Archive for the ‘ Atheism ’ Category

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.


QED – a great excuse to do even more

If you follow either me or #qedcon on twitter, you may have noticed that I was at a big geeky conference this weekend.

First up, a quick review:

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Great speakers, a range of interesting and challenging subjects, well organised, and a wonderful crowd. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with an interest in interesting things.

If I ever get round to it there are a load of different subjects that I saw talks on that I could write about, but I doubt I will.

One thing really strikes me though: we should do this more.

The Skeptics in the Pub network has grown hugely over the last few years, and there are groups all over the UK. These vary hugely, both in the scale of the events and the resources available. I have been at both ends of this, setting up and running Lancaster Skeptics as a one man band while working full time at the other end of the country, before moving south and getting involved in the original London Skeptics and the new Soho Skeptics, both of which have several people involved, an established audience, and enough resources to be able to aim high.

QED was all that is good about the Skeptics in the Pub network writ large, not least because it is a collaborative effort between two of the countries most active groups, the Merseyside Skeptical Society and the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society. I think over 400 people attended, and tickets sold out well in advance, and I believe there was a waiting list.

The impression I got was that there was plenty of enthusiasm amongst all the attendees for more events, and everyone is already complaining that there is 13 months to go.

So why don’t we take all that great work, and copy it or build on it elsewhere? I think the community is big enough, and growing enough, to sustain another equivalent event elsewhere, probably at a different time of year. Edinburgh puts on the Skeptics on the Fringe, which is a brilliant piece of work, rightly recognised at the Ockham’s this year, but I think that is specific to the area and time. London did have The Amazing Meeting a few years ago, which was an import from the James Randi Educational Foundation, and I think London is probably the natural place to go next.

I don’t know how this would work really – the QED team have clearly done an excellent job, but there is only so much they can do for free while still having time to sleep (and I get the impression organising QED takes a huge amount of effort), and they are all based in the North West. There are 5 Skeptics in the Pub groups in London alone, many more in the South East, and a wide range of other related organisations. However, the QED team have demonstrated their own value too well to be left out.

I think the important bit, if there are to be more events on this scale, is that they co-ordinate and work together. I think I’m being pulled into thinking that there should be a single organising body that supports two (or more) big events a year, and supports grassroots skepticism throughout the rest of the year. At a guess, I would imagine two successful events a year could fund a massive increase in quality skeptical activism, but there would need to be a way of channelling this in a way that made some strategic sense.

So, I guess I think British skepticism should be thinking about a way to organise itself a bit to achieve three ends – put on more events of this scale, co-ordinate better between local groups, and share resources out better.

I don’t know if there is any remnant politics from the last TAM or between different groups that I am not aware of, and I have no intention at all of stepping on anyone’s toes, and I don’t care. I just think we should use the inspiration and example of a wonderful weekend to push on.


Skeptical activism and atheist militancy. Labels part 2

I argued last time that atheism is the natural conclusion of rational consideration of the evidence available. Today I am going to think about how we use these terms in activism. I am, or try to be, a skeptical activist. Here I am thinking about the relationship between that position and the term militant atheist. It’s my position that ‘militant’ atheism, in the non-violent sense, is just one instance of skeptical activism.

First, there needs to be some clear and defined goals of skeptical activism. You may want all people to be rational all the time, you may want the complete abolition of all religion, or you may want legal restrictions on beliefs people have. Of course, basically nobody does want this, and these are straw men. I will try to articulate what I want skeptical activism to achieve.   Continue reading

Is atheism the skeptical position? Labels part 1

Recently, I seem to have been getting into or watching some pretty interesting discussions about a number of fairly related topics, so I’ve decided I might write a small series of related posts. I have been identifying as an atheist, a skeptic, a liberal, a socialist and a feminist. Had the need arisen, I would be happy to identify as an egalitarian of any flavour, or a form of utilitarian.

This has made me think a bit about the labels we apply to ourselves, what they mean, and the extent to which they overlap. Once we know what we are doing with the labels, we can start to think when, how and whether we want to use them at all.

I would split the labels I apply to myself into two broad camps, rationalist and empathetic. There are the labels that stem from my rationalist approach, and which tend to be used together. The key examples of these are skeptic and atheist, which are definitely related positions, but I certainly don’t think are interchangeable. Those that I think of as empathetic are my political leanings and ethical views. Although I believe they have logical construction, they are founded on a value judgement that the experience of the world that people have matters, and matters equally.

Here I’ll talk about the rationalist labels, and how and whether we should differentiate them.

Continue reading