When Wikipedia was founded in 2001, I was skeptical. The concept of an online “encyclopedia” that anyone with Internet access could edit was one that seemed custom-made for abuse by cranks, conspiracy theorists, and quacks. My skepticism grew, at least early on, as I came across articles on Wikipedia about topics I knew a lot about and as a result found many errors. However, nearly 20 years later, I am happy to admit that, for the most part, I was (mostly) mistaken in that many of the topics near and dear to my heart, particularly related to science and alternative medicine, have been covered on Wikipedia much more accurately than I had expected. Evidence of how much improved Wikipedia’s treatment of alternative medicine is comes from my recent observation of people who are frequent topics on this blog (and not in a positive way) complaining mightily about Wikipedia and spinning conspiracy theories about why their Wikipedia entries do not portray them as they view themselves. Last week, for instance, the Chopra Library for Integrative Studies & Whole Health (ISHAR) Tweeted in response to Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia:
True, the article that Ryan Castle, Executive Director of ISHAR, linked to is nearly two years old, but it’s not the only article written by proponents of alternative medicine complaining about Wikipedia. I’ll use it as a starting point, though:
Deepak Chopra, M.D. is an unlikely candidate for a “minor” article, being a famous figure in health, mind-body wellness, and consciousness studies, as well as the author of more than 80 books, including 22 New York Times bestsellers. His medical training is in internal medicine and endocrinology, and he is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, and an adjunct professor of Executive Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, Columbia University, and a Senior Scientist at the Gallup organization. For more than a decade, he has participated as a lecturer at the Update in Internal Medicine, an annual event sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Department of Continuing Education and the Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Or, as his Wikipedia biography proclaims: Deepak Chopra is despised by all scientists as a dangerous fraud who sells false hope and spouts gibberish.
Reading this complaint, I had to go straight to the source: Deepak Chopra’s actual Wikipedia entry. I must admit that I was surprised at how mild it was. Yes, the article does mention that Dr. Chopra has been criticized by scientists for peddling pseudoscience, in particular his abuse of quantum mechanics, but it totally ignores Dr. Chopra’s equally egregious misuse and mischaracterization of epigenetics. As is the case with most Wikipedia articles, a pretty neutral tone was maintained throughout. Indeed, this is about the harshest passage in the entire Wikipedia entry:
The ideas Chopra promotes have been regularly criticized by medical and scientific professionals as pseudoscience. This criticism has been described as ranging “from dismissive [to] damning”. Philosopher Robert Carroll states Chopra attempts to integrate Ayurveda with quantum mechanics to justify his teachings. Chopra argues that what he calls “quantum healing” cures any manner of ailments, including cancer, through effects that he claims are literally based on the same principles as quantum mechanics. This has led physicists to object to his use of the term quantum in reference to medical conditions and the human body. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has said that Chopra uses “quantum jargon as plausible-sounding hocus pocus”. Chopra’s treatments generally elicit nothing but a placebo response, and have drawn criticism that the unwarranted claims made for them may raise “false hope” and lure sick people away from legitimate medical treatments.
I would argue that the above criticisms are pretty mild compared to the damage that Dr. Chopra has done to medicine through his promotion of quantum nonsense and championing the “integration” of alternative medicine into medicine. In any event, nowhere to be found in Wikipedia is any mention of Dr. Chopra supposedly being “despised by all scientists as a dangerous fraud,” just citations of criticism leveled at him by Richard Dawkins, other scientists, and skeptics. None of that stops Castle from launching into an appeal to authority:
Whether or not I share all of his views, I consider Deepak Chopra to be a legitimate figure in the medical and scientific field. As a member of the scientific community I do not endorse the claim that Deepak Chopra must be dismissed or condemned by that group. I am familiar with examples of Deepak Chopra’s work that are, to my knowledge, as well supported and valuable as those of many other accepted figures in science. Signed,
- Steven R. Steinhubl, MD, Director, Digital Medicine, Scripps Translational Science Institute
- Stanley A. Klein, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley
- Stuart Hameroff, MD, Director of Center for Consciousness Studies, Emeritus Professor: Department of Anesthesiology, Emeritus Professor: Department of Psychology
- Menas Kafatos, PhD, Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University.
