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Editing Backwards - GSoW and Skeptical Inquirer Magazine

Guerrilla Skepticism

Susan Gerbic

May 22, 2018


Many years ago, before the internet was even a glimmer in the eye of Al Gore, I found a copy of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine (SI). I don’t remember what issue it was, but it was at the library. I do remember browsing though the pages thinking, “wait, people think that is real?” And to other articles I thought “wait, that isn’t real?” A lot of years have passed, and we now get much of our information from our computer screens. What hasn’t changed in my life is the thrill I get when I see Skeptical Inquirer in my mail.

I browse over the index, read Ken Frazier’s editorial, move to the back pages to read the comments, puzzles, and cartoons, and then to “News and Comment.” All this usually happens within the first hour of receiving the magazine. Then I set aside some time to read the main articles. I’m always surprised at the diversity of the topics, and I learn something new.

You might have heard that I run a Wikipedia editing team; it’s like nothing else that has been tried before. We call ourselves Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW). Our mission is to focus on all Wikipedia pages concerning science, scientific skepticism, and the paranormal. If that isn’t unusual enough, we are attempting to do this in all languages. And to make it even more unusual, we operate in a Secret Cabal on Facebook where we train, mentor, and motivate people from the very first edit they make. We have our own training program with our own videos and assignments. When people leave our training, they are good Wikipedia editors with a broad range of skills. What makes them so different from a non-GSoW Wikipedia editor is that we are continue training and motivating each other. We are over 120 editors strong. This turns our editors from good to amazing. We can claim responsibility for writing or completely rewriting 624 Wikipedia pages, and we keep track of the pageviews for those 624 pages. We add about 34K new views a day, and in total those 624 pages have had 26,551,359 pageviews (as of May 2018).

One of the assignments near the beginning of training is what we call Backwards Editing. It’s something I stumbled across in the early days of GSoW. A non-GSoW editor is more likely to find a Wikipedia page they want to improve or write from scratch and then go looking for notable secondary sources to add to the page. That’s how it works when you are have the page in mind already. What we teach is to find the notable secondary source first, then try to find a Wikipedia page to put it on. Get it? Backwards editing.

The beauty of this is that you spend less time looking for citations to use, you get to use some valuable and interesting independent research, and you are able to edit diverse Wikipedia articles. Let’s talk about Skeptical Inquirer, for example Volume 42, Number 3 the May/June 2018 issue with Steven Pinker on the cover. This magazine is notable, which means it has a Wikipedia page, and it has journalistic integrity. It has oversight, a reputation it wants to keep strong, an editor, a long history, and no pay-to publish articles. Inside you will find articles that are diverse and from many notable people, which means they personally have Wikipedia pages. These articles are now perfect fodder for use as a backwards edit.

Wikipedia does not allow me personally to do original research; we rarely use primary sources. In other words, I can’t go to a primary document and read it through and give my opinion on a Wikipedia page interpreting it. This is a concept lost on most people who are not Wikipedia editors; it seems like a primary source is ideal. What we are looking for are secondary sources, from people who can be considered experts in the area they are writing about. It helps if they are also personally notable (i.e., they have their own Wikipedia page).

On pages 54–57, we have an article called “The 1849 Balvullich Ice Fall” by Randall J. Osczevski. He is an expert on wind chill and did a lot of original research on a very large piece of ice that was found on a farm in Scotland in 1849. Remember I’m not permitted to add original research to Wikipedia, but I can quote and summarize the research that Osczevski did. And that is just what I did. And after looking around for Wikipedia pages on Balvullich and not finding one, I found a Wikipedia page for icefall. A sad little page with a few photographs and only one citation. I was able to sum up and quote the Osczevski article and cite Skeptical Inquirer on the Wikipedia page for icefall. This is a Wikipedia page I would probably never have stumbled across, but this task brought me there and now the information in Wikipedia is increased and improved.

Now this brings me to a task that David Powell and I took on. We wanted to see how many different Wikipedia pages we could edit just by using this one issue of SI. Honestly, I had no idea how many we could do, so we set up a deadline of two-months (when the next issue came out) and using the GSoW Facebook Secret Cabal and a Google spreadsheet to keep track, we set to work.

I should mention David Powell is a librarian living in Ohio who attended CSICon in 2017. While there he heard my lecture “We Marched for Science – Now What?” where I try and recruit new people to join GSoW. David answered the call and finished GSoW training in February with a page rewrite of CSI Fellow Jill Tarter.

David and I (and a few others) worked our way through the issue, egging each other on, and pushing to add more pages to our list. We used the “News and Comment” section to add Bertha Vazquez to the National Association of Biology Teachers Wikipedia page. Robert Bartholomew’s article on the Hawaiian ballistic missile threat alarm made it to the Wikipedia page for “False alarm” see citation #1. My favorite edit was to the Wikipedia page for Prince Charles because of the article by Edzard Ernst on pages 8–9. I just checked and it’s still there, citation #144 and I even managed to mention Ernst’s book More Good Than Harm? on Charles’s Wikipedia page.

There were a couple SI articles we weren’t able to use on Wikipedia, such as Ben Radford’s article on the “Curious Christmas Light” and the Barry Williams obit, which we will eventually use when we write his Wikipedia page in the next couple months.

When we finished, which took us only one month, we had edited on twenty-eight Wikipedia pages. I mentioned earlier that GSoW can claim responsibility for 624 Wikipedia pages. That is just for pages that have seen major contributions by GSoW, not these small backwards edits. There is no way we could keep track of the thousands of pages we have edited. If we were able to count pageviews for these smaller edits, we would be far in excess of 50 million by now. I don’t even think I could guess.Look at this list from just this SI …

Why is all this important to the mission of GSoW and the skeptical community? The mission of GSoW is to rewrite/write all the Wikipedia pages we can concerning science, scientific skepticism, and the paranormal. And what are well-written Wikipedia pages but a bunch of citations just like what we did here. We need these articles in order to have something to add to the Wikipedia page. Another by-product of this task is that we are getting the magazine’s name and all those articles onto one of the most viewed websites in the world including citations that people can follow if they want more information. This action not only supports CSI and Skeptical Inquirer, but it also supports the authors of those articles, helping them and their work get more exposure. Just think how many school-children will be plagiarizing Wikipedia with these articles. Seriously, that is a something I’m striving for. How many students are learning about Skeptical Inquirer because they saw it mentioned on a Wikipedia article about some obscure topic? Maybe they will look into it further and be just like me and say to themselves “wait, people think that is real?” and to other articles think “wait, that isn’t real?” That might just set them down the rabbit hole of critical thinking.

If you would like to know more about the GSoW project, please visit our website here. Thank you, Julie Berents for your help with proofreading.

Susan Gerbic

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Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.