Here's a fun entry, Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions. Have a beef with one of the supposed misconceptions? Well, get in there and edit. Straighten them out. Here's another fun site: a website showing real-time recent changes of Wiki entries from all over the world. Wikipedia has its critics, but here I want to discuss one group that is helping to keep the entries honest, accurate, and referenced. Susan Gerbic's idea: guerrilla skepticism started about 2 years ago and has already attracted over 120 editors in 17 different languages. So what is meant by "guerilla skepticism?" Here is the entry from their mission statement:
"The mission of the Guerrilla Skepticism editing team is to improve skeptical content of Wikipedia. We do this by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudoscientific pages. Why? Because evidence is cool. We train – We mentor – Join us."
Let's hear it for "cool" evidence. Since there is no credible evidence for the paranormal, this sounds like the proverbial fish-in-a-barrel, right? Nope. Unfortunately, the opposition is mounting a counter-offense. Two well known investigators or paranormal research, Rupert Sheldrake and Robert McLuhan have both recently written and blogged about guerilla skepticism. Sheldrake believes in telepathic communication between owners and their pets. He has done research that supposedly indicates that dogs can detect when their owners decide to come home. Hmmm. According to Sheldrake, "guerrilla skeptics... devote a great deal of time and energy to modifying Wikipedia entries so that they reflect a skeptical point of view about psychic phenomena, and try to portray research on these subjects as pseudoscience." Robert McLuhan wrote a book called RANDI'S PRIZE: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters. I invite you to read this Amazon review of the book, which is a pretty good summary of my feelings. McLuhan writes: We can't really complain about hostile editing, as long it stays within the Wikipedia guidelines for editors, which Gerbic seems committed to doing. As she sees it, it's all about insisting on backing up claims with evidence, which is what sceptics are all about...it's a pity that this key source for learning and education is so compromised as far as serious parapsychology is concerned. There is of course plenty of information about parapsychology, but little that isn't gummed up with sceptic disdain."
"Skeptical point of view"? "Hostile editing"? "Serious parapsychology"? "Sceptic disdain"?
Skepticism, obviously, should be neither hostile, nor disdainful; it should be pursued in the spirit of the search for truth, not in defense of any point of view. Otherwise, one is engaged in What Richard Feynman described as cargo cult science.
Try this on for size: I think that truth can only fit into three categories: true, not true, and confusing. A skeptic believes in the scientific method: that evidence should precede belief, and that when contradictory evidence is generated you need to change your beliefs, not shoe-horn the evidence into a pre-existing framework of beliefs--the latter is the province of religion or pseudoscience.
All right. I've traveled too far away from my original intent in this blog entry, which was not to engage in quack-bashing, but to congratulate Susan Gerbic for her great idea and to thank all the contributors to Guerrilla Skepticism for their time and trouble. I hope to meet Susan when she comes to Tacoma for the CFI Summit in Tacoma this fall, so I can thank her in person.