Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 5, 2010

Skepticism *is* making a difference

I was at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on Monday night. @SciencePunk, Frank Swain, gave an interesting, thought-provoking and controversial talk. The fact that we are still talking about it proves that.  I enjoyed it and agreed with a lot. Yes, being self-critical is good.

However…

There were lots of things in the talk I was uncomfortable with.

I feel that a lot of the talk had a specific goal: to be controversial. I’m not an expert in logical fallacies (I’m learning via the excellent Hunting Humbug 101 podcasts), but I felt there were plenty in there.  I’ve re-listened to the talk via Pod Delusion and my initial doubts have been reinforced.

I’m new to skepticism. I didn’t know it existed until a few months ago. There were a lot of points in Frank’s talk that I just have not seen and that I don’t agree with. As I appeared to be in the minority, I just got it off my chest via direct email to a few of my new-found skeptical twitter friends. [Thanks for letting me bend your computer ears @xtaldave, @MrMMarsh, @Medtek, @Simon_Perry and @SkepticBarista!]

@SkepticBarista persuaded me to blog my thoughts. So here I am. This is my first ever “proper” blog post. The post is going to be written from memory so I may have misremembered or misunderstood. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

If you weren’t there, or have not listened to the podcast, http://noodlemaz.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/sceptical-about-skeptics provides a complete list of the topics that Frank covered.

1023 achieved nothing.

This wound me up the most. Here is a great quote lifted from one of the replies to my email rants:

“We’ll never convince the quack for sure, but we’ll reach those who haven’t considered the subject.” – Simon Perry

I count myself in that demographic (the non-quack part of that sentence!). I thought homeopathy was just a different name for herbal medicine. Likewise for chiropractic. I did not know until the BCA/Singh libel case and Simon Perry’s efforts that chiropractic was not “proper medicine”.

If Simon Perry’s complaints forced chiropractors to remove dodgy claims from their advertising – well, that is a lot of parents who won’t see those claims. That may have saved some kid being taken there for treatment for colic. That is a massive victory. Have you seen videos of chiropractors working on babies? Get some links from @Zeno001.

Some quotes from my email replies on the engagement aspect:

“1023 has produced many column inches in the national and international press, thus, it has *engaged* and *raised* awareness. JOB DONE!” – @xtaldave

“It’s a shame we can’t see numbers of people involved in skepticism before 10:23, and how many were after. I think we swelled the ranks a fair bit, without blowing our own trumpet.” – Michael Marshall

“A hashtag may not be a campaign, but that is how I got into 1023 and SitP, thus I was informed, enlightened and could show my support for it.” – @xtaldave

And via Twitter:

Listening to @sciencepunk. He’s dead wrong. We have changed things in real world – @david_colquhoun

Thanks to 1023 and BCA/Singh, I now do know a lot more about these topics. I have definitely been informed and educated…and engaged.

I have gradually been telling those around me (hopefully in a non-preachy way).

And I know I’m not the only one.

Edit: This subject is covered further in my follow up post at http://thethoughtstash.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/science-punk-at-westskep-the-aftermath/

“Ethnic minorities and women don’t go to SitP”

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only ethnic minority there. And there seemed to be plenty of women too.

I don’t know what other SitP meets are like, but clearly Frank had written the slides before visiting WestSkep.

“How many first timers are here?”

In my view, Frank was expecting to see only one or two hands to go up to prove his point that SitP is not welcoming. But lots of hands went up.

“How many have come alone?”

Same again – lots of people raised their hand (including me). Again I believe he was expecting only one or two hands to go up to show that SitP is elitist and not welcoming.

I’m new to skepticism. I’ve only been to 5 SitP events. My first was Brian Deer’s excellent talk. I arrived alone, listened, thanked Brian and then left. That’s my fault, no one else’s. Ever since, I have spoken to strangers and made friends.

The w-word

The whole “woo is as bad as the n-word”. What?? Yes, some people don’t like the word “woo”. They feel it is just taking the piss. Hayley Stevens recently said she wanted to stop using it.

But comparing it to a racist word? I believe James Randi started using woo-woo to describe…nonsense. I’m sure he’d be shocked to hear it was being compared to the n-word.

In my opinion, Frank made this statement just for the controversy. I was extremely disappointed. Angry even. It was pure shock factor.

