Activism for the Rest of Us

Susan Gerbic

Normally I’m not one to expound on a peer’s article, especially when that peer is Steven Novella, skeptic communicator extraordinaire. But I’m about to do so now.

Novella wrote an article that focused on a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) editorial about medical misinformation (“JAMA on Medical Misinformation,” published April 24, 2019) and another about fighting the anti-vax community, which was a response to an article by Canadian “vaccine experts” (“How to Respond to Anti-Vaxxers,” published May 1, 2019). Both appeared on his Science-Based Medicine blog.

In the April 24 article, he makes really wonderful points about what Journals need to do to improve science literacy: raise the threshold for quality of the journal, review the peer-review status of paranormal journals, reevaluate open-access regarding academia and medical journals, and also get more involved in promoting rational government regulations of all aspects of health care.

Novella goes on to say that science education needs an overhaul: “Critical thinking needs to be incorporated from day one. … Confronting fraud, pseudoscience, science denial, and misinformation needs to be a top priority for the academic, scientific, and medical communities. This needs to also go beyond just confronting what appears to be a short term crisis. This is forever. We need a culture change where these priorities are recognized as intrinsic to the scientific enterprise.”

Novella also addresses the Canadian anti-vax article in which the authors essentially say, “Just be nice to anti-vaxxers. They are doing what they think is best for their children. Calling them names is only making them dig in further.” Novella responds that we really don’t know what works to make people accept the science on vaccines, but he thinks we need to play the “long game” and get them early. And when you read his article, you will see he takes a “multi-pronged approach” with many ideas that “we” should do. And this is where I disagree with Novella.

Novella may have the credibility necessary to tell JAMA and Canadian vaccine experts what to do; he might even be able to exert some influence over government regulations, science curriculum standards, and in raising “the standard of science in general.” But I don’t, and I expect most of the people reading this don’t either.

So where does that leave us, the average skeptic? Arguing with each other about what others should be doing? Tweeting at anti-vax celebrities and being ignored? Telling Facebook to stop allowing the spread of “harmful misinformation”? What? Seriously, what can the average person do to fight back and make a real difference in educating society about misinformation, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, CAM, quacks, and all the other nonsense that gets under our skins?

Here’s my pitch. So, stand back and give me a moment of your time.

I don’t have the footprint of people such as Steven Novella. I only have a BA in social history that I’ve never used, and I was a retail photographer for thirty-four years working at a department store. What do I know about solving these important problems?

What I do have is tenacity. I am pushy, acerbic, and willing to fight back even though I know that the stakes are high, and others are better qualified to speak about science communication.

We know that misinformation exists all over the Internet, and “someone” should correct that. Well we can’t wait for “someone.” We need to take this on. We are busy and have limited time and resources, so we need to focus in on the problem and take the limited time we have and use it to our best advantage. I’m asking for us to stop wasting our time fighting with people on the Internet, tweeting our rage at people who are not listening, and sharing well-thought-out posts with terrific links to science articles to our family, coworkers, and random strangers who are not reading our posts. They will just ignore us, or move the goal posts, or do whatever they have to do to keep thinking along the path that they are on. Often we don’t even speak the same language, meaning that words such as evidence, theory, and energy mean different things to us than they do to them.

I do agree with Novella that we might have to focus on children and adolescents to hope for a better future.

We need to get great information to the fence-sitters and people who will really never think about fluoridation, cryotherapy, Chinese medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractors until one day when a coworker mentions it to them. Where are they going to go for information about these subjects? The internet, of course.

We can hope they find excellent content written by skilled science communicators, such as what you will find on Science-Based Medicine. There are many wonderful articles out there for them to find, read, enjoy, and learn from.

But we can’t count on that. Oftentimes these articles are written for the science community with verbiage that might be intimidating for the average reader.

If only there was a place on the internet that was free to use with no ads, written for the average reader and written in many languages. Something really popular that might come up first in internet searches.

You know I’m being silly, as you all know that we already have a place like that. It is indeed Wikipedia.

The rules of Wikipedia are the rules of scientific skepticism. Science journalists are having their resources cut while they are asked to do more and more. So they are cutting corners, or so I’m told. I suspect that they are going to Wikipedia (and possibly other internet sites) for their information. If they are getting disinformation, then they are going to perpetuate that nonsense when they report back to their readers.

If we don’t take this seriously now, then we are going to lose both the long and short games. We are failing our children and adolescents, all the fence-sitters, and those people hearing about homeopathy for the first time and thinking it is just “natural medicine.”

We can’t wait until you have time. We can’t wait until you are retired and have finished Game of Thrones and reread all the Harry Potter books again. We need to take a good long look at the slacktivism that happens all day and night in our community. If you are waiting for “someone”—or that government agency or journalists or scientists—to get this together, we are going to be lost. Retweeting memes, hitting “like,” and arguing with people is a time waster and, worse yet, makes you feel like you are doing something when in fact you are only making it worse. We are losing ground every day.

We must have this.

Now my final pitch.

I run a Wikipedia editing group. The Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project is like nothing the world has ever seen. We are a team of volunteers that is working to write, improve, and maintain  Wikipedia pages about science and pseudoscience. And we are doing this in many languages.

What makes our project different is that we handle all the training (which can take two months). We spend our time discussing, training, and motivating each other in The Secret Cabal on Facebook (it is for members only). We operate by the rules of Wikipedia, and we evolve our training as we learn.

We make hundreds of edits every week, big and small. We fight vandalism, add tweaks, and improve the overall quality of articles. Adding audio, photos, and videos to a Wikipedia page is another hallmark of our team—all things that make the page more interesting to the average reader. Looking at our database we call Stat Badger, I see that we have created 981 Wikipedia pages, of which 620 are in English. And those 981 pages have been accessed over 43 million times. That’s something.

We add 1.1 million new page views each month, and 180K each week. That’s something also.

We have breakdowns of categories also. For example, we have created forty-eight pages focused on astronomy (including the topics of spaceflight, astronomy, astronomers, and organizations) for which we are at 961,368 page views.

Here is just a tease to mention all the languages we have written in: there are thirteen pages written in Hungarian, fourteen in Italian, and two each in Norwegian and Slovene. And there are 183 in Dutch, thanks mostly to our most prolific editor, Leon Korteweg, who has written 263 Wikipedia pages that have been viewed 4,847,786 times. Yes, that is from one person!

Let’s talk vaccinations, as that was Novella’s main focus in the response to the Canadian article. GSoW has also focused on that topic. We have created twenty-six pages concerning vaccinations, which have been viewed 335,875 times. Very possibly, our work has been used by journalists disseminating information to the public. In March 2019, our editor Robin Cantin wrote the Wikipedia pages for the anti-vax organizations Children’s Health Defense and Vaccine Choice Canada, and we added the Alternative and Pseudo-medicine tag on the pages so it was crystal clear where these organizations stand concerning vaccines.

As you can imagine, there is so much work to be done. And yes, the idea of creating, rewriting, and maintaining all Wikipedia pages concerning science, scientific skepticism, and the paranormal—in all languages—is kind of an insane task. But at least this is something that the average person can do with training. And there is strength in numbers. I hope that the government agencies, journals, and lawmakers all listen to Novella’s ideas. It would make all our lives a lot easier. But in the meantime, I’m trying to keep my side of the street clean, and I am encouraging others to do the same. For more information about GSoW and how you might join our team (or not join but help out nonetheless) you can find more information at our nonprofit



Thank you to The Well-Known Skeptic, Rob Palmer, for feedback and grammar corrections.

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.