It has been my honor and privilege to be the leader of the Guerrilla Skeptics of Wikipedia (GSoW) team for many years. I have fingers in many pies in the skeptic movement (and yes, this is a movement). I receive accolades and awards from the community, but I want to remind everyone that we have several hundred people associated with the various projects I manage; they don’t get the recognition they deserve and this is a team effort. It’s a common misconception that my goal is to fix Wikipedia, stop grief vampires, end support of facilitated communication, or any of the other projects that I work on. Yeah, these are all goals but they are not the main goal.
It’s a new decade, so let me be clear about my goal:, my mission in this community. I run the (almost) 501(3)C organization, About Time. This is the mission statement:
The mission of About Time is to find, mentor and train people to educate and promote science and scientific skepticism through crowd-sourced and educational activities world-wide. This is done through conference attendance, lectures, videos, podcasts, and interaction on social media and in person. Attending skeptical workshops and participating in hands-on as well as online instruction are all encouraged.
My mission is to find, train, mentor, and support the people in our community that are willing to step up and fight back against pseudoscience and to support science. Yes, I know that what we are fighting against is unsurmountable and unsinkable rubber ducks. I don’t care; work still needs to be done, and I’m always looking for others with that same attitude.
And I’m finding you, people who are recording podcasts; writing and researching for articles and YouTube videos; organizing conferences and meetups; donating toward scholarships for conference attendance; and funding projects. You all are awesome and amazing people, and we need more of you, hundreds more of you doing these things and in languages other than English. Thank you!
For 2020, About Time is starting on year three with two new board members, and I hope to roll out more exciting projects. Stay tuned as they say; I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.
In the GSoW specific team, I have about 130 team members located all over the world, working in many languages trying to write, support, and maintain Wikipedia pages focused on science and pseudoscience. I’m happy to announce that as I write this update for you, GSoW has written it’s 1,277th Wikipedia page. It was Lectura en caliente (Hot-reading) written by Ernesto Berger for Spanish Wikipedia. The last English page we wrote was The Goop Lab from Rob Palmer which will be attracting hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia page views once Paltrow’s show hits Netflix January 24. (Shame on you Netflix.)
Besides those 1,277 Wikipedia pages, we are doing a lot of work maintaining existing Wikipedia pages, plus my team members are instrumental in mentoring, training, and motivating each other. These are really awesome people helping other awesome people.
Because of the help of Kyle Polich (Data Skeptic), we are able to track the Wikipedia page views of those 1,277 pages. I can hardly believe this number, but we just hit 53,087,931 page views. We are averaging about 1.2 million pageviews a month and that grows exponentially each time we add another Wikipedia page.
So, I asked the GSoW Secret Cabal if they would be comfortable giving you all a bit of a window into their thoughts about GSoW, and these are the people who responded. I love these stories and think you will also. Be inspired!
I clearly remember the day I decided to write to Susan to join the Guerrilla Skeptics in Wikipedia project: I was at the Palermo subway station in Buenos Aires listening to the ESP (European Skeptics Podcast), and Susan was being interviewed yet again. Not again in the ESP, but in the past couple months she had appeared in at least half dozen podcasts or articles, and this time she was saying how the project needed more non-English editors as, for example, there were only six pages done in Spanish for the project. At that point, I gave up and decided to join as a Spanish speaking editor and wrote to Susan via Facebook as I could not find an email address to tell her so. The response was swift and welcoming, and while it took me a somewhat long time to finish my training (I moved countries in the middle), it was easy to follow and then start editing stuff.
The “why I decided to join” is of course a more complex reason: I’ve always had a big problem with misinformation and pseudoscience, and medicine related woo is a particular focus of mine (some would say obsession) most likely because I was raised by a hippie mom (very loving, but sadly misguided) and that meant no vaccines, being treated with homeopathy and acupuncture, and being surrounded by many related pseudo-therapies. As a result I went through whooping cough when I was eight, had measles when I was twenty (and many illnesses treated without the help of antibiotics or painkillers).
