Skeptical About Skeptics

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?

i-202bf86c0408f649ac4279792aa6e782-charts and graphs.jpg

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?


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


More like this

"I don't label myself a skeptic." (Frank Swain)

Nevertheless, Frank, you have proved by your behaviour and your attempt of "critique of scepticism" that you are just a skeptic... ;)

"First of all, there is no "skeptical community" in any organised sense. Its anarchic nature is, for me, one of its attraction." (David Colquhoun)

David exactly noticed. Anarchy! And it is fair to say that Frank's efforts to usurp the power in skeptic's anarchic crowds has failed... :P

By Svetlana Pertsovich (not verified) on 09 Aug 2010 #permalink

Have you deleted my comment, Frank? ;)


Your reaction proves that your are weak skeptic-crip :)
No. You will not a leader in this business. And don't dance a twist before David Colquhoun ;) It is useless. He will never cede his power to you. Yes, he says about "anarchy". But it is merely because HE is a leader among your skeptic crowd. And none of you (neither Ben Goldacre nor Alan Henness, neither Evan Harris nor Jack-of-Kent, neither you nor anybody else) will be a leader higher than David Colquhoun! :P

He is "Akela" in your pack of wolves... :) And you will wait loooooong when grey wolf will miss....

By Svetlana Pertsovich (not verified) on 09 Aug 2010 #permalink

Thanks for writing this, Frank - it's good to finally have your voice in the debate that's sprung up around you as a result of the talk!

Important that you can clarify points that you may have been misquoted/misunderstood on etc. Such is the wonder of the blogosphere I guess.

Re: opening up skeptics events/reconsidering SitP format - I have thought sometimes that the talks can be a bit too long.

I always try to arrive quite early to talk to people (and get a decent seat) and usually end up staying later than I planned. That's because I go to see my friends and to make new ones, the talk is kind of a bonus.

Perhaps if the talk were a little bit shorter with a bit more time for discussion before questions, the whole event would be a bit more enticing for newbies.

I'd be interested to hear speakers' views on this - was it hard to squish what you wanted to say into the time slot, or would it be nicer to have a shorter 'presentation' maybe with longer 'group discussion' or time to mingle?

A lot of speakers get swamped after the talk and people from further afield have to rush for trains etc.

So I reckon there might be some merit in that, depending on what everyone else thinks :)

While appreciating some of your points, they seem to me to be greatly exaggerated

First of all, there is no "skeptical commumity" in any organised sense. Its anarchic nature is, for me, one of its attraction. There are no rules, no list of things which you must believe in order to join. Just a lot of free thinkers who may well have overlapping beliefs but who are all doing their own thing.

I find it hard to believe that meetings like Skeptics in the Pub are as daunting as you make out. Cerianly I have met a lot of people there, including women a third of my age, who are introduced, or who introduce themselves, and who seem quite happy to talk about matters of mutual interest. It is no more daunting than going into any other room where you don't know any of the people at the party. That can always be difficult if youi are shy.

I think that you also mistake the targets. My aim at least is to influence governmet ministers and vice-chancellors. It isn't to attack individual homeopaths or whatever (unless, of course, they are killing people) and it certainny isn't my intention (or that of anyone else that I know) to attack the customers who use homeopathy. The chances of ever converting a homeopath are negligible and the chances of converting their customers is even slimmer. On the other hand. vice-chancellors can be converted (though sadly public ridicule seems to be what works with them, rather than reasoned argument).

Although I may write about the topic in a fairly aggressive way, whenever an alternative medicine advocate leaves a comment on the blog, or writes to me (sometimes very abusively), I try to answer in a polite and conciliatory way, and I think most other people who write on the topic do the same.

I think your talk also showed some confision between skeptics on one hand, amd public engagement in science on the other. These are different aims, and they are done by different (if overlapping) groups of people. I agree with Goldacre that sometimes bad science can be a good way of explaining what good science is. A lecture on the importance of randomistaion is not going to get the public very excited, but explaing what can go wrong when you don't randomise may be much more engaging. Perhaps that is why Goldacre's column and blog have a very much greater readership than straight science sites, especially those that are run by government or by univsrities as a PR excercise for the institution.

