Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project – A discussion

I am a PhD researcher looking into how information is curated online. In particular I study how curation has moved from being the pursuit of a singular expert within an institution such a museum, gallery or archive, to a collective endeavour in which many “citizen curators” (a term that I am developing) work together to curate content both off and online. I’m looking at this curation in a very similar way to the Web 2.0 phenomena of the citizen journalist, where technology has opened by avenues of participatory, public driven projects in an unprecedented manner. With this in mind my research focuses quite heavily the larger Wikimedia project, so my interest was immediately piqued by the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project.

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) is an initiative to generate, improve and develop skeptical content on Wikipedia. It is championed by Susan Gerbic of the Monterey County Skeptics and Tim Farley, a well-known research fellow at the JREF. To the most part has been received well and somewhat uncritically by the skeptical community at large. Although the project is about 3 years old now, it only came up on my radar this year as Susan Gerbic was a speaker at QEDcon in Manchester last April (her video of her talk that I reference numerous times can be found here). Whilst we can all agree that improving and adding well researched content to Wikipedia is a worthwhile endeavour, the lack of critical examination of the GSoW by the skeptical community as a whole has given me cause for concern.

My main unease stems from the groups use of what Gerbic termed during her QED talk as a “secret forum”, that on becoming one of her circle of editing skeptics one is admitted to. This appears to be a Proboards forum (previously they worked through a private Facebook group) which I have no knowledge of the nature of the discussions on the forum as I have not approached the group to become a member. There are a few issues with conducting discussions in “secret” away from the open talk format on Wikipedia.

This forum could be interpreted as a “secret cabal”, something that runs counter to the spirit of Wikipedia: “This type of cabal is restricted in its membership and secretive about its functions or existence. The aims of such groups may be disruption of the project, promotion of its members to become Wikipedia functionaries, or canvassing and/or meatpuppetry and/or tag teaming, possibly to impress a specific point of view on the encyclopedia” (Wikipedia:Why Wikipedia is not so great). This could spawn problems around conflict of interest (COI), especially if the initial conversations about the creation, editing or deletion of articles are not done out in the open. One of the main reasons for all of discussions on Wikipedia being conducted in public is so a consensus with the larger Wikipedia public can be met. The group is in effect creating their own consensus independent of Wikipedia, which could lead to legitimate concerns surrounding any agenda or bias within the content once it goes live on Wikipedia. The content begins life in a skeptical echo-chamber, which the group then may feel a need to defend the article against editing once on Wikipedia. It also raises questions about the nature of the discussions going on, what is it about their content that makes them reluctant to conduct them on the Wikipedia Talk pages? Gerbic and Farley suggest in their interview on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (Episode 438) that they mentor and help new editors so that their edits are not deleted or that they do not run into trouble with exisiting editors and get “bitten” by them. Biting is when a more experienced editor will be seen to “smack down” a more junior editor. They give the distinct impression that they are providing a support structure that is missing from Wikipedia and without it there is no way for editors to learn the ropes which is patently untrue. Wikipedia provides the Teahouse which is explicitly for newer editors to ask for advice, help and guidance in how to become a more effective and productive Wikipedian. The Teahouse is open and allows editors to converse and interact with a larger group than just those in the immediate skeptical environs.

Wikipedia itself maintains that “While editing Wikipedia, an editor’s primary role is to be a Wikipedian” (Wikipedia:Conflict of interest). By having a community that discusses, strategizes and operates away from the open channels of communication of Wikipedia, even if there is no COI, there is very little ability for recourse when such an accusation is levelled.

