An acupuncturist attacks “pseudoskeptics” on Wikipedia. Hilarity ensues.

Back in the day, quacks and cranks liked Wikipedia. Because anyone can become an editor on Wikipedia, they assumed that they could just sign up to edit Wikipedia pages and change them to reflect their views on alternative medicine or whatever other pseudoscientific topic they believed in. When Wikipedia first emerged on the scene, I had to admit that I didn’t think very much of it for the very simple reason that anyone could edit, and I did from time to time come across entries that were clearly too woo-friendly. Not surprisingly, I was also concerned that there would be an asymmetry of effort, with advocates of pseudoscience having all sorts of time to hang around posting edits to Wikipedia, while science advocates tend not to have as much time or be as intense about correcting every bit of pseudoscience slipped into Wikipedia entries.

Fortunately, my concerns turned out, for the most part, to have been unwarranted or overblown. A culture emerged around Wikipedia that valued verifiable, peer-reviewed sources, with every edit being public, and skeptics became involved in making sure that the quacks and pseudoscience advocates didn’t corrupt Wikipedia entries on relevant topics. So, now, while Wikipedia isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination and I occasionally see things there that I doubt, overall it’s a far better resource than I ever thought it would be. In some ways I sometimes regret not being involved in editing Wikipedia myself on medical topics, but my hobby of blogging is so all-consuming of my free time that I really couldn’t devote sufficient effort to the task. I’m glad other skeptics can.

One indication of how successful Wikipedia has been is the number of times I’ve seen believers in the paranormal, alternative medicine, and other pseudoscience attack it. The first big attack on Wikipedia that I remember noticing came from Deepak Chopra himself, who whined about those nasty skeptics. Then the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP) attacked Wikipedia for not respecting “energy psychology,” which, of course, Wikipedia shouldn’t because energy psychology is pure quackery. Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, slapped ACEP down brilliantly. After that, quacks have remained upset at Wikipedia, launching broadsides against it, including the odd petition. Mike Adams, the owner of one of the quackiest sites in existence, really hates Wikipedia, publishing posts characterizing it as a “massive blackmail engine run by criminal editors” that was “cofounded by a porn peddler” and is “dominated by drug company trolls.”

So it’s not surprising that an acupuncturist would be unhappy with Wikipedia, specifically the medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS), would be unhappy with Wikipedia. It’s even less surprising that he would write an op-ed attacking Wikipedia as biased against acupuncture and “holistic health.” What is surprising is where this op-ed appeared: On the BMJ Blogs network, where there is hosted the Acupuncture in Medicine Blog. It’s not a very active blog, with only three posts over the last couple of months, but it is hosted on the blog network of a major medical journal, which is utterly appalling. The BMJ ought to be ashamed. Of course, BMJ published Acupuncture in Medicine, a fake medical journal that publishes pseudoscience disguised as legitimate science, hence the Acupuncture in Medicine Blog. There, Dr. Mike Cummings, who’s gone all in for “integrative medicine” and, in particular, acupuncture, asks Is acupuncture pseudoscience? He’s obviously going for a Betteridge’s Law of Headlines thing, with his answer being no. After all, the blog entry features a a picture of Cummings looking pissed off, with the caption “Eyeballing pseudoskeptics.” Perhaps I should post a picture of me with an equally determined look and a caption, “Eyeballing quacks—right back at you!”

Mike Cummings "eyeballs pseudoskeptics." Skeptics eyeball him right back and laugh uproariously.

“You lookin’ at me?” Mike Cummings “eyeballs pseudoskeptics.” Skeptics eyeball him right back and laugh uproariously.

Cummings begins in a rather strange fashion, one I can almost agree with:

Wikipedia has branded acupuncture as pseudoscience and its benefits as placebo. ‘Acupuncture’ is clearly is not pseudoscience; however, the way in which it is used or portrayed by some may on occasion meet that definition. Acupuncture is a technique that predates the development of the scientific method, introduced by Galileo Galilei among others, by well over a millennium, so it is hardly fair to classify this ancient medical technique within that framework. It would be better to use a less pejorative classification within the bracket of history when referring to acupuncture and other ancient East Asian medical techniques. The contemporary use of acupuncture within modern healthcare is another matter entirely, and the fact that it can be associated with pre-scientific medicine does not make it a pseudoscience.

