Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
The Guerrilla Skeptics are an organization dedicated to editing Wikipedia. According to them they have about 90 members total and operate in several countries.
Apparently the Guerrilla Skeptics are starting to feel the heat from all the unwanted attention they’ve been receiving recently. Organizer Susan Gerbic writes:
The drama of Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra has almost been laughable. Every morning for a few months I wondered “what is waiting for me in my inbox?” Would you believe that there are more than 20 anti-GSoW blogs that have been written in the last few months. Three came from a skeptic blogger who thinks we are making her job talking to the paranormal community more difficult.
(Thank you to Douglas for bringing this to my attention.) While I covered them in various blog posts about Wikipedia, I think it’s a good idea to sum up my research on this group in one place. Gerbic is trying to portray their mission as one of accuracy on Wikipedia and I would like to show that this isn’t at all the case. They are pushing for an ideological point of view. This is pretty clear from four aspects of their organization: (1) The structure of their organization, (2) how and where they solicit members and what they’re looking for in their members, (3) the philosophy of the organizer, (4) what they think are acceptable sources.
The Guerrilla skeptics are a loosely knit secretive organization that is run through private Facebook pages. It is all volunteer and members contribute as much or as little as they like. the secrecy makes it impossible to verify who they are and what they are doing independent of what they want to show the world. Both Jerry Coyne and Tim Farley have assured the rest of us that they weren’t responsible for any editing on Rupert Sheldrake’s Wikipedia biography page, for example, but there is no way to independently verify this claim. Susan Gerbic seems surprised that people don’t take her at her word. She writes:
My team has been very open about what we edit. In fact every single WP editor’s edit history is available with a couple clicks. Its easy to find out who edited what, when and even the time they edited. But they didn’t care about that evidence stuff.
It’s an interesting statement given that in order to monitor that organization one would need to know who belongs to it and what their screen names are on Wikipedia in order to tie them to the Guerrilla Skeptics. In order for that to happen they’d have to be a completely open organization, which they are not. I don’t think it’s out of line to say that secrecy creates doubt.
Let’s talk about their liberal use of a web tool, do not link and their abuse of the Web of Trust. Here’s how it works: In this case, you can follow this link to Susan Gerbic’s blog (here). But I have used an intermediary so that she will not see where the link came from and there will be no real link to her blog. She uses this (and instructs her team to do the same) to prevent links to sources she doesn’t like so that they won’t show up higher in search rankings and so that they won’t see where the links are coming from. She has used this tool when referencing my blog. (On her blog I am He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named although I’m referenced several times. I can’t imagine what superstition is behind that.)
One of the games they play is to use the Web of Trust in combination with donotlink to boost the credibility of skeptical sites and downgrade pro psi and other sites that they don’t like. Here’s an example of the game that they play. This tweet is a set of instructions to use rbutr and web of trust to downgrade this site and this action has been masked by the use of donotlink. You can read all about how to attack websites you don’t like on Tim Farley’s blog. You know, the same guy that assures us that Susan Gerbic is all honest and stuff.
The Guerrilla Skeptics are supported by both the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which does not bode well for any claim they might make to impartiality or fairness as both of these organizations are well known for their reactionary, one sided views of frontier sciences.
The Guerrilla Skeptics recruit through JREF and CSI, thereby insuring that they will be selecting from a pool of ideologue skeptics for their editing of Wikipedia. Membership is private and by invitation only and given Gerbic’s, ah, ideological tendencies, it’s not at all likely that she’s looking for a robust mix of different points of view.
In her training video she makes it clear that she’s looking for people who share her opinions which are very hard core ideologue-skeptical. Which brings us to:
Susan Gerbic’s Ideology
“So they’re getting their information from here, so, we can control this, this is so powerful you don’t understand when you put one of these guerrilla skepticism edits up on Jenny McCarthy’s page or priceline, or walmart or just some of these pages you’re like glowing inside it’s so powerful to feel like I’ve made such an impact , hundreds of thousands of people can be reading my edit ,homeopathy, we’ve changed that page drastically, the lead, the very very first couple of sentences of the page which most people it’s the only thing they read we use the word “quackery” I mean it’s so awesome” . . .
“Nobody owns their Wikipedia page, we control the Wikipedia pages, the editors. Everyone. And because we’re organized and we have this project we as a skeptic since we’re focused on this we’re not updating bowling page or Internet fans or something like that, . . . this is our thing, we need to have this, scientific pages are pretty dang good they’re in really great shape but our spokes people, this isn’t done
On targeting Sylvia Browne’s Wikipedia bio: 56:21:
“And you look at this page and here’s her personal life and her children [motions to a small area on Browne’s bio page] and the whole thing [motions to the rest of the page] is just –US!- I mean, it’s just overwhelming. And you can go to her references and see all sorts of citations we have on here. It’s on and on and on and on.”
On her website she uses terms like “believer” for people who disagree with her and “grief vampire” for psychics who sell their services. In short, there is nothing at all about Susan Gerbic that even remotely suggests that she even knows what a neutral point of view, (a Wikipedia requirement) looks like.
From the same blog post:
The sources skeptics cite to prove a point- has been bad for as long as there have been skeptics and it’s no better on Wikipedia than anyplace else. Susan Gerbic’s training/recruitment video for the Guerrilla Skeptics highlights this problem. At about 1:04:40 Susan Gerbic makes this statement:
I can’t give my opinion on Wikipedia but I can through our spokespeople give an opinion of how I feel about a topic and so on so I’m writing through other people but I need that content first from the JREF or the CSI or from Ben Radford or from Ray Hyman whomever, I need the content first. And then I can [edit the page.]
Much of skeptical sourcing is merely skeptics citing opinions from notable skeptics or from articles in skeptical publications. Rarely do they venture far outside of the skeptical echo chamber to get their information. A good example of this can be found on a Guerrilla Skepticism blog post by Susan Gerbic that outlines a strategy for attacking a Wikipedia article on Pet Psychics which includes references to experiments by Rupert Sheldrake, who she names in her article. Their sources are: Richard Wiseman, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, whose replication of the dog experiment was soundly refuted; Joe Nickell, writing for The Skeptical Inquirer; and Karen Stollznow writing for the . . . Skeptical Inquirer.
And that’s the Guerrilla Skeptics. It’s kind of hard to imagine them being objective when they actively seek to get most of their sourcing from just one side of the discussion, use tactics such as donotlink, refer to people who disagree in a derogatory manner, seek to control pages and defend themselves with hollow arguments. My opinion is that they are an ideologue organization dedicated to pushing Wikipedia to reflect their point of view. Nothing that I have learned about them indicates that they are either open minded or fair.