If—like most people—you’ve ever searched Wikipedia for skeptical topics, or looked there for topic covered by organized skepticism, chances are you’ve probably read some of Susan Gerbic’s work. She’s a (very) active member of the Center for Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group. She’s also one of the driving forces behind trying to bring skepticism, balance, and critical thinking to the world’s most-used reference. In 2011 she responded to e-mailed questions from a secret bunker somewhere in California; this interview revisits that time, with a few updates. You can hear more from Susan on the podcast I co-host, Squaring the Strange, as well as YouTube. Susan and her colleagues have also garnered significant attention from the mainstream news media, including Wired, Medium, The New York Times magazine, and other places.
BR: What’s your background?
SG: Born and raised in Salinas, California, the youngest child of a youngest child. Professional portrait photographer for three decades, I specialize in people who do not want their portrait taken—which means the very young and the old and cranky.
I was four classes away from a Masters degree in American History when I quit college in 2004, it was either the Graduate degree or a long-distance relationship with skeptic Mark Edward (author of Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium) who lived 6 hours away. I have two grown sons, Caspian, and my younger son Stirling who attends all the skeptical functions with me.
Raised Southern Baptist, I never heard the word atheist until I was in my late teens, once I found out there were other people who felt like I did, I read everything I could on the subject. Discovered skepticism as a community in 2000 while looking for a topic for a college paper. Attended a small gathering in San Jose, met Carol and Ben Baumgartner, Dr. Wallace Sampson, Dr. Jere Lipps and was hooked. Went to the Skeptic Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon that August and felt like I found my people! I’m officially a skeptical junkie, just waiting for the paperwork to prove it [I’ve been promised by those at CFI that it’s on its way and should be there soon–BR].
I’m the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics which is a social group that hang out together. Being in the L.A. Area so much with Mark we both got involved with the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) for a while, but I’ve been busy with more since then.
BR: Do you think Wikipedia is really one of the main battlegrounds for skepticism?
SG: Yes I do, and I think I can prove it with numbers—skeptics like numbers. Podcasts, lectures, blogs etc. are all wonderful and needed as it builds a stronger skeptical community. They also introduce us to more and more outlets that we can explore. But with a few exceptions we are still preaching to the choir.
We still have to have investigations and video media to release to the public. It is like an ecosystem all the different parts working together. Wikipedia is where it all comes together. We know how many people are accessing Wikipedia pages, we can compare those numbers to the amount of hits an article on the same topic is generating when it comes from a personal website or blog. The numbers are staggering and varied, but generally Wiki hits outnumber articles every time.
Look, we also know that people rarely change their mind when someone is yelling at them telling them how stupid they are. Most of us skeptics have been believers on some level, we should know better. What people need is reasoned discussions and the ability to do their own research. They are going to go to a neutral site to do so, and Wikipedia is waiting for them. When they have looked over the page and hyperlinked to all the pages linked, they are better able to change their mind.
BR: What about projects like SkeptiWiki, which is devoted solely to skeptical content? Do you think that’s useful?
SG: I don’t think I have ever used that site, and almost never heard it referred to. We need neutral sites. The public is trying to understand a topic and they can tell from the name that it is one-sided. All that talent would be better used editing in a place that the public are already going to. I have no idea what the numbers would be comparing them, but I can image that there is little use trying to fight something as successful and powerful as Wikipedia. Why not use it to our advantage?
BR: How is Wikipedia structured and administered?
SG: All volunteers working towards creating a living, breathing encyclopedia, that’s pretty awesome I think. They have their own rules and language that take time getting used to. I’m totally self taught, I’ve tried reading the instructions on how to edit and it’s like reading a tech manual. I ask people for help, and look at well authored pages, copy what I like and paste into the page I’m editing. Change it to reflect the person/topic I’m working on, and I’m done.
BR: How is the Wikipedia content judged?
SG: Mainly peer reviewed. Some editors are considered higher level than others, but for the most part I’ve had little problem with the edits they have reverted. You can’t take it personally, we are creating a better encyclopedia which must be the main goal. If you are having problems with an editor then step back and try to see what is really the problem, usually you can work through it. There is a process for peer-arbitration which I’ve threatened someone with but never used. Once you get a bunch of edits under your belt you can start editing with confidence. Be bold, cite everything and usually people leave you alone.
BR: What have been some of the main challenges to injecting skepticism into Wikipedia?
SG: Probably only time. There is so much to be done, and people are always telling me “good job!” which is nice to hear, but what I badly need is help editing. Kudos are nice, but help is better. The project is that important. The tips and ideas I give on my blog are from copy/paste/save types of edits, to fixing grammar, to rewording blurbs to more advanced items.