- Neil Theise, MD, Professor of Pathology and of Medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center of Albert Einstein College of Medicine
- Pim van Lommel, MD, Cardiology, Rijnstate Hospital, Arnhem, University of Utrecht
- Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD, Joseph. P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Vice-Chair, Department of Neurology, Director, Genetics and Aging Research Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital
- Bernardo Kastrup, PhD (Computer Engineering), CERN (formerly), Philips Research Laboratories (formerly) Eindhoven, The Netherlands
- Sheila Patel, MD, Director, Mind Body Medical Group
- Paul J. Mills, PhD, Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health, Professor of Psychiatry, Director, Center of Excellence for Research and Training in Integrative Health, Director/Clinical Research Biomarker Laboratory, Co-Director, Translational Research Technologies, Clinical and Translational Research Institute, University of California, San Diego
The full statement, posted to the ISHAR website, is here.
Of course, from my perspective, the endorsements cited by Castle are evidence of how much pseudoscience of the type that Dr. Chopra has promoted for decades has infiltrated medical and other academia, such that academics like the ones listed above have fallen under the spell of Dr. Chopra’s quantum nonsense. I’ve documented this before, referring to a highly dubious “clinical study” of how the mind can supposedly “reprogram our DNA” through epigenetic mechanisms. As I’ve described before, Dr. Chopra is very good at selling the delusion that his New Age woo based on Ayurveda and other ancient Asian mystical belief systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine, is science-based.
Naturally, to Castle, it’s a small cabal of skeptics that is “assassinating” Chopra’s character:
The body of editors who are dominating Deepak Chopra’s biography page are a dozen or so skeptics* who are so extreme in their views that they resort to online activism, many of whom consider the concept of spirituality or a mind-body connection to be a threat to human intelligence. They consider Deepak Chopra to be the embodiment of these concepts and so treat his biography as an opportunity to explain how foolish and dangerous his beliefs are.
No, not really. First, it’s not “extreme” to view Dr. Chopra as a peddler of pseudoscience. There’s plenty of evidence to support that contention, some of it published right on this very blog. Castle tries mightily to paint a picture of a small number of biased Wikipedia editors out to smear his boss by citing conversations on the talk page for Chopra’s Wikipedia entry. In actuality, doing so only illustrates a point about Wikipedia: It’s open and pretty transparent, with discussions among the editors being available to someone like Castle to complain about, which he does by citing a bizarre example, claiming that the Wikipedia entry for Jack Kevorkian is more neutral than the one for his boss, with more positive references than the one for Dr. Chopra.
