Building Internet Tools For Skeptics
July 1, 2008 9 Comments
Update, April 15, 2011: Video of the original presentation is now online, courtesy JREF.
This is a version of a presentation that was given at The Amazing Meeting 6 in Las Vegas on June 22, 2008. Most screenshots link to larger versions in a new window or to the actual web page where possible. The style of the presentation itself was to use very minimal text on the slides. To give you a feel for this the headers and bolded text in the following are actually the entire textual content of my slides.
Keep in mind that this presentation was to a mixed audience of skeptics, not to a technical audience full of programmers. As a result, many of my technical explanations are admittedly overly simplified.
In my opinion, skepticism is fundamentally about misinformation. The basic thing that unifies homeopathy, psychics, bigfoot and so on is that each of them is telling you a lie. Of course, the internet is about information, and that includes misinformation. So its not surprising that the internet has become a primary tool for distribution of this misinformation.
Misinformation is everywhere on the net. Try doing a Google search for homeopathy or UFO and you get a whole lot of nonsense in your results. Yes, there are some skeptical resources there too, of course. But a non-skeptic is easily misled on these topics.
Those search engine results reflect what I see going on out there, which is fundamentally a battle between information and misinformation. We skeptics, of course, are fighting on the side of information. But there is a considerable amount of money and effort fighting on the side of misinformation. Very often we are outmanned and outgunned.
What are we using to fight these battles? We use blogs of course, and there have been a large number of excellent skeptical blogs launched just in the last few years. We use social networks like meetup and facebook to organize in various ways. We use social linking services like digg and reddit to draw attention to good skeptical content.
We also use google-bombing to do this for wider audiences, and we’ve had a recent success with this regarding Expelled, where we pushed the Expelled Exposed site up right next to the movie in Google’s results.
Problems with these methods
This is all good, but I see several problems with these methods. For one thing they are very ad-hoc. We respond to stories as they come up. We fight a lot of brush fires.
Another problem is that we often tend to preach to the choir. It can be very difficult to get non-skeptics to visit skeptical websites. Many people are not even aware there is such a thing as the skepticism movement.
It is my contention that we need to extend our reach. We need to find ways to get good, skeptical content in front of people who will not seek it out themselves.
We need to be more systematic. So much of what we do in skepticism on the web is very reactive and ad-hoc. We need to start using more scientific and systematic ways of getting the word out.
What I’m talking about here is using the power of Web 2.0 to the purposes of skepticism. Web 2.0 is what some call the current crop of newer web sites which take a different approach to providing web services, things like Twitter and FriendFeed. Let me define what I think are the key elements of these services, which we can use to our advantage.
First is community. Most of these sites allow you to indicate who your friends and acquaintances are and interact with them.
Second is specialization. Many of these sites are highly specialized. Where years ago Amazon introduced the idea of a book store to the web, in Web 2.0 you might have a book store specifically for one particular kind of book.
Third is programmability. Now, I’m a programmer, but don’t worry. The techniques I am talking about today are (in general) applicable by anyone who uses the web, not just programmers.
Finally there is the idea of mashups. A mashup is a new site that has been built out of data provided programmatically by other sites. For example, there’s a site called GasBuddy that tracks fuel prices around the U.S. At some point the data from this site was taken and combined with Google Maps to create a mashup where you could see prices on a map. This added functionality in some cases can be created by end users with no effort by the original site.
Applying Web 2.0 to Skepticism
So, how do we go about applying Web 2.0 to skepticism? I see five main aspects to doing this, which are as follows:
- Work smarter, not harder
- Open up your data
- Mash up data
- Appeal to neutrals
I will cover each of these in the rest of my talk.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
As you know, the skeptic movement is not well funded. But our enemies in many cases are. So we need to make sure we are working as efficiently as we can. There are a number of web tools that can help you do this.
First and foremost of these is RSS. You may have seen the orange icon on websites and wondered what it is. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Very simply, RSS is just a very simple way for a website to list new articles on that site so it can be automatically grabbed by other software. It’s a special kind of web page that is formatted in a very particular way.
Here’s a screen shot of the tool that I use to read skeptical feeds, its called Bloglines. There are a number of other tools like this such as Google Reader and others. Find one you like and be more efficient in your skeptical reading.
