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Wicked Wikipedia bias in AIDS entries is a known problem hard to solve

Doubts that Wikipedia can be objective and accurate

Hugely popular and surprisingly reliable, objective and comprehensive, Wikipedia is nonetheless becoming a problem for some people and issues it covers, as the story “Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar” today in the New York Times indicates.

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The New York Times

December 4, 2005

Rewriting History

Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE

ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler’s biography, true?

The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby.”

“Nothing was ever proven,” the biography added.

Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.

If any assassination was going on, Mr. Seigenthaler (who is 78 and did edit The Tennessean) wrote last week in an op-ed article in USA Today, it was of his character.

The case triggered extensive debate on the Internet over the value and reliability of Wikipedia, and more broadly, over the nature of online information.

Wikipedia is a kind of collective brain, a repository of knowledge, maintained on servers in various countries and built by anyone in the world with a computer and an Internet connection who wants to share knowledge about a subject. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have written Wikipedia entries.

Mistakes are expected to be caught and corrected by later contributors and users.

The whole nonprofit enterprise began in January 2001, the brainchild of Jimmy Wales, 39, a former futures and options trader who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. He said he had hoped to advance the promise of the Internet as a place for sharing information.

It has, by most measures, been a spectacular success. Wikipedia is now the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world. As of Friday, it was receiving 2.5 billion page views a month, and offering at least 1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of articles, already close to two million, is growing by 7 percent a month. And Mr. Wales said that traffic doubles every four months.

Still, the question of Wikipedia, as of so much of what you find online, is: Can you trust it?

And beyond reliability, there is the question of accountability. Mr. Seigenthaler, after discovering that he had been defamed, found that his “biographer” was anonymous. He learned that the writer was a customer of BellSouth Internet, but that federal privacy laws shield the identity of Internet customers, even if they disseminate defamatory material. And the laws protect online corporations from libel suits.

He could have filed a lawsuit against BellSouth, he wrote, but only a subpoena would compel BellSouth to reveal the name.

In the end, Mr. Seigenthaler decided against going to court, instead alerting the public, through his article, “that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.”

Mr. Wales said in an interview that he was troubled by the Seigenthaler episode, and noted that Wikipedia was essentially in the same boat. “We have constant problems where we have people who are trying to repeatedly abuse our sites,” he said.

Still, he said, he was trying to make Wikipedia less vulnerable to tampering. He said he was starting a review mechanism by which readers and experts could rate the value of various articles. The reviews, which he said he expected to start in January, would show the site’s strengths and weaknesses and perhaps reveal patterns to help them address the problems.

In addition, he said, Wikipedia may start blocking unregistered users from creating new pages, though they would still be able to edit them.

The real problem, he said, was the volume of new material coming in; it is so overwhelming that screeners cannot keep up with it.

All of this struck close to home for librarians and researchers. On an electronic mailing list for them, J. Stephen Bolhafner, a news researcher at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote, “The best defense of the Wikipedia, frankly, is to point out how much bad information is available from supposedly reliable sources.”

Jessica Baumgart, a news researcher at Harvard University, wrote that there were librarians voluntarily working behind the scenes to check information on Wikipedia. “But, honestly,” she added, “in some ways, we’re just as fallible as everyone else in some areas because our own knowledge is limited and we can’t possibly fact-check everything.”

In an interview, she said that her rule of thumb was to double-check everything and to consider Wikipedia as only one source.

“Instead of figuring out how to ‘fix’ Wikipedia – something that cannot be done to our satisfaction,” wrote Derek Willis, a research database manager at The Washington Post, who was speaking for himself and not The Post, “we should focus our energies on educating the Wikipedia users among our colleagues.”

Some cyberexperts said Wikipedia already had a good system of checks and balances. Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford and an expert in the laws of cyberspace, said that contrary to popular belief, true defamation was easily pursued through the courts because almost everything on the Internet was traceable and subpoenas were not that hard to obtain. (For real anonymity, he advised, use a pay phone.)

