What is Your Excuse for Not Editing Wikipedia?

What is Your Excuse for Not Editing Wikipedia?

There were over twelve million views per hour of the English language Wikipedia website during December 2012.

Wikipedia is the sixth most visited site on the web and often the first result for most search queries (as high as 99% of the nouns tested).

We know that people use Wikipedia a neutral source of general information – it is often their first source.

I’m sure you get the point about how big and important Wikipedia is and you probably have first hand experience of going to Wikipedia yourself or at the very least you have seen Wikipedia ranked high in search engine results.

Read on below and I’ll tell you why Wikipedia is important, how to get involved and share my experience getting my hands dirty!

Skeptical of Wikipedia

Are you skeptical of Wikipeida? Are you always hearing about that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information?

I have a three part answer to that:

  1. Yes, Wikipedia is fallible!
  2. However, Wikipedia is more reliable than it is given credit for and is open about how it can be improved.
  3. You can be part of the solution!

Wikipedia is often a starting point for people’s research. Even the same scientists, teachers and academics that tell you it is unreliable will regularly use it as a quick reference tool.

Just imagine how many people ask these questions:

“Why is this skeptic speaking on the TV credible?”

“What exactly is homeopathy?”

“How are all these other religons different from mine?”

“Is climate change a hoax?”

They’ll likely find themselves typing questions like these into a search engine and ending up on Wikipedia. The chances are that when they continue doing deeper research they will follow up the citations used on Wikipedia to find high quality sources of information.

The Evidence

Wikipedia is a perfect fit for skeptics, rationalists, scientists and all those who think that evidence is important. Wikipedia relies on citations from reliable sources and verifiability; in essence it is all about evidence. Wikipedia is saying to the world: “Hey, …prove it or we will hold you accountable!

You may lament that Wikipedia is not a place for first hand research and engaging narrative; it may be too dry and not emotionally compelling enough. You may want to express yourself in an essay, investigative report or in song — I applaud you for it and encourage the depth of work and creative output. However, it may have limited effectiveness if it doesn’t reach people.

Studies show that being on the first page of a search engine results page is vitally important and the first result often gets one third or more of the clicks. Wikipedia is almost always on the first page and in the top positions.

Furthermore, the evidence shows that Wikipedia gets the traffic, the Homoeopathy page alone gets over 2 million views each year. When was the last time you heard of a blog getting that kind of traffic?

The Solution

With all that traffic and prominence Wikipedia may be the single greatest chance to provide high quality information to people. Now enter the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project.

The project was started in May 2011 by photographer Susan Gerbic and has since been a shining light for skepticism and science on Wikipedia.

The Skeptical Wikipedians go around and inject truth into otherwise false or unsubstantiated claims on Wikipedia pages. They keep a watchful eye on pseudoscience articles like Sylvia Browne or Homoeopathy and have cleaned up and extended pages dear to skeptics such as the James Randi Educational Foundation or Neil deGrasse Tyson. The list is far too long to mention all the excellent work that ranges from reverting vandalism and fixing spelling mistakes to complete article rewrites and translations (18 different language groups).

It is important to reach out to what Michael Shermer calls fence sitters: the people who have no strong opinion on skeptical topics. As Tim Farley says:

“If we can reach these people before they’ve been swayed by a “believer”, we can educate them about what science has to say about the topic areas of skepticism.”

Editing Wikipedia is a way of ensuring that good science material is almost guaranteed to be in the first page of search engine results.

We Got Your Wiki Back

In early 2012, Susan wrote an article about the poor coverage of skeptical speakers at conferences. People would search to find out more about the speakers and find poor quality articles or nothing at all. She stated:

“These are our representatives, whether or not you agree with their message, by allowing these pages to turn into litter filled vacant lots we are giving the impression that we don’t care about our spokespeople and the world probably shouldn’t care either. If we don’t have their backs who will?”

Fortunately, the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia has their backs.

