May 3, 2008
Next to Al Gore, William Connolley may be the world’s most influential person in the global warming debate. He has a PhD in mathematics and worked as a climate modeller, but those accomplishments don’t explain his influence – PhDs are not uncommon and, in any case, he comes from the mid-level ranks in the British Antarctic Survey, the agency for which he worked until recently.
He was the Parish Councillor for the village of Coton in the U.K., his Web site tells us, and a school governor there, too, but neither of those accomplishments are a claim to fame in the wider world. Neither are his five failed attempts to attain public office as a local candidate for South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council as a representative for the Green Party.
But Connolley is a big shot on Wikipedia, which honours him with an extensive biography, an honour Wikipedia did not see fit to bestow on his boss at the British Antarctic Survey. Or on his boss’s’s boss, or on his boss’s boss’s boss, or on his boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, none of whose opinions seemingly count for much, despite their impressive accomplishments. William Connolley’s opinions, in contrast, count for a great deal at Wikipedia, even though some might not think them particularly worthy of note. "It is his view that there is a consensus in the scientific community about climate change topics such as global warming, and that the various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarize this consensus," states his Wikipedia page, in the section called "Biography."
Connolley is not only a big shot on Wikipedia, he’s a big shot at Wikipedia – an administrator with unusual editorial clout. Using that clout, this 40-something scientist of minor relevance gets to tear down scientists of great accomplishment. Because Wikipedia has become the single biggest reference source in the world, and global warming is one of the most sought-after subjects, the ability to control information on Wikipedia by taking down authoritative scientists is no trifling matter.
One such scientist is Fred Singer, the First Director of the U.S. National Weather Satellite Service, the recipient of a White House commendation for his early design of space satellites; the recipient of a NASA commendation for research on particle clouds – in short, a scientist with dazzling achievements who is everything Connolley is not. Under Connolley’s supervision, Singer is relentlessly smeared, and has been for years, as a kook who believes in Martians and a hack in the pay of the oil industry. When a smear is inadequate, or when a fair-minded Wikipedian tries to correct a smear, Connolley and his cohorts are there to widen the smear or remove the correction, often rebuking the Wikipedian in the process.
Wikipedia is full of rules that editors are supposed to follow, as well as a code of civility. Those rules and codes don’t apply to Connolley, or to those he favours.
"Peiser’s crap shouldn’t be in here," Connolley wrote several weeks ago, in berating a Wikipedian colleague during an "edit war," as they’re called. In such a war, rival sides change the content of a Wikipedia page from one competing version to another, often with bewildering speed. (Two people, landing on the same page seconds apart, might obtain entirely different information.) In the Peiser case, a Wikipedian stopped a prolonged war by freezing a continually changing page, to prevent more alterations until the dispute was settled. As occurs on such occasions, readers are alerted that Wikipedians are warring over the page, and that Wikipedia was not endorsing the version of the page that had been frozen. To Connolley’s chagrin, however, the version that was frozen cast doubt on claims of a consensus on climate change. Although this was done within Wikipedia rules, Connolley intervened to revert the page and ensure Wikipedia readers saw only what he wanted them to see.
Peiser is Benny Peiser, a distinguished U.K. scientist who had convincingly refuted a study by Naomi Oreskes that claimed to have found no scientific papers at odds with the conventional wisdom on climate change. The Oreskes study – cited by Al Gore in his film, An Inconvenient Truth – is an article of faith to many global warming doomsayers and guarded from criticism by Connolley et al. Peiser and other critics of Oreskes’s study, meanwhile, get demeaned.
Connolley and his cohorts don’t just edit pages of scientists actively involved in the global warming debate. Scientists who work in unrelated fields, but who have findings that indirectly bolster a critique of climate change orthodoxy, will also get smeared. So will non-scientists and organizations that he disagrees with. Any reference, anywhere among Wikipedia’s 2.5-million English-language pages, that casts doubt on the consequences of climate change will be bent to Connolley’s bidding.
Connolley no longer works as a climate modeller – he now works as a software engineer for a company called Cambridge Silicon Radio. And as an engineer of opinion at Wikipedia.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe, and author of The Deniers.