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!