“People will be defamed,” he said. “But that’s the way free speech is. Think about the gossip world. It spreads. There’s no way to correct it, period. Wikipedia is not immune from that kind of maliciousness, but it is, relative to other features of life, more easily corrected.”

Indeed, Esther Dyson, editor of Release 1.0 and a longtime Internet analyst, said Wikipedia may, in that sense, be better than real life.

“The Internet has done a lot more for truth by making things easier to discuss,” she said. “Transparency and sunlight are better than a single point of view that can’t be questioned.”

For Mr. Seigenthaler, whose biography on Wikipedia has since been corrected, the lesson is simple: “We live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research, but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.”

* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Certainly the entries on HIV=AIDS and the dissident review of that almost universally accepted paradigm are cases in point, since they are partly taken over by people defending the conventional wisdom and disparaging the objections to it.

AIDS is an acronym for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is defined as a collection of symptoms and infections resulting from the depletion of the immune system caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus, commonly called HIV (Marx et al., 1982).

The problem is obvious enough that it is being discussed on a special page, though it seems that a solution is not yet at hand.

A while back we corrected some of the entries, but it is clear that this doesn’t do much good, since they revert to misinformation if others think the corrections are wrong in their turn, and change them back.

The top reference to the paradigm critique on the main “AIDS” entry page , a paragraph titled “Alternative theories”, is unexceptional, in fact quite respectful and objective:

A minority of scientists and activists question the connection between HIV and AIDS, or the existence of HIV, or the validity of current testing methods. These claims are met with resistance by, and often evoke frustration and hostility from, most of the scientific community, who accuse the dissidents of ignoring evidence in favor of HIV’s role in AIDS, and irresponsibly posing a dangerous threat to public health by their continued activities. Dissidents assert that the current mainstream approach to AIDS, based on HIV causation, has resulted in inaccurate diagnoses, psychological terror, toxic treatments, and a squandering of public funds. The debate and controversy regarding this issue from the early 1980s to the present has provoked heated emotions and passions from both sides.

For more details on this topic, see AIDS reappraisal.

The AIDS reappraisal page referenced is also an unusually balanced and informative source on the main points made by the dissidents, but unfortunately many questions are dismissed in a conclusive manner rather than left open. This creates the impression of a successful refutation, rather than an open question, which in fact they all remain in the absence of refutation on the more expert level of discussion conducted by Duesberg in his two decade series of massive, peer-reviewed papers, the last one being the paper in the Journal of Biosciences in 2003.

This page of explication, which is ultimately mostly (inadequate) refutation, presents a small problem, however, compared with another. The bigger roadblock for AIDS dissidents is the Common Misconceptions about AIDS page, which often reads as if it were written by HIV=AIDS apologists from the NIH and CDC, probably because it draws from their page dismissing AIDS scientific review at The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS Fact Sheet. (That page is dismissed by the dissidents at Rebuttal to the NIAID/NIH document ‘Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS’, a page to give any open minded reader pause.)

The page advertises its thrust in its very title, Common Misconceptions about AIDS, and many of the ‘misconceptions’ are assertions by the HIV?AIDS dissidents countering claims of the paradigm.

To take but one example,

HIV antibody testing is unreliable

Diagnosis of infection using antibody testing is one of the best-established concepts in medicine. HIV antibody tests exceed the performance of most other infectious disease tests in both sensitivity (the ability of the screening test to give a positive finding when the person tested truly has the disease ) and specificity (the ability of the test to give a negative finding when the subjects tested are free of the disease under study). All current HIV antibody tests have sensitivity and specificity in excess of 96% (except the HIV-TEK G by Sorin Biomedica) and are therefore extremely reliable (WHO, 2004).

