This is an adaptation of the talk I gave at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 2nd August. You can hear an audio transcript of the talk at the Pod Delusion website.
I was invited to stage the talk again at the Winchester SITP, a recording of which is here.
I’m very much a child of the skeptical community. I started writing about bad science in 2004, in a scissors-and-glue zine titled War On Error (a very droll play on words at the time, and a lot easier than coming up with a twist on Overseas Contingency Operation). Eventually this moved online, morphing into SciencePunk. Over the years, however, I’ve drifted away from this scene. I don’t write about electrosensitivity scams like I used to, or dig up interesting stories of historical charlatans. I don’t label myself a skeptic. I don’t blog so frequently. Partly this is out of necessity, and partly because I don’t want to be associated with a community whom I’ve found can be blinkered, confrontational, and self-aggrandising.
It’s worth making a brief interjection here about who this nebulous group of skeptics I’m referring to are. Any attempt to mark out a precise constituency of who is, and who is not, part of the skeptic community is an impossible task, and one I don’t believe there’s any value in doing. Safe to say, if you promote an evidence-based approach and critical thinking in the areas of policy, media, and legal reform, you’re probably part of it. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll use terms like science blogger, skeptic community / movement / acitivist interchangeably; though they do not form a homogenous group, they do have prevalent attitudes and demographics like any self-assembling group of people.
I’ve watched the skeptic movement grow over the years, from a fringe grassroots collective to a body that has achieved remarkable successes in a short time. But it is still a young movement, and this means that it is not able to support the actions I might want to pursue. If I was interested in environmentalism, there are any number of groups that I could donate money to this very instant; by tomorrow I could be picking up litter along the nation’s beaches or helping to survey wildlife in threatened ecosystems. To be a skeptic, things are not so simple. The physical, financial, professional, and organisational infrastructure is not yet in place. So instead, if I want to share a love of science and critical thinking, I’m forced to use the instutional bodies that already exist – most obviously TV, print and radio news and entertainment media.
But equally, if this infrastructure were to exist, I might nevertheless find myself steering clear of it, because the attitudes and the behaviour of many within the skeptic community I find dispiriting. More and more I feel we are limiting ourselves in who we choose to speak to, how we engage with them, and by who we make space for within our community.
There will be many for whom the skeptic community is exactly that, a group of like-minded people to share gripes and groans with about the latest nonsense to infiltrate schools or government, and a safe place to develop ideas and opinions on these matters. That’s certainly how I used it in the early days. But a lot of people will eventually find they want to graduate from this by advancing their philosophies in the real world. This essay is really for that second group of people, who want to reach out and engage the wider public.
You talkin’ to me?
As a writer, I think the most powerful thing I can do is change someone’s mind. Giving someone an understanding of a particular set of facts is one thing, but being able to shape their opinion on those facts (for better or worse) is a God-like ability. Teachers certainly know this, and it’s why they hold such a powerful position in society (why else do you think fundamentalist religious groups are so keen on forming their own schools?). If you can shape opinions, you don’t need political power or money or physical force to advance your ideals – people will do that for you. Unfortunately a lot of skepticism I see focusses on proving the speaker is right, rather than changing the mind of the listener.
The internet is a wonderful thing, and has allowed groups of people to find one another and work collectively over huge distances, and is very much at the heart of the skeptic movement. But it has also lent an illusion that the online world is an accurate reproduction of the world at large, when it is something of a hall of mirrors. Even this blog is victim to that recursive effect. Writing in a particular style, on a particular subject, from a particular point of view, all this shapes my audience, in effect choosing like-minded individuals who are fairly likely to agree with me on a lot of points. This can create something of a confirmation bias – because unless I come into contact with contradictory views, from someone I respect, I’m unlikely to really be challenged on many of my views. And similarly, lazy or false views will thrive longer than they would in the harsh environment of the outside world.