I attended my first SITP meeting recently, I found them very welcoming.
I'm female and in my early 20s, it never crossed my mind that I would be meeting a bunch of middle aged men. I didn't, the numbers were near 50/50.

I did find the idea of going to a pub a bit daunting at first, but it was held in a lovely relaxing pub, without music blaring.

Although I do agree with the facts aren't everything argument, or the Dawkins approach to skepticism. You can explain the faults in homeopathy without being rude.

I guess I'm taking my own steps by changing my tactics when I do protest (such as the AVN lecture) and with the people I network with. Next year I hope to do a communications degree, focusing on a few science communication units. I'd suggest more people who are hoping to measure efficacy, et al, get in touch with people like Michael 'Tribal Scientist' McRae and Alom Shaha, and attend workshops or units in communication skills, sci comm or public speaking, which are available in a variety of forms.

All of us still have a lot to learn - particularly from those already in the system who have the same goals and have already 'been there' or are already running initiatives that we just don't know about. Often we assume too much in that regard:
'No one else is doing this, it's up to us!!!'
'Er, actually, there's a two-million dollar government campaign already funded and a team of publicists preparing a report in conjunction with the Health Department to reflect the issues and run it in a specially printed feature in the state newspaper, and a free seminar at the local hospital to directly target the audience who need it the most, in a non-judgmental fashion...'
'Oh, we should have someone from our out-of-state skeptical group on their hospital seminar to represent the skeptics!'
'...what makes you think they'd welcome that??'

"I think that you also mistake the targets. My aim at least is to influence governmet ministers and vice-chancellors."

That's nothing but hubris. Effecting public policy in a democracy is only as powerful as public support lets it be. You will never be able to counteract harmful practices such as homepathy when it has more public support than you. Those ministers and vice-chancellors still have to get elected, and unfortuntely (as you admit), reasoned arguments do not win them over as much as public outcry. So as much as you can turn your nose up at persuading Joe Public, they have to be engaged with in order to change things. That, I think, is the point.

I think that the post is reasonable, but i think that there has been an overly defensive attitude from many of the skeptic bloggers.. I don't think Frank is advocating a mass withdrawal from the idea of scientific skepticism. Just an examination and thoughfulness about the ways that we present said skepticism.

It is not enough to present a graph, come up with a hashtag or snicker at one another as we make fun of people. There has to be a thoughful approach taken to every argument. CAM merchants have framed the debate using a considered lexicon that skews arguments in the public sphere (choice, alternative, compimentary etc) that we cannot possibly address without adopting something similiar. Facts are not persuasive on their one. "The plural of anecdote is not data" - this is true, but they're not mutually exlusive. We need to keep the facts but add coherent and persuasive argumentation geared towards engaging those who are not already part of the "skeptic community".

If skepticism is to move beyond a twitter talking shop of scientists and rationalists, it has to start raising its' public profile. While I don't agree that #ten23 was a failure in this regard, I think that it did fetishise the idea that it is medically ineffective. Thats only persuasive to people who believe that its medical efficacy is something that can be proven. Richard Dawkins got such a high profile because he outlined the harm of the existence of religion within society at all. He bypassed the whole "you cant prove whether God exists or not argument" by simply stating the concrete harms to scientific progress and society of the existence of religion. I don't agree with Dawkins, but I think that a more nuanced approach to campaigning would benefit things like #ten23. It is possible to have more than one argument, and to use arguments that are not backed up by tables and graphs, in addition to the factual arguments. The best debaters can use a combination of fact and emotion.

As I've said previously (comments here), I agree with the generalities of Frank's argument, but dispute some of the specifics.

I think it would be interesting to extend this critical reflection into who it is you want to reach out too. To paraphrase Lincoln, you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so I think it is inevitable that any activity is going to alienate somebody. This is why, in my opinion, I would separate the unwelcomeness some feel from the skeptical community into two categories.

1. Those who hold a general skeptical outlook but feel unwelcome because skepticism traditionally operates outside of their cultural milieu, so that the prospect of boisterous alcohol fuelled discussion is unappealing. They may even hold views they know are unscientific, particularly with respect to religion and don't fancy the prospect of a tedious debate they've no doubt had many times before about the evidence for a god.

