Guerrilla Skeptics create and update Wikipedia pages (including mine)

About a month ago I received an email from Susan Gerbic—who helps run Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW)—telling me that they were revamping my Wikipedia page. I was surprised, as of course I hadn’t solicited this, and had no idea who started the page in the first place—nor who updates it.  And I’d barely heard of the group (more in a second), though I knew that it was trying to enforce Wikipedia standards against unsubstantiated scientific claims (i.e., woo).  A while back, I wrote about how Rupert Sheldrake had beefed loudly about how the GSoW had messed up his Wikipedia page, though it turned out that they’d never done that).

At any rate, I had no objection to what they were doing given that the final page was accurate (and that they kept my picture with Dusty the Cat). My assistance was limited to sending them my c.v. and providing a ten-second audio clip introducing myself, a new feature on Wikipedia.

The final result, produced by editor Kyle Hamar, was great—and let me emphasize that I am only one of many skeptics whose bios they’re improving on Wikipedia. (Click on these links to see the Before & After versions.)  Since then I’ve learned that Gerbic runs a large and tightly-knit group (you can read interviews with her here and here), a group punctilious about accuracy and conformity to Wikipedia‘s standards (apparently my earlier bio had too much of the wrong kind of citation). Gerbic won the Randi Foundation’s “In the trenches” award in 2012 for services to skepticism. Her colleagues and editors, however, who do a lot of the spadework, are working largely without recognition, so let me give them, along with Gerbic, a shoutout here.

The group’s website is here, and contains their mission statement:

The mission of the Guerrilla Skepticism editing team is to improve skeptical content on Wikipedia. We do this by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudoscientific pages. Why? Because evidence is cool. We train – We mentor – Join us.

That sounds good to me, and I endorse them for debunking woo and sticking to facts. Perhaps some of the Wiki editors who read this site would like to volunteer.

Their latest post, which went up Sunday, details the last two months of their activity, and gives a list of skeptics whose bios they’re working on—or have worked on. These include Pamela Gay, Phil Plait, Maryam Namazie, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Bill Nye, Eugenie Scott, and Sanal Edamaruku. They often use local talent when revising bios outside of the U.S. and the U.K.: for example, they just got 7 new editors in Hungary alone whose job is to deal with Hungarian scientists and skeptics). 

Below is Gerbic’s talk at last year’s TAM, describing how her group works (the talk is really quite fascinating):

The group is seeking feedback (and assistance), and you can find their email address at the end of their latest website post.

43 Comments

  1. Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Is that Jerry Coyne at the podium … or Jerry Lewis?

    The resemblance just struct me.

    /@

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Thanks a lot; I’m deeply flattered.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        Jerry Lewis was a fine-looking man when his face wasn’t contorted with foolish expressions.

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      The “at – podium” snap is quite lovely, indeed, Dr Coyne !

      I particularly find snappy the bilateral index finger – snapping gesturing.

      Like what would occur in conducting one’s self in the midst of a … … rockin’ Dance for the Truth !

      Blue

  2. moleatthecounter
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Susan Gerbic is one of the guest speakers at the next Manchester QED conference in April. I shall look forward to that talk very much now.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    The content looks way more beefy! They are doing a great job!

    • gbjames
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      +1, as some of us are inclined to criticize others for saying.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        + 2

        (No one’s mentioned that one yet, have they?)

  4. Posted March 4, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Well, they may have improved some things, but they’ve removed your books from your list of publications, and added in some New Republic articles, which, while interesting, are of distinctly lesser import than your books. The books get mentioned, but are now less prominent/findable in the article. Wikipedia accounts of academics and authors usually feature in a list their most significant publications, especially books. I’ll rectify your article when I get a chance.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      The books are still there – in the right-hand side bar.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Yeah, that’s what I meant by less prominent/findable, with the details in the footnotes. Most Wiki articles on academics/authors put that info in a bibliographic format in the main article.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        They should really go under Publications.

        /@

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        & done.

  5. Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    It looks very nice, but why not add some personal tidbits as well?
    This is about Jerry Coyne the person, right? Not just Jerry Coyne the scientist.

    An informative page on Jerry Coyne and not a word about cats, boots and noms?

