Wikipedia: Free access to the sum of all human knowledge, or just another way of supporting the scientific, political and social status quo?
When looking at Wikipedia, you may have assumed that it is an independent child of the internet age, run by a small army of volunteers committed to spreading truthful and independent information. This may be so – except when you challenge the interests of the multi-billion dollar investment business with pharmaceutical drugs.
How the facts aren't welcome on Wikipedia when you challenge the interests of the multi-billion dollar drug industry
Between February 2008 and April 2009, aided by some willing assistants, we attempted to correct some of the key factual errors and blatantly biased statements in the Wikipedia article on Dr. Rath. It proved to be an eye-opening experience.
Introducing ‘Keepcalmandcarryon’: Is he a “friend” of the ARV-promoting South African "brown shirts", the Treatment Action Campaign?
Is 'Keepcalmandcarryon' Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Campaign?
Any embarrassment Jimmy Wales might feel when asked about his controversial attempts to rewrite the past and paint himself as the sole founder of Wikipedia must surely pale away into insignificance compared to the public humiliation he suffered in 2008 following the breakup of his liaison with onetime Fox News pundit Rachel Marsden.
The Soros Connection
One of the most notable of the Wikimedia Foundation’s supporters is the so-called “Open Society Institute”, founded by the chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC, George Soros.
From the point of view of its founders, Wikipedia must surely be seen as a rip-roaring success. A multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopaedia project, created in 2001 and written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world, it has rapidly grown to become one of the world's top ten most popular web sites. These days, when conducting a Google search on almost any subject, in the majority of cases a Wikipedia article will come up either top of the rankings or, at the very least, amongst the top ten results. Increasingly however, serious questions are being asked regarding the reliability of its content.
As the article below shows, Wikipedia can sometimes be highly inaccurate – especially so in the case of articles on subjects related to natural, non-pharmaceutical forms of healthcare, which, in sharp contrast to those on issues related to drug-based medicine, it tends to treat in a decidedly sceptical manner. Moreover, by effectively forcing its editors to rely on medical journals, books published by "respected publishing houses" and mainstream newspapers for their references, the reality is that much of Wikipedia's healthcare-related content is essentially just supporting the same pro-pharmaceutical and corporatist ideologies as are pumped out on a daily basis through the world's Big Media and publishing outlets.
Whilst there is some controversy as to whether or not he should be credited as the sole founder, or the co-founder, of Wikipedia, there can be no doubt that Jimmy Wales, an American Internet entrepreneur, is its public figurehead. So far as the world's media are concerned, Wales and Wikipedia appear to be becoming almost as synonymous as Gates and Microsoft, or Branson and Virgin. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, it turns out that Wales has big ambitions for Wikipedia, as particularly demonstrated by the following two extracts from an interview he gave in 2004:
"It is my intention to get a copy of Wikipedia to every single person on the planet in their own language. It is my intention that free textbooks from our wikibooks project will be used to revolutionize education in developing countries by radically cutting the cost of content."
"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."
Startling stuff, isn't it? After all, if your ambition is for your website's content to be used as the future basis for the education of the planet, you'd better make very sure that your content is accurate and that it encourages readers to approach new ideas with an open mind.
And this, despite all the hype that surrounds it, is where Wikipedia comes up rather sadly lacking. For, whilst its policies and guidelines are theoretically designed to ensure that articles are reliable and take a neutral point of view, the fact is, and as we shall see, that in practice this is unfortunately not always proving to be the case.
So far as its healthcare-related articles are concerned, the reality is that by effectively forcing its contributors to rely on what it sees as "reliable sources" for their material and references – e.g. orthodox medical journals, books published by "respected publishing houses", mainstream newspapers and so on – far from providing free access to the sum of all human knowledge, Wikipedia is essentially just supporting the same pro-pharmaceutical and corporatist ideologies as are pumped out on a daily basis through the world's Big Media and publishing outlets.
Think that last sentence was too strong?
Well, if you do – in other words, if you're the sort of person who believes that everything you read in your daily newspaper and watch on the TV news must be true – (because newspapers and news agencies are free from bias and have a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy, right?) – then this might be a good moment to switch off your computer, pick up your daily newspaper or turn on the TV instead.
But if, on the other hand, you know that journalists telling us that taking vitamin supplements may shorten our life expectancy are sometimes put under pressure to back the studies making these claims, and that shadowy intelligence agencies are pumping out black propaganda to manipulate public opinion – and that the media simply swallow it wholesale, then you'll know that what you read in your daily newspaper and watch on the TV news can sometimes be anything but reliable. By extension, therefore, the reality is that this also applies to what one reads on Wikipedia.
