Who are these Skeptics? And do they matter?

“The Amazing Meeting” is held in London.

London hosted "The Amazing Meeting" (TAM) earlier this month.

Over a thousand enthusiasts for critical thinking and an evidence-based approach attended a two-day conference and various fringe events.

Participants came from all over Europe to this jamboree, only the second TAM to be held outside the United States. Speakers included the biologist Richard Dawkins, the comedian and performer Tim Minchin, the novelist and copyright campaigner Cory Doctorow and the comic writer Alan Moore. There was also a special appearance from the greatest living debunker of bullshit, the magician James Randi.

Do such enthusiasts for science and reason – many of whom, like Randi, self-identify as "Skeptics" (with the American spelling) – actually matter? Do the increasing numbers of people interested in promoting critical thinking and an evidence-based approach have any wider political significance?

Skeptics are not a new grouping. However, over the past five years they have grown in number to the extent there are at least 25 "Skeptics in the Pub" groups in the United Kingdom, with several more overseas. There are numerous magazines and blogs, podcasts and celebrities. And Skeptics tend to be very well informed and scientifically minded, as well as being technically aware; in short, they are geeks and nerds, and are often glad to be known as such.

The Skeptics can be startlingly well organised, as long as it is around a defined theme. In April 2010, Nick Cohen perceived correctly that the rush of energy behind the Simon Singh libel campaign – which otherwise seemed to have come from nowhere – was derived from politically engaged geeks and nerds angry at the treatment of their heroes Singh and Ben Goldacre at the hands of libel claimants. The force pushing the recent libel reform campaign was always more about the publication of scientific data and uninhibited science writing than it ever was a promotion of the selfish interests of the mainstream media.

There are other campaigns being led or influenced by Skeptic activists, for example 10:23 (regarding homoeopathy, a bogus treatment for which there is not a jot of evidence, still bizarrely funded by the National Health Service) and the Science is Vital lobby (which appears to have helped ensure that there was no reduction to science funding in the Spending Review).

Skeptics are now seeking to engage with the policy- and law-making processes. Westminster Skeptics (which I founded year ago and has exploded in attendees: see the site here and podcasts of past events here) has organised a sequence of heavily attended meetings on drugs policy, science funding, digital copyright, libel reform and sex work. Those who turn up are not necessarily urging any one policy end or law to be passed, but they usually do demand that whatever policies are formulated and laws made should have sufficient regard to the appropriate evidence base.

However, there is no one coherent Skeptic political "movement" – and nor is there likely to be. There are three possible reasons for this.

First, the one thing that unites Skeptics is their readiness to dispute and express doubt, often forcefully and sometimes tactlessly. This makes organisation extremely difficult. Other than in respect of specific campaigns, or regarding meetings that feature platform speakers and debates, there is no potential yet for a mass, uniform movement. As I have said elsewhere (including on a TAM panel), when cats complain, they complain of herding Skeptics. 

Second, there is the problem of influence. An evidence base does not of its own right constitute a policy. And talented communicators (of whom there are many among Skeptics) are not necessarily persuasive to policymakers, who may have other pressing concerns and need to pay heed to other demanding constituencies. Besides, the essence of Skepticism – telling someone that they may well be wrong – does not lend itself easily to constructive engagement with those in power. 

Third, Skepticism is essentially negative. It is a check on woolly thinking and bad policymaking. Although there are certain policy positions that attract Skeptics – for example, libel and copyright reform, liberalisation of sex work and drugs policy, secure science funding – such positions also owe much to normative and ideological preferences, and cannot be explained by Skepticism alone. One can perhaps campaign for scepticism in the abstract, but it is probably more effective to campaign against concrete bad policies and misconceived laws. 

All that said, one can expect Skeptics to become of increasing political importance. 

More relevant data is being made available on the internet. The processes of policy- and law-making are becoming more open. Through the internet, people with similar interests can be alerted instantly and collaborate effectively. Consequently, policymakers and lawmakers can now be faced speedily with well-informed objections to proposed courses of action which they may have got away with only a few years ago. This exposure can only be beneficial. It might even catch on. 

So there may not ever be one "Skeptic Movement" – but there will now often be Skeptic movements, and each one will be interesting to watch.

David Allen Green blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year. He is also founder and convenor of Westminster Skeptics, a non-partisan group promoting an evidence-based approach in policy, media, and legal issues.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Paul Sweeney
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Glasgow North East Labour MP Paul Sweeney: “Yes badges were cool in 2014 – now it's Jeremy”

The son of a shipbuilder harnessed the Corbyn surge to win over pro-Scottish independence voters.

In 2014, on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, a young BAE graduate called Paul Sweeney introduced Gordon Brown.  He was there because of a referendum that “sent you into a black hole and spat you back out”, as he puts it. In his case, this started with a letter warning of the impact of independence on the shipbuilding industry, which led to a photoshoot, an appearance on the 6 o’clock news, and eventually the warm-up act for a former Prime Minister.