A twitter conversation that provides some good responses to this topic:

“Given your view on skeptical profanity, what’s your take on Frank’s comparison of the term “woo” with the n word?” – @Crispian_Jago‘s question directed at @DrEvanHarris

“I very much disagreed with him. Nothing like racist. Is not a collective term for people even. Also tweet-friendly length” – @DrEvanHarris

“Even Frank’s talk will mention WOO, but not the n-word! In no was similar” – @SkepticBarista

Another good quote on the matter:

“If woo is a dirty word, is quack a dirty word too?” – @medtek

Or does Frank think this word is just as bad?

Edit: This subject is covered further in my follow up post at http://thethoughtstash.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/science-punk-at-westskep-the-aftermath/

The whole Gillian McKeith thing.

He implied that chasing her off twitter was something to do with stopping her selling books (non sequitur?).

The twitter thing has shown lots of people, who probably didn’t know, that there is a chapter about Gillian McKeith in Goldacre’s book.  (And that she has no PhD!). People may now pick up Bad Science and learn about ear candles, homeopathy, etc… and Gillian McKeith.

I have non-skeptics followers. Everyone does. If 1% of those followers sees a tweet with the infamous #nophd hashtag, they may do some research of their own. That’s a result.

The whole Gillian McKeith thing part II

Yes, some of the blog posts and tweets were vile.

And yes, Frank admitted that he cherry picked.

I dare say that if I randomly picked some other “movement”, say, animal welfare, I could just as easily find offensive ad hominem attacks in blogs and tweets.

Every group has bad eggs. We’re all human, no one is infallible.

One of the comments at the end of the night was that if you see such a post, we can all add a comment saying “you’re being a bit of a dick”.  Good advice.

Billy Graham

This part of the talk confused me. What was the message Frank was trying to get across?  Yes, Billy Graham is a fine speaker.

But wasn’t one of Frank’s core themes that skeptics were just preaching to the converted? Does Billy Graham preach to 150000 atheists? Or even other religious minded people, say, 150000 Hindus and Muslims?

Perhaps Billy Graham’s audience isn’t 100% Christian. I don’t know.

I’d argue that Monday night at WestSkep proved, by the number of newbies and recent “converts” such as myself, that SitP is also introducing the undecided to skepticism.

Comparing Billy Graham to skeptical speakers is surely some sort of logical fallacy (anyone?). The message is completely different. Does Frank want skeptics to preach like Billy Graham?

Basically I found this part of the talk odd and possibly irrelevant.

Edit: This subject is covered further in my follow up post at http://thethoughtstash.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/science-punk-at-westskep-the-aftermath/

Most people who come to SitP are scientists

Was it my imagination, but were all the questions at the end coming from humanities graduates?

My summary

Skeptics in the Pub has educated me.

From Brian Deer I learnt about the MMR hoax. I didn’t know the facts. Now I tell people when it comes up in conversation. Hopefully I don’t preach and just reassure them.

From Simon Perry I learnt that anyone can complain to ASA. And I’ve started doing so.

I can’t be the only skeptic who is passing on information to friends and family. So we must be having an overall effect.

Yes, I felt I was in the minority at the talk – not because of my ethnicity, but as I disagreed with so much of what Frank said.

Thanks for letting me bend your computer ear.

Related blog posts (not auto generated)

http://scienceblogs.com/sciencepunk/2010/08/skeptical_about_skeptics.php – Frank’s blog version of his talk.

http://thethoughtstash.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/science-punk-at-westskep-the-aftermath/ – my follow up post.

http://noodlemaz.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/sceptical-about-skeptics/ – this post thoroughly documents the whole talk (as oppose to my post which just includes the areas I wanted to discuss)

http://www.skepticat.org/2010/08/dont-be-skeptical-of-skeptics/ – “The reason we think of ourselves as critical, sceptical people is because we are and I hope that nobody was so demoralised by Frank’s talk (which was notably short of constructive suggestions) that they’ll do anything differently.”

http://cubiksrube.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/quis-skeptodiet-ipsos-skeptodes/ – A really good read. “what the hell kind of skeptics has this guy been hanging out with, if he’s got the idea that most of us, firm in our conviction that facts are the only thing that matters, are entirely callous and unconcerned with other people’s problems?” by @writerJames

http://adventuresinnonsense.blogspot.com/2010/08/1023.html – Simon Perry’s post specifically discusses the 10:23 campaign.

