The Wikipediatrician’s Whirlwind Australian Tour
January 11, 2016
I went to see my dental hygienist today, and the conversation went this way:
- Hygienist – “I love your hat, Susan.”
- Susan – “Thank you! I got it on my trip to Australia. I bought it at the Tasmanian Zoo. It’s a Tasmanian devil.”
- Hygienist – “Wow! What a vacation!”
- Susan – “Well it wasn't actually a vacation—I went to lecture and ended up touring all over Australia and even Hong Kong.”
- Hygienist – “What? What do you lecture on? Photography?”
- Susan – “No. I teach people how to edit Wikipedia, focusing on scientific content.”
- Hygienist – “I've never heard of people doing that. Do you work for Wikipedia?”
- Susan – “No, I'm just a regular person. A volunteer.”
- Hygienist – “Who would pay for you to teach people then? And why?”
- Susan – “I was asked to lecture by the skeptic community. Skeptics are really interested in education, and they know that Wikipedia is one of the top hits when people are looking for information about a subject. They think that it is really important that people get really good information so that they can make better decisions. Skeptics are really into that kind of thing; skepticism is really consumer activism. If someone or something is making a claim, we feel that they should be able to back up that claim with evidence. Otherwise how do you actually know if something works? I have a team of people from all over the world that edits Wikipedia in many different languages. We focus on claims of the paranormal, science, and spokespeople in the science and skeptic world. That's why they asked me to talk.”
After she got over looking stunned, the conversation turned to my flossing habits. While she was poking around, I got to thinking about my month-long adventure and how strange it must sound to people outside our community.
I was asked by Ross Balch, the president of the Brisbane Skeptics and host of the Skeptically Challenged podcast, to be a speaker for the October Australian Skeptic Convention. After I pinched myself and asked my boss for several weeks off work, I decided that I would ask around the other Australian skeptic groups to see if I could turn it into a Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) tour. Organizing that turned out to be quite a chore and a true learning experience for me. After weeks of emails everything was arranged. GSoW patron Aubrey Ayash kindly funded everything not covered by the various skeptic groups hosting me. The following is a summary of my trip. It’s truly a Herculean task to try to reduce this experience to a readable article, but I’ll try.
All of the GSoW lectures were designed to be adaptable to the audience, and they followed the same format:
- What is the GSoW project?
- Why is it important to edit Wikipedia?
- How is GSoW working to improve exposure of our skeptical spokespeople, organizations, publications, and so on?
Each lecture used different examples that I felt were relevant to that specific group. I'm aware that simply talking about Wikipedia editing can be quite technical and go over a lot of people's heads. I tried to keep it light, informal, and interactive. My goal was to improve exposure of the GSoW project and to inspire skeptics to become involved in crowd-sourced projects. I did this by explaining how small acts of activism, when acting with others, can make a large impact. I also hoped to make contacts for future projects and maybe recruit a few new members to GSoW.
My first lecture was for the Mordi Skeptics, located in the seaside town of Mordialloc. We talked about facilitated communication and homeopathy. The next day, I spoke to the Victoria Skeptics in Melbourne, where we focused on the Burzynski clinic and the Bell witch. I then travelled over to Launceston, Tasmania, where I did two workshops. They were completely hands on where we, as a group, rewrote a Wikipedia page for a local historical home that had been investigated by a local ghost group.
Canberra, the capital of Australia, was my next location for another lecture where the topic was the Joe Nickell Wikipedia page. (I knew that Nickell was going to be lecturing to them a couple weeks later). After Canberra I travelled to Sydney where I was the speaker for a Skeptics in the Pub event, this time talking about my adventures with psychic grief vampires during the Operation Bumblebee project. A few days after, we had a three-hour workshop where about twenty people made their first edits on Wikipedia, improving many articles.
My final destination in Australia was the actual National Convention that I had been asked to attend, in Brisbane (more on that in a minute). After the conference I went to speak to the Hong Kong and Dongguan skeptic groups in China. While there I talked about my journey through cancer treatment using medical science only, as well as other stories.
