John V Jackson and the hazards of being a Wikimedian

It's an obligation of anyone with a serious interest in Wikimedia and its projects to listen closely and receptively to serious and thoughtful criticism. The years have brought us an enormous amount of that kind of feedback, many of it deeply beneficial to the English Wikipedia and its methods. But as we all know, Wikipedia draws more than its fair share of trolls, ax grinders, crusaders, cranks and crazies. To the last man (or woman), they all categorically reject such labels. But like Justice Stewart, we know them when we see them.

It's always a risk, getting involved in the Wikimedia movement under your real name. Vicious critics with twisted motives might post a blog calling you a psychopath that becomes the first or second Google result for your name. Maybe they'll do a little digging, take an uneducated guess at what you do for a living, and suggest you should be fired - even tweeting at your employer that they should investigate your "worrying character traits."


They might compare you (and Wikipedia) to Nazis and the Holocaust, and then have the temerity to suggest its victims might be sympathetic to the trivializing comparison. This happened to me recently at the hands of a self-professed scientist named John V. Jackson. Jackson, a Brit, is the author of "The Secret Dinobird Story," which purports to revolutionize paleontology and put actual trained paleontologists on trial for scientific misconduct and laziness.


Cranks who quack like a duck


The variety of crank theories pushed on Wikipedia is pretty mind-boggling; conventional quack science like homeopathy, cold fusion and intelligent design merely scratch the surface. Crank original research is certainly not a new phenomena, nor is it at all new for cranks to attempt to validate their theories by seeing them included in Wikipedia articles. The by-now familiar process is to find or publish (or more often, self-publish) confused and unsupported conjecture that uses the language and format of scientific literature, and then feverishly promote it in obscure backwaters online. Authors of the most obscure theories toil alone, adding reams of gibberish to target articles and citing only themselves as evidence of support. The more widely adopted quackery attracts disciples, who attack Wikipedia in waves in hopes of getting high profile coverage denied to them by peer-reviewed journals or any outlets with reputable publishing standards. 

Jackson is, I'm sure to his dismay, of the former type. Wikipedians involved in stemming the tide of psuedoscience very much prefer his sort. Alone in their beliefs, they are unable (without sockpuppet accounts) to misuse local consensus. Their edits are consolidated and easy to track, with tools available to revert them en masse and wipe out with a few clicks all the damage they could do over the course of months. Thus was Jackson's Wikipedia career eventful but short, and devoid of impact. 

Unquestionably this was a blow to his ego, which is considerable. At times Jackson has claimed that his book is "the best ever written on the subject" and that he has "altered the fabric of science." Elsewhere he mused that, if only all negative feedback was discounted, he "...might well be thought to be the best teacher in the world." He dismisses peer review as a conspiracy to stifle scientific progress, and derides verification and confirmation of theories as a ridiculous "obsession." Jackson is a habitue of blogs, mailing lists, newsgroups and comment sections. For as many as 15 years he's been pushing his theories and engaging in criticism of working scientists, but seems to have garnered precious little support or traction within the scientific community. Most of his writing is gibberish even to actual experts in paleontology, so I won't get into the details here of his particular brand of junk science. But I will let Dr. David Hone relate what seems to be the common reaction of scientists to Jackson's ideas. Dr. Hone is a Ph.D. paleontologist at Queen Mary, University of London (and a scientific adviser for the Guardian), and in his blog he responded to some of Jackson's assertions


"With respect to the massive comment above that somehow claims to solve the riddle of bird evolution, there is not really much I can say except “eh?”. I cannot follow this at all, it is full of non-sequiturs and misunderstandings. Corwin is welcome to try and disentangle it, but I won’t. One point I will make is that that ‘parallelogram’-tree-thing and the conclusions the author seems to have magically conjured up are apparently based purely on assumption and phenetics, and not cladistics or any form of actual scientific analysis or consideration of the actual data available. You can’t just say that a pathway of Dromaeosaurs-epidendrosaurs-birds is more parsimonious than the reverse, it doesn't work like that. I have a massive post in preparation on cladistics and a few on concepts like ancestors, and interpreting phylogenetic trees, it looks like they are needed." And later : "...My original comment still stands, you do not know what you are talking about, you read and don’t understand, and don’t want to learn. Fine. Just don’t come here and tell me otherwise."