http://tommorris.org/blog/2010/08/03#When:14:49:03 – “But skepticism for me basically boils down to being reasonable about everything.”

http://jstreetley.co.uk/blog/?p=303 – excellent point in this blog about something I didn’t cover; “Arguing from facts is cowardly”.

https://lonechemist.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly – “It is a shame as, even though he had some important points that we really need to take notice of, he just failed to communicate them.”

http://adventuresinnonsense.blogspot.com/2010/08/1023.html?showComment=1280936408618#c5574242977626277408 – Simon Singh’s thoughts.

http://dellybeandiary.blogspot.com/2010/08/science-punk-talks-sceptically-about.html Another excellent read.

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Responses

  1. Good post – I agree with most of this

    • Thanks Evan. Care to share you thoughts on what you don’t agree with?

  2. Well – I think if Frank Swain wanted to start a conversation and debate, he’s certainly achieved that goal.

  3. Hey, thanks for the link-love (returning that imminently).

    I also agree with you! Is it possible to keep agreeing with everyone so much?? Hmm.

    Yes, I thought it was a bit sensationalist. The more I talk to people, the more obvious it becomes; your decision to re-listen on poddelusion is probably a very sensible one.

    I’m not sure how intentional all of it was on Frank’s part – does he study psychology on the sly?

    I’m glad you went into the woo thing, I left it alone but you’ve spelled out my feelings on that point.

    As you (and many of us) said, people are talking about it now – that was probably the main goal and it’s succeeded – but we definitely have more to be proud of than ashamed.

    As I said to Simon Perry yesterday, if we have bad eggs, we do need to throw them out; we’re not the Catholic Church after all! ;)

    • Thanks for the link.

      And thanks for this great comment.

      if we have bad eggs, we do need to throw them out

      – excellent!

  4. Excellent post. However, I didn’t see the talk but worry that my ‘contributions’ to the skeptical cause may fall into the ‘being a dick’ category. It’s purely an effort to entertain, but any feedback would be appreciated.

    Latest efforts, in keeping with the theme

    Gillian McKeith
    http://sciencedigestive.blogspot.com/2010/07/dear-gillian-mckeith-from-science-no-21.html

    Prince Charles
    http://sciencedigestive.blogspot.com/2010/08/dear-hrh-prince-charles-from-science-no.html

    • Yes, I’ve read those two posts before.
      I think there is a definite difference between “being entertaining” and “being a dick”.

      I’m all for humour to lighten the mood and point out the ridiculousness of some woo. There I’ve said it. Woo.
      See my attempts in The Weird Homeopathy List that I’ve started.

  5. The #nophd thing being a campaign “meme” annoys me: all it started out as was a display of solidarity with a tweeter who McKeith had attacked.

    It proved to be a popular meme and it caught on and (in the parlance of the Internet) lulz ensued.

    It was never meant to be a campaign and the whole thing “just kinda happened” I wish people wouldn’t impute so much meaning into things!

    On the subject of @sciencepunks point about Billy Graham 2 (or 3) things spring to mind:

    1. Billy Graham hasn’t convinced @Sciencepunk of his position (unless I am missing something) just that he is a good speaker. Thus he has engaged but failed to convince/convert

    2. “when fighting monsters it is important not to become a monster oneself” – is the position being advanced that we neglected facts and evidence, logic and objective forms of argument in favour of rhetoric and appeals to emotion? That strikes me as a great way to grow the “skeptical movement” whilst effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater and kissing goodbye to our skepticism.

    We would become politicians not skeptics. More concerned with being liked and convincing people we are right than actually being right.

    To me that is anathema.

    • Great points. Thanks.

      Not sure why WordPress/Akismet thought your comment was spam though :)

  6. Well said, Kash. I wasn’t there, but the feeling I’ve had from the resulting discussions is that too much of it was contrarian for the sake of it.

    Also, the minute any SITP tells me what I can or can’t say or do, or other such churchy behaviour, is the moment I stick two fingers up at it and leave them be.

  7. I’d just like to add a “me too” to this.

    I first came into contact with the concept of skepticism via 10:23 and RTs from @bengoldacre at the beginning of this year. Before then I was only dimly aware of homeopathy, chiropractic and the like, although I had read Ben’s book. I am definitely one of those that “swelled the ranks” according to Michael Marshall.