Gary Null vs. Wikipedia on Deepak Chopra
It isn’t just Castle, whose defense of Dr. Chopra is understandable given that he works for him. Others who share Chopra’s view of medicine and belief in alternative medicine have also leapt to Chopra’s defense. In particular, Gary Null (whom we’ve discussed before) is, if anything, even more vociferous in his attack on Wikipedia, having made it a common theme in his show and writings over the last several months. In fact, over the last couple of months, he’s posted two articles railing about Wikipedia’s treatment of Deepak Chopra, “Wikipedia Skeptics’ Crucifixion of Deepak Chopra” and “Why Does Wikipedia Want to Destroy Deepak Chopra?” A common theme in these articles is that Wikipedia is dominated by evil skeptics who hate Deepak Chopra and want nothing more than to use Wikipedia to smear him. (“Crucifixion”? That’s a fine bit of hyperbole, because having an unflattering Wikipedia entry is just like being nailed to a cross.) Of course, he blames atheists, because of course he does:
Modern day Skeptics who dominate Wikipedia’s content on non-conventional medicine, body-mind science and parapsychology have zero tolerance for theories that suggest the mind can directly influence health and treat certain diseases. In fact, theories that human consciousness, which underlies our subjective experiences of the world, may be non-localized, or independent and not contingent on brain chemistry is anathema according Skeptic’s scientific materialist view of reality. Although the religion of Scientism is less than a hundred years old and is now being fueled by the emergence of New Atheism during the past couple decades, what we today call mind-body medicine goes back to at least the first millennium BC if not earlier. In the East, meditative techniques to explore the nature of consciousness has been a 3,000-year scientific experiment. Its results have been reproduced innumerable times among its practitioners over the centuries and the results are almost always the same for those who are the most accomplished in these psycho-somatic and psycho-spiritual practices. The simple fact is that modern science knows far more about atoms, electrons and the Big Bang than it does about the human mind and consciousness. Every new discovery in the neurosciences opens up new questions. The reductionist opinion, fully embraced by Skeptics and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, suggests the mind and consciousness are nothing more than the firings of neurons and secretions of neurotransmitters all taking place in the brain; yet neuroscience has no means to explain subjective experience itself. In fact, Skepticism, and the new secular religion of Scientism in general, has been so habituated to only observing and measuring objective reality, that subjective experience, which gives rise to intuition, precognition, discernment, insight into phenomenon to discover meaning, and the capacity of the conscious mind to direct and focus in upon itself in order to affect the body’s biological processes are disregarded as delusions and nonsense.
These are, of course, the same sort of arguments that Chopra uses, specifically, the part about how there “must be more” than the brain responsible for consciousness. It’s basically Cartesian mind-body dualism, the belief that the mind is immaterial and not part of the body. Steve Novella, among others, has discussed many times why science doesn’t support the concept of dualism as an explanation for consciousness. It’s all basically an appeal to ignorance, in which Null essentially argues that, because neuroscience can’t explain everything about consciousness and subjective experience (yet) and we supposedly have thousands of years of experience with “mind-body medicine” and meditation, Chopra’s quantum woo that he uses to explain consciousness shouldn’t be dismissed as pseudoscientific. It is, of course, an intellectually lazy argument based on a logical fallacy.
In his other article, Null even mentions some familiar people (at least people familiar to regular readers of this blog):
One blatant example is Dr David Gorski, a prominent Skeptic, co-founder of the Skeptic supported Science-Based Medicine blog, and a saint among Guerrilla Skeptics. For over a decade, Gorski has shown a personal vendetta against Chopra and consistently writes ferocious essays against his role as a leading international figure in the alternative medical field. Our own investigations through an array of sources provides feasible evidence of Gorski’s early career in blogging venom against non-conventional medicine, including anonymously editing on Wikipedia. Eventually he reached administrator status before departing to focus on other Skeptic propaganda efforts, all which continue to provide fodder for the Guerrilla Skeptics and other biased Wikipedia editors.
Gorski is an adamant proponent of the oncogene paradigm of cancer causation and conventional medical cancer treatments. Notably neither Gorski nor Wikipedia mention that Chopra accepts chemotherapy’s role in the fight against cancer. However, at the same time, Chopra advocates strongly for conventional treatments being integrated with alternative immune-building and stress reduction regimens, including meditation and yoga, switching to a healthy diet, supplements, traditional therapies such as Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, etc. That is the very definition of complementary and integrative medicine now supported by federal health agencies and an increasing number of medical schools that include alternative health courses in their curriculums. Skeptics on the other hand oppose all forms of syncretism between pharmaceutical-based medicine and natural alternative treatments, which they deceptively portray as a threat to public health. Yet the oncogene theory, on its own grounds, no longer provides a realistic explanation for gene mutation; increasingly scientists agree on the role of exogenous environmental factors – such as toxic chemical and radiation exposure, poor diet, chronic stress, etc. — that interfere with cellular metabolism and hence giving rise to weakened conditions whereby mutagenic genes can proliferate. Even Gorski has accepted the recent shift to reconsider a theory first proposed by Dr. Otto Warburg that cancer is fundamentally a metabolic disorder.