So, when I started hearing about GSoW, I had already been scratching my head for years about how to do “something” to help. But the options I could see were not really very useful: Howling into Facebook’s void (we all know how effective that is), starting a blog (so that my thirty friends could read it, or, if I was really successful reach, what 1,000 people?) or a podcast (same issue as with the blog but worse) or simply keep pestering my acquaintances … which is why GSoW sounded as such a good idea to me.
And I must say it has been as good or better than I imagined it: It gave me an outlet where I can put that energy in something constructive that has a real impact: forty-three pages, mostly translations, and about 1,200,000 views in a bit more than a year of activity. Improved relationships with friends and family—and specially a grateful wife—who are not subjected to my rants so often and a feeling of accomplishment that has replaced a good chunk of that frustration.
People wonder how much time it takes, and honestly that really depends on each person: you can simply correct small things in pages that interest you, or you can dedicate some few hours a week to it as I do (once you get the hang of it, it becomes easier and faster) or you can put in even more time. For me it is quite random, some weeks I have the time and mood and do corrections or translations several days in a week a couple hours each day, other weeks I don’t dedicate more than 5–10 min to check for possible vandalism in pages I follow. But I have found it a very rewarding experience and a wonderful group of likeminded people that support and encourage you.
Walkiria Nubes and Ryan Harding
I went into GSoW sometime in May or April 2013; Ryan went in June or July 2013. I welcomed him in my cheeky way I used to (paddling people into submission); he liked it (o.O). We helped with the forum back in the day, got to know each other, liked each other, and came to pass the holidays in Mexico. In January, decided we couldn’t live without each other, marriage was the easiest way, got married in June, and the rest is … a torture for Ryan Harding?
So why did I join the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project? I learned of GSoW through interviews with its founder and some of its members on podcasts and also remember hearing a podcast promo on The Skeptic Zone at some point. This put the idea of joining in my head, but I did not immediately sign up.
The thing that finally made me take the leap and contact Susan Gerbic, was reconnecting with a friend of mine from “the old days” via Facebook. Christine had been interested in fringe topics when we were younger, but that wasn’t a huge part of her life back then. Over thirty years later, her worldview had been transformed. Her Facebook page was full of almost every nonsensical and conspiratorial thing I could imagine … except maybe flat-earth. Crystal healing? Check. Orbs in photos are ghosts? Check. Psychics are real? Check. (Her best friend is one.) 9/11 was an inside job? Of course. She even claimed to have met the person online actually responsible for the World Trade Center collapse. (She was part of a free energy experiment being done in the basement which went horribly wrong, don’t you know.)
Most of the things Christine believed and promoted on her well-followed Facebook page were largely innocuous, and I would rarely feel the need to interject a degree of sanity, but occasionally she would make posts that really upset me. The last straw was her repeated posts spewing hatred against the evil medical establishment, which had just killed her father. You see, he had died after a long bout with cancer, because medical science had the cure but was keeping it a secret. For reasons! It pained me to hear Christine thinking her dad’s death was intentional, so I chimed in. But just like for the less important issues I had argued about, it didn’t matter. She and her like-minded friends attacked me for being either a sheeple or a shill. For my own sanity, I changed settings so I would no longer see Christine’s posts. We lost touch soon after that. This all drove home the danger of people reading and believing bad information, and then living in a bubble of woo with their friends.
As I recalled from the info I heard on the podcasts, the point of the GSoW project was to improve Wikipedia so that people who were open minded on a topic might find good information. Armed with the correct knowledge gleaned from a well written and sourced Wikipedia article, they might not be pulled down the rabbit hole into pseudoscience, alt-med, and conspiracy land.
So, I finally wrote Susan and volunteered. After just a few months of training, I began to effectively contribute to Wikipedia. Now, the articles that I wrote or improved have reached literally millions of people. And at least some of them will be people who will be steered in the right direction by changes I have made. I can’t say that I never argue with people on Facebook or in person anymore. But I definitely do it less. And it’s not quite as frustrating, because I have this new outlet where I know I am getting good information to people who want it.