Once you are reading the web this way, you can take it one step further, and filter your feeds. There’s a ton of skeptical content out there, and we all can’t be experts on all of it all the time. So if you want to specialize in your skepticism, filtering is a good way to do that.
One excellent tool to do this is called Yahoo Pipes. This is a free tool that allows you to take RSS feeds and other content that is out there, and filter it down just to the material you need to see. This is a fantastic tool.
To give you an example of something skeptical you can do with this, here is a screen shot of a pipe I built that looks for posts related to homeopathy. That box at the top lists eight different RSS feeds from various skepticism-oriented forums around the web. The box in the middle simply tells it to search the article title or content for the word "homeopath" and only produce articles that match. So by using this feed, you can keep an eye on what skeptics are saying about homeopathy on the forums, without having to laboriously visit each forum out there.
You don’t need to be a programmer to create this; it is purely drag and drop. You drag those boxes out onto the drawing surface, fill in the text and connect them with lines and you are done. Actually the hardest part of building this particular pipe was researching which forums out there produce an RSS feed and what the URL for each of them was.
One of the nice things about Yahoo Pipes is it encourages sharing. If you click that pipes screen shot you can see my copy of this pipe and subscribe to it yourself. Or you can clone the pipe and turn it into something else entirely for your own use. For example, change "homeopath" to "bigfoot" or whatever you are interested in.
Another great tool that is available for free is called Google Alerts. If you ever search for news stories on Google News, you’ve probably seen it encouraging you to use it. Basically, Google Alerts allows you set up some searches that will be done continuously. When something matches, you get an email that looks like a Google search result that contains only new relevant content. This is the way I do the bulk of the research for my site What’s The Harm?
This is an entirely web-based and free tool; you just type in search queries and tell it how often you want to receive emails. At left you can see a partial list of the searches that I use to find stories for What’s The Harm. This is a fantastic way, as a skeptic, to keep up with what is going on in the world and stay up to date.
Google Custom Search
Google has another fantastic service that probably fewer of you have heard of, which is called Google Custom Search. As I mentioned earlier (and as all skeptics know) it can be hard to wade through all the misinformation in results for common skeptical searches. Google Custom Search allows you to configure your own custom version of Google that eliminates certain web sites, promotes certain web sites to higher in the results, or only searches a small subset of sites. It can do complex combinations of this as well.
I’ve used this service to create a Google Custom Search Engine that is oriented toward skeptics. Actually, this was the tool that I used initially as I was gathering information for What’s The Harm. As of now, this engine contains something like 600 URLs. Some of these are large skeptical web sites like randi.org; others are as small as a single page on a particular hoax. This is a fantastic tool for skeptics to find good material for their efforts on the web, and I plan to make it public on skeptools.com soon.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a tool that does not require programming skill. It can be entirely configured using a web-based interface which is provided by Google. In this screen shot you see the configuration interface for my skeptic search engine. Essentially you just add URLs and occasionally set a few options. It’s very simple and highly recommended to cut through the clutter of the web.
In the future, I see other things we could do with custom search engines. I already have underway an engine that searches just "believer" sites that has thousands of URLs. It’s not quite ready for use yet, it needs many more URLs. But when it is we will be able to use it as a tool to study the misinformation on the web en masse.
Once we have that list of believer URLs for the believer engine, we could also build a search engine to search the whole web minus "believer" sites. Essentially, this would be the regular Google with much of the misinformation filtered out. You could imagine how valuable this would be in a classroom situation in particular. As these custom search engines are made usable, I plan to publish them on skeptools.com.
The second element I’d like to emphasize is specialization. There are plenty of general purpose skeptical web sites at this time. We’ve got several forums, two skeptical magazines, and lots of general skeptical blogs. What we need to be focusing on now is creating special-purpose tools that fill niches.
My contribution in this area is a site called whatstheharm.net. It is a very simple site that posts one thing: victim reports. These are people who have been killed or injured as a result of believing in various types of misinformation. This is intended as a rhetorical tool when debating believers, who often claim their nonsense is harmless. It is also useful as a research tool for bloggers and journalists writing on skeptical topics. By capturing the basic information (name, date and place) of these stories, I give you a starting point for further research.
The main page of What’s The Harm? is very simple, just listing categories of misinformation that has gotten people hurt. When you drill down into a category you see a screen like this one, which is my page for herbal remedies. As you can see it lists victims with their story in alphabetical order.