I have to tell you that this was an amazing experience for me, one that I will never forget. These groups (other than the Sydney Skeptics) are all pretty small; between eight and thirty people might have attended my lectures. Small groups, though, are more intimate. Those that did attend asked great questions, and left feeling that they knew a lot more about what is happening in the skeptic world. Many people told me that they had no idea that ordinary people such as themselves could actually edit Wikipedia. They thought that it was for some specially trained squad of tech-types and not for “regular people.” We explored topics that they found interesting and looked at view stats and at the pages that most people don't realize exist. David Young, leader of the Hong Kong Skeptics, explained that most of the members of his group are unable to attend skeptic conferences, so money is better spent to bring speakers in to meet the group.
I found that all of the Australian groups are loosely affiliated with each other, and the main hub is the Australian Skeptics Inc. group located in Sydney. Australian Skeptics Inc. produce The Skeptic magazine, the second oldest English-language skeptic journal in the world. In time for the conference, GSoW editor Michelle Franklin rewrote the Wikipedia page for the Australian Skeptics, removing the clutter and making it easier to read. The previous Wikipedia page looked like somebody had just dumped miscellaneous information relating to skepticism and Australia onto the page. The Australian Skeptics were formed in 1980 when James Randi, the key investigator for CSICOP, was sponsored by Australian Dick Smith to come and lecture to the groups. The first National Convention was held in Sydney in 1985 and has since traveled between the various cities.
The Australian National Convention, held in October 2015, began with a free SkeptiCamp at a bar in the center of Brisbane. I'm told that this was the 100th Camp worldwide. If you haven't yet attended one of these, you need to find a way to get to one. They are usually a day event with twenty-minute lectures by mostly local skeptics as the speakers. This year’s event had the following speakers:
- Tim Harding - “Some Origins of Western Quackery”
- Chris Guest - “The Bioinformatics of Creation”
- Dave Hawkes - “The Trojan Horse of Pseudoscience”
- Maureen Chuck - “Homeopathy Nonplussed”
- Nick Andrew - “Thinking Bad Redux”
- James Fodor - “Philosophy of Science – What Skeptics Need to Know”
- Richard Saunders - “Confessions from the Million Dollar Challenge”
- Angie Feazel Mattke – “Alternative Medicine: Placebo or Panacea?”
At the end of SkeptiCamp, Ross Balch recorded a panel discussion for the Skeptically Challenged podcast.
The main event was at the Queensland University of Technology next to the beautiful Brisbane Botanic Gardens. The emcees for the event were Jake Farr-Wharton and Chrys Stevenson, who were quite entertaining with many wardrobe changes and skits in between each lecture.
I was unable to attend several of the lectures, but hopefully video of them will be released. I missed:
- “Decision-making: Why it Always Seems Rational, Even When it’s Not “ by Peter Ellerton
- “The Greatest and Bestest Certifiably Non-Fad Diet... Ever!” by Jake Farr-Wharton
- “A Skeptic’s Guide to Thinking Like a Journalist” by Signe Cane
- “Science’s Answer to Science Denial“ by John Cook
- “Skeptics Positive Psychology” by James C. Coyne
- “Theory of Mind: Emotion Expression and Deception Detection” by Holly Warland
- “Science Education - Research, Policy and Politics” by Theo Clark
Finally, and sadly, I missed the lecture by Nobel Laureate physicist Brian Schmidt who is so awesome that he doesn’t even need a lecture title.
Microbiologist Mel Thomson's lecture “Professional Quack-Busting Just got Personal” dealt with her recent diagnosis with tumefactive multiple sclerosis and her interactions with people who sell snake-oil and quack services. Thomson used expensive designer shoes as a unit of measure throughout the presentation, which was quite refreshing.
