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This week’s Westminster Skeptics was presented by Frank Swain(@sciencepunk).

I’ve square-bracketed most of my own thoughts that I’ve added in to the write-up, as I occasionally have before.

Every so often we should be self-critical

Frank began with a little disclaimer; he does love the skeptical movement and wants to see it do well. As do I.

Who are the Skeptics?

Is this even a useful question?

You probably know if you’re a part of it, voluntarily or not, using the ‘special k’ spelling or not.

We have a passion for science and critical thinking. Or just enjoy meeting like-minded people! Engagement is the next step and not by any means a compulsory one.

The most powerful thing I can do as a writer is to change someone’s mind

The power is similar to that of parents; the ability to shape someone’s way of thinking, how they form opinions.

[Or unfortunately in many cases, simply which opinions they should have; this is why I think philosophy should be more of a core school subject, since we're rarely taught how to think about things; this comes later, if at all, and I believe is one reason why so many people are sucked in by scheming con-artists and misinformation].

Skepticism now isn’t changing people’s minds


[I'm not sure I agree 100%; whenever someone new is brought into the  'skeptic world', however (im)permanently, they may or may not change their entire outlook, but even if someone used to think seeing a chiropractor would be a good idea after their car crash and now realise it probably isn't, that's something - and to me, a positive result. Also, changing people's minds isn't necessarily the main goal.

Based on a post-talk discussion we had, I'd say skepticism is fairly political. Just as political campaigns target the swing votes, so does skepticism. Few people really believe you can change the mind of a diehard fundamentalist (in either direction), so they're not the focus. It's the fence-sitters, the undecided and indeed uninformed who we hope to reach.]

Skepticism is a new community, for example compared to environmentalism and animal welfare. We have no infrastructure to speak of and that imposes a limit on engagement and progression possibilities.

criticism: distance has formed in recent years. Behaviour and attitudes are a turn-off to many people who, as a result, don’t want to be associated with skepticism.

Are you talking to me?

Who do we reach? Is it just a big echo chamber?

People, for example when starting a blog, pick a topic, angle and tone of writing. This narrows the audience and there’s a danger to that; becoming simply like-minded people patting each other on the back, because it’s gratifying.

[I did give this as one reason for restarting my blog; it is nice when people agree with you! However, I also like to share things I care about precisely because not everyone does agree, which makes for interesting discussion and a chance to reflect on one's own views.

When people only agree, opinions stagnate, stubbornness and ignorance grow and the once-sensible person can end up as fundamentally rigid - and indeed wrong - as the people they vilify. I see this in my own family now and try quite hard to avoid it.]

This doesn’t really reach anyone and falls into the confirmation bias trap.

People go to their family, friends, neighbours, doctor, priests etc. for advice – not always the internet.

We trust other people … Not everything is on Google

How many people could reach, for example, this blog? Well, 7 million in the UK are apparently illiterate while 0.5 million have no internet connection. A big exclusion from the outset. Then there are other factors like language, culture and so on. There’s sometimes a common attitude: “That problem’s solved: I wrote a blog about it.”

A blog is the equivalent of a post-it on your bedroom door It’s arrogance to think that blogposts and Twitter hashtags make problems go away

 

Because a campaign changes minds, whereas these activities often don’t; they demonstrate the degree of support and can help bring like-minded people together but it’s not a campaign in and of itself. It’s mostly people “agreeing with their mates”.

[However, today  David_Colquhoun said while listening to the Pod Delusionrecording of the talk:

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

I think the truth is somewhere in between; I do think online campaigning (or however you want to classify it) has an effect; the first I took notice of was HSBC's restoration of graduate overdrafts after immense pressure that originated on, and was almost exclusively from, Facebook. The Libel Reform Campaign would not be as successful without the online efforts either.

Also I think the impact goes beyond grand outcomes, overturned convictions and the like - it's also personal. Several people to have spoken at skeptics, particularly those facing and enduring libel cases, have said that the supporthas kept them afloat or at least helped in hugely stressful times. I don't think that should be waived aside as unimportant.

I did say to people around our table that talking to people on Facebook, particularly when I was at university, really did change my views on a number of issues; my opinions differ quite a lot from those I held at school, which were mostly just hand-me-downs from my parents anyway. I like to think that, like aproper scientist, I really can change my mind if it's logical to do so, if the evidence suggests I should.]

Frank then lists his reasons for not granting funds to TAM, concerns over which have also been voiced very eloquently by Skeptobot.

It’s centralised (in London), expensive, does not stream its content (and DVDs will cost £16) and the JREF operates in the USA – so he cannot justify giving tax money to it.

