Webcomic_xkcd_-_Wikipedian_protester
Acupuncturist Mel Hopper Koppelman published an article titled “WikiTweaks: The Encyclopedia that Anyone (Who is a Skeptic) Can Edit,” in The Journal of Chinese Medicine No. 113, p 35-7, February 2017. The article is behind a paywall but the abstract says:

This article documents recent attempts to update the Acupuncture page on Wikipedia with current scientific knowledge, and describes how such pages are presently controlled by self-styled skeptics, who prevent anyone else from editing them, thus ensuring the information conforms to their own biased and skeptical beliefs. The author provides key research papers and mainstream medical guidelines from around the world in order to provide acupuncture practitioners with robust evidence that can be used to counter biased and unfounded claims about acupuncture.

This abstract is misleading. She never actually tried to update the Acupuncture page. She presents no evidence that the editors she interacted with are “self-styled skeptics.” Her belief that anyone or any group can “control” Wikipedia pages is a delusion and a conspiracy theory. And what she provides is not “robust evidence” but cherry-picked studies and faulty reasoning. She is the one who is biased.

What does the article really say?

I have read the full article, and I’ll try to summarize Koppelman’s arguments.

The introductory paragraph reveals her bias: “The growing realisation by the public that the reliance on pharmaceuticals and invasive interventions for complex chronic health conditions is often ineffective and carries significant risk. (Null et al., 2005) means that patients are researching alternative solutions for their health problems rather than passively relying on the expert opinion of conventional health care providers.”

Medical information on the internet. In this section, she points out that Wikipedia is a trusted source that plays a big role in educating the public. She complains that it calls acupuncture a pseudoscience and is biased: “Any of the positive research and recommendations that have been allowed to remain appears to have been done so grudgingly, with a negative spin taken at every possible turn.”

Bullying and banning. Here she describes her editing experience.

Last month I joined Wikipedia as an editor to find out just how easy it is to bring the acupuncture in line with the published evidence. Shortly after joining in with the discussion and presenting respectful and referenced arguments as to why acupuncture should not be classed as pseudoscience, I was indefinitely banned from editing Wikipedia. I would later find out that I was the most recent in a (very) long line of editors who were bullied and then banned for disagreeing with the established Wiki-‘consensus’ that acupuncture is ‘pre-scientific gobbledygook.’

To support this belief of bullying, she cites a notorious troll who was repeatedly banned for good reasons.

Acupuncture? Fringe? Here she claims that highly respected sources accept acupuncture, so it can’t be considered fringe. She feels these sources were disregarded by skeptical editors in favor of two sources that describe acupuncture as pseudoscientific.

Key evidence for your arsenal. Here she claims that “skeptics do not update their beliefs based on new evidence.” She provides a list of 3 systematic reviews that support acupuncture, and 9 published treatment guidelines that include acupuncture. This amounts to a nice exercise in cherry-picking. She tells us the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture for the prevention of migraines and tension headaches. She doesn’t tell us that it doesn’t recommend acupuncture for the treatment of headaches. And that it doesn’t recommend it for any other types of headache. She doesn’t tell us that NICE no longer recommends acupuncture for low back pain. She doesn’t tell us that Edzard Ernst and his colleagues did a systematic review of systematic reviews of acupuncture for pain and found that “Unanimously positive conclusions from more than one high-quality systematic review existed only for neck pain.” She doesn’t mention David Colquhoun and Steven Novella’s review of the published evidence pro and con and their analysis of the methodological pitfalls in acupuncture research. They found that the most parsimonious explanation for the positive acupuncture studies is that they are false positives. They concluded that acupuncture is a theatrical placebo.

Koppelman’s article is a version of a blog post where she claims:

The page, controlled by a group of staunch anti-acupuncture ‘pseudoskeptics’ – insists that the mainstream support for acupuncture from the medical and scientific community doesn’t exist, even when it is presented to them, and presents their subjective minority opinion as the dominant one. They mainly do this by a) ignoring high-quality sources that contradict their perspective and b) systematically intimidating, bullying and banning anyone who dares to say otherwise. This state of affairs is problematic on many levels, not least of which because it directly impedes access to informed health care choice.

