Posted by: Kash Farooq | October 31, 2010

What is wrong with Skeptics in the Pub?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about Skeptics in the Pub. What is its role? What’s wrong with it?Alom Shaha said that it was time for skeptics to stop preaching to the converted.

Frank Swain said a similar thing in his Skeptical About Skeptics piece, and his accompanying SitP talks at Westminster SitP and Winchester SitP.

Skeptics are only talking to fellow skeptics at these events – they are not reaching out and spreading their expertise or knowledge. Skeptics are not going into schools and telling kids to be skeptical of miracle cures, conspiracy theories and crop circles.

I agree with a lot of Alom’s and Frank’s points. But, from my limited experience of half a dozen or so SitP meetings, I don’t see outreach being the purpose of SitP.

The analogy that I’ve used recently is comparing Skeptics in the Pub to an Astronomy Club. Amateur astronomers meet up, perhaps listen to a talk, perhaps look at some cool stuff in the sky. No one seems to be having a go at them for doing this (and no one should!). No one is saying: “Hey you! Stop having your exclusive meetings. Go and get some kids interested in astronomy instead”.

The majority of attendees at Skeptics in the Pub meetings have 9-5 jobs, perhaps in an area that is nothing to do with science or skepticism. For these people, going to SitP in the evening is a social event. The evening nature of SitP is essential. When else would people with 9-5 jobs meet up? You go after work, talk to practically anyone (as you’re guaranteed to have something in common), listen to a talk, perhaps learn something new. It’s a hobby. It’s like astronomy.

For me, the learning aspect of SitP is as important as the social aspect. I’m a software developer. I knew nothing about, say, MMR/Autism or about the role of the Advertising Standards Authority. Not until I attended talks about these subjects at SitP did I learn about them. Even skeptical and scientifically inclined people need educating too, you know.

Yes, I completely agree that it would be good to go into school to teach kids this sort of stuff. Really good. But I’m not sure that the majority* of people who go to SitP are in a position to do this. My day job is nothing to do with science, skepticism or education. If I don’t go into work, I don’t get paid (I’m a consultant – no annual leave either!). I assume the evening requirement applies to the speakers too. Simon Perry runs his own IT company. He can give talks in the evenings. I’m not sure it would be logistically possible for him to do a tour of schools to talk about the Quacklash.

Without wanting to sound flippant, aren’t teachers the right people to teach this sort of stuff to kids? Rather than getting skeptics into schools, would it not be more appropriate to get teachers to attend SitP meetings?

So, what’s wrong with Skeptics in the Pub?

Nothing.**

See you at the next one.

* Perhaps some SitP attendees and speakers are in a position to go into schools – I’m just not one of them. I’m happy to help with evening stuff, just can’t do anything during the day.

** IMHO

 


Responses

  1. Great post. I’d read the Shaha piece in the Guardian, which made me think about the ‘problem’, and I agree that there really isn’t one!

    • good post, very much agree🙂
      wanted to do a similar post myself after reading alom shaha’s piece the other day but wasnt sure it’d be best to put my personal views on the swansea sitp blog and not sure whether it was worth setting up my own just for that piece.

  2. I set a group up to meet people because I moved to a new city and didn’t know anyone. Simple as.

  3. OK, well I feel I need to disagree.
    Actually I don’t disagree at all because
    a) I *think* you’re spot on, and
    b) I’m not really qualified to comment having never yet made it to an SitP
    So I don’t disagree, I just *feel* I need to because so far every other comment has agreed with you and that’s just unheard of for posts on this subject.
    Yep, I read all the other posts at the time too, and gimpyblog’s one about TAM where related points came up in discussion. All making interesting points.
    So I look forward to attending some or many of the various gatherings in future and as well as perhaps others I’ll see you at an SitP sometime too🙂

  4. Correct. Best blogpost on this topic.

  5. Absolutely,

    We have been running Oxford SiTP for 18 months or so now. And I would absolutely consider it a form of ‘outreach’. We have deliberately not hiked it around the colleges and tried to attract a more Town than Gown audience. We regularly get sixth formers along – and not just for the beer.