“Glasgow did feel like the ground was moving under your feet,” Sweeney says.  “It was exhilarating, terrifying.” But unlike Sweeney, most young Glaswegians were swept up in the independence movement, and the north east of the city where he lived was one of the strongest areas for Yes.

Brown’s speech was widely acclaimed for saving the union. But in Glasgow, voters were disappointed, and in the general election, Labour campaigners “were really told where to go”. Glasgow North East, a traditional Labour seat, fell to the Scottish National Party.

And yet, just two years and a snap election later, Sweeney is sitting in Westminster’s Portcullis House, as the constituency’s new Labour MP. How?

“From a very young age, I sensed an area that had fallen from a previous glory”

Sweeney, a fresh-faced 28, was ambitious for his constituency from a young age. “I was brought up in a Labour family – a working class family – in the north of Glasgow,” he tells me. “From a very young age, I sensed an area that had fallen from a previous glory.”

His mother, who worked in the Bank of Scotland, grew up in Milton, a housing scheme in northern Glasgow. “My mum used to talk about how it was a lovely area and lots of families there.” But by the time he was a child, drug abuse was on the increase, and “despair crept in”. Visiting his grandmother had to be done on foot: “You couldn’t drive a car in there because it would be vandalised.”

Sweeney’s father was a shipbuilder. In the 1990s, as shipyards fell silent, he was made redundant several times. “I remember getting up to see him off going to Barrow-in-Furness [in Cumbria],” Sweeney says. “I remember not getting much for Christmas because money was tight.” His father eventually became a taxi driver.

Sweeney, though, increasingly felt compelled to fight the decline. He studied politics and economics at Glasgow University and enrolled in the Territorial Army, before graduating and joining the defence giant BAE. In 2015, he moved to Scotland’s economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise.

At the same time, he joined Labour, inspired by the late John Smith, whom his parents called “the greatest leader my country never had”.  In 2009, he was doing his exams, when Sarah Brown, wife to then-prime minister Gordon Brown, called and asked him if he wanted to help Labour’s candidate Willie Bain in the Glasgow North East by-election.

Sweeney joined a team that included Kezia Dugdale, the future Scottish Labour leader. The Tory candidate was one Ruth Davidson. He recently reminisced with Dugdale about the by-election: “We were saying who would have thought all these changes would have happened in a relatively short period of time.

The Yes badges were the cool thing to have – now it was Jeremy

Bain won, but was swept from office by the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin in 2015 in such an upset that Sweeney started his 2017 campaign only hoping to reduce her 9,222 majority. With little funding, he relied on a team of young volunteers to design leaflets and door-knock.

Then something changed. Was it the Corbyn surge? “Absolutely – without a shadow of a doubt,” he replies.

Initially sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn, Sweeney believes his “vision of hope” revived Labour’s fortunes. In Dennistoun, a hipster neighbourhood known for its SNP and Green vote, all the posters in the windows were Labour ones. “It was sexy again,” he says. “The Yes badges were the cool thing to have on your school bag. Now it was Jeremy.”

One day, a group of young men began shouting at the canvassing team. “We thought, ‘Here we go,’ then it actually turned out they were shouting ‘C’mon the Jez, let’s get Jeremy in.’ It was people who you wouldn’t normally think would vote. I thought that was fantastic.”

All the same, Sweeney didn’t bother drafting a victory speech. He describes the count as “like you are flying through the air”.  When he knew he had won, his first thought was: “Oh, shit, I need to do an acceptance speech."

One of my best friends was killed in Afghanistan

Now safely landed in Westminster, Sweeney hopes to draw on his experience in industry and the military. The latter has taught him caution, not jingoism.

“One of my best friends was killed in Afghanistan,” he says. “It was a terrible time. It was just unbelievable. He went there because he wanted an experience. He wasn’t in the army as such – he was captain of the Scottish Lacrosse team.

“It does lead you to ask, ‘What are we doing? What is the meaning behind this? The intent is noble but there is a certain amount of ignorance about what needs to be done to achieve the political outcome.”

Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand Province, he points out, is the size of Wales: “We are trying to control it with 8,000 people.”

On Trident, an issue that traditionally divides Labour’s pacifists from its hawks, Sweeney’s view is also nuanced. “Trident actually saps services from other ship building industries,” he says. “There was a huge investment on the Clyde and money has to be diverted now. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Sweeney calls himself “restless” for change. He hates “energy vampires”, as he calls those that stand in the way. But while the spectre of economic neglect has clearly driven his career, he is also excited about ideas of nationalisation and regeneration.

“My family are steeped in the Clyde ship building,” he says. “Sitting on your dad’s shoulders watching these ships being launched – it is an extraordinary achievement.

“You can understand why it was so emotional when the ship building declined. It was part of their identity. These are the largest objects made by man. It is incredible to behold.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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