[The self-congratulatory attitude is also the reason I'm not spending >£200 going to TAM this year, amaz!ing as I'm sure it'll be, since I've seen a few of the people before at skeptics in the pub - with a much more intimate atmosphere and glorious price tag <1% of TAM's - and it is getting a bit cult/church-y.]

Mum’s the word

Mothers worry about the health of their children constantly. It’s probably still fair to say that most haven’t been to university (though not for much longer, I expect) and tend to find having their beliefs challenged by kids quite intimidating.

My mum is my litmus test

Frank frames his questions with the most important lady in his life in mind;

How can I explain it? Would she care? Is my blog useful to her, could it change her mind and is it respectful?

[To which I might add, will she respect me for writing it? My mum reads my blog and lets me know what she thinks. Let's remember, though, that unconditional love tends to lead to bias!

My supervisor has told me the similar; try to explain in a way that your mum can understand and if you haven't done that, you haven't explained well enough. However, I don't think it applies to everything; for science writing and general engagement it does.

It depends on your target audience. It's not relevant to, say, scientific journals and as Evan Harris said after the talk, often not to influencing policy either. If you always have to explain everything from the ground-up, you'll never get anywhere; every article would be a whole text book. Contextmatters. I agree thatt trying to make things mum-friendly is often a good idea].

One of my favourite charts

Frank attacks the charts&graphs/data-worship culture and asks if the ‘evidence or fuck off‘ kind of attitude is really funny anymore – it’s just an aggressive tone and arguing is different from engaging.

Arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly

Facts don’t speak for themselves … they are dry and boring

Campaign groups like PETA and Greenpeace, FOX etc. understand this but many skeptics don’t

Sometimes the scientific background is a problem. We may be correct butineffective in using facts to argue.

Most people have used the old line “The plural of anecdote is not data” but Frank goes on to say that the plural is a convincing argument.

[I think this is just because it's the easierway to think about things. We identify more readily with personal stories than numbers, more with faces than bar charts. It's more difficult to see the big picture - it takes time and effort to understand compared to, say, looking at a picture and going on our gut feeling. That's the tabloid tactic - there's a reason appeal to emotion is classified as a logical fallacy and why many of us rail against using it. As features on my 'quotations' page:

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it. - Henry Ford

I realise it's Frank's point that being convincing may be preferable to only being right, and fact-based arguments can be condescending, or rely heavily on argument from authority; skeptics should stop being offensive, calling people stupid etc. But I think it depends on why you're a skeptic. I'll come back to that*]

We often can’t actually prove things ourselves – Frank used the example of the Earth orbiting the Sun (he could show it with a simple experiment!) – in reality, not very many of us can.

Stories are more effective but we shouldn’t abandon facts. It’s reasonable and rational to utilise emotion and there’s no one right way, though foregone conclusions with no attempt to consider other people’s views can’t be productive.

Why is arguing from facts cowardly? You go into an argument knowing you are right and the arrogance shows

[I have to agree with James' take on this statement but I see where Frank's coming from.]

On to a controversial point now really stirring things up on Twitter:

10:23 was not engagement

Informing people doesn’t change the fact that it “works” for some people [I add the finger-quotes]. Facts are not everything; there’s philosophy, feelings, culture etc.

[I don't think that 10:23 set out to be solely an engagement activity, nor do I agree that no aspect of it was engagement. Michael Marsh, who played a big part in the campaign, said earlier today:

@SciencePunk By the way, sooo many people who responded during#ten23 didn't know there was nothing in homeopathy, were annoyed to learn it.

Studies showed most people thought it was 'herbal', hence we were engaging with those who used it without knowing about it.

10:23 aimed to inform people who were unsure or confused about the nature of homeopathy, to improve understanding and question the validity of NHS funding CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine) - not an insiginificant issue.

It seems to me that it was quite successful, though I didn't learn about it until I'd wormed my way into the skeptics. However, since then I've found myself having conversations with colleagues and friends about it, so it has reached a wider audience than SitP alone, and I'm sure others also found this.]

Dogmas of the Skeptic Society

- We all know each other! [Skeptics can be a bit incestuous, but I usually meet at least one new person at each event. It depends on your reasons for going and what kind of person you are as to what your experience will be; again I'll come back to that later**]

- People are elevated to God status and become immune to criticism (Dawkins etc.)

- Others (people and ideas) are reduced to demons

- Some things are assumed to be unworthy of debate because of knowledge and understanding not everyone has.

