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Deconstructing Wikipedia User Mathsci

by E. A. Barbour

“Mathsci”, a British Wikipedian since 2006, has unquestionably written some good content for mathematics, science and music articles. He is a degreed and lauded mathematician, one of the few “experts” to successfully endure Wikipedia’s mad “anti-expert culture”.

Since 2009, Mathsci has also developed a reputation as a determined opponent of pseudoscience and “quack medical” editors, generally a good thing for a reference-work project that attracts many “cranks” of various persuasions.

As a result of his endless disputes with others over the Race and Intelligence subject area, or “R&I” (a common target for racists and people with “fringe” viewpoints”) and with promoters of pseudoscience, his recent history has shifted from content work to constant arguing on talk pages and noticeboards, and aggressive pursuit of perceived enemies.

Sockpuppets on Wikipedia are viewed as a major obstacle to achieving the project’s goals. Characterizing one’s opponents as sockpuppets is a well-known tactic for getting them blocked and out of your way. Mathsci identified more “Mikemikev” and “Echigo mole” sockpuppets than any other Wikipedian, even the SPI clerks who are supposed to do such work (Mikemikev was an extremist on the R&I subject, Echigo mole was accused of “pushing pseudoscience”). On the side, Mathsci pursued outright vendettas against numerous editors he was in dispute with, and always prevailed, despite not being an administrator.

At least nine longtime Wikipedia editors were banned or forced off Wikipedia as a direct result of Mathsci’s efforts, which have often become obsessive and bizarre. This amazing record stems partly from his implicit protection by certain powerful administrators, notably Charles Matthews and David “MastCell” Gorski, plus a few others. Mathsci has openly attempted to defame members of Wikipedia’s powerful Arbitration Committee, and has never been sanctioned for it.

 

 

Fringe Theories

Even in his earliest days on Wikipedia, in mid-2006, he attacked editors he regarded as “pseudoscience” supporters. The first archive of his talkpage records some of these battles, including the “outing” of an editor called “Syrran”. There are multiple appearances on Wikipedia’s “Fringe Theories” noticeboard by Mathsci, beginning in 2008. One of the first editors he pursued in earnest was “A.K.Nole”, who later returned as “Echigo mole” and under a number of other account names. The history of this dispute, starting in mid-2009, is difficult to follow or decode, because of the interferences of Wikipedia administrators and because of Mathsci’s endless attacks on this editor (here is a typical example.)

“Any more silly remarks of this nature and A.K.Nole could find his editing privileges curtailed… I have simply stated that I cannot assume he is editing in good faith any more.” – Mathsci

Mathsci became so obsessed with chasing A.K.Nole off Wikipedia that when Nole reappeared under other accounts (such as “Echigo mole”), Mathsci started sockpuppet investigations against each of them. Whenever Nole attempted to defend an edit he made, Mathsci and supporters showed up to shout him down, after which an administrator friendly to Mathsci would block Nole’s new account. The 2009 “Fringe Science” arbitration, a battle between scientist “ScienceApologist” and paranormal fan “Martinphi”, also involved Mathsci, though he was not a primary disputant. This case is notable for Mathsci’s and MastCell’s support of one another in the workshop discussion.

Race and Intelligence

One of the worst messes in the history of Wikipedia was the “Race and intelligence” dispute, which began with a failed attempt at mediation in November 2009. Mathsci was one of the mediation’s original parties, but quit the mediation after only a few days because he felt the mediator “Reubzz” “wasn’t experienced enough”, and posted an AN/I thread accusing Reubzz of “wasting people’s time”. Reubzz left Wikipedia approximately a week later, with his co-mediator Xavexgoem explaining the reason: “Driving off a new mediator, Reubzz, from the wiki. ‘Because he wasn’t professional enough.’”

Another mediator, “Ludwigs2”, offered to help settle the dispute. He, too, was harassed by Mathsci. A typical example of such harassment; there are many more on the record.

Eventually it became clear that Wikipedia’s mediation system was useless in the R&I battle. “Rvcx,” one of the editors who was fed up with Mathsci, requested a decision from Wikipedia’s “supreme court”, the Arbitration Committee. As the case was opened, Mathsci managed to force out one of the editors involved, “Distributivejustice”. A quote from “Distributivejustice:” “I received a notice about this page through an unusual circumstance. I joined in late 2009 to improve a poor use of reference in race and intelligence. I stayed for the mediation to argue for a better article structure. I left last month because of uncivil and inexcusable behavior by Mathsci directed at me. I can’t volunteer my time under those circumstances. What I find amazing is that everyone else hasn’t quit also.”

