GSoW Roving Reporter, Annika Merkelbach
Susan Gerbic: Hello Annika, thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time today. I’m really interested in your experience with GWUP’s skeptic conference SkepKon, which was held May 10–12, 2018, in Cologne. I have a lot of questions about the conference and what is going on with the German skeptics. But before I get to those questions, can you please tell readers a bit about yourself?
Annika Merkelbach: Sure! I am Annika Merkelbach. I am twenty-eight years old and live in a little village close to Cologne in Germany. I am a teacher trainee of English and history and hope to become a teacher later. My hobbies include singing in a choir, reading books, spending time with family and friends, listening to podcasts, and visiting historical places and museums.
Gerbic: Wonderful. I also want to mention that you are one of my GSoW editors. You joined in June 2017 after listening to me being interviewed on the European Skeptic Podcast (ESP). I believe that the thing that was the catalyst for you to join was that I mentioned how few German Wikipedia pages the GSoW had actually written. I think only four. That’s pretty awful considering how many German speakers there are and that German Wikipedia is one of the most popular languages.
Merkelbach:Yes, definitely! German Wikipedia is one of the bigger ones compared to other languages and yet we only have as many editors as we have pages written, which means not enough of either!
Gerbic:People are always curious about what GSoW really does and what training is like. Can you explain to readers what your experiences have been in GSoW?
Merkelbach:GSoW is exciting. Training starts really easy with general topics like “What is Wikipedia?” and “How to insert a picture into an article?”. It’s really cool to make your first small edits and to play around in your own Sandbox. Most of the training is organized through a Google Docs spreadsheet and videos. It’s not magical at all, and anybody can do it. I am quite inexperienced with coding and programming and had no problems to get through it. If there are any questions I can always ask around our GSoW group, ask my buddy Ruth, who is mentoring me, or you.
Gerbic:So now let’s talk about SkepKon. What do you know about the history of this conference? Who runs it? Does it move around to different cities and have themes? I suppose it is only in German?
Merkelbach:SkepKon is a conference in the German speaking European countries, such as Germany and Austria. It is run by GWUP, “Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften,” which translates to “Society for the Scientific Investigation of Parasciences.” It has been around since 1989, but until 2012 it was called “GWUP-Konferenz.” “SkepKon” is short for “SkeptikerKonferenz,” which of course means “Skeptics Conference.” It was in different cities, for example Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, or Hamburg, and it follows different themes, but they are in segments, so there’s rarely one overarching topic for the whole conference. They did have an English speaker in 2015, but it indeed is mostly in German.
Gerbic:I think you told me that this was your first SkepKon? What was it like in comparison to the European Skeptic Conference that we both attended in Poland this last September? Who were the speakers?
Norbert Aust, Susanne Aust, Udo Endruscheit, and Natalie Grams from Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie; the beer bottles contain homeopathic beer, i.e. are out of chocolate
Merkelbach:The first day started with Skeptical, which is an exciting science event. It started on Thursday with a comedic practical example of a double-blind study. Then Norbert Aust and Natalie Grams of Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie opened the big 50 000 € challenge. If you can guess the content of a few homeopathy meds that have their tags removed they will give you the money (about 58,000 US Dollars). And yes, the money actually exists!
Skeptical went on with tidbits by Natalie Grams about informing the public via Twitter and other social media and about inconsistencies with most German insurance companies, because they actually pay for homeopathic “remedies,” but some don’t pay for (very well established and proven to work) eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Then Ralf Neugebauer talked about a very specific German topic, the “Reichsbürger” movement. They are people who reject modern Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, which seems just harmless and confusing at first but can actually lead to almost extremist outcomes. “Reichsbürger” ideas also weaken trust in any kind of society or democratic government of Germany, which, given our history, is equally dangerous. Ralf Neugebauer told the audience where the ideas are originating and what you can do with rational arguments to debunk such ideas.
Another extremist idea was broached by Anna Zakrisson (Doctor Anna’s Imaginarium). She was talking about anti-vaxxers and what everyone can do to inform the public about the dangers of not vaccinating. One example she gave was really interesting: she claimed if you use a search engine to find out if a certain vaccination is dangerous, the first hits are usually anti-vaxxer pages. In my own opinion, that makes our involvement on Social Media or Wikipedia even more important! Here is a link to the video with English captions.
The next topic was completely different, but it can also be seen under the bigger topic of “conspiracies.” Lydia Benecke illustrated the difficulties behind the so called “satanic panic.” It is interesting that the world-wide satanic group still couldn’t be found, although it is claimed they are actually even in positions of power. It really blew my mind that most of the torturing sects are thought to be a conspiracy, too! A Satanist was invited and answered a few questions after Lydia Benecke’s presentation.