This group I think is excluded from much skeptical activity they might otherwise like to get involved with.

2. True Believers. This group are firm in their beliefs, and no amount of arguing, rational or emotional, is going to change their minds. If their mind does change then it is likely to be as a sudden Damascene conversion rather than persuasion.

It is this latter group who get upset the most in public by skeptical activity and are probably the target of most of the upsetting behaviour you have identified. I think it is unlikely that skepticism will ever manage to reach out to this group, and it probably wouldn't be skepticism if it ever did.

However, other communities may judge skeptics on how they respond to those that they oppose and this needs to be remembered, but I hate to say this, and it goes against what I generally believe, but nastiness and deceit can be very effective tools. Frank cites various political campaigning groups, whether formalised parties, or issue specific concerns, as examples of effective outreach, but these groups are notorious for lying, deceiving and/or dissembling in the name of their cause. They don't do this because they are evil, but because they have a belief, not just in the rightness of their cause, but that the ends justify the means and that inconvenient observations can be ignored.

This is something I believe the broad skeptical community (including those who would prefer to maintain a polite distance) generally don't do. The criticism, whether polite with tea and cake or ferocious with bile and expletive, tends to be offered from a position that the critic is willing to caveat and clarify.

Perhaps the reputation of skepticism can be increased by making this clear?

I must admit to being erm, skeptical about Frank's talk having only seen the Twitter feedback etc, having not been there on the night. I'm already quite uncomfortable with the idea that skepticism has to be "campaigning" at all, and so was a bit reluctant to be criticised for something I didn't want to do anyway. However after reading this essay I think he is basically correct in most of his assertions.

I do think the criticism of SiTP for being unwelcoming is well out of date though. It certainly used to be like that in the old days. I stopped attending for years after growing fed up of a room of "middle aged men" taking the piss out of speakers seemingly invited for this purpose. He'll be embarrassed at me saying so, but a huge amount of credit is due to Sid Rodrigues for turning SiTP into the welcoming and inclusive success it is today.

We should remember though that this is just an event in a pub set up by somebody. It isn't a skeptical party diktat. If somebody feels uncomfortable going to a pub meeting, then they should certainly set up a Skeptics in a coffee shop meeting, invite a speaker, and send out invites. I'd go along.

One other thing Frank. You mention a number of more effective campaigning organisations, some of whom think nothing of lying to further their message or aims. Is this really better?

I really think you're being too hard on facts. I have no interest in people's behaviours, as long as their choices are free and not ones born of delusion.

From left to right, this is like when Dawkins refuses to discuss the morality of evolution: he isn't "laying out the battleground in a way that will best suit [him]"; he's refusing to be sidetracked by irrelevant strawmen.

From right to left, if the goal of skeptical writing is to promote critical thinking then convincing someone not to use homeopathy using an anecdote is a loss. They're great emotional hooks, and it's wonderful if we have the power to change someone's mind about homeopathy, but we should be able to do it by discussing acupuncture.

It shouldn't be all about facts, but it should be about why facts are important, and specifically why they're more important than anecdote.

I also attended my first SITP meeting. It was a little hard to understand the structure in the first few minutes. But then I found a table with a nice couple and asked if I could sit. They were very friendly and we had the most excellent conversation.

Not everyone is quite so brazen as me, I know. So here's something simple I'd propose: set up a table for "newbies" or "flying solo" folks. A walmart-style greeter might have been nice.

@David Hartery

Please check your facts. It is not just hubris. All five honours BSc cousres in homeopathy were closed down after I revealed what nonsense they were teaching, and the VC of the Univerity of Central Lanacashire got a flea in his ear from the Information Tribunal after he tried, unsuccesfully, to conceal what they were teaching. By the time the battle to get the material was won, UCLAN had closed down not only its homeopathy degree but also all the rest of its degrees in junk science.

