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Susan Marie Gerbic (/ˈɡɜːrbɪk/ GUR-bik)[2] is an American skeptical activist living in Salinas, California.[1] Gerbic is the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics,[3] founder and leader of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project,[4] a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquirer,[5] and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[6] Gerbic has focused much of her skeptical activism on people claiming to be clairvoyant mediums, such as Sylvia Browne, Tyler Henry, and Thomas John, whom she calls "grief vampires".[7]

Susan Gerbic
Head shot of Gerbic smiling with a black background.
Gerbic in 2016
Born1962/1963 (age 56–57)[1]
ResidenceSalinas, California
CitizenshipAmerican
EducationBA Social & Behavioral Studies
Alma materCSUMB California State University Monterey Bay
OccupationPortrait Studio Manager,[1] retired October 2016
Years active1982–present
EmployerLifetouch Portrait Studios
Known for
  • Scientific skeptic activism
  • Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Parent(s)Anthony and Tressie Gerbic
Websiteabouttimeproject.wordpress.com

Skeptical activismEdit

Gerbic was raised in Salinas, California, as a Southern Baptist. Her interest in paranormal and fringe topics began when she was frightened by reports of spontaneous human combustion, "the idea that you could be walking down the street and suddenly, boom!"[8] Her religious upbringing was challenged in her late teens, Gerbic told Skeptical Inquirer editor Benjamin Radford, when she first encountered the term "atheist": during her junior year at Alisal High School, thanks to her home-room teacher Mr. Borman. "I noticed one day that he never said the ‘under God’ part in the Pledge of Allegiance," she said. "I asked him why, and he said it was because he was an atheist. I had never even heard that word before."[9] Once she found out there were other people who felt the way she did, she read everything she could on the subject.[10] In 1996, Skeptical Inquirer magazine was pivotal in her transformation into a scientific skeptic.

In 2000, Gerbic attended her first conference, the Skeptic's Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon.[10] Gerbic started editing for Wikipedia after experiences with three "Amazing Adventure" cruises put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation and several of The Amaz!ng Meetings. She wanted to do something more proactive, so she turned her attention to editing Wikipedia.[11][12] Her first contribution was a photo of Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast.

Her work in founding and running the GSoW made her an influential member of the skeptical community, leading to her becoming a consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[13] In February 2018, the Center For Inquiry appointed her a fellow.[6]

Guerrilla Skepticism on WikipediaEdit

Gerbic is the founder and leader of "Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia" (GSoW), an organization dedicated to improving the content on Wikipedia by improving and creating articles that reflect the ideals of scientific naturalism and scientific skepticism. As of August 2018, the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project had written or fully rewritten over 600 Wikipedia pages in multiple languages, which had collectively received over 30 million views.[9]

Gerbic and Mark Edward came up with the name "Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia" (GSoW) to describe skeptical activism that is "more underground, more grass-roots, more mole-like".[14]:(0:02:00) The idea for an organized effort came from Tim Farley after Gerbic was frustrated by typical WikiProjects, finding them either dormant or not user-friendly, especially for new editors. Instead, she started communicating and training other Wikipedia editors directly on Facebook or using email.[15] She stated that the formal beginning of GSoW is May 2010,[16] yet its birthday is celebrated in June.[8][17]

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

Interest in the project grew after Gerbic made presentations at SkeptiCalcon, did a Sunday paper presentation at The Amaz!ng Meeting[14], and also created a blog on the subject.[18] 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]".[19]

Gerbic spends much of her time training the new members of the expanding team to perform basic tasks required to effectively edit the encyclopedia, tackling topics as diverse as Scientology, UFOs, and vaccines.[15] Since its inception, the GSoW team has grown, with Wired reporting in July 2018 that the project had more than 120 international editors.[20]

Members of GSoW are encouraged to identify noteworthy skeptical or science articles in the general media that could serve as significant references, and then cite these in any applicable Wikipedia pages. Gerbic calls such edits "backwards editing", which is the reverse of the more typical process where an editor will work on a single Wikipedia article, enhancing it with references from many sources.[11][21] GSoW editors seek out skepticism-related articles that are in need of improvement by the addition of references from popular writing, podcast, and other citations. They will share research and otherwise collaborate amongst the team. Sometimes they will directly interview notable persons to improve the citations and resources.[11] Gerbic 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.[14]