“Rvcx” also quit Wikipedia during the arbitration case. A third party of the case, Varoon Arya, had already abandoned the race and intelligence topic with the explanation that he was avoiding it because “Mathsci’s antics literally turn (his) stomach”. Although Arya’s editing was at that point limited to making IP edits on unrelated topics, Mathsci tried to eliminate even that by reporting Arya’s IP address as a sockpuppet.

The record of the July-August 2010 Arbcom decision is badly shredded, and has been repeatedly changed and fought over, with reopening and amendments, principally as a result of Mathsci’s demands for further sanctions against his opponents. Intriguingly, despite some serious talk about placing a topic restriction on him, some Arbcom members allowed Mathsci to rewrite a section of the decision and post it as if it were their own statement.

Mathsci friends Ed “Beyond My Ken” Fitzgerald, Robert “Hipocrite” Djurdjevic, and others put in appearances. During the arbitration, Mathsci continued to fight with the other combatants on various noticeboards and talkpages. His supporters, especially administrators MastCell and Dr. Lukas “Future Perfect At Midnight” Pietsch, often showed up in those other areas to provide material support.

Arbcom decided to ban intractable editors “Captain Occam” and “Ferahgo the Assassin” from Wikipedia entirely. Both were noted for their unwillingness to negotiate. Arbcom also restricted two other editors, “SightWatcher” and “TrevelyanL85A2”, from editing the R&I topic – and from commenting on any editor who had ever participated in it. And comically, they slapped Mathsci’s wrist with an “admonition”, “for engaging in battlefield conduct.” He was “told to stay away” from R&I-related articles. He promised ArbCom that he would “voluntarily withdraw” from all project space associated with R&I, yet later ignored this restriction with impunity. After the case closed, the battle was continued. In slightly more than a year after he promised to disengage, he started at least ten Arbcom enforcement and AN/I threads about the race and intelligence topic, and filed dozens of sockpuppet investigations.

More fun

Anyone attempting to report Mathsci for “incivility” or “poor etiquette” often became a side-target of Mathsci’s wrath. No trick was too dirty for him. During the R&I battles, he had accused Jewish editor Captain Occam of being a “Holocaust denier” — which he later tried to cover up.

Around the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, arbitrator Michelle Kinney appears to have been sharing technical data with Mathsci from the checkuser tool, a major violation of Wikipedia rules. It is suspected this action led to Kinney’s resignation. Keep in mind that neither she, nor any of the other arbitrators, ever acknowledged in public that this happened, so proof is impossible. Kinney and Mathsci had cooperated with extraordinary closeness on the sockpuppet cases against “Matilda” and Echigo mole.

Arbitrators “Cool Hand Luke” and Roger Davies had previously requested that Mathsci stay out of the area: “@Mathsci. I expressed the hope in the motion lifting the topic restriction that you’d walk away entirely from R&I-related issues. This is because I do not believe that participants in cases are the best people to push for enforcement as it only opens old wounds (as has happened here). If another editor’s conduct is egregious enough, it will be noted by other – less involved – editors, who can initiate appropriate action. That advice still stands and I urge you to follow it.” That request was ignored.

In 2011 Mathsci fixated on editor “Miradre”, one of the minor participants in the R&I battle. Mathsci put extra effort into finding Miradre’s real identity, including the posting of a Deviant Art account that turned out to be someone else. Miradre requested that Mathsci respect her privacy, and he responded like a cruel little boy:

Please respect my privacy. Miradre (talk) 9:07 am, 8 August 2011

Ha, ha, ha, ha. Mathsci (talk) 9:12 am, 8 August 2011

You have already been cautioned against such incivil remarks. Miradre (talk) 9:27 am, 8 August 2011

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Mathsci (talk) 9:42 am, 8 August 2011

Mathsci has also pursued Mikemikev around the Internet, finding his racist statements on forums and saving them to a private website file (http://mathsci.free.fr/extra.html,  captured at http://www.webcitation.org/6HehzuU8j). The jeremiad against Ludwigs2 was continued, despite Ludwigs2 having not edited in the R&I area for a year. The latter deliberately sought a series of grudge-like confrontations, such as following Ludwigs2 to the 2011 Arbcom dispute over “Muhammad images” being used on Wikipedia. Administrators tried to warn Mathsci off, repeatedly, but he persisted. Ultimately Ludwigs2 was banned from Wikipedia. A mediator, who tried to calm the situation, was literally forced out.