For those who might not be familiar with Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW), it’s a group founded by Susan Gerbic dedicated to making sure that Wikipedia entries on topics related to skepticism and science are firmly science- and evidence-based. As such, it’s basically a major bogeyman to people like Chopra and Null. As for whether Gorski is a “patron saint” of GSoW, I have no idea. Heck, I’m not even sure that either of us—wink, wink—is all that prominent a skeptic. In any event, obviously we do oppose the “integration” of pseudoscience and quackery into medicine in the form of the specialty of “integrative medicine” or “integrative health.” That is, of course, why we oppose people like Dr. Chopra and Mr. Null, and we don’t care that “federal health agencies and an increasing number of medical schools that include alternative health courses in their curriculums.” Actually, strike that. we do care. We’re very alarmed by the embrace of quackery and pseudoscience by the federal government and so many academic medical centers in the form of “integrative medicine”. In fact, we’ve written about why we consider this infiltration of pseudoscience into medicine to be a threat to medicine more times than we can remember. It’s a recurring theme on this very blog.
Particularly amusing to me is another argument in the same article. Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I discussed Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo bilateral mastectomies because she carried a BRCA1 mutation, which put her at a high risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer, in the context of Sayer Ji’s rant about how she shouldn’t have done that and his denial of genetics as a cause of cancer. Basically, I pointed out that Jolie’s decision was rational and defensible based on what we know about BRCA1 mutations and breast cancer risk.
Not to Mr. Null:
The problem is that the evidence is not conclusive; undoubtedly, Gorski missed a lot of research otherwise available to him. A meta-analysis of 66 published papers on the BRCA gene mutations published in PLos One concluded, “in contrast to currently held beliefs of many oncologists and despite 66 published studies, it is not yet possible to draw evidence-based conclusions about the association between BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 mutation carriership and breast cancer prognosis.” A later study published by Lancet Oncology looking at women 40 years and younger carrying either of the BRCA genes found “no clear evidence that either BRCA1 or BRCA2 germline mutations significantly affect overall survival with breast cancer after adjusting for known prognostic factors.” In fact, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that a rarely tested variation of the BRCA gene, K1183R, showed an INVERSE cancer risk.
This is an even more ridiculous argument than Mr. Null’s other arguments. In the original posts, nothing was said regarding the aggressiveness of the breast cancers associated with BRCA1, only that certain BRCA1 mutations are associated with a very high risk of developing breast cancer, which they undeniably are. Mr. Null is burning a straw man so large that I’m sure the fire can be seen by the crew of the International Space Station, while cherry picking a single BRCA1 mutation that might be associated a lower risk of breast cancer. Let’s just put it this way. Mr. Null’s knowledge of cancer and genetics does not impress me. Here’s a hint. There are dozens and dozens of known variants of BRCA1. Most are of unknown significance. Some are well-established as greatly increasing the lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It’s not too far-fetched to think that one or maybe a few of them might decrease the risk of breast cancer, given how important the BRCA1 protein is in pathways leading to cancer. Mr. Null seems to think that we treat all BRCA1 mutations the same. We most definitely do not.
Mr. Null also sets an equally large strawman on fire, to the point where the combined fires from the last straw man and this one could likely be seen from the Moon, ranting about how most new chemotherapy drugs aren’t much of an improvement over existing chemotherapy drugs, if any, as though we’ve ever argued that they are. In fact, I myself have written about the problems with new cancer drugs and FDA accelerated approval, particularly how the FDA is, if anything, a bit too quick to approve drugs with little benefit using this mechanism. You’d never know it from Mr. Null’s portrayal of me as a pharma drone who unquestioningly worships big pharma. Of course, to people like Gary Null, anyone critical of alternative medicine must be a pharma shill.
