Wikipedia Astroturfing to Discredit Energy Medicine and Psychology
Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD
Progressive Radio Network, November 26, 2019
In 2014, a heated exchange took place between Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales and the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology’s President Dr. Debby Vajda. The internet war of words was the first instance revealing Wales’ prejudiced disdain for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and a clear indication that he firmly embraces modern Skepticism’s dogma and culture to destroy CAM therapies. Due to the misleading and incorrect information on Wikipedia’s page for Energy Psychology, Dr. Vajda posted a petition on Change.org to put out a call for people to boycott giving donations to the encyclopedia. The petition stated:
“Wikipedia is widely used and trusted. Unfortunately, much of the information related to holistic approaches to healing is biased, misleading, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. For five years, repeated efforts to correct this misinformation have been blocked and the Wikipedia organization has not addressed these issues. As a result, people who are interested in the benefits of Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique, turn to your pages, trust what they read, and do not pursue getting help from these approaches.”
Vajda is simply restating a common complaint every professional association of a CAM discipline has voiced against Wikipedia. That is, we believe Wikipedia makes intentional efforts to dissuade the public from turning to CAM treatments to remedy their illnesses and disease. The only alternative Wikipedia offers patients, therefore, is conventional, pharmaceutical-based medicine. In effect, Wales and his WikiMedia Foundation are intentionally or unintentionally astroturfing on behalf of pharmaceutical economic interests. And the Foundation is by no means free from being financially entangled with drug makers. Over the years it has received donations from Amgen, Astex Pharma, Biogen, Bristol Myer, Merck, Pfizer and United Health. It has also received several million dollars from Alphabet (the parent company of Google), which is now a formal private pharmaceutical company partnering with Glaxo, Merck and Novartis.
Vajda also singles out the Skeptics who have co-opted Wikpedia’s pages and with intentional malice skew and reject the scientific data showing the efficacy and safety of these alternative medical modalities:
“Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), […] are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed “skeptics” who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. They clothe their objections in the language of the narrowest possible understanding of science in order to inhibit open discussion of innovation in health care. As gatekeepers for the status quo, they refuse discourse with leading edge research scientists and clinicians or, for that matter, anyone with a different point of view. Fair-minded referees should be given the responsibility of monitoring these important areas.”
Wales angrily responded that “What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of true scientific discourse. It isn’t.” In response Vajda provided 51 peer-reviewed articles and studies, 18 which were randomized controlled, appearing in professional journals, including the American Psychological Association, the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, Psychotherapy Theory Research and Practice and others showing positive statistical results outside the range of chance. In fact the volume of published scientific literature she could have provided is vastly larger. Endorsements by major conventional medical associations, such as the American Psychological Association, the Association of Social Work Boards, the National Board of Certified Counselors, and the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors were also cited to confirm Energy Psychology’s acceptance and efficacy in mainstream medicine. Nevertheless every attempt made to correct the Skeptics’ litany of misinformation and questionable citations were rejected.
Wales’ discriminatory labeling of CAM practitioners as “lunatic charlatans” has been taken up by Wikipedia’s Skeptic editors as a mantra to validate their hidden agendas. Frequently on editorial Talk pages, Skeptics quote Wales’ words to convince their critics that he supports their cause. The term also gives Skeptics license to defame CAM supporters as quacks and a separate Wikipedia page for “Lunatic Charlatans” was created on the encyclopedia. The page states in no uncertain terms Wikipedia’s policy to discredit CAM and continue to identify it as pseudoscience:
“This unapologetic endorsement of the NPOV [neutral point of view] policy on pseudoscience and the policy on fringe science is the clearest indication yet that Wikipedia’s robust response to cranks, quacks and charlatans is solidly in line with Wikipedia’s foundational goals.”
During a TEDx lecture, former CBS program host Sharyl Attkinsson described Wikipedia as “astroturf’s dream come true.” It is no secret that pharmaceutical companies will hire public relations firms to recruit writers and publicists to infiltrate Wikipedia pages and edit positive messages about their drugs and products. They also join Talk groups to influence editorial discussions in favor of removing criticisms, regardless of how much scientific literature to the contrary. By definition, astroturfing is the practice of concealing the financial sources behind public messages in order to give the impression that reporting originates from unbiased and objective grassroots sources. However, astroturfing does not necessarily require manipulation of messaging for economic advantage as a fundamental motivation. It can also be ideological, for example, the psychological astroturfing waged by Skeptics, such as Susan Gerbic’s and Tim Farley’s Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, to promulgate what we interpret as blatant misinformation and even defamatory content to portray its opponents negatively. Wikipedia’s Energy Psychology page is a clear example of Skeptics’ ideological astroturfing.
