Excellent Swedish feature-journalism magazine Filter has a 17-page piece about the skeptical movement in its current issue (#17). Magnus Västerbro’s take on the movement in general and the Swedish Skeptics Association in particular is supportive yet not uncritical. I’ve been a board member of the Swedish Skeptics (VoF) since 2004, and I think the article is excellent advertising for us. Västerbro’s main message is that the Swedish skeptical movement has long been academic, small and low-profile, and is now becoming more youthful, more inclusive, more active and louder. I think he’s pretty much right. But there are a couple of important errors in the piece that I’d like to respond to.
Västerbro says that VoF is a small organisation that does not grow much (p. 92), and he quotes a member who wishes that the Swedish movement were “as active and important” as the American one (p. 97).
VoF has 2600 members and gains new ones at a rate of roughly one a day. Then, when the time comes to pay the following year’s membership fee, a large chunk of each year’s gain is lost. This means that the organisation grows by about 100 people a year, or 4%, and it’s been doing so since we put a “join” button on our web site a decade ago. I think this is a pretty healthy annual growth rate.
As for being active and important, note that while the US has 307 million citizens, Sweden has only 9 million. 2600 members out of the Swedish population works out at 0.02%, which makes VoF comparable in relative size from a US perspective to the staff of Microsoft, the membership of AmeriCorps, the United States Equestrian Federation, the Apple Federal Credit Union or the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. These are not unimportant organisations, and they’re way bigger than any US skeptical organisation I’m aware of. Is there in fact any national skeptical organisation in the world that is bigger than VoF relative to its country’s population?
But that’s not to say that VoF couldn’t or shouldn’t be orientated more towards activism and outreach. I found it hugely instructive when the excellent independent podcast Skeptikerpodden interviewed skeptical activist Garvarn. He taught me that some people see us on the VoF executive board as an aloof academic elite that packs a serious scientific punch but does not engage much with popular debates. Come to think of it, that’s probably true. Our meetings are so informal that I’ve never reflected much on the fact that most of us have PhDs (or are working towards them) and that several members over the years have been professors.
The organisation’s 1982 roots were with a small group of academics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. But now we’re sprouting regional chapters all over Sweden’s population centres, and their board members are younger and hungrier. And for several years I have personally made sure that we have had a younger and less male-dominated nomination committee. Although I myself am not much of a skeptical activist and do not have any great need for social events within the context of the movement, I think that these are things VoF should prioritise. There’s plenty of room to grow and there’s plenty of media bandwidth to conquer.