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Guerrilla Skeptics: A Pathway to Skeptical Activism

Guerrilla Skepticism

Rob Palmer

May 25, 2018


In my mid-teen years, I was a firm believer in biorhythms, ancient aliens, the Bermuda triangle, ESP, and all manner of pseudoscientific nonsense. At that time (the ’70s) there was no internet (gasp!) and no easy way to find information countering these woo claims. I was lucky that I eventually stumbled upon a copy of Skeptical Inquirer in my school’s library, and it was that event that put me on the path to rationality. I read all the copies available in the library, got a subscription, and found myself being reasoned out of all the false beliefs, one by one, that I had previously acquired. I felt enlightened, but that came at a price.

Convincing my many woo-believing family members, friends, schoolmates, and then coworkers that what I used to believe—and what they still did believe—was likely wrong was just not happening. I spent a great deal of time arguing against their proclamations about the paranormal, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and all manner of nonsense. Sure, I had a few friends who weren’t true believers, but discussing these topics with them wasn’t satisfying at all. That wasn’t doing anything more than shouting into an echo chamber. That was not outreach. I wanted to change some minds, not just reinforce opinions already held that agreed with mine. The advent of social media, of course, only made things much, much worse. Posting about science and reason only earned me the cold shoulder with those I hoped to reach with the truth. The only thing I accomplished was to make myself utterly frustrated. It was like hitting my head on a brick wall. Very hard. Repeatedly. Sound familiar? If you are reading this on Skeptical Inquirer’s website, I think it is likely you can relate to at least some of my experiences.

So, what if I told you that I recently found a way to reach people outside the echo chamber who may be open to what I have to say? A way I could get good information to millions of people who might actually be searching for it to help them make up their minds about topics that skeptics care about? Topics like going to a medium, or using a naturopath, or withholding vaccinations from children? Did I say “millions of people”?Yes, I did. No doubt you are skeptical of this claim, but please read on.

As I mentioned, stumbling across Skeptical Inquirer all those decades ago taught me to think rationally. But it was stumbling across a Skeptic Zone podcast interview in 2016 about the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project that gave me a way to actually contribute to the cause—in a big way. So, what is this Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia all about?

The Guerrilla Skeptics team is an international group of 100 or so volunteers working in many languages.Our mission is to improve skeptical content on Wikipedia by writing or improving skepticism and science related articles, as well as the biographical articles of notable people involved in the skeptical movement. We add valid material and citations, and we remove unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudoscientific articles. We do everything from making small improvements, like improving existing text and references, to writing entire articles from scratch. The team’s topics of interest are varied and include purported psychic mediums, an international suicide hoax game, the supposed “sonic attack” on the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, documentaries (pro- and antiscience), scientists (both active and deceased), alt-med topics, skeptical movement spokespeople and organizations, and even an astronaut. In fact, we did the re-write of the article for the first and only (underappreciated) astro-cat, Félicette (check it out)! Sometimes we add facts, and sometimes we subtract misinformation (or disallowed information per Wikipedia rules); most often it is a mix of both.

Most importantly, we do all this by following the encyclopedia’s strict rules and guidelines. We are trained to work within the “corporate culture” of Wikipedia—which is extremely collaborative and very pro-science and anti-pseudoscience. (More on that later.)

Sometimes what your detractors have to say about you is very informative. In our case, they tend to get everything wrong about Wikipedia rules and how GSoW operates collaboratively within the encyclopedia. After first saying that Wikipedia had once been “a utopian ideal,” the astrology website Astrology.co.uk went on to claim that Susan Gerbic and her Guerilla Skeptics team had spoiled it all for everyone. They even took a swipe at the Skeptical Inquirer:

… anyone interested in pages on what Wikipedia term 'fringe' topics: those relating to astrology, the paranormal, metaphysics, faith/spirituality or alternative medicine or on atheism or [skepticism] will find editing is a closed shop controlled by a small group of editors…. Their avid faith in science as the only source of truth is known as scientism…. Since most of their knowledge of fringe subjects is acquired from the biased perspective of sceptical publications like the Skeptical Inquirer, conferences and books, subjects like the paranormal, religious belief, astrology and alternative medicine appear objectionable. Scientific evidence supporting fringe subjects is not welcomed in the manner of a good scientist…. Gerbic is clearly very proud that her team changed the homeopathy page "drastically" and managed to insert the word 'quackery' into the lead section on the main homeopathy article … apparently this was with a nod from [Wikipedia founder] Jimmy Wales…. Though I am not a follower of homeopathy, this seemed an unnecessary insult to a well-established therapy used by many medical doctors. Even if it is a placebo as some tests claim (and others do not), it is therapeutic in a way that does not require invasive surgery or drugs with harmful side-effects. Who are we to judge? (http://archive.is/umIsl)

Well, GSoW isn’t the judge, but Wikipedia’s policies are. On Wikipedia, if not elsewhere, homeopathy and other forms of pseudoscience may be called exactly what they are—nonsense and quackery. On Wikipedia, facts matter. Science matters. The members of the GSoW team just do our best to implement the established rules. And the quacks, scam-artists, alt-med, and woo-peddlers of every stripe absolutely hate us for it. Well, that’s just too bad. Some of the team wear this as a badge of honor.

So, what are these Wikipedia rules favoring science and skepticism? According to the “Wikipedia Arbitration Committee Decisions on Pseudoscience” proclamation (http://archive.is/8SgCF):

The Arbitration Committee has issued several principles which may be helpful to editors … when dealing with subjects and categories related to "pseudoscience":

Scientific focus: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and its content on scientific and quasi-scientific topics will primarily reflect current mainstream scientific consensus.

