On Guerrilla Skepticism & Skeptical Outreach

I feel that I need to clarify myself after a comment I made on Twitter about the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Project has caused confusion.


The Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Project (GSOW) aim to ‘improve skeptical content of Wikipedia … by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudo-scientific pages.’ It’s a good idea at it’s core, and I hope that nobody would think I oppose the sourcing of claims about paranormal topics considering my approach to paranormal research and claims.

It isn’t without it’s problems though, and one of the unintentional by-products of their work is criticism from within paranormal communities (i.e. researchers, fans, believers and so on) about the way in which articles are edited, and also about the way in which the project communicates what it does. There have also been accusations that the skeptics involved in GSOW are aggressively editing the pages of certain individuals, which has since been denied. (I personally think this is probably being done by skeptical individuals with a chip on their shoulder rather than the organisation).


I don’t know enough about editing Wikipedia entries to comment upon who edited what and so on, but I can comment upon what I have observed and this is where my criticism comes from. I think it’s great to edit pseudo-scientific Wikipedia articles, but I also think that it isn’t enough to do just that. It should be clear to anyone that this activity is going to cause bad feeling within paranormal communities, and it seems as though GSOW haven’t factored this into their plans and have no intention of engaging with the people in the communities they encounter through their work, and that’s a shame. It is, of course, important to point out that this isn’t a unique problem, and similar can be seen with many skeptic campaigns.

There will always be mistrust of skeptics within paranormal communities and that is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to consider this when starting skeptic outreach projects. Skeptics should always try and work with believers and paranormal researchers that they come into contact with to some extent, rather than just insisting that they either get on board with the project themselves (in this case provide sources on wikipedia) or stop complaining. It ain’t that simple, and this suggestion made on my Facebook wall when I asked my Friends what could be done to limit ill feeling was really shortsighted.

Skeptic Outreach Projects will never please everybody and more often than not the focus has to be on those who are undecided about a subject, and there will always be those who are offended when skeptics start making changes, and that’s fine… but not all of those who oppose skeptical work are just being closed minded. Sometimes there are problems with what is being done or the way it is being communicated and as skeptic activists we have to face facts and address that.

This was a problem I encountered with Project Barnum. When it was first launched it was targeting venues that host psychic shows and attempting to change their minds about doing so. I thought it was a good idea and I had loads of support, but then I realised that it just isolated the very people I  had intended to help – those who attend the shows. I reflected on what Project Barnum was doing and I changed the focus so that it was no longer something that attacked, but instead was something that assisted. Rather than trying to stop the psychic shows and make the decision on behalf of the attendees, I turned it into something that would help people understand what they were actually seeing at those shows so they could make informed decisions for themselves. It was a major success and is currently being developed to be more useful.

As a Paranormal Researcher I know that Ghost Researchers, Ufologists, Cryptozoologists and Parapsychologists are not always the pseudo-scientific bad guys that skeptics often presume them to be. It might be hard for some to accept, but those who believe in illogical ideas often do so because they think they are logical ideas. The majority of people who believe paranormal ideas are against the promotion of misinformation, fraud, hoaxes and unethical behaviour and make good research allies whether they believe something to be true or not. It’s a shame that this potential is often overlooked.

I hope this clears up any confusion or questions about my previous comments.

Note: I would also recommend that people read Extra Sensory by Brian Clegg (read my review here) to get a grasp of how complex the topic of psychic phenomena and parapsychology really is. It’s dismissed out of hand so readily by some. The same can be said of hauntings, ghost phenomena and poltergeists too. Once you get an idea of the complexity of these subjects it’s easy to see why people get so annoyed when such things are just passed off as bullshit.

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Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

21 thoughts on “On Guerrilla Skepticism & Skeptical Outreach”

  1. One of the neat things about editing Wikipedia pages is that it’s going to be a collaborative exercise with people who don’t necessarily share the same viewpoint, especially if you’re going to be editing pages on skepti/para/crypto topics. Sure, you can get a team together of interested individuals to share/improve research strategies, review literature and navigate the many community rules and guidelines, but each editor will still be working within a much larger community. Some of my favorite contributions have been made with the help of a cryptozoologist who was able to point me in the right direction while performing a scholarly reference search. That’s GSoW. This trash-and-run group being described in a couple of blogs and on Twitter? Never met them.

  2. As to your comment immediately above: could you give a few examples (other than the title of the project) of what the organizers of GSoW are actually publicly saying that is so polarizing to others?

