• What is Guerrilla Skepticism? SIN interviews Susan Gerbic

    Although a network like this one is focused on discussion, reflection, and analysis, we have a great deal of respect for boots-on-the-ground skeptical & secular activism. That’s why Skeptic Ink is proud to support the terrific Guerrilla Skepticism project. If you don’t know what that is, you’ve come to the right place. In this interview Guerrilla Skepticism’s lead organizer Susan Gerbic is on hand to tell us about it. If you’ve been looking for a way to make a meaningful, positive contribution to skeptical activism, this might be your chance.

    Skeptic Ink Who are you, and how did you get in here?

    Susan Gerbic I’m a 50 year-old professional portrait photographer who specializes in people who don’t want their portraits taken.  Also co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics, and an active Steering member of the largest paranormal investigation group, the IIG (Independent Investigation Group).  I have no computer training, and am completely a self-taught editor of Wikipedia.  I am involved in many projects that require activism such as the Sylvia Browne protest at TAM 2012, the 10:23 homeopathy challenge, and Dr. Burzynski’s Birthday surprise.  I’m a doer.

    I’ve attended many skeptical lectures over the years and read most of the literature, and had been aching to get involved, to make a difference.  But could not figure out what I could do.  Finally I attended a James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) cruise where Tim Farley gave a lecture on editing Wikipedia for skeptical content. I thought it was interesting, but doubted that I could ever figure out how to edit (I’m not good with instructions). I took a photo of Brian Dunning on that cruise and wondered if I could add it to his Wikipedia page. Eventually I figured it out, but it still took me a while to realize the power of Wikipedia.  I corresponded with Tim for a bit while he tried to instruct me on how to edit and eventually I caught on. I gave a lecture at a SkeptiCamp in Fort Collins, Colorado on editing Wikipedia, which led to another lecture in Berkeley, CA at SkeptiCal and then I gave a paper presentation at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 9.  People wanted to join up, so I started a blog.  We used hidden Facebook groups for the majority of our communications, and have steadily grown. I realized that we needed to spread everything we were doing in English to all languages.  We should be educating everyone, not just English speakers because issues such as homeopathy, astrology, UFOs, bigfoot, ghosts, et cetera are important topics to everyone. So at TAM 12, I decided to ask for volunteers willing to edit in other languages.  I was mobbed.  I went home and started the World Wikipedia project which currently has over 50 members, editing in 17 languages.

    SIN What exactly is the Guerrilla Skepticism project?

    SG It has nothing to do with vandalism, which is the first thing most people think of.  We follow all of the rules of Wikipedia.  We have many tactics to improve Wikipedia pages. Sometimes we discover pages that have woo all over them, claims that aren’t backed up with sources.  You know like psychics that claim they have found missing children and work for the police department. We remove all of that nonsense.  Other pages need more science or clearer language.  We can’t give our opinion, but we can find notable skeptics that have published in secondary sources about the subject of the page to provide expert opinion that can be used to improve the Wikipedia page. We also take well-written pages in one language and try to get them translated into other languages. This is what we have done for skeptic and magician Jerry Andrus‘ wiki page, for example. I assigned Andrus’s page to the World team as their first project, currently it is available in English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Russian and Portuguese, with others still being created.

    We also have a project I call, “We Got Your Wiki Back!” It sounds silly, but put simply we write and/or improve pages for those people who are in the media’s eye.  We don’t always know who will be next to catch a headline outside our community, so it is best to improve everyone’s pages.  We have completed or heavily rewritten pages for; Brian Dunning, Ben Radford, Sean Faircloth, James Underdown, William B. Davis, Sikivu Hutchingson, Tom Flynn, Ken Frazier, Kiki Sanford, Phil Plait, Indre Viskontas, Alison Gopnik, Nina Burleigh, Mary Roach, Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and in the last couple weeks… Sara Mayhew and Ken Feder.  And this isn’t a full list.

    SIN How do you decide what topics or what people to focus on? Is there a chance of favoritism here?

    SG Of course we are showing favoritism.  It’s my project and I get to chose what I work on. I always tell my editors to only work on projects that they enjoy.  We aren’t paid for this, and only when we speak out on social media, blogs, and so on do we even get any recognition.  Our to-do list is massive and it grows every day.  Nothing about it is prioritized. Editors can pick off that list, or find something else that they want to work on.  That keeps it exciting! I have a diverse group of editors working with me, so it keeps the topics mixed up a lot. Some people want to mainly work on medical quackery, while others like to work on people who will be speaking at conferences.  One editor, Rick Duffy, works on Colorado skeptical topics, he did Stan Romanek the UFO guy, as well as Skepticamp, Bryan & Baxter, and much more.  Personally I love the psychic stuff. I enjoy finding pages that look like the “psychic” wrote it themselves and then I come in with the delete button.  It is really a powerful feeling. I also advocate editing backwards.  That means find a noteworthy article about a topic you enjoy and look at the Wikipedia page it is related to, if it improves the page, then edit it in.  It is much simpler to do it this way than it is to search for a page that needs improvement and then look for an article.  Using this technique, we have managed to really affect a wider range of pages.  I am often frustrated that skeptics tend to stay in their own social network. They spread awesome noteworthy articles all over Facebook and Twitter but never think that maybe the article would reach more people (who are not in our community) if they simply edited it into Wikipedia.