This paragraph is entirely misleading, since in the first place an accuracy of 96% when testing in a population which contains only 1 true positive for every about 330 true negatives, which is the level of HIV positivity estimated for the general US population by the CDC, which has maintained consistently that there are about 900,000 positives in a population of 298 million, would yield a larger number of false positives than true. 13 times as many, in fact.

(You can work it out. In a group of 330 Americans, there would be on average 1 true positive, and with a test that was 96 per cent accurate, there would be about 13 false results, which would be positives, since they are false. That would be 13 false positives for every true positive, which in itself is a prescription for social disruption of a high order).

The egregiously factually inaccurate nature of this statement (let’s not call a spade a spade) is underlined by reference to any test package which will inform you that there is no established standard for detection of HIV antibodies which is what the tests test for.

Or as the package insert from an HIV Elisa test from Abbott Laboratories, the leading maker, read in 1997, “At present there is no recognized standard for establishing the presence of absence of antibodies to HIV-1 in human blood”.

Meanwhile there is a long list of factors which give rise to a false positive on HIV Elisa tests, including pregnancy, and malaria. Anyone recovered from malaria is liable to score false positive.

The Wikipedia section on the ‘myth’ that HIV antibody testing is unreliable continues:

Progress in testing methodology has also enabled detection of viral genetic material, antigens and the virus itself in body fluids and cells. While not widely used for routine testing due to high cost and requirements in laboratory equipment, these direct testing techniques have confirmed the validity of the antibody tests (Jackson et al., 1990; Busch et al., 1991; Silvester et al., 1995; Urassa et al., 1999; Nkengasong et al., 1999; Samdal et al., 1996).

Presumably they mean PCR, a means of detecting genetic material by amplifying it from a needle to a haystack, and a test rejected for this use by Kary Mullis himself, who won the Nobel prize for its invention, who says it cannot serve as a valid guide to HIV status.

Majority may not be expert

What can be done? Not much, it seems. The validity of Wikipedia entries unfortunately rests on a consensus ruled by the majority, or at least a majority of those who feel strongly enough to write and edit the entries in line with their own understanding.

The flaw in this is that when it comes to a contentious issue in science as in anywhere else, the majority is not always better informed than the few individuals who disagree with the conventional wisdom, and often less, since their motivation to do their own independent research is weaker.

In science, in particular, progress is achieved by people who at the outset of the change they try to effect disagree with the majority and its conventional wisdom, and seek to overturn it. They are usually in for an uphill struggle, as the majority tends to conserve and protect conventional ideas from challengers.

Wikipedia is by nature a repository for conventional wisdom, ruled by the majority to the exclusion of other ideas unless those that have a different view are sufficiently tactful, in entering information on a topic in dispute, to ensure that the qualifications and additions they make do not get bumped.

Since Wikipedia, with 854,455 English entries and 81 other languages is now the largest encyclopedia in the world and possibly the most popular at 2.5 billion page views a month, is normally surprisingly reliable and up-to-date, this presents a problem for the activists in HIV?AIDS dissidence.

The entries biased against HIV?AIDS review are going to persuade many readers that any resistance to the hegemony of HIV=AIDS is flogging a dead horse, when in fact it is a critique which stands peer-reviewed, published and unanswered in the same journals at the same level.

The problem is recognized, as noted above, by Wikipedia participants who have opened a discussion thread on the topic, though without resolution at present. To read the discussion, go to the Duesberg hypothesis page where there is a notice “The neutrality of this article is disputed” and a link to

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Talk:Duesberg hypothesis

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Contents

[hide]

* 1 Older discussions

* 2 Disputed

* 3 Outline

* 4 POV

* 5 So Obviously POV

[edit]

Older discussions

It would be interesting to know when the Duesberg hypothesis was postulated to understand that in the right context. — mkrohn 21:19 Apr 6, 2003 (UTC)