Not only is this important for skeptics but it is also important for the general public:

“When one of our spokespeople is in the media, the audience members – knowing little to nothing about him/​her – are going to try and find out more. As soon as they type the name into their favorite search engine they will get a link to that person’s Wikipedia page. What are they looking for, and what will they discover? They want to know if the person is credible, respected in his/​her community, and knowledgeable.

When someone turns on CNN and Randi’s talking about Sylvia Browne most people will say, “Who’s that?” A quick search on Wikipedia is going to do a lot of educating, and shame on us if we don’t have Randi’s back.”

Have a look at just a few of the skeptical figures that have had the WGYWB treatment:

Luke’s Experience: Getting My Hands Dirty

I heard about the project from a variety of much-loved skeptical sources and finally decided to give it a go and get my hands dirty.

It is very early days for me but in the space of a couple of lunch breaks I tried out two edits.

Jenny McCarthy’s page had over 300,000 views in January 2013 alone and recently she was uninvited from headlining a cancer fundraiser due to her stance that vaccines cause autism. Susan suggested that I write up a short piece and add it to her page. First I went and established that it was a necessary edit on the Talk page. And then after having the go ahead I added this line:

In early 2013, the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation dropped their plans to have McCarthy headline[64] their Bust a Move charity fundraiser[65] because of criticisms[66][67] of her using her celebrity status to promote views “considered dangerous by most of the medical establishment”. [68]While McCarthy posted on Twitter that she had to “pull out” due to a “taping conflict”, the event organiser Linda Eagen stated that they had to “negotiate a financial settlement with her [McCarthy’s] representatives to get out of the deal” in an interview.[68]

That took me twenty minutes to research the sources and write it up.

Christopher “not-​​a-​​Lord” Monckton was coming to Australia again and I thought it best to make it clear in the lead of the page that his views are controversial.

Again, I went and discussed the changes on the Talk page and then made the appropriate changes.

I cannot stress this enough: this work is easy and important!

From the Editors

I asked a few of the editors from the GSW project what they wanted to share with the YAS readers and here’s what they had to say:

“By getting involved, you have the opportunity to make an impact on at least two levels. First, a well-​​written introduction paragraph can make all the difference in the world to the TLDR (too-long-didn’t-read) audiences, like frantic parents trying to find remedies for their children who feel like they’re on a deadline.” - Nathan Miller

“In addition to the article editing… there are Wikipedia editors who focus on the photographs, those who create the metadata (like the categories listed at the bottom of each page that help you find similar articles), and the editors who monitor the system for vandalism. That is the beauty of a project like this — there is room for everyone to help.” - Lei

“Editors committed to comprehensive article quality have the chance to massively elevate the level of discourse on contentious topics… ensuring that every aspect of an article you touch is well sourced and meets a standard of reliability and verifiability. Even in the best cases, this often means working with people who take a different view. It’ll often get frustrating, but you won’t be alone, and you’ll be doing more than preaching to the choir.” - Nathan Miller

“My local skeptics group does no activism… I’d heard [Susan Gerbic] speak about this a few times so I thought I’d get off my butt and give it a try. I know nothing about code, editing, and what not, but things are a group effort and everyone is willing to answer questions and give instructions.” - Chris Pederson

Get Involved — The Opportunities Are Endless

Editing Wikipedia is a powerful way of getting involved for anyone who doesn’t particularly like the “in your face” method of fighting pseudoscience. And the best part is that you don’t even have to get out of bed.

If you have been getting frustrated with the low quality and accessibility of information then it’s time to bust out your computer and get involved. And as Mark Edward says:

“Invalidate the woo with fact-​​based truth and you will feel much better!”

There really is no excuse for us not to get involved, the to-​​do list is massive and it grows every day.

Like many of you, I don’t have much time. But even little things like adding pages to a watchlist or changing small things when you see them can help.

“Nobody notices the beautifully written and highly annotated Wikipedia page, but everyone would notice if it were awful and useless”Edward Clint from SkepticInk.

Further Reading

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by bastique]