Herding cats & Golden ducks

Originally written for The Heresy Club

Trying to organise skeptics is like herding cats – it’s an analogy I’ve heard many times. Often the only thing those who identify as skeptics have in common is their skepticism about certain subjects. People who identify as skeptics disagree about many things and, of course, those who are skeptics can be irrational about a number of things too…

Since becoming an active skeptic in 2007/2008 I have seen a number of attitudes that suggest skepticism should be done in one way or another, and that so many people are doing skepticism wrong, or for the wrong reasons. I absorbed those ideas and saw people doing skepticism wrong all around me, and I disproved of what so many did and said in the name of skepticism. I blamed others for making me feel as though I could no longer identify as a skeptic, or didn’t belong in a skeptical community. It was all very ridiculous of me because my aims, goals, and morals aren’t the same as other peoples, and I’ve no right to expect them to live up to my self set standards – just as others have no right to expect me to live up to theirs.

Although Skeptics in the Pub groups (SitP) don’t offer a true representation of skepticism within the UK, I’ve spoken for a number of SitP groups about modern ghost hunting since 2009, and something that becomes quite apparent after a while is just how unique different regional groups are – just as individual skeptics are different.

The way groups operate, the audience they attract, and the perception of them held by those who do not identify as skeptics all changes from group to group. Some SitP organisers want their groups to be attractive to people who don’t identify as skeptics, other organisers want their groups to be more diverse based on the gender, ethnicity, or age of their audience members, and some groups don’t worry too much about audience development, and let their groups ‘go with the flow’.

Due to these different priorities there is often much debate that surrounds what is the ‘right way’ for a SitP group to operate, and what the right and wrong things are to focus on. There have been sessions at UK skeptical conferences dedicated to thrashing out the wrongs and rights of SitP, with people walking away shaking their heads as though everyone else in the room ‘just doesn’t get it’, but what it really boils down to is individual skeptical groups catering to individual groups of skeptics. Something that many forget.

One example of the differences that people fail to see among these groups was demonstrated when the discussion online about harassment policies at skeptical events crossed over into the realm of SitP. Some organisers have such policies in place, some recently decided to put them in place, while others have stated they don’t believe their group needs such a policy.

At first I thought that it was pretty ignorant to suggest that your group was immune from harassment and inappropriate behaviour taking place, but then after thinking about my own experiences with different SitP groups I realised that it’s impossible to expect all of the groups to do the same things successfully when they’re all so different. What was the solution to this, I wondered, before realising that I don’t think there even needs to be a solution.

The Good Thinking Society recently asked the organisers of SitP groups whether they would help select the winner of the Golden Duck Award. The award will be given to one of three shortlisted candidates to highlight quackery in our society, and the winner will be selected by Skeptics in the Pub audiences. Yet, a friend who is the an organiser of a SitP group told me in confidence how much of a nightmare it was for them to even try to bring up the subject at their events without putting off half of their returning audience.

Their audience is an equal mix of those who identify as skeptics and those who don’t, and asking people to select a person to win an award for being a quack would push what felt like a skeptical agenda onto people who weren’t interested, so the organiser is question had decided to not bother, and to wonder whether their SitP group was even a candidate for the ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ title because of this. This concerned me, and I contacted Johnnie Shannon from the Good Thinking Society to see if this was a situation they had thought of when they decided to let SitP audiences choose the winner for the award. I asked whether the assumption had been made that all SitP groups were the same. Shannon explained:

[We] wanted to try and enhance the sense of community between disparate SitP groups by having an event in which many groups could partake if they so wished. We weren’t entirely sure at the start of the year how this would go down, so we emailed all the SitP conveners whose details we could find to ask their opinions. Of the 23 groups who replied, one was ambivalent, and one definitely did not want to be involved… All the other responses were enthusiastic and supportive. We took that as reason to proceed with the award.

Enhancing the sense of community between what was described as ‘disparate SitP groups’ is a noble cause, but is it such a terrible thing  if groups are so different from one another, and have different aims? It often seems as though skeptics are obsessed with fixing what works, and I don’t think that’s proactive. All sorts of people are skeptics, and skepticism is all sorts of things – and that’s okay!

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7 Comments to “Herding cats & Golden ducks”

  1. ♪ Kompani ♪ // 4 November, 2012 at 5:54 pm // Reply

    A huge strength of the skeptic community is it’s diversity not only in those who attend meetings, take an active on-line role or just sit back and let it happen but the backgrounds, gender and ethnicity of those who use the term skeptic for themselves. As soon as rules, constraints, compliance etc., are added then it becomes just another cosy club your either in or out of, similar to a church and congregation. I for one do not want that. I like to cast around, collecting information, adjusting my world view and adding to the debates as and when I feel appropriate and if I have something I think is worth saying. There are enough ‘rules’ and ‘constraints’ in the world without adding more. Excellent article, thanks for posting.

