By William J. Furney
The Bali Times
In what has been called “One of the biggest scandals of the recent history of medicine,” the heads of an association that promotes the relatively nascent field of anti-aging have been duelling with the scientific community for years over claims their health-engendering approach is a sham, and now have set their sights at the massively popular online reference library Wikipedia.
Chairman of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) Dr Robert Goldman and its president, Dr Ronald Klatz, filed lawsuits in the US states of New York, Massachusetts and California last August against the knowledge-based website, which regularly returns at the top of search-engine results due to its heavy global use and readership, over what they claim is a multitude of falsehoods placed on their organization’s page by unidentified editors that are paid by pharmaceutical giants to discredit their work.
The lawsuits, copies of which were made available to The Bali Times, state: “This defamation action arises out of an ongoing campaign by anonymous editors on the website for Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org), a free encyclopedia available on the internet to the public, to disparage and malign A4M and its two founders, Dr Goldman and Dr Klatz, by posting false and defamatory information about the medical credentials of Dr Goldman and Dr Klatz, A4M’s scientific qualifications and the research findings in the field of anti-aging medicine by A4M’s founders and members.”
The legal action – filed in three state jurisdictions – seeks to redress alleged damage done to the two doctors and their organisation by the editors who make Wikipedia postings. The website says anyone can edit their content, which is written by users and not the site, a policy that has led to issues of factual accuracy and bias – most recently concerning a page on the climategate scandal that erupted ahead of the Copenhagen conference in December (the London Telegraph called the Wikipedia page on the subject “propaganda” while the site itself has posted a notice saying “The neutrality of this article is disputed”).
“The statements made on the Wikipedia webpage for A4M have caused A4M, and Dr Goldman and Dr Klatz, substantial and irreparable damages. More specifically, since early 2009, anonymous editors on A4M’s webpage on Wikipedia have continued to post incorrect, misleading and disparaging information about Plaintiffs’ standing in the medical community and their medical credentials, which has threatened to destroy Plaintiffs’ reputations and adversely affect the livelihoods of Dr Goldman and Dr Klatz as well as the livelihoods of A4M members,” the lawsuits read.
The American doctors – whose organisation claims more than 22,000 physician members in over 100 countries and holds conferences around the world each year – are seeking to force the Wikipedia Foundation, which operates the non-profit website that exists on donations, to reveal the identities of the editors, who make posts and alterations on Wikipedia pages. Dr Goldman maintains there is a group of nameless editors that control some of the website’s content, and that contrary to the site’s stated policy, their posts cannot be altered.
“Those editors have put lies and falsehoods on the Academy page and when we attempt to make corrections to the page, we are not allowed,” Dr Goldman told The Bali Times during a recent visit to Bali.
Dr Goldman alleges that the editors at Wikipedia are paid, apparently in the form of grants, by large pharmaceutical companies who fear that A4M’s largely non-drug-based and preventative approach to health could eat into their profits to portray the organisation in a negative light and attempt to sully its members.
Questions put to the press office of the Wikimedia Foundation by The Bali Times were answered by Brian McNeil, who described himself as a volunteer and added that he “cannot speak with authority.”
He said: “For someone seeking to ‘out’ the identity of an individual without an account, the Wikimedia Foundation is effectively uninvolved; the process would be to approach the owner of the IP address’ edit (generally an ISP [Internet Service Provider]) and present them with whatever legal papers are required for them to divulge which customer was assigned the IP address in question at the time a particular edit was made. How an ISP would handle that is something you would have to ask them.”
McNeil said that for users that were registered with Wikipedia, their IP – Internet Protocol, or unique computer address comprising a string of numbers – could be obtained from the Wikimedia Foundation and then provided to the ISP, who could divulge the owner of that internet-access account, their client.
“The details that tie any specific username’s edit to an IP address are retained for a limited time” by the foundation, whose “preference seems: retain for the minimum time period required to aid in effectively limiting vandalism and disruption,” he said.
However, Tim Bolen, who operates the Bolen Report website dealing with alternative medicine and battles against pharmaceuticals, says this kind of transitory record-keeping does not amount to much.
“It does sound, though, that they may be indicating that they only keep that information for a short time… Such a situation, deleting the data, would make it difficult, if not impossible, to trace the original culprits. Kind of a strange way of doing things,” he told The Bali Times.
