Yesterday Slate posted a piece by Evgeny Morozov that asked the question, “Does Google have a responsibility to help stop the spread of 9/11 denialism, anti-vaccine activism, and other fringe beliefs?” On its face it is an interesting question, one that goes right to the heart of what this blog is about. But except for a one nugget of wisdom which I applaud, the bulk of the article reveals the author’s naivete about matters skeptics deal with every day.
The article comments on a peer reviewed paper in Vaccine that analyzes the “tactics and tropes” of the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately I don’t have access to that journal to comment on the paper directly. But I can say the author of the Slate article could have avoided some pitfalls had he availed himself of the large body of skeptic literature in addition to that one paper.
News flash: we’ve been fighting these battles for decades, and are well familiar with the tactics listed. We’ve even been going head-to-head with these communities in Google and on Twitter and in the rest of Web 2.0, using the very same techniques. The evidence easy to find in Google, I’m not sure why Morozov can’t see it.
In the rest of this article I’ll point out how the piece’s proposed solution lacks vision, and suggest some other avenues that don’t require Google to get involved.
If you follow me on social media (Twitter, Facebook and so on) you may have seen me congratulate Dr. Karen Stollznow over the weekend. It was because her new Wikipedia biography (launched just before TAM) appeared on the main page of Wikipedia as part of the “Did You Know?” feature. This is a box on the left side of the page that pulls interesting trivia from articles recently added to Wikipedia.
The main page of the English Wikipedia is apparently used by many as an entry point. It currently receives between 4 and 5 million page views every day. That’s a tremendous amount of traffic, and it guarantees that anything linked from that page is going attract alot of readers.
Like the rest of Wikipedia, the Did You Know? feature is collaboratively edited. Anyone can nominate a page to appear there, as long as they follow certain rules. When I create a new article that is relevant to skepticism, I nominate it in the hopes that it will be displayed here one day. The goal is to get the attention of those 4 million people, and expose them to skepticism.
But how effective is this? Fortunately, Wikipedia’s transparency allows us to examine the traffic numbers and answer that question. In this article I hope to show it is a very good way to get new people exposed to skeptic concepts.
A recurring topic on this blog and in my public talks is getting skeptics involved in editing Wikipedia. I’ve been writing about it here and talking about it at events like Skepticamp and Skeptics in the Pub for almost 3 years. I believe it to be very important.
Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia
But it is sometimes difficult to impress people with the importance. I often approach this by talking about things like SEO and SERP placement. But to many non-webmasters these are confusing concepts. It can be hard to visualize how they translate into readers.
Last weekend at The Amazing Meeting (TAM9) Susan Gerbic-Forsyth gave a Sunday paper presentation on the topic of Wikipedia. Susan has taken up the gauntlet I threw down in a big way, for which I thank her. She’s contributed a ton of photos she’s taken at skeptic events, which are a fantastic addition to any article. She’s also started her own blog where she shares what articles she’s been working on, tips on formatting and so on. It’s good stuff, check it out.
During TAM9, Susan and I were talking about how it is sometimes difficult to convince skeptics that Wikipedia is worth the effort. Skeptics, due to their nature, are painfully aware of the many limitations of Wikipedia. Some express doubts that these can be overcome, and have written off the site. Others who have actually tried to edit express frustration in dealing with other editors and the culture of Wikipedia (a topic for another time).
But as we were talking, it occurred to me there is a very simple way to show exactly how important Wikipedia is, without using any obscure terminology. And that’s what this post is about. By the end of it, it should be crystal clear why skeptics need to edit 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.
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.