Gary Null vs. the rest of Wikipedia
Mr. Null doesn’t limit expressions of his unhappiness with Wikipedia to its treatment of Deepak Chopra. He’s also unhappy that Wikipedia doesn’t peddle antivaccine pseudoscience, railing against Wikipedia’s vaccination “bias” and referring to it as a “vaccine propaganda regime“, saying that it “serves as a propaganda arm of pro-vaccination advocacy groups, the federal health agencies and Big Pharma.” Both articles are riddled with antivaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories easily identifiable by regular readers of SBM. Elsewhere he complains about Wikipedia’s “culture of institutional bias,” warns about “Wikipedia skeptics,” claims that “Wikipedia skeptics” are out to “suppress the dissemination of high quality health and medical studies“, and refers to Steve Barrett and Wikipedia as “poison mongers“. You get the idea.
Null goes beyond just complaining
Not content just to complain about his perception of bias in Wikipedia, Gary Null has also decided to enlist his lawyer Neal Greenfield to demand removal of his Wikipedia entry, first with a letter dated March 14, 2018 and then with a final demand for removal of “Biography of Gary Null” from Wikipedia, dated May 31, 2019. Given that it’s been a few months since that last letter, I’m guessing Wikimedia Foundation has ignored him, as his Wikipedia entry is still there.
It’s here that I’ll reveal that Null’s apparent obsession with Wikipedia took a rather bizarre turn three months ago. You might recall that in August Steve Novella deconstructed an article by Null attacking science-based medicine, much as I did for a similar attack by Null from last year. Shortly after Steve’s post went live, I received an email from Mr. Greenfield sent to my work email address. (Never mind that I didn’t write the post.) It was a cease-and-desist letter demanding that I remove…some content or other…from my blog. It was a standard issue legal threat of the sort that all too many many skeptical bloggers who write about alternative medicine, vaccines, and the like, receive every so often, complete with little or no description of which articles and/or what exactly it was that Null thought to be defamatory or false. What amused me was how, after a passage lauding Null as a famous consumer advocate and educator, Greenfield went on to write:
You, on the other hand, choosing to ignore or deny these facts, have undertaken a long personal vendetta and in the process have been engaging in acts of defamation by making statements without factual basis or based on unverified hearsay for the purpose of harming Dr. Null’s reputation. Whether in his Wikipedia so-called biography or in your own various writings you have referred to Drs. Null as a quack in every conceivable context and spread vicious lies about him, including that he promotes pseudoscience, was almost killed with his own supplements and that others were hospitalized, that he is an AIDS denialist, that Union Institute and University is a “correspondence college” that was not accredited to grant the degree received, accusing him of not supporting science, alleging his positions are motivated by profiteering, among others. We are still reviewing the full extent of your defamatory acts, both those that you wrote and those that you spread or republished knowing their falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.
That’s right. Apparently the famous Mr. Null and his hapless lawyer Mr. Greenfield think that I either wrote or contributed to his Wikipedia biography. I laughed out loud when I read that passage. Yes, years ago, I did create a Wikipedia account, but ultimately after looking at what it took to edit Wikipedia decided it wasn’t for me after having done essentially nothing. Certainly, I had nothing to do with Null’s Wikipedia entry, but such is his conspiracy mongering that he thinks I must have written or contributed to it. (I double-checked by logging on to my Wikipedia account for the first time in a very long time. Besides being surprised that my account was still there and my login worked, I verified that my memory was correct. I had made no contributions.) I also perused this blog and my other blog, and it turns out that I haven’t really written about Mr. Null all that many times over the course of my 15 years as a blogger.
So what about Mr. Null’s claim above that he has “evidence” that I used to edit Wikipedia? My guess is that it relates to a very old bit of misinformation about me, specifically that I am in nefarious reality “MastCell,” a pseudonymous Wikipedia contributor (and, apparently skeptic) active in editing Wikipedia entries related to medical science and pseudoscience. (Here are two blog posts laying out the conspiracy theory in excruciating detail. It appears to be based on a joke about whoever MastCell is said when someone speculated that he might be me.) I am not MastCell (what a strange sentence!), but Mr. Null will obviously never believe it. Of course, it’s also possible that he thinks I’m a different pseudonymous editor other than MastCell, but I am neither MastCell nor any other pseudonymous editor of Wikipedia. Again, not that Mr. Null or any of the others attacking Wikipedia will ever believe me.