Notice the Subscribe link with its RSS icon, and the map below that. Those two things lead into my next topic.
Open up your data
A key to taking advantage of what I’ve talked about so far is opening up the data on your skeptical web sites. A simple way to do this is something we have already talked about: RSS feeds. Although it was introduced for them, RSS is not just for blogs! RSS is being used more and more as a way to share data between web sites, and not just as a reading tool.
For example, the RSS feed from whatstheharm.net lists individual cases as I add them to the database. Subscribers could use the filtering tools I mentioned earlier to filter out only cases in particular categories or in particular geographic areas. This allows you to do things with my case data that I never envisioned.
This screen shot shows how my RSS feed looks in one particular browser (IE7). Just in this browser you can sort by date, filter by categories and otherwise manipulate the data. And I didn’t have to do any special programming to provide this capability. All I had to do was offer my data in the form of RSS. Click the screen shot to see my RSS feed in your browser (which may look different).
I will emphasize it again. All sites should publish via RSS, no matter what you are publishing on your site. Doing so opens up many avenues.
Another way to open up data is iCalendar. iCalendar is like RSS for calendars. It is a way of taking scheduled event information and opening it up so others can work with it.
As an example, here’s a screen shot from Skepchick.org. Notice the calendar widget on the right, which I’ve circled in red. This lists upcoming skeptical events all over the U.S. and elsewhere. You might say, "Big deal, almost every web site I go to has some sort of calendar widget on it."
The difference here is how that widget is being provided. The data resides in Google Calendar, which means that it is available via that widget and also as a normal
web page, as well as iCalendar and as RSS. Because of this you can pull this information into your personal calendar, sync it to your phone, and use it in a whole host of other ways.
By opening up this information in this way, the skepchicks have made it far more valuable than it would have been if were just a widget on their website. And again, the filtering that I mentioned before could be applied here as well.
Another emerging way of opening up the data on your website is something called microformats. These are just little bits of HTML that you incorporate into your web pages that help search engines and other tools understand the content of your website.
Of particular interest to skeptics is a microformat called hReview. This is intended for reviews of products or businesses. But I foresee it playing a big role in skepticism. The problem it addresses is that links do not indicate approval or disapproval. As far as a search engine is concerned, a link is a link. Thus an article debunking homeopathy on a skeptic site looks similar to a search engine to an article recommending homeopathy on a believer site. hReview would allow us to provide markup to distinguish this.
Yahoo search is just starting to support hReview now, which means that reviews provided in this way can appear in search results for the original site. You can see how this would be valuable to skepticism. This would allow our debunking efforts to appear in search engines more prominently.
Another microformat of interest is geo-coding. This is a way of associating a specific place on the surface of the Earth with web content. Skeptics can use this when writing about misinformation associated with a particular place, such as a cult church or an alternative medical practitioner.
A related variant of this is called GeoRSS. This is a way of associating a location with items in RSS feeds. I support GeoRSS on What’s The Harm now. At left is my feed displayed within Google Maps, zoomed in to just show cases in Europe. As you can see this allows you to explore my data in various ways, without any additional effort on my part. All I had to do was make sure the geographic data is present in the RSS feed. (You can click this screen shot to see a live version of this map in your browser).
Another way to expose map-related information is via KML. To oversimplify a bit, KML is like RSS for maps. I also expose all the data on What’s The Harm via KML as well. This is so you can map an entire category, since the RSS feed only contains recently added cases.
At right you can see a screen shot of my homeopathy cases displayed within Google Earth. This is Google’s more advanced mapping tool that installs onto your computer. As you can see, KML provides yet another way to explore the information on What’s The Harm, and even lets you navigate back to the site in the same window to see more details. (If you have Google Earth installed, you can click the screen shot to try this out yourself). Again, I didn’t have to do a ton of additional programming to make this possible. I just had to make sure a version of my information formatted as KML files is present on my website.
So as you can see, exposing the data on your website as RSS, iCalendar, GeoRSS and KML (among others) opens up a whole world of opportunities.
Mash up data
Where the real value of opening data up occurs is when you mash it up. I believe that we need to start creating skeptical mashups using this technology. The map views of my What’s The Harm cases are examples of a simple mashup.
Another example I found that already exists is on the website disbeliefnet.com. If you haven’t seen it yet, this is a site designed to promote Bill Maher’s upcoming documentary Religulous. If you visit the site you may notice a feature called The Heretic Press that shows a series of news articles about ridiculous things that have happened recently due to religious belief.