    Likewise, whilst I haven’t made any grand gestures of skepticism (not sure a few blogposts now and then count), I have been talking with friends and family and attempting to engage them. Every little helps.

    I am worried that we all agree though. Still playing into the great echo chamber of skepticism!

    • @jstreetly … If the current debate about Sciencepunk’s talk is an example of us all agreeing then I hope I’m there for the spectacle the day we start disagreeing!

  8. “The fact that we are all still talking about it” does not mean it was good.

    There are probably more people “still talking about” Guantanamo, global warming, & depleted fisheries. Doesn’t make any of those good.

    I thought Mr Swain’s approach patronising, arrogant & nombrilisitc. Rather like feminism in the 80s, this is the point at which SitPers get to decide whether they’re going to expend their energies worrying about the nature of their “movement” & the niceties of expression, thus dwindling into just another bourgeois self-interest group, or whether they simply get on with it.

    As other people have said, Swain failed to grasp the process by which the McKeith hashtag got going & to criticise it for not being a “campaign” seems purest strawman building.

    I live in one of the UK’s poorest areas where educational achievement tends to be very low (I only made it university in my mid-30s & through dumb luck alone). My neighbours & I are, though, robust in our discourse. If I want to convince one of my neighbours that something like homeopathy is useless, it’s not to Swainian handwringing & “empathy” that I’ll usually turn; it’s to Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit!”. That gets results.

    Sure, when I was chatting to the lad from the miracle church who tried to prosleytise me last week, I didn’t use that approach. Instead I drew on my own formative experiences of being raised in faith, & being “born-again” (no longer my position). I drew on many hours of obligatory scripture study, as well as on comparative religion, philosophy & the social sciences. I asked him about his tithing arrangements, asked him if he was encouraged to only read approved church materials or if other theologians were ok, asked him if his church encouraged him to socialise only with other members, asked about discipling, shunning, driving out of “evil spirits” & other red-flag issues. I expressed concern, reassured him that I thought his faith was sincere & genuine but told him of my worries that some church leaders, perhaps including his own, were exploiting the sincere faith of their congregations & gave a few quick references to the psychological methods they use. I pointed out that faith cannot be utterly blind or else one may end up having faith in false prophets & told him about a cult watching site where he could do a quick quiz to see if his church exhibited dubious qualities. I couched it all in terms of concern for his well-being but it all required that I had the vocabulary & familiarity with sociological & psychological research as well as with Xian texts, to have that conversation.

    Empathy was secondary to having facts. Just saying “I’m worried about you, worried you may be being scammed.” wouldn’t have got me anywhere; I needed to be able to say “I’m worried about you & here’s why.” I needed those pesky facts that Mr Swain so cheerfully disdains. That made it possible for the church lad to listen to me with a growing concern of his own.

    Would Mr Swain’s mum have been an even slightly relevant reference point in that discussion? I’ve never met her so I haven’t a clue & I don’t think it matters. What matters is being prepared – having the data & the context. Pretty much the inverse of what Swain seemed to be saying. The business of scepticism is not about convincing Mr Swain’s mum – that’s his job not ours, & generalising from such narrow particulars is rarely helpful.

    As to the woo comment. How dare he try to make such a reachy comparison even for mere effect? How fecking dare he? Even if he’s so staggeringly ignorant of contemporary racism, does he know nothing of history, nothing of the city in which he lives? I suggest he spends some time going round the major slave sites of Liverpool’s past & loudly begging forgiveness for such an appalling, childish, attention-seeking gesture. One chooses to believe in Reiki or Angel Therapy; one does not choose to be born black.

    I think he’s got things sadly wrong. Maybe Skepticism is a club, but sceptical thinking certainly isn’t. It predates the whole business of podcasts & “Skeptics” social gatherings. It applies far more broadly than just trying to stop NHS funding for non-efficacious remedies or challenging the claims of miracle churches.

    Sceptical thinking is precisely the business of saying to oneself & to others, “Yes, there’s emotional satisfaction in believing (x) but is that enough? Can (x) stand up to dispassionate examination? Is my continued attachment to (x) based on solid ground or merely upon my own amour-propre? You don’t promote rigour with soggy-mindedness. You can’t argue against showman’s trickery by adopting it & I worry about Mr Swain’s own capacity for sceptical thought if he imagines charismatic evangelicals to be “better” communicators than sceptical speakers.

