How I Got Hooked on the Skeptical World

Susan Gerbic

Growing up in Salinas, California, during the 1970s, if you wanted to know anything, the outlets for finding it out were minimal. We relied on the newspaper, radio, and a couple of TV channels for our information. If you wanted more detail, there was always the Encyclopedia Britannica and the public library. Finding anything critical of the paranormal back then was difficult. If it was mentioned, it was inevitably sensationalized—either advocating for the phenomenon or leaving you with “no one really knows. . . .” I was extremely gullible and naive, had no one to ask, and the Cold War was in full swing. It was a time of badly wanting to believe in the paranormal, life after death, and that a caring deity would not allow WWIII to happen. That is just what life was like then.

When I discovered Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1996, it was eye-opening. I believe the first issue I picked up was the January/February “Star Cradle” one. My subscription began with the September/October 1997 issue. Inside I found answers to lots of questions—about ghosts, psychics, Bigfoot, all that fascinated me. I learned about things I had never thought of, and upon reading some articles I thought, “People believe that?” Other articles made me say, “Wait, that isn’t real?” In early 2002, I received a flyer from CSICOP (now CSI); only an hour drive away there would be a gathering of skeptics. I walked in and decided to change my life. I acted as the hostess, inviting people to sit at a large table I had chosen and introducing people to each other even though I knew no one. They must have been quite amused. I had never been surrounded by such smart people before. I should have been completely intimidated, but they were so nice. My confidence (completely faked) and their reaction to it allowed me to find my people, and I had never before felt so accepted.

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After that weekend, I was invited by Carol and Ben Baumgartner to attend Ray Hyman’s Skeptic’s Toolbox (a CSICOP workshop held in Eugene, Oregon), and after that weekend in August 2002, I was completely hooked on this world.

Fast-forward a few years, and every­thing completely changed; the Internet became popular and nearly everyone had email. The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) forum allowed me to meet other local skeptics, which allowed me to cofound Monterey County Skeptics in 2007. Then Facebook expanded the community even further. JREF cruises were without Internet, which forced us to sit and talk for long hours. I met more amazing people, again building even stronger communities. Finally, I attended a lecture where Tim Farley was speaking about Wikipedia and why skeptics should care about it. Months passed and I finally started making small edits, completely self-taught. I started mentioning on Facebook what I was doing, and people asked me questions. When people asked if I might talk to their group and then more people were interested, eventually I had to take it seriously; that was the birth of Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW).

The project is, and always has been, about more than repairing Wikipedia in order to educate millions of people I will never meet. GSoW has been about the people in our community. I wanted to support those who were doing the science, writing the articles and books, lecturing, and podcasting. Not only so that when they are in the public eye readers will have something to see, but because I want people to know our history, to be inspired by our spokespeople as I am.

My personal focus in the community mostly has been to support people and projects—to find, train, and motivate people to do more to make our community stronger and grow. I’m a major advocate for conferences, as I know from personal experience that great things happen when people meet face to face. Share a glass of something and learn together. Outside of GSoW, I try to remain relevant, to be a thorn in the side of my favorite purveyors of pseudoscience, grief vampires. I have organized several projects (again calling on our community—look up Operation Bumble Bee, Operation Ice Cream Cone, and Operation Tater Tot for more information).

I want to thank CSI for giving me an opportunity to speak to you; I would never ever have imagined that my name would be printed in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer as it has been several times. Sometimes I think I’m still faking the confidence and you are just too nice to call me on it. Congratulations on forty years of amazing work, Skeptical Inquirer; I hope we can tango together for many more.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.