Helping Build a Skeptical, Scientific Wikipedia

Hello Skeptoid readers. My name is Susan Gerbic. I’m planning on giving you an overview of one of the most amazing powerful projects that exists today in the world of scientific skepticism. That project is Wikipedia. This is the fifth (or sixth) most viewed website in the world, it is the closest we have to a repository of all knowledge, and it’s built for the average reader. The information inside Wikipedia is so influential and powerful that we, as skeptics, need to make sure that the reader is getting correct information and leaving notable citations that they can follow if they want more information.

When I was growing up in the 1980s if we wanted to learn something about some weird happening, we had very limited ways of finding correct information. Television was not a great option, since there were only a few channels to choose from and no way of searching for content or rewatching old shows. Encyclopedias were popular in some households but very limited knowledge was available for pseudoscience topics. The public library was probably our best avenue, but even that had problems: getting to the library and finding great books/articles about the subject could be difficult (and, let’s face it, most of what we would have found would have been pro-paranormal). Our other source for information was to ask friends and family, and I’m sure you all can imagine conversations we might have had with our friends if we tried to ask about a topic like the Bell Witch.

For the last four years, I have run a project that recruits and trains people to become Wikipedia editors. The training is very hands-on and personalized. I call this project Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW). Our mission is to keep Wikipedia pages concerning all topics under the umbrella of scientific skepticism factual, interesting to read, and well-cited with notable secondary sources.

Our secondary mission is to support the people and organizations that are the face of scientific skepticism—the people who create the content we use for notable citations. There are many people and projects that fall under this mission, but for the rest of this guest article I’m going to be exclusively using Skeptoid as the example.

When I was a teenager, one of the things that frightened me the most were these stories of people walking down the street and suddenly bursting into flames. It was called spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Don’t laugh, it was really frightening. Stop! Drop! and Roll! I wondered how I could put out the flames if they were coming from inside my body. With very little access to any real knowledge on the subject, for years I thought it was something that really could happen.

Now we have Wikipedia. The GSoW project is very interested in making sure that when people venture to learn more about a pseudoscience topic, there will be accurate information for the reader to find. In 2013, GSoW editor Nathan Miller used notable secondary citations from Joe Nickel, John Fischer, Ben Radford and Brian Dunning to rewrite the SHC Wikipedia page. And because Miller did it correctly, the page has remained virtually the same since he published his rewrite. I hope you take the time to read the page (linked above), since I think it clearly lays out the history of SHC and the expert opinions of our spokespeople. No part of the article belittles a believer; we aren’t going to win people over by telling them they are idiots. Of course not; the article is clear but not in a hit-the-person-over-the-head kinda way. Hopefully readers feel like they did their own research and are changing their minds because they have thought it out. If they want further information they can follow the citations we have left for them.

The next question I know you are thinking: do people actually care about SHC? Do they really go to Wikipedia to learn about the topic? You are a follower of Skeptoid (and hopefully a supporter) so I know, just like me, you are curious about topics like this one. What about the rest of the world? Although we’re able to see stats on page views, we don’t know if these are unique viewers, bots, or even how long a visitor stays on the page. What we do know is that when something is mentioned in the media, stats spike right on cue. Here is an example of SHC’s Wikipedia page views the last 90 days: May 9 – August 6, 2015 views. As you can see, the page averages about 1,000 views a day. And if you play around with the tools on this page, you will find that 1,000 has pretty consistent per-day count for many years. So with almost a half-million views each year, someone better have their eye on this page.

A few more examples where GSoW has used Skeptoid as a notable citation on a page are:

And these are just some of the Wikipedia pages that GSoW has made sure that Skeptoid is mentioned on. Think about this: in the last 90 days, with just these seven Wikipedia articles, we have introduced the Skeptoid podcast to as many as 588,554 Wikipedia readers. As I said, we don’t know how much time the reader is spending on the page. From personal experience, I know I normally just read the first couple paragraphs of a page to remind myself of some fact or date. I’ts been some time since I last asked Brian how many click-throughs to his website come from Wikipedia; the last stats I saw, he was getting several thousand each year. These are people following the links from Wikipedia to the actual article we left as a citation. That’s getting the message of scientific skepticism beyond the choir. That is real education aimed at people who may never have heard of Skeptoid or even of podcasting. And that is what GSoW is about: education.

My team of 100+ GSoW Wikipedia editors is working behind the scenes every day—in many languages—to make this happen. And frankly we will continue doing this work even if no one reads this guest blog. We know it is important, we feel passionate about what we are doing, and truly enjoy the satisfaction of knowing we are helping people change their own minds, and supporting the worker bees of the skeptical community.

I write to you because I want you to know how proud of my team I am, and of the work that people like Brian Dunning and the Skeptoid team have done and are doing to help educate and explain the weirdness in the world.

If you would like to join the GSoW project, we train and mentor and will teach you how to follow the rules of Wikipedia and make awesome lasting edits. Training can take months and we work at your own pace. Before you rush out and send an email to us at GSoWteam@gmail.com, I would like you to first visit our YouTube channel. Please listen to some of the interviews I have done with my team members. They will tell you what this project means to them, what to expect from training and what the process is actually like. GSoW is not for everyone, we understand that, so we want to make sure you are prepared for something as fulfilling and powerful as this. We need your help, even if you do not join our team. Anyone can edit Wikipedia—you don’t even need an account. We do a tiny percentage of the edits on Wikipedia; the majority of Wikipedia editors are people doing it all by themselves, and a lot of the time they are doing it right. There are instructions on how to edit all over the Internet. If your not a “joiner” this might be the best path for you.

If you would like to support the GSoW project but do not want to become an editor, then there are a lot of ways to do so. You can follow our blog, which shows all our updates—and please share them. (We only release about eight blogs a year so you won’t be overwhelmed.) You can like our Facebook page where we occasionally ask for help finding photos and citations. You can help us get on podcasts, lectures at conferences, and other guest blogs. Our audience is people like you and your like-minded friends. This is the only way we have to find new editors to train. Sharing our message helps tremendously. The other way to help is to support the people who are creating the content we are using for citations. Buy their books, review their podcasts on iTunes, and donate so they can keep doing what they do best: education.

Thank you.

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