An excellent response to complaints about medical topics on Wikipedia

After the last couple of days of depressing posts about the utter failure of the FDA to do its job protecting cancer patients from the likes of Stanislaw burzynski, it’s time to move on. Given how utterly demoralizing it was to see the FDA, in essence, pass the buck when it comes to protecting cancer patients, I thought back to more amusing times. Oddly enough, some of these times involved Burzynski. Specifically, they involved Burzynski’s propagandist Eric Merola, whose spittle-flecked rants never fail to amuse.

For example, a frequent charge made by Burzynski fans like Merola is that we “skeptics” are busily out there “astroturfing”; i.e., that we’re paid by big pharma to go out there and pollute Google search results and, above all, Wikipedia. To Merola, Wikipedia is controlled by a cabal of “skeptics,” who prevent the “truth” from being added to Wikipedia entries about Burzynski. It’s a true case of the “pharma shill gambit.” Of course, Burzynski and his minions aren’t alone in this. Not too long ago, Deepak Chopra himself uncorked an epic whine about those nasty skeptics who supposedly control Wikipedia and keep the “truth” about alternative medicine from finding its way into relevant Wikipedia entries, be they about Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake (the Wikipedia entry that “inspired” Chopra’s epic rant), “mind-body” medicine, intelligent design creationism, or other quackery and pseudoscience. Indeed, antivaccinationists in particular hate Wikipedia, particularly over its entry on antivaccine patron saint Andrew Wakefield.

Knowing how much cranks try to edit Wikipedia and, for the most part, are thwarted by Wikipedia’s rules, the response by Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, to a recent petition. Now, for the most part, I view petitions as one of the most useless activities known to humankind, with little or no chance of positively effecting policy. However, sometimes there are some amusing petitions that at least provide entertainment value. For example, a few months ago, there was a petition on from the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology, which describes itself as:

Formed in 1999, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP) is a US Internal Revenue Service 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and Publicly Supported Foundation of approximately 1,300 licensed mental health professionals and allied health practitioners around the world. ACEP members are dedicated to exploring, developing, researching and applying energy psychology methods to alleviate human suffering, enhance human performance and access human potential. Energy psychology interventions address the various aspects of the human ‘subtle energy system’ including: Energy pathways: meridians and acupoints Energy centers: chakras and vortices Human Energy Field: the human biofield or ‘aura’ ACEP seeks to establish the credibility and efficacy of energy psychology methods through its programs of certification, education, ethics, humanitarian aid and research.

Perusing the ACEP website reveals a cornucopia of quackery. “Energy psychology” is described as a family of “integrative” approaches to psychotherapy and healthcare, based on a whole lot of science-y sounding physics technobabble:

Embracing what modern physicists and ancient wisdom traditions know, energy psychology acknowledges the role of bio-energetic systems within and between people as important determinants of health and well-being, illness and pathology.

Energy psychology theory suggests that psychological problems are a reflection of disturbed bio-energetic patterns within the mind-body system—a system that involves complex communication between a person’s neurobiology and their cognitive-behavioral-emotional patterns.

Energy psychology practitioners combine cognitive interventions (including focused awareness and mindfulness, imaginal exposure to traumatic memories and cognitive reframing) simultaneously with the stimulation of one or more of the human bio-energy systems such as meridians, chakras and biofields.

This powerful combination facilitates rapid positive change and optimal psychotherapeutic outcomes and is aligned with the latest findings from neuroscience and traumatology. With over 50 research studies to date, EP meets the criteria to be designated as evidence-based treatment.

Let me tell you, this website is such a “target-rich” environment that I might have to do another post on it one day. The research section in which various quackademic research papers are listed by “rigor” according to the evidence-based medicine (EBM) hierarchy of evidence is really a hoot. Most of the randomized controlled trials are trials of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT is a variant of “thought field therapy,” a therapy in which the therapist uses sequences of finger taps on “acupressure points” (a.k.a. acupuncture meridians) while visualizing a distressing situation, the idea being that this will somehow “release the body’s energy flow.”

Such is the group that posted a petition, and, not surprisingly, its petition reads thusly:

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 which research has, in fact, proven to be of great benefit to many. This has serious implications, as people continue to suffer with physical and emotional problems that might well be alleviated by these approaches.

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, left the organization due to concerns about its integrity. He stated: “In some fields and some topics, there are groups who ‘squat’ on articles and insist on making them reflect their own specific biases. There is no credible mechanism to approve versions of articles.”

This is exactly the case with the Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), which 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.

See what I mean about the similarities of cranks when it comes to their attitudes about Wikipedia? This sounds very much like Deepak Chopra’s woo-ful whine about Wikipedia, John Stone’s unhinged rants about Wikipedia, and, of course, Eric Merola’s claims in his last movie about Stanislaw Burzynski that there is a shadowy cabal of evil skeptics—are there any other kind if you’re a woo-meister?—playing gatekeeper at Wikipedia, allowing no hint of anything favorable to alternative medicine and pseudoscience to find its way into Wikipedia. Of course, reasonable people would in general find this to be a good thing. We don’t want pseudoscience and quackery on Wikipedia. However, cranks, knowing how frequently Wikipedia is the first resource to which people turn for information, get really cheesed when articles on “energy healing,’ acupuncture, Stanislaw Burzynski, vaccines, autism, and the like are strictly science-based.

That’s what makes Jimmy Wales’ response to this petition, posted on March 23, to this petition, such an epic pwnage of ACEP:

No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.

Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.

What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.

The dude sounds like Orac. I like it—to a point.

Here’s the problem. While the attitude is awesome, the assumption is on tenuous ground. Thanks to the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia over the last couple of decades, using publications in respectable scientific journals as the arbiters of what is reliable science and what is not is no longer a viable strategy. If you don’t believe me, check out this post about “energy chelation,” or this post about how naturopathy and functional medicine have found their way into the University of Kansas, or this post about how anthroposophic medicine has found its way into my alma mater, the University of Michigan. I could list literally dozens of papers that claim to provide evidence for all manner of quackery. Sifting the wheat from the chaff is a daunting task.

None of this, of course, argues that the sort of quackery advocated by ACEP has any scientific validity whatsoever. It should simply serve as a caution to Mr. Wales that determining what is and isn’t valid science is not as simple as that, at least in medicine. The scientific basis of medicine has been so thoroughly contaminated with pseudoscience that Wikipedia rules alone might not be enough to keep the “work of lunatic charlatans” out of Wikipedia. Constant vigilance is needed. That’s why science-based people should consider becoming Wikipedia editors. I’ve thought of doing so myself, but I’ve decided that I’m more suited to what I do now and can, now that I’ve become better known, do more good where I am. In the meantime, people will always be needed to man the barricades against pseudoscience, wherever those barricades might be.