Skeptics rely heavily upon the data provided by the astroturf organization Quackwatch. Since 1980, Quackwatch’s founder Stephen Barrett has served on the scientific advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health, a corporate front group that has been heavily criticized by the FDA and Public Citizen for providing false propaganda on products known to endanger human health and the environment, including tobacco, pesticides, BPA, genetically modified crops, junk food and high corn syrup soft drinks. Stephen Novella, founder of the Skeptic blog Science Based Medicine, likewise serves on the Council’s advisory board.
Quackwatch and the Science Based Medicine blog technically function as forums for ideological astroturfing. In the case of the former, there have been charges of financial and institutional conflicts of interest as well. Throughout many of their essays criticizing alternative medicine, Quackwatch and Science Based Medicine Skeptics take many of the Council’s main talking points. In some cases, particularly when accusing alternative practices as financial scams, Quackwatch and the Council are indistinguishable.
On the Wikipedia page for Energy Medicine, the visitor is told,
“Energy medicine, energy therapy, energy healing, vibrational medicine, psychic healing, spiritual medicine or spiritual healing are branches of alternative medicine based on a pseudo-scientific belief that healers can channel healing energy into a patient and effect positive results. This idea itself contains several methods: hands-on, hands-off, and distant (or absent) where the patient and healer are in different locations… While early reviews of the scientific literature on energy healing were equivocal and recommended further research, more recent reviews have concluded that there is no evidence supporting clinical efficiency. The theoretical basis of healing has been criticized as implausible, research and reviews supportive of energy medicine have been faulted for containing methodological flaws and selection bias and positive therapeutic results have been determined to result from known psychological mechanisms.”
However the actual peer-reviewed challenge this assumption. Rich Umbdenstock, the President of the American Hospital Association, has stated, “Complementary and alternative medicine has shown great promise in supporting and stimulated healing. It’s one of the many tools hospitals look to as they continue to create optimal healing environments for the patients they serve.” And according to the Center for Reiki Research, one of the major treatment modalities under Energy Medicine, the Center collaborates with 65 major American hospitals including prestigious ones such Duke University, Columbia and Yale, and Children’s Hospital Boston.
The article further argues that the fundamental, underlying principle of Energy Medicine and Psychology, the biofield, is bogus. “Physicists and sceptics criticize these explanations as pseudophysics,” the page’s editors state, “a branch of pseudoscience which explains magical thinking by using irrelevant jargon from modern physics to exploit scientific illiteracy and to impress the unsophisticated.” It is noteworthy that the page identifies “sceptics” as a voice of authority whereas Skepticism remains a fringe movement not accepted by the consensus of the scientific community. If this were not the case, then we believe numerous highly respected scientists and medical experts would hold membership in their organizations. However, this is far from the case. Skepticism represents only a tiny fraction of the scientific medical community.
To support its position, the Wikipedia page cites Quackwatch, the Science Based Medicine blog, and Edzard Ernst, an influential Skeptic associated with Skepticism’s flagship organization the Center for Inquiry.
Under the Wikipedia heading “Emotional Freedom Techniques” (EFT), a therapeutic system widely used by practitioners of Energy Medicine and Psychology, Skeptic editors write in the introductory paragraphs:
“The Skeptical Inquirer describes the foundations of EFT as “a hodgepodge of concepts derived from a variety of sources, [primarily] the ancient Chinese philosophy of chi, which is thought to be the ‘life force’ that flows throughout the body.” The existence of this life force is not empirically supported… EFT has no benefit as a therapy beyond the placebo effect or any known-effective psychological techniques that may be provided in addition to the purported “energy” technique. It is generally characterized as pseudoscience and it has not garnered significant support in clinical psychology.”
Again, the scientific literature suggests otherwise. For example:
Rubik B et al. “Manual healing methods” Alternative Medicine: a report to the National Institutes of Health on alternative medicine systems and practices in the United States. NIH Publications: US Government Printing Office, 1995: 113-57
Rosch PJ. “Bioelectromagnetic and subtle energy medicine.” Annals New York Academy of Science. 1177: 297-311 (2009)
Gronowicz, G. A., Jhaveri, A., Clarke, L. W., Aronow, M. S., & Smith, T. H. (2008). Therapeutic touch stimulates the proliferation of human cells in culture. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 14(3), 233-239.
