The single most powerful skeptical tool on the Internet today is Wikipedia. Only ten years old, this living, breathing encyclopedia has already changed the epistemology in every language.
On my blog Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia I urge the skeptical community to embrace Wikipedia as our most relevant tool, enabling us to shape the public into better critical thinkers. We already know that shouting and belittling believers does nothing but force them to circle the cognitive dissonance wagons, and shut down. Allowing them to do their own research and think things through independently, without pressure, is the only way to potentially change their minds.
Guerrilla Skepticism is the act of inserting well written, carefully cited skeptical references into Wikipedia pages where they are needed, while still following the guidelines and rules of everyone’s online encyclopedia. This grassroots method allows skeptics working at home to contribute to the skeptical movement without personally confronting people. Tim Farley and Daniel Loxton have been advocating editing Wikipedia with skeptical content for a couple of years; I began my blog in June, 2011 (before presenting this topic at TAM9) as a resource for beginners to learn “how-to” as well as “what-to-do” to get started.
I'm here today to plead my case, and ask for help.
The “We Got Your Wiki Back!” Project, a sub-set of the greater Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia undertaking, is important to our community’s reputation and mission. The main idea is to remember that we are not improving Wikipedia for skeptics; our audience is the general public. When one of our spokespeople is in the media, the audience members – knowing little to nothing about him/her – are going to try and find out more. As soon as they type the name into their favorite search engine they will get a link to that person’s Wikipedia page. What are they looking for, and what will they discover? They want to know if the person is credible, respected in his/her community, and knowledgeable. And they don't want to slosh through a lot of data to figure it out.
I've scoured Wikipedia and found very few well-written, up-to-date Wiki pages. Many are orphan sites that were created by well meaning editors and then abandoned when they lost interest or lacked the skills to finish. Others need updating with current information, as well as grammar and spell checking. Some are just badly written, and despite having all the necessary components will not hold the interest of the reader. And far too many are missing a profile picture.
How can we expect the public to respect our spokespeople, if we don't respect our spokespeople?
I have many examples of pages that need updating, as well as steps for basic edits throughout my blog. Here are some ideas of where to start.
You can find lists of noteworthy skeptics in the front pages of our journals, for example, in Skeptic Magazine I choose a random name from their Editorial Board: Gregory Forbes. His page is a stub, badly maintained, with hardly any information and clearly no picture. Shame on us. Is this the best impression we can give of Gregory Forbes? Nowhere on the page is there a hyperlink back to Skeptic Magazine, nor any mention of his involvement in the skeptical community. Another outspoken skeptic whose page is sadly neglected (it even lacks a picture) is Robynn McCarthy, better known as Swoopy, one of our most popular podcasters. Why have we allowed such neglect? She is one of our representatives. Is our opinion of our own community leaders so low?
I'm anticipating your next question: do people even visit these pages? JREF fellow Tim Farley believes they do, and cites numbers from stats.grok.se, a website which generates Wikipedia article traffic statistics. By using this simple tool, you too will be able to view the number of visits a given page receives. We can see that even these abandoned pages are generating hits; Swoopy had 181 views in July, 2011. That's 181 people who now think no one has her back…and they would be correct.
The numbers do show that the public are accessing these pages. After the ABC Nightline “Beyond Belief” show Banachek's Wiki page received a 800% increase in hits. See this blog for details.
Here are more examples of abandoned pages. Click through these and you will see that they are all missing profile pictures, and sorely need editing: Claude Allegre, Farrell Till, George Abell, Isidor Sauers, Robert Sheaffer, Stanislaw Burzynski, Andrew Weil, Stephen Barrett, Bart Bok, Chris French, Drauzio Varella. Eddie Tabash, James Oberg, Jerome Clark, Kendrick Frazier, Linda Howe, Michael Goudeau, Sanal Edamaruku, Sherwin Nuland, Phillp Klass, Dean Radin, Robert Priddy, Victor Stenger, Curtis Peebles, Donna Kossy, Gerald Glaskin, Terence Hines.
And now for some good news. Improvements are being made to several pages. Check out these excellent Wikipedia page makeovers and new releases for inspiration:
Brian Dunning (skeptic) BEFORE – Brian Dunning (skeptic) NOW
Sean Faircloth BEFORE – Sean Faircloth NOW
Jennifer McCreigh BEFORE – Jennifer McCreigh NOW
Ben Radford BEFORE – Ben Radford NOW
Still looking for a page that needs improvement? Check out some of these categories. Close your eyes, click on a name, and that is your "date" for the next hour. Do what you can to clean-up, spiffy-up and show we care.
My friend John Rael from Skeptically Pwnd recently told me that we need to "take back the term skeptic and remind people how cool that word is." John, I agree; we don't need to be looking for a better word to describe ourselves, we just need to market ourselves better.
We need to focus on our big picture goal. When our skeptical heroes speak out for us in the "real world" they need the credibility of a well maintained and cited Wikipedia page backing them up. Face it, most people don't know who is who in the skeptical movement; Carl Sagan may be the exception, but stop ten people on the street and ask them who James "The Amazing" Randi is and most will sadly shrug their shoulders. That's almost unfathomable to us skeptics. My point is, we don't live in the real world, so to speak. When someone turns on CNN and Randi's talking about Sylvia Browne most people will say, "Who's that?" A quick search on Wikipedia is going to do a lot of educating, and shame on us if we don't have Randi's back.
Face it: we are a very small group of fish in this ocean. There are probably more bowling enthusiasts than skeptical activists. We have a lot of work to do to get the message out that skepticism is awesome and active.
We are not preaching to the choir. This is important work that must be done if we are to be taken seriously by the public. We know who these people are, we know what they are "famous" for, so we alone hold responsibility for supporting them and enlightening the public. They are our spokespeople; we are all on the same side. Whether or not you agree with these people, they are our representatives. We can't afford to sit around and hope someone else does our job for us; we need to pull out the dust rags and brooms.
Visit my blog. Then get to editing.
We Got Your Wiki Back!
Susan Gerbic is the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics, and an active member of IIG West (www.iigwest.org, or check out the IIG on Wikipedia) She found the skeptical community in 2004 after her first TAM and is a self-professed skeptical junkie.