I can’t see an injustice or a falsehood and pass on by, particularly online. Does that make me a meddler? When I heard about GSoW on Scathing Atheist podcast, I assumed I would have to pass various tests and prove myself before I would be allowed in, but whatever test was done on me I passed. I began by working on various science and religion pages; I’m now a fairly accomplished and diverse editor.
But one important value that GSoW gave me was in bringing me to an area of interest called humanism and, through working on many related pages, eventually to a new career. I’m now a non-religious chaplain in a prison. I don’t know if I would ever have found my way there without GSoW. All I can say is you might end up with more than you bargained for, but life is too short to walk away each time, sometimes you really should step up to make a difference.
I was a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian for twenty-five years of my life before finally getting out two days before my fortieth birthday. During the last eighteen months of my religious life, I had begun to think critically about what I believed and why I believed it. I was sure that I was right but a seed of doubt had been planted in my mind (by the pastor, of all people, although it was unintentional). Although I was confident that I would prove to myself that my beliefs were true, I actually ended up doing the opposite. With my worldview irrevocably changed, I could no longer in good faith continue going to church, and so, through a series of events which I will save for another time, I left. Finding myself on my own and with a major paradigm shift in my thinking, I began to investigate skepticism and critical thinking. I began searching for and listening to as many skeptical podcasts as I could, including The Skeptic Zone and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. It was on these podcasts that I first heard about GSoW, although I think it was before they were using that name. The concept really piqued my interest, and I felt that this was something that I would really like to do and that in doing so I could make a useful contribution to society.
Unfortunately, life got in the way as it does and I was unable to find the time to get involved. Then, in 2016, I decided to go to university and get a Bachelor’s of Psychology as, thanks to my previous religious lifestyle, I was very interested in what makes people tick and why they believe the things they believe. This meant that the next four years of my life was extremely busy so again, I did not have time for GSoW, although every time it came up in a podcast I was listening to, I found myself again being drawn to participate. I finished my degree this year and as I finally had some free time on my hands, I decided to take the plunge and get in contact with Susan. That was early in November, and I’m now close to finishing my training and becoming a fully-fledged GSoW Wikipedia editor. Once I’m done, you will find me on the wild frontiers of pseudoscience and parapsychology chasing down misinformation and helping to make the world a more rational place.
The GSoW project was talked about on several podcasts I listened to when it was first launched. I remember thinking that teaching skeptics how to edit Wikipedia pages was a fantastic idea, but I made the deliberate decision not to look further into what it would take to join. I was on a nonprofit board and trying to manage a scholarship application process. I was also in grad school serving on a number of committees at the University, and I was working on my final capstone project. Because of everything I had going on, I felt like I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on anything else.
In 2017, my friend Jeanine DeNoma figured out that her house in Monmouth, Oregon, would be in totality during the eclipse. She organized a barbecue, put together a multi-day menu, and invited the skeptical community to camp out in her front yard. Several folks drove up from California and down from Portland. This is how I met Susan Gerbic.
Susan and I talked a handful of times during the camp out, but GSoW never came up in our conversations. I found out about her interest in Wikipedia only because I caught snippets of conversation between her and other skeptics. After everyone had gone home, I knew that Susan was a skeptically minded, friendly person who was really into Wikipedia.
It didn’t actually occur to me that she was the person running the GSoW project until I saw her speech at CSICon. By that point, I had graduated and was in the process of applying for jobs, so I had a lot more time to spend on other projects. I asked her what it would take to join and connected with her via Facebook shortly after that. I’ve been with the project for a little over two years.
My activities on Wikipedia tend to come in spurts. Knowing this, I try not to engage in too many re-writes unless I really know that I’ll have the time to devote to the process. I will periodically log in and add missing citations to articles or add material to Wikipedia from the list of Podcasts I listen to. Also, if an editor has a question about one of the lessons and posts it to Facebook, I’ll help if I can. Finally, I’ve been an evangelist for the project by recruiting or attempting to recruit people I think would do this work well.
My friend James Rodriguez mentioned that he had met Susan Gerbic and was working on some GSOW stuff. He told me about what the training was like and how interesting he found the research on his first article. I’d heard of the GSOW before on skeptical podcasts and thought it sounded like a cool project. I enjoy researching topics of manageable size, and this seemed like if would be kind of perfect for that. So, I asked James to put me in touch with the GSOW.
