Science Punk talks sceptically about being sceptic about Skeptics.

On Monday 2nd August, Frank Swain (@SciencePunk), a science writer, gave a talk to the Westminster Skeptics (#WestSkep), entitled “Skeptical about Skeptics”.  A podcast of which can be found here.

While drinks and food were being ordered (the latter hindered by short staffing due the late booking on a particular person’s part – ahem, J of K) and thoughts were being cast about whether Jack Of Kent’s new hair cut was in retort to the pressures administered from last month’s meeting or not, Frank displayed a slide show catalogue of quotes relating to the title “My problem with Skeptics“.  Quick progression of quote after quote only allowed me to catch the gist of these, but three in particular described how Skeptics tend to adhere to opinions of certain important figures such as Dr Evan Harris and Dr Ben Goldacre as well as the assumption that Skeptics are all atheists and also the aggressiveness towards not having a science degree, therefore, not caring.  Also, prior to the talk, Jack of Kent introduced us to Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff Council, who over the past two weeks has risen to an unexpected “fame” in twitterland for his infamous tweet about Scientology (see Jack Of Kent’s excellent blog here for the full coverage).

With everyone settled, Frank began to explain he was feeling the most nervous about this particular talk, above any other, as he knew he was going to say some things that we would not like but, all the same, have to be said.

Frank first got into science writing in 2004 when, as a science graduate, his non-science based job in sewer maintenance provided him with ample skive time to continue where he left off as a teenager, writing science “zines”, but instead putting his thoughts on the internet.  This was the birth of “Science Punk”, the name being secondary to his original idea of “War On Error”, which shatteringly did not turn out to be as original a name as he thought.  Having been bought by Seed, Frank subsequently moved into SciBlogs, where he still remains as he “likes the free Pepsi“. Now with an extensive C.V. of contributions to science writing and improving science communications through such media as the “sense about science” charitable trust and participating in Gavin Henson’s “Human Guinea Pig” TV programme, which despite being classified as a term Alan Partridge once coined “Monkey Tennis” TV, is spring boarding him into further radio opportunities, all resulting in advancing science engagement.

“The most powerful thing as a writer is to change someone’s mind”

I personally would say that the most powerful thing as a writer would actually be to cause a debate, yet if that debate led to changing someone’s mind, I would constitute that as a byproduct, some kind of smug, self-appraising reward, but not a goal.  I think this because I have just started writing blogs myself and my personal aim is to encourage people to teach me more, share their point of views and why they have them.  I’d imagine it is comforting to have people agreeing with you, however, I find it more interesting when they don’t.  Whatever the desire, as Frank continues, what is being written about must first be communicated and then, only following that, comes the shaping of the way that person will think about the topic and this, Frank perceives, as an ultimate goal.

Skeptics lack an independent infrastructure, one that is as effective as a TV show or writing an article for an established magazine/newspaper.

At the moment, Skepticism is in its infancy in comparison to media platforms such as newspapers such as The Guardian or TV channels such as the BBC, because there is not a single body within Skepticism powerful enough to reach a wider audience.  This was an interesting point because it seems that most Skeptics want to be heard and want to create awareness on topics they are passionate about, yet without a strong infrastructure writers, like himself, find themselves at a dead end by not reaching and influencing different people.

Skeptics need to influence different people and avoid “confirmation bias”

Science writers and Skeptics, when writing, are guided by their own specific “tone”.  By choosing a writing style, this subsequently narrows down the audience to like-minded people, therefore, becoming as effective as preaching to the converted and therefore having no influential effect on anyone.

“A Facebook page or a Twitter hashtag is not a campaign”

Now this actually got an applause.  A campaign is “something that changes minds” but I actually believe that both Facebook and Twitter have this potential and so don’t agree with him here.  Take, for example, on a non-science based issue, the Facebook page set up in December 2009 by Jon and Tracy Morter to “campaign” against Simon Cowell and his X-Factor groups achieving the Christmas number one spot for the fifth year running, by appealing to put the American rock band Rage Against The Machine there instead.  Before this group was established, the majority of the nation had resided to the fact that X-Factor entries would always be number one at Christmas, however, since this page achieved its goal in flying RATM to the top spot, people think differently now.  Secondly, the recent #StupidScientology, in just 12 hours began as a little support hashtag by Jack of Kent and wound its way onto Newsnight, creating awareness to an unexpected audience, nationwide.  These may be a small topics to some, but they made a difference to how people think, or at least got them thinking, and it could potentially have a much greater knock-on effect.  So why can’t we do this in science?