There are many blogs that operate this way, posting links to interesting stories elsewhere on the web. But the interesting thing about this page is nobody is actually picking these stories out by hand. This page is actually a mashup!
If you drill down on the RSS feed for this page, look where you end up? Yes, that’s Yahoo Pipes, something we talked about earlier.
This pipe looks complex, but actually it’s pretty similar to the one I showed you earlier. The boxes at the top gather news feeds from various religion-oriented blogs and other sites. The boxes in the middle clip out just the newest entries and aggregate everything together.
The large box on lower right looks for certain key words in the articles such as "cult" or "paranormal" so that only relevant articles are selected. Finally, everything is pooled together at the bottom and presented as a feed.
(Click the screen shot to see the actual Yahoo Pipe. You can even make a copy of it and modify it for your own use).
This is a fantastic example of a skeptical mashup. They are taking skeptical content about religion from various sources and presenting it together in a new way that makes it more useful. And it requires no human intervention at all!
Appeal to the neutral
Finally, I think a key aspect of making Web 2.0 work for skepticism, is to make sure the material you are presenting appeals to "neutral" people. By neutral, I mean people who are neither skeptics nor believers.
A common problem in the skeptical web is getting the attention of neutral people. This is important because by doing so we have a chance to prevent them from becoming swayed by misinformation.
One way to do this is to post on "believer" web sites, but this is a losing battle. Some sites don’t let you post, others will edit your posts or ban you when they realize you have a skeptical message. So the other way, that most of us have taken, is to try to get people to come to skeptical web sites to hear our message. This can be a very hit or miss proposition, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.
I think the future of reaching people with our message is to target neutral or disinterested web sites. These sites have no interest in censoring skeptics, and attract a broad swath of people. And again, opening up your data can enable this because opened data can flow by itself. Many of these sites are hungry for content, and will scoop up any open data they can find.
Here’s an example using RSS. My What’s The Harm site is relatively new, I just launched in January of this year. As a result I don’t have a very high PageRank and don’t come up very high in many Google searches.
However, since I publish an RSS feed, my data is available to many services that index and process this data. One is the Bloglines service that I showed you earlier.
This screen shot shows a search for "Chinese herbal remedies" I made the other day on Bloglines. In Google my site doesn’t rank very highly at all for this search. (I’m on page 14 of the google results, which means nobody is going to see it). But in Bloglines search, one of my recent cases comes up in the top 5 results.
Bloglines is neither a believer site nor a skeptic site. And yet, there’s some skeptical content appearing quite prominently. This is what I’m talking about.
Another opportunity here is in the area of geotagging. There is currently a great deal of competition between the different map services from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others. As a result, they are hungry for geographical data they can use to enhance their maps. We can take advantage of this.
At right is another screen shot from Google Earth. Suppose someone who has this tool decides to go have a "personality test" and does a search for "Church of Scientology, Boston, MA". This returns several results, but I’ve zoomed in on the result at 448 Beacon St. to see how to get there.
As you can see there are several icons on the Scientology building. Some are basic phone book information provided by Google; some are actually propaganda supplied by the Church itself.
But notice below and to the right of the Scientology building. In the middle of the intersection is a YouTube icon.
If you click that icon, look what you get! This is a video slideshow about one of the Anonymous protests of Scientology that took place in front of that building. (This is not my video, I didn’t place it there).
Again, this is not a believer site or a skeptic site, it is a neutral site designed to help people find their way around. And yet here is a way to get skeptical content in front of those people.
I am coining the term geoprotesting as a name for this sort of thing. And we can use this not only for protests but for other types of content. Why not write a review of your local homeopath, explain how homeopathy doesn’t work, and geocode it right onto the lawn in front of their office?
I’ve been doing this with What’s The Harm too. Where I can locate a practitioner who was at fault, I put the case right by their office. Where kids have been killed by faith healing churches, I put their stories right in the parking lot of the church. (My data is not yet visible on the mapping services as of this writing, it takes time for this stuff to get picked up, and I just added geotagging to my site a few weeks ago).
In closing, I’d just like to say there are a great many opportunities here to spread the skeptical word, and we need to take advantage of them. We will continue this discussion on my new web site skeptools.com, where we can elaborate on these techniques and take them further. I hope I’ll see you there.