Category Archives: Skeptic Activism

Advice to skeptics who are trying to get out there and make a difference.

There is no #AntiAtheistCampaign on Twitter. It’s just a crackdown on spam.

I happened to stumble across a few Tweets yesterday that contained the hashtag #AntiAtheistCampaign. Hashtags are often used to organize on Twitter. This appeared to be some people organizing against some sort of oppression against certain Twitter accounts. Was it widespread? Was it orchestrated by the religious?  I delved in further.

What I found was a disappointing lack of skepticism, a great deal of conspiracy mongering and very little evidence.

Now, clearly there were in fact some Twitter accounts that had been disabled, the evidence of that is undeniable. But with a little bit of awareness of what these folks were doing with their accounts, along with quick scan of the Twitter blog and even the tech news sites, one can piece together what is happening.

Bottom line: there is no evidence at all that Christians are ganging up on atheists on Twitter in an organized (and successful) campaign to get their accounts disabled. There is a much simpler explanation. Read on.

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FishBarrel now supports US FDA complaints

Last month I reported on the pain being felt by alternative medicine practitioners in the UK as a result of the activism of Nightingale Collaboration. Part of that effort was streamlined via a piece of software created by Simon Perry called Fishbarrel. This tool modifies Google’s free Chrome web browser to provide simple ways to highlight dubious claims, comment on them, and automatically gather them into a properly formatted government complaint. I blogged about Fishbarrel back when it was released.

Initially Fishbarrel only supported agencies in the UK, and Simon has gradually added support for other countries. I’m pleased to relay the news that the Fishbarrel software can now be used by skeptics in the United States to file complaints with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

Read on for more details and some tips.

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Case Study: How a notorious spammer was brought down via Twitter

Today the Montreal Police announced that an arrest has been made (in French here) in the “Mabus” case. It wouldn’t have happened but for Twitter. This post explains how.

Twitter has been around for five years now, but there is still much confusion about what it is good for. How can you post anything useful in 140 characters? Isn’t it just people posting what they had for lunch? It’s a massive time waster. Those are typical complaints.

And yet there are several thousand self-proclaimed skeptics actively using Twitter quite effectively as a means of communication and organization. I quite like it myself. Unlike some complicated multi-purpose websites like Facebook, Twitter is dead simple. And you can do amazingly useful things with it.

“Like what?” you might ask. Well in the last week the science, journalism, skeptic and atheist communities on Twitter organized to pressure a law enforcement agency to take action on someone who has been a copious source of spam and death threats on the Internet for at least 15 years. Today’s arrest came about in under 10 days from the first moves.

I think the sequence of events of how this came together are quite interesting, and perhaps an object lesson in online activism. As it was happening I was capturing links to the relevant posts so I could document how it came about. Read on…

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Please Don’t Start Another Blog or Podcast!

Update June 29: Now with video.

My presentation at SkeptiCamp Atlanta 2011 this past weekend was titled “Please Don’t Start Another Blog or Podcast!” I chose that title deliberately to to be a little controversial, of course. It verges on ridiculous for someone who both blogs and podcasts to tell others not to do either.

My real point is to highlight the many other online activities skeptics can engage in that are important and make a difference. Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) will find some familiar topics in this. See below for links to the slides, an audio version and other supplemental information.

The video includes some introductory material from SkeptiCamp, the main presentation starts at 6:26. If you prefer to listen on the go, you can hear the audio for this presentation on the Skepticality podcast #158 “Return to Lake Skepticamp.” The audio of the presentation itself starts at about 20 minutes in to the episode. You will hear in both the video and audio that I originally miscounted my subtopics, I say seven and the audience corrects me. This has been corrected in the slides seen after the break.

Continue reading after the break for my slides and a list of links that to more information (mostly prior posts on this blog) that expand on each of the topics I cover in the presentation.

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Web of Trust even more crucial to skeptics with Facebook integration

Back in March I wrote about how important Web of Trust could be for skeptical outreach. A few recent developments have made it even more useful, and in fact have even made it urgent that skeptics be involved in Web of Trust in a big way.

You can read about what Web of Trust actually does at the original post, but suffice it to say is it is a browser-based gadget that warns you when you are about to visit a dodgy or malicious web site. Since skeptics are fundamentally all about warning people about misinformation anyway, it is right up our alley.

These new developments are all about reach. We are always looking for better ways to reach more people, and in my post I pointed out that Web of Trust had millions of users. Well, it gets better. Read on to find out how much better.

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Greasing the wheels of skeptical activism: FishBarrel

Update April 22: Possibility of a U.S. version, we need feedback on which forms to target. See bottom of post.

The reason this blog has “software tools” in its title is because I wanted to focus on how skeptics can use software in general (and the web in particular) to further the aims of skepticism. Logo of UK's Advertising Standards AuthorityOften I’ve discussed general purpose tools that can be adapted to the needs of skepticism, such as Wikipedia or Web of Trust.

