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The Rise and Fall of Wikipedia

Ever venture into natural healing or alternative medicine on Wikipedia and find the answers become totally skewed in favor of corporate medicine?

Commentary by Howard Straus

(OMNS, Feb 8, 2016) Anyone who uses the Internet to search for information is very likely to be familiar with the Wikipedia site. Wikipedia is very often among the first results that pop up on queries like, "What is the population of Kazakhstan?" or "How many French speakers are there in the United States?" To questions like this, with little or no commercial impact, and no scientific or political controversy surrounding them, Wikipedia sometimes offers decent answers.

But venture into natural healing or alternative medicine and the answers become totally skewed in favor of corporate medicine. Naturally, Big Pharma is one of those entities willing to pay to control the flow of information. Those pages are not identified as being advertising or propaganda.

This phenomenon is not limited to health topics. Here is a link to one of the "Pay for Play" controversies: http://www.cnet.com/news/corruption-in-wikiland-paid-pr-scandal-erupts-at-wikipedia/

And another one: http://royaldutchshellplc.com/2011/12/18/integrity-of-wikipedia-corporate-articles-corrupted-by-editing-scandal/

Wikipedia's credibility among serious researchers has always been very low. It is hardly surprising that college professors across the board disallow citations from Wikipedia in students' papers. 

Years ago, the NY Times reported that Middlebury College had banned Wikipedia references: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/21/education/21wikipedia.html?_r=0 

A list of links to articles about schools and colleges banning Wikipedia for unreliability: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Schools_and_colleges_banned_WP_in_2007-2008 Isn't it ironic that this entry is found at Wikipedia . . . and information about orthomolecular physician Robert F. Cathcart, MD, has been deleted? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Robert_Cathcart 

Other nutritional physicians have also gotten the ax at Wikipedia: http://www.orthomolecular.org/resources/omns/v06n18.shtml

This writer and many others in the field of alternative medicine and natural healing have experienced Wikipedia bias personally when contributing well-documented, carefully researched articles to the site, only to have them be radically altered and deleted, by anonymous "editors," then being banned from further editing or contributions. This is impossible to reconcile with a free flow of information.

And it can be verified. At Wikipedia, all past history of page edits are saved. Edits can be viewed by clicking on a tab on the page in question called "View History" right near the top of the page. It also shows the name of the person making the edit, if he was logged in. Each page has its own history attached to it, and that can be viewed.

Toeing the line

It did not take long for corporate America to wake up to the fact that the Internet was a powerful and democratic source of information, and large numbers of users were using it to research questions that were not addressed by the advertising-funded mainstream media. As people turned more and more to the Internet for this information, Wikipedia grew like wildfire.

At first, it was interesting to see uncensored information flow through the site, and even contribute to it. Then corporate America realized that Wikipedia, and similar sites, were distributing information they had carefully and thoroughly suppressed in the media, and set about correcting that omission. Soon, Wikipedia entries about natural healing, holistic medicine, and other subjects began to resemble publicity blurbs from Monsanto, or Merck, or the NIH. Contributors are supposed to be anonymous, "volunteer" editors were supposed to be both anonymous and neutral. But it was clear that for certain sensitive subjects, this was far from the case.

Additions to articles at Wikipedia that went against the corporate line were swiftly edited out, and replaced by corporate-friendly advertising blurbs. Writers who posted the offending material have been banned by the ostensibly neutral and unbiased editors, and the information reverted to the bad old days of censorship.

Wikipedia's way or the highway

Wikipedia's founder ridiculed a petition by 8,000 people to have a more robust discussion of alternative medicine, saying in part: "No, you have to be kidding me. 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. What we won't do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of 'true scientific discourse'. It isn't." http://www.businessinsider.com/jimmy-wales-petition-response-2014-3

Other comment on unethical use of Wikipedia and suppression of reportage: http://thenextweb.com/insider/2012/10/13/wikipedias-dark-side/#gref

Numerous examples of Wikipedia bias and hypocrisy: http://drleonardcoldwell.com/2015/03/24/total-hypocrisy-wikipedia-sues-nsa-while-censoring-truth-and-promoting-corporate-propaganda/

Readers used to be permitted to rate a Wikipedia page as to whether it was "trustworthy," "objective," "complete" or "well-written." A "Rate This Page" survey box was to be found at the bottom of each page. This option appears to have been removed. http://orthomolecular.org/resources/omns/v07n06.shtml

Whitewashing the drugs

Here is Wikipedia's page on chemohttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemotherapy. Note that it minimizes negative results; never mentions the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's study that finds that chemotherapy makes cancer much worse; doesn't get into negative effects until far down in the article; nowhere in the article does it mention the word "safety"; and "effectiveness" is almost glossed over. It does, however, list the revenues from the top ten chemotherapeutic agents from 2013: they total $37.47 billion dollars. That is just in one year.

