Celebrity skeptics

I wrote this ages ago, and just got prompted into thinking about it by a recent news story. I meant to read it and edit it, but haven’t bothered. I can’t even remember if it was finished.

First up, I would like to get my little nerdgasm out of the way. This week I met a some geeky heroes of mine, and had a great couple of nights out. I saw the night of 200 billion stars, or Uncaged Monkeys, at Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, and hosted Simon Perry at Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub. A wonderfully geeky couple of days, and as nice a set of people as you could hope to meet. However, it did get me thinking a little about the role of ‘celebrity’, and especially in skepticism.

It seems that the common usage of celebrity now refers to anyone who appears or has appeared on TV, for whatever reason. I have no interest in the vast majority of this – I don’t care whether you qualified from tool academy, vajjazzled a princess, or slept with more than one footballer at once. For this discussion I am talking about people in and around science and skepticism who have become known by either doing science well, communicating science well, or debunking pseudoscience. All of these things should be celebrated, and with the advent of The Skeptic Awards, hopefully will be.

I have not been around very long, but it seems to me like the skeptical movement is making some real headway – there have been big wins in the advertising of alternative healthcare, live popular science shows are selling out large venues, and more and more blogs that give good scientific analysis of complex issues are springing up. Science TV shows and radio programmes are consistently among the highest consumed. It’s rarely, if at all, that science and critical thinking have had a bigger presence.

However, I am a little concerned that skepticism is developing a celebrity culture, in which people who are of note are not given the challenge the sometimes deserve. People are often led by the people they most respect, and there is a strong reason for this. If a particular source has shown over time to be reliable, honest and correct, it makes sense that you should tend to guardedly agree with them when talking about a topic you don’t understand or know enough about. However, this does not mean they are correct, just that the caveated assumption that they are correct is a reasonable working position until more information is known.

The reason I am mentioning any of this is because I have, over the last couple of weeks, noticed myself changing my mind without the evidence or arguments that I would expect myself to require. Recently, the Conservative government announced the plans to make public data available to pharmaceutical companies. My immediate reaction is to be distrustful of most things this government does, and especially around bringing private enterprise into public services. I was aware that I was being biased, but I disliked the proposal on instinct.

Then Ben Goldacre said something in praise of the move on Twitter. Immediately my perception of the situation changed. Admittedly this just shows that I have a bias toward believing Ben in addition to my bias toward disbelieving the Conservatives, but it is the bias at I am a little more concerned with. Tending to disbelieve until given adequate evidence is a safer position logically than tending to believe unquestioned, and it is this approach that is at the heart of skepticism.

I doubt very much that I am alone in this, but I think there is a potentially dangerous tendency to treat the most noteable skeptics as reverentially as religious groups do. Of course, our celebrities tend to have earned the right to have their positions respected by being involved somehow in science or science communication, but no more so than anyone else who has the equivalent expertise in the relevant area.

One of my main concerns is the unbalance that we see in the representation of science in the mainstream. There is a tendency to use a limited number of sources that you see approached in the media – if there is a hard physics breakthrough talk to Brian Cox, if there is interesting biology ask Attenborough, for medicine talk to Ben Goldacre, and so on. What I would like to see more of, and this is a point I have heard Neill DeGrass Tyson make, is the original researcher. Name and promote the people who do the work. This helps to make sure that the work is properly represented, as well as ensuring that too much credibility isn’t placed into one source.

Overall I am happy with the level of attention our best skeptics get, and think they do a good job, but I fear that we all get defined by a small number, and that we risk building our beliefs on them too much. I’m not sure this is a massive problem, and have tended to find that the skeptical community is quite happy to challenge itself, but it’s something I am aware of affecting my own views, and I’m sure subconsciously affects others too.

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