“Cherry picking, suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.”
Brian Martin is an academic at the University of Wollongong who was trained as a theoretical physicist but now works as professor of social sciences. You may know him better for his PhD student Ms Judy Wilyman whom I have blogged about before.
In recent years Prof Martin has published a bunch of articles on the AVN. Given the number and the approach he has taken, I describe him as sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, he shares a number of common interests with the AVN, as described on his page on Experts Guide including, “..dissent; free speech; whistleblowing; whistleblowers; …repression; fluoridation; origin of AIDS (Dorey is an AIDS denier which is not entirely the same thing); and vaccination.”
Prof Martin’s articles primarily focus on “attacks” on the AVN perpetrated by the Facebook group, Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN)”. His most recent publication, “Online onslaught: Internet–based methods for attacking and defending citizens organisations” was published in the Internet journal, “First Monday” on December 3rd, 2012.
A conflict of interest?
Although Prof Martin has previously admitted to being a financial member of the AVN, he does not declare it in this recent article (or his previous publication). The text describes him as,
“…(a) professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of 14 books and hundreds of articles on scientific controversies, dissent, war and peace, democracy and other topics.”
He also doesn’t see this lack of declaration of financial support as a conflict of interest, defending his previous aversion to declaring it in a comment on a blog,
“In joining the AVN to obtain its magazine, I did not receive any special benefits nor make any commitments restricting my ability to comment as I wish. This is not all that different from the situation of a book reviewer receiving a complimentary copy of a book from the publisher: this small favour does not guarantee a favourable review. COIs are not declared in such circumstances.”
I guess we could argue this point until the cows come home, but it doesn’t hurt to declare that you provided financial support (in the form of a membership) to the body you are defending, especially when you are essentially seeking to demonise the attackers and generate sympathy for the AVN. It’s a basic rule of academic publishing so readers can make an informed decision (funny, where have I heard that phrase before..) about where your biases lie in case they may influence your position on any given subject.
Secondly, this also might be a valid argument were it not for the fact that the publication of the AVN, “Living Wisdom” is available via Document Delivery from the UoW library, for free.
In any case, I disagree it it not an issue to declare this COI. Others agree with me, Prof Martin does not. But I digress..
Cherry picking the evidence to support your argument.
I’m trying very hard to be reasonable here, but one section of this article has me puzzled. Under the section describing seven methods used to attack the AVN by critics, Martin cites the Wikipedia entry on the AVN and I will address these claims in two parts.
“Attack method 4: Monopolise Wikipedia entries
There is an extensive Wikipedia entry on the AVN, much lengthier than for most organisations of similar size and influence. For example, the Wikipedia entry for Whistleblowers Australia, which has a public profile roughly similar to the AVN’s, is quite brief and incomplete….For example, there is extensive reference to a warning about the AVN from the Health Care Complaints Commission….”
Firstly, Wiki is crowd-sourced and crowd edited so if some articles are bigger than others, it’s unlikely an indication of a conspiracy, rather that someone(s) has taken a particular interest in a topic. The entry on the HCCC was an important part in the AVN’s recent history, especially given they won a Supreme Court challenge against them, so I see no reason why it should not constitute an extensive reference.
“When opponents take over a Wikipedia entry, one avenue for resistance is counter–editing. Indeed, Wikipedia depends for its accuracy on vigorous engagement in contentious areas. However, SAVNers seem to have the numbers, energy and resources sufficient to overwhelm any attempt by AVN supporters to modify the entry. Another option, seemingly adopted by AVN members, is simply to ignore the Wikipedia entry and to concentrate energies on the online forums it can control, especially its own Web pages.”
This comment suggests that because the AVN Wiki entry is not flattering, it must have been overtaken by opponents and therefore it must be wrong. Well not necessarily so. Just because the AVN (and apparently Prof Martin) don’t like the entry, doesn’t make it automatically spurious.
Despite beliefs to the contrary, Wikipedia is actually pretty reliable. A 2005 article from Nature reported it to be on par with Encyclopedia Britannica with respect to serious errors (i.e., minimal). Indeed, Prof Martin himself states,
“…Wikipedia depends for its accuracy on vigorous engagement in contentious areas.”
And such “vigorous engagement” occurs in the form of editors watching posts and correcting spurious information should it appear. Thus, if people post inaccurate information it can immediately be corrected by those working to keep the article accurate and all this is tracked in the Revision History which is accessible to everyone.