    I strongly feel such meetings connect otherwise isolated thinkers, develop ideas in people who have (perhaps) vaguely sensed something was wrong, and (for some) developed activists (although we are not an activist group per se).

    SiTP forms part of a network of possibilities here. To criticise it because it cannot fulfil all imagined roles is myopic.

    It’s a great new development and long may it prosper.

  6. Great post. Incidentally, if SitP members reading this do want to get into schools, the STEM Ambassador program – see stemnet.org.uk – could do with more volunteers. Don’t know if this has been addressed at any London SitP meetings.

    • I have just become a STEM Ambassador myself🙂

  7. These are all good points. But there is still the unresolved question of where do skeptics who don’t like pubs go?

    Then the are wider questions of what does skepticism have to offer society and how does it go about doing it?

    It’s all very well having your talking shop, but it is the events that stem from that have the capacity to affect the lives of other peoples. This means it would be prudent to seek views on this outreach from individuals other than those who like beery arguments. One of the most important parts of skepticism is recognising there are subjective biases that play a part in forming opinions – thus, it really shouldn ‘t be controversial to examine the implications of pub based, and £200 ticketed events.

    • Gimpy, I feel you accidently straw-manning this.
      Where do sceptics go who don’t like pubs? Well in Cambridge at least (which is what I need to keep a eye on) there any number of the other events held in lecture theatres! The reason I started SiTP was because there were far too many events in lecture theatres for people didn’t want to go to because of that.
      For example have CafeSci or Cambridge Humanist group or plenty of other examples of groups that actually specialise on subsections of scepticism outside of pubs.
      The majority of events aren’t in pubs. What Skeptics in the Pub allows us to do is bring a wide range of topics under the umbrella title of scepticism and do something different. If anything there is more demand for events in pubs than currently provided!
      The problem with this current discussion is that if an event was created in a pub because that was the gap in the market; don’t then complain it sits in too well. It’s like complaining you square peg for your square hole doesn’t fit a round one. You could replace it with a round one but then you’d no longer have the tool for the square hole.
      Want to see how much is going on in terms of engagement just look at the events listed in What’s On http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/whatson/index.shtml?category=&range=week%3B2010-11-01 this week.

    • @Gimpy
      Do you mean non-pub skeptics sort of stuff like this: http://www.cafescientifique.org/london.htm (also contains links to other things not in pubs, like Richard Wiseman’s Dinner @ Dana) ?

      Since all this kicked off a few weeks (months?) ago, I’m slowly learning that there are quite a lot more events going on than we realise, simply because they’re not as vocal about themselves as SITP is. I’m a bit busy to involve myself in any more events than I’m already involved in but if anyone wants contact details or information on how to set up their own event, please get in touch with me and I’ll be quite happy to help get the ball rolling.

      I went to Cafe Scientifique in Croydon Library a week ago and it was bloody good. I highly recommend it for anyone in South London who doesn’t like pubs or can’t make it into the city that time in the evening.

      Cx

      • Carmen,

        It’s worse than, many of them are infact higher profile than SITP. Skeptics who are writing these complaints just aren’t even looking!

        Andy

      • Ah cool. I’d heard about Cafe Scientifique before SITP but worked in the city so SITP was easier for me to get to. It wouldn’t be unfair to speculate that more of my attention is given to SITP blogs as a result!

  8. Yikes! Well, it is getting close to Guy Fawkes night, so perhaps that’s why you’ve propped a huge strawman at the front of your blog post.

    To clarify once again, my talk has always been aimed at those wanting to be involved in skeptic activism. Equally I’ve always said that for some people SITP will be a social event, and that that was fine. In fact, I went so far as to preface both my talks with the qualification: “this is aimed at those wanting to be involved in skeptic activism. Some of you simply come to SITP for social reasons and that’s fine”.

    You can hear me say it, buried all of three minutes into the WinSITP talk. It’s the second slide, immediately after I introduce myself.