The “Duesberg hypothesis” was not formulated by Duesberg at all. It was in fact the first hypothesis given by the government researchers themselves, before 1984. The idea that drugs and environmental factors were the priamry cause of AIDS was the predominant scientific opinion at one time in the early 1980s. Only after the “announcement” of HIV as the cause did this change. But ideas that poppers were a primary cause of many early AIDS cases came straight out of the NIH itself in the beginning. Revolver

To answer your question though, the first real signficant published article to challenge HIV appeared in 1987 by Duesberg, “retroviruses as carcinogens and pathogens, expectations and reality” Revolver

I take real offense to the placement of a link to “AIDS misconceptions and conspiracies” in this article, esp. the “conspiracy” part. I think it violates the NPOV stance by making those who question the HIV hypothesis out to be “conspiracy theorists”. I think the link should be removed. Revolver

Strictly speaking, the idea that HIV might not cause AIDS is not a “hypothesis”. The “drug-AIDS hypothesis”, that hypothesises drugs as a possible cause of AIDS illnesses, is an example of a true hypothesis. Saying that HIV does not cause AIDS is not hypothesising a new fact, it is challenging a previously existing hypothesis (namely, that HIV causes AIDS). The only reason “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” is considered a “hypothesis” is because the claim that HIV causes AIDS has become so widely accepted that people psychologically consider it an obvious fact of reality, rather than a scientific claim. Even if all the evidence does support the HIV hypothesis, this doesn’t make the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS itself a “hypothesis”, it’s just a claim against the original hypothesis. The idea that questioning HIV is itself a “hypothesis” is wrong. I can question the existence of gravitational force or electromagnetic force, but this by itself isn’t putting forward forward a positive claim, it’s arguing against a hypothesis, whether or not the hypothesis has enough evidence to support it or not. Revolver

I agree, but I’ve usually heard it called the “Duesberg hypothesis.” Unfortunately, I haven’t followed recent discussion of this idea. Read quite a bit about it a few years back (including Inventing the AIDS Virus, Rethinking AIDS and a couple other books); I’ve been wanting to tackle this issue since I became a Wikipedia contributor, but am worried that I may be uninformed (and quite biased, since I strongly tend to believe the “Duesberg hypothesis”). Though, considering this article (and the AIDS article), it seems to me such a bias might be needed in order to counterbalance the existing treatment of this as a “conspiracy theory” of sorts. The article on Duesberg’s hypothesis could certainly be much more detailed. Any ideas on how to proceed? I’d have to get back into research before I’d feel comfortable contributing to this article… — Wapcaplet 01:32 21 Jul 2003 (UTC)

Wapcaplet, I’ve had many of the same thoughts. I’ve been a dissident since 1996, and have thought of adding to this article or starting a new article, but I haven’t, mainly for the reason that I fear my own POV is too far from neutral. The only reason I keep thinking of doing such a thing is that most people’s idea of a “NPOV” stance is, in MY eyes, far from neutral. It would be a good exercise for me to try to give an real account of the controversy in a NPOV, but I’ve had other things to do, and I wouldn’t look forward to the inevitable conflicts that would arise from people’s reactions. If you want to talk about it, give me an email (dbrown@math.ucsb.edu) cheers Revolver

The “Duesberg hypothesis”, as I understand it, most frequently refers to the hypothesis by Peter Duesberg that AIDS is caused by hard injected drug use, and not HIV. Though there are many who are skeptical that HIV is the cause of AIDS, the Duesberg hypothesis is simply one of the alternative explanations, by the man who is probably the most vocal opponent of the HIV-AIDS idea; others have suggested alternative hypotheses, or who do not have a hypothesis for the cause of AIDS (but who still question HIV as a causative factor). At any rate, this article should be about Duesberg’s hypothesis. A separate article should be used for exploring the more general notion of “those who are skeptical that HIV causes AIDS.” I’ve encountered no simple, terse terms to describe such ideas, so here are a few suggestions for article titles:

* HIV-AIDS skeptics (would be my first choice for a title)

