Special Report

Wikipedia Meets Its Own Climategate

Wikipedia's founder asks for "civility" even as it's revealed that "Wikipedia's Green Doctor rewrote 5248 climate articles."

By 12.30.09

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Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, had an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal drawing attention to the rise of "online hostility" and the "degeneration of online civility." He (and coauthor Andrea Weckerle) suggested ways in which we can "prevent the worst among us from silencing the best among us."

I agree with just about everything that they say. But there is one problem that Mr. Wales does not go near. That is the use of Wikipedia itself to inflame the political debate by permitting activists to rewrite the contributions of others. All by itself, that surely is a contributor to online incivility.

The issue that I am particularly thinking about is "climate change" -- or global warming as it was once called (until the globe stopped warming, about a decade ago). Recently the Financial Post in Canada published an article by Lawrence Solomon, with this remarkable headline:

How Wikipedia's green doctor rewrote 5,428 climate articles.

Solomon draws attention to the online labors of one William M. Connolley, a Green Party activist and software engineer in Britain. Starting in February 2003, Connolley set to work on the Wikipedia site.  I continue with a two-paragraph direct quote from Mr. Solomon's article:

[Connolley] rewrote Wikipedia's articles on global warming, on the greenhouse effect, on the instrumental temperature record, on the urban heat island, on climate models, on global cooling. On Feb. 14, he began to erase the Little Ice Age; on Aug. 11, the Medieval Warm Period. In October, he turned his attention to the hockey stick graph. He rewrote articles on the politics of global warming and on the scientists who were skeptical of the band [of climatologist activists]. Richard Lindzen and Fred Singer, two of the world's most distinguished climate scientists, were among his early targets, followed by others that the band [of activists] especially hated, such as Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, authorities on the Medieval Warm Period.

All told, Connolley created or rewrote 5,428 unique Wikipedia articles. His control over Wikipedia was greater still, however, through the role he obtained at Wikipedia as a website administrator, which allowed him to act with virtual impunity. When Connolley didn't like the subject of a certain article, he removed it -- more than 500 articles of various descriptions disappeared at his hand. When he disapproved of the arguments that others were making, he often had them barred -- over 2,000 Wikipedia contributors who ran afoul of him found themselves blocked from making further contributions. Acolytes whose writing conformed to Connolley's global warming views, in contrast, were rewarded with Wikipedia's blessings. In these ways, Connolley turned Wikipedia into the missionary wing of the global warming movement.

Online replies to this article included the following, appearing about 24 hours after Solomon's article went on line:

Recently, the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee determined that "William M. Connolley has, on a number of occasions misused his administrator tools by acting while involved" and, as a consequence, "William M. Connolley's administrative privileges are revoked."

[Link: en.wikipedia.org/.../Abd-William_M._Connolley]

But three days later, on December 23, a follow-up article by Solomon said this:

How do Connolley and his co-conspirators exercise control? Take Wikipedia's page for Medieval Warm Period, as an example. In the three days following my column's appearance, this page alone was changed some 50 times in battles between Connolley's crew and those who want a fair presentation of history.

So he is still at it, apparently. Connolley has for years been involved with a website called RealClimate.org. It broadcasts the views of a group of warmist ideologues, otherwise known as "working climate scientists."  (Among them is Penn State's Michael Mann, the inventor of the "hockey stick.") My guess is that even if Connolley's Wiki privileges have been revoked, his RealClimate allies continue to labor on his behalf.

The interesting paragraph below comes from Connolley's own Wiki entry, and I suppose was written by him:

His work was also the subject of hearings by Wikipedia's arbitration committee after a complaint was filed claiming that Connolley was pushing his own point of view in an article by removing material with opposing viewpoints. A "humiliating one-revert-a-day" editing restriction was imposed on Connolley, and he told The New Yorker that Wikipedia "gives no privilege to those who know what they're talking about." The restriction was later revoked, and Connolley served as a Wikipedia administrator from January 2006. [The New Yorker article was by Stacy Schiff, July 31, 2006]

It is not surprising that Connolley should think that he knows what he is talking about and that he should be "privileged." The question is: How does Wikipedia decide between him and his allies and those who say that Connolley et al. do not know what they are talking about?

One is tempted to reply: By looking at the science. But here is an important and little-noted point. The scientific problem posed by measuring manmade global warming, if such warming really exists, is huge. There is no more complex field of science. That is because so many areas of expertise are involved -- everything from the temperature effects of oceans and of cloud cover, to the study of ice cores, to the spacing of tree rings, to the proper placement of thermometers. (How many should there be in Siberia, how close should they be to New York City? and so on.) 

Faced with the complexity of the way these variables interact -- and I could have mentioned half a dozen more -- the true scientist, at least initially, finds it difficult to be certain about the outcome. Politicians, or politicized scientists, then seized their opportunity.  Ideologues like Connolley and politicians like Al Gore filled the vacuum. Armed with world-saving missionary zeal, they milked the prestige of science to suit their own political advantage.

In so complex a field, the skeptics needed time to recover their more detached sense of what is really going on with the weather. So the warmists enjoyed a head start thanks to their political zeal and their lack of scrupulosity. Now they have come close to persuading politicians all over the Western world that we must change the way we live or sink beneath the waves.

But with the leaked emails known as Climategate more people are beginning to see that deception, not science, has been their principal weapon. And we see also that Wikipedia has lent itself to that deception.

The political exploitation of science has gone on for some time -- discrediting nuclear power in addition to the use of oil and coal has been just one of its several goals. One unintended consequence, as Fred Singer said recently, is that the public may begin to disbelieve everything that begins "science says." In the present climate, that might be healthy, but in the long run it would not work to America's or the world's advantage.

A footnote: Mr. Wales may be interested to know that the responses to Solomon's article were quite civil, surprisingly so given the shocking nature of his charges. Here are two. I particularly commend the second:

[From an academic] "I will not accept any references from Wikipedia in any paper I review from here on out until this is resolved."

"I see that a banner ad is appearing on most Wikipedia pages asking for 'donations'…. I think I'll contribute to more worthwhile charities."

For myself, I shall continue to investigate this issue over the next few days, and I hope to post a follow-up next week.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).