    • Merilee
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Not to mention JC the orange kitten.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        Jerry and most of our “targets” don’t leave that kind of information in secondary sources and interviews. They are mostly asked about their work.

        I, like you would rather have something less academic and more personal like what/who influenced you to go into science? What was your upbringing like? What are your goals in the next 5 years? Questions that we can then turn into citations on the page.

        We want readers of Wikipedia to not only know why this person is notable enough to have their own WP page, but also we want to break the stereotype of the academic living in a ivy covered tower, that they were once little boys and girls who parents were not astrophysicists. Children who are from noname cities in the middle of nowhere, who struggled to find what they wanted to do with their lives. And who love cats!

        When I control the world, I will insist that podcasts ask these kinds of questions. So maybe in a couple years. ;-)

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      “Jerry Coyne and not a word about cats, boots and noms?”

      I approve of their omission; it improves the signal to noise ratio. Part of making a coherent presentation of a topic is knowing what to leave out.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        I don’t approve. Jerry is much more than just a scientist and lecturer, and it’d be more than appropriate to mention his love of cats, his sizable boot collection, and his gastronomic explorations. It’s a significant part of who he is, what he cares to express about himself, and why so many people are interested in him.

        Indeed, it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that it’s his defining characteristic. There’re plenty of other biologists who do great work in the field and turn out lots of new biologists, but they’re not the ones everybody outside of the field knows about. Jerry’s humanness as expressed by actually being publicly human explains as much about his fame as his academic credentials.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Dan McPeek
          Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          I second this emotion!

  6. Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I think the new page is excellent – clean, compact, dense with information, and easy to read. Good work!

  7. Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Great work! On Jerry Coyne’s WP as well as in general!
    What’s sad is that one can apparently only participate in that work by having a Facebook account – should there be another way than that (no way I’m going on Facebook!) please let it be known!

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Well now that video that Jerry is referencing is already outdated. We no longer use Facebook for the GSoW team. We have built a forum for the team. Have found that we are able to get more work done between the languages this way. Training is a lot easier also. Email us at GSoWteam@gmail.com if you have other questions or want to join our team. We train and mentor, though it is a process to learn, so please come to us when you have some time to participate in the training.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Facebook holdouts of WEIT, unite!

      (You, me, Ben…)

      (Yeah, I know it should be “I”…)

  8. Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I hardly consider Pamela Gay, christian apologist and believer in things like bio-rhythms, a skeptic.

    Gay’s defense of her belief in the Risen Christ — that when faced with inconclusive evidence, one is free to conclude whatever one wishes — is the antithesis of skeptical inquiry.

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Regardless of your beliefs or not, Gay is often found lecturing at our skeptic conferences, interviewed on our podcasts and quoted on our written media. It is not our responsibility to assess skeptic creds, we are working to improve Wikipedia pages for all our spokespeople. In the eyes of the World she is one of us.

      We don’t control conferences and the media so it is what it is.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        I applaud your project, and have no objections to your reasonable grounds for including Gay’s profile among your rewrites. I also respect your decision to omit mention of Gay’s public affirmations of Faith, or her speaking appearances at evangelical colleges, or her interviews for Christian publications and broadcasts.

        I do object to the skeptic community’s eager embrace “as one of us” of someone who insists on the reality of souls, Original Sin, and miracles.

        • Posted March 4, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

          That is probably something best taken up with the people who hire her to speak at conferences.

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      I’m unaware of Gay’s career in Christian apologetics. That notwithstanding, the project of skepticism would get really lonely if we start tossing each other out for maintaining insufficient ideological purity. Many of us see scientific skepticism as the Venn diagram intersection between science education and consumer protection. I’d hardly consider her an atheist, but I’m also glad that’s not a prerequisite.

      • gbjames
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:14 am | Permalink

        I think there are many people whose skepticism ends where Jesus-talk begins. They can recognize the foolishness of Bigfoot but remain credulous when it comes to prayer. Go figure.

  9. Paul S.
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I noticed that your censor of the year award isn’t listed. How could such a prestigious award have been overlooked.

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      There you go Paul. Easily fixed, will just take you a few minutes to change that.

