The skepticism rule book

‘Some skeptics could do well to look, listen and learn from someone like me, after all I achieve things which others can only dream of’ says Jon Donnis, the owner of BadPsychics, a website that ran with the help of numerous contributors until he took it down. On the blog that now replaces the old website Donnis has recently failed to realise that not everyone has the same dream.

He criticised the Merseyside Skeptics Society because he believes they seek publicity in everything they do.  He writes

In recent years the Merseyside Skeptics “Society” have become known more for their stunts than their skepticism, whether it is homeopathic overdoses, or challenges to psychics, but is this really what skepticism needs, wants or even should be about? Former UK Skeptics kingpin John Jackson recently commented on such societies as…

“A few of these ‘societies’ cropped up a few years ago. ‘Society’ being a euphemism for ‘a couple of blokes with a blog’.”

It seems that since the early days of BadPsychics when I was heavily involved with skepticism, that these days its all about the latest stunt to self promote which ever group you are in.

The first question that came to mind was ‘so?’

So what if people gain publicity while bringing peoples attention to problems like homeopathic medicine and psychic trickery? The Ten23 campaign and events took an important message and made it global, and that isn’t something that is voided simply because it made the group well known too. This “stunt” by the MSS was educational outreach, to suggest otherwise is shortsighted and dismissive. Also, the Merseryside Skeptics are far from a couple of blokes with a blog. Then again, so what if they were two blokes with a blog? What does that matter?

Ten23 made a lot of people suddenly realise they weren’t the only ones fed up with the nonsense they encountered on a daily basis. People who had bitten their tongues because they thought they were a tiny minority of doubters suddenly realised that this wasn’t the case. Skeptics in the Pub groups started springing up all over the country and people started doing things to counter the evidence-less nonsense in their communities.

As someone commented on Facebook, ‘look at the crappy old MSS with their silly stunts and their appearances in national media, and their international conference and their popular podcasts. What have they ever done of note?‘ What indeed. It isn’t just the MSS either. People from all walks of life are doing what they can to make that difference, whether it be blogging about the claims of Alt Med Practitioners, or going undercover at Psychic Fairs with people from the local SitP group…

Going back to the BadPsychics blog post though, it’s evident that the real problem Jon Donnis has is the Halloween Psychic Challenge that the Merseyside Skeptics have organised for a second year in a row. It challenges psychics where it hurts. It shows that if their claims were true they’d agree to do the MSS challenge. The only two options they have are to a) comply and shoot themselves in the foot because it’s unlikely they’ll pass (though, I’m willing to be convinced otherwise), or b) not comply and show they are unwilling to put their money where their mouths are and stand by their claims.

Last year I wasn’t convinced that the challenge was well timed, and I wasn’t convinced that the protocol was the best. However after a chat with Simon Singh (who, along with Chris French, has been involved in the challenge since the start regardless of what Donnis thinks) made me change my mind. I realised that the challenge might not be new and groundbreaking, but that it doesn’t have to be. It’s the dialogue that’s important. It’s the message being spread that’s important, and that’s exactly what the challenge does.

If running the challenge makes the MSS the bad guys because it gets them some attention then so? Doesn’t that also make so many other well known skeptics the bad guys too? Jon Donnis included?

The answer is that no, it does not. The world has changed since the early days of skeptical activism, and skeptical outreach and activism has had to keep up. Misinformation can make it around the world three times before anyone has a chance to point out what’s wrong with it. With that in mind, the way misinformation is countered has had to adapt too, and adapt it has. There are good ways of conducting skeptical outreach, and there are bad ways of doing the same but to deal in absolutes – good or bad – is illogical. Barbara Drescher of the ICBS Everywhere blog has a whole list of posts about ‘taking back skepticism’ that cover definitions, tone, intentions, skeptical outreach, and grassroots skepticism. I encourage you to take an hour out and read them.

Suggesting that a grassroots skeptical organisation getting attention because of their campaigns and events is a problem is shortsighted. Even if the people at the Merseyside Skeptics Society are doing their campaigns so that they can speak at conferences and be popular among skeptics (which I don’t think is their sole intention) then, again, the question is ‘so?’ That’s a bonus for them on top of the other things they’ve achieved.