Gerbic states that the "We Got Your Wiki Back Project!" is a popular GSoW sub-project. The project's goal is to improve the Wikipedia pages of skeptical spokespeople, especially when they are in the media's eye and their Wikipedia page views tend to spike.[16] The intention is that people should find great, reliable information on Wikipedia.[22]

In August 2012 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, Afrikaans, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Portuguese articles were completed under her guidance.[16]

 
Gerbic presenting on GSoW at CSICon in 2017

In late 2017 Gerbic toured Europe with the "About Time Tour" and spoke at many skeptical activist gatherings.[23][24] 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?"[25]

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.[26]

Psychic activismEdit

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.[7] Gerbic credits skeptic Robert S. Lancaster for being "super influential to my 'career' in the skepticism community" as well as specifically sparking her interest in exposing mediums as frauds."[27]

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.[28]

Sylvia BrowneEdit

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.[29][30][31]

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

Chip CoffeyEdit

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.[32][33][34][35][36][37]

Tyler HenryEdit

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,[38] 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.[7] The activists who published on Henry as part of this operation included Sharon Hill,[39] Hemant Mehta,[40] Jerry Coyne,[41] Caleb Lack,[42] Stephen Propatier,[43] and David Gorski.[44]

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 [45]
  • Operation Tater Tot: Following Up On A Grief Vampire [38]
  • Tip the Canoe of Tyler Too! [46]
  • Return of the Grief Vampire Tyler Henry [47]
  • Anatomy of a Reading [48]
  • Eventually I’m going to piss off Tyler Henry [49]
  • The One Where “Psychic” Tyler Henry Reads Alan Thicke [50]
  • Nancy Grace Should be Ashamed of Herself! [51]

Tim BraunEdit

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 psychic Tim 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.[52][53] The full audio of the reading is available on YouTube.[54][55]

Thomas JohnEdit

Lifetime produced a reality TV show starring purported psychic medium Thomas John called Seatbelt Psychic. It stars John as a ride-share driver who surprises “unsuspecting” passengers when he delivers messages from their deceased relatives.[56][57][58] John's alleged psychic abilities in the context of the show have been challenged by Gerbic, who discovered that John's passengers are actually actors, several of which are documented in IMDb. Gerbic concluded that the riders were likely hired to ride with John, but were probably not acting when talking with him. She concluded that the details about their lives mentioned by John were easily found on social media sources, and likely fed to John, making the readings actually hot readings. One rider, Wendy Westmoreland, played a character on Stalked by a Doctor, a TV show also produced by Lifetime.[59][60]

 
"Susanna Wilson" (Gerbic) and "Mark Wilson" (Mark Edward) undercover, with unsuspecting John after their 2017 reading

In March 2017, Thomas John was caught doing a hot reading in a sting operation named "Operation Pizza Roll", which was planned and implemented by Gerbic and mentalist Mark Edward.[53] The unmarried couple, Gerbic and Edward, attended John's show using aliases, and were "read" as a married couple Susanna and Mark Wilson by John. During the entire reading, John failed to determine the actual identities of Gerbic and Edward, or that they were being deceptive during his reading. All personal information he gave them matched what was on their falsified Facebook accounts, rather than being about their actual lives, and John pretended he was getting this information from Gerbic and Edward's supposedly dead—but actually nonexistent—relatives.[61][62][60][53]

As Jack Hitt reported in The New York Times:

"Over the course of the reading, John comfortably laid down the specifics of Susanna Wilson’s life — he named “Andy” and amazingly knew him to be her twin. He knew that she and her brother grew up in Michigan and that his girlfriend was Maria. He knew about Susanna’s father-in-law and how he died."[63]

These details were from the falsified Facebook accounts for the pair which were prepared by a group of skeptics in advance of the reading, and Gerbic and Edward were not aware of the specific information in these accounts. This blinding was done in order to avoid John later being able to claim he obtained the false information by reading Gerbic and Edward's minds.[61][62] In her article about this sting, Gerbic also revealed that during an after-show private event, John disclosed in a group setting that at least one of the people in the audience, for which he did a reading, was actually his own student.[61][60][62]