  10. Curt Cameron
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    This weekend I had the opportunity to inform my wife about homeopathy – she didn’t know what the term actually referred to and thought it meant “alternative” or “natural” (it was in the context of me mentioning what I don’t like about Whole Foods: the no-GMO policy and the fact that they do sell homeopathic stuff).

    Later I checked the Wikipedia page on homeopathy, thinking she may check my info and I wanted to see what she would find.

    Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. The introductory paragraphs did a fantastic job of spelling out the key points, and didn’t pull any punches.

    Is GSoW responsible for that? If so, nice job!

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      GSoW as a team had nothing to do with it. But there are one or two of us that were helpful in getting the lede written the way we did. We did get the 10:23 campaign mentioned on that page. The 10:23 Wikipedia page is scheduled for its own rewrite soon.

      Here is what is really amazing Curt. Your wife will be only one of over 100,000 people this MONTH accessing that page to learn more. http://stats.grok.se/en/201403/homeopathy

      Sadly most pages in other languages concerning homeopathy aren’t so accurate. That is why I need to grow my team. The controversial page edits are very difficult to pull off, only trained and well thought out rewrites will stick. Remember Anyone can edit WP, including homeopaths.

      Read the Talk page of Homeopathy and you will really get an eye-full of what we have to deal with. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Homeopathy

  11. Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Boy, you guys have really got the knives out for Dr Rupert Sheldrake ! Who knows; someday someone may take his work, twist it around and make something of it. I fell into conversation with him while sitting in the minstrel’s gallery of a ruins of a chapel in Devon, England’s West Country.

    As an international adventurer I have to say that you guys don’t seem to know the benefits of New Age thinking. We were looking down upon a circled group led by his wife, doing New Age chanting and clapping. Down there, I spotted a very pretty girl and surmised that, having paid three hundred dollars for the weekend of rhythmic clapping, she might be amenable to my kind of reasoning. And so I fell into step with her as we walked across to the refectory for a lunch of mashed yeast and boiled quinoa. She became my lover for the summer. So don’t tell me that New Age has nothing to offer us.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

      Ah, so the main benefit of the New Age movement is How to Pick Up Chicks? I knew it must be good for something…

  12. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    This is quite clearly the proper place to point out that the eminent Dr. Coyne also has his own Wikiquote page.

    Full disclosure: the page is almost entirely my doing. But, I think it is worthwhile, as the good doctor has had any number of thoughtful and pithy things to say. Right now there are two sections, one from his eponymous book, and one for things I’ve copied from this website. Enjoy!

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

      !*Which*! hardcover edition? You should add a citation per the Wikipedia page.

      /@

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        Done. I hadn’t realized that there were more than one hardcover editions.

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Well done! Yes, Professor Ceiling Cat is eminently quotable.

      b&

  13. michieux
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    As I make small but regular financial contributions to Wikipedia, I’m glad there are groups like this doing such important work. Wikipedia’s a wonderful resource for a great many people and it deserves support both financial and intellectual.

  14. Robert
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Just to point out Tom Ruffles who runs the Society for Psychical Research facebook page has mocked this post and has advertised it so you may get psychic trolls coming over here.

    Ruffles usually posts conspiracy theories on the SPR facebook page that skeptics have high jacked Wikipedia paranormal related articles. Unfortunately he nor any of these other psychic believers has never read Wikipedia policy on fringe or pseudoscience. All these people’s agenda is to have anything critical or skeptical about their pseudoscience deleted from Wikipedia. Anyone who adds anything from the scientific consensus is automatically “biased” according to them.

    For example Alexander Kvist Hansen (an SPR member) has posted on the SPR facebook page that Susan’s group “distort wikipedia against wikipedias policy”. The truth is they don’t. The psychic believers such as Hansen have never read wikipedia policy. The only people who violate Wikipedia policy are fringe proponents who promote their pseudoscience on Wikipedia without reliable references. Everything Susan and her group cite is from reliable/and or scientific references which fringe proponents do not have. Sorry just clearing that up.

    If anyone is interested you can find Wikipedia rules on fringe theories here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Fringe_theories

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      “Psychic trolls”–could be fun! :D


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