“Any external relationship – personal, religious, political, academic, financial, and legal – can trigger a conflict of interest. How close the relationship needs to be before it becomes a concern on Wikipedia is governed by common sense. An article about a band should not be written by the band’s manager, and a biography should not be written by the subject’s spouse. But subject-matter experts are welcome to contribute to articles in their areas of expertise, while being careful to make sure that their external relationships in that field do not interfere with their primary role on Wikipedia.” (Wikipedia:Conflict of interest)

Many have been quick to dismiss the concerns of the now infamous Sheldrake affair on Wikipedia as simply paranoia on the part of the “psi” community. Sheldrake wrongly accused GSoW of editing his Wikipedia page in a manner that he and his supporters deemed to be an attack. These edits, conducted by Wikipedians that GSoW claim not to be among their number, were seen to be aggressive, with some editors appearing to camp on the page monitoring all edits and reverting many of edits of Sheldrake supporters. Gerbic and Farley discuss this incident during their interview on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Coyne gives a good overall synopsis here. There is an undeniable fact that, in eschewing the talk pages and discussions on Wikipedia (not entirely but in part), the GSoW is unable to fully defend themselves against such accusations. Unless they open up their forum or abandon it in favour of the talk pages of Wikipedia, the “other side” of the skeptical debate will always have cause to question the motivations and actions of the GSoW. This can only exasperate further the contention that skeptics are not interested in debate and look to supress or circumvent debate on Wikipedia.

I did ask Gerbic following her talk at QED about the possibility, that due to the use of this secret forum, there is an inherent agenda within their content? She answered citing that everyone will have an agenda on Wikipedia, saying something along the lines that people who like butterflies will edit articles on butterflies. I would say that that is more of a bias and the fact that people will gravitate to content that interests them or they think they have an element of expertise in. An agenda, however, can see large amounts of articles getting attention that could be perceived as lop-sided. The fact that Wikipedia advocates that “dog lovers should edit about cats” (User:Charles Matthews/Conflict of interest) illustrates that we should actually look to edit and contribute to articles that you have no stake hold in. Gerbic’s use of terminology such as “our” articles and her “empire” in interviews and talks, whilst no doubt meant in a light hearted fashion do not help to hold up the GSoW as a force for good, unprejudiced information on Wikipedia.

My main concern is put very succinctly within Wikipedia’s article on COI:

“Campaigning:Activities regarded by insiders as simply “getting the word out” may appear promotional or propagandistic to the outside world. If you edit articles while involved with campaigns that engage in advocacy in the same area, you may have a conflict of interest.” (Wikipedia:Conflict of interest)

I don’t think, that as a larger community, we are thinking about these activities with the requisite critical approach. As it is getting our word out and it is viewed by the community, to use Gerbic’s words, as “good stuff” we seem to be ignoring the problems we could be generating for ourselves further down the line. The “good stuff” she ensured me the group was generating away from the open environment of Wikipedia could be seen by others as furthering the skeptical agenda or enforcing a form of censorship on other articles. The interpretation of the GSoW’s actions, rightly or wrongly (as it is in secret we do not know fully), could be seen as “attempts to improperly influence Wikipedia content” (Wikipedia:Expectations and norms of the Wikipedia community).

In answering questions at QED she admitted that when the group operated exclusively on Wikipedia, it became “dormant”, implying that there was lack of discussion or engagement through the talk pages. It is this lack of engagement that meant they don’t seem to have engaged directly with the extant WikiProject Skepticism. There are many WikiProjects that focus on biographies, certain countries or locations, or subject areas. WikiProject Skepticism is “dedicated to creating, improving, and monitoring articles related to Scientific skepticism, including articles about claims related to science and philosophy which are contrary to the current body of scientific evidence, or which involve the paranormal” (Wikipedia:WikiProject Skepticism). Many of you may be familiar with the banners that are associated with such initiatives within Wikipedia that are used to highlight to the whole Wikipedia community that certain articles are being earmarked for development or to draw more editors into a project. The Talk page for the Edinburgh Skeptics is a good example of this as it falls under both the Skepticism and Edinburgh WikiProjects.

