Whatever Happened to the Skeptic Dream?

A recent popular Twitter thread written by Tracy King considered the collapse of the UK Skeptic movement. I’ve some thoughts on this. King wrote:

‘The organised skepticism movement was successfully imported from USA to UK (mainly by me) and the UK media was getting pretty good at not giving platforms to quacks.’

‘ … for a good few years now there hasn’t really been any useful community or place to go if you see something that’s clearly quackery, or if you’ve read some Sagan and want to find other critical thinkers.’

The Skeptic movement in the UK did seem to really kick off about a decade ago. I remember, and I had a very good vantage point. In 2009, Trystan Swale launched the Righteous Indignation podcast and I was his co-host. It was pretty much the UK’s first skeptic podcast and became more popular than we’d ever imagined it would.

We were soon joined by Michael Marshall as a third co-host and other British skeptics such as Dr*T, Gavin Schofield, and Stephen Rooney as guest hosts. As we made new episodes of the show, we’d find ourselves talking about the way the grassroots movement was growing around us. It was inspiring, it was exciting, and it was completely grass-roots led. Some people weren’t so keen on this because for a long time, organised Skepticism had been done A Very Specific Way. Suddenly here came all of These People with Some Ideas who were Doing Things Themselves.

You could no longer hold a Skeptic conference and get away with having the celebs and faces-that-fit in the green room, and the rabble outside the door. Suddenly, the rabble were the speakers and the organisers.

That the impact of the UK Skeptic movement has lessened or that it has collapsed is tosh. What has actually happened is that people all across Europe (and beyond) sat up and saw what ordinary people were doing in the UK and thought to themselves “hey… we could do that, too!” Now we have a growing Skeptic scene across the whole of Europe which is taking names and kicking arse. 

As the Far-Right, Alt-Right and Fascist movements have grown in popularity in recent years, so too has the level of nonsense being promoted in the media. Studies have consistently shown that those with authoritarian personalities often buy into anti-science beliefs, after all. 

The world of today is hardly comparable to the world of 2008 and 2009. They are different times with different challenges and different claims being made on different platforms. That’s why the Skeptic movement in the UK has changed, adapted, united and inspired others. It’s gone global because it had to. 

Do U Even QED?

I do agree with King that that a lot of Skeptics have problems with social justice and treat concepts of social justice as extraordinary claims which require extraordinary evidence.  That’s why I also take issue with another part of the Twitter Thread by King. King tweeted:

… the organised skepticism movement collapsed. Bunch of reasons for this, one of which was the winding down of James Randi’s charity after the identity theft controversy and his semi-retirement, but also because of social justice.

Firstly, I don’t feel comfortable with the last quote from King at all. James Randi is not – and never has been – the core of the Skeptic movement. He is a certain type of Skeptic who appeals to certain type of Skeptic. I’ve previously blogged about his horrendous opinions about certain people, which are still unforgivable today. And certainly not the words of someone to be admired. 

A lot of people in the Skeptic movement who read my posts on Randi are offended by them because their Skepticism is celebrity-led. In fact, when I wrote them, a leading figure in the Skeptic movement questioned who I thought I was. As though by questioning a celebrity of the Skeptic movement, I was stepping out of line.

I also wholeheartedly disagree that TAM London was responsible for the rise of the Skeptic movement in the UK. I think King has given herself too much credit here and it’s a very short-sighted opinion of what happened in the UK all those years ago. It’s symptomatic of a London-centric view of the Skeptic movement where those involved often didn’t see very far beyond the city borders.

I guess in that regard, nothing much seems to have changed.

About Hayley Stevens 434 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.

6 Comments on Whatever Happened to the Skeptic Dream?

  1. Hey Hayley. I thought some of Tracy’s comments were interesting especially around difficulties in arguing around identity. However I’ve never been a fan of celebrities and have always been more inspired by ordinary people making some extraordinary efforts. Maybe TAM sparked something for some people but I’ll always remember my first QED.

    I don’t really have a lot to do with the skeptic community/movement now but I know it isn’t dead. Amongst all the difficulties that comes from the intermingling of individuals with their own egos and subjectivity is some great work and some great people.

  2. Well said H. I’m a bit flummoxed by how TKing believes she spread Skepitism here, which is not to denigrate her fine work on Minchin’s Storm, but c’mon! None of us had internet connections to the rest of the planet?!

    Righteous Indignation (mine own gateway drug) never existed? SWaK with Colin was a pipe-dream? The Geologic Podcast was US only?! Montieff ugh!

    Ye, and others like ye, inspired me to grow through my skeptic adolescence and tackle the world meaningfully and productively. So thank you for all the fruits which ripened from your seeds. Cork & Edinburgh are prolly the most excellent centres of skepticism now, that true grass roots.

  3. I went to TAM!London (both of them) I enjoyed the experience immensely, but sometimes I felt like I’d accidentally wandered into a meeting of the James Randi Fan Club by mistake. I’m sure I’m not alone in having barely heard of him before…

  4. I feel Tracy is trying to take credit because a lot of the momentum in those years came from the very people she doesn’t want to be involved with.

    Like it or not, the Dawkins’, Hitchens’ and Harrises of this world had more to do with the popularity than she is comfortable admitting.

    • I can’t speak for Tracy in response to your point, but I will point out that as much as they did to promote it, they did just as much to make it unwelcoming for many, too.

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