Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism

For me, skeptical activism is all about information and how it is communicated with the world. I’m a grassroots skeptic activist, so good activism is all about how rational information is shared – but how successful your skeptical activism is depends upon how you measure success.

Just getting someone to consider my point of view for a moment is a success in my mind (even if they’re not totally convinced by what I’ve said.) Some would say this is setting the bar low and that success for skeptical activism comes in the form of people turning their back on nonsense beliefs, but as a former believer in a few types of nonsense, I consider that to be a very big ask. The transition from believer to non-believer is a personal decision that takes a lot of consideration, especially if it is a long standing belief that has a lot invested in it.

Sometimes peoples whole lives are built upon the foundation of belief. 

At QEDcon this weekend Michael Marshall, Samantha Stein, Eran Segev and Susan Gerbic sat on a panel called Engaging Believers: Loud and Proud or Softly, Softly? exploring ways in which to approach activism while engaging with those who believe in the topic you’re opposing.

I guess that my personal form of skeptic activism would be considered ‘softly softly’. I use many methods to tackle nonsense claims; making complaints to the right authorities (Trading Standards, Advertising Standards etc.), speaking at events tailored towards believers, creating links with regional journalists and getting rational information included in paranormal-related news stories (or stopping hoaxes going to press in the first place), and making as much rational information available to the general public as I can.

Yet, I don’t think my skeptic activism isn’t ‘loud and proud’ either. I’ve participated in public stunts and demonstrations that call for an evidence based approach to health care etc. in compliment to the previously mentioned admin-type tasks. I do not believe that activism is either ‘softly, softly’ or ‘loud and proud’ and I think a mix of both approaches works if you judge it correctly. 

…unless, of course, by ‘loud and proud’ what we really mean is ‘aggressive’.

‘Guerilla Skepticism’ is the name that Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward (both speakers at QEDcon this year) would give to their own approach to skeptic activism, and after listening to them talk this weekend, it isn’t an approach that I find at all appealing. I also don’t think it is as productive as people would have us believe.

Although the tackling of pseudo-science on Wikipedia is admirable (Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia being one project of many headed up by Gerbic), the fashion in which it is done leaves many questions unanswered… as did Gerbic during her QEDcon talk about that very subject. For example, an audience member who is studying the way information is shared on Wikipedia questioned why the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group have a private (described as “secret”) forum away from Wikipedia if what they do isn’t agenda driven. This went unanswered with just “my editors only put out good stuff” given in response. If skeptics can’t get a straight answer is it any wonder that believers are wary of such a campaign?

During the Engaging Believers panel it was mentioned by Gerbic how there wasn’t much that could be done to change the minds of believers attending psychic shows and so it was about just shouting down the psychic instead and “letting them know there is a skeptic group in town and they’re [the psychic] not welcome there.” 

I dislike fake psychics and grief leeches as much as the next person (and trust me, it isn’t just skeptics who are opposed to psychic trickery), but I don’t want to censor them or chase them out of town. I want to help people spot psychic trickery and make the empowered decision to not attend a psychic show for themselves.

I think holding up banners (like the one pictured below) stating ‘Syliva Browne: convicted felon’ outside of Browne’s shows was done in poor taste considering her felony wasn’t connected to her psychic claims. We are routinely told that we can still trust Brian Dunning despite his guilty plea for wire fraud, but skeptics tell the general public they couldn’t trust Browne because of her felony for investment fraud? Hm.

Photo of the Felon banner

photo: MikkelHH from Stuffpoint

This feels too personal and as though there is a score to be settled, and it’s an approach I just cannot fathom, especially considering the fact that Mark Edward is a mentalist who performs as a working psychic without disclosing to his audience before or after his show what he is doing. He also actively opposes working psychics as a skeptic – the majority of which, he believes, are purposefully deceiving their audiences. There is so much conflict in this approach that I’m worried my nose is going to bleed if I think about it too hard.

“Get up on your feet and take out the garbage” Edward told the audience during his talk on Sunday. We are, Mark, we just tend not to call people garbage no matter how badly they may have behaved.