Edinburgh SkepticsGerbic states that there is a lot of overlap in the members of this WikiProject and the members of GSoW. She does make a point that it could be a good thing to have different groups tackling the same content from different angles. However I think the difference is more fundamental. As I quoted above the WikiProject Skepticism focuses on the actual science and monitoring pages of to do with alternative medicine or other pseudo sciences. GSoW, along with Gerbic’s other project, We’ve Got Your Wiki Back, focus on what she calls “our skeptical spokespeople”. Here the group identify, edit or develop many pages of these notable skeptics or atheists, such as Nate Phelps, Brian Dunning and Rachel Dunlop. Again we stumble upon the problem of conflict of interest. During her QED lecture, Gerbic outlines how the group target the pages of skeptics that may be featured in the main stream news and edit the pages to anticipate a peak in traffic. The group did this with Nate Phelps’ page in anticipation of his father, Fred Phelps, recent passing. This skirts a line of using Wikipedia as a promotional tool for skepticism and that kind of strategizing can be painted in a very negative light. It is difficult to know from the content of her lectures, but there may be a further issue as to how these page are being identified, as if one of these notable skeptics are bringing their own pages to the attention of GSoW that is a very definite conflict of interest. For example, I have gotten to know the group behind the Merseyside Skeptics over the years, if one of them was to mention, in passing, something that they would like changed about their Wikipedia page(s) it is a conflict of interest for me to change them. This is because I know them, I actively support much of what they do and in general I think they should have a higher profile. Distinct from this would be me editing the page of someone like Simon Singh, I don’t have a personal relationship with him, and whilst I support his activism, there is no way that he could directly of indirectly influence what I edit on any pages relating to him. It is this fine line that many editors struggle with on Wikipedia and it is an issue when it comes to maintaining the neutral point of view the encyclopaedia strives for in all its content.

In conclusion, I am not advocating for the GSoW to stop what they are doing, but to perhaps reassess and reflect on how and why they are doing it and the implications it could have the skeptical community everywhere. As a community our actions should be open for all to see, so that they are above reproach. Only then can we stand behind the “good” information on Wikipedia and start to build relationships with the very people we hope to engage with and hopefully inform.

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project – A discussion

17 thoughts on “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project – A discussion

  1. Kylie Sturgess says:

    I can’t speak from authority about this business, but I have emailed photos to help the group a few years past, before there was a ‘organisation’ and some appear on Wikipedia. Fairly recently I asked to join the forum board, and the response was to ask in return exactly what I could contribute.

    I suggested that I could contribute more photos, and offered to find some from an early skeptic event by a photographer I knew and get permission for the shots to be used, but then I never heard from them (nor given access to forum to see what else I could help with). I don’t know if you’ve tried contacting them to offer to help and get access to the forum? It doesn’t hurt to ask (I certainly wasn’t hurt in asking, even though I never got access in the end).

    1. Rebecca says:

      Very interesting points! I did think about asking to join the forum. As I had some reservations very early on about the project I decided not to – I didn’t want to appear duplicitous or misrepresent in any way my interests/motivations to gain access to the forum. My main concern was how the group could be analysed from the outside so I felt it was important to maintain that remove from the group to do that.
      Also I am using my experiences on Wikipedia as part of my research and I didn’t want to get mired in any activism that could unduly impinge on my other Wikimedia activities.

  2. Johann says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    Very good article. As a member of the parapsychology community and a general proponent of experimental psi research, who is also supportive of skepticism, I have felt that the culture war has taken precedence over rational discussion, with a frankly embarrassing number of accusations coming from my side about dogma, censorship, and narrow-mindedness—in which I formerly partook, and must now apologize for. I won’t belabor the point; suffice it to say that I consider your article a nice counter to the prevailing atmosphere.

    So far as I can see, I was the first person to bring the GSoW to the attention of the wider psi proponent community, two years ago, in a thread on where I used to participate in forum discussions. I say this because (1) I had never seen an exposition of the GSoW before in writing or speech, from popular psi/paranormal sources, and (2) Craig Weiler, owner of the blog Weilerpsi, commented that it was the first time he heard of it, after which he eventually told Sheldrake about about the group.