The fact is that blooging can get results in the real world, I wouldn't spend so much time on it if that were not the case. It may be surprising but the facts are their. I first realised the power of blogs when I ran some crude html pages in 2002, when Imperial tried to take over UCL. It took only five weeks to stop the whole daft idea, partly because of some big name supporters, but mainly because we could reveal things that the two VCs in question would have liked to keep secret

Thanks for writing about your talk, this is a perfect example of where blogging about something is useful - to share an idea to others that are interested or embarking on a similar thing.

I am looking at setting up a SiTP in my city, there's currently nothing like this and I thought it would be a good way of getting like minded people together and also a good way of meeting new people (I moved here quite recently and have struggled quite a bit to meet people outside work etc as there is a lack of events going on!).I want our Skeptics meetings to be inclusive and good fun! I also blog, mostly just to share ideas, I am new to this whole idea of skepticism and I recognise there are problems with it, but I think that sharing ideas is a good thing and if the skeptics platform is used properly (rather than just for name calling) it could be extremely useful.

"The fact is that blooging can get results in the real world, I wouldn't spend so much time on it if that were not the case. It may be surprising but the facts are their"

I have checked my facts. You can provide anecdotes, but where is large scale change? Where is an actuality of *any* political party living up to evidence based science, like they claimed in manifestos? Where is homeopathy funding on the NHS being cut? where is a reduction in the number of people trusting in CAM and other ineffective treatments?

Also, I didnt say blogs never did anything. Just feel that blogs are limited in what they can acheive.

Honestly. You can't change people's minds by force but that is what the current environment is. From my experience, the more a person has their own beliefs aggressively challenged the more they will want to keep them. Compromise in the form of trying to understand where the other side is coming from followed by efforts to meet them on their turf tends to help build the trust needed to them have meaningful discussion rather than shouting matches.

I'm probably a very touchy feely skeptic. I know that for individuals the gentle approach seems to make them more open to talking. Even in the classroom, the teachers you eat up every word from are the ones who are willing to come down to your level even though they have the authority to not need to. They want to engage you more than they explicitly want to make you see their point. They are also people who joyfully approach their subject matter--they love what they are doing and you cannot help but want to do it too.

and--crap I missed this when I was re-reading. I meant to say:
Compromise...tends to build the trust needed for them have meaningful discussion rather than shouting matches.

@David Hartery
They are not anecdotes. I suggest you search my blog for UCLAN, University of Salford, University of Westminster, Napier University etc etc

Politicians have proved harder than universities, but it is simply not true to say that homeopathic funding hasn't been cut. One homeopathic hospital has shut altogether, and finding has been reduced considerably for the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital. All this information is easily found on the web.

I think you are being far too pessimistic about what blogs can achieve, and that's a pity if it discourages people for trying for themselves.

Loved the podcast of your talk, Frank, although I think you could have been more persuasive with the addition of a few more supporting points from both a psychological and communications perspective.

I think one of the things many strident skeptics don't understand is that there's a difference between the marketers of homeopathy and alternative medicines and the consumers. The cynicism needs to be saved for the marketers. In order to win over the consumers, you have to get some insight into their mindset, which comprises at least two distinct elements: a mistrust of alleopathic medicine because of the aggressive and often unscrupulous marketing efforts of Big Pharma (think Thalidomide or any another drug that's been recalled after being touted as THE CURE) and a knowledge base that includes some actual information. Willow bark DOES contain ASA and if you boil up some of it and drink it as tea, your headache probably *will* go away. Then there's the leech cures, which have been in, out and back in favour again (although admittedly leeches aren't being used in the same ways they used to be as a general cure-all). The conclusion of many who haven't studied science at the post-secondary level is that doctors and pharmacologists don't really know it all, so why trust them implicitly when that nice lady you work with tells you HER arthritis was cured by ingesting shark cartilage?

On a psychological level though, many of the most strident skeptics seem to have forgotten the old axiom that the person who loses their temper or shouts first in any argument is ultimately the one who loses the argument - because it indicates you've abandoned any attempt to persuade and are seeking dominance.

@Ruth Seeley
Are there not some straw men in your argument? I have never seen a skeptic lose their temper. On the contrary, when talking to users and true-believers they have always been kind.

Marketers and vice-chancellors are a different matter, but even for them I have never seen a lost temper, nor any shouting, just a bit of well-deserved blunt speaking.