Increasingly skeptics are building their own purpose-built web sites or software that are particularly adapted to their needs. My own site What’s the Harm is one very simple example, it is intended as a resource you can give to believers who ask the titular question. A more complex example is Andy Lewis‘ widget the Quackometer, which measures whether a particular URL or persona is engaged in quackery. Joel Birch‘s WordPress plug-in Nofollowr is another example.

This week a new one called Fish Barrel was released, that I would really like to highlight in this post. More details after the jump…

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Web of Trust is a useful tool for skeptics

It’s frustrating being a skeptic. We do our best to explain why homeopathy or Power Balance wristbands or MMS are (at best) a waste of money or (at worst) a dangerous fraud. And yet people still buy these products every day. You just want to slap them sometimes.

What we need is a tireless skeptical robot, that would catch people right as they were about to buy one of these products and give them a good solid “dope slap” to the back of the head. That would be awesome.

Of course, the robot idea has the same flaw as our outreach efforts: how do you get a robot to everyone who needs it? The marketers of these products are everywhere and have lots of money to spend. We don’t have a budget, and robots are kind of expensive.

But suppose these imaginary skeptical robots had other purposes too? Then folks might seek them out on their own, and we wouldn’t have to pay for their development.

Well, at least for when people buy products via a web site, the appropriate robot already exists. It is called Web of Trust, and (like The Mad Skeptic, who scooped me on this) I think skeptics should be promoting it and helping create its crowdsourced ratings.

In this post I’ll show you how we can use it and I’ll give you a look at what WOT’s ratings of skeptic and believer web sites look like already.

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Gamification and skepticism

One of the hot new terms in the world of web-based services is gamification. This is when a web site is designed to add game-like features to the user experience. The idea is to take something that might be fairly tedious if it were just a simple utility, and make it fun. Typical game elements from two gamified web sitesThe form this takes varies widely from site to site, but often includes user-to-user competition scoreboards, achievement badges, unlocking of extra abilities through achievements, and so on.

Probably the most famous example is a site called Foursquare. This is a site that encourages its users to log where they are during the day. Sounds tedious, right? Why should I keep a rigorous diary of everywhere I go? But by allowing you to connect with your friends, get discounts at local businesses, and earn rewards such as badges, Foursquare turns the experience into a game.

Much of what skeptics do can be tedious or repetitive at times. We have to reiterate over and over the same evidence to new believers in several different of topic areas. We repeatedly have to debunk new versions of old scams. Many skeptics quite understandably grow weary of this and drop out of skepticism eventually. This is an ongoing problem.

And so I’ve been interested for some time in the idea of applying gamification to skepticism. There’s been an interesting development in this area. Read on…

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Web archiving is an important skeptic tool

You may have noticed a new badge appeared recently on the right side of this blog that says Keep Libel Laws out of Science. It has to do with an ongoing legal case in England where a major chiropractic association is suing science writer Simon Singh for libel over an article in which he referred to certain chiropractic procedures as “bogus.” I encourage you to click the badge and sign the petition.

Today there was a fascinating development in this case that relates directly to skeptical software tools. Because the case hinges on whether or not chiros promote procedures they know to be “bogus”, skeptics have been scouring chiropractic websites in the UK looking for evidence of this. In response, another chiropractic association has advised its members to take down their websites entirely! This is stunning.

Internet Archive Wayback Machine

Internet Archive Wayback Machine

As skeptics one of the key things we do is hold woo-woos feet to the fire when they make ridiculous claims. Perhaps the most public place of all to make a claim is on a website, because it is instantaneously visible to everyone on earth who chooses to look. Tracking claims made on websites is thus an important skeptical technique.

But this move by the chiropractors reminds us that the web is mutable thing. Any content anywhere on the web can be changed at any time. Paranormalists and pseudoscientists can edit their web sites constantly to present a moving target or to remove evidence of their missteps. In order to do our jobs as skeptics, we need to be constantly aware of this and use tools to compensate. Fortunately such archival tools exist. One is the well-known Internet Wayback Machine, but several others (including commercial products) exist.

After the jump, I’ll talk more about some of the uses of these tools and show you how to use them as a skeptic.

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Why skeptics should pay close attention to Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned in several articles how important I feel it is to reach out to what Michael Shermer calls fence sitters: the people who have no strong opinion on skeptical topics. These are people who are neither skeptics nor believers. 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.

Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia

An obvious way to do this is through search engine results. Build a website on a particular topic, and do your best to get it ranked highly by Google. Then when “fence sitters” reach out for information on that topic, you’ll be ready for them. Needless to say this takes a bit of effort. For some topics it is very difficult to elbow your way into that crucial first page of search engine results, due to huge amounts of competition.

But what if there were a way to post good science-oriented material on an existing website that is almost guaranteed to be in the first page of search engine results? Then you could focus on the material itself, and not even have to worry about setting up your own site and optimizing it for searches.

Such a website exists, and it is called Wikipedia.

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