Attack of the Quackbusters

(Written by Amy L Lansky Ph.D of
As a homeopath and former computer scientist, many people contact me when issues pertaining to both computing and homeopathy arise.  So it was natural that I became the point person when an obvious smear campaign against homeopathy was initiated on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an internet-based encyclopedia that is entirely created and edited by its users.  The concept has been a fairly successful experiment in open collaborative knowledge sharing and creation.  It has emerged as a leading “go-to” location on the internet to find out more about any particular subject.  A coterie of self-appointed volunteer “editors” police the articles so that gross violations do not take place.  When disagreements arise, a behind-the-scenes “Talk page” associated with the particular subject page is initiated to iron out differences.  In theory it should work out just fine because people are reasonable, right?

Wrong.  It turns out, many people are not really reasonable.  On many subjects, people have big axes to grind.  Especially on controversial subjects.  Even on not-so-controversial subjects, a person with a vested interest can overtake a Wikipedia page.  For example, a friend of mine, internationally-known in a small niche area of earth science, told me about a page about a specific technical subject area that had been taken over in an effort to smear a colleague of hers.  The content had become incomprehensible technically and was dedicated to maligning the particular individual and their work. The target of the attack was likely totally unaware that this had happened.

The moral of this tale:  a single individual or a small set of individuals, if they have dedication and plenty of time to burn, can overtake a Wikipedia page with misinformation.  Unless the “other side” is willing to devote a full time effort to combat this, there is very little that can be done. Any change they make will be undone the next day.  Of course, in general, most credible sources of information have lives and careers and cannot devote all of their time in a never-ending Wikipedia war.  This is what has happened to the Wikipedia page on homeopathy.

Here is an example of what someone has in store for them if they wish to combat this predicament.  My husband, who occasionally contributes to Wikipedia, was asked by the National Center for Homeopathy to add a simple link to the organization on the Wikipedia page about homeopathy.   This seems only natural, since the NCH is, after all, the leading homeopathic organization in the United States;  there are links to Quackbuster organizations on this page – why not the NCH?  Since the homeopathy page was “locked” at the time (due to all the controversy), the request had to be made in a special way via the Talk page.  Soon, an avalanche of responses ensued.

First, there was the argument:  why add this link and not a link to every other homeopathic organization in the world?  Second, it was argued that since my husband is married to a board member of the NCH, he is biased.  By the way, my husband’s last name is not the same as mine.  Someone had done their homework.  Very soon after that, my own Wikipedia page came under scathing attack.  Even though it was two paragraphs long and contained neutral biographical information such as my education, book, and papers, it became one of the “most edited” Wikipedia pages for a couple of days!

After all of this, I conferred with someone who is a well-known editor on Wikipedia.  After examining the situation, it was his opinion that nothing could be done about the situation.  Any addition to the homeopathy page would be roundly trounced.  And any person who contributed to the page who had anything whatsoever to do with homeopathy would be viewed as “biased”.

Soon after this, I read an article by health freedom activist Tim Bolen about the online Quackbuster activities on Wikipedia and on other online forums.  They have used the power of various internet features (for example, creating self-referencing rings of links) to create an exaggerated perception of their power and numbers.  There have been similar attacks on other Wikipedia pages – for example, the page on chiropractic.  The homeopaths are not alone.  For more information, see the link above.

In my view, this phenomenon will ultimately hurt the Wikipedia organization and concept. I have heard that Wikipedia is aware of the problem and is at a loss as to what to do about it.  It seems that good information cannot always be created by the open mob.

Original Article

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