Ketan Joshi started out his lecture by getting my full attention. He asked where I was sitting in the audience and then proceeded to describe how his potential Wikipedia disambiguation page could be written. That was a really nice touch. Joshi works for a renewable energy company and used his expertise in solar and wind power to explain something called wind turbine syndrome. Wow … just Wow!
I had met YouTuber and podcaster Myles Power a few days before the conference, as we had both arrived early in Brisbane. I had been looking forward to meeting Myles as we have a lot in common, and I wanted to trade stories about our run-ins with grief vampires. We finally did find some time to sit down and share stories, and he gave me some great advice about how best to use Facebook and YouTube to your advantage. I had been looking forward to his lecture “AIDS Denialism... Yep That's a Thing” because I knew almost nothing about the folks who deny that AIDS exists. I was also fascinated to learn the story of how AIDS denialists almost managed to remove his YouTube videos and ban him from producing more, just by filing a DMCA request. What a roller-coaster story.
Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell and I have met many times. The stories that he tells are so entertaining and fascinating, I would be happy to just listen to him for hours. Nickell's lecture “Adventures in Skepticism” detailed several of his investigations, including the Shroud of Turin, billet-reading and, finally, the Nazca Lines. Nickell tells the story of how, with the help of family members, he “drew” the heron geoglyph using only simple tools. Years later, National Geographic asked him to draw the spider, which he did as a part of their TV series.
The Nazca Lines came up again during Lynne Kelly's lecture, “Memory Places: Adding Rational Intellect to Stonehenge.” Kelly presented us with her research with stone-circles such as Stonehenge, and other places from all over the world. Personally, I was spellbound and when she stated that she was trying to get through her lecture and stay on time, I thought “Go ahead. Take all the time you need. I'll stay and listen.” She tied all of these sites together, including the Nazca Lines, and proclaimed that the creators used the landscape as a mnemonic tool. Before people had a way to write things down, people needed to know their history and important facts such as when to plant crops. By using ritual walking paths as a memory aid, they were able to pass on very complicated stories to later generations.
Cassandra Perryman's lecture “Marijuana: Saint or Sinner?” asked and answered a lot of common misconceptions about marijuana. There was a lot of information included in her talk, proving, at least to me, that the question, “Is there more benefit or harm in marijuana?” does not have a simple answer. Perryman was also the principal convention organizer.
President of the Brisbane Skeptics, and the person responsible for asking me to come to the conference, Ross Balch presented “Mysterious Malaise: The Case of the Missing Microbes.” He gave us two case studies dealing with illnesses that have malaise conditions where it was thought that microbes were the problem. After examining both, the microbes were nowhere to be found. He also talked about the detrimental role that advocacy groups can have on research by misdirecting focus on treatments already known to be ineffective.
I'm proud to say that I've known Eugenie Scott for years. She is one of the main organizers of SkeptiCal, which I wrote about in the January/February 2016 Skeptical Inquirer issue. Dr. Scott's Australian convention lecture was quite straightforward, “Kitzmiler v Dover at 10 years: Lessons Learned,” which was a review of this very important American court case. She stated that although we still see people try to impose creationism in schools, the newest challenge is climate change denialism.
One of the great things about attending these conferences is that it often brings you in contact with your heroes, and you can actually meet and talk with them. This is something that you don’t have the ability to do when you consume content through the Internet. I had been hearing about Loretta Marron for years on the Skeptic Zone podcast and was thrilled that she was a speaker. As with Lynne Kelly, mentioned above and now added to my hero list, she has done amazing things with her life. Marron has been awarded the Order of Australia and has won “The Australian Skeptic of the Year” award three times. Her lecture “Crazy and Cruel Cancer ‘Cures’” was a big hit with the audience, as well as with me as we are both members of the “lived through breast cancer club.” As the title explains, she discussed the crazy cures that plague the medical world preying on the desperate and the uninformed.