    Two years ago is quite a long time for me, however; my views have changed substantially since then. When I first mentioned the group, I misconstrued their objective (largely because of their title) as being that of revising the pages on psi evidence—and that aggressively—as a sort hit-and-run operation on psi research. But in the debate that’s come to light recently, I’ve found that GSoW mostly cares about improving the coverage of the skeptical movement and skeptical views on Wikipedia, and hasn’t actually been involved in the major controversies (e.g. Sheldrake), or in editing many very many parapsychology pages.

    That said, they have to be careful. Their 2013 edit list included many paranormal topics—Bell witch, famous psychics, Indigo Children, etc—and so has to potential for COI given the skeptical movement’s heavy involvement in those topics, and the GSoW’s obvious role in that movement. Not that I put any credence in the subjects they overviewed, but I did take a look at their Bell Witch page just to see how they had increased the coverage of skeptical views there without imputing direct bias to the article as a whole, and found that they had not done so. Instead, an article that had already started out with an (appropriately) skeptical slant was left with a “conclusion paragraph” for readers, exclusively referencing skeptics and making the reader’s decision for them:

    According to Ben Radford, the Bell Witch story is an important one for all paranormal researchers: “It shows how easily legend and myth can be mistaken for fact and real events and how easily the lines are blurred” when sources are not checked.[10] Dunning wrote that there was no need to discuss the supposed paranormal activity until there was evidence that the story was true. “Vague stories that there was a witch in the area. All the significant facts of the story have been falsified, the others come from a source of dubious credibility. Since no reliable documentation of any actual events exists, there is nothing worth looking into.”[9]

    Dunning concludes, “I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction.”[9] Radford reminds readers that “the burden of proof is not on skeptics to disprove anything but rather for the proponents to prove… claims”.[10]

    These comments should have been left for a “skepticism” segment, where they would have been entirely appropriate. Their authoritative placement at the end of the article (especially given their focus on skepticism *of a general nature*) instead reads as an attempt to draw the reader into skepticism, which is not the prerogative of Wikipedia. More troubling is that these final tidbits of general skeptical wisdom were provided and directed by people *involved in an active skeptical group*.

    One more point about this. Susan’s own sarcastic rebuttal to the mistaken accusations of the Sheldrake crowd, in my opinion, bespeaks a slight naivete about the importance of the neutral point of view on Wikipedia, that might be reflected in how her group edited the Bell Witch page:

    “We are a bunch of mean skeptics that are doing everything we can to make sure every Wikipedia page is backed up with great noteworthy citations, proving all the claims made on the page. Evidence rules!”

    Sure we all want evidence. But GSoW and the Ghost Society, for example, are likely to disagree on what what pieces of evidence are the most compelling, and to feel strongly about their opinions. That’s why neither should concertedly alter pages about the paranormal to reflect their views overall, but should only contribute material of an informational character, in appropriately designated sections.

    Wikipedia’s fringe policy may dictate that mainstream views are given prominence, but skeptical organizations like CSI are not de facto representatives of the mainstream scientific consensus, though they may side with it. Nor are their spokesmen. The only reliable sources for mainstream consensus views are from organizations such as the NSF, AAAS, APS, APA, etc, and/or sufficient comments from mainstream scientists not actively involved in pushing an agenda—however benign. For example, in covering an article about cold fusion, it is fine to state that the phenomenon is not recognized by the mainstream physics community, but it is not right to quote, say, Robert Park, as the closing word on the research. A skepticism section is needed. These are fine lines, IMO.

    Finally, speaking from experience, the concerns surfaced here about classified group discussions are legitimate. I partook in one such venue formerly, and from it can attest that such places easily become echo chambers—under the influence of groupthink and general unpleasantness—unless very carefully monitored. It is simply *more difficult* to put trust in the activities of a group whose actions are coordinated from such a secret forum, especially if that group is providing a public service and claiming no conflict of interest, than it is to put trust in a transparent organization. At the very least I think GSoW’s discussions should be open to public viewing, even if they don’t take place in the Wiki talk pages.

    I’d be interested to hear your opinions on what I’ve said. Congratulations on an excellent self-critical piece.

