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.)

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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