I’m going to end this blog post with an unapologetic and shameless defence for the Merseyside Skeptics Society. They have done too much to be accused of being mere publicity seekers. I have met too many skeptics who got involved in skeptical activism because of Ten23, and I have met too many people who have, at last, found solace among the like-minded at QEDcon. They are not deserving of the criticism levelled at them by Donnis.

About Hayley Stevens 420 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

9 Comments on The skepticism rule book

  1. Great post.

    It reminds me if the same tired arguments that get thrown around in the political arena by those who are supposedly more informed than us on the topic of apathy. People don’t care about politics etc.
    People do care, they just have different opinions on how best to achieve their aims. Consider outlets like the student and anti-cut marches, the blogosphere and Twitter. Just because people choose to express themselves in ways other than through the ballot or parties doesn’t mean they don’t care.

    If the traditional avenues don’t offer what you think they should then look for, or make, your own (for all the great work orgs like the JREF have done I’d argue SwaK and SGU have made a bigger impact on many skeptics). The MSS excels in this regard.

    I’m far from neutral in the debate, I know the MSS folks as friends and skeptics. Why? Because they excel at widening skepticism to the general public beyond vague mission statements or niche publications for a selected audience. I turned up to a talk related to politics, met a few friendly people and liked what they had to say. I was hooked and made some great friends to boot.

    I’d much prefer active skeptical groups with passionate people getting things done and informing the wider public (even if not done through the peer review process!) than passive skeptical groups with passionate people unwilling to engage beyond their narrow circle. Not least because it’s bloody good fun!

    The problem is in trying to view a grassroots organisation, aiming to get people involved (which SitPs groups are), as some form of pressure group. Given the continued success of the MSS and their events and ‘stunts’ I think they’re doing many things right.


  2. A fair and legitimate criticism of my article.
    I am impressed with you Hayley, this is what I like to see from you! Keep up this type of good work.

    You make a few assumptions that are wrong though, I recently published an article correcting the 21st Floor attack on me.

    It clarifies a few of my points and positions.

    Again well done on your criticism of me, it is fair, well written and you make some good points which I will take on board.

    However I would love to know your opinion on some of the points I raised in the original article with regards to the MSS using the names of certain famous psychics who I know were not actually invited to do the test in the correct and usual manner.

    Do you think MSS mislead people by using the names of Acorah and Fry when neither were properly invited to attend?

    • As I haven’t had a chance to talk to anyone involved I wouldn’t be able to comment on that. I do know, however, that it can be tricky to get in touch with a psychic such as Fry or Acorah directly, if you haven’t done so before. You have to go through their people who filter emails.

    • Colin is on Facebook, Derek is on Twitter, his wife is on Facebook too.
      So I doubt it would be hard for anyone to contact either.

      When I heard their names mentioned, I contacted them through those 2 social media outlets and got replies within an hour.

      Even if you forgot those obvious methods, it is very easy to go through other methods.

      For example, an officially registered letter sent to their business addresses.

      Or how about turning up at one of their shows and handing them an invitation face to face, hell that would even make a nice little photo to publish.

      Chris French has worked in the media, so he knows I am sure how to contact peoples agents, managers etc. But he did not.

      The only effort made was a late email through their websites, which would obviously get lost within the thousands of dumba55 emails from the psychics gullible fans.

      Hell even as a last resort they could have asked me how best to contact them, since I have obviously never had a problem.

      Even you Hayley have never had a problem contacting them before as far as I know.

      Marsh and his gang, deliberately made as little effort as possible, and then blatantly used the names of Acorah and Fry for publicity, and then so they could bad mouth Acorah and Fry for not turning up!

      Its pathetic Hayley and you know it.

      What’s the point of a stunt like there’s when you already know the outcome anyway?

      Is there a single person anywhere who actually thinks the 2 no name psychics who took the tests today actually passed?

      And is there anybody who doubts they will now come out with the expected “the test was fixed”, “it wasn’t my usual style” and all the other classic excuses for failing.

      They will then claim to be victims, blame the skeptics for setting them up, and so on.

      And what will have been accomplished?

      Absolutely nothing at all.

      MSS may be nice people, they might even have good intentions, but damn they go about things so arse backwards it is laughable sometimes.

      Simon Singh and Chris French should really know better.

    • I hope you get the irony of your last comment.

      I’m not telling anyone what to do. Just pointing out the correct way to do it so that you don’t end up with big heads like me pointing out the glaring mistakes.

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