Neutral point of view as applied to science: “Wikipedia: Neutral point of view”, a fundamental policy, requires fair representation of significant alternatives to scientific orthodoxy. Significant alternatives, in this case, refers to legitimate scientific disagreement, as opposed to pseudoscience.

That last point, “as opposed to pseudoscience,” is the key. We actually had to point out this policy when arguing with an opposing editor who was claiming that the article about Modern flat Earth societies needed to be “fair and balanced.” He was complaining on the Talk page (most every Wikipedia article has an associated Talk page where editors argue over what the main article should include) about a section GSoW added that stated that flat Earthers had taken to using social media “...to spread disinformation and attract others to their erroneous ideas....” He didn’t like the use of “disinformation” and “their erroneous ideas,” and said so (http://archive.is/07iH7):

If the article is discussing flat-Earthers, then it should discuss them ****neutrally***. Defining them one way or the other is an opinion, and is absolutely not encyclopedic. It doesn't matter if they're crazy, weird, or whatever you think of them. You could avoid starting a whole article about them in this case. But given the fact that [the article exists] it needs to be very unbiased and neutral, giving both sides of the argument if you need to. But describing your subject with biased descriptions all over the page is not typical of encyclopedias.

Thanks to Wikipedia policies and our push-back citing said policies, despite that editor’s efforts and opinions, the article remains dismissive of the flat-Earth conspiracy theory. No neutrality required.

The same type of thing frequently happens with articles on woo-topics somewhat less out-there than the flat-Earth conspiracy. One more example: take “psychic medium” Tyler Henry. (Please, take him.) An editor with the Wikipedia account name (something like) I-Love-Tyler-Henry deleted all the valid, well sourced criticism that GSoW had added to the Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry article. Their recorded reason for the deletion was that no one who had not directly experienced Henry’s powers had any right to criticize him. Well, Wikipedia rules beg to differ. A non-GSoW editor handled this one by properly following Wikipedia rules and “reverting” the deletion, thus restoring all the valid criticism of Henry from Steven Novella, Susan Gerbic, David Gorski, Sharon Hill, Mark Edward, Hemant Mehta, and the Independent Investigations Group, among others.

Now let me make it clear why Wikipedia, and the quality of the information there, is important in the first place. If no one sees the material, who cares how much woo, alt-med, and other nonsense sneaks in, right? Well, according to Alexa, Wikipedia is the fourth most visited website in the English-speaking world. It is only behind the three giants: Google, YouTube, and Facebook (http://archive.is/fARt3). When you realize that in that group only Wikipedia is, well, an encyclopedia, the importance of getting the details correct on that site becomes clear. And, as both Google (and lately YouTube) point their users to Wikipedia, the importance of the encyclopedia having valid information available to people searching for it is absolutely critical. In many Google searches, the Wikipedia article on the searched-for topic is at or near the top of the list. For a search on a woo claim, sometimes it is the only rational, skeptical hit returned. Someone on the fence about a woo claim may be dissuaded from taking on an irrational belief just by stumbling across a well written Wikipedia article on the subject they were Googling. 

One more important point: Journalists use Wikipedia. And in the course of research for a story, if a reporter finds skeptical information in an article on a woo topic, they might use that as the basis for a story rather than disseminate nonsense to their reading or viewing public. And this isn’t just a hypothesis. We have seen concrete examples of news stories quoting our Wikipedia material. One recent case was in USA Today Sports. When wrestler and Olympian Ronda Rousey sat for a psychic reading on The Hollywood Medium and acted as if Tyler Henry were the real deal (http://archive.is/f8kQs), the USA Today article used the phrase “grief vampire” regarding Henry. It also reported that the show had received the “Truly Terrible Television Award” from the IIG for “extraordinary ongoing deceit of the American public.” These golden nuggets, and more, are in the Tyler Henry Wikipedia article for all to find thanks to the Guerrilla Skeptics.

Now back to my claim regarding providing good information “to millions of people”: Since joining the GSoW team in late 2016, the seventeen articles that I created from scratch, or largely rewrote, have now garnered just over 901,000 pageviews. This tally is currently increasing at the rate of about 2,300 daily. And, as our promo spot says, I reach people even while I sleep. Keep in mind that this does not count the smaller (yet important) contributions I made to many, many other articles. And I’m not done making edits or writing articles. (By the way, in case you’re wondering: we track the pageviews for “our” articles using Wikipedia’s own data, which is available via a simple query.)

What about the entire team? Well, the numbers for the collective major work of the GSoW team—again, just the 627 article rewrites or new articles—are now over 26.6 million, increasing at over 33,000 daily. How’s that for outreach? Personally, I find these numbers mind boggling.

So, there you have it. What Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia does is to promote science and reason using one of the most powerful platforms available. And perhaps just slightly less important than that, being a part of the GSoW team provides its members with a personal sense of accomplishment: We are all part of the skeptical movement, and we know that we are helping make the world a more informed and hopefully slightly more rational place.

So, if you have been wanting to contribute to the Skeptical movement but didn’t know how to go about it, joining our team may be just what you’ve been looking for. We will train and mentor you and provide you with the skills to effectively contribute to Wikipedia, possibly the most powerful education tool in the world. If you think you might like to help us advocate for science and fight woo and pseudoscience, email us at GSoWTeam@gmail.com. Need a bit more convincing? Search for “Guerrilla Skeptics Promo” on YouTube to hear our official recruitment spot, with yours-truly getting the word out on The Skeptic Zone podcast.

Rob Palmer

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Rob Palmer is a former mechanical aerospace engineer (spacecraft designer), turned software engineer (programmer), turned software systems engineer (too complex to explain here). Nearing retirement, he has finally found his true calling as a skeptical activist with the Guerrilla Skeptics team.

Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com

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