In any event, I did what I always do when I receive one of these. I had my lawyer respond with a letter politely asking Mr. Greenfield to list the titles, URLs, and dates of each blog post he considered defamatory and then to highlight the specific text he considered defamatory. A month went by, and I received no response. Issue resolved, or so I thought.
Then, about a month ago, I received an email from the Wayne State University attorney’s office. It was a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for emails by me to…well, let me just list what he wants:
- My communications with Dorit Reiss, Professor at Hastings College of Law, from 2015 to present.
- My communications with Dr. Steven Novella, Professor at Yale University School of Medicine, from 2015 to present.
- My communications with Dr. Nina Federoff from 2015 to present.
- My communications with Stephen Barrett.
- My communications with Jon Entine, Founder and Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, and Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, from 2015 to present.
- My communications with Dr. Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, from 2015 to present.
- Any information relating in whole or in part to The Guerilla Skeptics, and my communications with the co-founders of the group, Susan Gerbic and Tim Farley.
- Any information relating in whole or in part to the Wikimedia Foundation, and my communications with Jimmy Wales.
I laughed out loud—heartily—when I read the last part. Jimmy Wales? Mr. Null thinks I communicate with or about Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia? He thinks that Wales personally intervenes regarding individual Wikipedia entries? He thinks that I might actually know Jimmy Wales? Would that were the case!
As for the rest, I had no idea who Nina Federoff was and had to Google her, and elsewhere in the letter Mr. Null also asked for communications with Gary Ruskin, whom I despise. In any event, I haven’t seen the emails collected to satisfy this FOIA request yet, but a quick search of my own Wayne State email account suggests that, unless I missed something, all that Mr. Null and Mr. Greenfield will learn is that I did in that time frame use my minor pull with Dr. Offit to persuade him to accept an invitation from a medical student group for which I’m faculty advisor to give a talk, that at the post-talk late lunch at a local restaurant I accidentally dropped and broke a mug given to him by the student group as one of his gifts for appearing, and that I was extremely embarrassed and apologetic about my fumble. That’s probably the most embarrassing thing this not-so-dynamic duo will find. Certainly, they will find no evidence that I ever communicated with Jimmy Wales, that I contributed to Mr. Null’s Wikipedia entry, or that I conspired with any of the people listed above to do whatever nefarious deeds they think I’ve been doing. I’m guessing that, once he gets those emails, Mr. Null will probably find a way to spin them on his show to make me look bad, but he’s going to have some pretty thin gruel to work with.
Woo versus Wikipedia
A pretty good measure of how well a source is doing when it comes to covering alternative medicine, vaccines, and pseudoscience is how proponents of alternative medicine react to it. Such proponents, like Dr. Chopra and Mr. Null, hate their Wikipedia entries and entries about their preferred alternative medicine and views on vaccines, and I haven’t even gotten into Mike Adams, whose epic conspiracy-laden unhinged rants about Wikipedia have to be read to be believed. For example, Adams has republished several of Mr. Null’s anti-Wikipedia articles, including articles by Helen Buyniski, who works at PRN.FM, Mr. Null’s radio station, to augment his rants against Google and Facebook, while Dr. Joe Mercola has posted articles attacking Wikipedia as biased as well.
I was a skeptic of Wikipedia at first (albeit, I point out to Mr. Null, never a “Wikipedia skeptic”), but now I grudgingly conclude that if people like Deepak Chopra, Mike Adams, Gary Null, and Joe Mercola hate Wikipedia’s coverage of them, alternative medicine, medicine, and vaccines so much, maybe Wikipedia’s doing a pretty good job after all, at least with respect to these topics.