Skepticalscience in Wikipedia

By Shub Niggurath

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.

Meanwhile via slowly massaged edits, over half of the links on the current Skepticalscience page refer back to Skepticalscience! It is a glossy brochure ad dressed up as an encyclopedia entry:sks2

(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.



  1. There’s nothing in the SkepticalScience article on Wikipaedia about the numerous leaks from their site (at least three). The first one (the Treehut Files, in reference to a lovely cartoon by Josh)
    revealed a lot about the philosophy of the SkS crowd: a forum member who fantasised about violent attacks on Steve McIntyre; and blog owner John Cook conspiring with psychology professor Lewandowsky to conduct a “scientific” experiment involving planting false “sceptic” comments at climate sites…
    Then came the Nazi uniform leaks, and finally Brandon Schollenberger’s recent discovery of Cook’s draft PhD thesis and other stuff..
    Is there anyone with experience of editing Wikipaedia articles who feels like adding to the sum of human knowledge by revealing this fascinating information toWiki readers?


  2. Geoff, if you follow Shub’s link under “shephered” to the list of edits, you will see that last time somebody tried to edit the page to add anything slightly negative about SS, it lasted about an hour before one of the gatekeepers deleted it.


  3. In my opinion, Wikipedia is inherently left wing; all journalism is inherently left wing because writing about other people is the opposite of the libertarian ideal of you do what you want and I do what I want. I don’t really care to tell the whole world what you are doing, or for that matter, what I am doing.

    In past years I calibrated my sense of an encyclopedia’s objectivity by looking at what each had to say about Karl Marx. That’s the litmus test. All of the big paper encyclopedia publishers had glowing reviews of Karl Marx with no mention of the millions of people that have perished as a consequence, direct and as modified by Lenin and Stalin and others, of his words.

    I suspect, but don’t care to explore it much, that Wikipedia is even more left-wing than society itself. What do you do when you have plenty of time on your hands and your life revolves around what other people are saying on Twitter and Facebook? Edit Wikipedia.

    It’s still a pretty good resource if the topic is not noticeably left/right wing particularly for casual exploration of a topic. I have found it particularly useful in mathematics and electronics.

    I’ve edited it briefly but the things I know best are the things about which I am the authority; but Wikipedia doesn’t allow authorities to write. They can be quoted of course so I suppose I could write a web page and then quote the web page. That’s a bit more work than I am interested in performing.


  4. Paul Matthews
    Thanks for pointing that out. Shub’s link reveals about 40 aborted attempts to say something critical in the past year. It’s a combat, as is everything to do with establishing the truth about climate change. I’m willing to participate, and even to undertake it alone, but it would be interesting to have the input of others before attempting to get some well attested facts out there: for example, that SkepticalScience’s founder John Cook is a proven liar who likes to dress up in Nazi uniform.


  5. Geoff,

    John Cook ….. who likes to dress up in Nazi uniform.

    Are you serious? You do know that the image that you’re presumably referring to is very obviously not an image of John Cook dressed up in a Nazi uniform?


  6. Geoff,

    It’s an image of John Cook pretending to dress up in Nazi uniform.

    No it’s not. Do you not get the irony of calling someone else a liar, followed immediately by something that is not true?


  7. Michael, that’s an interesting point about Wiki being inherently left, and libertarians being happy to keep to themselves.

    But I think it’s a mistake (a very commonly made one) to assume that libertarians and the left are opposites. We have here at cliscep two exhibits of the Libertarian Left: Geoff, who has been known to campaign for the Communist Party, and Ian, who describes himself as “Sympathetic to anti-authoritarian left”.


  8. John Cook is a doctoral candidate. The fact that he approved setting up a Wikipedia page for his own website and collaborated with the editor is serious cause to doubt whether he takes his work seriously. The question is whether this constitutes academic misconduct.


  9. Shub, interesting also that in response to Dawei’s suggestion to get round the rules by putting in some negative comments and then gradually deleting them, UEA climate scientist Gavin Cawley said “looks good to me”.


  10. So has Robert Way, Kevin Cowtan, Sarah Green – the whole handful of academics on the inside at Skepticalscience. Yet it bothered no one. This type of misconduct doesn’t bother people if your own ‘side’ is involved. A complete blind spot.


  11. The original paragraph criticising Skepticalscience was the following:

    Climate skeptic and blogger Anthony Watts is frequently critical of the site’s accuracy and bias,[15][16][17] although he has commended Cook’s “scholarly demeanor”.[18] Climate skeptic Steve McIntyre has been critical of Cook’s explanation of the “nature trick” regarding temperature proxies, a central talking point during the 2009 Climategate controversy.[19] In April 2010, physicist Luboš Motl wrote a 28-page report that was subsequently picked up by the Science and Public Policy Institute. The report contains point-by-point counter-arguments of all arguments present on the Skeptical Science website.[20]

    It was there for about two weeks after the creation of the page until it was all deleted in this edit by an editor called “wikispan”.


  12. I made an edit to the wikipedia Skeptical Science entry 12 days ago. Having stumbled upon their Wikipedia entry. It looked very unbalanced to my eyes so I thought I’d note their bias against nuclear power, and their habit of censoring pro-nuke posters on their forum. My edit lasted an hour, if that, before reversion.


  13. ATTP, why did SkS panic and hide the file containing the images of their own people in Nazi uniforms to another quickly-discovered link?


  14. I don’t click on links from @$$#0!&$, but thanks for proving me right. The SkS people photoshopped and posted those pics themselves and you Know it!