    Best, – Johann

    1. Rebecca says:

      I think it comes down to not necessarily what they do but how their actions can be interpreted. As you intimate as a group you need to be aware of your actions and the direction you are heading in.

      The echo chamber is something all communities and groups need to be vigilant against. Regardless of any good work that it is done it can only lead down a cul de sac in thinking.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks so much for your comments on the piece.

  3. Johann says:

    I was notified of this article, by the way, because the Society for Psychical Research shared it on Facebook. I am passing it on to the Facebook group Parapsychology to give it wider viewership. We are interested in where this goes.

  4. I was a participant in the Sheldrake ‘wiki war’ and was quite a causality of very questionable techniques that I can only describe as collaborative harassment from a very passionate group of skeptic editors. I’ve been waiting for members of these kind of communities to address the problem in a rational manner.

    I agree that GSoW was disproportionately accused of being involved – but this does not the full problem make. GSoW or not, there does appear to be many skeptic activists who collaborate to dominate articles on Wikipedia outside of the scope of the project. I’ve publicly said this should not be an indictment of skepticism and that this sort of behavior makes the skeptic community look bad.

    Tim Farley admittedly has been training editors for this purpose, and himself has been directly involved in creating this battleground mentality.

    1. Rebecca says:

      The in-house training is something that I’m not comfortable with, as it leads to a closed group that eschews the larger Wikipedia community. Anything that goes against the spirit of Wikipedia should be addressed as you say.

      How the skeptical communities actions are interpreted by others is very important when this is touted as skeptical outreach. It’s not outreach if you don’t engender a relationship or discourse with those you are attempting to dialogue with.

    2. Andrew Merritt says:

      The post is about GSoW, not other skeptics groups. I think you’re being disingenuous to merely say that GSoW was ‘disproportionately accused of being involved'; they weren’t involved at all.

      Do you have any criticisms of the work that GSoW has done?

      I’ve spoken to one or two people from the wikipedia organisation, and they had no problems with GSoW at all.

      1. Rebecca says:

        Okay perhaps my wording there is a bit ambiguous, but as they conduct themselves in secret and, unlike other Wiki Projects, I couldn’t find a list of all the editors involved, all we have to go on is GSoW’s word. No I do believe that they weren’t involved in the Sheldrake edits but it adds unnecessary fuel to the fire for those on the “other side”.

        As I state in the conclusion it is not their work I have the issue with, it is the manner in which they conduct themselves that I find unpalatable. And yes I do think that matters a lot – how skeptics are perceived is very important otherwise we can be characterised as being just as close minded or evangelical as those we often find ourselves opposed to.

        That’s find, but one or two people does not a consensus make – especially when you are talking about an organisation the size of Wikipedia/Wikimedia. The use of a secret forum is not something that is encouraged or even approved of by Wikipedia in their own guidelines.

        Given what you’ve raised I think you need to read the article again as it’s all in there.

        1. Andrew Merritt says:

          Sorry, Rebecca, I wasn’t clear; I was replying to Rome’s comments, and it was his wording I was commenting on.

  5. joolz says:

    Quote from Johann: “But GSoW and the Ghost Society, for example, are likely to disagree on what what pieces of evidence are the most compelling, and to feel strongly about their opinions. That’s why neither should concertedly alter pages about the paranormal to reflect their views overall, but should only contribute material of an informational character, in appropriately designated sections.”

    Skeptics and people who believe in ghosts will certainly disagree on a lot of things, as will people of different religions or opposing political views. That is why Wikipedia has strict rules on what constitutes evidence, what is a valid citation, and also instructs people that pages are not to contain any personal opinions, only facts.

    Changes by GSoW editors are rarely (never?) reversed because they follow all the Wikipedia rules strictly and don’t write their personal opinion into pages, they just add facts and remove claims that are not supported with proper citations.

    Unfortunately, there are few (no?) scientific and provable facts for the existence of ghosts, so people who believe in them haven’t yet produced any scientifically validated evidence that they exist, so their edits adding claims without citations can be removed by anyone following Wikipedia rules, not just skeptics.

