The enthusiastic life of a happy skeptic No tricks, no gimmicks, no smoke, no mirrors

Gerbic presenting at CSICon 2017 | Photo by Rp2006

By Mike Hale

“Ladies and gentlemen, come one, come all. Step right up and meet the world’s most powerful skeptic. Susan Gerbic. Straight from Salinas, California. Gather around, get close. She won’t bite … much. No tricks, no gimmicks, no smoke, no mirrors, and no charge! See a rarity in the wild. A truth seeker, a mythbuster, a science warrior, an alarm sounder, a critical thinker at a critical time! Notice the gimlet-eyed stare, the quizzical nature, the built-in bullshit detector. A magnificent specimen. See her kind before they’re extinct.”

Disclaimer: The above passage is satire, not fake news. Susan Gerbic is a real person, but not part of a carnival sideshow. Susan is not an endangered species, but lives within a small, select tribe. Susan is a skeptic, and a powerful one, but not a curmudgeon (a different species altogether). Susan is cheerful, funny, bright and engaging, and will activate her bullshit detector only in the event of an emergency.

Susan Gerbic should be laughing right about now (we hope). The 55-year-old Salinas native loves life. She does not take herself too seriously, and her sharp wit makes her a delight to be around.

Just don’t come at her with some half-baked, unfounded, pie-in-the-sky claim without your gloves on. Don’t tell one of the world’s most respected skeptics that laughter will cure cancer, that you have blurry UFO photos for sale, or that for 100 bucks you can take her on a romp through the great beyond with her dearly departed grandmother.

“Here’s the thing,” she says, pausing for effect. “People can believe what they want to believe, as long as those beliefs don’t harm others.”

Gerbic will fight for the truth. She can’t help herself. This feisty, insatiably curious woman is a practicing, professional skeptic, an activist who remains active in her quest to rally folks around cold, hard facts — not innuendo, hearsay, guesswork or crapola.

Leeriness leaps off her resume. Gerbic is co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics, founder of the website rating service Skeptic Action, founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (leading a team that is rewriting and editing content on the world’s fifth largest website), a recurring contributor to the Skepticality podcast, a writer for the bimonthly magazine Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

“Susan is a doer,” says friend and fellow skeptic Deborah Warcken of Carmel Valley. “She lets nothing get in her way, not lack of time, not criticism, not even cancer.”

Gerbic met her 2013 breast cancer diagnosis with a brief bout of tears followed by fierce resolve — and faith in science. “I said, ‘OK, what’s the plan?’ I learned a lot about myself.”

Now cancer free, Gerbic travels the world on the lecture circuit, preaching the gospel of fact-based, critical thinking. Groups pay her to be the megaphone of reason.

Her motto, which she has printed on T-shirts, is simple and blunt: Science, it works, bitches!

To Gerbic, skepticism is a balancing force in the universe. Why? She won’t say it aloud, but human beings can be a gullible, unquestioning, witless lot. Waving logic aside, we see patterns that don’t exist, we believe with fervent passion in what science won’t support, and we fail to understand the burden of proof.

“People always ask me to prove that something isn’t true,” said Gerbic. “But the burden of proof is on them. I don’t have to do a damn thing, it’s up to the person making the claim. Prove it to us with facts or shut up.”

Americans seem to be the world’s most blatant flag-wavers of foolish thought, grasping at straws and clinging to a stubborn belief in the irrational, the supernatural, the mystical and the downright cockamamie.

According to a poll taken in 2014 by the Associated Press, more Americans believe in Bigfoot than the Big Bang Theory. About four in 10 believe in UFOs, a figure considerably higher than those confident that global warming exists, that life evolved through natural selection, or that our planet is billions of years old.

As a civilization we have failed as critical thinkers, and some skeptics (not Gerbic, however, who stays upbeat and positive in a crazy world) believe we could be doomed because of it (consider how easily Russia hijacked an election).