  2. I’m confused about why people who would be put off by skepticism are attending SITP. Isn’t that just “in the pub”?

    Why attend a group with “Skeptics” in the name and then ask for no skepticism?

    • Who said skeptical events are for those who agree with, or identify with skepticism only? They’re not, so that might be why people ‘attend a group with “skeptics” in the name”. Nobody, that I know of, is asking for ‘no skepticism’, and if that’s what you took from my post then that’s odd as what I wrote about was organisers across the country having to cater for different audiences. Even people who identify as skeptics don’t want to vote for people to win a quackery award.

      If you think there are absolutes – skeptic or not skeptic – then you’re very, very wrong.

    • Oh no, I think it is *great* that people who don’t identify as skeptics would attend these events. What I found weird was this part:

      “asking people to select a person to win an award for being a quack would push what felt like a skeptical agenda onto people who weren’t interested”

      It seems like this group at least is filtering the “skeptical agenda” out for fear of spooking the horses.

      I’m not suggesting one size fits all, I’m just confused about what’s going on.

    • Well the skeptical agenda bit was my wording and from nobody else. I also think a lot of people confuse Skeptics in the Pub as an activism group when really it’s just a public event at which skeptical topics are discussed. Any activism comes as a result of individuals involved with the group deciding to do x, y, or z. Those individuals don’t represent everyone who attends their SitP group – both non-skeptics and skeptics alike.

      Like I also said, the more groups I’ve spoken for, the more I’ve become aware of how SitP isn’t just for skeptics, and how the audiences are mostly a huge mix of people. If you wouldn’t want to make your audience comfortable to return then good for you, if you think catering your events to keep the same audience coming back is ‘spooking the horses’, then that’s quite dismissive.

    • Well I agree it is hard to accurately assess a situation I wasn’t there for. I may well have misunderstood what you were saying.

      There’s a big gap between “our group wouldn’t be interested in that” and “let’s not have overt skepticism” and I’m guessing this case is somewhere in the gap.

  3. I think skepticism is best carried alone, using your own intuitions and thoughts for finding truth and answers. Skepticism held inside a group — in my opinion — will be breed confusion, witch hunts, heated debate and arguments.

    I approach skepticism from a scientific, logical, and spiritual point of view. Use all these three tools together and over time, the right answers will become easier to find. If you don’t know — you don’t know! Its a simple and truthful answer offering a blissful hope to ignorance — and there’s nothing wrong with this.

    I used to be a skeptic and I still am. I was told to always be skeptical and on guard and always question what the eyes sees and the heart feels. The old art of chicanery is the skeptics worst fear, because deep down I think all skeptics want to believe — but arrogance, ignorance, and indoctrinated academia gets in the way with their quest for finding truth and the right type of answers.

    The fact that your own conscience is telling you something, revealing doubts, about the ‘Pub group’ could be your inner psyche passing on necessary messages, perhaps warning you that you will not find what you are looking for inside this type of environment– oh! That’s only if you believe.

    If you are a skeptic with an ‘either, or’ approach, you could be arguing the same facts for the rest of your life… up till death and get nowhere! Try using these words for exploring the unknown, maybe, possibly, very likely, unsure, could have been, it leaves the door open for healthy little dose of doubt or glimpses of light that something else maybe out there.

    I once exchanged a few emails with James Randi, the all-round arrogant nonbeliever. The fact is that I got several replies arguing that life does go on after death — perhaps showed that something inside my words interested him.

    I think its so simple and attracts to the very basics laws of logic really!

    For something to exist it must be created. Your house doesn’t just suddenly appear. The car you drive didn’t create itself — human beings with a highly complex production line of computer operated machinery created it with minerals from the earth, made the car you drive. Your laptap was created. Mankind created the chip and the ability to process.

    So, human life doesn’t just magically appear, it must be created. I told James Randi, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in higher existence or higher intelligence, supernatural beings, god, however you wish to label, when you are lying on your death bed, and the fact is, we all will one day, you’ll get the answers that you’ve been searching for then.

    The fact is you Mr. Randi, are searching for answers and truth, shows that you believe something is ‘out there’ and worth looking for.

    If ‘nothing’ really existed, and you truly believed this absurd notion, you wouldn’t waist your time and energy, and dedicating your life searching… for nothing.

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