    SIN Why should skeptics care about Wikipedia? Everyone knows Wikipedia has accuracy and content issues.

    SG Not necessarily so.  We continually hear about how scientists and other professionals use Wikipedia to check facts and students world-wide start their research on Wikipedia whenever they need an overview of a subject.  They can follow the citations to really great articles that can be used in their school assignments.  Vandalism of Wikipedia pages is a common problem, but that  is taken care of pretty quickly by editors.  Yes, there are a lot of problems, usually with less popular topics,  but the high traffic pages are usually in excellent shape. Why should skeptics care?  When was the last time you heard of a blog or podcast that got over 150,000 views in a month?  And the same thing the next month and the next?  The English homeopathy page gets almost 2 million views each year.  That is a powerful message we are sending to English readers, we better get it right, and in that case, we have.  Dr. Oz’s page gets over 100,000 views each month, so you better believe we have as much skeptical content on that page as possible.  Jenny McCarthy’s page is a similar case. She got over 300,000 views in January (2013) alone. Are we really reaching out to non-skeptics when we write that she won the JREF Pigasus award? We know that shouting at people does nothing to change minds. More likely, it just forces them to circle the cognitive dissonance wagons closer together.  When people are starting to question their beliefs, they are going to do some quiet research on their own.  Usually the first link that their search engine is going to give them is a Wikipedia link.  We had better be waiting for them when they show up.  Changing your mind can be a very painful, slow process. We are there to help.

    SIN What are some Guerrilla Skepticism skepticism success stories?

    SG Honestly, I’ve thought and thought about about this question.  There are so many success stories. You’ll just have to go through my blog at guerrillaskepticismonwikipedia.blogspot.com and discover them yourself.  I promise you that if you do, you will be pumping your fist in the air. I do have one example that is very special to me. When I first got into skepticism in 2002, I met an awesome group of people who were very welcoming and brilliant.  Over time I learned how amazing and important these people were to the beginnings of the scientific skepticism world we now know.  So this last summer I rewrote (or created new) 5 pages for these individuals.  They are mostly people you may have never have heard of, but you will understand what I mean once you look at their Wikipedia pages.  Ray Hyman, Barry Beyerstein, Loren Pankratz, Jerry Andres (Andrus) and James Alcock.  I also created the page for the conference I met them all at, the Skeptic’s Toolbox, which is still held every August in Eugene, Oregon. (Check out our interview with friend-of-the-network Ray Hyman here! -Ed)

    SIN How can people get involved in helping Guerrilla Skepticism and editing Wikipedia?

    SG Here is a quick run-down of how to pitch in. First you should friend me on Facebook, that is where all the hidden groups are that you will need to be put into.  Then start reading.  You will need to get through my blog (from the bottom up) and then read all of the threads and files you can stand on the team page that you are placed in.  Next, you should create a Wikipedia account and click on every blue link you can find on Wikipedia.  You can’t really hurt anything, so get comfortable knowing what does what.  When you get used to the Wikipedia interface, communicate with the team and I about what you want to do, and what kind of skills you have.  We’re a very supportive group, so if you get frustrated or confused we will help you by phone, email, or whatever it takes. We will get you editing. We also need people to caption videos, take and edit photographs, and to copy edit for all of the grammar and spelling errors. We need people interested in looking for references and people who can just browse Wikipedia looking for problem pages. The Guerrilla Skepticism Project is still so new that I don’t fully know what we will need yet, other than more people… lots more people!  We have it set up so that hundreds can join and work together.  We learn from each other and improve our skills constantly. If you think that you would like to be a part of something really important, something that really changes the world, then this is for you. If you’re like me and are sick to death of all the drama that has split up our community, then don’t back away from skepticism— join us! We are doing something positive that influences generations. Remember that we have gone through this awfulness before. You just need to know our skeptical history to understand how horribly divided we have been in years past.  The Guerrilla Skepticism project is about making good skepticism and the fruits of if more available to everyone, regardless of language or politics, and you can start helping today!

    SIN Thank you, Susan, for fielding a few questions and for all of your hard work. Over the years, there has always been an ebb and flow to the progress of our movement, like any social movement. But at any one time, there have always been selfless people diligently working in largely thankless capacities. Some of these jobs are invisible largely because they’ve been done so damn well. Nobody notices the beautifully written and highly annotated Wikipedia page, but everyone would notice if it were awful and useless. I commend Susan for her diligence, innovation, and rugged optimism. She and all of her editors at the Guerrilla Skepticism project are truly making a difference.