I suspect that many of Frank's criticisms are aimed at behaviour that I have never seen.

@David Colquhoun I think Frank covered that point when he discussed the term 'woo' - a clear expression of contempt (and frankly a little reminiscent to me of the way some gay men used to refer to heterosexual men as 'breeders.') And yes, I have seen and read many 'strident skeptic' rants on both blogs and Twitter, extremely hostile challenges that amount to attempts neither to persuade nor to engage but to intimidate and beat into intellectual submission.

@Ruth Seeley
Certainly some writing, including some of mine may be quite strongly worded. but, at least among the people I read, it is based on thorough reading of the evidence. I don't apologise for bringing up the matter of evidence, because that's what it's about. I disapprove strongly of PR ("Paid lying") in other contexts, and I'm not about to do it myself.

I think you are not being clear about the targets. At the risk of repeating myself, most of us are not aiming at homeopaths, still less are we aiming at their customers. We are aiming at the people with power to do something about it, and we are aiming at companies who make large amounts of money from lies. We are also trying to press those responsible for enforcing the law (like Trading Standards) to do the job they are paid for.

Partly it is a question of what works. Rational argument is, in my experience, impossible with people like homeopaths because they simply don't accept the usual rules. It's a waste of time and I don't even try it, though if challenged I always respond to them calmly and courteously (and frequently get abuse in return).

You'd imagine that rational argument might work with vice-chancellors, but sadly it doesn't (that's a commentary on how corrupt academia can be at times). They do, however, respond to public ridicule.

Finally, to say one shouldn't use words like 'woo' strikes me as political correctness gone mad. It is the sort of thing you might hear from your HR department (and one can't say much worse than that). That is exactly how woo managed to penetrate universities in the first place. I don't think there is the slightest analogy between 'woo' and 'gay'. One is irrational, often illegal and sometimes kills people, The other is a personal choice of lifestyle. They are utterly different.

@NO ONE [because these sub conversations regularly devolve into tit for tat point proving drivel, which I consider to be one of the negatives of forums/blogs] - I feel to reach out to the masses, like good politicians, one needs to be warm and reassuring. You can bash facts all you like, and you may win a few battles along the way, but ultimately most people want to feel safe and comforted by guidance - no matter how reliable the source.

@David Colquhoun Sorry to find you disapprove of my profession, of HR practitioners and of administrators. I won't dignify the implication that anyone could pay me to lie with a response - after all, I have my own prejudices - I'm not overfond of dermatologists for instance, or insurance salespeople.

The analogy was actually between use of the term 'woo' by strident skeptics and 'breeder' by gay men when referring to heterosexual men, David, and I think that was quite clear. Woo is clearly derogatory and is meant to be both dismissive and derogatory. As is the term breeder. Your suggestion that being gay is 'a personal choice of lifestyle' did provide me with an unexpected giggle today - thanks for that.

And @Reef, yes I agree with you. I left a comment to applaud Frank's courage in saying some of the things many of us who ARE actually both sceptics and firmly in the evidence-based camp think - and have said before - and have been attacked for saying. That's life in the global village, I guess.

@Ruth Seeley
Aha I suspected you might be HR, and I guess I should have checked. Just one thing though, it is PR that I described as paid lying, not HR.

I'm not sure what it is that amused you about 'personal lifestyle choice'. What would you prefer?

I fear, though, that when woo penetrates the better universities, it usually comes in via HR. I had a big piece about that in Times Higher Education, which might (or might not) interest you

There was a good example recently at University of Leicester
That did eventually work out but it took a lot of effort (see ).

At the moment I'm working (rather slowly)on a big article on "wellbeing". I'm trying to sort out how much is (well-meaning) psychobabble (or worse) and how much, if any, might actually do some good. I'll be interested to hear your opinion if I ever finish it.

@David Colquhoun I'm a public relations practitioner, David, and a single click through on my name in posted comments would have told you that.

From the albeit very limited research I have done, one does not 'choose' to be gay, so for an eminent researcher to describe being gay as a 'personal lifestyle choice' is very funny to me.