“My mum is my litmus test; will what I write change her mind?  Will she care?”

I thought this comment may relate to Frank’s previous comment about appealing to a wider audience, if his mum can understand what he writes about and it is interesting to her, he knows he is on the right track.  I can’t help but think, however, if a family member asked me to read their work, I may be less inclined to be critical to avoid offending them so I’m not sure this is the best approach for everyone.  I also believe that if he directs what he writes about according to his mum’s opinions, how many topics is he not writing about that a scientist like me may find interesting?

“Arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly”

Sometimes facts and graphs don’t actually speak for themselves, they can be “dry and boring”, which means people disregard them, hence you fall short of your goal to engage with people.  Backing up your argument with graphs and facts is deemed, by some, as cowardly because you are entering an argument “knowing you’re right” and this wreaks arrogance.  Organisations such as PETA and Greenpeace understand this concept and it is one that the Skeptics should also adopt.

“the pleural of anecdote is not data, the pleural of anecdote is a convincing argument”.

By convincing he means to empathise and understand other people’s culture, background and emotions, tell stories of something they can relate to as this gets their attention.  We all know that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the Sun orbiting the Earth because figures of authority have told us these stories, it is not something we can all prove ourselves but we accept this as a fact.  Facts, however, should not be disregarded, but stories are more effective.

“ten23 is not an engagement”

For me, this is where the talk took an interesting, intrepid turn, peppered with shots of baleful glances from the audience.  I disagree with this statement because there genuinely were people who did not know the facts until this campaign, not because they were “stupid” but because of misinformation.  ten23 provided the information they should have received and it changed their minds.  Frank believes that ten23 insults the people that use the product because Skeptics fail to consider how homeopathy makes them feel as individuals, whether it be the placebo effect or not, it works for them.  He compared this to the number of people who take anti-depressants, to which a handful in the audience admitted to taking, despite these having little more than a placebo effect themselves.  It’s not the actual facts that are affecting your decision, it’s how it makes you feel or your cultural influences that makes you decide.  Most of us, however, continue to drink alcohol despite all the evidence about health warnings of weight gain and oral cancer etc and this is because of our culture.  These are all personal choices.

So who are we to try and force our advice on homeopathy, acupuncture or aromatherapy users when we’re not listening to the advice about the products we consume?  I think the impact of evidence here depends on the level of risk or damage caused to the user.  For example, if every time we drank a unit of alcohol, we felt a physical pain in the liver, I believe the number of drinkers would decline rapidly, but as we feel no effect – save the odd hangover here and there – the lack of immediate consequence or the faint possibility drinking “may” cause oral cancer, allows us to make a personal risk assessment, therefore, continuing to drink on the basis of its social importance.

Sadly I know someone who has a heart problem and continues to smoke heavily because he enjoys it.  When I asked him why he had not given up to aid his health, his response shocked me.  He said that I was assuming he valued life, like it was something sacred and should be cherished, but, as far as he is concerned, it isn’t.   He would rather spend his life doing the things he wanted, regardless of the dangers to his health.  Instantly I feel like I should reach out to him and tell him to look after himself, stop smoking, eat more healthily and cut down on drinking, but I realise this would only be worthwhile if he actually wanted to make a change, but he doesn’t.  His honest comment was, “I know the risks involved, but I enjoy it, if I get cancer or die prematurely, I deserve it because I only have myself to blame”.  It makes me realise that some people do know the facts, but choose not to act on them, irrespective of the consequences and, again, who am I to take that from him? What privledge do I have to force such elitist views on him?  It’s his life after all.

