Is Guerrilla Skepticism OK? 8


Guerrilla Skepticism is a team led by Susan Gerbic that consists of Wikipedia editors who have a specific focus on improving the quality of the available information. In fact they are quite open about what they are all about, and have their own website here where they invite anybody to join them, and describe their goal to be as follows:

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.

The challenge here is that nobody is neutral and to some degree everybody has a specific agenda, so it can be observed that if Wikipedia is indeed to remain a reliable source of credible information of universal value, then the only real standard that can be applied to ensure that is to practise scientific skepticism.

How do I define that term … well hey, let’s turn to Wikipedia and find out a bit about it. There you will find a great article that is in fact quite good …

Scientific skepticism (also spelled scepticism) is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[1] For example, Robert K. Merton asserts that all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny (see Mertonian norms).[2]

OK, so to translate all that – what Guerrilla Skepticism is actually all about is simply cleaning up pages about skeptics, science educators, and science-based medicine proponents who push back against pseudoscience and the paranormal in the media, and also purging the whacky unsourced claims that often pop up. The classic example is that lots of obscure psychics have Wikipedia pages full of nutty claims that often turn out to be written by the psychics themselves. 

Net Result of such activism: The Kooks get upset

If indeed somebody’s agenda relates to a specific bit of woo, then it is inevitable that they will get upset by all this.

We have a specific example.

Tara MacIsaac writes an article in the New York based Epoch Times that more or less sticks the knife into Guerrilla Skepticism and twists it a few times.

ClaimA team of activists under the label “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia” are making concerted efforts to change science content on Wikipedia.

Observation: Er no, that is not the focus at all. Their remit is accurate and fully cited information and is all about improving the quality of what is there.

What is also quite fascinating is that her primary go-to source of criticism is Rupert Sheldrake, a well-known crank who has a reputation for the promotion of crazy pseudoscientific ideas that don’t have a single jot of credible evidence.

He in fact personally claims … This summer, soon after the TED controversy, a commando squad of skeptics captured the Wikipedia page about me. They have occupied and controlled it ever since, rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation. 

The ever so slight flaw with that claim is that it is not factual at all, according to skeptic Tim Farley, “none of Susan’s editors (Susan leads the Guerrilla Skepticism team) are editing that article. It’s completely a conspiracy theory.”

Mr Sheldrake’s real problem is not Guerrilla Skepticism, but rather the complete lack of any credible evidence for his claims, so he will not be a target for one specific team of editors, but rather all of them. He really really does not like the term “scientific materialism” which is perhaps driven by the observation that he has no evidence, so his criticism of that concept is perhaps understandable.

Meanwhile … can we trust Wikipedia?

Yes we can, as long as the information is backed by a credible source.

A study in the journal Nature  in 2005, reports that Wikipedia scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”

But perhaps for a more detailed discussion on that topic, the place to turn to for information on the accuracy (or not) of Wikipedia is the Wikipedia article all about the accuracy of Wikipedia.


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8 thoughts on “Is Guerrilla Skepticism OK?

  • sgerbic

    Dave love this article. Just read it again. It is required reading for all my trainees, great summary of the “drama” surrounding GSoW. And you address several issues that we get all the time. Thanks!

  • xxicenturyboy

    “Some may argue that Wikipedia is not a public forum but a living reference and to that I argue that listing a psychic’s claims or a ghost story can be read as history and autobiography and therefore is still appropriate for Wiki content.”
    Wikipedia does this all the time, because anything that a “psychic” claims is reportable and verifiable. But what psychics get mad at is the follow up citation that to date no psychic has shown to be more accurate than chance. The articles concerning Sylvia Brown, John Edwards, Theresa Caputo ad nausuem do list what they claim, and what they are known for, but with the caveat they are called charlatans by (fill in the blank) and there is no evidence to show they can do what they claim
    . So historically they get their 15 undeserved minutes, but the facts get theirs as well.

  • sgerbic

    According to the founder of Wikipedia, claims without evidence are not okay for Wikipedia use. We use secondary sources to cite Wikipedia. A psychic can not just make up crap and then put it on the page, Wikipedia is not a forum.

    If a psychic wants to write whatever they want then they need to just do so on their own website.

    GSoW does not silence editors that have genuine evidence for their claims.

  • David Cheeseman

    It is one thing to enter in a debate and address pseudoscientific claims, it is another to try to silence a person from making the initial claims. Outside of where doing so is legally required (separation of church and state for example) trying to silence an individual in a public forum makes them a victim. Some may argue that Wikipedia is not a public forum but a living reference and to that I argue that listing a psychic’s claims or a ghost story can be read as history and autobiography and therefore is still appropriate for Wiki content.

    In summation trying to silence paranormal advocates in public forums makes them the victim, people empathize with victims over aggressors and the net effect is people relate less with skeptics than if we had simply challenged their claims instead of aggressively trying to erase them.

  • idoubtit

    I was at a conference of paranormal researchers recently and they remarked on Susan’s group changing (or rather “messing with” the pages of at least one other historic psychical researcher). I contacted Susan right away to ask and she noted they did not even edit that page. Ever. So Sheldrake and Chopra (who also whines about his wikipedia page) are making headway in promoting false beliefs. That’s their legacy in everything it seems.

    Certainly pro-paranormal people are complaining about it. Why? Because they don’t have a team like this of their own. A team that works hard AND plays by the rules instead of whining about changing them.

  • Andrew Merritt

    Good article, Dave!

    I think some of the confusion is from the name. The team’s name is “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia” (GSoW). The problem, for some, is that the more general “Guerrilla Skepticism” tag is used by Mark Edward to describe other more disruptive activities, such as infiltrating psychics’ stage shows, and protesting outside venues. GSoW abides by all the wikipedia guidelines, and is mostly improving the pages of skeptics and skepticism related topics. A different name might have avoided the negative, for some, associations, but the main aim of the team is outreach by improving the information on wikipedia, not campaigning under the name.