* HIV-AIDS reappraisal or simply AIDS reappraisal (second choice)

* Rethinking AIDS (good, but could be confused with the book of the same name)

Any other suggestions would also be welcome. I believe this subject can be treated neutrally, provided we stick with the known facts and findings. I am not sure how useful I will be in contributing to this article right now, since it has been at least 4 years since I’ve followed any of the news on AIDS, but the primary arguments against HIV-AIDS I’ve usually seen are:

* The lack of any study or other publication proving HIV to be the cause of AIDS (if this is still true; I know that as of 1999, one had not turned up)

* The failure to isolate “pure” HIV

* Individuals with HIV but no AIDS, or AIDS without HIV

* Difficulties with false-positives in HIV testing

* The CDC statistics disproportionately indicating hard drug use, especially among males, as the primary risk factors, even until recent years

* Positive correlation between AZT treatment and the onset of AIDS-related illnesses

Again, not having followed the discussion recently, I am not aware whether these claims have been discredited or otherwise explained. I’d be obliged if anyone could direct me towards any recent news on these matters; much of the material I’ve seen is quite old and outdated. — Wapcaplet 18:07 21 Jul 2003 (UTC)

Since another article has been started focused on the dissident movement and questioning of HIV in general, I move that the current page be rewritten as a short article on the drug-AIDS hypothesis, which is really what most people involved in HIV (orthodox AND dissident) mean when they say “Duesberg hypothesis”. I am NOT refering to the lay press. Revolver

Agreed. Duesberg hypothesis should be a redirect to that, then. I’ve also heard it called the risk-AIDS hypothesis, though that may be a conceptually different animal. — Wapcaplet 22:46 22 Jul 2003 (UTC)

[edit]

Disputed

IMHO the neutrality and the factual accuracy of this article is still disputed, and without changes to the article, it will become worse, as year by year any remaining doubts whether the Duesberg hypothesis is nonsene vanish. You just don’t see much disussion here, perhaps because other contributors don’t know about the article or have resigned changing ot. For related discussions see this talk page and the main article AIDS and its talk page.

Anyway, I don’t re-insert the tag for now, as the cost/benefit ratio of this action doesn’t seem to be that good. Perhaps an RfC listing would attract some more editors.

Pjacobi 15:36, 2005 May 25 (UTC)

I’m not seeing the problem, Pjacobi. The article states what Duesberg thinks, and says very clearly that most scientists disagree…. What’s the dispute? Whig 21:25, 25 May 2005 (UTC)

[edit]

Outline

These issues are important 66.81.16.73, but Wikipedia has articles, not outlines. Try to integrate these issues in a coherent style in the article (not the introduction), or they might be largely removed. Tfine80 17:03, 8 September 2005 (UTC)

[edit]

POV

You dont write “X says, but he is wrong”, you write “X says, but Y disagrees”. The article as it is is P O V. –Striver 22:23, 15 November 2005 (UTC)

So if someone says that the earth is flat and someone says he is wrong, that is POV? Duesberg is wrong on many many fronts, and has been proved wrong over and over again, yet he won’t accept defeat. –Bob 22:32, 15 November 2005 (UTC)

Yes, that is pov. You can say “the majority of worlds scientis dissagree with the earth being flat”. But not just say he is wrong. That is taking the majorities side, the very definition of pov!

And what the heck is this?!

Duesberg’s most radical challenge to the HIV-AIDS hypothesis is his offer to infect himself with HIV. However, he claims that it is not possible for him to do so without the approval of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the university where he works. Moreover, there are already some one million HIV-positive people in the United States, as well as some 34 million people elsewhere in the world who test HIV-positive, so the addition of one nearly 70-year-old academic is not likely to make much difference in this debate. –Striver 22:36, 15 November 2005 (UTC)

Please, courtesy and politeness on Wikipedia.

