Wikipedia and the Liar’s Paradox: Where Do You Get Your Information?

May 24, 2019
Dean Radin, Science

According to the website Lifewire, in 2019 Wikipedia was ranked the fifth most-popular website in the world. The article stated that “more people use Wikipedia worldwide than any other knowledge-based resource on the web.” Most other website-ranking sites list Wikipedia among the top 10 most-visited sites in the world. Wikipedia is even included in Microsoft Office as an add-in information resource.

A free crowdsourced encyclopedia seems like a good idea, and the success of Wikipedia speaks for itself. But there’s a persistent and growing problem: Authors of Wikipedia articles are anonymous, so there is no way to check their expertise, neutrality, or credibility. This has led to editing wars, revenge edits, articles that are actually paid advertisements, and articles with false or distorted information that are frozen in place by editors who know how to game the rules of Wikipedia editing. These and other abuses of Wikipedia are legendary, as discussed on the website Wikipediocracy.

The problem is even acknowledged on Wikipedia itself in an article entitled Wikipedia is not a reliable source. That article is of course the equivalent of the liar’s paradox: If Wikipedia is a reliable source, then we are obliged to pay attention to the warning. But, if we pay attention to the warning, then Wikipedia is not a trusted source. You see the problem.

To give just one example of questionable reliability, consider Wikipedia’s article on parapsychology. In the first paragraph of the article, we find this statement, “It is considered to be pseudoscience by a vast majority of mainstream scientists.” Seven citations are used to justify this statement, six of which are skeptical opinions. No survey data are provided, nor are any positive opinions provided by eminent people, of which many could have been cited. As a result, Wikipedia presents a transparently biased view of parapsychology.

One of those seven citations refers to a 2016 article entitled, “Testing for questionable research practices [QRPs] in a meta-analysis: An example from experimental parapsychology.” This article described what would happen if poor research practices contaminated the evidence for a popular class of telepathy tests. The modeling exercise found that when the effects of all questionable research practices are combined, “We conclude that the very significant probability cited by the Ganzfeld [telepathy] meta-analysis is likely inflated by QRPs, though results are still significant (p = 0.003) with QRPs.” In other words, if one assumes that every trick in the book was used to make a published telepathy experiment seem better than it actually was, you still end up with significant evidence in favor of telepathy. Given this outcome, why was this positive conclusion used to support the negative assertion that parapsychology is a pseudoscience? It suggests that the anonymous editor who added that citation didn’t understand the article or perhaps didn’t even bother to read it.

In addition, a survey recently conducted by IONS indicates that the vast majority (over 90%) of the general population report that they’ve experienced one or more psychic phenomena. And apropos to the Wikipedia article, our survey explicitly included scientists and engineers whose professions demand clear analytical skills and critical thinking. The vast majority of that subset (again over 90%) agreed with the general population.

Increasingly, people turn to the web to find information, but given that all sources are not equal, when it comes to controversial topics like parapsychology, a far more reliable source can be found in the Psi Encyclopedia, which is written and vetted by experts.  This encyclopedia is being developed by the Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in London in 1882 as the first organization devoted to the systematic scientific study of psychic phenomena (“psi” for short).  This encyclopedia, which is regularly updated with new articles and the latest information, presently offers some 300 articles about psi research as well as biographies of notable scientists involved in this topic.

While many Wikipedia articles may be unbiased and informative, articles on parapsychological topics are most definitely not. So the big question is, where do you get your information?

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