    I don’t disagree with much you’ve said in this post, which is why I’m mystified as to how you could possibly have misconceived my talk so thoroughly as to imagine I was demanding SITP attendees take up arms against quacks and quackery, regardless of their personal belief and circumstance.

    The aim of my talk has always been to get those people wishing to advance a skeptical philosophy thinking about the different ways of going about it without prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution. That I gave it in SITP meetings as opposed to any other audience of skeptics is simply because I was invited to do so.

    A penny for the guy is traditional, I’ve given two cents, now can we please throw it on the bonfire?

    • Frank

      Don’t know if you ever read my post at the time http://lonechemist.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

      I feel prehaps I was unfair at the end. I said:

      “I will end on this point: if Frank’s talk had really covered the points well and engaged us, we would have learnt from it and currently be planning what we could do better. 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. ”

      The point stand, but prehaps it wasn’t your failure to engage.

  9. lonechemist, I’m not arguing against SiTP, and I never have, I’m just pointing out that pubs are an exlusionary venue, and this ties into Alom’s concerns about the lack of ethnic diversity within skepticism. Obviously this is far more complicated than merely being about a suitable venue but needs to be considered as part of outreach conversations.

    I’m very much in favour of a pluralist approach to skepticism, into which the examples you provide fit. My arguments are more to do with the distribution of power within skepticism.

    In my opinion some of the most opinionated skeptics are intolerant of challenges to their beliefs and unrecognising of their prejudices. I see nothing wrong with challenging this.

    • How many people does a pub realistically exclude?
      I doubt those who are strict enough muslims to not wish to be in the same room as alcohol (my muslim colleagues aren’t bothered by it, they just have a soft drink along with everyone else who isn’t drinking for whatever reason, and one doctor friend gives me the wine he’s gifted by grateful patients, which is brilliant…) would consider themselves skeptics in the first place, so I’m not sure that’s relevant.

      Perhaps mums? But as others have said, skeptics is partly there for the very reason that people who want to go are busy during the day with jobs; if there were daytime meetings (and, for example, the lobbies and stuff are usually in the morning/afternoon), I can’t go. Do I feel ‘excluded’? Not so much. I know Gia started a bit of a hashtag thing for skeptical mums but I don’t know how that’s going now (not being one myself).

      Andrew’s tried to survey skeptical diversity but it seems people don’t really care that much. I think that’s a good thing, personally – why be so colour/gender/personal belief aware? Surely as humanisty-types those things are secondary to us, and only if there is a real issue should we be worrying (I’d not advocate ignoring obvious insult and discrimination, ever – if that’s happening, definitely people need to be angry about it).

      I think it’s fuss over nothing, and as Frank said, might be nice to toss this one on the fire at last, or at least until it comes around again next time.

      • “Andrew’s tried to survey skeptical diversity but it seems people don’t really care that much. I think that’s a good thing, personally – why be so colour/gender/personal belief aware? Surely as humanisty-types those things are secondary to us, and only if there is a real issue should we be worrying”

        This would be pretty much my natural position. And the day this peaceful, ad hoc accommodation with reality stops working will be the day the Skeptic Movement with capital letters is born🙂 I’ve seen it happen very recently (looking over my OH’s shoulder) in the Drupal community. You will be told that your “lack of awareness” is actually privilege, and a sign that prejudice *does* exist. It’s sad, and quite possibly total bollocks too, but it’s a sort of rite of passage into the big time for movementy things so far as I can tell.

    • Gimpy I’m with you then. It is exlusionary, but we need to drop that as an issue unless people are claiming otherwise or there are no other options (which doesn’t seem true). I’ve certainly been meaning to put up other local groups on our SITP website for a while yet.

      “In my opinion some of the most opinionated skeptics are intolerant of challenges to their beliefs and unrecognising of their prejudices. I see nothing wrong with challenging this.”

      Yes, this is very true. But then SiTP isn’t your target. SiTP is run by too many different people and is varied and wide ranging as it’s organisers.