Hammerschlag, R., Marx, B., Yamamoto, M., & Aickin, M. (2012). Non-touch biofield therapy: a systematic review of human randomized controlled trials reporting use of only non-physical contact treatment P02.42. BMC Complement Altern Med., 12((Suppl 1)), P98
Honda, N., Ohgi, S., Wada, N., Loo, K. K., Higashimoto, Y., & Fukuda, K. (2013). Effect of therapeutic touch on brain activation of preterm infants in response to sensory punctate stimulus: a near-infrared spectroscopy-based study. Archives of Disease in Childhood Fetal & Neonatal Edition, 98(3), F244-248.
Jain, S., McMahon, G. F., Hasen, P., Kozub, M. P., Porter, V., King, R., & Guarneri, E. M. (2012). Healing Touch with Guided Imagery for PTSD in returning active duty military: a randomized controlled trial. Military Medicine, 177(9), 1015-1021.
The Skeptical Inquirer is a heavily biased ideological publication that we cannot find evidence for being acknowledged by the mainstream media nor the professional scientific community as a source for objective and reliable review of alternative medicine.
Attkinsson outlines several clues for identifying astroturf activities on Wikipedia’s health-related pages:
- Frequent use of highly charged and inflammatory language such as quack, crank and conspiracy theorist to denigrate those personalities the editors hate;
- Avoidance of scientific facts and relying solely upon editorial commentaries to wash away any constructive and positive information about a person;
- A tendency to attack those who question authority, the consensus of the dominant paradigm rather than to question an authoritative position itself.
Each of these characteristics are prevalent among the Skeptic editors on Wikipedia and are most pronounced on the encyclopedia’s “Talk” pages. Skeptics conduct themselves in a fashion in direct violation of Wikipedia’s own rules for maintaining a “neutral point of view” (NPOV) which “require a fair representation of all significant viewpoints regarding a subject.” Both corporate and ideological astroturfing also prevail across Facebook and Google’s search results that optimize pharmaceutical products’ positive reviews.
The Wikimedia Foundation and Wales have been fully aware of the culture of astroturfing that infects much of the encyclopedia’s content. Given the very nature of Wikipedia’s chaotic strategy to create an authentic encyclopedia by allowing anonymous writers and editors to create its content, astroturfing is inevitable. As the world’s fifth most popular website, everyone who has a private agenda to push upon the public is welcome to participate. This is only further evidence that we believe Wikipedia should be a source of last resort for accessing any reliable information about non-conventional medical practices that are used by the majority of the world’s population.
In conclusion, we ask the members of the scientific and medical communities and in particular the media to do their due diligence before they rush to judgment to censure CAM therapies. We have done our homework. And we have identified thousands of peer-reviewed studies supporting the very therapies Wikipedia condemns, mocks and ridicules as pseudosicence or of no value. If Wikipedia Skeptics were criticizing only one or several modalities within CAM’s enormous field of various medical and health systems, it would be reasonable. Rather they condemn CAM in its entirety despite its long-standing scientific confirmation and history of success. Skeptics also deny the virtue of the most important and relevant part of the healing process: the relationship between the physician and patient in the clinical experience. Daily every medical doctor from surgeons to psychiatrists, from oncologists to pediatricians, from cardiologists to OGYN physicians ask their patients “how do you feel” in order to gain additional insights for continuing or to redirect the treatment. Therefore, we must consider the likelihood that the large majority of board-certified physicians and clinicians who have adopted CAM therapies began by relying solely upon the orthodox medical protocols they were educated in. At some point during their careers, they discovered these protocols’ limitations and perhaps life-threatening risks. As a result, they searched outside the conventional paradigm for alternative and safer solutions to treat their patients. Today there is a growing number of doctors and patients using CAM because it works.
What then does this say about the close-mindedness and rigid ideological beliefs of Wikipedia Skeptics who have neither the clinical experience as clinicians or as medical researchers? Nevertheless the height Skeptics’ hubris would deny the positive results millions of patients have received from CAM practitioners. We regard this the culture of cognitive dissonance as a fundamental characteristic of modern day Skepticism.