So even if the AVN editors were “overwhelmed” by the SAVNers, the nature of the self correction process predicts that eventually any spurious information would be removed.
Further, evidence suggests that, “42% of damage is repaired almost immediately, i.e., before it can confuse, offend, or mislead anyone…” And if SAVN continued to vadalise the entry, then a lock can be placed on the page to prevent further edits. (Which is conspicuous by its absence, indeed the most recent edit was on December 21, 2012).
Further to the reliability of Wikipedia,
“An early study conducted by IBM researchers in 2003—two years following Wikipedia’s establishment—found that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly — so quickly that most users will never see its effects”and concluded that Wikipedia had “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities”.
Further and with respect to the opinions of experts on the reliability of Wikipedia;
“An empirical study conducted in 2006 involving 55 academics asked to review specific Wikipedia articles that either were in their expert field (group 1) or chosen at random (group 2), concluded that “The experts found Wikipedia’s articles to be more credible than the non–experts...”
Collectively, these data suggest that if SAVN were continually entering spurious information into the AVN entry it would eventually be removed and the troof would rise to the top! Instead the opposite appears to be the case according to the Review History.
Evidence that AVN supporters have attempted to edit the Wiki entry
Another point made my Prof Martin is that the AVN may have chosen to ignore the Wiki entry to concentrate on controlling their own fora. May I state from the outset that they’re not doing a particularly good job of the latter, given evidence showing their own website has been hacked since at least April 2012, and now redirects to Direct Pills dot com.
The other point is that an AVN supporter has tried to edit the page as recent as December 2011. Prof Martin’s article was submitted for consideration for publication on April 7, 2012. Edits were made to the AVN Wiki entry on December 17, 2011 – well before he submitted his manuscript the first time by someone named “Potatomasherjim”. Who is this “Potatomasherjim”? Well a Google search leads to someone called Annie Dorey. Yes, that’s right Meryl Dorey’s daughter.
It’s easy to see the edits made by Potatomasherjim in the “view history” section of the AVN entry but I’ve screen shotted them below.
The first edit was made at 03:46 on December 17th, 2011 and was reversed at 04:04 by Gillyweed, which is consistent with evidence showing 42% of damage is repaired almost immediately.
The edit by Potatomasherjim is the addition of the following text;
“They believe that “good health comes from proper nutrition, exercise, a loving environment and family and the use of healing from many modalities including allopathic medicine when it is called for.”
The next edit was made at 04:29 but was removed by 05:00. Note that it took HiLo48 31 minutes to reverse the edit and explain why (see below),
“No. That makes a fringe POV organisation sound like its mainstream. I laughed when I saw the claim of science in there.”
(For the record I have no idea who HiLo48 or Gillyweed are, so any assertion that they are an “SAVNer” is not confirmed).
So how do I know that “Potatomasherjim” is Annie Dorey? Well I can’t be 100% sure but it’s a pretty unusual pseudonym, unusual enough to pin it down to one person maybe? Well maybe. Indeed, if you Google it, it leads to a Facebook page that belongs to Meryl Dorey’s daughter, Annie.
In conclusion, SAVN are poopy-heads.
The thesis of Prof Martin’s claims seem to be that SAVN are big meanies who have somehow gained control of the Wiki page to make the AVN look bad. But the evidence that I have presented for the accuracy of Wikipedia and the robustness of the self-correction process make these assertions unlikely. Whilst I recognise some of the names on the revision pages, there are many I don’t, so it’s not possible to say unequivocally that SAVN DID IT! Similarly, Dorey blames her poor WOT rating on SAVN but the majority of us didn’t even know WOT existed before she was complaining that we DID IT!
I have also presented evidence of a recent edit, possibly by Meryl Dorey’s daughter Annie (or someone using her online identity), as an attempt to make the AVN look less like “lunatic fringe dwellers”. No mention of this is made in Prof Martin’s article, but even more importantly the accuracy of the information on the Wiki entry is not challenged. Why not?
Is it because it is accurate? Is it because Prof Martin’s approach was to divert attention from the validity of the entry and direct it to who put it there in an attempt to discredit the page entirely? Did he fall victim to cherry picking evidence to support his thesis that SAVN are big bad meanies? Whatever the reason, it strengthens the case for declaring conflicts of interest when critical evidence is excluded. Because when you know that someone is a sympathiser with an apparent agenda, then you are in a better position to make an informed decision about what you read. And we all know the AVN fully supports that.
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