    Category: Guerrilla Skepticismskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • wonderful article, and Susan’s work is often not talking to the choir!

    • Ingemar Oseth

      As a “content expert” I am NOT a fan of wikipedia. In my experience wiki editors are generally NOT well qualified to write/edit articles in my area of expertise. This said, I am in favor of any effort to promote intelligent skepticism.

      • Well Ingemar we can always use more “experts”. We work with what we got, and do the best we can. You might be surprised to find that there are experts editing in their field. As I said in the article, some pages, mostly dealing with math and science are in such awesome condition, that professionals use the data on the page in their work. I am also told that most of the history areas are so well written that they are used by College professors for their students to get background on upcoming lectures and projects.

        Mostly one person does not write an article, many people do, they discuss changes and the result is presented as best it can when you have opposing opinions. The result is usually better than most textbooks.

        I’ve heard the argument from people “I don’t trust Wikipedia and don’t choose to use it”. These people are sadly living with their head in the ground. If they are reading anything in the media, then they are probably reading Wikipedia and don’t know it. We have many many times come across newspapers and blogs that are just cut and paste from Wikipedia.

        Also if “you” don’t use it, does not mean that everyone around you isn’t using it. The reporter, your teachers, your doctors and your friends are. Their opinion is going to be heavily influenced by what they have read.

        So we better be vigilant.

        • Ingemar Oseth

          “I am also told that most of the history areas are so well written that
          they are used by College professors for their students to get background
          on upcoming lectures and projects.”

          “I am also told?” By whom? Sources?

          Wikipedia does not allow the publication of new research. This means the website perpetuates myths and legends. I refer to you Dr. Jim Lacey’s book “Keep From All Thoughtful Men: How Economists Won WWII,” as well as his related articles in the “Journal of Military History” for a lesson in how certain myths and legends have perverted our understanding of WWII History. As of this writing the relevant Wikipedia pages continue to perpetuate these myths and legends as if they were historical facts.

          Not too long ago a respected history professor published an article about his experiences in editing a wiki topic that fell within his area of expertise. He pointed out that “content experts” were not generally welcome by other wiki editors, and new research was verboten. Furthermore, he concluded that “ownership” of pages by wiki editors was, and remains a problem because they resist new, factual editions to the point of driving content experts away by essentially ganging up on the would be editor. As I understand it, as a content expert I am required to publicly identify myself on Wikipedia, and even then someone who has not yet finished public school can change what I write.

          Of course, plagiarism is a very real problem on Wikipedia. To this day I have been unable to stop the wholesale plagiarism of my work on certain webpages, and my attempts to deal with the problem were for naught because the plagiarizer simply changes the content back to what he wrote in the first place. I finally decided to accept citation on the page, but that too disappeared. Little wonder I am not alone in my dislike and distrust for the site.

          “We have many many times come across newspapers and blogs that are just cut and paste from Wikipedia.”

          You make the point for me.

          “Also if “you” don’t use it, does not mean that everyone around you isn’t
          using it. …… Their opinion is going to be heavily influenced by what they have
          read.”

          Due to my age, and with only a few exceptions, all of my university professors (teachers) are deceased. Regardless, your words support my concerns (see above).

          Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that must be used with the greatest of care because of its editors and policies: what is correct one day on any given page, may be incorrect the next. The content of the site reflects only the expertise of its editors, and/or what they can cut and paste from other sources. Neither is acceptable, and the result is plagiarized work, genuine material from the public domain, myth, and legend all mixed into a rich soup seasoned by the lowest common denominator. In short, anyone who is genuinely interested in the facts, skeptics included, use it sparingly and with large doses of salt.

          • Sorry I won’t be drawn into a argument. And do not have the time to find references to support my claims. I feel that even if I were to present them, they would be ripped to shreds with “the author didn’t mean this… or this methodology isn’t good science, they should have done it this way” Besides the article I read about the accuracy of WP being used by professors and by the workforce, is just the experience of that person. I’m sure we can find articles written by others that have found problems with WP articles. This is all opinion after all. So if you want to win then go ahead and take the win. I’m too busy.

            In my opinion we spend far too much time talking and arguing amount ourselves when work needs to be done.

            I’ll continue on my path, editing and training. And you continue on your path doing what you are doing. Okay?

            • Ingemar Oseth

              “”Sorry I won’t be drawn into a argument. And do not have the time to
              find references to support my claims. I feel that even if I were to
              present them, they would be ripped to shreds with “the author didn’t
              mean this… or this methodology isn’t good science, they should have
              done it this way””

              No it’s not just a matter of “opinion.” Falling back on “opinion” is exactly the same thing as claiming you are right because of a personal “belief.” Testing a hypothesis through facts and observations is the hallmark of any serious intellectual endeavor, including history. As Larry Krauss argued just last night (general paraphrase): We are always learning something new, and these new facts are always vetted via open discussion amongst scholars before being rejected or accepted. You have rejected an open discussion, and by doing so distanced yourself from skepticism and with it, the search for facts.