      I’d appricate you views on what I wrote when Frank first did his talk:

      http://lonechemist.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

  10. This resonates quite strongly with me. I have always held a rational based belief with religion and quackery and other such things, but it wasn’t that long ago I found out how many people shared my skepticism. It was when I caught an incidental retweet from David Green about Rhys Morgans bleachgate forum ordeal that I noticed the incredible amount of similar minded people on twitter and started to follow them. Through association, I then discovered SitP and that there was one in Leicester.

    My first three have included talks from Martin Robbins and Mike Hall and I have learnt more from these talks than I could ever hope to if left to my own devices. I have also made a couple of friends now, which I don’t often find myself in a position to do.

    Yes, SitP can be described as “preaching to the choir”, but I think it should be remembered that sometimes the choir needs direction else they might become lost.

    This is a fantastic blogpost on the subject so thank you.

  11. I go to Greater Manchester SitP because I have made good friends there and I enjoy the banter. I always come away knowing something more than I did when I went in. This is either due to having an excellent speaker, or due to chewing the fat with clever buggers like @Dr_Aust_PhD and @acallister😉

    With regards to the schools issue – how about trying to get some skeptical-scientist-types (of which there are a fair few) to sign up for something like:

    Researchers in Residence http://www.researchersinresidence.ac.uk/cms/

    – or –

    NoiseMakers?
    http://www.noisemakers.org.uk/

    Just my twopenneth…

  12. Any venue we pick for a sceptic talk will always have some pros and cons. And yes, I can accept that pubs will put certain people off. The pub format works well though for a number of reasons.

    They are free – and this has to be an inclusive aspect of them.
    They are accessible – city centre and often well known.
    They fit in with an after work life style – people often eat – its not just beer – and allows them to come from work and not rush around.

    In Oxford, it has been suggested we hold our talks in college bars or lecture rooms – I would consider this far more exclusionary than a pub. Oxford has its own problems, but these places are built with defensive walls around them, quite literally, and many people feel that they just do not belong to these elitist institutions.

    In 18th C Oxford, similar groups were held in the new fangled coffee shops – with all their disreputable connotatoins – but again challenging ‘sceptical’ political and scientific meetings were held there as they most certainly not seen as part of any estalishment.

    On the whole, I think the SiTP has a good balance – there are other talks in other types of places if people really feel it is not for them.

    • This would seem to be true of Cambridge too.

    • We’re in the lucky position in Newcastle of having some people from the Centre for Life – http://www.life.org.uk/ – help with our SITP, so we have the possibility of using them as a venue. We all agree though, that the point of SITP is to remain informal, and having a talk in an official science communication centre goes against that a bit (in general – some events may suit it better).

      • If it’s not in a Pub, start up another brand or work under the umbrella of another suitible organisation is my feeling on it.

  13. “Skeptics in the pub” comes across as community social event for people with like minded beliefs; people who are skeptical about specific similar things not generally skeptical.

    By itself that’s fine (just don’t confuse Sitp with skepticism) but their advocates seem to be hijacking the term ‘skeptics’ as if they are, and they are the only ones who are, and if you want to be you have to join them.

    • Really? SITP isn’t something you join, they’re meetings/talks that you attend. I haven’t come across this attitude from SITP organisations I have to say…

      • Indeed, people often e-mail to ask how do they join. My reply is you don’t need to join you just turn up.

        I think some people want to ‘join’ as they are looking for a sense of community. SITP can provide that for them, just not on paper. I suspect that’s good enough for most.

    • That’s a tad disingenous! You don’t have to sign a paper in order to join a clique.

      My experience is limited, but the jokes and sniggers at the foolishness of, say, homeopaths tends to put off people who aren’t already skeptical about them. The venue is a minor issue compared to social acceptability, which no doubt varies from pub to home and group to clique.

      It’s the “sense of community” that makes it not very skeptical. You get self-reinforcing joining criteria, and then self-reinforcing group belief sets, which are frequently not very skeptical at all. Try asking at the next meeting you go to *why* people believe in evolution, it can be very interesting…

      • Plenty of the big name skeptics are terribly un-skeptical outside there field. Don’t think this just applies to SITP.

