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.
Things like the Guerrilla Skepticism Campaign make the work of skeptic paranormal researchers bloody difficult by causing mistrust.
— Hayley M. Stevens (@Hayleystevens) October 13, 2013
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).
— David James (@StortSkeptic) October 13, 2013
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.