McNeil pointed to an official text from the Wikimedia Foundation that lays the groundwork for privacy of users and contributors.
But Bolen said that editors and contributors might not adhere to policies concerning writing and editing – which are supposed to represent what the website terms a “neutral point of view” as “a fundamental Wikimedia principle and a cornerstone of Wikipedia” – and asked what Wikipedia would do, if anything, in such cases.
“The Wikimedia Foundation set down rules and guidelines for the Wikipedia Project volunteers to follow. The volunteers have some control over those rules and their application. The questions that arise quickly here are: Do the volunteers actually follow the rules? What happens when they do not follow the rules? Does the Wikimedia Foundation have any responsibility for the content?”
Bolen argued that a perceived lack of transparency at Wikipedia and – ironically – the open nature of the site facilitates abuse.
“The trouble here is that the Wikipedia Project volunteer structure requires no identification or accountability of its volunteers. Not at any level – editor, administrator, committee member or arbitrator. Anyone can edit anything, using a fake name, and they can say anything they want without any kind of restriction. Even if the words are removed from the front page by another editor, the libel, or misinformation, is stored for anyone to see. This virtually unregulated system is ripe for exploitation by anyone caring to organize a campaign to dominate a view. And this is exactly what has happened.”
Bolen also alleges that the healthcare pages on Wikipedia are being controlled by specialised forces.
“There is a hidden organisation that dominates the Wikipedia healthcare offering. Their focus is on holding anyone, and everybody, that engages in what they call ‘alternative medicine’ in a bad light by simply writing down only things that sound bad about their target, and by presenting info in the least flattering way. Anyone who tries to change that info is banned indefinitely from Wikipedia for ‘vandalism.’
“In short, Wikimedia/Wikipedia has been turned into a one-view healthcare propaganda tool, and they are very comfortable with that, for some reason,” he said.
One person who has been busy making a large number of edits on the A4M page is Tim Vickers, a biochemist who specialises in tropical medicine and is a registered user at Wikipedia with his own page, including his photograph. He told The Bali Times that he is attracted to the anti-aging work of the A4M although he is not overly familiar with the organisation.
“This area of science is a bit out of my field, since I work on neglected tropical diseases and have no professional interest in anti-aging medicine. However, I think the A4M is a fascinating organisation, since they straddle the emerging field or gerontology (the study of aging) and some very questionable areas of alternative medicine,” he said.
“This makes them a lightning-rod for criticism from academics, who are themselves striving for scientific respectability and attempting to distance themselves from the long history, way back into the 19th century, of useless anti-aging potions and hormone treatments.”
Asked if the reason why he made many dozens of edits on the A4M Wikipedia page was because he was knowledgeable about the organisation, Vickers said he had formerly been unaware of A4M. “I’d never heard of the A4M before I started editing the Wikipedia article on this organisation, and am only familiar with the basic science in the aging field,” he said, adding that his scientific background was what propelled him to write about A4M on Wikipedia.
The creator of the website, Jimmy Wales, is on his annual fundraising drive. As of Monday this week, he was US$6.6 million closer to reaching his goal of $7.5 million, as graphically depicted in a banner atop Wikipedia pages representing the cumulative total ostensibly donated by users.
“Wikipedia isn’t a commercial website. It’s a community creation, entirely written and funded by people like you. More than 340 million people use Wikipedia every month – almost a third of the internet-connected world. You are part of our community,” Wales says in a fundraising letter on the site.
“Wikipedia is about the power of people like us to do extraordinary things. People like us write Wikipedia, one word at a time. People like us fund it. It’s proof of our collective potential to change the world.”
Wales has previously said of the site he founded in 2003 and has rapidly grown to become one of the online world’s most visited: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”
The question is whether it is real knowledge or made up.
Postscript: Since the A4M filed its lawsuits against Wikipedia, the site has removed contentious information concerning Dr Goldman and Dr Klatz’ medical credentials. The Wikipedia page had said there were doubts about the validly of their degrees. The Bali Times has viewed relevant certification from US state authorities verifying that the doctors are properly certified, registered and licensed to practice medicine, and has also seen valid medical degrees from an approved and recognised medical university.