Through the years, Gerbic has seen and exposed a fair share of hawkers, charlatans, flim-flammers, scam artists, hustlers, medical quacks and “psychic” mediums she dubs Grief Vampires.

She is not an anger-fueled, finger-pointer who will shame someone for believing in Bigfoot, channeling the dead or the notion that our fate is etched into our palms.

“Susan is amazingly patient and kind when speaking with people who have beliefs that are not fact-based,” Warcken said. “She understands that people come from wherever they come from, and she uses questioning and genuine interest to build relationships with them.”

Gerbic targets her energy, enthusiasm and, yes, fury — including going so far as to organize elaborate stings — at the so-called mediums who take advantage of the vulnerable and desperate.

“It’s despicable,” she said. “It’s wrong, even if they somehow believe they are helping.”

A writer for The New York Times Magazine recently joined in with Gerbic and her plucky team on a series of those capers carefully plotted to expose Grief Vampires as blood-sucking frauds.

It goes like this: Gerbic targets a high-profile, well-reviewed medium who is appearing at a show or reading. She assembles a heavily disguised team (often including her boyfriend Mark Edward, famous for the YouTube-chronicled punking of the late medium Sylvia Browne). She creates false identities and backstories, false social media profiles and false photos of “dead” relatives. Then she names the sting (our favorite is “Operation Tater Tot”). When the “psychic” takes the bait,  the fraud is revealed. That revelation is then pushed through skepticism outlets on the web, and leads to subsequent protests outside other venues.

In 2014, Gerbic organized a famous sting (“Operation Bumblebee”) in San Jose surrounding well-known psychic Chip Coffey (Google it). Mingling with attendees before the show, Gerbic’s team of “mourners” talked openly about their “dearly departed,” hoping that some of Coffey’s assistants might overhear. During the show, Coffey performed readings on each of them, confidently proclaiming Gerbic’s fabricated details.

“It’s the most fun in the world. Oh gosh, it’s a blast,” she said. “You can’t imagine, to organize it, stressed out, watching to see what happens. Hecka fun.”

Gerbic knows she will be labeled by some as a closed-minded debunker, the worst kind of party-pooper.

She doesn’t care. “I say, give me your best shot, give me the best psychic you have. If you can prove it, I would love that. We could change the world. No more missing persons, no cold-case files. But they say it doesn’t work that way. Of course they do.”

Gerbic still gives a pass to victims, who seem to “always forget the misses and remember the hits,” she said. “Listen, if coincidences didn’t happen, that would really be freaky.”

She finds it frustrating yet understandable that many find science and logic difficult to grasp.

“Obviously we need to improve science education as well as introduce critical thinking concepts at a early age. We have failed.”

Gerbic failed, too, early and often. She grew up in East Salinas, a poor student from a disengaged family. Raised a Southern Baptist, she suffered from the illness of low expectations. The youngest of three Gerbic kids, she spent her time at church, making quilts, reading encyclopedias, and pondering some of life’s fringe topics, such as the paranormal. Her most perceptible fear became spontaneous human combustion, the idea that someone could be sitting on the sofa watching TV before exploding into a billion particles.

“I really had a very quiet life,” she said. “Frankly most of it’s a blur to me.”

Gerbic’s parents pushed her to get a job, so she enrolled in her high school’s Regional Occupation Program to learn grocery store skills. “I was a C student, no motivation, nobody mentored me,” she said. “I don’t remember ever meeting a counselor. My parents didn’t have a clue.”

Those times, of course, shaped her dramatically, leading to low self-esteem.

“It made me feel like I was the stupid one, gullible,” she said. “I didn’t have goals. I was supposed to just skate by, so I always felt like I was trying to catch up.”

Because she didn’t believe in her own intelligence, Gerbic surrounded herself with smart people — those who made her think for herself.

She first began to question her life 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.”

Gerbic recalls the moment vividly. “I felt like I had been trying for years. I went to church, prayed all the time. I felt like I was talking to myself, and there was no one to ask.”

