The TED Controversy took place between March and April 2013 when videos of talks delivered by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock at a TEDx event in London were removed by TED after complaints that the event was giving pseudoscience a platform. When Amazon recommended Craig Weiler’s ‘PSI Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet‘ I was intrigued as I am one of those skeptics who believed that the removal of the videos was wrong and I have been critical of Wikipedia editing in the past. I was bitterly disappointed because it would seem that to Weiler I am the enemy too.
He explains early on that ‘one of the great things about the TED controversy was that it gave me an opportunity to explain the whole sordid background situation with organised skepticism’.
He isn’t wrong. The whole book is skeptic and science bashing with some cultural commentary thrown in.
He describes the TED controversy as a ‘milestone on the road to a fundamental cultural change’ and warns that ‘the TED controversy is a warning of things to come. It is time for media companies to looking more closely at whether they’re simply following the agenda of organised ideologue skeptics or whether they’re actually creating unbiased material’. [Sic]
Skeptics are continually referred to as ‘ideologue skeptics’ throughout the book by the way, hinting at the idea that skepticism is dogmatic. This is the biggest problem with the book; his hatred for skeptics overshadows everything else to the point that you can visualise the sneer on his face as you read.
Later in the book Weiler points out that he regards much of what he writes to be about pseudo-skeptics and not good skeptics but refers to it as ‘skepticism’ or ‘skeptics’ because that is how psuedoskeptics refer to themselves. In the next breath he likens pseudoskeptics to other groups who ‘think in similar black and white terms’ such as the Tea Party, Christian Fundamentalists and White Supremacy Groups. A slur that cheapens any valid criticism he may have had.
Early on the book there are pages dedicated to parapsychological research and psychical research – such as the founding of the Society for Psychical Research, the Ganzfield studies, Sheldrake’s Staring Studies and more, and Weiler dismisses criticism about these as slurs because ‘for skeptics, psychical research is never enough’.
The problem here is that criticisms from scientists are often made not because they want to brush away the ideas being tested but because they want to see the protocols improved so that the data isn’t open to variables that may have caused false results.
There will always be closed-minded people who claim to be skeptics or scientists (both of which require open minds) but they do not represent skepticism and science and to act as though they do isn’t a fair representation, but why let that get in the way of a good bit of bashing?
Those with open minds don’t defend bad research, they improve it, but for people like Weiler who rely on that bad research as the foundation for their beliefs this just isn’t acceptable. Instead all criticism and all skepticism is lumped together with pseudoskeptics and closed-minded people. ‘Skeptics gang up to make their numbers look larger than they actually are’ he states, hinting at the possibility that there is a larger skeptical conspiracy at play. This is something hinted at throughout the book, and actually mentioned in chapters when he writes about the editing of Wikipedia articles by a group called Guerilla Skepticism whom he refers to as evil.
Here’s the thing; there are problems within organised skepticism with individuals claiming to represent other skeptics when they only represent their own interests, but this doesn’t represent good, healthy skepticism. To conflate these is an underhand dismissal of people with genuine criticism.
Weiler accuses organisations like the James Randi Education Foundation and the Centre for Skeptical Inquiry of being dishonest PR machines who are out to cause confusion about parapsychology, and he accuses these organisations along with websites like QuackWatch, Whatstheharm, Skeptics Dictionary and Guerilla Skepticism, of creating an echo chamber type effect on the internet where they cite each other as sources but when faced with intelligent rebuttals ‘melt like a snowman in August’.
This may be true to a point (we’ve all seen those skeptics who dismiss people as ‘woo’ or ‘pseudoscience’, or with the same tired quotes like ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ ) but this isn’t always the case and this is not representative of those of us who are skeptical yet open-minded to alternative possibilities and this is the assumption made throughout this book. The assumption that turns potentially informed criticism into a laughable conspiracy theory.
I struggled to finish this book because of the slurs about skeptics, but also because of the double standards regarding “evidence” throughout. For example, an initial study by R Wiseman and M Schlitz in 1998 is presented as scientific evidence that ‘psychic ability declines in the presence of skeptics’ when the study claims no such thing. This is a terrible misrepresentation of a study in an attempt to explain away why psychics don’t perform as well when controls are put in place.
In another instance Weiler dismisses criticism that Sheldrake’s Staring Studies were too varied to produce reliable data as nonsense, stating that varied studies are ‘extremely unlikely’ to cause consistent positive results, when this is just not true.
The best studies in a controversial field like consist of many experiments across different labs that all follow the same procedure and with similar participants, and then show in a meta-analysis that there’s an overall effect. If you put a bunch of widely varied studies in the meta-analysis, your result is much less reliable. If you do this don’t be surprised when people are skeptical of your research and don’t pretend it isn’t a problem. Remember, open-minded people don’t defend bad research, they improve it.
The only recommendation I can make for this book is to leave it on the shelf unless you want a headache. No amount of reasoning will make a difference here.