When Hitt reached out to John for comment, John insisted that he did not use Facebook, saying "I do remember her [Gerbic] coming to an event... I recognized her because she was there with that other guy who wrote that book." He also told Hitt that "I have my eyes closed for an hour and a half when I'm doing readings. If she spoke up during that period of time, I don't remember that." John also argued that the entire experiment wasn't really scientific enough, saying "For Susan to come to a reading and get a two-minute reading and say, well, 'I made a fake post about my dog, Buddy, and my father who died,' it’s really not any sort of scientific testing of psychic powers." He added, "First off, someone will have to be a scientist to do a scientific experiment, not someone who used to be a photographer at Sears."[63] When asked whether psychics would change their behavior now that they knew her methods, Gerbic said: "I hope they see Gerbics in their audience every time they look out and wonder if we might be there."[64]

Operation Pizza Roll was summarized by Claus Larsen on SkepticReport.com in an article titled Is Thomas John a real psychic? Not a ghost of a chance!, which also included an interview of Gerbic about the sting and its aftermath.[65]

In a June 2019 Skeptical Inquirer article titled Thomas John Revisited, Gerbic reported on the aftermath of the sting. This including a report of a "Facebook Live" stream, where John attempted to prove his paranormal powers to fans following the sting revelation by doing what was claimed to be a "scientifically controlled reading" of a supposed stranger. Gerbic dissected the performance, giving details as to why it was the opposite of scientifically controlled, and described how once again Facebook information could easily have been accessed, despite assurances otherwise. "One of my team members gave me a list of all the hits that Thomas John got during the reading... and then my team member gave me screenshots of [the sitter's] Facebook page where she posts things that are the same as what Thomas John told her." Also, despite John's claims that "NO I do not Google people. NO I do not research people. NO I do not go onto people’s obituaries. I do not go onto Ancestry.com." Gerbic's article includes screenshots of John's monitor captured during the live steam. These pictures contain saved reading lists from past Google searches, including searches for specific individuals as well as for intelius.com, a website which states that it is "a confidential way to find people so you can reconnect or just get more info on a person. People Search reports can include phone numbers, address history, age & date of birth, relatives, and more. Find a person you’re curious about — search today!"[66]

In a June 2019 Skeptical Inquirer article titled I'm Speechless! Thomas John Reads KJBK Fox2 Derek Kevrea, Gerbic reported on an appearance by Thomas John on a daytime TV show where he gave a reading to staff meteorologist, Derek Kevrea, and claimed to deliver messages from his dead relative. Kevra's feedback was that what John told him was accurate. In a Facebook video, Kevra later said "I'm speechless … Thomas John communicated with my grandpa … He said he is proud of you … it's a miracle I held it together." In her article, Gerbic reported that with a little research she discovered the information provided was available from social media and other sources available to John.[67] Regarding Kevrea's proclamation, Gerbic says:

It isn’t the sitter’s fault when this kind of thing happens... Caught up in the moment, especially when your coworkers are sitting right there saying that this is real, it’s easy to see how someone might believe all this. Plus, this is live morning TV, everything needs to be happy and fun. He needs to play along.[67]

In an August 2019, Gerbic followed-up Thomas John Revisited with another article, Three Parents Reveal The Truth About Psychic Thomas John, which covered the aftermath of her sting operation. The article investigates a video uploaded by John on March 24, shortly after The New York Times sting article was published, in which John reads "three grieving women", and claims the results validate his paranormal powers. In her article, Gerbic does a point-by-point analysis of these readings, and offers evidence that the items claimed to have been "impossible" for John to know without supernatural help, were easily available online.[68] Gerbic's conclusion included:

...when you make testable claims—as these grieving mothers did—that the information that TJ gave them is not located anywhere on the internet, then I hope you will think twice. This "unfindable" information was found and presented here, and it can be found by anyone in just a few minutes of online searching. It’s even quicker if you have an account on a website such as intellius.com—something we know TJ has because it was bookmarked on his computer.[68]

Matt FraserEdit

Before The New York Times would run a story documenting Gerbic's successful sting operation against Thomas John, the paper wanted to have one of their journalists embedded in another sting operation to witness the entire process from the beginning. Thus, Jack Hitt observed what was called "Operation Peach Pit", a sting following a procedure similar to the one used against Thomas John. In this case, the target was medium Matt Fraser. According to Hitt, Fraser "is a young Long Island psychic who resembles Tom Cruise in the role of an oversharing altar boy. He has been on the circuit for years, has a book under his belt and works some Doubletree or Crowne Plaza back room every two or three days."[63]

As with the Thomas John operation, Facebook accounts were created and populated with false data about fake people. In January 2018, paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle and a group of five friends, using aliases matching the faked Facebook accounts, attended Fraser's show at the Valley Forge Casino in King of Prussia. As Biddle reported in Skeptical Inquirer:[69]