(As an aside, Dr. Hone's reaction to Jackson puts a fine point of irony on one of Jackson's comments as a blogger: "Much worse than a good scientist communicating poorly is a nonscientist spreading pseudoscience plausibly,”). 


Jackson has at times claimed a background in information technology, robotics and philosophy of science. Oddly, the only record of professional employment easily obtainable is his involvement in a single course at Open University in biological psychology.  (A LinkedIn profile suggests he may be currently employed as a "programme manager" at City of Bristol College). Jackson does mention this in one of his blog posts, where he reports resigning from his 3 hours per week position in protest of the OU's policies toward Apple products. In the same post he describes his "main background" as in the field of psychology. 


With such a deep academic background, one might expect that Jackson would be able to grasp the essential tenets of a tertiary reference and internalize the value of the constraints on original / single-proponent research it imposes. But as Wikipedians have often observed, arrogance and ego can be insurmountable barriers to understanding for crusaders who view themselves as a single point of sanity in a world of inferior fellow travelers. 


Wikimedians take risks participating under a real name



While participation of any sort on the Internet under your real name involves some inherent risk, being an active Wikipedian (or participating in most Wikimedia projects) often entails a greater danger of reputational harm, harassment and even physical attack. Jackson's attempt to dissuade me from criticising him by harassing me has failed, of course, and this is in part because it's been tried before by others with substantially more resources. In one instance, a multimillionaire lawyer who claims war criminals and dictators as friends promised to sue me for criminal libel and 50 million euros in damages. This threat, reported throughout the world in various media outlets, did not persuade me to abandon Wikipedia (although for others, it was enough) or even to withdraw from the effort to write balanced content about him. 

In fact, I see the threats and harassment as something of a badge of honor. It was the contretemps with the devil's advocate that moved me to participate under my real name. I decided that editing Wikipedia is an honorable activity that we should be proud of, and that associating my name with my actions reinforces for others that I take my words and conduct seriously. I don't hide behind a fake name or anonymous account (such as, for instance, strangetruther), or use that anonymity to write or do things that would reflect poorly on me if my identity were known. I recognize that being able to act under my name is a privilege I enjoy because of favorable circumstances that may be unobtainable for others. I live in a democracy where the principle of free speech is recognized and protected; I'm male and Caucasian with the privileges those traits imply, and I have the resources and knowledge to seek the protection of law enforcement and civil courts if it becomes necessary. 


Many other users are far more vulnerable. Female contributors, in particular, are not infrequently the subject of vicious and extensive harassment, sexual insults and innuendo and stalking. Not just cyberstalking, but stalking in the physical world that has at least once resulted in physical assault, criminal charges and a prison term. Under these conditions we simply can't ask or expect that many will choose to place themselves at risk by disclosing their identity. And yet some still do, or do so inadvertently. So what can and should we do, as fellow Wikimedians who want to see this historic movement succeed, to protect and succor those who suffer harm at the hands of people like John V. Jackson? 


Our traditional practice is to starve these gremlins of oxygen by ignoring them comprehensively - one of the older conduct essays on Wikipedia advises us to "not feed the trolls" by giving them the attention they crave. But this can leave targets of harassment feeling ignored and abandoned by the community; it gives both the perpetrators and the victim the sense that no one cares about such transgressions and that anonymity is the only protection and the only recourse. That's truly unfortunate; it starves Wikimedia projects of some of their most dedicated contributors, denies the legitimacy gained when people participate under their names, and gives free rein to militant trolls. We should use whatever tools are available to us to prevent trolls from influencing the projects by harassing opponents. I'm not sure what tools would be best. In this post I've taken the opposite route to that recommended on Wikipedia. Perhaps exposure and criticism will deter or change Jackson... personally I doubt that very much. But at a minimum it leaves a record that may educate both his future acquaintances and his future targets. 

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