When I see skeptics behaving like this it disappoints me, and it makes me think of Simon Singh who, while sitting in an audience full of Sally Morgan fans, calmly explained to Sally face to face why she should undertake tests of her alleged abilities. In the end some people in that audience agreed with him. That is the kind of skepticism I can get behind any day of the week.

Edward claimed during the Skepticism and Magic panel chaired by Deborah Hyde and featuring Professor Richard Wiseman and Paul Zenon as well, that there is “wiggle room” when it comes to disclaimers about being a performer and not a “real” psychic and that revealing the trick ruins the illusion – a point that Professor Wiseman strongly disagreed with. Things actually got a bit heated during the panel, as they did at The Amazing Meeting! last year where Edward sat on a panel with Jamy Ian Swiss who didn’t think Edward was working the psychic phone lines to promote skepticism but, in fact, to make a living. As such, he claimed that Edward can’t be considered part of a skeptic movement. You can read more detail of that exchange here.

qed tweets

I also worry that an aggressive approach to skeptic activism can have the undesired effect of turning people further towards the psychic they’ve paid to see. When presented with two opposing views, those attending a psychic show are going to focus on the option that brings them the most comfort, and skeptics behaving badly probably isn’t it.

I appreciate that the organisers of QEDcon gave a platform to those who undertake different approaches to skeptical activism as these are important discussions to have, but you only had to look at the conference Twitter hashtag at certain times to see how uncomfortable such a confrontational approach made the majority of skeptics in attendance feel.

I understand what people feel when they attend a psychic show because I used to do the very same thing. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the front row at a psychic show hoping that a relative would come through because my belief in ghosts was wavering a little bit and I really didn’t want to believe that there was no afterlife. I can remember sitting there, desperate, wide-eyed and full of hope. I can remember the disappointment when nothing came through.

It makes me angry that I was decieved and it makes me angry that I was foolish, but it isn’t anger that I allow to lead my activism as that would be a mistake. Instead I allow my experience of losing a belief in psychics and more to help me find some commonality with those who visit psychic shows or visit a chiropractor or a herbalist. I try my best not to judge them for what they believe and I try and share the information that I think they should know, and if they listen I feel I’ve succeeded and if they don’t listen I hope they remember just in case they change their mind. 

My experiences as a believer are why I co-host Be Reasonable and interview people with strange or unconventional beliefs, because I know that behind every belief is a complex story, and often, before walking away from a belief a person has to work through these stories and make sense of them and that is difficult.

Ultimately, to conclude, it is difficult to engage with people who visit psychic shows and believe in psychic powers. It isn’t impossible though, and to ignore those attending such shows because they seem to be lost causes and instead “rattling the cage” of the psychic is easy.

Yet, although engaging with believers is not easy… I know which I prefer to attempt.

“Love is wise. Hatred is foolish” – Nate Phelps, QEDcon 2014
(based on a quote from Bertrand Russell)

14 thoughts on “Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism

  1. Your post put into words why I was also a bit uncomfortable with the talks by Mark Edward and Susan Gerbic, so I’m just going to say some of the same things in different words. I agreed with their premises: I agree that we could do with a bit more direct activism in the UK and that there are some relatively easy things that can be done if you step outside your comfort zone a bit, and they both got me enthused about doing a bit more, but their methods don’t seem ideal.

    I found Susan’s arguments for GSoW to be lacking: There is currently also the Wikiproject Skepticism which is on Wikipedia itself and has very similar aims to GSoW, but does it transparently. It’s not quite as active as GSoW, but this may be because it hasn’t been promoted as aggressively. Another problem I had was that she used several examples of work done by GSoW which wasn’t actually done on GSoW: for instance, she pointed at the MSS article as being a good example of a major rewrite of a page – which it was – however, it was done by two people on Wikipedia itself, one of which I happen to live with!

    I also wasn’t convinced by Mark Edward’s tactics – I’m sure their demonstrations are fun to be part of, but how constructive it is remains to be seen. There are other people working on the beginnings of a campaign who are achieving similar aims by giving out leaflets on cold and hot reading outside psychic shows and generally being very polite. I’m not sure how successful this is either, but it shows that it’s possible to go about combating pseudoscience in a more calm and reasoned way, without the ad hominems!


