Friday, January 26, 2007

NIDA fails to propagandise Wikipedia

An interesting story has popped on the US based Drug War Rant blog about how US based National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been attempting to edit its Wikipedia entry to make it look better by removing negative references and accounts of some more controversial areas of its work.

NIDA has a massive budget - in 2006 it was over one billion dollars – far more than any similar agency in the world, including the UK equivalent, the renowned, er… actually we don’t have one. Sadly the UK's spending on drugs and addiction research is pitiful, and on drug policy essentially non existant. As Professor Blakemore recently told the Science and Technology Select Committee (p.39)

“In 2003 to 2004 [the MRC] spent £2 million in total out of a £450 million budget on addiction research. The total budget of the three NIH [US National Institutes of Health] institutes that work in this area is $2.9 billion so even if one takes a conservative estimate of how much of that is actually devoted to addiction research it comes out to about five hundred times higher than in the UK—in other words about a hundred times more per head of the population.”

But I digress.

NIDA, despite its uber-budget (or perhaps because of it), is no stranger to controversy. Big bucks doesn't mean research is neccassarily any good or any use. They could spend 5000 time more than us and it wouldn't do them any good if the research was all pointless. Various critics have long argued that NIDA research agenda is “science in the service of politics” and is profoundly shaped by the drug war ethos – the need to repeatedly demonstrate how bad drugs are, and an emphasis on abstinence - rather than harm reduction - based policy responses.

Some criticisms (by my judgement fairly mild) were featured on the NIDA Wikipedia entry until last August when the controversial material vanished to be replaced by, what Drug War Rant describes as ‘glowing propaganda’. For those not familiar with Wikipedia it is an online encyclopedia that can be edited by users. Most of the time this produces well edited and factually accurate entries, but inevitably on more controversial issues, political topics or entries about individuals (especially living ones) there is potential for mischief. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian recently described just one such episode where the PR agent for celebrity nutritionist Patrick Holford had rather clumsily deleted large swathes of his wikipedia entry that potentially showed his work in a bad light.

A Government funded institution indulging in this sort of, what we can politely term, 'spin' is a very different order of magnitude, especially when it is apparently done under the cloak of anonymity. The Drug War Rant blog takes up the story:

Someone with an IP address that originated from the National Institutes of Health drastically edited the Wikipedia entry for NIDA, which operates within NIH. Wikipedia determined the edit to be vandalism and automatically changed the definition back to the original. On Sept. 18, the NIH vandal returned, according to a history of the site's edits posted by Wikipedia. This time, the definition was gradually changed, presumably to avoid the vandalism detector.

NIDA spokeswoman Dorie Hightower confirmed that her agency was behind the editing. She said in an e-mail that the definition was changed "to reflect the science."
A little more than science-reflecting was done to the site. Gone first was the "Controversial research" section that included comments critical of NIDA. Next went the section on the NIDA-sponsored program that grows marijuana for research and medical purposes. The next slice of the federal editor's knife left all outside references on the cutting-room floor, replaced with links to government Web sites.
One of the things they cut, by the way, was a link to Drug WarRant that was on the page.

Today, much of the original material is back up - Wikipedia doesn't react well to censorship.

If you'd like to see what the page looked like at various stages, you can actually see its history (scroll down on each page past the two columns of change indications to see the look and content of the page at that time).
1. Page after NIDA's first blatant attempt to wipe it clean
2. Page restored as it was
3. Page at one point when Drug WarRant was listed as an outside resource
4. Page after later gradual attempt to turn it into a pro-NIDA propaganda page.
5. Page as it currently exists (which, as of this moment, even includes a section with links to today's articles regarding NIDA's attempt to take over the page.)

They saw an opportunity. Nobody wants to go to the drug warrior sites and read their propaganda, so they decided to make Wikipedia's entry over in the way they wished. It doesn't work that way.

In case anyone out there feels like vandalising Transform’s modest Wikipedia entry it can be found here.

Or, more seriously, there are plenty of opportunities to improve various rather paltry entries including:

Drugs Interventions programme

The Misuse of Drugs Act

There's many more. You are also free to start new entries on anything you like (check the Wikipedia guidelines), and because of the way the wikipedia system operates you can keep an eye on who's changing what.

Including me....MWA-HAHAHAHA!


ben goldacre said...

heh how very embarrassing for them. it's a bit like being bitchy and nasty in an argument: no matter what the truth is, and who's actually right, breaking the social norms on wikipedia just always makes you look incredibly bad. shared ownership resources like wikis are the ultimate test of manners, and some people are real drongos.

Bob said...

Wasnt the NIDA behind such classic bits of research as 'MDMA causes holes in your brain' and the one where they proved that MDMA caused parkinsons disease by using methamphetamine?

Steve R said...

NIDA were certainly involved with that research, they provided the drugs in question, and I think approved the research but It was actually done by Johns hopkins University. You can find out more about the story here.

To their credit a full retraction was issued once the blunder was identified, but the publicity had already had the desired effect by that point.