For me, a busy week of writing is probably about five hours spread across two or three evenings. The training period may have been slightly more intense than that. Some weeks I don’t edit at all, but I keep an eye on the GSOW Facebook group. If someone proposes a page to write or spruce up that sounds like it could do some good, I volunteer to take it. I also try to help proofread other cabal member’s pages when they ask for help.
I’ve come to realize that this form of skeptical action is probably better than any other at tackling the “unsinkable rubber duck” nature of the topics skepticism criticizes. It’s kind of beautiful.
Having discovered the skeptical movement via podcasts and at Dragon Con, I was excited to keep learning how to think critically about all the nonsense we are inundated with constantly. But what to do about it? I am no activist. I don’t have the motivation to carry signs or be confrontational. But there are things that make me angry, and according to one person in the movement anger can be a guide to what battles one should choose. But then what? Then came … not Bronson but Gerbic! Her talk at CSICon about the GSoW project turned me onto an activist outlet that even I could get involved in. Learning to edit Wikipedia is fun in itself, but then to turn those new skills toward getting good information out there to counter the nonsense and help advance science and reason leads to a sense of accomplishment and hope. I have been able to add information from sources such as Skeptical Inquirer; I rewrote the Jill Tarter page and created pages for astrophysicist Erin Macdonald, the Congressional Freethought Caucus, and Project Blitz. (Yeah, right-wing religion is one of those things that makes me angry!) Thanks, Susan!
While my father had cancer, I received the usual pseudoscience advice, from vitamin injections to detox juices. Wikipedia helped me sort out some of this nonsense, but not all of it. It bothered me that people fighting an illness also had to struggle with disinformation and snake oil. When I came across a mention of GSoW in CFI’s daily news summary The Morning Heresy, I saw that as a way to help and decided to join.
After three months of training exercises, I started doing bio articles about Canadian science communicators in English and French (Jen Gunter, Tim Caulfield, Olivier Bernard, and Alain Vadebonceur) in addition to many smaller edits on the pages talking about “miracle” cures. I stumbled upon the Momo Challenge Hoax (look it up) when it was emerging and wrote an article, which I kept updating as it became a global phenomenon. For the past six months, I’ve been concentrating on anti-vaccination groups masquerading as “vaccine safety advocates” (saying hi to Del Bigtree).
We have to be self-motivated, but the support of other GSoW editors (and Susan of course!) is invaluable. We fit in well within the Wikipedia culture: I can’t count the number of times editors I’ve never heard about improved my work or defended it against hostile changes (or forced me to rewrite my own sloppy text—thanks DGG). I’ve learned to be a better editor—and faster, more effective. A five-paragraph page with twelve sources takes me an evening to write, rather than three weeks.
I’ve been interested in science forever, and in scientific skepticism at least since my twenties (some twenty years ago), when I started reading voraciously about the subject. That ultimately resulted in me “deconverting” from Catholicism and rejecting all bullshit I believed in my teens, from Chinese horoscope to lizard people. I heard about GSoW on the Rationally Speaking podcast, forgot about it for a while, then heard about “Operation Pizzaroll” on the Scathing Atheist podcast, and it sparked my interest again.
For long I’ve been reading Wikipedia and was fond of going through many “rabbit holes,” but I’ve seldom edited anything. My project when joining GSoW was writing (well, mostly translating) the Momo Challenge article to Portuguese, my native language. As the Wikipedia in English has so much more content, I think this translation job is very useful. And I’ve found that it had much more impact than sharing on Facebook, as the article lede is the first thing that pops when you google anything. In fact, the Momo article was one of the most visited in the pt-Wikipedia for some days. I like to think that the article had some role in dismissing the hoax when it spiked in Brazil. A change in the Reiki article lede also causes occasional freakouts from “therapists.”
My day job as a teacher and my baby girl don’t allow me to dedicate as much time as I would like, but in addition to continue watching and translating pages, I intend to sharpen my editing skills and to be a more active member of the community.