Orac has written about another acupuncturist, Mike Cummings, who made similar accusations. He claimed “[the acupuncture page on Wikipedia] appears to be controlled by semi professional anti-CAM pseudosceptics”

What really happened on Wikipedia?

Editors can preserve their anonymity, but in the blog post that the article was drawn from Koppelman reveals her Wikipedia talk page identity as “Ellaqmentry.” She quotes Arthur Rubin:

@Ellaqmentry: You have done absolutely nothing right. A cursory inspection of the talk page archives should have shown you that your arguments have been made and rejected for years. . . if you persist in making those comments, you are likely to become another (editor banned from Acupuncture).

She says she asked Arthur to please not bully her but he proceeded to vandalize her user page by removing the “new user” tag. Arthur’s revision is documented here.

Ellaqmentry posted repeatedly on the talk page between 13 and 16 December She tried to persuade her interlocutors that the Acupuncture article should not say acupuncture is a pseudoscience. She did not succeed. As one of the editors commented, ‘The reaction of the community was: “oh no, not this shit again”.’ The matter had been thrashed out at length in earlier discussions.

Already discussed at length. Reliable sources describe acupuncture as pseudoscience. Trypanophiles have two options: either they can produce good science, or they can attack Wikipedia for reflecting the reliable sources. The latter is easier. Especially since they have consistently shown they cannot do the former at all. Guy (Help!) 23:07, 7 February 2017 (UTC)

The statistics for Ellaqmentry’s contributions are available here. All she did was interact on the acupuncture discussion page and edit her own account. She never actually attempted to edit the Wikipedia Acupuncture page.

She was blocked from editing because “it appears you are not here to build an encyclopedia.” She submitted an unblock request that was denied because:

(1) Your editing has been highly disruptive. (2) You do not acknowledge the problems with your editing, and on the contrary you make it clear that you intend to continue in the same way. (3) I have extensively studied the relevant editing histories, and it is clear way beyond reasonable doubt that you are LesVegas evading your block on that account.

In the subsequent discussion, it was clarified that even without the suspicion of sockpuppetry, a ban was justified by what Wikipedia calls NOTHERE. It refers to editors who are “not here” to build an encyclopedia but to further a personal agenda. Koppelman joined Wikipedia with a single purpose: to challenge the wording of a single article. She waltzed into a discussion on a talk page that had a long history of trolling and point-of-view-pushing. The other editors didn’t “bully” her, but they quickly lost patience. They reacted with understandable frustration because “Here we go again!” They were terse and factual rather than supportive and instructive.

Susan Gerbic wrote an article for Skeptical Inquirer: “Is Wikipedia a Conspiracy? Common Myths Explained.” She explains how Wikipedia works. She advises new editors to “First learn to edit and start on non-confrontational pages. Improve pages by fixing grammar and spelling. Work on many topics, which shows the editing community that you are there to help.”

Who is Koppelman? We have met her before. Mark Crislip tried to answer her “questions for Science-Based Medicine” and was not impressed. An acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner based in Leicester, UK, Koppelman is the Executive Vice President of the Acupuncture Now Foundation. The Foundation webpage describes her as “passionate about raising the profile of acupuncture.” She is that. Unfortunately, passion doesn’t equate to truth.

Conclusion: Koppelman is biased; Wikipedia is not

According to the abstract, she attempted “to update the Acupuncture page on Wikipedia with current scientific knowledge, and describes how such pages are presently controlled by self-styled skeptics, who prevent anyone else from editing them, thus ensuring the information conforms to their own biased and skeptical beliefs.”

The Wikipedia editing process is transparent and self-correcting; and if it is biased, it is biased only in favor of evidence and reason. Koppelman’s misguided attempt to influence Wikipedia was a good demonstration that the editing process works well to prevent people like her from injecting bias into the articles.

In his response to a petition about censorship, bullying, and banning of dissenting editors Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia said:

Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful. Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.