One of the most popular sources of information online is Wikipedia. With a nod and a wink to reliability we rush to the ‘Wiki’ as our first source for almost anything. Consequently Wikipedia is the 6th most visited website worldwide.
Because Wikipedia is the ‘the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit’ it is extraordinarily subject to conflicts of interest (COI). COI-editing stretches from innocuous changes in pages of obscure scientific fields to agent-editing by Wiki-PR all the way to organized extortion rackets like Orangemoody.
Wikipedia has rules and pages upon pages of explanation relating to COI. Elaborate rules notwithstanding, it is obvious messing around with one’s own page – as an individual or organization – is not a good idea.
With the above how does your friendly neighborhood climate source rate? Would the people behind knowingly bend rules and plan to scrape past them for publicity?
Step forward Skepticalscience.
Skepticalscience, a climate website run by Australian physics graduate John Cook doing a psychology PhD in Queensland features a unique hidden back-forum where users collaborate and discuss topics away from public eye. It is a JournoList-like safe space whose contents were leaked to the public in 2012.
Of the many shenanigans that stumbled out into the open is Skepticalscience’s orchestration of their own Wikipedia page, something that has received little attention to date.
In 2011 Skepticalscience decided they would do well to have a Wikipedia page (‘enhances our credibility to have a Wikipedia article’, ‘definitely adds prestige’). Except, in typical ‘SKS style,’ one of their own wanted to write it.
Almost immediately members realized making up their own Wikipedia page was not the best thing to do. One forum user said
“I think the wiki-brigade tend to look down on people contributing to their own wiki pages …”
Cook noted the conflict involved:
“Is it kosher initiating a wiki page by the people involved in the website? Considering all content changes are tracked and transparent, having an SkS author create a wiki page about SkS sounds a little fraught or am I being oversensitive?”
These misgivings were accurate. Wikipedia rules are unequivocally against conflict-of-interest editing and creation of entries in the encyclopedia:
“While editing Wikipedia, an editor’s primary role is to further the interests of the encyclopaedia. When an external role or relationship could reasonably be said to undermine that primary role, the editor has a conflict of interest. (Similarly, a judge’s primary role as an impartial adjudicator is undermined if she is married to the defendant.) Any external relationship – personal, religious, political, academic, financial, or legal – can trigger a COI. How close the relationship needs to be before it becomes a concern on Wikipedia is governed by common sense. For example, an article about a band should not be written by the band’s manager, and a biography should not be an autobiography, or written by the subject’s spouse.”
But the prospect of a neutral-sounding, prestigious Wiki entry was too enticing to resist:
“Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead!”
The group decided user ‘Dawei20’ would create the Wikipedia entry.
To start with, he had difficulty fulfilling one of Wikipedia’s cardinal requirements – independent media and/or scholarly sources for the article:
I haven’t been able to find too much else worthwhile…”.
Dawei20 encouraged edits by the other members but asked they resort to sock-puppetry to cover their tracks:
“…feel free to make small changes direclty [sic] in the article as you see fit (careful not to use your name if you contribute to SkS regularly)”
He had a road map planned for evading Wikipedia’s safeguards:
“Neutrality is extra important when creating an article from scratch, as articles that read like mere advertisements are quickly deleted.
For this reason, it includes some information that is less than flattering. I believe this will help the article’s chances of being accepted as a new entry. After it has been firmly established as a valid article, negative passages can be toned down or removed completely without putting the entire article in as much danger of being removed.”
As Cook himself started to offer suggestions, the team once again realized the conflict:
“Hah, alright, I’ll make that correction later. I’d do it now but doing so might be seen as evidence that I am collaborating with you, which could be bad.”
Within two months another Wikipedia editor incidentally deleted the deliberately added ‘negative passages.’
‘Dawei20’ has subsequently shepherded his page, tweaking text, and adding links several times over the years, the last as recent as Jan 2016.
It is evident Skepticalscience knowingly broke the rules. Wikipedia’s oversight mechanisms are so weak, especially in consensus-enforced topics, even a heavily biased, conflicted page does not set off tripwires. Additionally, there are suggestions ‘senior’ Wiki editors themselves offered guidance in evading safeguards.
(Click the image for a larger version.)
COI editing in climate is not confined to Skepticalscience. Wikipedia administrator and Realclimate author William Connolley for example, is involved in ~70 edits and reversions to Realclimate’s entry over the years, having himself set up the page in 2005.
It’s a window into a corrupt process but Skepticalscience’s sales-pitch Wikipedia page is emblematic of the climate orthodoxy and the trustworthiness of its communicators.