Curious, I examined the Wikipedia page on acupuncture, and it is true that early in the article Wikipedia characterizes acupuncture as pseudoscience—quite correctly, in my view. Basically, what Cummings is doing in the very first paragraph is nothing more than special pleading, in which he argues it’s not fair to characterize a treatment developed long ago, before the development of the scientific method. Of course, this is utter nonsense. Being ancient doesn’t protect a belief system from being a pseudoscience. Besides, it’s rather a stretch to attribute the invention of the scientific method to Galileo. There’s no doubt that Galileo made important contributions to the development of what we now call the scientific method (or methods, to be more precise), but he was by no means its sole author. Inductive experimental methodology that eventually became codified into what we now know as the scientific method dates back hundreds of years before Galileo, with contributions by scientists like Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) in 1020 and even the ancient Greeks. This is not an appropriate venue to get into a deep discussion of what is and isn’t the scientific method, whether or not falsifiability is a requirement, and an argument about Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. I know about all that, and I’ve even voiced my thoughts on some of it over the years. The point is that the scientific method and its precursors date back far further than Galileo and that just because something is ancient doesn’t mean it gets a pass when it comes to being characterized as pseudoscience.

Next, Cummings recounts a rather odd anecdote:

The Wikipedia acupuncture page is extensive and currently runs to 302 references. But how do we judge the quality or reliability of a text or its references? When I was a medical student (well before the dawn of Wikipedia) I trusted in my textbooks, and I unconsciously judged the reliability by the weight and the cover. I am embarrassed to recount an episode at a big publishing event when I took a one such very large and heavy textbook to its senior editor and started pointing out what I thought were major errors. He laughed at me with a kindly wisdom and said “I’m sure there are lots of mistakes in there.” So now, some years later, as an author I have a different perspective on things, and a good deal more empathy with other authors and editors. I have submitted work for peer review and acted as a reviewer and editor, and with all its faults the peer review process may still be the best we have for assuring some degree of quality and veracity. So I would generally look down on blogs, such as this, because they lack the same hurdles prior to publication. Open peer review was introduced relatively recently associated with immediate publication. But all this involves researchers and senior academics publishing and reviewing within their own fields of expertise.

The obvious implication here is that, if science textbooks edited by experts have “lots of mistakes” (which, undoubtedly many, if not most, of them do), then Wikipedia must really be riddled with error, given that it doesn’t restrict its editors to only expertis in their fields. There’s also a further, somewhat subtle, implication here. Notice how he says that peer-reviewed scientific literature involves researchers and academics publishing “within their own field of expertise.” Well, if you were an acupuncturist like Cummings, whom would you view as a relevant “expert” to write about acupuncture. Why, other acupuncturists! Of course, those acupuncturists also believe against all rigorous evidence that acupuncture works; so they would automatically be uncritical of acupuncture and would not be the least bit skeptical.

Cummings uses the anecdote above to discuss the second pillar of Wikipedia, specifically about how Wikipedia is to be written from a neutral point of view, strive for verifiable accuracy, and cite reliable, authoritative sources. He objects:

Experts within a field may be seen to have a certain POV (point of view), and are discouraged from editing pages directly because they cannot have the desired NPOV (neutral POV). This is a rather unique publication model in my experience, although the editing and comments are all visible and traceable, so there is no hiding… apart from the fact that editors are allowed to be entirely anonymous. Have a look at the talk page behind the main acupuncture page on Wikipedia. You may be shocked by the tone of much of the commentary. It certainly does not seem to comply with the fourth of the five pillars, which urges respect and civility, and in my opinion results primarily from the security of anonymity. I object to the latter, but there is always a balance to be found between freedom of expression (enhanced for some by the safety of anonymity) and cyber bullying (almost certainly fuelled in part by anonymity). That balance requires good moderation, and whilst there was some evidence of moderation on the talk page, it was inadequate to my mind… I might move to drop anonymity from Wikipedia if moderation is wanting.

