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.)

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left