Where does it state he is wrong. I do believe it states the following: The current consensus in the scientific community is that the Duesberg hypothesis has been refuted by the huge mass of available evidence, showing that Koch’s postulates have been fulfilled by HIV, that virus numbers in the blood correlate with disease progression and that a plausible mechanism for HIV’s action has been proposed.–Bob 22:42, 15 November 2005 (UTC)

Sorry.

This quote is pov:

Duesberg believes that there is a statistical correlation between decreases in recreational drug use and decreases in AIDS cases. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, the numbers of recreational drug users is declining, but the number of HIV infections is still rising.

It takes the majority view as true. It needs to be refreased as “x shows/says that…” –Striver 00:28, 18 November 2005 (UTC)

[edit]

So Obviously POV

Duesberg believes that there is a statistical correlation between decreases in recreational drug use and decreases in AIDS cases. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, the numbers of recreational drug users is declining, but the number of HIV infections is still rising.

You need some evidence for this. I doubt if recreational drug use is declining but if it is let’s see the evidence.

the number of AIDS cases rose exponentially

Again let’s see some evidence. A graph of number of cases vs time would be a start. And don’t forget ability to diagnose plays an important part here. Aids may have gone unnoticed in the past.

Retrieved from “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Duesberg_hypothesis”

Views

Nonetheless, the Wikipedia entries with their references to further reading remain the best introductory discussion of the two sides of the HIV?AIDS dispute on the Web.

PS Dec 19 – Wikipedia is now developing an idea to solve the problem of false entries, according to this news report today:

WIKIPEDIA ASKS FOR DONATIONS OF MONEY

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — The Internet’s free encyclopedia has begun an international fundraising effort. “In the coming year, the Wikipedia Foundation anticipates spending millions keeping up with increases in demand, improving our software, and continuing work toward our goal of providing free knowledge to everyone,” said a message on Wikipedia.org. “We can do it with your help.”

In a message signed by Jimmy Wales and other co-founders, the Wikipedia team asked for donations. Since the drive began last week through PayPal, contributions were reported to total $44,000 on Monday morning.

Wales also told reporters over the weekend there are plans for two versions of the encyclopedia, to avoid a repeat of recent events in which bogus information was published. “What we are doing is pursuing a model of having ‘stable’ versions and live versions,” of the online reference, Wales told the Financial Times. “The stable version will have been reviewed so we can say we have some confidence in that,” he said. Wales also plans to require registration for people who want to create new entries.

One Response to “Wicked Wikipedia bias in AIDS entries is a known problem hard to solve”

  1. Darin Brown Says:

    Hi, this is “Revolver” as quoted above from 2003. Curiously, just a few weeks before you put this post up, I got the idea of a possible solution the “Wikipedia dilemma”. I had been trying for many times to get articles on topics simply related to AIDS or dissidents started, or to put relevant information in them, and became so disgusted that I couldn’t take it anymore. To give examples, simple external links to dissident websites would be removed, and the category “AIDS dissidents” was made into a subcategory of “Pseudoscientists”. Mostly though, I just got tired of constantly arguing with people who were quite simply ignorant or uninformed. I can’t get any writing done if I have to spend half my time running down references or weblinks to refute every mistaken notion or historical error someone holds.

    So, I started up a new wiki. I originally began at Wikicities in mid-November. Then, 2 weeks ago, I got an email from Frank Lusardi. He had registered a server and set up all the MediaWiki software and other things that you need for a wiki. He invited me to start contributing. Within a few days, I had moved all the content from Wikicites over to this new server, and we’ve added more to it. Contributions require registration with Frank (“admin”) so I’ve found it’s been a good opportunity so far to do what I was *trying* to do before — write Wikipedia-style articles without getting constantly bogged down in “debates” with people. My hope is that it eventually develops into a formidable, stable, reliable resource, able to attract new visitors as well as serve the needs of people who are actively involved in the battle.

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.reviewingaids.org/awiki

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