        “My experience is limited, but the jokes and sniggers at the foolishness of, say, homeopaths tends to put off people who aren’t already skeptical about them. The venue is a minor issue compared to social acceptability, which no doubt varies from pub to home and group to clique.”

        This I do agree on, but we don’t hold that many talks where homeopathy would come up by the speaker.

      • Agreed it’s not unique to SITP, and anyway none of us are ‘properly’ skeptical, but the form of SITP is essentially communal (well, it’s in a pub), informal and social, and so interestingly by it’s very nature it’s somewhat anti-skeptical.

        Wouldn’t stop me going to them, and I think there’s valuable stuff that happens there, but the name gives it a false air of objectivity.

  14. I’m not entirely sure I get how pubs are so exclusionary. I don’t drink, haven’t done in a few years now, but I’ve yet to visit a proper pub which doesn’t serve tea/coffee. Just last Thursday I enjoyed SciencePunk’s talk whilst accompanied by a mug of tea, and I like to think I didn’t stand out from the crowd.
    It is what you make of it. I hate football, can’t stand it, but when the nearest blood donation appointment is in the football stadium near me, I’m not going to be a grumpy cow about it and withhold my blood cells!

  15. I suspect whatever venue you choose is “exclusionary” for somebody, on different grounds. Pubs seem less exclusionary than most, given their centrality to British socialising. I would be far more inclined to go to a pub than to a draughty school hall with no beer, personally.

    The kind of pub can make a difference – we older folk find noisiness (esp. that blasted loud disco music) and flashing lights rather off-putting. I expect an Oxford pub, for instance, is a bit more old-fart-friendly than the kind of slightly youth-y places that (e.g.) Greater M’cr SITP use. But even those get a mixed age crowd, as you can tell from the fact that I am sometimes not the oldest one there.

    On the general point, completely agree that SITP is more of a social club than a political party rally getting ready to go out and proselytise etc. etc. So the attacks on it as inward-looking seem a bit misplaced. And there is an argument which no-one seems to have given yet, which is that SITP, like the skeptic blogs, helps give those of a skeptical mindset more information that they can use in any discussion OUTSIDE the group.

    Thus a software developer or other non-medical/bioscience skeptic might go to SITP & find out a lot of stuff, including good arguments, to do with why anti-vaccine people are talking b*llocks. And the next time this comes up in a conversation (at work? in the school playground?), they now have the “tools” to put someone right.

    This was, actually, one of the original rallying cries on Ben’s Bad Science blog, as I recall –

    “reach the geeks, and they will reach the rest”

    • PS Oops – reading back see a couple of other people had made similar points about “empower the geeks”… sorry.

  16. […] in fact there has been much discussion of the role of events such as the unsurprisingly pub based ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ and the £200 a ticket ‘The Amazing Meeting’ (apologies for the typo but TAM is pretentiously […]

  17. Oh yeah, and did anyone else sign up for this (specifically, the people banging on about not-enough-engagement)?

    I highly recommend it, as I’m sure will @stephen_curry and everyone else who participated; tweet in the direction of @imascientist and follow the links for more info.
    http://noodlemaz.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/im-a-scientist/

  18. […] this cynicism before, and Steven Novella has expressed things far more clearly than I managed to. Kash Farooq also wrote about what he sees as the point of these skeptical get-togethers, and defends the idea […]

  19. “No one is saying: “Hey you! Stop having your exclusive meetings. Go and get some kids interested in astronomy instead”.”

    Hm, up to a point. But then astronomy groups don’t have an implicit concern with public information quality, flow and dissemination underlying much of their shared interests, and I would argue that skeptic groups do (though mileage of individual groups will obviously vary). There’s nothing wrong with being a group that has talks about cool stuff, obviously – and I don’t think anyone has seriously suggested there is.

    But a concern with availability and transparency of specialist information is at the heart of what a lot of the people involved are interested in. You’re interested in it. Look at the talks you mention – MMR and the ASA.

    None of which means you “should” do any teaching or proselytising, of course.Though this…

    “Rather than getting skeptics into schools, would it not be more appropriate to get teachers to attend SitP meetings?”

    …is actually a fine idea.


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