Ludwigs2’s main activity on Wikipedia in 2011 has been to engage in heated debate with his perceived opponents, several of them experienced administrators.” – Mathsci

There is much other evidence of Mathsci “ganging up” with other Wikipedia insiders to force out their foes during arbitrations. Because he is a reliable “meatpuppet” in pseudoscience disputes and arbitrations, Mathsci enjoys protections other Wikipedians do not.

And yes, Mathsci has been a regular opponent of longtime and well-regarded editor Charles “Cla68” Ainsworth, and enjoys a reliable friend in Lukas Pietsch. The latter helped to place a one-way interaction ban, and to file the absurd and pointless December 2012 arbitration enforcement, against Cla68, which failed. Cla was blocked by Pietsch, and unblocked almost immediately. Ainsworth had attempted to reopen the R&I case to appeal his interaction ban, resulting in a 6-5 vote to make the interaction ban two-way. An Arbcom clerk threatened to quit and undo all of his (many) arbitration enforcement bans, causing two of the arbitrators to switch their votes at the last minute.

“For these reasons and others that I will explain in greater detail in an essay I’m currently drafting, I will no longer participate in AE, and I strongly encourage my fellow administrators to do the same, leaving this committee to enforce its own decisions. I’m strongly tempted to lift all my previous AE actions right now and save the committee the inconvenient task of pretending to respect my judgment; but for now I will leave them as they are, until this committee decides to override them on a whim.”

This threat was barely noticed by anyone other than Arbcom itself. Mathsci continued to harass Cla68 elsewhere on Wikipedia, until the latter became “fed up” and cut back on his Wikipedia labors in 2013.

There is no question that Mathsci has used sockpuppets himself: “Aixoisie” and “P0CF1A” are known, and there is a sockpuppet investigation page about him. On that page, Mathsci fell into argument with arbitrator Jonathan Clemens. Clemens accused Mathsci of having an illegitimate alternate account, and using it to store polemical material about other editors, both policy violations. He also accused Mathsci of removing accusations from a sockpuppet investigation about himself, and subsequently lying about it. MastCell and Future Perfect showed up to defend Mathsci, and MastCell deleted the critical pages, despite Clemens having protected them as an ArbCom action. Clemens had also warned Mathsci not to post personal details about other editors.

Thereafter, Mathsci and friends decided to “go after” Clemens. He followed Clemens into all kinds of unrelated Wikipedia pages and jeered at him. Mathsci had also abused arbitrator SilkTork for warning him to stop the “personal attacks”. During 2012 and 2013, other editors were blocked or forced out of Wikipedia by Mathsci’s abuse, including R&I figure TrevelyanL85A2, mathematician “Deltahedron”, and minor R&I combatant “Akuri”, who was the target of a massive all-out edit war by Mathsci.

Self-glorification

There is one example of Mathsci inserting links to personal lecture notes into a Wikipedia article as a “reference”, a clear violation of Wikipedia’s policies. This example was discovered in 2011, posted on the “Reliable Sources” noticeboard, and promptly ignored, because A.K.Nole/Echigo mole posted it using a sockpuppet called “Julian Birdbath”. Note in the first collapsed section the name of the author Mathsci cited, as well as a comment about how arXiv allows almost anyone to upload papers and doesn’t have any standards for review of accuracy. No one commenting there, besides Echigo mole, realized that Mathsci was the author of the arXiv paper, which makes it a self-promotion issue in addition to the source not being reliable:

“Wassermann, A. J. (2010) [1998], Lecture notes on Kac-Moody and Virasoro algebras”

Conclusion

Mathsci has become one of the most successful abusers of Wikipedia’s bureaucratic processes. He is a “loose cannon”, who, despite being a supporter of scientific knowledge as the basis of Wikipedia’s articles, has done real harm to Wikipedia’s mediation processes, and to its public reputation. The “full story” is extremely complex and involves a lot of Wikipedia articles and noticeboards. Anyone wanting to see further evidence of the above is invited to contact me directly.

Image credit: Flickr/Martijn vdS, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Editor’s note: Post updated July 3, 2013.

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