Axel Ebert finished the first day of SkepKon with a “bullshit detector”; giving tips how to bust and debunk conspiracies and over-generalizations. In the evening, a really cool Skeptics podcast for children called “Schlaulicht” celebrated their second anniversary and I was lucky enough to celebrate with them! As I am a big podcast lover this was one of the highlights of SkepKon 2018 for me, as well as meeting two other podcasters there, who actually invited me to the “Schaulicht” party.
Gerbic:And how did you like the second day?
Merkelbach:It was equally fascinating! Friday began with a meeting of members, which wasn’t open for the public or other ticket holders such as me (I joined GWUP after the conference). This is normal practice for SkepKon, because it’s not only a Skeptics’ conference but also one of the biggest possible meetings for all of the GWUP members around the German speaking countries. The next big topic of the open part of the conference was conspiracy theories. Marius Raab and Alexander Fischer discussed the philosophy behind conspiracies and how we as skeptics have to be skeptical in what we believe, too. Michael Marquardt explained conspiracy theories out of a scientific, historic, psychological, and philosophical perspective. He was also referring to alternative facts and fake news; meanwhile discussing several current topics.
Bernd Harder demonstrated how a conspiracy theory can start with a playful piece about an invented conspiracy. His presentation was hilarious while at the same time very disconcerting, because he was showing actual conspiracy theories about the skeptical movement. It was so fascinating that this part of the conference was also one of my highlights.
Matthias Keilich opened the next topic: Osteopathy. He gave us basic information about osteopathy and explained why it is pseudo-medicine. Christian Weymayr presented another more in-depth analysis of what evidence-based medicine tells us regarding osteopathy. The day ended with “regulars’ tables” with different topics in restaurants all around the city. Regulars’ tables may be something very German, but it actually just means sitting together, having some dinner, a snack or a drink, and talking about whatever catches your interest, in my case alternative medicine, but there were other possible topics like how to counter fake news or just getting to know each other, too.
Gerbic:Sounds terrific! And what happened on the last day?
Merkelbach:The first block of Saturday was about genetic technology and modification. Susanne Günther talked about glyphosate, its nightmarish reputation, and the reality of it at her own farm. She named synthetic fertilizers as one of the inventions of the last centuries that saved millions of lives. Another interesting factoid was that apparently working in shifts is equally hazardous to your health as glyphosate; alcohol, red meat, or coffee are said to be even more damaging. Kathrin Zinkant discussed opportunities of genetic modification of plants, especially talking about famines and inequality around the world when it comes to distribution of resources.
The second block was about fake news and critical thinking, a topic that was also very peripherally named by Michael Marquardt. Sebastian Herrmann opened the section with the idea of perceived truth and used the image of an elephant and his rider: The person sitting on the elephant feels he is in control, while actually the elephant runs around after its own volition; at the same time giving the rider a feeling of steering it. He was also mentioning the Dunning-Kruger effect. He said it’s important to not repeat faulty information, as it can only worsen the situation. Nikil Mukerji was providing further analysis on fake news and how to counter and debunk them. It’s important to distinguish between mistakes or bad journalism and actual fake news. He stated that it’s also important for us as skeptics to not fall into the pit of tribalism and “us vs. them,” because only working together and keeping each other well informed can lessen the effects of fake news. Holm Hümmler explained the connections between right wing politics and esoteric woo, which was very enlightening. Regarding esoteric healing, he was talking about detox and detox “remedies” while deducting if one wanted to detox, he or she should use their liver.
The last big topic of SkepKon was about psychology. Uwe Kanning presented results of his research regarding questionable testing in personnel work and using pseudoscience or outdated science in applications. Anna Beniermann ended the presentation part of SkepKon with a presentation about the difficulties of actually measuring opinions and which factors can distort the outcome of a study.
Natalie Grams finished with a very short speech about the challenges we face as skeptics and gave reasons why it’s nevertheless worth it.
As you already said, it was my first SkepKon. Regarding the presentations, it was quite similar to the European Skeptics Congress in Poland. The topics of course differed, as did the presenters. If I remember correctly only Holm Hümmler spoke at both conferences.
Gerbic:Who were your favorites? What did you learn? How many attended?
Merkelbach:My personal favorites regarding speakers were Natalie Grams, Anna Zakrisson, Lydia Benecke, and Bernd Harder. But I could go on and on with this list, because actually most of the speakers were really good and the topics were capturing and exciting. What I really liked was that there were roughly twenty speakers at Skeptical and SkepKon, of whom six were female. Most of the moderators were female, too, which showed that the event is not “male only”! There were over 250 attendees of the conference; for Skeptical there were even more.