First, I call BS on the claim that experts are discouraged from editing pages. I know there are readers out there who are wikipedia editors, and I encourage you to clarify. There is, of course, nothing to stop Cummings from becoming a Wikipedia editor and trying to edit the acupuncture page. However, I know from communicating with actual Wikipedia editors that advocates of various forms of alternative medicine quackery (like acupuncture) tend not to make very good Wikipedia editors because they can’t resist letting their freak flag fly. They tend to abandon the NPOV and use anecdotes and references that aren’t verifiable. As a result, they find their edits being reverted, and, because they are cranks, they immediately assume Wikipedia is a big conspiracy against them and others who believe in their pseudoscience.

I checked out the Talk Page on acupuncture on Wikipedia, and my reaction was somewhat less—shall we say?—shocked than Cummings’ was. I encourage you to check it out yourself. What I see there now is a reasonable conversation about NICE guidelines. So I perused some of the archives, and I had a really hard time finding anything like what Cummings describes. Every page I landed on featured nothing that I would deem particularly uncivil. I actually was shocked by the tone there in that it was so much more civil than I’m used to. In any case, the discussion that shows up first is closed, but it does note that there is a petition to Clean up the Wikipedia Acupuncture page to reflect medical and scientific consensus that is quite amusing to read, particularly the part that refers to not viewing acupuncture as being science- or evidence-based as “denialism,” in yet another example of cranks co-opting that term. As is typical of pseudoscience believers like antivaccine ideologues (which acupuncture quacks resemble in several ways), the petition also accuses Wikipedia editors of “bullying” any pro-acupuncture editor who tries to edit the acupuncture entry. My interpretation of this complaint is that pro-acupuncture editors just can’t hold their own on the discussion page using evidence and reasoning, and they interpret thsi failure as due to having been “bullied.”

After Cummings’ rant, you bet you know what’s coming for his conclusion. The picture at the top of the post signaled it:

Anyway my impression, for what it’s worth, is that the acupuncture page on Wikipedia is not written from an NPOV, but rather it appears to be controlled by semi professional anti-CAM pseudosceptics, some of whom like to refer to acupuncture as “woo woo”. I have come across these characters regularly since I was introduced to the value of needling in military general practice some 25 years ago. I have a stereotypical mental image: plain or scary looking bespectacled geeks and science nuts, the worst are often particle physicists ;-). By the way, my first choice of career was astrophysics, so I may not be so different at my core :-/. Interacting with them is at first intense, but rapidly becomes tedious as they know little of the subject detail, fall back on the same rather simplistic arguments and ultimately appear to be motivated by eristic discourse rather than the truth.

Ah, yes, the “pseudoskeptic” gambit. Hilariously, Cummings refers to the Wikipedia entry on pseudoskepticism, which defines pseudoskepticism as a”philosophical or scientific position which appears to be that of skepticism or scientific skepticism but which in reality fails to be so.” Pot, kettle, black, Dr. Cummings. Pot, kettle, black.

Cummings also can’t resist insults that also double as an ad hominem attack. Basically, he portrays skeptics as “plain or scary looking bespectacled geeks and science nuts,” in order to imply that they are somehow weird and therefore untrustworthy and wrong. Basically he portrays acupuncture as prescientific (as though that means it can’t be pseudoscience), rants that Wikipedia is hopelessly biased without actually showing that it is, and then insults Wikipedia editors as hopeless but threatening geeks. His self-deprecating remark is so obviously an excuse to convince readers that he’s not engaging in insults and ad hominem (look at me—I’m a geek, too, just like the skeptics whom you shouldn’t listen to because they’re scary looking geeks, which means I can’t be engaging in an ad hominem) that I laughed out loud when I read it. Then, to complete the picture, he describes skeptics as ignorant and more interested in arguing than finding the truth. His picture is thus complete: Bespectacled, scary-looking geeks to like to argue and bully. They must be wrong. Pay no attention to them.

Of course, there is one thing that is noticeable by its absence anywhere in his ranty little blog post, ad that’s evidence. Ditto science. As Edzard Ernst noted, the title of Cummings’ blog post seems to promise that he would address and possibly answer the question, “Is acupuncture pseudoscience?” We get nothing of the sort. We don’t even get a credible discussion backed by evidence of why Wikipedia’s acupuncture entry is biased and/or incorrect. All we get are special pleading, an unconvincing rant about how biased Wikipedia is, and ad hominems.

BMJ should be ashamed for allowing tripe like this to be published on its blog network and to publish a quackademic “journal” like Acupuncture in Medicine.