Continuing my effort to give a boost to the long tail of skepticism, it is time once again for Wishlist Wednesday. The idea with these posts is to kick around an idea for a skeptical project that someone could launch, that fills a niche in skepticism. I still believe there are many opportunities for online skeptic projects like this that have not yet been built. I hope to encourage skeptics to build them. Last week I proposed a podcast, this week it’s a website.
This week the idea is something I’ve personally wanted for a while. My previous job was teaching computer security training classes, and so I was travelling around the country regularly. Whenever I travel to a new place on business, I try to figure out if there are interesting sights to see or other things to visit while in the area. It can be a fun way to kill some down-time while on a business trip, and can often be quite educational.
Every once in a while I was able to visit a place that was related to skepticism while doing this. But some of these places are fairly obscure, and not easily found. And some you wouldn’t know to look for unless you were already from the area.
But what if skeptics made an effort to collect these locations and document them? Not only would casual travelers benefit, but skeptics wanting to learn or investigate something could use it to find convenient places to do so. Let’s think a bit of how we would build this.
Example to Emulate: Nerdy Day Trips
Back in September 2010, Ben Goldacre tweeted that he was interested in interesting destinations for half-day trips from London. He got many excellent replies, and Jo Brodie collected the answers in a blog post. The meme of a “nerdy day trip” grew and suggestions continued to roll in for months. The next March, Ben posted that the locations were being collected on a Google Map for geographical browsing.
The key elements of this site that make it a success are:
- Entry of locations is crowd-sourced – visitors to the site add them
- Map view allows you to browse trips near your location
- Details appear when you click a pin, including photos, links and details on visiting
- It has an automated Twitter feed @NewNerdyTrips that lets people see new sites as they are added.
Skepticism on a Map
So basically, I’d like to see someone build something very similar, but orient it around skepticism. There are tons of interesting sites all around that could be included:
- Allegedly haunted houses and related locations
- Locations of UFO sightings
- Headquarters of relevant institutions
- Sites of other famous events or anomalies like the Marfa Lights
- Museums & exhibits containing relevant artifacts
- Birthplaces, homes & graves of personalities related to skepticism
- Fun tangential stuff like the UFO pictured at top
Just like Nerdy Day Trips, the information could be crowd-sourced by the users of the site. But there are plenty of data sources that could be used to jump-start the database right up front:
- Wikipedia articles sometimes include a map location (often in the upper right). Scan the articles on on pseudoscience & paranormal topics and collect them.
- Wikimedia Commons (where the photos in this article were found) often include the coordinates where the photo was taken.
- Find-a-Grave could be used to find grave sites and memorials for personalities of the past.
- Historical Marker Database could be used to find sites like the Edgar Cayce marker pictured here. There are a number of historical markers around the US that mention ghosts, UFOs and other Forteana.
- What’s the Harm has exact locations for many of the events documented, including the infamous Buzz Aldrin punch.
If I were building it I’d put a blog-like component front-and-center, so people who actually travel could submit write-ups of their trips to these locations. (Nerdy Day Trips has a way to do this, but you have to drill down through the map to find them). It would be awesome to easily read stories of other trips, regardless of location. It’s a great way to travel vicariously and get ideas for your own travel. Plus it would help build the community around the site as the users share stories.
But above all, maps and/or other ways to find places close to a chosen location is an absolutely key feature, no matter how it gets built.
Someone please go build this site! You could start gradually just like Ben and his Twitter followers did, or go whole-hog from the beginning. You can certainly use Nerdy Day Trips as an example – try it out, see what you like and what you don’t like.
However you do it, I want to see it, because I want to visit these places!