Here is Wikipedia's page on Lipitor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atorvastatin There is no mention of improved survival (of course, there is no increase in survival) in the article; the word "effectiveness" does not appear, and the word "efficacy" refers only to the drug's cholesterol-lowering property. Nothing on increased longevity; liver damage is mentioned lightly; but the economics are noted to be "sales of over $125 billion over 14.5 years." This made it the best-selling drug ever, with no long-term survival improvement shown. Why is this not mentioned?

Wikipedia has frequently appealed for funding from its readers. Due to its increasing uselessness as a reliable information source, I believe the major contributors are sure to be the corporations that corrupted the information flow in the first place. After my experiences with the site, and that of other contributors with information about controversial subjects, I would never use it as a resource for any but the most mundane queries. And I'd be suspicious even of those.

(Howard Straus, grandson of Max Gerson, MD, is the doctor's principal biographer and author of Dr. Max Gerson: Healing the Hopeless. The book was reviewed in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine 2002, 17:2, p 122-124. http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/2002/pdf/2002-v17n02-p120.pdf or http://www.doctoryourself.com/gersonbio.htm)

OMNS readers' comments on Wikipedia bias:

http://orthomolecular.org/resources/omns/v06n16.shtml

Please feel free to submit your own comments to the OMNS Editorial contact email, further below.

To learn more:

Azer SA, AlSwaidan NM, Alshwairikh LA, AlShammari JM. (2015) Accuracy and readability of cardiovascular entries on Wikipedia: are they reliable learning resources for medical students? BMJ Open. 2015 Oct 6;5(10):e008187. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-008187. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26443650Explains that Wikipedia entries on cardiovascular diseases lacked important detail on pathophysiology, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, and should not be recommended for use in education. In other articles, the same author states that similar problems exist for Wikipedia entries on gastroenterology, hepatology, and respiratory topics.

Wilson AM,Likens GE. (2015) Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale. PLoS One.10(8):e0134454. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0134454. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26275058Politically controversial topics on Wikipedia change constantly and therefore are unsuitable as an authoritative source of scientific information.

Kräenbring J, Monzon Penza T, Gutmann J, Muehlich S, Zolk O, Wojnowski L, Maas R, Engelhardt S, Sarikas A. (2014) Accuracy and completeness of drug information in Wikipedia: a comparison with standard textbooks of pharmacology. PLoS One. 9(9):e106930. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0106930. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25250889Wikipedia entries on drug-related information are accurate and suitable for education.

Hasty RT, Garbalosa RC, Barbato VA, Valdes PJ Jr, Powers DW, Hernandez E, John JS, Suciu G, Qureshi F, Popa-Radu M, San Jose S, Drexler N, Patankar R, Paz JR, King CW, Gerber HN, Valladares MG, Somji AA. (2014) Wikipedia vs peer-reviewed medical literature for information about the 10 most costly medical conditions. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 114(5):368-73. doi: 10.7556/jaoa.2014.035. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24778001Peer-reviewed articles are more accurate than Wikipedia entries on common questions about patient care. However, reader comments on this article point out that medical doctors and researchers (e.g. the authors of this study) are often not sufficiently skeptical of the peer-reviewed medical literature, so the problem is not limited to Wikipedia.

Edwards KL, Salvo MC, Ward KE, Attridge RT, Kiser K, Pinner NA, Gallegos PJ, Kesteloot LL, Hylton A, Bookstaver PB. (2014) Assessment and revision of clinical pharmacy practice internet web sites. Ann Pharmacother. 48(2):258-67. doi: 10.1177/1060028013510899. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24259640Suggests that Wikipedia is the most common website found in searches by medical professionals, students, and patients, but contains inaccurate information that cannot always be easily updated.

Leithner A, Maurer-Ertl W, Glehr M, Friesenbichler J, Leithner K, Windhager R. (2010) Wikipedia and osteosarcoma: a trustworthy patients' information? J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2010 Jul-Aug;17(4):373-4. doi: 10.1136/jamia.2010.004507. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20595302). The quality of Wikipedia entries on cancer are inferior to patient information provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Additional external links to definitive sources such as NCI should be added and these should be checked often to confirm quality and accuracy.

Koo M. (2014) Complementary and alternative medicine on wikipedia: opportunities for improvement. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014:105186. doi: 10.1155/2014/105186. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24864148Although Wikipedia is a popular source of information, articles on complementary and alternative medicine are shorter with fewer references than conventional medicine, and most are inaccurate.

Volsky PG, Baldassari CM, Mushti S, Derkay CS. (2012) Quality of Internet information in pediatric otolaryngology: a comparison of three most referenced websites. Int J Pediatr

Otorhinolaryngol. 76(9):1312-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.05.026. Wikipedia lags behind eMedicine in content accuracy and errors. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22770592)

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Sayer Ji
Founder of GreenMedInfo.com

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