    Something that has horrified me in reading other posts about this talk is how often people have rushed up to comment to the effect, “nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong.” Who is this “nobody”? All of us probably began our school careers full of wrongheaded notions that our teachers set about correcting & we would be in a sorry mess if educators took the position that no-one likes to be told they’re wrong. In fact it’s a quality I find endearing in Brits that when learning another language, their most common response to being corrected when speaking is a reflexive, “thank you”.

    People like Zeno, David Colquohoun & the 10:23ers have achieved things, informed people, changed minds, created doubt, demonstrated insufficiencies, opened debates, helped to close down university courses in subjects devoid of academic rigour, & actually stopped some charlatans from trying to abuse people’s good nature.

    What has Mr Swain achieved except to raise his own profile? Perhaps his objection to the “godlike status” he imputes to certain high-profile campaigners is that he has not himself achieved such a status. He certainly failed to see the irony of his attempt to show us the one true Swainian path.

  9. Kash,

    A good, well thought out post and one that proves you were not alone in disagreeing with some of the points raised. Very glad you decided to blog it!

    I was not at the WestSkep talk but have listened to the podcast version and found that I disagreed with @sciencepunk on a number of topics. I had intended to do a short blog on it, but thought it best to stick to comments on the blogs of people who were actually there.

    sitp:
    My views of sitp are largely based on my visits to Leicester sitp over the past 18 months along with a visit to Birmingham and Nottingham sitp. I must try visit others!

    I have never had the impression that it is in anyway some form of exclusive club. I hadn’t really given it too much thought until this whole debate kicked off, but the crowd at Leicester are a diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds, genders and ages. If fact even the ones who share an ethnic background, gender and approximate age all look different (I’ve not seen any identical twins attend)! So maybe those who go to sitp are just likeminded members of the public.

    For about the first year I attended sitp on my own and was never made to feel unwelcome, if that had been the case I probably wouldn’t have gone back. About 4 months ago my wife came along to see the Jon Ronson talk and thoroughly loved the whole evening, she now comes to all the events and looks forward to it as much as I do.

    As for ‘first timers’, everytime I go to Leicester there are new faces, I’m sure there are some who attend simply becuase a particular talk interests them and maybe they don’t return, but from what I’ve seen the contact forms that Simon puts out for notification on forthcoming events always get used and the crowd at Leicester sitp has been steadily increasing month after month (I’m sure Simon can confirm this) a number of speakers have commented on the size of the crowd.

    The only real minority I see at sitp are the non-skeptics, however there have been alt-med therapists attend, especially for the CNHC talk and whilst they were a bit quiet, nobody was targetted or directly insulted. Actually the only thing I’d like to see change would be people with differing views, that would generate far more true debate, but you have to ask how many skeptics go to woo meetings!

    Woo:
    For me the likening of Woo to the use of the N-word was stupid and probably the point I least agree with – or at least found most disagreeable.

    Frank’s talk openly said the word “Woo”, seemingly without any shame or guilt and the discussions on twitter, the blog posts and comments since have all openly said the word Woo, even those who think we shouldn’t say it did actually use the word.
    This clearly shows that the two words are not considered to be anywhere near the same.

    We all know what the ‘N’ in the ‘N word’ stands for and nobody has used it, or would use it. We wouldn’t becuase we know it is totally unacceptable. Unacceptable to ourselves and to others, yet I don’t know of anybody who feels that way about saying ‘woo’.

    There is a reiki practicioner who comes into my coffee shop on a regular basis, she knows my feelings and I know hers and we talk about it. She knows my views are not limited to reiki but to all ‘woo’ – she even laughs at the use of the word and takes no offence. If she was offended she wouldn’t be one of my regulars. It’s simply a word used to describe a collection of nonesense practices.

    Finally, making a difference.

    Yes, skepticism can make a difference. I agree that no skeptic argument is going to convince a homeopath to stop selling sugar pills, but informing those who don’t know the facts surrounding various claims does have an impact.

    The ten23 campaign did just that. I took part in the Leicester event and it was about more than just swallowing some pills whilst the press took a few pics. People were talking to passers by and explaining what it was all about, those people then go home and see it on national TV and in the papers, it didn’t need and instant change of mind …. just enough to get people to ask questions.