Frank praised the ‘communication skills’ of American evangelist Billy Graham, who has advised 12 US presidents and spoken to more than 2.2 billionpeople; he gives a positive message [not sure I entirely agree with that] and doesn’t tell people they’re stupid. He’s convincing and charismatic; a great communicator. Why can’t we follow this positive model? [Again, I'll come back to this*. @medtek said: My assessment of last night's #WestSkep - Agreed with some of it. Disagree with Billy Graham analogy. Felt a bit preached to, usual for SITP]

He gave examples of utterly vitriolic, ad hominem attacks from the skeptical sphere; which I (and most others) join him in condemning. It’s unproductive and certainly not what I personally condone or consider acceptable. One or two in the room did see fit to prove his point, though, by claiming it’s funny.

Regarding the recent Gillian McKeith fiasco, he questions the success of it; she’s just been chased off Twitter. She’s still got 10 books, it’s just that now her stuff doesn’t reach us. Is that the goal of many, to shield themselves from things they disagree with?

Bullying people out of the sphere is more of a ‘weed-whacker’ than ‘weed-away’ strategy; it doesn’t tackle the root of the problem.

You should empathisewith people [something I totally agree with; I do believe a well-developed sense of empathy is the best way to be a 'good' person, in the general sense] and understand them. For example, parents want to protect kids and avoid danger, so their fears need to be addressed in order to convince them.

Who’s in the club and who’s put off? The format of presenting to people at SitP, for example, can be intimidating. We should invite the people who do/use the things we criticise but for all the above reasons, it’s difficult to achieve.

[Talking to a long-term attendee afterwards, this used to happen. Perhaps word has got out and people are afraid. To be honest I don't blame them; I'd never volunteer to go and speak to a room full of PETA members, for example; I'd probably get stabbed on the way out. Not that we're at all stabby, you understand.]

Woo” is the closest thing the skeptics have to the N-word

It’s born of intolerance, prejudice and hatred, describing other people’s beliefs based on your prejudices and leads to write-offs. [We've all used it, Frank included as he admitted. There are arguments to be made regarding the value of ridicule in tackling certain ideas, but I don't think I'll go into it here. I'm thinking of things like the Mohammed cartoons/Achmed the dead terrorist].

How do we face these challenges?

- reach more people?

- improve our communications skills?

- be more inclusive?

Ask “What can I do, as a skeptic, to be a better person?

So ended the talk, to great applause (“maybe more than Prof. Brian Cox”, Jack of Kent joked). Tom Morris shares his views on the talk here and the list of Tweets is here.

I wonder…

* Here I’ll come back to why people are ‘skeptics’ and, perhaps, why we find it difficult to change the way we communicate. Personally, something I value most above all else is truth; honesty. My view of overly-emotional, sensationalist arguments is that they’re generally dishonest. Using anecdotes may be convincing but it’s not necessarily accurate. A lot of people’s problem with snake-oil merchants is the lies, twisted-truths and sneaky tactics used to convince others. We don’t want to lower ourselves to that level. I don’t want to, anyway.

After the talk I spoke with Roger and Joe and we agreed it was important to get some perspective.

** Can’t we compare skeptics (in the pub) to other groups who get together, meet new people, have social events, make friends, have a laugh etc.? It’s a personal experience and people have varied reasons for attending. Skeptics in the Pub isn’t really a public engagement exercise (to continue a Twitter conversation I was having earlier) – otherwise it wouldn’t be in the pub.Gimpy mused on this recently.

 

Making use of locking myself out of the flat one evening  

 I don’t think any other group sits around wondering if its activities are morally justifiable; can’t see bridge clubs or trainspotters brainstorming ideas on becoming more inclusive, for example. Do we really have toapologise for wanting to make friends who share our ideals, with whom we can have fairly deep conversations and a good laugh? Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t hold each other to account – far from it. Criticise away. But keep the perspective.

Personally, I did not want to move to London, I had few friends outside work and my flat and was pretty depressed about everything. Skeptics is a niche I’ve taken to and it’s played a big part in making me feel better about myself and improving my social life. I’ve met some truly brilliant people, which I’m very grateful for, and now I love living here (yes, you’re excused to go and vomit). I’ve never really had friends who appreciated my cynical nature and it was even actively discouraged by my partner at university, sometimes friends too. All contributed to my being quite miserable, to say the least.

I agree we need to be introspective if we’re to avoid being hypocritical, but I don’t think people should criticise things like SitP for not being inclusive. It’s a grass-roots thing, anyone’s free to do any skeptic event they want – no one owns it, it’s not a brand. Let’s go to the park, to a coffee shop, do it at the créche if you’re a mum, away from bars if you’re muslim. As you want!

I also highly recommend this article. To quote from it:

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

I find this particularly fascinating because of the analogy to antibiotics. Are some of the skeptics’ tactics exerting some evolutionary pressure on the kinds of ideas we seek to counteract, the memes if you like, and strengthening their hold? Is it time to step back and let natural selection take its course?

