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
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.