Here is my origin story. I am “probably a paid pharma rep” according to a conspiracy theorist. As usual, there is 1 percent of truth in this theory. My wife and I sold our pharmaceutical research company in 2016. Our company did contract research and manufacturing for small biotechs. Every year our team of 225 scientists developed about forty new molecules that went into human clinical trials. We undertook the chemical development necessary to make sure that all tests and procedures would be safe for human use and, for some successful products, manufactured the drug product. We would then make placebos and distribute them all to trial patients around the world. We once had to get material to Reunion Island.
After we sold the company, I had time to do things I’d always wanted to do. One of those things was to visit CSICon in 2018 in Las Vegas. I enjoyed the lectures, loved being among like-minded people, and was motivated to do something more.
In the lobby, I spotted a table with a lot of people around it. I found the GSOW tabletop. Susan wasn’t there, but I met someone else who told me what the group did. I was surprised. I didn’t know that Wikipedia could be edited by people who knew what they were talking about.
I came back a little later when Susan was there, and while she was enthusiastic, she was also careful not to take on just anybody who came up to the table and wanted to put their name down. The next action was back to me to reach out to her on Facebook. I hadn’t touched my Facebook account in months, but the idea stuck and I wanted to pick up a new skill. I signed up and went through the training to learn how to be an editor.
I find this work incredibly meaningful. I have been able to improve the pages of several charities. I monitor pages that are very meaningful to me—such as anti-vaccine conspiracy theories—and create pages when I find obscure museums or minor characters from history that have not yet had a page created.
As Edwardo said, it helps my mental state too. Now, when I meet someone in a social setting who believes something questionable, I have two choices. I can debate with the person then and there, knowing my chances of convincing them are small. Or, I can go home, research the issue, and, when warranted, change the Wikipedia page on that subject. Secret joy.
I also use it as a way to learn a new subject. I think about how I would make the page on that subject. The best way to learn something is to organize your thoughts to explain it to someone else.
GSOW has pulled me off on the ledge several times. I created a page for a charity that was deemed not to be notable, and the group rallied around and found ways to find extra references. Somewhere around the world there is always someone from the group who is online and able to contribute and provide advice.
My family is proud that I do this. They like reading the articles and see a different part of me that does not need to take credit. It is my own form of social activism.
Those who know me say I’m a thinker and that I’ve always been a skeptic. I would disagree; I love the outdoors including shooting, drowning worms, bushwalking with a gun (hunting), and skiing (I almost forgot—blowing shit up) are my simple pleasures. I don’t want to interfere in other people’s lives, and I don’t like others telling me how to live. I’ve dabbled in “wellness” in the past and found out very quickly that it doesn’t work. But I was always a “what’s the harm” kind of guy.
I have been a fan of Dr. Karl for a very long time—look him up on Wikipedia. He’s an absolute legend; he has the longest running radio segment on Australian radio, and he started my skeptical outlook (I would say I was more of a cynic before).
In mid-2013. my wife, Angela, was diagnosed with breast cancer and oh boy, did that bring the lunatics out from under their rocks; it drove me insane. What made it worse was that many of them would not take a polite “no thanks, we have a medical team looking after us … .” One guy almost had her booked on a plane to New Zealand to see some guy about a hair analysis. Luckily I had Angela locked in to a commitment to her medical team as soon as we got the bad news, and I held her to it. It was hard work and we had a lot of arguments about it. I came to realize “what the harm” actually was. When the treatment was done she let someone talk her into a hair analysis which took six weeks to come back with a list of so many deficiencies that I wondered how she could possibly be alive, but there was a cure, “buy all these supplements from a guy I know. If you mention my name you get 10% off … and I recommend a daily coffee enema.”
I thought I’d do some research before I discussed the issue with Angela. Every time I searched a supplement or deficiency on Google, a Wikipedia entry popped up on the top right-hand corner. At first I took no notice, but after reading a lot of pages full of ads for supplements and then research papers that I didn’t understand, I gave in to Wikipedia. It was awesome. I could understand most of the articles, and they had references I could check. Fully armed with all the facts, I approached Angela fully expecting an argument. Straight away she said “I’m not doing it.” When I asked why, she said “I’m not taking all those pills and I’m definitely not sticking anything up my bum!” That was it. The hair analysis guy had talked her out of it, and I had wasted hours of research.