Verifiability, not truth
As absurd as it might sound, the threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth. In other words, if readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a so-called "reliable source", then no further verification of its accuracy is required. It doesn't matter one iota whether the material is true or not – or even, for that matter, whether Wikipedia or its editors think it is true – so long as the material can be shown to have been published by, say, the Reuters news agency or similar, it is considered suitably reliable for inclusion in Wikipedia.
So, and to take an example, at the time of writing (July 2008), the Wikipedia article on Dr. Rath states the following:
In 2005, according to Reuters, the Foundation distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets in poor black South African townships claiming that HIV medication was "poison" and urging HIV-positive people to choose Rath's vitamins instead.
However, whilst it is of course true that the Dr. Rath Health Foundation Africa has distributed information leaflets in South African townships to inform people of the dangers of ARV medication, and that these same leaflets also urged people to take vitamins instead, it is not true that they urged people to choose any particular brand of vitamins, either Dr. Rath's or anybody else's.
Moreover, at the time of writing, given that the website used as the source for this story, the AIDS Education Global Information System (AEGIS), stated that its website was “made possible through unrestricted funding from Boehringer Ingelheim, Bridgestone/Firestone Charitable Trust, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Elton John AIDS Foundation, Gill Foundation, the National Library of Medicine, Quest Diagnostics, Roche and Trimeris,” it could hardly be said to be either ideologically neutral or to qualify as one of Wikipedia’s aforesaid reliable sources.
Nevertheless, and largely at the behest of a Wikipedia administrator known as "MastCell", of whom more later, this potentially libellous claim has repeatedly been prevented from being removed from the article on Dr. Rath. Moreover, in an astonishing display of bias, MastCell has even gone so far as to describe AEGIS – with its "unrestricted funding" from multi-billion dollar multinational pharmaceutical companies – as "a reasonably reliable source" and to claim that its funding doesn't indicate otherwise.
Incidentally – and, some might say, perhaps not coincidentally – the only other website of any note currently carrying the story is thebody.com, a site whose sponsors include Abbott Laboratories, BioForm Medical, Inc., Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Virology, Bio-Technology General Corp., Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Hoffman-La Roche Inc., Ligand Pharmaceuticals Inc., Merck & Co., Inc., Monogram Biosciences, Inc., Ortho Biotech Products, L.P., Pfizer Inc., Tibotec Therapeutics and Virco.
Perhaps most significantly of all, despite the fact that the Foundation supposedly distributed "tens of thousands" of pamphlets "urging HIV-positive people to choose Rath's vitamins," it should be noted that nobody has yet produced a single copy of one of them to verify this claim. Which, of course, they never will, because the Foundation has never distributed any pamphlet making this statement.
In most normal encyclopedias, articles are written by people who are experts on the subjects they are writing about. In other words, you wouldn't expect to find articles on subjects such as Alternative Medicine; Megavitamin therapy; Naturopathic medicine and Orthomolecular medicine being written by orthodox doctors and proponents of pharmaceutical medicine. On Wikipedia however, with a small number of exceptions, literally anyone who visits the site can edit any article. As a result, its articles on non-pharmaceutical forms of medicine tend to be written from a highly sceptical standpoint and are effectively "policed" by editors exhibiting a strong and open bias towards pharmaceutical medicine.
One example of such an editor is a Wikipedia Administrator known as 'MastCell', who, right from his very first edits in August 2006, made it immediately apparent that his primary interest and knowledge base – and probably even his career – centers around the practice of pharmaceutical-based medicine. (Intriguingly, therefore, Ilena Rosenthal – a natural health-orientated editor who has been banned indefinitely by Wikipedia – has suggested that 'MastCell' is "probably" David H. Gorski, formerly an Associate Professor at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, currently a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Michigan, United States).
A member of Wikipedia's WikiProject Medicine, the first article MastCell edited was on bone marrow examination. After this he moved on to contributing to articles on pharmaceutical drugs such as Dasatinib; Vinblastine; Doxorubicin; Bleomycin and Dacarbazine; and to articles on medical specialities including bone marrow; hypernatremia; flow immunophenotyping; anatomical pathology; the history of cancer chemotherapy; chemotherapy; blood transfusion and transfusion reaction; Hodgkin's lymphoma; hemolytic disease of the newborn; sickle-cell disease; thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura; non-Hodgkin lymphoma; melanoma; acute myeloid leukaemia; myelodysplastic syndrome; granulocytic sarcoma; chronic myelogenous leukaemia; leukemoid reaction; neutrophilia; myeloperoxidase; ischemic colitis; hematopoietic stem cell transplantation and esophageal varices, amongst others.
MastCell's other early contributions to Wikipedia included creating the page on exchange transfusion (the medical treatment in which a person's red blood cells or platelets are removed and replaced with transfused blood products); adding the logo to the article on the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; and editing the article on pharmaceutical marketing. All things considered, therefore, it's difficult to imagine somebody less suitable to edit the Wikipedia article on Dr. Rath.