    Every single one of the people I’ve seen complaining about GSoW’s editing on Wikipedia has demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of how editing on Wikipedia actually works. (This is aside from – and on top of – their mistaken accusations about involvement in particular articles). You admit yourself you don’t have a deep understanding of how it works either. I think it is unproductive to propose solutions to bad feelings when they are originating in ignorance.

    The fact of the matter is there are excellent mechanisms in place on Wikipedia to deal with conflicts of this type, as long as all those involved remain civil and follow the rules. In all my skeptic posts and talks about Wikipedia (which were the inspiration for GSoW), I’ve relentlessly repeated that skeptics should assiduously follow the rules. We need to be beyond reproach. And as far as I’ve seen, Susan’s editors have done that.

    The real problem here is that people who are pro-paranormal want articles on Wikipedia about the paranormal to be puff pieces that largely parrot their view. Unfortunately the Wikipedia rules DO NOT ALLOW that.

    Wikipedia’s rules require a neutral point of view, reliable sources, no original research and no undue weight on fringe theories. All of that means Wikipedia has a fundamentally skeptical worldview.

    When Susan’s people enforce those rules through their work, paranormal believers ARE going to get angry. They were getting angry before Susan started her project and they are going to continue to get angry after she’s gone. Why do you think things like Conservapedia get created – people with non-reality-based worldviews are always upset with Wikipedia.

    I’m sorry, but that’s not a problem that originated with the Guerrilla Skeptics and it’s not a problem that is easily fixed.

    1. I have actually linked to articles above in which the authors outline things said – particularly by Susan – that make them feel uncomfortable about the project. Some of the things Susan and others say about the project are a little cringeworthy when you look at them through the eyes of an outsider.

      I made it quite clear in this post that I have little understanding of Wikipedia editing, but it wasn’t the work I was criticising – in fact I actually said I think it’s a good way of countering bad information.

      What I have observed – and what I was being critical of in this post – in the impression many people get from the project. This is believers AND non-believers alike so no, Tim, the real problem here ISN’T ‘people who are pro-paranormal want articles on Wikipedia about the paranormal to be puff pieces that largely parrot their view’. It’s easy to pretend it is, but it’s not. This is something I addressed above too.

      Sure, the problem of divisiveness caused by skeptical outreach projects has been around a long time and is seen with many projects (again, I wrote about this above too) and (as I wrote above) my point was that we each have a responsibility to try and control that, and as an outsider it doesn’t seem like anything of this nature is happening.

  3. The quotes I see in those articles you link are cherry picked out of a large amount of other material that Susan and I have created around these projects. Sure, if you cherry pick a quote or two from Susan, you can make her look bad. As often happens, this is exactly what the paranormalists are claiming we do on Wikipedia (see the discussion of the Leonora Piper article). I won’t comment on the second article you link because the bulk of it is about atheism vs. theism which has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on here.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see a realistic solution for this. Do you want Susan to hire a full-time PR person to vet everything she says publicly? It’s not practical. She did not set out to do an outreach project toward paranormal believers – she’s trying to reach the general public.

  4. It might be illustrative to point out that earlier today a Wikipedia user was blocked indefinitely from editing due to their behavior in and around Sheldrake’s biography article. That user was not a member of Guerrilla Skeptics – it was a Sheldrake supporter. You can read the discussion of his behavior and why the block was applied here.

    Now I’m sure this will just fan the flames in some circles. But to me it is further clear evidence that this whole imbroglio is not the fault of the Guerrilla Skeptics at all – it is being created by paranormal supporters themselves.

  5. The team members mentioned in Susan’s blog don’t seem to be listed as changing Sheldrake’s page. Read her blog and look at the changes, they are just adding truths and proper citations to Wikipedia, and insisting that woo people to do the same by providing evidence for their claims. It’s hardly Susan’s fault if people who want to put unverified claims into Wikipedia get upset at being asked to support those claims. Wikipedia rules state that facts must be verified, if it was just a collection of unverified personal opinions then it wouldn’t be much use to anyone, would it? Or do you think Sheldrake’s fans should be allowed to break all the rules and make up stuff just to keep them happy and stop them whining?

  6. Personally, I can’t see anything different from ‘Guerilla’ Skepticism and any other fundamentalist movement.

    Skepticism can’t prove that any of this woo stuff doesn’t exist, all it can ‘say’ is that, on case by case basis, so far, none of the woo claims hold water.

    To say that woo does not exist is an absolute statement, and a statement we can never have the evidence to support, ergo, ‘skeptics’ trying to ‘convert’ the woo are no different from any other evangelists in, illiberally, interfering in other peoples’ lives.

    We’ve had a couple of thousand years of Christianity telling other cultures and beliefs absolute statements such that they are wrong, despite having NO evidence to prove that 1) the other culture/belief is wrong 2) that the replacement culture/belief is right.