              The general failure of “skeptics” to follow even the most basic tenets of this method of viewing the world around them is all too common. I suggest that much of the blogging and commenting that goes on is more about projecting a particular image to the world that makes the authors feel better about themselves, or fill some other gaping hole in their lives. (See Herr PZ Myers’ blog for a prime example of this in practice.) Hence, the dearth of skeptics who actually engage with the fundamentals of skepticism — And the reason for your withdrawal from this challenge.

            • You are perfectly within your right not to accept whatever claims made here are not supported with evidence. But your claim about Susan’s motives is equally unsupported, and merely your opinion. It’s also a needless pejorative that isn’t especially welcome here.

              One of the delightful things about Wikipedia is that you never have to use it (and no one should rely on it as a critical/primary source). By all means, conduct all of your own original research every time you wish to learn about something. But Wikipedia has transformed the availability of enormous sums of human knowledge for the entire world. No matter its faults, that’s pretty damn cool. If you have a serious problem with it, why not help make it better? I really don’t care for general complaining about others who are doing the work from those who refuse to.

            • Ingemar Oseth

              Edward writes:

              “But your claim about Susan’s motives is equally unsupported, and merely
              your opinion.”

              You are quite correct. I expressed an opinion about Ms. Gerbic’s reason for not defending her work. On the other hand, I provided sources and personal experiences to support my criticisms of wikipedia. She was unable to do the same, and even admitted the following. “Besides the article I read about the accuracy of WP being used by
              professors and by the workforce, is just the experience of that person.” However, it is problematic that she expanded this bit of information to: “I am also told that most of the history areas are so well written that
              they are used by College professors for their students to get background
              on upcoming lectures and projects.” The differences in these two sentences might provide even her defenders good reason to pause.

              “If you have a serious problem with it, why not help make it better? I
              really don’t care for general complaining about others who are doing the
              work from those who refuse to.”

              Evidently you missed this bit I wrote above.

              Of course, plagiarism is a very real problem on Wikipedia. To this day I
              have been unable to stop the wholesale plagiarism of my work on certain
              webpages, and my attempts to deal with the problem were for naught
              because the plagiarizer simply changes the content back to what he wrote
              in the first place. I finally decided to accept citation on the page,
              but that too disappeared. Little wonder I am not alone in my dislike
              and distrust for the site.

              Returning to the present; like many other content experts I have attempted to contribute to Wikipedia pages that fall within my expertise with dismally poor outcomes. My experience is not an exception.

              Richard Jensen’s research article, “Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812” (Journal of Military History, Oct. 2012) is most illuminating. Jensen writes: “They [wiki editors] rely on free online sources and popular books, and generally ignore historiography and scholarly monographs and articles.” Jensen cites numerous other problems with Wikipedia. Here is just one that corroborates my experiences as a content expert. “I retired from Wikipedia … due to disenchantment with the dispute Resolution process…. It was more and more difficult to deal with the growing antipathy towards expert contributors, including outright hostility from administrators to cover up their own errors.” Yes sir, that is exactly the same as my experience as an editor on Wikipedia.

              So as you can see, Edward, I have tried to make Wikipedia “better” and your not caring for my complaints about the site is misplaced.

            • “So as you can see, Edward, I have tried to make Wikipedia “better” and your not caring for my complaints about the site is misplaced.”

              Agreed, I withdraw the comment with apologies. Perhaps I can help re: your wiki problems. First, I would like to make an open offer for you or anyone (with relevant experience) to guest write for this site on the subject of the problems with Wikipedia, or in other words, a skeptical appraisal of Wikipedia. Secondly, I would be glad to look into how we can correct the problems you’ve personally faced with wikipedia and your own materials. If you’d like that, please email me relevant details, edward.clint(at)gmail.com.

              Lastly, I would suggest that Susan shares many of your frustrations and is working toward the same ends. Both of you are likely correct about what you each refer to: some pages are terrific, and some are deeply troubled. Even if you don’t agree, a cooperative instead of a combative attitude seems more practical and more apropos here (of myself included).

            • Ingemar Oseth

              “It’s also a needless pejorative that isn’t especially welcome here.”

              This from a fellow who recently produced an essay in which he likened the advocated of A+ to a disease who should be eradicated.

              Your conduct is very confusing.

            • My essay makes no mention of A+, nor is it meant to even apply to people, but to behaviors which are organizationally deleterious. No movement or organization functions or survives long without internal policing. Please feel free to correct me if you think that is not the case.

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