    People like Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) articles in the Guardian reach the nonskeptics. Simon Perry has a regular spot in the Leicester Mercury that does the same, it informs people and promotes sitp. I think these make a difference more so than most blogs.

    I have a blog, a fairly insignificant one and on more than one occasion I’ve questioned what actual use it is. Posted by a skeptic (me) commented mainly by those who are already decided one way or another. However occasionally (very occasionally) there is a comment that makes me think again.
    http://skepticbarista.wordpress.com/about-2/comment-page-1/#comment-359

    Now I don’t claim my blog gave her ‘proof’ but it has actually reached at least one person and she seemed very sincere and genuine (although the God Bless you comment was probably not needed).

    Overall, I’m actually glad that Frank raised the points he did, it’s always good to question what you do and how you do it. Even better when you ask yourself the questions and you are happy with the answers!

    Thanks

  10. To be more specific than earlier on just two points

    Frank’s analogy of “woo” with the “n-word” was so way off the mark as to be ludicrous. Even if meant and/or taken to be insulting or even abusive (both of which suggestions are contentious) there is a well-recognised difference between the right to be insulting about ideas/beliefs and about things like race that are innate parts of of our shared humanity.

    Frank failed to identify that there are (at least) 3 broadly different audiences for a campaigning or educative message.

    One is your own base – to energise them and inform them so that they can spread the word to or recruit other supporters and so they can help reach one of the other two groups. It seems that this is what facebook groups and twitter hashtags do (some times its just a laugh which is fine). Good examples of effective means of mobilising base for wider campaigning are #scivote and #libelreform.

    A second group is policy makers (eg regulators or Parliament). I strongly advise using facts and logic with them, not anecdote or appeals to emotion.

    A third group is the general public (another group not discussed here is opinion leaders). It is not often that a campaign needs to be or is able to be directed at this group. That is the domain of experienced campaigners and advertising and a different media strategy from the other two groups. So when Frank argued that like him all skeptic output should be aimed at the likes of his (intelligent woman in the street) mother he was entirely misguided.

    In any event he then implied that skeptic output was aimed at and hostile to mothers who don’t sue MMR or users of homeopathy. Again I don’t think that is true as that would be pointless or counter-productive. Was a straw man argument.

    Most internet skpetic output is best aimed at the first group or the second group for the reasons given. That doesn’t mean that the ambition is not to go further than the skeptic base and that campaigns I’ve been involved with don’t realise that. Sense about Science for example are very good at reaching all three groups without compromising their rational approach. Moreover most skeptic campaign groups have people on board who understand this.

    Skeptic campaigning is NOT public engagement on science which is Frank’s specialty. He confused the two.

    I would argue that ten23 was very effective at building the base, that the overdose press coverage would have reached some of the general public. It was the select ctte report which was directed at policy makers and thank goodness it did not rely on anecdote as Frank seemed to argue was better than facts alone. There is a role for a narrative for a campaign with the general public but that is normal advertising practice. It’s not the same as eschewing a fact or logic based argument.

  11. Well I liked what I heard of Frank’s talk from the Pod Delusion recording.

    I disagreed with some of the specifics he used to support his arguments, I felt he glossed over a lot of the back story in his points on SSW and McKeith so they slid more easily into his narrative, but that’s a matter of opinion.

    I do find much to consider though in his critique of some of the language and behaviour from skeptics. Particularly in pointing out the assumption that because they are right they have a license to behave a certainway. To be honest I see this in the comments above – ‘I know I’m right, I don’t have to justify myself to you’ – to cruelly paraphrase.

    While this attitude is as legitimate as any other I think people should realise that it’s a turn off to anyone who doesn’t think like you and all you’ll ever do is build an insular community of like minded people.

    Evan might justify this by saying that there is nothing wrong with energising your base and educating policy makers, and this is true. But the language and demeanour may ultimately undermine the public engagement that is Frank’s interest.

    I think the skeptical approach to debate can be very much like that of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens on religion. It can be beautiful and inspiring in its angry flow, but it’s not going to convince someone to change their mind, indeed it can be counter productive. It allows critics to seize on this behaviour and use it to tar, with a very broad brush, other attempts to encourage a more rational approach on a given issue. I assume we are all familiar with the denigrative term ‘militant atheist’ that links the spittle flecked invective from Dawkins and Hitchens with those who kill in the name of their god. An absurdity, but it’s a catchy phrase that sticks, negative connotations and all.