    Why should skepticism be demoted to an ‘appropriately designated section’? Facts that disprove specific claims of ghost sightings are probably more important than the initial claim of ‘seeing’ one, they teach people how they can be fooled into false conclusions.

    Rebecca, I note your point about using the Wiki Teahouse, but it is clear that people learn Wiki editing a lot faster with focused mentoring from people who know their editing history, they learn much faster with a training plan, rather than leaving them to figure out for themselves what they have to learn. It takes a long time to pick up the rules, when I started I didn’t realise just how many there are. When I started editing it was great to have people telling me what pitfalls to look out for before I fell into them, it saved a lot of hassle and despondency.

    BTW, I am in GSoW and edit many types of pages, not just skeptic ones, I’m a WikiGnome too as I am interested in the quality of articles of all types.

    1. Johann says:

      Skeptics and people who believe in ghosts will certainly disagree on a lot of things, as will people of different religions or opposing political views. That is why Wikipedia has strict rules on what constitutes evidence, what is a valid citation, and also instructs people that pages are not to contain any personal opinions, only facts.

      I certainly agree with you that valid citations and other evidence markers should be given their due respect in a Wiki article. But as a skeptic, I think you must realize that your tendency is to post valid skeptical evidence more than other types of evidence. How long have you spent perusing the pages of the Ghost Society, for example? Can you really claim in advance to know that it’s the skeptical sources that tell the most well-supported story?

      Since you’re not a robot, if you take charge of the article *as a whole* (I make this very important distinction above) for the GSoW, you will impute skeptical bias to it. But if you maintain your strongest arguments in a section on skepticism, only that section will reflect your views. A reader browsing the page, then, with any curiosity to weigh the evidence, will look at your contribution and realize that, say, the skeptics are clearly making a much better argument. Whereas if you insist on giving the entire document a skeptical slant, you in effect rob readers of the opportunity of thinking for themselves.

      Just how gray this issue is, however, needs to be emphasized; I can easily think of plenty of examples where following my advice would lead to Wiki pages that are a disservice to public knowledge (for example, if anti-vaccination pages were treated in this way). So I guess you must use your discernment.

  6. Thanks for this. I was at the QEDCon talk by Susan Gerbic, and all I could think about was Wikipedia rules on conflicts of interest. I distinctly remember, though I can’t find it now, a Wikipedia guideline that said users should not edit pages related to their personal “vendettas”.

    For this reason, I’ve refrained from editing the wikipedia page on Accelerated Christian Education (I’ve campaigned against it for years), even though I am probably the person most qualified to do it. I recently blogged a call for someone else to edit the page, giving a list of current problems. I keep thinking of asking GSoW to do it, but I just don’t feel good about it.

  7. Terence Waites says:

    I have been a member of GSOW for some time but unfortunately my contribution has been minor due to other commitments.

    I had no problem contacting Susan Gerbic after listening to her on a podcast and was welcomed into the GSOW community by being given a mentor who explained how wikipedia worked and how the editing process took place. The aims of the group were carefully explained and the ‘secret’ group has only one aim. To make sure new and naive editors like me did not make a complete mess of the pages of skeptics. In addition they would make sure no information was added without a valid citation to ensure we didn’t waste any time having to repeatedly go back after other editors removed the hard work. It really is just an effective quality control group that ensures that GSOW members are accurate, effective, truthful, dedicated and honest. It felt really weird reading all this stuff about us being a secret cabal with a conflict of interest? Not sure why Susan chose the way to mentor people like me. All I can say is that it works and I do not do any editing that has not had a full critical appraisal and skeptical twice-over backed up by good citations.

    The other reason for the group is to ensure that we don’t all work on the same pages. There aren’t enough of us to waste time on duplication.

    It is innocent stuff. I think all those with concerns should join for a while to see how it works. This is a great little team that does some sterling work, all of it legitimate,. so far it seems all of it correct as far as I know.

    Wikipedia needs to be correct, especially when it is something to do with scepticism. GSOW does its best to make sure it is correct where they can.

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