Susan Gerbic

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Susan Gerbic
Head shot of Gerbic smiling with a black background.
Gerbic in 2016
Born (1962-08-08) August 8, 1962 (age 56)
Salinas, California
Residence Salinas, California
Citizenship American
Education BA Social & Behavioral Studies
Alma mater CSUMB California State University Monterey Bay
Occupation Portrait Studio Manager,[1] retired October 2016
Years active 1982–present
Employer Lifetouch Portrait Studios
Known for
  • Scientific skeptic activism
  • Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Parent(s) Anthony and Tressie Gerbic

Susan Marie Gerbic (born August 8, 1962) is an American skeptical activist living in Salinas, California.[1] Gerbic is the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics,[2] founder of Skeptic Action, founder and leader of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project,[3] a recurring contributor to the Skepticality podcast, a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquirer,[4] and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[5] Gerbic has focused much of her skeptical activism on people claiming to be "clairvoyant mediums", such as Sylvia Brown and Tyler Henry, whom she calls "Grief Vampires".[6]

Skepticism[edit]

Gerbic's interest in paranormal and fringe topics began during childhood, when she was most frightened by spontaneous human combustion, "the idea that you could be walking down the street and suddenly, BOOM!"[7] She grew up in Salinas as a Southern Baptist who became interested in skepticism in the 1990s.[8] "I had never heard the word atheist until I was in my late teens," Gerbic told Skeptical Inquirer editor Benjamin Radford. "Once I found out there were other people who felt the way I did, I read everything I could on the subject". In 2000, Gerbic discovered that there was a community of skeptics and went to her first conference, Skeptic's Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon a month later. "I felt like I had found my people."[9]

In a 2017 article she wrote for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, "How I Got Hooked on the Skeptical World," Gerbic related how her transformation into a scientific skeptic began after finding Skeptical Inquirer saying:

When I discovered Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1996, it was eye-opening. I believe the first issue I picked up was the January/February “Star Cradle” one. My subscription began with the September/October 1997 issue. Inside I found answers to lots of questions—about ghosts, psychics, Bigfoot, all that fascinated me. I learned about things I had never thought of, and upon reading some articles I thought, “People believe that?” Other articles made me say, “Wait, that isn’t real?”[10]

In February 2018, The Center For Inquiry announced that Gerbic had been appointed a fellow, stating that "CSI fellows are elected for their distinguished service to science and skepticism, serving as advisers to CSI and its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and are invited to share their expertise and advice on the program’s issues and projects."[5] Prior to this appointment, Gerbic served as a scientific and technical consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[11]

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia[edit]

After Gerbic's experience with three "Amazing Adventure" cruises put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation and several of The Amaz!ng Meetings she decided it was "time for me to do something".[8] Her first contributions were a photo of Brian Dunning to Wikipedia, then she slowly learned how to edit and improve Wikipedia articles. Gerbic and Mark Edward proposed "Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia" (GSoW) as a Skepticamp presentation, choosing that title to describe skeptical activism that is "more underground, more grass-root, more mole-like".[12]:(0:02:00) The idea for organized effort came from Tim Farley after Gerbic's attempts to use typical WikiProjects and found them dormant and not user-friendly for new editors. She then started communicating and training others on Facebook and by email.[13]

Susan Gerbic speaks about Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia during the 17th European Skeptics Congress in Wrocław, Poland.

The skepticism on Wikipedia effort grew after presentations at SkeptiCalcon and a Sunday paper presentation at The Amaz!ng Meeting[12] and she created a blog on the subject. She stated that the formal beginning of GSoW is May 2010,[14] yet its birthday is celebrated in June.[7][15] Gerbic is often asked about her Wikipedia contributions and edits: "I discovered that there are people in our community that have been looking for a way to become more involved but need more structure, support, and training."[14] When people ask how they can help the skeptical movement, Gerbic is quick to suggest that they, too, learn to edit Wikipedia:[16] "We rewrite Wikipedia, and proof the pages, we remove citations that are not noteworthy, we add citations, we do just about everything in Wikipedia to improve content."[17] Emery Emery asked Gerbic: "This was a need right?" Gerbic responded: "I was trying to find something to do. It was my time to step up and take on some responsibility... I'd attended the lectures, I'd read the books, it was my time."[18]