BR: Obviously some skeptical content will upset people, such as psychics who rely on the general public not knowing about their track record of failure. What sort of opposition have you seen? Can you give a few examples?
SG: I have had almost no contact with anyone upset about my edits. I do see some frustrated comments people have left in the discussion area of pages—almost all from believers upset that their favorite psychic’s page is not balanced. Wikipedia is not balanced, you will never see a citation about the earth being flat on the “Earth” Wiki page. Nor will you see anything about a moon landing hoax on NASA’s page. Just cited fact after cited fact.
[Convicted felon] Sylvia Browne’s page is a great example that I discuss in my blog, believers do not always understand that you can’t post opinions and stories, it has to be cited, and neutral. Over and over people complain that there isn’t anything about how Browne “helps people” and is “a wonderful person”. They say that the only thing that the editors ever show is Browne’s failures. I love it when I read the editors respond that if they will find her successes in print (not her book) that can be substantiated then we will gladly post it on her page. Usually we never hear from that believer again, one man said he would find the evidence, but it would mean long months in the library, but he will eventually find proof for us. We are still waiting, the exchange can be read on Sylvia’s discussion page. Great reading, BTW.
Psychics themselves have rarely if ever commented or edited their own page. It’s a losing battle, they have to show proof of their claims and that isn’t likely to hold up to review. Personally I think they would rather the believers not go to Wikipedia to see what is there. I’m sure they downplay the site if it is mentioned to them.
BR: What topics have you tackled?
SG: All have been in some way associated with the skeptic movement. Tim Farley (who started me on this project) believes that an editor should not stick to one topic all the time, he suggests editing your home town page and other places so you don’t get a reputation amongst editors for having a “cause.” I’m all over the place so much that there is no pattern to see unless the editor looks closely at my edits—which I doubt they will do.
My “hit list” is pretty long but needs to be a lot longer. I’ve done UFO’s, Power Balance, ghost hunting sites, most of the psychics and anything else that attracts my attention. I’m very interested in beefing up all the pages of our skeptical spokespeople. This is a sub-project of Guerrilla Skepticism that I call “We Got Your Wiki Back!”. The main idea is to remember we are not improving Wikipedia for the skeptical choir, our audience is the public. When they access our spokespeople’s pages they should find well-written, well sourced information. How can we expect others to respect our spokespeople if we don’t respect them enough to maintain their Wikipedia pages?
BR: What mysterious or paranormal topics get the most controversy?
SG: Usually it comes in waves. When a page is vandalized over and over, there is a protection put on the page that anonymous editors cannot edit. The Scientologist page is the first one that comes to mind, I believe that many of the positive edits happening there were traced to Scientology headquarters, and there was a stop to that (plus some bad publicity for them). The astrology page is really getting hit lately, believers just can’t allow the already determined consistence wording to remain. They keep fussing with the definition, then editors have to change it back and tell them not to change it again. Along comes another believer who changes it again…and on and on.
BR: Many people use Wikipedia but don’t feel tech savvy enough to become editors or contributors. What is the actual process to edit pages? Can you give a short introduction to show people the basics?
SG: Start by opening a Wikipedia account. Read my blog for ideas and tips, or go to pages and click around. In time you will get comfortable finding misspelled words and bad grammar. You fix things by clicking on the “edit” page. Make simple changes and at the bottom of the edit page you will see the tabs for “preview page” “save” “watch this page” and an area to comment. First “preview” your change, if it looks okay then write in the comment area what you just did “corrected spelling” or “added a period”, click “watch this page” so that you will be notified on your “watch list” if there is a change to the page. Then when you are sure you have done all this correctly, click save.
You will know when you are ready to try more difficult changes. I learned to go to a well-written page, click edit, copy the area that I know I wanted to duplicate elsewhere. If you want to write a blurb about a SI article you just read, start by opening a word document somewhere so you can just play with what you are doing. Write your two or three sentences you think will neutrally reflect the article. Copy a <ref> citation from some other page that you know was done correctly. Paste that into the word document you are using. Change the citation that you know does not apply to your new citation. For example the date the article was published, as well as the name of the article will need to be changed in the new edit. Once you are completely happy with the blurb and reference, paste it into the Wiki page. Follow the directions in the paragraph above.
I would love to mentor anyone interested in learning how to edit. If anyone wants to watch me edit and learn that way, please contact me! You can find GSoW on Twitter.
A different version of this interview appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.