MastCell began editing the article on Dr. Rath on August 31, 2006, when, amongst other things, he used it to accuse Dr. Rath of being an AIDS denialist. This was an absurd accusation, of course, as Dr. Rath has never denied the existence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Since then, and as described above, MastCell has persistently defended the inclusion of a statement in the article that the Foundation "distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets in poor black South African townships… urging HIV-positive people to choose Rath's vitamins", despite the fact that this claim is demonstrably untrue.
In addition, he has pointedly removed references in the article to statements made by Dr. Rath himself, despite the fact that in some cases Wikipedia's guidelines on biographies of living persons clearly permit these.
And, perhaps most notably of all, MastCell has also removed reference in the article to a court judgement given in Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2006 in which the judge explicitly stated that he was not persuaded that the following statements about the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) were defamatory:
- The TAC organises rented crowds for the drug industry;
- The TAC pays people to participate in demonstrations;
- The TAC encourages people to take medicine which is harmful to them and will kill them;
- The TAC forces the government to spend millions of rands on toxic drugs;
- The TAC forces the government to spread disease and death among the people of South Africa;
- The TAC destabilises democracy in South Africa.
Given these facts, and in knowledge of the reality that the TAC is vigorously promoting the use of toxic anti-retroviral drugs, it is illuminating to compare MastCell's attacks on Dr. Rath with the number of clear Wikipedia policy violations that are currently being overlooked in Wikipedia's article on the TAC.
Wikipedia's article on the Treatment Action Campaign – a classic example of double standards?
At the time of writing (July 2008) Wikipedia's article on the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) clearly breaks a significant number of the official policies and guidelines that its editors are supposed to follow.
For example, there are no references whatsoever in the article. This is in clear contravention to Wikipedia's policy on sources, which, as described earlier, requires that articles should rely on reliable, third party published sources with a reputation for fact checking and accuracy. Given therefore that MastCell is demanding these for the article on Dr. Rath, it would only seem reasonable to expect him to do likewise in the article in the TAC.
Similarly, the TAC article also appears to contravene Wikipedia's policy of not publishing "original research or original thought." Bizarre though it might seem, unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, or ideas, and any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material is not permitted in Wikipedia. As such, the opening sentence of the article, which describes the TAC as "unique for combining the issue-specific targeted direct action tactics of North American AIDS groups like ACT UP with the culture and organization of the South African trade union and anti-apartheid movements" should, unless a specific reference for it can be cited, be deleted.
In addition, neither can it be said that the article is written in a neutral point of view. Phraseology describing an organization as "unique" requires, for example, according to Wikipedia's own rules, a supporting reference, and, unless one is supplied, should be removed accordingly.
In short, therefore, it would seem appropriate that the Treatment Action Campaign article should be labeled as having multiple issues until such time as all of the above contraventions have been corrected. Meanwhile, until such time as it does fully conform to Wikipedia's policies and guidelines and is written in a neutral point of view, one can only presume that MastCell is happy for Wikipedia to exhibit double standards of this sort.
Numerous studies have shown that very few Internet users go beyond the first page of search results. Discussing this, Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Watch, an online news site aimed at the search marketing industry, was quoted in the New York Times a couple of years ago as saying: "If it's not on the first page, it might as well be invisible." Similarly, in the same article, when discussing the need to think critically about what results come back from a search engine, Sullivan specifically advised that "Anybody who looks for something on any search engine and thinks the results are the best or most impartial results, or that they came back completely organically is totally mistaken."
As such, if ever there were a set of search engine results to which Sullivan's comments could arguably apply more than most, they must surely be Wikipedia's. After all, doesn't it strike you as a little odd that, so far as Wikipedia is concerned, the "truth" about something is essentially dependent in no small part upon what the media says about it?
And what about the fact that Wikipedia's articles tend not to be written by experts? Just as you wouldn't trust an article on the intricacies of cricket that was written by a man who plays tennis for a living, for example, why should anybody trust Wikipedia's articles on alternative and natural forms of medicine when they are being so actively edited and effectively "policed" by people whose primary knowledge base, like that of MastCell, is in pharmaceutical-based medicine?
Without any doubt therefore, if Jimmy Wales is ever to achieve his aims of getting a copy of Wikipedia to every single person on the planet in their own language and free textbooks from the wikibooks project being used to revolutionize education in developing countries, then the accuracy of Wikipedia's content – and arguably even its entire approach – needs to be significantly improved. Until such time as this happens, its articles on alternative and natural forms of medicine – and indeed, those on its proponents, such as Dr. Rath – can clearly not be relied upon for their accuracy.