The problem is, sometimes I feel like this wouldn’t be the right thing to do – I recently posted a Quackometer article on Facebook about a homeopathic organisation promoting their ‘malaria treatment’ in Kenya. A friend said it was

just darwinism in action, let it take its course…

To which I said

No it isn’t, it’s exploitation and manslaughter of the ignorant, desperate and impoverished. It’s not funny and it’s not people getting what they deserve.

I don’t think we can, in good conscience, leave everything behind. Nor was Frank suggesting we do. But it’s probably time to reassess the effectiveness of our methods.

Discussion

Possibly the longest Q&A I’ve ever witnessed.

Have you considered context? Is it really a ‘Goldilocks’ situation of getting it just right? There are other situations e.g. 1) Litigious people/organisations. Facing down threats of litigation to open debate. 2) Regulators (ASA/TS) – telling them there are no facts presented can lead to success. - Jack of Kent

No there isn’t a one-size-fits-all to skepticism/engagement etc. Robust defences are sometimes necessary but not ad hom insults. What do you mean by success?

Do we need a bit of Leninism? [Lenin wrote Что делать? (Shto d'elat'? - What is to be done?) - naturally, I loved the Russia reference!]

We are knee-deep in ‘woo’ – the government, the Sun newspaper. Should we not make policy changes to ensure a better future, an educated populous?

Why do we assume evidence-based thinking is the best way? Why force our view on others? Exploitation is an issue.

The thing that bothers me most is the tone and the insults. Subtleties of the position are ignored.

What do we do when we find members of our own community ‘behaving badly’? We don’t like to ‘speak out against the mothership’ – but we should just point it out.

Leninism isn’t very pleasant!

We’re in danger of getting into the ‘People’s front of Judaea/Judaean People’s Front’ argument here [watch Monty Python's Life Of Brian if you don't get this! Actually, watch it anyway].

I’m religious, I know homeopaths etc. – the exclusivity and intolerance means you throw away potential ‘members’

One question I didn’t really catch the drift of (only question mark I got was at the end of “How does one engage with… everything?) but what the overall gist seemed to hint at was

Should we employ spin-doctor tactics?

Which goes back to what I was saying about dishonesty. This makes me uncomfortable.

Frank: We need to understand why people should care first.

How do we take people from being wrong to being right, without too much pain?

Be careful assuming they’re wrong in the first place! Understand!

Should skepticism be more considerate of people’s circumstances, like feminism? For example people with childcare commitments, disabilities etc.

Again I’d go back to the point about starting skeptical stuff anywhere. Sure, pubs aren’t for everyone, but they’re for a lot of people! Otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular. People are welcome to cater to other audiences should the ‘market’ exist.

If stories are better than facts, why did Gillian McKeith pretend to have a PhD and why do cosmetics employ the ‘science!!’ tactic?

Science is the benchmark of truth in society; it’s a ‘clothing’ of fact [I've discussed this weird double-standard before].

Regarding how to challenge people, I have two approaches

1) Socratic Questioning – lead people along a reasoned path while showing interest, without being confrontational.

2) Comment when people are dicks [re: skeptic ad homattacks]! So that others see and know people disagree with it.

See this blogpost for more on his ideas.

Is skepticism really a ‘movement’?[Example slide, right - Frank showed a lot of exerpts from emails/Twitter DMs he'd received prior to the talk]

Most of us would, I expect, say no.

There are at least 3 approaches to a campaign, including changing policies, winning over the base and new people. It’s legitimate to go with policy and evidence-based argument with respect to policy-makers. - Evan Harris

Support the non-scientists!

One humanities graduate in attendance (of which there are many, I’d say at least 30% of the room!) recalls her introduction to skeptical issues by the likes of Dara O’Briain and Tim Minchin. I completely agree; comedy and other popular non-scientific areas are also valuable fora for communication.

Background

Frank used to write a ‘zine‘ entitled War on Error, thinking that was a brilliantly clever title; but made the unfortunate discovery in 2004 that all the internet media of that name had already been taken. So, clever but not original. Thus was Sciencepunk born.

He hasn’t left scienceblogs as a part of the “Pepsigate” mass exodus

because I love the free Pepsi too much

He used to be part of Sense About Science too and created Gavin Henson’sHuman Guinea Pig, which was described as “Monkey tennis TV”, apparently – I’m not even sure what that means… Oh, wiki to the rescue as usual.

Also in attendance was the now-famousCouncillor John Dixon (who’s a thoroughly nice bloke, by the way), awaiting his disciplinary hearing in about 1 month.

Sorry it’s so long; this is one of the most thought and discussion-provoking talks I’ve seen so far! It’s still going strong in the Twittersphere. Thanks for reading!

(I might add some Youtube videos if I bother to edit out the excessive swearing!)

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