Success, Guerrilla Style
|April 14, 2014||Posted by Jim Preston under Uncategorized|
Success can sometimes be hard to measure. Or even know.
A few years ago, Susan Gerbic saw that Wikipedia was becoming the source that more and more people turned to for “reliable” information. I put “reliable” in quotes because despite what anyone may think, despite how much of the world’s population uses Wikipedia, it is, by its nature, not necessarily reliable. It’s only as good as the people who edit it. Susan realized this. She saw that some Wiki pages contained opinion, unsupported claims, and occasionally outright falsehoods.
Susan decided to take on the task of trying to make Wikipedia more reliable (or maybe less unreliable). To that end she formed Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW). I won’t detail the history here, if you’re interested you can Google for it. I’m going to move on to my point.
Anyone can see the statistics of how many visits a Wikipedia page gets. But there’s no way to know the story behind any of those visits. Someone is told by a friend about a great Homeopathic remedy that cured the friend’s cold. So that person types “Homeopathy” into Google. The first (non-sponsored) link — even above that of the Society of Homeopaths — is to the Wikipedia page on Homeopathy. There, after a neutral description of what Homeopathy purports to be, you read, “Homeopathy lacks biological plausibility and the axioms of homeopathy have been refuted for some time.” It goes on to explain why, and there are plenty of citations to scientific studies and reviews that support that conclusion.
So our friend’s friend decides to skip the Homeopathic remedy and instead goes to see his medical doctor. No one can ever know how many times that may have happened, with Homeopathy or Acupuncture, or Astrology, or Phrenology, or any of the other dozens of pseudosciences that unfortunately pervade our society.
But Susan and her Guerrilla Skeptics knew that the effort had to be made to keep Wikipedia accurate, that even if only a few people were dissuaded from started down a pseudoscience path, it was worth it. And that the alternative, to have the Wiki page on Homeopathy be a platform for promoting that nonsense as fact, was intolerable.
Certainly, the Guerrilla Skeptics are not the only people working to keep Wikipedia accurate, fact- and science-based, and out of the hands of the pseudoscience crowd. I have no idea even if any of them have edited the Homeopathy page. But I think it’s fair to say that they are the only organized effort to focus on making sure that the goals of the skeptical movement are applied to Wikipedia.
In September of 2013, I had the interesting experience of attending a talk by Rupert Sheldrake. At one point, he talked about how Wikipedia was being taken over by skeptics. He said that his own Wikipedia page had become a battleground, that the Guerrilla Skeptics had put their top team to work on it and that, because of them, his page was now a disaster area. That was the first tangible evidence I personally had ever heard that the GSoW was having a positive effect.
I had joined the GSoW project a few months earlier, although at this time I had done very little in the way of Wikipedia editing. Still, it was gratifying to hear directly someone like Sheldrake bemoaning that he was being thwarted in his desire to put his nonsense, unchecked, onto Wikipedia.
Thanks to the Internet, skepticism can spread with the speed of light, carrying in its wake all forms of unfairness and bad faith. A distressing example has been occurring at Wikipedia, where a band of committed skeptics have focused their efforts to discredit anyone whom they judge an enemy.
A clear, if unnamed, reference to Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.
In the few years since Susan started, she has garnered increasing recognition from within the skeptical community, and she has won some awards for her work. But is that the measure of success?
The goal of GSoW is, to anyone who looks objectively, exactly the same as the goal of Wikipedia. Neither is trying to push or promote a particular point of view. The goal is to have accurate, factual, verified information. On the other hand, those who believe in pseudoscience do just that, they believe. That the reaction to merely keeping Wikipedia accurate and factual is the kind of outrage and whining shown by Sheldrake and Chopra is very telling. It is a clear indication that they are being frustrated in their efforts to get their message out uncritically.
And that is a measure of success.
Or is it? The irony of this story is that it turns out that no one on the GSoW team has ever edited the Rupert Sheldrake Wikipedia page (the edit history of every page is publicly available for anyone to see). On the other hand, their notoriety was such that Sheldrake just assumed that the GSoW must have been responsible for his “disaster area”.
Probably anyone reading this has heard this story, but it can’t be repeated enough. In March 2014, a petition on change.org asked Wikipedia to essentially change the rules saying that, “These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed ‘skeptics’ who serve as de factor censors for Wikipedia.” Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, responded:
No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.
Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals — that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiment, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.
What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.
So a bunch of woo-believers get so annoyed that they are being held to the same standards as everyone else that they petition to get the playing field tilted to their side, all but naming Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia in the process. And they get slapped down hard by the founder of Wikipedia.
No one will ever know how many people have looked up something on Wikipedia, found themselves reading something that a member of the Guerrilla team has held to the standard of “honest, factual, truthful” and thereby was dissuaded from a path toward some “lunatic charlatan”.
But measured by the frustration they’ve helped to cause to those who would like to turn Wikipedia into an open forum, they’re a great success.
Their aim is to “control information”, and Ms Gerbik glories in the power that she and her warriors wield. They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.
(Notice how Sheldrake misspells Susan’s name as “Gerbik”. I’ve seen him do that often enough that it must be deliberate, some odd little dig.) Wow. What a great complement, to have aroused such helpless anger. The GSoW must be doing something right.