But step back a moment and see the wider picture – who is actually on the internet? Allegedly seven million people in UK are illiterate, and might not be able to read my blog even if they wanted to. A further half million are not on the internet. Of those that are, who reads science blogs? People use the internet in different ways, and while there’s a prevalent view amongst wired skeptics that if the answer can be found in a Google search, it should be obvious. It’s not, and that’s a particularly silly thing to believe. I could print this essay out and tack it to my front door, and technically it would be publicly available, but I wouldn’t kid myself to think that it was accessible to everyone. Here, the inaccessiblility is a physical one, but we shouldn’t consider behavioural inaccessibility any less influential. And yet, there’s a prevalent attitude of “I blogged it, so it’s a problem solved”. Instead we should ask ourselves: what efforts have we made to reach the people concerned? Do all the people who get ripped off by homeopaths read science blogs? Do mums worried about MMR google the problem or are they more influenced by their relatives, family, friends? If you’ve written a post responding to something incorrect a journalist said, did you contact them and tell them? Did you get in touch with your local school to find out if you could help them write and distribute clear info on the risks of MMR?
The apogee of this insularity is the Facebook campaign, and its sibling the Twitter hashtag. So let me say this: a Facebook group is not a campaign. A Twitter hashtag is not a campaign. These are your friends agreeing with you. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t value in them – they are an excellent and efficient system for displaying a groundswell of support. And Dr Evan Harris made a good point after my talk that this in itself was a form of campaigning; but I don’t feel these wildfires of synchonised cheering really change minds, which is what I’m focussing on today.
Whenever I’m not sure if something is important outside my immediate sphere, I think of my mum. She doesn’t have a science degree, she didn’t go to university. She is not a wired, white, yuppie boy like me. And so she’s the perfect foil. If I have the choice to blog about the latest Gillian McKeith / Ben Goldacre dust up, or the cloned milk hysteria, I can ask: which is my mum more likely to know about? Which is she more likely to care about? Which would be a more useful topic for her to read what I had to say? A lot of people at my talk misunderstood this point, and thought I was discussing how I needed to simplify my blogging to make it accessible for an older, non-science woman. This is wrong. What I’m urging here is the consider someone completely unlike yourself and those around you, and ask yourself how your actions meet their needs. Sure, you could tailor your writing to your existing readers, but it’s your existing non-readers who are always the bigger piece of pie. Why not aim for them?
“Evidence or STFU”
Time and again, I’ve been told that they’ve found skeptics’ aggressive, bullying tone the biggest turn off. This is a strange thing, because we’re constantly feting ourselves on how we use facts, not rhetoric, to support our positions; so why do we of any group seem to rely the most on this bluster?
Personally, I find this festishisation of facts both ineffective and cowardly. Firstly, facts don’t speak for themselves – however much you might like to think otherwise. As humans, we respond to stories, emotional hooks. All the best campaigners from Greenpeace to the Republican party have cottoned onto this. Skeptics are still catching up. Perhaps it’s because a lot of us come from a scientific background, where facts are used to resolve differences of opinion. That doesn’t mean we should abandon them, but it does mean that we have to understand that in order to reach people, you need more than facts. It’s often said “The plural of anecdote is not data”, and that’s true. The plural of anecdote is a convincing argument. If you’re the kind of person who looks at the customer reviews before purchasing something on Amazon then you know this already.
What a lot of skeptics have a hard time grasping is that facts are only one small part of the decision-making process. Past experience, culture, emotion, values, morals, politics, philosophy, religion, family ties and a dozen other factors also play a part. So if you think that the only argument needed against homeopathy is to point out its chemical absurdity, you’re ignoring all the other factors that play a role in a person’s decision making. As one woman who wrote to me said:
“When mothers decide to not vaccinate their children, they are choosing to do so with only the very, very, very best intentions in the world. That they’ve been lead to believe not vaccinating is the best thing for them does not mean that they are stupid, evil, ill-intentioned, moronic. They’ve just been told a better story by ‘the other side’.”