I spoke to a few attendees and speakers about SkepKon. Some said the conference gave them hope for the future of skepticism. Others named the 50 000 € challenge as their personal highlight or Anna Zakrisson’s speech about the anti-vaxxer scene. What’s similar in all the answers I got was that everybody was happy to meet other skeptics and learning more about interesting topics.
Gerbic:Annika, you spoke to Martin Mahner and he gave you a lot of information about the conference. What was it he told you?
Merkelbach:He told me that SkepKon now seems well established. The numbers of visitors have almost doubled since 2012, which is marvelous! The only real challenge they still face is to find enough female speakers. While the ratio of female attendees is around 35–40 percent, the proportion of women among GWUP members is still under 20 percent. He told me that the average age of attendees is around 45, which makes the audience a bit younger than usual skeptical conferences. Martin Mahner is really happy that GWUP is diverse and hopes it can become even more diverse in the future, especially regarding female members and of course female speakers at SkepKon.
Gerbic:You are really new to world of organized skepticism, attending skeptic conferences and jumping in with both feet to science activism by joining GSoW. How do you feel about this new world you are involved in? Is it what you thought?
Merkelbach:It is exactly as I thought it would be and also completely different. I’ve been a member of clubs for years as I am in a choir and also volunteering in the local Red Cross association, which means I am used to people in groups. But skepticism is so much more, too! I would say it’s not only a movement, it’s a method and maybe even a lifestyle. I have been raised skeptical (but without knowing about the movement), so by entering the skeptic world thanks to my boyfriend I actually had to “learn” about a lot of pseudoscience and woo that is around. It’s really exciting to be a part of this and also very important personally, as I think pseudoscience and especially pseudomedicine are harmful, hazardous, and in some cases life-threatening.
Gerbic:I’m also curious about your thoughts about what the issues in Germany are that we as a skeptic community should be focusing on; any insight?
Merkelbach:I can’t really generalize here, because Germany is very diverse. I think the issues we face here are mostly similar to challenges elsewhere. Something that’s quite deeply ingrained in German history or medicine is homeopathy. Samuel Hahnemann was German, so homeopathy really has a different standing here. That’s why I think that the people of Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie along with GWUP are doing such an important job of informing about homeopathy and why it (doesn’t) work. This is also where GSoW comes in, because it seems to be incredibly hard to keep well-worded but cutting-edge criticism of homeopathy on German Wikipedia. We noticed this problem on other pages, too. This doesn’t mean that German Wikipedia isn’t reliable, what I mean is we really need more German skeptic editors on Wikipedia to tip the scales of the majority system of Wikipedia in the favor of science and evidence!
Gerbic:You told me that you were treated really well at SkepKon by everyone. You managed to get photos and audio from several of the speakers. Judging from the messages I’ve seen from you on our Secret Cabal, you left very motivated. What goals have you made for yourself?
Audience and Amardeo Sarma and Su sanne Günther at SkepKon 2018
Merkelbach:Yes! My goals are to finish my GSoW training as soon as possible and then to start improving Wikipedia pages of skeptics, skeptical topics, and generally making scientific information more accessible for the broader public by translating German pages to English and vice versa. I also will write a few pages that don’t exist yet.
Gerbic:You also ran into some controversy over GSoW, right? Apparently, Susan Gerbic and the GSoW project are a bit controversial. Sum it up; what is going on with German Wikipedia?
Merkelbach:I think German Wikipedia has some guidelines that appear stricter than English Wikipedia. It can also be that because German Wikipedia is so active and big they are more alert on changes and are skeptical (pun intended) about new developments. In general, I think most German Wikipedia editors are not informed about us. We need to be clear about our goals and openly say that we want to improve Wikipedia for the public and that we only use our Facebook group to organize training. This might be a challenge we will have to face again and again. It might also be a problem with anti-skepticism trolls on the internet; not specifically targeted at GSoW.
Gerbic:What’s next? You are going to QED this October? I’ll be at CSICon a week after that.
Merkelbach:Yes! I will be in Manchester for QED, and I am really excited. I might have mentioned before that podcasts are one of my biggest hobbies and the members of one of my favorite podcasts, Skeptics Guide to the Universe, are coming to England! I am really happy to maybe meet them in person and getting my copy of their newly published book signed! Also, I will visit a lot of Skeptics in the Pub evenings in Cologne before that, and I will certainly stay in contact with all the amazing people I met at SkepKon.
Gerbic:Fantastic Annika, thank you for sharing. I love skeptic conferences and like you I always leave so motivated. SkepKon looked terrific. I look forward to all the great things you are going to be involved in with GSoW.
NOTE: All photography by Hans-Ludwig Reischmann used with his permission. GWUP’s conference videos can be found here. Special thanks to their video crew; these are high quality video, audio, and editing. Also I personally appreciate their quick release after the conference.