she sent an update which astonished me:

‘I finally managed to find some of the early spiritualists who resigned over the Eglinton affair, the list of names is as follows: Stainton Moses, Dr. Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton, H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:05, 27 March 2016 (UTC)

‘Do you have an academic book that would qualify as a reliable source (Wikipedia:RS) that mentions the above names that resigned? Oppenheim and other scholars have let us down here by not covering this in detail. Unfortunately we can't use the Nichol paper as it is not a reliable source. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:41, 27 March 2016 (UTC)’

That first paragraph sounded familiar.  Nicol had written the following:

‘Much could be said on this matter, but I need only mention that of 51 S.P.R. members who are known to have had sittings with Eglinton only six resigned: Stainton Moses, Dr Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton (Mrs Sidgwick's most ferocious antagonist), H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. One person who in another sense did retire was Eglinton—into private life.’

So JuliaHunter had managed to track down a list of resignations which must have originated in Nicol’s article, as the individuals are listed in the same order.  It sounds like she had experienced difficulty locating it, though it could have been found in the SPR’s online library in minutes – and I would argue that an editor who feels qualified to create and edit Wikipedia articles on the early history of the SPR should have read it already.  However, it is not good enough for Wikipedia as it appears in a source which is ‘fringe’ and consequently not ‘reliable’.

On the other hand, if Oppenheim et al had not ‘let us down’ and one of them had reprinted Nicol’s list of those who had resigned, it would have been acceptable for inclusion in Wikipedia, coming directly from a scholarly volume, even though the ultimate source and the value of the information would have been exactly the same.  What is particularly ironic is that while the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings are peer-reviewed there is no guarantee that a specialist has checked the contents of a book published by an academic press.  Why is one considered legitimate while the other is not?

As to Nicol being deemed not a ‘reliable source’, I have seen a great deal of private correspondence that passed between Fraser Nicol and his colleague Mostyn Gilbert and can confirm that Nicol was a painstaking scholar (as was Gilbert).  He was steeped in psychical research, unlike a couple of the ‘permitted’ authors JuliaHunter mentions who may have written excellent books but who have moved on to other things and do not possess the range and depth  of knowledge of the subject, gathered during a lengthy career, which he had.  Yet his work does not count even though it is more detailed on this point than the respectable Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.  Oppenheim, it should be added, refers to Nicol’s 1972 paper several times, clearly not sharing JuliaHunter’s reservations about it.

In one of her final messages to me JuliaHunter made a point of demonstrating the trustworthy sources she had employed in her Wikipedia article on CC Massey, then made a suggestion I found easy to ignore:

‘Let me give you an example, I created the page Charles Massey. Do you see what I have done there? Cited academic books, not cited any nonsense. This really shouldn't be up to me creating these pages, but nobody else can be bothered. If you could get anyone on board to create such articles that just cite academic books and don't push any fringe nonsense, then this would be appreciated.’

Leaving aside the condescending tone, I was being invited to ask people to contribute to a project which reflexively considers SPR material, however robust in fact, to be inadmissible ‘nonsense’ in Wikipedia terms.  Why I would do that is beyond me.

I had never heard of JuliaHunter before, but assumed she is new to the field.  It has been suggested to me that she is someone who has posted frequently on Wikipedia under a number of pseudonyms, including ‘GoblinFace’.  This individual swoops in, makes a huge number of changes (and a glance at the edit histories for the SPR and parapsychology articles shows how prolific JuliaHunter has been) then goes quiet before resurfacing later in a new guise.  That identification may or may not be accurate, but I think this episode has provided a small but illuminating insight into Wikipedia’s biased regulations.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

SPR Council Elections April 2016 – Some brief remarks

The Articles of the Society for Psychical Research stipulate that each year six members of its governing Council must stand for re-election, in rotation.  This occurs during the Annual General Meeting held after the April Study Day and is normally a brief formality, with the six standing down and being voted back in.  However, the elections on 30 April 2016 promise to be the most interesting we have had for some time because unusually there are more candidates than places.

Most new Council members join via the co-optation route, being invited on to Council.  When an elected Council member retires, the longest-serving co-optee fills that place, then stands down and is re-elected at the time the person they substituted for would have (unless they decide in the meantime that Council life is not for them, which does happen).  This ensures a smooth continuity, though possibly tending to convey a sense to outsiders that the Council is a static self-perpetuating oligarchy.

Such an arrangement means that there is little incentive for contested elections, so it is rare for more than the six standing down to be nominated.  In any case, it’s not as if there is a huge desire arising from the membership to stand for Council.  This year is different, however, because there are eight people vying for the six places, and it is going to lead to a difficult choice for the Society’s members.