Many of the people reading this article will regularly consume alcohol, or smoke cigarettes: we know the facts about why these habits are harmful (and even dangerous), but we continue nonetheless because our judgements come to rest on a lot more than the facts. In addition, by focussing on the facts, we fail to make any attempt to understand why people engage in these behaviours, and without that understanding it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to bring those people round to our way of thinking.
Secondly, when you argue from facts, you’re laying out the battleground in a way that will best suit you. You know that the facts are in your favour, you go into that argument with a resolute mind and that arrogance will show. As science-types we don’t really like to argue about personal judgements, emotions, moral stances – uncertain footing where there’s rarely a clear-cut answer. But that is the real world. And by concentrating solely on facts, we embrace a binary method of thinking where everyone is either right or wrong (usually the latter if they don’t agree with us) and ignores the complexity of personal decision-making. This us-and-them mentality has come to infect large swaths of the skeptic community’s mindset. Even Cllr John Dixon, present at my talk, had made me uncomfortable with his now-famous tweet “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off”. This idea that we are somehow tainted by associating with people whose views we find objectionable is I think an unhealthy one, not least because it homogenises the skeptic community. There are plenty of Christians and Muslims who oppose homeopathy, and plenty of chiropractic users who object to the use of libel laws to stifle debate. Skeptic tribalism drives them away.
Who wants to be in my gang?
Following on from this, who do we consciously or unconsciously exclude from our community? I’ve already described how a macho element drives away a lot of people. There’s also the constant sneering against humanities graduates. There’s the self-perpetuating majority of white, middle-class, middle-age men. The sheer number of women who’ve contacted me in the last week to share the condescending, combatative and downright offensive behaviours they’ve encountered at skeptic gatherings is nothing short of depressing. There’s the venues we choose for discussion, whether they be online forums or pubs, that can be unwelcoming or innaccessible to a huge number of people (although, as David Allen Green pointed out, pubs are often the only affordable venues to run events in). I’d argue that even the lecture format of Skeptics in the Pub is flawed. With no provision to draw people into groups, it can be quite intimidating and unfriendly for a lone person to attend.
Although skeptics often insist that there is no creedo or manifesto to their club, certain groups are singled out for hostility. Here’s an example:
“As a Green Party member, I’ve received a lot of abuse. I’m in the Green Party Science Policy Working Group, and we’ve spent about two years working on de-hippyifying our Science policy. I think we’ve come a long way, and our drugs policy is probably the most progressive of the parties. But whenever I mention that I’m in the Greens, I get dismissed immediately on the basis of our animal testing policy. And its usually pretty personal attacks: that my political views are stupid, that the Greens are the worst party in politics as a result. This doesn’t seem to take in any other factors: I’d rather support a party I disagreed with on animal testing, than a party who condoned torture, or canned legal aid for asylum seekers”
We can’t afford to labour under the delusion that the skeptic community is an all-welcoming and tolerant one. It is not. And it’s only by considering who we speak to, and how we speak to them, that we’ll come to understand why this is.
After my talk, several people complained that I was rudely attacking the skeptics community without giving any answers to the problems I’d identified. I don’t want this to be perceived as an attack. This is a cry for help to improve the fantastic community that made me the person I am today. And the reason I haven’t given answers to the problems is because I’m not sure what those solutions might be.
I’ve already heard from a huge number of people about their negative experiences within the skeptic community. But now it’s time to be constructive. I’m opening this to the floor – how do you think we can make the skeptic community better, more welcoming, more enagaging? Is this something that will only happen when it incorporates into recognisable institutions such as a registered charity? Can a disparate collective of people be persuaded to adopt certain behaviours, and if so, how? And what might those guidelines be?
OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS:
Skeptical About Skeptics? | Purely a figment of your imagination
Skepticism – What Now? | Tom Morris
#WestSkep – How to Win An Argument With Joe Public | David Hartery
Yet Another Blog Post About WestSkep | The Thought Stash
Science Punk at Westskep (the aftermath) | The Thought Stash
SciencePunk – A Critique of Skepticism | James Streetly’s Blog
And somewhat tangentially:
The role of the science blogging community in the advancement of science | JLVernonPhD