Although there was a lot of work put into this operation, none of my team members had a chance to get a reading... As we made our way out of the theater, we did get the opportunity to speak with Fraser after the show... My team and Fraser chatted about who we were and our various reasons for coming to the show. Fraser accepted our stories without a hint of doubt—even while I was constantly thinking in my head “Tell me I’m a making this up … tell me you know we’re here undercover.” Alas, he did not.[69]

Biddle also reported, "I went into this experience... willing to see if there was anything truthful to the claims made by Matt Fraser... [but] he didn’t seem to demonstrate any supernatural ability, just a knack for fast-talking his customers into believing he could talk to spirits." The New York Times reported on this sting in the same article in which it reported on the successful Thomas John sting.[69]

Monterey County SkepticsEdit

Gerbic attended the Skeptic's Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon in 2002. Ray Hyman, the leader of the Toolbox, advised her to start her own local conference. In 2007 Steve Wheller, another skeptic who lived in a nearby city, messaged her on the JREF forum because of her profile. Together, they used Yahoo Groups to find other like-minded skeptical activists and formed the Monterey County Skeptics (MCS).[70]

The 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.[71] 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.[72] On January 3, 2015, the Monterey County Skeptics had the first SkepticCamp in Northern California. The event was emceed by Mark Edward[70] and was 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.[73] 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."[74]

The MCS held its third annual "SkeptiCamp Monterey" in January 2017[75] and it was covered by the Monterey Herald.[76] 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."[76] 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.[76] Speaking about the mission of people interested in scientific skepticism in general and the MCS in particular, Gerbic also said "We're all on a path and all on a journey of trying to find out what is real, and scientific skepticism is a method of finding that out."[76]

Conference promotionEdit

The topic of skeptical conference attendance received much attention on Gerbic's bi-weekly segments on the Skeptic Society's Skepticality podcast.[77] In her November 2014 article for Skeptical Inquirer about the Skeptic's Toolbox, she describes the annual conference held in Eugene, Oregon, and discussed the importance of conference attendance, stating "we know our best asset is our people."[78]

In October 2015, Gerbic conducted a series of workshops in Australia, culminating with her appearance as a guest speaker at the Australian Skeptics' Convention.[79]

In 2016 and 2017, to promote both CSICon events, Gerbic interviewed many of the scheduled speakers in advance of those 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.[80]

ReactionEdit

Gerbic's skeptical activism work has drawn criticism from alternative medicine and paranormal claim proponents.[81]

In an interview with Tim Farley about the Wikipedia controversy with Deepak Chopra and Rupert Sheldrake,[clarification needed] Gerbic stated 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."[82][83][84][85][86][87]

In February, 2015, in an article for Skeptic titled Considering a Complaint About Skeptical Tactics, Daniel Loxton examined the controversy regarding Gerbic's various sting operations, chronicling the opinions of pseudoscience advocates as well as people in the skeptical movement.[88] 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?"[89]

Reacting to Operation Pizza Roll, Thomas John criticized Gerbic's methodology: "For Susan to come to a reading and get a two-minute reading and say, well, 'I made a fake post about my dog, Buddy, and my father who died,' it’s really not any sort of scientific testing of psychic powers. First off, someone will have to be a scientist to do a scientific experiment, not someone who used to be a photographer at Sears."[63]

Awards and honorsEdit

 
Gerbic, flanked by Grothe (left) and Randi (right), receives the James Randi Award for Skepticism in the Public Interest at TAM 2013.
James Randi announces Susan Gerbic has won the JREF prize for 2017.

Personal lifeEdit

Gerbic's father died of cancer in 1989.

In 2013, Gerbic announced she had breast cancer. She completed twenty weeks of chemotherapy for stage II cancer in December 2013, and completed 33 radiation treatments in March 2014.[19]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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  3. ^ "Monterey County Skeptics". Archived from the original on August 30, 2015. Retrieved August 29, 2015.
  4. ^ Gerbic, Susan (September 2015). "Is Wikipedia a Conspiracy? Common Myths Explained". Skeptical Inquirer. 39. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 5. Archived from the original on October 11, 2016. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
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  9. ^ a b Hale, Mike. "The enthusiastic life of a happy skeptic". Voices of Monterey Bay. Archived from the original on August 29, 2018. Retrieved August 29, 2018.
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