    I think there’s a real risk that skepticism may become a term of abuse if sufficient thought isn’t given to the perceptions of outsiders.

    PS The anecdotes above – ‘skepticism worked for me’. That above all else should make people think about how rational and objective they really are.

    • Yes, you’re right. This post (and the comments added) do centre around ‘skepticism worked for me’.
      In it’s current format, the skeptic movement is working. People are ‘joining’ and getting educated.
      However, I agree that we do need to ensure that the words ‘skeptic’ and ‘skepticism’ do not become an instant turn off for people that we want to influence.
      As my wife has just pointed out:

      “Nobody wants to be preached to, you don’t want to turn into another religion.”

    • Gimpy says “Evan might justify this by saying that there is nothing wrong with energising your base and educating policy makers, and this is true. But the language and demeanour may ultimately undermine the public engagement that is Frank’s interest. ”

      But you cant face two or three ways with messages. If part of your campaign is about recruiting and energising your supporters then do that. When the plan is public engagement (which is rare in most campaigns that Skeptic movement currently doing btw) then use appropriate language for that. Other than avoiding creating hostages to fortune (and I agreed with Frank about abusive swearing which is immature and net effect is counter-productive) you should not distort your engagement with your target group by also trying to face a non-target group.
      Frank’s talk was rather like arguing that all skeptic movement comms should be public engagement which is just not right even though it may as Gimpy says be Frank’s interest.

      Finally, since you mention it, I was irritating by point from audience criticising Richard Dawkins’ effect on the debate (which Frank had sympathy with). People should remember what it was like in the pre-Dawkins era. We had little profile. Sure proselytising for atheism (which is only some of what he does) is not what most of us are into much but he does whole of other stuff on the way, there is little evidence that overall he puts off neutrals though this is claimed, and even if he did – regarding him as extreme allows the rest of us to be “mainstream”. If he wasn’t pushing the boundary, then we would being attacked more for being “militant”. Its like Peter Tatchell in the 1990s.

    • Gimpy – surely there is an important difference between providing anecdote/single case to comfirm a hypothesis (crystal healing cures cancer) and providing an anecdote/single case to disprove one (ten23 achieved nothing)?

  12. Evan, any comment or activity in public is an engagement of some sort. A blog post will be accessible to search engines and its profile will rise through links from others. This means that if anybody enters a term such as ‘homeopathy’ into a search field then, as well as advocates of homeopathy, they will find critics. Those critics might have written their blog post for a target audience of like minded skeptics but it can be read by anybody with an interest and they will inevitably form some sort of opinion.

    Similarly many campaigning results, whether 1023, the closure of CAM courses or the change (or lack of) of government policy become newsworthy. The act of reporting these is also a form of public engagement.

    I might be using a very loose definition of public engagement here and you could argue that if we were to consider the impact on every public body of every action with the potential of being public then we’d disappear up our own navels. But, I think an awareness of the perception of others should feed into strategic considerations when constructing an argument or activity. It is likely inevitable that you will alienate one group or another, but some thought into who you don’t want to alienate is always helpful.

    PS On the subject of Dawkins, his writing on evolution was instrumental in unbuttoning my teenage beliefs and informing my adult opinions but equally I know people who have been put off reading this writing by perceptions of stridency in his more recent works. To refer to xtaldave’s point, what worked for me doesn’t work for everybody.

  13. This is an interesting blog post. I just want to elaborate on the point that I have said I am trying to stop using the word woo.

    The reason isn’t because I’m trying to claim some sort of moral high ground above others. It’s simply because when I first started in paranormal research five years ago, I was pretty clueless and had some strange ideas, and believed some weird things.

    I was often called a “stupid woo” and it hurt because I couldn’t understand what point it put across from the people giving me that label.
    Rather than telling me why they thought I was wrong, they just called me and my team “woo” and all that did was put my back up and turn me against them.

    I don’t think the word “woo” is a bad word, it certainly isn’t the same as the “n” word. It’s up to the individual whether they use it. As long as they realise that it can be upsetting to be called “woo” when you’re simply unaware of the facts (or lack of them) around that which you have chosen to believe.