On that day she became more inquisitive, “really looking into that word and what it meant. I didn’t know it was an option not to believe in God.”

After enduring a string of subpar grades at Hartnell College, Gerbic began a 34-year career as the manager of the JC Penney portrait studio in Salinas (she retired when it closed in 2016).

She didn’t really blossom academically until her late 20s, earning two AA degrees at Hartnell.

“I just kept taking classes,” she said, admitting she never really knew why. “I had children, worked full time, and kept going.”

In 2002 she earned a bachelor’s degree in social behavioral science from CSU-Monterey Bay, the same year her husband walked out on her and her two sons. “I got the house and the kids, so everything’s been OK,” she said. “I’ve done it all on my own.”

Her transformation into a scientific skeptic began to blossom at age 33, when she thumbed through an issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Inside she read thoughtful discussions surrounding the phenomena of ghosts, psychics and UFOs.

She remembers thinking: “People believe that?”

The deputy editor of that magazine, Ben Radford, has written more than 1,000 articles on a wide variety of topics, including urban legends, the paranormal, critical thinking, and media literacy. Radford’s website (www.benjaminradford.com) describes him as an educator, filmmaker, investigator, game creator and the author of eight books, including “Tracking the Chupacabra,” a finalist for the 2011 New Mexico Book Awards. Radford calls science “the single most profound influence on humanity ever. It’s undeniable.”

Radford met Gerbic “long before she was a powerful force in the skeptical movement,” Radford said. “She was like a lot of people, going through life believing some things, not others, and stumbled upon us as they often do. They see a book I wrote or a TV appearance by one of us, and a light bulb goes off: There’s another way to look at the world.”

Now close friends, Radford calls Gerbic the “Energizer Bunny.” “She’s fun to be around, and so productive. How she does the Wiki project I’ll never know.”

Gerbic was not the first person to recognize Wikipedia as a powerful venue for spreading the ideals of skepticism — and for holding others accountable to accuracy. But she was the first to jump in feet first, coordinating and motivating far-flung editors to research and rewrite pages, especially those that blatantly ignored the truth.

“Wikipedia is the world’s default information source, better or worse,” Radford said. “It’s now significantly improved by Susan’s work.”

Gerbic and her team have created or completely overhauled more than 600 Wikipedia pages, which amounts to nearly 30 million visits.

The project has to be slowly turning the battleship.

“I hope so,” she said. “But I have many projects, science education, claims of paranormal, and pseudoscience such as facilitated communication” (a discredited technique used by some caregivers and educators in an attempt to assist people with severe educational and communication disabilities). “But rewriting Wiki is insane. No one in their right mind would do that.”

It all came full circle.

“As a child I loved encyclopedias. To me that’s Wikipedia, but in print,” she said. “Today I collect books, 780 exactly. I just added one. I’m not reading them. I just love having knowledge around me.”

Gerbic has never considered herself an academic, but more of a motivator.

“It’s about being in the trenches, having the drive, kicking people in the butt. I’m good at that,” she said. “That’s far more important than education.”

Despite so many people spouting wacky theories, championing discredited ideas, and screaming vitriol across the aisles of society, Gerbic still has faith.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “Good information is out there. I’m positive about the world and I really think everything is going to be fine. People are just frustrated and don’t know what to do. I think in the end we’ll get there.”

Perhaps thanks in large part to her.

Gerbic scoffs at that, along with the suggestion that she will be remembered as one of the world’s most influential skeptics.

When asked about her epitaph, she laughs. “No need, really,” she said. “I have my own Wikipedia page. It’s all accurate, I hope.”

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Mike Hale

About Mike Hale

Mike Hale is a Salinas Valley native and longtime journalist. A former features editor and food/restaurant writer for the Monterey Herald, he helped re-launch KRML radio in Carmel in 2011. Mike is now a freelance writer living in Pacific Grove with his wife Melissa and large orange tabby Sopa.