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.
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