Dogmas of The Skeptic Society
There are some people in the Skeptic scene, or “movement” as Frank refers it to, that are highly respected people, including Dr Simon Singh, Dr Ben Goldacre and Dr Evan Harris.  Fellow Skeptics tend to accept what these people say and refrain from doubting or questioning their points of view, contrary to how they take to “enemies” of Skepticism such as Gillian McKeith.  I agree with this point completely, because I believe that in other circles, such as those including Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, the opinions will be reversed where Dr Evan Harris is labelled their enemy.   This creates a problem because the idea of being a Skeptic is thought to stand for being critical about anyone’s ideas.  I admire many people who are seen as influential but I feel they just help me to make my own mind up; just because I may not voice an opinion against someone publicly, it does not necessarily mean I’m in agreement with them, besides, we can’t all agree on the same things, all of the time.
An audio clip of Rev Billy Graham, advisor to 12 US presidents and evangelist to over 2 billion people, was then played to us as an example of a good communicator.  To be honest, the clip actually made me feel a little uncomfortable and I could not really concentrate on what he was saying because of his extravagant and dramatic delivery of his spiel.  I certainly would not consider this a good technique to get a point across.  I understand that Graham is not calling people stupid, however, not all Skeptics are either.
When referring to Skeptics as a “movement”, many were offended, but as a newcomer to this “Skeptic Scene”, that is exactly how I have been perceiving it.  By definition, a movement represents a “diffusely organised or heterogeneous group of people or organisations tending toward or favouring a generalised common goal”.  The impression I have got from Skeptics, is exactly this; a group of people from different backgrounds including students, teachers, lawyers, scientists, science writers, journalists and even former members of Parliament, uniting in debates about evidence-based policies and quackery, ultimately aiming to communicate their ideas to a wider audience.  As in religion, not all followers necessarily agree unmitigatedly with everything and neither do Skeptics have to.  Individual Skeptics do not lose their independence by being part of a movement, so I’m not too sure why calling the group this gets people’s heckles up.  Skeptics are a community that have the potential to influence through all avenues of occupations, and powerfully.

From this point I began to wonder, if so many people were agitated by being called a “movement”, then what exactly do they suggest that they are?  Do people actually realise they are Skeptics from the start or does it just creep up on them when they’re least expecting it?

Presently, I believe there are both good and bad divides of the Skeptics.  The good side relates to the Skeptics who fight for evidence-based approches in research, I back this 100% and this may be because I am a scientist myself.  I do not believe this is a sign of arrogance, it’s confidence, which some may argue there is a fine line between, but there is a monumental difference.  The bad side was prodiguously demonstrated by Frank when he spoke about the recent feud between Gillian McKeith and Dr Ben Goldacre, in which she tagged his book “Bad Science”, all “lies”.  A flurry of comments made by supporters of Goldacre, attacking McKeith, were displayed on the powerpoint, concluding with the most infamous and offensive of all “Gillain [sic] McKeith is a stupid f**king c**t”.  The audience roared with laughter but this was cut dead when Frank questioned why this was acceptable, but I don’t believe it is.  Ok, I absolutely agree McKeith should now be facing a libel case for what she said, yet all Goldacre has requested here is that she tweets again to say that it is not lies.  So why can’t the rest of us be so chivalrous about this too?  Afterall, as Frank pointed out, McKeith still remains one of the top health writers and is far more successful than the Skeptics, she is winning!!

Limits of duelling with the quacks
What followed was great advice.  When Skeptics challenge companies or individuals of quackery, they may succeed in having a product removed, a shop closed down or a few people struck off, but is this really proving effective?  Is this changing people’s minds about the product?  The answer: not really.  Instead, Skeptics should target the people that use these services, empathise with them.  Attack the problem at the roots, don’t just trim the stem!!  I totally agree, however, I still find it difficult to follow the advice of engaging with these people with stories they can relate to rather than explaining hard facts, based on evidence from research.  Nothing could be more convincing to me than evidence and I do believe this is the bottom line (does my arrogance look big in this?).

Who is in our club?
There is a distinct lack of female presence at the Skeptic meetings it seems and it has been thought to be a result of the affinty of “alpha-male” types to such gatherings, as is evident during the Q&A sessions, where most men seem to like to make bold and lenghty statements about themselves before trying to muster up a question, which by the time the speaker gets chance to answer, has probably forgotten what they were asking.

Skeptics are “polarising” the group members

Instead of Skeptics critising practices of acupuncture, aromatherapy etc amongst other non-users, why don’t users of such practice get invited to talk about their experiences?  To which a member of the audience explained this had been attempted but to no avail.  Members of the Green Party science policy group have had abuse from Skeptics in relation to their clashing views regarding animal testing and it is through Skeptics being so opinionated, it’s an all or nothing agreement for acceptance into the community.  These attitudes, coupled with acts of elitism are preventing an expansion of the Skeptic community; without expansion the impact of what Skeptics believe in will be minimal.