    Have these so-called ‘skeptics’ learned nothing from the social control and interference from other belief systems? I don’t think these folks are skeptics at all, because all they have is a belief that woo does not exist – and not absolute proof.

    At the risk of being accused of implementing Godwin’s Law, I’d say look at certain past regimes and belief systems, how they thought that they were absolutely right in what they did, and thought, and how they FORCED their belief and thinking on to others.

    Time and again we see that evangelising just makes skeptics look bad, and brings a siege mentality to the woo.

    Who the hell is anyone to tell anyone else what to believe? Isn’t that control freakery? “You believe in “X”, I think “X” is a load of bull, so I am going to force you to change your mind, lose your right to self-determination.”

    …and don’t give me the “Science says woo is bunk…” WRONG!!! Science says all the woo we tested so far is bunk…that is a different thing altogether, people are seeing absolutes in science, when in fact science is not about absolutes, we test our hypotheses and theories to try and make them break, if they don’t then the model is good to go, until we find a different result – or maybe a new test.

    Where will it end?

    Guerilla ‘skeptics’ stopping kids from having imaginary friends? Stop fairy tales and Aesop’s Fables?

    We’re at it, isn’t most science fiction bunk? Let’s ban Doctor Who, let’s ban human imagination…

    1. You don’t quite seem to understand how evidence works. Skeptics are not saying they can prove a negative, but that when a claim is lacking evidence to back it up then it is questionable. I also do not think that the editing of Wikipedia articles is anything like forcing other people to believe certain things. As long as the information being edited into the articles is well sourced then there are no problems.

      Your comment here is full of logical fallacies and, quite frankly, is difficult to follow as you don’t really make much sense. To me it seems that you have bigger problems with non-believers and people who don’t agree with your beliefs.

  7. I read, what you wrote, thanks for checking, perhaps you can read what I put too, I didn’t say you personally made claims about GS but I asked a question that you sidestepped with your offhand response.

    I’ll try again as I am genuinely interested in knowing how things can be done better.

    You stated “There have also been accusations that the skeptics involved in GSOW are aggressively editing the pages of certain individuals, which has since been denied” and had two links to Sheldrake articles. Your statement that you think it was actually ‘individuals with a chip on their shoulder does not negate the point that it is clearly not GS’s fault that Sheldrake got upset. You explained that you are not familiar with checking who has edited Wiki and I showed that the evidence that it wasn’t GS on his page is there for all to see, should they wish to find out. He and/or his followers chose not to look at the facts, which certainly makes me question his ‘fact checking’ for everything else he does.

    Again, I ask for your solution to the problems you say GS’s type of activity causes, do you really think people like Sheldrake would work with Susan? I certainly wouldn’t expect her to engage with people promoting homeopathy to work together on a Wiki page. Sometimes the facts really are stacked in favour of just one viewpoint, such as in homeopathy, so why pretend they aren’t? If there ever is scientific evidence that proves homeopathy works then its supporters can certainly add that to their page and Susan’s GS couldn’t remove it. That is how people collaborate in Wikipedia, you add facts, then they get challenged if they are not supported by the evidence. It works both ways, skeptics can’t remove woo stuff if it has been proven.

    As I said above, if not for GS and others like them, Wikipedia would be just a collection of unverified personal opinions, a waste of space.

    Do you give up your skeptic activity if woo people get upset? Do you think Susan should give up and let Sheldrake’s lot and other woo fans overrun Wikipedia with made up stuff?

    The only answer I can think if is that she carries on with what she is doing. If you disagree then would you give your opinion on how you think she should proceed in her efforts to keep Wikipedia factual?

    B

    PS – I like your response to Kris Webster above.

    1. As I said above, if not for GS and others like them, Wikipedia would be just a collection of unverified personal opinions, a waste of space.

      …haha! People have been fact checking Wikipedia articles long before GSoW came around. The problem occurs when personal bias is allowed to enter the equation, and I’m not suggesting this has happened with edits by GSoW, but it is certainly a problem with other skeptics editing pages with a clear agenda and totally misrepresenting research done into specific cases of paranormal research or parapsychology.

      This is a well known problem and has furthered ill-will and mistrust of skeptics as an agenda driven group.
      Then along comes a group with a combative name – Guerrilla Skepticism – who are open about their mass editing of Wikipedia articles, and you don’t think they’re going to be met with hostility? You’re surprised when people don’t trust them? Really shortsighted.