I look forward to reading your article - if you'd like my opinion on it, feel free to email me @

I think Frank's comments are long overdue and the proof is in some of the comments in this thread.
I've seen much worse though in the comments on "Bad Science", some of the stuff there I could only describe as bigotry. Lots of self-righteous macho posturing and hatred.
Regarding the "In the Pub" issue, many people will be turned off the idea of meeting in a pub due to the fact that alcohol is on sale there. Think carefully, there are several different reasons why this should be the case.
"Think carefully"... wasn't that a little bit arrogant?
Maybe it's an internet thing... I'm obviously a troll and should GET OFF THIS THREAD

I fully admit that I personally dislike a lot of people who call themselves "skeptics," but that's because I'm convinced that they do so for the same reasons a majority of Americans call themselves Christians: pretense. For skeptics, it's a pretense of intellectualism and superiority, and for American Christians, of spirituality and morality. In both cases, people just want to feel "special," and that's why we make groups. Groups BY NATURE are insular, and if you want to avoid that, you avoid getting too involved with groups.

On the other hand, I view skeptics all around as a breath of fresh air away from all of this accommodating, sterile, politically-correct bullshit, and I wouldn't change that for the world.

By codemenkey (not verified) on 17 Aug 2010 #permalink

@Mary: I agree about the meet and greet. Some of us discussed that after the meeting and decided to self-appoint as newbie welcomers (it may or may not be significant that everyone who approached me after some comments I made during the discussion to suggest this was female). I've done what I can when I was on the door at the Penderels and now there's no door list at the Monarch I can loiter near the bar to try and spot lone newbies. They're not always easy to spot when a lot of people turn up but I did meet two new women last time and introduced them to a few regulars. Maybe we should have badges - meet skeptics now, ask me how (or is everyone here too young to remember that reference?).

There's another element that Frank didn't mention, which is choosing your battles. Is it really worth upsetting someone you don't know and possibly everyone else at a social event when they start talking about something factually or medically wrong, for example? Having a go at someone just for the sake of showing you know more is behaviour I've seen in some skeptics. It's important to be humane. Kicking away someone's crutch isn't very helpful or productive.

Another thing is that some skeptics don't have great social skills and don't realise they're doing anything wrong. Some of them think that arguing is a form of flirting.

In general, it might help if we all remembered when we were new and didn't know much. We all have weak spots where faith triumphs over evidence - even if it's looking in the mirror, sucking in your beer gut and thinking a black T shirt covers all sins. A little more empathy would make skepticism an easier sell. Does that sound too touchy feely? It doesn't detract from the message, just packages it differently and more palatably.

On the other hand, some people are just really really annoying in their smugness and wrongness and need a bit of a poke. In a caring way...

This article is a little condescending ("we need to be more persuasive when telling people how stupid and ignorant they are!") but basically, you're edging towards my critique.

"Are James Randi's followers a community of newbie-gankers?"

The communities of skeptics online are succumbing to animal impulses. They're addicted to frequent victories over weak opponents. They need easy prey.

@27 Jeremy

Sorry you think that's the case; in fact at the Westminster talk I specifically chided several people at the end who asked questions along those lines.

That was the point I was making when I said that people base their choices on more than facts and that we need to understand and respect those influences.

Heheh, typical nit picking to ensue after a skeptical related post :)

To the OP, never read your blog before but just came across this post, thanks for the interesting write up. I have recently lost almost all confidence in anyone who is a self proclaimed skeptic, or logical/critical thinker. I've watched my friends who were simply anti-religious turn into robotic arrogant jerks at times, just because they now have a safe haven for insecurities surrounding infinite possibilities, which is known to them as skepticism.
My views changed drastically after experiencing my first OBE, and I'm happy to say since then and other experiences, I'll gladly keep a calm and more open approach to peoples views. And in day to day routine I am getting much better at simply listening to others and helping them out, rather than putting them down with ego based arguments.

Great post and you made an enjoyable read for at least one individual :)

For people holding such importance to facts, I personally wouldn't hold them too close, whilst they are nice and seem concrete, as well as give us a grounds to base presumptions and further possibilities on, facts can often change.