    • I think you’ve hit upon the nub of the Woo v N-word problem, and a deeper problem that underlies that. Calling you (as a person) a stupid woo is an insult to you as a person. Calling an idea “woo” is not. Insults to ideas are not insults to people.

      There is an interesting parallel between the misconception here, and that used against Cllr John Dixon in the #StupidScientology case. The laws and guidelines that the council ombudsman considered him to be in breach of, were clearly drafted to prevent holders of public office from abusing human beings, and rightly so. In that instance, one human being (perhaps spuriously and certainly from the isolated distance of their religion’s HQ), claimed that something offensive against their religion was offensive against him as a person, and against his fellows. This assertion, that offence against a religion was an offence against the person, was taken at face value by the ombudsman in that case, and the rules were interpreted accordingly. Similarly when groups of people from a given religion decide to take offence about, for example, cartoons, they depict this as offence against them as a person, on a par with the use of the N word. Liberal or would-be liberal middle England takes this at face value, because we don’t know what it is to be that person.

      From this we get harebrained ideas like blasphemy laws, that work on the assumption that an act of blasphemy against, say, Islam, is an act of racial offensiveness against a holder of that belief. Quite aside from the implied racist assumption that people who hold those beliefs will always be of some “other” race, that whole idea is simply wrong. On the one hand it belittles the very real suffering that racism causes, and on the other hand it elevates a person’s beliefs to a privileged position of being an integral part of “what” someone is. Leaving aside the knotty problems of doxastic voluntarism (whether someone can “choose to believe”), the fact remains that beliefs are not part of someone’s DNA, they are not something which they were born with.

      The same thinking applies I think when looking at modern New-Age and pseudo-scientific beliefs. Some of us may choose to challenge them head on with facts, while others may take the lazy approach and simply call them Woo. I would take the less offensive approach. It may not be constructive to put people’s backs up, and it certainly won’t change their minds, but that is very different to equating it to something as morally indefensible as racism. It is not morally wrong, because it is not against the person. Even if the person may sometimes react as though it is.

      The comparison of Woo to the N word is not only incorrect but odious. Criticism of an idea is not criticism of the person, and offence to an idea is not offence to a person. Taken to its logical conclusion, we would have to conclude that killing an idea is like killing a person!

  14. I’ve just listened to the podcast and on the whole I like what I heard. I’ve been thinking along the same lines myself recently. A little while ago I was considering posting on this subject on a skeptics forum I go to, but didn’t for fear of being shouted down by some of the more sweary and arrogant among the posters there. Speaking as a newcomer, there is an arrogant attitude in some quarters and it is off putting. I’m sure I’ll get over my newbie nerves though. Will others?

    When I first saw the word “woo”, as used by skeptics, I was mildly amused. It certainly isn’t as bad as the “n-word”, but Frank never said it was did he? He said it was the nearest thing the skeptical community has to the “n-word and then went to say why. Perhaps he has a point. It’ll make me think twice about using the term anyway.

  15. A very thorough and thoughtful post – but I have to correct you on several points which I think are mischaracterisations.

    “Ethnic minorities and women don’t go to SitP”
    I never said this. I said that a lot of people contacted me before my talk telling me that as a member of one (or both) of these groups, they felt SiTP was an inhospitable atmosphere.

    “How many first timers are here? How many have come alone?”
    It was not my assumption that only a few hands would go up (quite the opposite, many people contacted me before the talk to say they were turning up for the first time exactly /because/ I was tackling the very reason they had never been before). It was simply to set up the following question, which was not to give the impression SiTP was unwelcoming, but to illustrate the problem of a lecture format in building friend groups – there’s little provision to connect those lone people with the rest of the audience. The take home point is to analyse how the very format of a event can unconsciously shape who attends.

    I compared the n word and woo, although I *did not* equate them, such a thing would be ridiculous and glib. I agree a lot with what Mike has to say on this, but I also stand by my comments that using a word like this heaps your own prejudices of what someone believes onto them, generalises a huge swath of people with very different values, beliefs and ideas, and writes them off as unworthy of debate. The very problem of it is that it conflates an idea with a person. Or as Christians might say: hate the sin, not the sinner.

    Happy to disagree with you on other points – everyone to their own opinion. (It’s what makes the world interesting!)


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