The eight are: Richard Broughton, Bernard Carr, Ciaran Farrell, Guy Lyon Playfair, Leslie Price, David Rousseau, Donald West, and me.  Price and Farrell are the two new candidates standing in opposition to the others, who are fulfilling their obligation to stand for re-election.  The list, with ‘Notes on Candidates’, will be found at the back of the Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.

It’s an interesting field because there are some heavyweights on the list of candidates. notably Broughton, Carr and West, who are all ex-presidents of the Society, and Playfair, who has a considerable reputation as an author in the field.  It is a foregone conclusion that they will all be re-elected, with the other four individuals fighting for the remaining two places.

Mr Farrell I suspect will fail in his electoral ambitions this time because he does not have a track record in the subject.  I certainly hadn’t heard of him before.  Hopefully he will continue his interest, and will perhaps be considered for co-optation at some point.  That leaves Price, Rousseau and Ruffles.

A member since 1967, Price has been on Council in the past, and is well known in the field: he is archivist at the College of Psychic Studies, is closely associated with the online Psypioneer journal, and founded The Christian Parapsychologist and Theosophical History.  Highly principled and knowledgeable, he is likely to garner a wide range of support, particularly from those who have an interest in Spiritualism or Theosophy.  Despite being rivals on the ballot paper, I was happy to second his nomination.

Rousseau has been on Council since 1997 and was for some time the treasurer, as well as being a member of a number of committees (sadly one of these was the Research Activities Committee, which folded after becoming moribund under his chairmanship).  His profile is probably not that strong in the Society.  He is also controversial as he has obtained very significant funding from the SPR for an obscure project on systems methodology which has yet to show its relevance, if any, to psychical research, and this largesse has not endeared him to those who feel the money could have been spent more wisely.

As for Ruffles, what can I say?  My social media work for the SPR might be considered to give me an edge in terms of recognition, but much of this does not bear my name.  Overall though the volume of activity on the Society’s behalf since I joined in 1987 may have had some impact (my election note is identical to my current entry on the publicly-available trustees’page of the SPR website).

So the result is going to be difficult to predict.  Personally I feel it is unfortunate that someone has to be disappointed but I hope that those eligible to vote in the election will examine the candidates’ track records carefully and decide which six of the eight have both the SPR’s interests at heart, and are best placed to contribute to its future development.  Naturally I would be extremely happy to find myself re-elected after 26 years’ continuous service on Council.

Election update: 1 May 2016

The SPR election conducted during the AGM on 30 April 2016 will eventually be reported in the Society’s Journal (and thus be in the public domain), but in the meantime here are the results of the successful candidates:

Richard Broughton: 37
Bernard Carr: 36
Tom Ruffles: 36
Donald West: 35
Guy Lyon Playfair: 32
David Rousseau: 22

All six had stood down according to the SPR’s Articles and offered themselves for re-election.  The two others who had put their names forward, Leslie Price and Ciaran Farrell, were unsuccessful, being some way behind in the poll.

This is a surprising set of numbers for a couple of reasons.  My feeling was that Broughton, Carr, Playfair and West would all receive the same number of votes, forming a tight cluster at the top, with whichever two of the other contenders were elected bringing up the rear.  The span between Broughton and Playfair indicates that a few people voted for some but not all of those four.

The bigger surprise is of course that while my second prediction was partially correct – David Rousseau came sixth, lagging well behind the rest of the successful candidates – my own placing was joint second, equal to Bernard Carr’s, someone who has been President and is highly regarded.  It’s rather embarrassing to have received more votes than Donald West, who has been a member for seventy-five years and President three times, and Guy Lyon Playfair, currently the Society’s best-known figure.

On the face of it the number of votes cast appears to be woefully low as a proportion of the total membership, and suggests that few members not physically present at the AGM bothered to submit a proxy form.  The figures are, however, slightly misleading because of the mechanism that enabled a member to vote against an individual.  This actually allows a candidate to receive a minus score, which did happen in Farrell’s case.

Negative voting is unlikely to have affected Broughton, Carr, Playfair and West, and probably didn’t me, but I suspect it did Rousseau as well as the others, and their scores do not therefore reflect the full extent of their support.  True, it facilitates tactical voting, and allows members to make their displeasure known if they are unhappy with a candidate, but in effect it is disenfranchising members voting for a candidate whose choices are cancelled by someone else voting against.

This method is not specified in the Articles, which simply state that those elected will be the candidates with the greatest numbers of votes.   It is an aspect of the procedure which I feel should be examined, and a more conventional first-past-the-post system introduced for those rare instances where there is a contested election.  I also think that online voting could be considered to encourage greater participation by members, whether elections are contested or not.

In the meantime, I am grateful to all those who voted for me, and I hope I continue to justify their support.  It has been a nerve-wracking time waiting for the AGM to come round as it seemed to me a distinct possibility that I would finish outside the top six.  The field was a strong one, but then, if the SPR is to flourish, who would want it any other way?