But my hours of research were not wasted. I had found a resource that I could use if I ever wanted to know anything, as long as I used it carefully. I was still furious with anyone who mentioned herbal remedies, Chinese medicine, or any other kind of woo. I wanted to do something about it but didn’t want anger to be my motivator, so I cooled down and considered things for a while. I had heard Susan promoting GSoW and decided that was the thing for me. I offered two hours a week, and it quickly took over my life. The training has taught me some valuable skills, and I have learnt a lot about life and skepticism along the way. I’ve also met some amazing people I would have never met if I didn’t join. I’ve been a member since December 2016 and had an absolute ball, but I missed my old life and in the past twelve months I’ve taken it back.
If I read an article, I jump onto Wikipedia and update a relevant page. It’s still hard work. Because of the way we are trained, I like to make an edit bulletproof and fix other problems with the page, so a quick fifteen minute edit can easily turn into two hours. In the past twelve months, I’ve re-written journalist Kate McClymont and written a page for Jill Gallagher, neither pages are GSoW related but I’m a sucker for a good story. Edit diversity is invaluable to editor credibility, and I’d have to say that if my editing has any theme its women. I re-wrote the page for voluntary assisted dying advocate Peggy Battin. She has contacted me, and I’ll meet her in Melbourne on July 4 this year. I’m looking forward to meeting her; she also has a great story—look it up on Wikipedia.
As a footnote to this story: Angela successfully recovered from her cancer. In July 2019, we attended her fifth annual scan and check up with the surgeon to find out that the same tumor had returned in the scar tissue left by the original lumpectomy. The prognosis is good, and this time the woo merchants have stayed clear. If only she’d rubbed that fermented cactus leaf between her toes at 3:42 in the light of every second full moon …
Ixocactus da Bahia
I was born in a traditional Catholic family in the 1970s. Every Sunday morning until noon, I passed on the church catecism. After six, I was an acolitos, participating in mass all week. I listened with attention to the priests talking and Bible readings. From age 23–40, the contradictions and double standards of Catholics pulled me to Spiritism, a popular middle-class religion in Brazil that believes in talking with dead people. As previous Catholics, reincarnation beliefs of Spiritism was better than the eternal damnation of final judgment.
I started an academic career in 1993, when creationists and intelligent design were growing but not threatening education. After this, I read an anthropology book that debunked Spiritist medium Chico Xavier explaining his sanctification and Catholic moralism under the Spiritism cloak.
Before I joined GSOW, I understood the importance of Wikipedia. Now I try to spread this word and mix Wikipedia activities in my classrooms and a science popularization program of my university. My favorite article is Mesas girantes, in Portuguese Wikipedia. I had an epiphany when writing about this fad because I encounter the experimental works by Michael Faraday that debunked table-turners. Now my students made a replica of his apparatus, and we intend to make public demonstrations on it.
For fun, I like a lot to watch the Torre de Babel, in Portuguese, and Babel Tower entries in both Wikipedia. On a monthly basis, some Christian tries to remove my origin Wiki link on them.
I have zero scientific training; I didn’t even study it at school. All my knowledge comes from simply being curious about how things work. This curiosity eventually led me to the path of becoming a skeptic. I remember in 2017 hearing for the first time the phrase “fake news” from a certain new president, and it got me curious. As everyone around me started to descend into calling anything they didn’t agree with “fake news” I wondered, who was actually correct? It turns out that in reality, where we all live, it’s scientific skepticism and science! Who knew?
This eventually led me to GSoW via the Skeptic Zone podcast. I’ve been an active editor for around eighteen months. I have around half an hour a day to devote to it on average, and I’ve written six full-sized articles as well as numerous smaller edits to other pages. These articles have received tens of thousands of views, and I like to think I’ve changed at least a few minds.