Gerbic promotes the approach of identifying skepticism-related articles that are in need of improvement. Articles are improved by the addition of references from popular writing, podcast, and other citations: "It's just lots and lots of research. Because we are a team of friends we can share resources and work reviews. It is often necessary to interview notable persons to improve the citations and resources."[8] She used the example of psychic Sylvia Browne's Wikipedia page during the Amaz!ng Meeting lecture, suggesting that people looking for information might prefer Wikipedia as a neutral, virus free, user friendly site. She calls this the Goldilocks effect.[12]

Gerbic spends much of her Wikipedia-related time helping new editors learn to perform basic tasks in Wikipedia.[13] New editors to the GSoW users group are encouraged to identify notable references and add them to various related pages. Gerbic calls such edits "backwards editing", which is the reverse of the more typical process where one subject is enhanced from multiple references.[8][19] In an interview with Richard Saunders, she states that this kind of project is "a perfect storm, we would never have been able to do this without [the Internet]".[20]

Gerbic states that the "We Got your Wiki Back Project!" is a popular GSoW sub-project. She relates that the project's goal is to improve the Wikipedia pages for all skeptical spokespeople: "When they are in the media's eye, we know that their Wikipedia page views are going to spike."[14] "When people are looking for information, we want to make sure they are getting great information," says Gerbic on the Data Skeptic podcast.[21]

Gerbic presenting on GSoW at CSICon in 2017

In order to promote Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, in late 2017 Gerbic toured Europe with the "About Time Tour" and spoke at many skeptical activist gatherings.[22][23] During this tour, she was a guest on Bloomberg TV Bulgaria, and the interview was documented in an October 6 article, "Can we trust Wikipedia?" During the telecast, Gerbic said she was in Bulgaria to recruit, saying that "One of the good things about Wikipedia is that everyone can change it, but that is also a problem." Gerbic explained that GSoW instructs its members regarding the skills needed to improve Wikipedia, and that most anyone can learn.[24]

Gerbic was a featured speaker at CSICon in 2017 where she presented "Beyond the Choir: The Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Project (GSoW)" which focused on recruiting for the GSoW team.[25]

In July 2018, Wired reported, "the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project has more than 120 volunteer editors from around the world, each of whom Gerbic has recruited and trained herself. They're collectively responsible for some of the site's most heavily trafficked articles on topics like scientology, UFOs, and vaccines."[26]

World Wikipedia project[edit]


It was very powerful when I started making edits.

–Susan Gerbic[13]

The World Wikipedia project began in August 2012 after Gerbic was unable to find non-English editing groups to do what she had done with the English project. Gerbic began forming and training non-English editors. Beginning with the "Lets Start with Jerry" project, all teams were asked to translate the English Jerry Andrus Wikipedia page into as many languages as possible. Arabic, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Portuguese articles were completed under her guidance.[14]

Monterey County Skeptics[edit]

The Monterey County Skeptics (MCS) participated in the "There's Nothing in it" 10:23 Campaign by overdosing on many homeopathic tablets. To demonstrate the effects of homeopathy, Gerbic personally took 80 pellets (15 doses) of Boiron 30C Belladonna.[27] In 2011, during SkeptiCal, Gerbic joined in with over 100 attendees to take an overdose (15 times recommended) of homeopathic caffea cruda which is used for sleepiness.[28] On January 3, 2015 the Monterey County Skeptics had the first SkeptiCamp in Northern California. This is "a day of free presentations on skepticism, critical thinking, science and related topics." Lectures included eight speakers, including Gerbic, whose presentation was reporting back on a 6 months long psychic sting. “We’re not curmudgeons,” Gerbic said. “We just want more facts when someone makes a claim.”[29] A Monterey Herald reporter who attended the conference stated, "SkeptiCamp Monterey 2015, [is] a gathering of people who choose to take just about everything with a grain of salt — and probably a whole tablespoon."[30]

The MCS held its third annual "SkeptiCamp Monterey" in January 2017 and it was covered by the Monterey Herald.[31] In the article Gerbic was quoted as saying: "This is our first year that we’re really trying to grow. And it’s the first time we’re bringing a speaker here from farther away and bringing them to a bigger venue."[31] She was referring to professional skeptic, author/speaker Benjamin Radford who is the author of “Bad Clowns” and who has investigated a variety of unexplained phenomena and written on a wide variety of topics of interest to skeptics.[31] Speaking about the mission of people interested in scientific skepticism in general and the MCS in particular, Gerbic also said:

Skeptic Action[edit]

Gerbic manages Skeptic Action, a Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ activist organization with the goal of reviewing one topical site per day on Web of Trust and RbutR.[32]:at 7:30 From 2010 to 2014, Gerbic was a member of the Independent Investigations Group. During 2013, Gerbic served as a Steering member and participated in several investigations for their then $50,000 (now $100,000) paranormal challenge. Gerbic was the main photographer for the Nick Nelson[33][34] and Phillip Lee[35] preliminary tests.[36]

Weird or What?[edit]

Gerbic and Edward were hired by Discovery Channel in 2011 to film a recreation of the Scole Séance experiences, during Weird or What? episode "Life After Death". Edward performed the séance in the dark while Gerbic, dressed in black, would manipulate various sounds and lights in the room to fool the participants during filming.[37]

Psychic activism[edit]

Gerbic focuses much of her skeptical activism on "clairvoyant mediums," who she calls "Grief Vampires" because they prey on desperate families that would do anything to talk to their loved ones or pay anything to find their missing child.[6]

In an online 2018 Skeptical Inquirer article, Gerbic summarizes common techniques which psychics use to achieve their effects, ranging from taking advantage of how the human brain processes information, to using cold reading and hot reading techniques.[38]

Sylvia Browne[edit]

In 2012, Gerbic and Edward organized a protest against Sylvia Browne when she appeared at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on July 13 of that year. Joined by Benjamin Radford, Ross Blocher, Bob Blaskiewitz, Jay Diamond, and others, the group stood outside the venue and handed out leaflets describing cold reading techniques and describing some of so-called psychic predictions Browne has made over the years that have been proven to be incorrect.[39][40][41]

Gerbic's character "Susanna" with Chip Coffey in 2014

Chip Coffey[edit]

In 2014, Gerbic organized a sting on well-known psychic Chip Coffey which she code-named Operation Bumblebee. She and two associates created false identities and false dead relatives, complete with backstories and pictures (of real, still living people), and attended a Coffey event in San Jose. Mingling with attendees before the show started, the three talked as much as they could about their supposedly dead relatives, hoping that some of Coffey's assistants might overhear. During the show, Coffey did indeed do readings on each of the three, claiming to be in contact with each of the supposedly dead relatives, confidently relating details about completely made up people, including some of what Gerbic and her associates had talked about before the show.[42][43][44][45][46][47]

Tim Braun[edit]

In 2015, Gerbic enlisted Heather Henderson to help in a followup to the Chip Coffey sting. Gerbic's team, without Henderson's participation, created several interconnected fake Facebook accounts, several of which friended various well-known psychics. Then Henderson, posing as the bereaved mother of a deceased 13-year old, would get a private reading from Braun. Because Henderson knew none of the details of "her" Facebook page, this would be a double-blind test in that she would not be able to give Braun any feedback, inadvertent or otherwise, on his accuracy. With permission to record, Henderson had an hour reading with Braun, who claimed to be in communication with her non-existent sons, husband and family. Operation Ice Cream Cone, as Gerbic calls it, did not establish that Braun used any information from the fake Facebook pages, but every statement that he made to Henderson was incorrect.[48] Full audio of the reading is available on YouTube.[49][50]

Tyler Henry[edit]

In 2015, up-and-coming "psychic" Tyler Henry came to Gerbic's attention. Henry had a new television show on the E! Network, and Gerbic noticed that a Google search on the show or Henry resulted in a return of mostly favorable, uncritical articles. In what she called Operation Tater Tot,[51] Gerbic enlisted well-known skeptical activists to write about Henry, and provide an alternate point of view that would balance the uncritical perception being presented by the media services.[6] The activists who published on Henry as part of this operation included Sharon Hill,[52] Hemant Mehta,[53] Jerry Coyne,[54] Caleb Lack,[55] Stephen Propatier,[56] and David Gorski.[57] Beginning in 2016, Gerbic wrote a series of articles concerning Henry, which were published by Skeptical Inquirer:

  • Grief Vampires Don’t Come Out Only at Night [58]
  • Operation Tater Tot: Following Up On A Grief Vampire [51]
  • Tip the Canoe of Tyler Too! [59]
  • Return of the Grief Vampire Tyler Henry [60]
  • Anatomy of a Reading [61]
  • Eventually I’m going to piss off Tyler Henry [62]
  • The One Where “Psychic” Tyler Henry Reads Alan Thicke [63]
  • Nancy Grace Should be Ashamed of Herself! [64]

In December 2016, Nicki Swift released a video, "Proof That Hollywood Medium Is Totally Fake", where she provides a point-by-point analysis of Tyler Henry's "psychic readings". Swift details how his con works, and references Gerbic's Skeptical Inquirer analysis[6] of Henry: "According to Susan Gerbic of the Skeptical Inquirer, by telling clients he's communicating with their [dead] loved ones, he's exploiting their pain as a 'grief vampire'."[65]:5:30

Conference promotion[edit]

Conference attendance gets much attention on Gerbic's bi-weekly segments on the Skeptic Society's Skepticality podcast. She stresses how important it is for skeptics to attend, and if there aren't conferences nearby, then to create a conference, be it a SkeptiCamp or a Skeptics in the Pub event. She insists that conference attendance is the first step towards activism. "What I do know is that the one-on-one contact recharges our batteries. People like Harriet A. Hall (Skepdoc), Lindsay Beyerstein (co-host of Point of Inquiry), and myself came from CSI’s Skeptic's Toolbox. We weren't primarily authors or lecturers, just people with a passion for the skeptical movement who decided it was our turn to step up. You can’t buy that fire, but sometimes you might have to kick the embers to keep us (and others) out there fighting what seems to be an insurmountable world of woo. Conferences are essential."[66] In her November 2014 article for Skeptical Inquirer about the Skeptic's Toolbox she describes the 4-day conference held in Eugene, Oregon each August. She again restates the importance of conference attendance, stating "we know our best asset is our people."[67]

In October 2015, Gerbic conducted a series of workshops in Australia, culminating with her appearance as a guest speaker at the Australian Skeptics' Convention.[68]

In 2016 and 2017, to promote both CSICon events, Gerbic interviewed many of the scheduled speakers in advance of the conferences. These interviews, which were published by the Center for Inquiry, included Bob Novella, Maria Konnikova, Sheldon W. Helms, Evan Bernstein, Kavin Senapathy, James Alcock, Robert Brotherton, Richard Saunders, Kevin Folta, Natalie Newell (producer/director of Science Moms), Kenny Biddle, Taner Edis, Britt Hermes, Mark Edward, Craig Foster, Harriet Hall, and conference MC George Hrab.[69]

Awards[edit]

Gerbic, flanked by Grothe (left) and Randi (right), receives the James Randi Award for Skepticism in the Public Interest at TAM 2013.

Personal life[edit]

Gerbic's father died of cancer in 1989. In 2013, she announced she had breast cancer. Gerbic completed twenty weeks of chemotherapy for stage II cancer in December 2013 and completed 33 radiation treatments in March 2014.[20]

Reaction[edit]

Gerbic's skeptical activism work has drawn criticism from alternative medicine and paranormal claim proponents.[73]

In an interview with Tim Farley about the Wikipedia controversy with Deepak Chopra and Rupert Sheldrake, Gerbic states that she understands the frustration that public figures must have over articles that change without their control, but that accusations of canvasing to recruit and train editors in a particular area have typically resulted from misinterpreting Wikipedia rules. "Wikipedia needs people to edit..." and "pseudoscience" must be well substantiated before it can be added to an article. Skeptics also have edits removed when not well cited. Wikipedia is too important to be vandalized... it is too important for us to ignore."[74][75][76][77][78][79]

In February, 2015, Daniel Loxton writing for Skeptic magazine in an article titled Considering a Complaint About Skeptical Tactics, examined the controversy regarding Gerbic's various sting operations, chronicling the opinions of pseudoscience advocates as well as people in the skeptical movement.[80] This was the first of a series of articles in which Loxton examined the larger questions brought to the forefront by Gerbic's undercover sting activities, namely: "Should false claims in the paranormal realm be identified and the truth about them revealed? And, if so, what methods may be justifiably used to accomplish that end?"[81]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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