I once sat on a panel about Youtube skepticism at QEDcon with Myles Power who has a really interesting Youtube channel. Power has delivered two different talks to Skeptics in the Pub groups around the UK – the first of these talks was about AIDS denialism (and how it’s bad, obviously) and the second about the misconceptions around GMOs. Power recently released a Youtube video about the reaction he received to his GMO talk and how the crowds he spoke to were lukewarm at best and at worst openly hostile.
Power describes how on several occasions people in the Skeptics in the Pub audiences suggested that he was a shill for companies who wish to promote GMOs as safe, despite there being zero evidence (that I could find) that this is the truth. So, what does this mean?
Power points out in his video that he has no way of knowing if the people who were hostile were regular Skeptics in the Pub attendees or that they even identified as skeptics which are a valid points, but I don’t think he should be so quick to let the skeptics off of the handle on this, and here’s why. We skeptics are human even though we like to pretend we’re better than that, and as someone who has been speaking at Skeptics in the Pub events since 2010 (as an aside from the larger skeptics conferences) I can attest to the fact that when in a group setting and surrounded by what we perceive to be like-minded people it’s really easy to become closed-minded and defensive when the invited speaker starts talking about something we disagree with or think we know better on.
(Secretly, it brings me great joy when skeptics start sounding like the conspiracy theorists I have listened to at paranormal conferences because it’s an important reminder that ‘yup, we all got them damned biases‘.)
Skeptics in the Pub groups helped me to perfect my ‘bitch, please’ face a long time ago and to toughen up because of the number of times that people have sat through my talk with their minds already made up about the subject and also about me. I used to take it personally when people tried to be smart in the question and answer sessions or would stand and insult people who believed in ghosts unaware that those very people sat in the audience with them. Also, the number of times people have stood and accused me of encouraging people who have delusions is incredible. But I think that’s an important part of the discourse we should be having with people who are and are not skeptics.
When I deliver my talk ‘a skeptic’s guide to ghost hunting’ it attracts a large number of people who wouldn’t normally attend a skeptics event and who do not identify as skeptics. They’re there for the ghosts and that’s great because I think it’s important that Skeptics in the Pub groups have a mixture of voices in the audience. Power suggests he will no longer do talks at Skeptics in the Pub events because of the negative experiences he had at such a cost (in time, energy, and resources), and I think it’s a shame. I think group organisers could ensure they do their best to encourage lively yet courteous debate which doesn’t descend into negativity.
I’ve personally had bad experiences with certain Skeptics in the Pub groups and there is one group with whom I had an absolutely terrible time and I did consider no longer bothering, but actually it is these debates and this disagreement which important because the alternative is preaching to the converted and that doesn’t really achieve anything at all.
For me, Skeptics in the Pub talks have been some of the most challenging, educational, and thought-provoking experiences. Of the groups I’ve spoken for my favourites include Nottingham, London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Merseyside who have all been fab.
However, because of the poor organisation of some groups, I am cautious of which groups I accept speaking offers from. The thing with Skeptics in the Pub (just as with skeptics,) is that trying to organise such a diverse range of groups and people is like herding cats. You never quite know what you’re going to walk into with a Skeptics in the Pub talk but you should be able to rely on the organisers to stop hostility in its tracks. It’s difficult for organisers to control crowds who are made up of all sorts of people with all sorts of opinions, but these events are supposed to encourage rational discourse and not accusations and negativity.
I think it’s a shame that Myles had these experiences but I hope that Skeptics in the Pub can continue to be thought-provoking and fun events and I can only hope that if you attend a Skeptics in the Pub event and you see someone being hostile you call that behaviour out because that’s not cool, man. Ad hominem attacks shouldn’t be our bag and if it were a flat-earther or a creationist acting in that manner you can be sure they’d be shouted down instantly.