My own lecture featured a plea to the skeptic community to stop eating its own through drama blogging and to keep the focus on the real “enemies,” those who feed on the population taking money without providing the services promised. I also stated that the biggest problem in the skeptical world today isn’t laws, money, education, religion, or parenting. In my opinion, our biggest problem is finding and retaining good people. We need to find, train, and motivate those people who are going to lead, invent, motivate, educate, inspire, and help us to change the world for the better. I know that these people are out there, but they might not yet be aware that we are looking for them. In my lecture I showcased the work GSoW has done to improve Wikipedia pages that are Australian focused, including a complete rewrite of the Australian Skeptic Wikipedia page by my editor Michelle Franklin. Please see our GSoW blog for a complete listing of work completed.
The conference had two panel discussions. One, answering questions about how to parent skeptically, included Alison Gaylard, Dave Hawkes, Eran Segev, Jake Farr-Wharton and Jo Alabaster. Questions such as “What to do when your child wants to play with children from anti-vax homes?” and the big question: “How do you deal with the Santa story?” The other panel discussion was about challenges in skepticism, hosted by Ross Balch and featuring Signe Cane, Myles Power, Eran Segev, and me. We answered questions such as “Does skepticism have an image problem?” and questions about the demographics and factionalization in the skeptic community.
The Gala dinner on Saturday night was quite a treat as it showcased some of the best that Australia had to offer the community last year:
- The Australian skeptic and humanist community raised AUD 24,000 for one of our own, Jode Matthews. Her family has experienced several health setbacks in a short period of time and needed some financial help to pay for a non-subsidized drug that boosts the effectiveness of Jode’s chemo treatment.
- Two bottles of wine from Brian Schmidt’s winery “Maipenrai” were donated and auctioned during the conference. Donations went to the Rotary Internationals End Polio Now Fund, which receives two dollars for every dollar donated from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The two bottles of wine raised an amount that will buy 20,000 doses of polio vaccine.
- Every year the Australian Skeptics “honor” the “perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle” with the Bent Spoon Award. This has been awarded since 1982 and is made from gopher wood supposedly from Noah’s Ark and topped with a spoon bent by using supernatural powers and rumored to have been used at the Last Supper. The 2015 Bent Spoon was awarded to Australian chef and TV personality “Paleo Pete” Evans, for his support of pseudomedicine and his anti-fluoridation stance.
- The Thornett Award is presented each year to a person who has made a significant contribution to educating the public on issues of science and reason. For 2015 the award went to Greg and Catherine Hughes, who started the “Light for Riley” campaign. In March 2015 their infant son Riley died from pertussis (whooping cough), and his parents have been working since then to bring awareness to fighting vaccine-preventable diseases. They were unable to attend and accept the Thornett Award at the conference since they were busy handing out information explaining the importance of vaccinations at a baby product trade show.
This GSoW tour was really inspiring for me personally. I was able to meet and spend quality time with several of my Australian editors: Greg Neilson, Monica Quijano and Svetlana Bavykina. We recruited several new trainees to the project and gathered more photos and citations for future projects. Since then, we have created Wikipedia pages for the Launceston Skeptics, Loretta Marron (in English and Russian), as well as a page for Lynne Kelly. I was able to update many Australian museums’ Wikipedia pages as I traveled through the country. There is also a need to update several pages on local history.
I was well cared for by the people in our community, with someone picking me up at each stop and making sure that I was never lost or lonely. People were very generous with their time, taking me to see Tasmanian Devils and kangaroos, visiting museums or just hanging out over a cheeseburger. What amazing people. I encourage everyone to not just visit a place but use social media to find our community. Skeptic groups in areas all over the world have Meetup.com and Facebook pages; reach out to them and make your own mini-tour. I’m sure that they are as interested in meeting you as you are in meeting them. As with most conferences, you think that you are attending for the lectures, but you always return because of the people.
Videos and photos from the conference can be found at susangerbic.com.
Just in case you’re interested, the Australian National Skeptic Convention for 2016 will be held in Melbourne, November 26-27, 2016.