Aug 13 2008
The internet is arguably the ultimate expression of democracy and the free market. For the cost of internet access anyone can pull up a virtual soap box and preach to the world. There are no real gatekeepers, and the public can vote with their search entries, clicks, and links. Every point of view can be catered to and every special interest satisfied. Type in any obscure term or concept into Google and see how many hits you get (“banana farming” yielded 1,470,000 hits).
There is potentially a downside to this as well, however. Because there are websites fashioned for every opinion and perspective no one has to venture far out of their intellectual comfort zone. Virtual communities of like-minded individuals can gather and reinforce their prejudices, and to varying degrees keep out contrary opinions. This is harmless when dealing with aesthetic tastes, but can be stifling to intellectual discourse.
On the other hand defining the mission, scope, and character of a blog, website, or forum is necessary to some degree. Every site does not have to be a free-for-all. If biologists want a forum to politely discuss biological topics in a collegial fashion they have the right to create a virtual space in which to do that, and whoever owns and operates the site has the right to mandate whatever rules they wish. Allowing political activists to overrun the site and hijack the conversation would be counterproductive. Like most things a healthy balance probably works best.
It was with all that in mind that I took a look at the new website, Wiki4CAM, the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Encyclopedia. As the name suggests, this is a wiki-style information resource on all things CAM. Why did the creators think that such a thing was necessary? On their main page they write:
Wiki4CAM has been started to provide the CAM community their own space where they can build their knowledge base without any undue skeptical diversions.
And on a page dedicated to explaining why they are needed, they write:
Wikipedia is undoubtedly the world’s biggest and most read and referenced encyclopedia. The community participation has made it a huge success. But its open architecture has (at times) also led to the use of Wikipedia for gaining political mileage and for spreading biased views by a handful of editors.
The same thing has happened to most complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies on Wikipedia. A handful of wiki editors are going out of their way to discredit and disrepute nearly all alternative medicine as unscientific. Read how most alternative systems are introduced at Wikipedia:
The creators of Wiki4CAM believe that the information on Wikipedia is biased against CAM. So they are not going to play anymore and instead are going to make their own sandbox. This is very different than a blog or forum – an encyclopedia is not a place to present an opinion or point of view (like a blog) or for open discussion (like a forum) but is supposed to be an authoritative source of unbiased information. What Wiki4CAM is designed to be is a source of information that is styled to look authoritative but which is biased consistently in one openly stated direction – pro CAM.
Wikipedia is an excellent resource because it is the product of so many individuals – anyone can add their knowledge to this communal repository. But it does have difficulty dealing with controversy. By now most people are familiar with Wiki wars where people of incompatible opinions fight over Wiki entries. The editors of Wiki have come up with various solutions that work pretty well. They simply create headers for the various opinions. They also will sometimes label certain entries as disputed, to warn the reader that there is controversy over the content.
Many entries will explicitly say – this is what proponents say, and this is what the skeptics say. But it seems that some CAM practitioners are not happy with these solutions. They want to be the only word. Their statement that they do not want any “undue skeptical diversions” is extremely revealing. To them skepticism is a diversion, it detracts from the purity of their message. This is the behavior of a cult, corporation, or belief system, not a scientific or academic discipline.
This attitude contradicts their statement that they do not want CAM to be discredited as “unscientific.” This means they feel it is scientific – but the cornerstone of science is skeptical critical analysis of all claims. Therefore they want the perception of being scientific but want to completely avoid the process of scientific review – that is the very definition of pseudoscience.
Also very revealing are the examples they give of the outrageous anti-CAM bias of Wikipedia. They quote from Wikipedia:
- Applied Kinesiology
- With only anecdotal accounts providing positive evidence for the efficacy of the practice, a review of peer-reviewed studies concluded that the “evidence to date does not support the use of [AK] for the diagnosis of organic disease or pre/subclinical conditions.
To me this is a very sedate and no-nonsense review of Applied Kinesiology. It is simply quoting from a review of the literature that shows that AK does not work, and that the only positive evidence for AK is anecdotal. Here is the brief description from Wiki4CAM:
Applied Kinesiology (AK) is a practice of using manual muscle-strength testing for medical diagnosis and a subsequent determination of prescribed therapy. It purportedly gives feedback on the functional status of the body.
The reality is that AK is pure pseudoscience. There is absolutely no biological rationale for this method, and the evidence clearly shows that it is worthless. Practitioners of AK will, for example, place a substance in a subject’s hand and if that arm tests weak they will conclude that the subject is allergic to the substance. Studies have shown, however, that the “weakness” is entirely due to suggestion and the ideomotor effect, not a true physiological effect. Double-blind studies fail to show any reliability.
The authors of the Wiki4CAM are therefore upset that Wikipedia sometimes contains accurate information about the modalities they practice. It also commonly contains the proponents position, but will often link to published evidence that calls into question the claims of CAM practitioners. One can only conclude that the authors do not wish the public to see any skeptical or scientific information about their claims.
The Wiki4CAM is similar in mission and execution to another Wikipedia alternative, the Conservapedia. The promoters of this wiki resource were upset that the Wikipedia was full of “misinformation,” like evolution. They kept trying to correct entries on such topics but those pesky scientists kept putting in their “dogma.” So they too decided to just create their own information resource – free from any interference by scientists.
The Wiki4CAM is likely to be as useful a source of information for the public as the Conservapedia is. The creators essentially are trying to tell the public to “ignore the man behind the curtain, this is the information you are looking for” (sorry to mix my movie references).
Both endeavors are unscientific in the extreme. Science, by necessity, is an open and public endeavor. It requires open analysis and harsh criticism. It is a meritocracy in which competing opinions fight over logic and evidence. It is a messy process, but useful knowledge slowly grinds forward as a result. These specialty-wikis are being promoted by the losers in this public battle of science who are now forming their own game with their own rules that they cannot lose. They created not only their own game, but their own playground. And those pesky skeptics are not allowed.
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