  2. Every time I hear about skeptivism that is based around education I think of Dan Kahan’s work on climate change (http://www.culturalcognition.net/). If you educate a person who is skeptical of climate change they do not suddenly believe in climate change – they dig in and become more refractory to argument. We cannot educate our way out of pseudoscience, in most cases the change has to be more profound than the provision of accurate information and delivered in a way that appeals to each particular audience.

  3. Thanks for that article. I missed Mark Edward’s talks/panels at QED but had a good discussion with him at the gala dinner and he gave us a long interview for the Skepticule podcast. I have doubts about some aspects of his approach and you have done some of my thinking for me here. Clearly it is important to a skeptically active, rather than just talking about it, and I agree with many of the points you raise. But I feel there is room for more than one approach and I particularly liked some of the things Mark does, such as handing out leaflets before seances informing people of common cold reading techniques to look out for. I don’t see anything negative in this; it is just giving people the tools to find things out for themselves, but seances aren’t the most important issues for the skeptical movement right now.

    We’ll be recording episode 71 of the podcast using the interview with Mark and some of the points you raise here.

    1. Hayley wrote: “I said nothing of there being one approach, and I’d love to know what you think are ‘the most important issues’ and how you make that decision?”

      I didn’t mean to imply that you said there should only be one approach- I was just making the point that multiple approaches can work. I suspect we are in agreement on this.

      The most important issues are subjective, of course. For me seances aren’t the number one priority but maybe others feel differently. I haven’t formulated a list of my priorities yet, but probably revolve around secularism and creating communities. But even if seances aren’t my highest priority it doesn’t mean they should be ignored. We are not in disagreement.

  4. I think ‘loud and proud’ activism is fun and I have no problem with mirroring the protests that happen at skeptical events. I don’t think it changes minds but I personally think it can be enjoyable to fight irrationality with irrationality and it doesn’t necessarily hurt skepticism.

    I wasn’t impressed with Mark Edward’s response to his question “Is the fact that Sylvia Browne was a convicted felon the best argument you’ve got against her?” posed by Tom Bruce (@semilogical) because of course I would potentially take advice from a felon – that has no bearing on the validity of any claim they make, even if the crime was related to the claim.

    Interesting write up, Hayley 🙂 Thanks!

  5. “During the Engaging Believers panel it was mentioned by Gerbic how there wasn’t much that could be done to change the minds of believers attending psychic shows and so it was about just shouting down the psychic instead and “letting them know there is a skeptic group in town and they’re [the psychic] not welcome there.” ”

    That is completely bizarre. Surely the psychic is the one person you’re not going to convince, and the attendees at least have the potential to be receptive? Not sure how shouting at them to remind them there’s a skeptic group is going to be particularly constructive.

    (See questionable UAF tactics against the BNP, for a comparison).

  6. I agree, James. There are other strategies available though. Comedy, for example, could be very useful alongside evidence that a psychic had made many mistakes or be found to using a technology to give the appearance of magic powers.

  7. I found Susan’s talk interesting and actually didn’t have a problem with the ‘secret’ forum. A lot of groups will have a private way of communicating. Without being on their I don’t know what they discuss but that sort of forum could be used to chat about writing techniques, whose pages to edit, what is going on around the world to help identify good pages. I don’t see that as anything sinister.

    Mark’s talk was something different though. Giving out information outside Sylvia Browne’s show, fine. The banner, not needed. I thought something we tried to educate about as skeptics was not to attack the person but to counter the beliefs and arguments. So what if she is a convicted felon? I may choose what advice I would listen to from a someone convicted of a crime but that does not mean all their advice is bad. The one thing Mark’s talk did do was to get me thinking of what else I could do to promote science and critical thinking.

    Outside of Nate Phelps’s amazing and moving talk I found the most inspiring talk to be Sam Stein on the history and aims of Camp Quest UK. No need to shout, no need to confront. Engage and educate children. It may take a generation or more, but for me Sam’s approach was more inspirational. So, I will continue to study my science degree (which I started so I could investigate stuff with at least some knowledge in the background), see what I can do to support Camp Quest UK, blog every now and again and maybe, just maybe follow my idea for a complete career change and go into teaching kids science.

    Mark’s approach is not for me, he ended up alienating me to his ideas. He did make me look at what I did want to do though, so in one way he did make me get more active.


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