      I don’t have a solution and haven’t proposed one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about my impressions on how the group should have thought of how to handle such a situation a bit better. It isn’t a problem they caused, but it’s one they’ve waded into. I’d also be interested to see how skeptics would react if a group formed to start neutralising articles that have a huge skeptic bias. I’m pretty sure the reaction wouldn’t be the same as I’m seeing right now.

      Do you give up your skeptic activity if woo people get upset?

      I don’t come into contact with ‘woo people’. I come into contact with people. People who believe in things I do and people who believe in things I don’t. I detect the ‘woo’ label. I treat people as people and respect that there are reasons behind why they believe what they believe. If I’m upsetting them I consider why that might be and I change my behaviour if it is appropriate to do so.

      I don’t dismiss them as just ‘being woo people who don’t like people questioning them’. That might be the case in which I won’t change what I do, but that isn’t always the case.

      Do you think Susan should give up and let Sheldrake’s lot and other woo fans overrun Wikipedia with made up stuff?

      Thanks for misrepresenting my position, I really appreciate it.

  8. It’s hard to have a logical conversation when you put words into my mouth. Of course people have been fact checking Wikipedia articles long before GS, I said that clearly by referring to ‘others’ too.

    If skeptic individuals edit pages with a clear agenda and GS see those pages then they undo the false claims that the pseudo-skeptics made. They seem to be pretty good at keeping to a neutral point of view, they post links to the pages they update on their blog and you can read them. If, as you claim, you can provide evidence of pages that ‘have a huge skeptic bias’ then you could email GS and they would change them to be neutral. Gerbic just did that with a skeptic page by removing words she said puffed up the skeptic page too much, check youtube for the evidence. You can blog to say that, despite their unfortunate choice of name, they are actually following the Wiki neutrality rules.

    You do realise that there are MANY single-interest based Wiki groups don’t you? It’s not just skeptics who work together. There are editing groups for alternative medicine, paranormal, creationism (I think) and piles more. You can find a list of them on Wiki. I wonder if any of them have approached Susan to work with them to make neutral articles?

    Please don’t make things up and claim I said them. Where did I say GS weren’t going to be met with hostility? Of course they will be, by people who don’t like to have facts added to their pages, evidence of that is well documented in the GS blog so you can’t claim they seem shortsighted, unless you are making assumptions and haven’t read their blog.

    You are wrong about the reaction to non skeptics editing skeptic pages. My local skeptic group like the truth and proven facts. I am a skeptic and I want Wikipedia to be full of facts, not lies. If someone added a proven fact, with relevant citations, to Wikipedia showing that Richard Dawkins is a catholic taking communion at a chapel every Sunday then I’d be ok with that. Wouldn’t all skeptics accept proven facts? If they wouldn’t then I’d question whether they are skeptics.

    Of course you are free to write about your ‘impressions’ but they seem to be impressions that are not based on many facts. You don’t seem very famliar with GS’s policies or activities so it’s illogical to imply that they didn’t think of this type of situation arising. Maybe you don’t realise that sort of thing happens all the time in Wikipedia, it is why certain pages get locked.

    I see we agree on something ‘If I’m upsetting them I consider why that might be and I change my behaviour if it is appropriate to do so’. I agree with the statement, but note your caveat ‘appropriate to do so’, which is the key issue. I believe it is not ‘appropriate’ for GS or other skeptic editors to stop editing Wiki because some people don’t like facts. Do you agree?

    As for your final comment, it doesn’t make sense. That was a question. That isn’t stating a position, or misinterpreting your position, which you have made clear yourself.

  9. Way to go Hayley. Sidestep justifying your false claims with sarcasm. The sign of a true skeptic. Not.

    As you’ve stated yourself “You can not like what someone is saying and you can voice your opposition or enter into a debate about it, but silencing that person because they don’t say the things you approve of is a bullshit move. Nobody, from any group within society, should ever say ‘I better not do this/say this because I expect people will be offended and I may face negative consequences’”.

    Good on GS for not being silenced

  10. good points Hayley but the attrition continues. take a look at the first line of the entry on parapsychology:

    “Parapsychology (or psi phenomena) is a pseudoscience that claims to study psychic and paranormal phenomena scientifically.”

    and yet, factually, In 1969, parapsychology was accepted as an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific organization in the world and the publisher of Science, one of the top-ranked scientific journals. By inclusion in the AAAS, the Parapsychological Association is demonstrably a bona fide scientific discipline.

    I’m not suggesting that GS had anything to do with this, but maybe some Sceptics “with a chip on their shoulder” are being emboldened by the GS goals?

    Personally i prefer your more humane approach to these controversies, suggesting a more open-minded approach than the more hard-core and inflexible one.

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