  15. @climateotter
    I don’t think that Ken Rice / TTLOC / ATTP / Wottsywotts knows that, since that knowledge would require he would read material that he suspects might be illegally obtained. Of course, the same KR-TTLOC-ATTP-WW happily writes papers with people who are involved in all sorts of shenanigans, such as telling lies about data, but KTAW is a man a flexible standards.


  16. Paul Matthews wrote “But I think it’s a mistake (a very commonly made one) to assume that libertarians and the left are opposites.”

    Yes, it is very common and made mostly by People of the Left that fear libertarians even more than they fear Republicans which for the most part are just a different kind of sheep (but still sheep).

    Libertarians cannot be put into any box or group; they have nothing in common with other libertarians but a respect for liberty; not only each his own (everyone has that already, more or less) but a respect for the liberty of others (rare).

    I have many thoughts or ideals that would be considered left-wing; a society that works together is generally going to be more successful, happier, healthy, resist invasions better than many people that have failed to form one society and either have anarchy or many immiscible societies. Choice must exist and people must choose it.

    When I was in Iceland for a couple of years back in the 1980’s it seemed in large part exactly as I have described; it was socialist in construction and yet the most libertarian place I have experienced. As science fiction author Poul Anderson puts it, “freedom is having a cage larger than you want to fly in.” There’s always a cage; but if you don’t encounter the bars you won’t notice or feel it. You can make the cage bigger or reduce your conflicting expectations.

    Washington State, which is decidedly on the Left Coast, has very little liberty. So it isn’t socialism per se that robs liberty; it is selfishness, collective and personal. Washingtonians own land down to mean low tide — you cannot walk along the beaches because you are trespassing. Hawaii, also far on the left side of politics, does not have private ownership of beaches (nor much in the way of tides).

    Either reflect cultural baggage. In Hawaii only the Alii (chiefs) owned property anyway; so there’s no expectation of private property ownership. How it is that Washingtonians have such a strong sense of property when otherwise they are *way* left is puzzling and communists anyway are not supposed to advocate for private property at all — unless of course we are talking about *my* private property and then suddenly having a bit of it is a fine thing.


  17. It’s a bit like creating a wiki page for your lemon squash stall. The only people who see it will know who you are and where you live and either like you or think that you’re a snotty nosed trouble maker from round the corner. Who would search ‘skeptical science’ on wikipedia? What would you be expecting to find? If you were interested in climate scepticism it would quickly become apparent that they’re not sceptical. If you were a believer, why would you not just go to their site?

    When I look up anything, I’m seeking specific facts, not generic bumf. When was it formed; who is the owner; stuff like that. I’d assume that the information was largely from the site anyway. A shortcut to finding the site and reading the ‘About’ page. Things like aims and intentions, are irellevant. SkS might even believe what they say, it doesn’t mean that they’re right or not lying to themselves. Anything that smacks of opinion – is opinion. Just reading the word ‘blog’ would tell me most of what I’d need to know. Take everything with a pinch of salt. If it was a newspaper or a political site, I’d take two pinches.

    OK, I’m not typical of internet users but I can’t think how a bog standard member of the public would find that page, and if they did, read it. So to create it and worry about the content is very telling of their PR by rote attitude to their subject. They look at successful PR exercises and think ‘we’ll do that’ without understanding why those things were successful for the subject. What works for pop music, won’t work for climate change.

    What has impressed me most about sceptic sites, and even ATTP’s hangout is that right or wrong, the efforts are personal, not scripted.


  18. Tiny,
    If you track incoming hits to the Skepticalscience entry on Wikipedia, it amounts to ~50,000 hits, on average, since the page was created. Is this a big number? No.

    This is how people think about a Wikipedia page for themselves, as in about ‘Skepticalscience’:

    but I certainly agree that such a page is warranted – dana1981
    SkS has to gain the same things that we gained when the pages on Twitter and Facebook were created. As I said, I think we would gain by getting more traffic to the site. – dawei
    It also enhances our credibility … – dawei
    I don’t think we have anything to lose – dawei
    A Wikipedia article definitely adds prestige – Andy Skuce
    Sooner or later, someone else will make a SkS Wikipedia page and we may as well try to influence the content and structure from the start. – Andy Skuce
    I see nothing to lose from doing this. – Andy Skuce
    like it or not, Wikippedia has become the encyclopedic reference. If something is not referenced there, people may conclude that it is not worth knowing. – Andy Skuce

    The last point is particularly interesting as this was same thinking exploited by Orangemoody. In this Wikipedia racket, groups of people set up pages about not-so particularly noteworthy individuals and companies, write negative things about them, and subsequently approach the said individuals/companies offering to fight fictitious Wikipedia editors to reverse the negative changes (which were made by them, in to begin with) for a fee. So, if someone were to write up negative stuff about image-conscious Skepticalscience and troll-guard the page, they would be in a position to extort something from them. Of course, what we have here is a reverse-Orangemoody astroturf operation – a bunch of people setting up a page about themselves, and being ready to defend it against anticipated edit wars.

    The fact that SKS anticipated edit wars on a page about themselves show how self-absorbed people can become in orthodox global warming promotion.


  19. I guess I have trouble understanding how anyone can take the SKS world seriously. They are so transparently politically partisan and their work an obvious example of pseudo-science I can’t imagine how an honest adult could rationalize these failures. It’s a sad commentary and pathetic commentary I think.


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