Günter Bechly is a distinguished paleontologist, specializing in fossil dragonflies, exquisitely preserved in amber for tens of millions of years. After revealing his support for the theory of intelligent design, he was pushed out as a curator at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany. He subsequently joined Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture as a Senior Fellow. Now we learn that our colleague has suffered another act of censorship: he has been erased from Wikipedia, ostensibly for not being “notable” enough.
This is a big deal, and a reminder of a key dynamic in the debate about ID. What the public hears about that debate is often highly misleading. That’s for a number of reasons, including media distortion, dishonest attributions of “creationism” to ID proponents, and a refusal by most professional scientists who oppose ID to respond to the theory on its scientific merits.
The discussion of design evidence is affected as well by an absence of voices that, in a sensible world, would be in the thick of it. Those voices, a ghost chorus, belong to scholars sympathetic to ID who keep out of the controversy because they’re aware they will be punished if they speak up. We know many of them, and keep private channels of communication open. At Evolution News, we have documented a range of instances of censorship and intimidation. Rarely, though, do the censors reveal themselves as clearly as in the case of Wikipedia versus Bechly.
They don’t do so by name. Wikipedia editors typically employ pseudonyms. But a discussion page records the deliberations of editors and others on the decision to delete Dr. Bechly’s Wiki entry. It makes for a fascinating and revealing read.
Enormously influential in forming opinion, Wikipedia relies on volunteer editors who may have zero experience in the areas that catch their attention. They’re a dedicated group, with, it often seems, huge amounts of free time on their hands to police changes to entries. The sociology is significant here. Do these unpaid editors have jobs? Spouses? Families? If you don’t think that being preoccupied by children or employment, too busy to obsess about Wikipedia, or not being too busy to do so, correlates with a person’s view of reality, you’re fooling yourself.
So when it comes to anything related to ID, Wiki editors have rigid and not altogether surprising biases. They are lightning fast at erasing corrections to pages they care about. Wikipedia’s coverage of ID, which they characterize as “a religious argument for the existence of God,” is hopelessly prejudiced and inaccurate.
So a pseudonymous editor recommended getting rid of Dr. Bechly’s page, and another, after making a show of weighing the case and soliciting opinions from others, agreed to it. In an eerie replay of his experience with the museum, which deleted his webpages, Bechly is now erased.
Prior to disappearing, his Wikipedia entry dispassionately recounted his education, employment, and accomplishments, including an impressive scientific publications list and a variety of species and taxa named for him. It devoted a short paragraph to his “Support for Intelligent Design.” The case for erasing him seems to have been carried by three individuals. If I’m interpreting the discussion’s welter of nerdy abbreviations and other lingo correctly, a person called “Trekker” nominated Bechly for deletion. This editor claims no bias against “creationism.”
Now, it maybe [sic] also appropriate to point out that I was not even aware that this person was some kind of creationist or whatever when I put this article up for deletion. I simply saw it a while ago by looking at someone elses [sic] edit it [sic] and decided to check the sources, which I do regularly, and saw that they were very lacking. I then checked the talkpage which had already brought up the issue of notability. I felt a [sic] AFD [Articles for deletion] was a good idea. That’s that.
Trekker, whose interests include “pro wrestling, literature, science fiction, fantasy and comic book[s],” is pressed by a pro-Bechly contributor, “Sam Tanner.” Trekker then throws a tantrum and exits the discussion — “If you are feel [sic] I’m being combative and condescending towards you that’s because I am.” Tanner replies that Trekker’s combativeness “does suggest that this is more than routine housekeeping.” Really? Do you think so?
Another active participant, “David Eppstein,” is apparently, and to his genuine credit, a real name. It belongs to a computer science professor at UC Irvine. He argues for deletion and maintains that Bechly’s “turn to fringe creationist views does not seem to be notable at all.” At one point Bechly himself enters the discussion, offering “dozens of more secondary sources from the print press, TV and radio” plus “three described new insect orders, more than 160 described species, and insect family Bechlyidae, a genus and 8 species named after me, 2 edited books and numerous book chapters, 1 book in German about me, and a ResearchGate score that is higher than 85% of ResearchGate members.”
Bechly wonders what Eppstein, with his own brief Wikipedia page, itself “semi-protected” from edits, can offer by way of comparison. I have written to Eppstein to ask this question; I am waiting to hear back. Being on the faculty on a University of California campus is no trivial accomplishment. But the system has 21,200 people on its faculty staff. To my eyes, Eppstein does not seem more notable than Bechly. The latter points out that on the atheist side, “intellectual nobodies like Richard Carrier and Matt Dillahunty” enjoy lavish and lengthy Wiki entries. Indeed they do, not skimping on personal details, either. For example, did you know that Carrier (whom I’d never heard of), an author and blogger whose biography runs to 9,000+ words, has “revealed that he is polyamorous”? TMI, Wikipedia.
While much of the encyclopedia is useful, a lot of it is a comedy. Thus, you might wonder if the bio belonging to the editor who ultimately decided Dr. Bechly’s fate is real or a put on. I believe it’s all too real.
The editor, “Jo-Jo Eumerus,” also goes by “Septimus Heap,” after the popular fantasy series for juvenile readers. He is “a currently 23-year old male from Switzerland” who “distinctly prefer[s] to be referred to by the attributes of my avatar on the forums (that is, usually as ‘boy’).” Jo-Jo, or rather “boy” (??), includes a graphic of himself as a wizard, “from a time 500 years ago.” He indicates he has been “diagnosed with Asperger syndrome” and “sometimes [has] problems with society due to this.”
On the Bechly matter, Jo-Jo solemnly rules that “‘notability’ does not necessarily indicate ‘notability’” in Wikipedia’s sense. With a straight face: “Accusations of anti-creationism bias are not germane to the purpose of AfD [Articles for deletion], and we don’t consider the stances of an article subject on a contentious topic in judging notability.”
The most prominent dissenting voice, Sam Tanner, provides ample illustrations of Bechly’s “notability” in any sane, realistic sense of that word, with links to mainstream scientific and popular coverage of his work. That includes discoveries of some pretty horrific insects from 100 or more million years ago.
But once they’ve got you falsely tagged as a “creationist,” none of it matters. One editor pushing for deletion candidly admits:
[D]etermining notability, especially in borderline cases, can definitely be subjective. If it weren’t, discussions like this wouldn’t be necessary.
Well, obviously so. This isn’t a “borderline case,” but clearly, the editors trying to erase Dr. Bechly’s record do not have some sort of knockdown, objective algorithmic case against him. It’s a mad world, a funhouse world, where the notability of a paleontologist of Günter Bechly’s stature is uncontested one day but, following his admission of finding ID persuasive, suddenly and furiously contested, to be ruled upon by a 23-year-old “boy” and 500-year-old wizard called “Jo-Jo.” Such is the alternative reality of Wikipedia.
What’s there to be done? Fight the editors on their own pages? No, that’s a waste of time. We’ve tried. But do share this with friends, as widely as possible, so that perhaps readers will take the online encyclopedia with a pinch of skepticism next time. Also please be sure to share the new documentary Revolutionary in which Dr. Bechly gets to tell a little bit of his own story.
Photo: Günter Bechly, in a scene from Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines, via YouTube and Discovery Institute.