“Woo” is the closest thing the Skeptic community has to the N-word

….because it is born of hatred, intolerance, renders people stupid and unworthy of debate and it writes people off, which Frank says, coming from a community of open discussion, is the greatest tragedy of all.

How do we face these challanges?
to which Dr Evan Harris answered:
– win the general public
– change target policy makers
– create a base, whether it be a twitter hashtag or a facebook page, and strenghten it.

Next came the discussion/Q&A session, in which some worthy points were raised:
– we should be less tolerant of swearing,
– free entry should not be granted, just because you are the Green Party,
– to engage with more people, we should explain why we believe something, not just say it is our opinion, or about education,
– Skeptism is considered as an incredible freedom, so most are allergic to the idea of being branded a “movement”
– maybe a new approach should be: “this is what we fully believe and you are welcome to join us”, as opposed to, “this is what you should believe in….”
– Richard Dawkins can appear incredibly polarising because he is forceful and will not reach the religious community with his ideas.  He is also not open to other peoples influences, which makes him arrogant,
– Sometimes, scientific writers communicate with the impression that most readers have a certain level of scientific background knowledge, which loses a lot of interest.  One suggestion was to use spokespeople from the arts such as drama or comedy to reach out to non-scientists,
– when dealing with the ASA, for example, they need facts and evidence to consider attending to an issue, to which Frank admitted that there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer,
– who are we to say that evidence-based is not good?
– It’s not our policy to tell people how to live their lives,
– we’ve got to have debate so we can grow – need room for opinions,
– what can we do when people of our own community behave inappropriately, particularly when our comment posts are being ignored?  Answer: stop reading the blog!!
– empathise with your target audience, avoid the forceful attitude of “this is what I think and you should too!!”
– if you are going to use facts, present them in a particular way that the audience will care about; and always consider: why should they care?
– be careful assuming why someone is wrong,
– carefully plan the journey from wrong to right,
– most people are facing pragmatic problems such as accessibility to science, rather than lack of interest e.g. TAM London which is centralised, expensive costs (transport, accomodation, ticket), talks aren’t streamed, no student discounts but has a DVD – cost £16; this is not science engagement, it’s a club!!
– if we’re told not to be so aggressive using facts and figures, then why are product selling points in face creams, for example, the “science bit” and Gillian McKeith uses a PhD to gain consumers confidence?  This is exploitation because most people trust such figures as doctors and teachers – not politicians – I personally think this is deception, albeit impressive to the consumer.
– Skeptics are not all dicks – just like any community – just because Skepticism is a small community it doesn’t mean all can be tarred with the same brush.

The talk was well balanced and very thought provoking.  I must conclude that I believed some but not other points made by Frank, which is a good start in proving that I can make my own mind up about things.  I also want to admit, however, this talk has managed to change the way I think about digesting views of those I admire, not to be afraid to disagree if that’s how I truly feel and even thinking about cutting down on the drinking so I’m not being hypocritical when I push evidence under peoples noses!!  So there you have it Science Punk….mission accomplished over here!!

2 Responses to “Science Punk talks sceptically about being sceptic about Skeptics.”
  1. noodlemaz says:

    Nice post.Couple of points I have:- I don't think the audience 'roared with laughter' at the ad hom stuff towards GMK. A few people did, and one of them saw fit to shout out 'because it's FUNNY' to Frank's question of why it was acceptable. Certainly not everyone saw the funny side of that; in fact, I'd say only the minority.- The point wasn't so much to 'be less tolerant of swearing' – I personally love swearing, it makes language colourful, it adds emphasis and emotion. The point was to be less accepting and encouraging of ad hominem attacks, sexism and so on. It's not the swearing itself that's the problem.- I don't think TAM's meant to be an engagement exercise either; it is like-minded people getting together to hear their idols for a price. Though I'll be talking to the organisers about it soon, as they didn't like a few things I wrote in my post!!- Finally, I 'fell into' skepticism, as a 'movement' or 'scene' or whatever – though have been so minded for many years.For as long as I remember, preachy religious types have made me uncomfortable and adverts talking bollocks have irritated me. Skeptics has simply shown me that I'm far from alone in this and gives a forum to air our views and actually, I reckon, make a few positive changes as a result (instead of just annoying our friends/family with our views!).:)

  2. Hi Della Thanks for the thorough roundup, although I should point out that I never meant to suggest that people should or should not act in certain ways. Rather my focus was "if you want to engage people, here are some things to consider". Glad you enjoyed the talk!

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