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PostPosted: 26 Oct 2010, 09:19 
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Why waste your time at gatherings of like-minded skeptics when you could be engaging with people who might actually benefit from what you have to say, asks Alom Shaha

<photo> Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival High Priest of skepticism Stephen Fry: Followers gather in pubs and hotels to hear famous skeptics reinforce their own sense of superior rationality.

If you're reading this, you probably know that homeopathy is an entirely made-up pretend medicine that has somehow become accepted by millions of people as "real" medicine. You probably know that no one actually has psychic powers and that no aliens have ever landed on this planet, but humans have certainly landed on the moon. I can confidently assert these things about you because you're reading this on the Guardian Science Blog and, let's be honest, that makes you a Guardian Reader.

Don't like that label but want to show off that you're super smart and rational? You might want to call yourself a "skeptic" (and make sure you spell it with a "k"). Then you can meet up with other skeptics and nod along with them as someone lectures you in a pub (yes, a pub!) about these things that you already know. You can enjoy a few pints and can go home having had your belief in how smart and rational you are confirmed.

There'll sometimes be "celebrities" at these events, you know – people with more followers than you on Twitter, maybe even someone who is followed by Stephen Fry. There might even be a Guardian science blogger if you're lucky.

Once a year, you might get to go to a big conference (no, of course it's not a pilgrimage) and hear really famous people talk about these same things, maybe even Stephen Fry himself. And all the while you're there you'll tweet about it, so that everybody knows that you agree with everyone else about just how brilliant the brilliant minds assembled before you are. If only the rest of the world thought the same way you and your friends do. Wouldn't it be wonderful? And you'll tell yourself this isn't really like church. After all, religion is all about believing in God, isn't it? And you don't believe in God. You're far too rational for that.

Ok, I'm going to own up – I am deliberately "skeptic baiting". Some people have accused me of doing this on Twitter, simply because I raised a few questions about what I see as a failure of the UK skeptic movement to fully engage with audiences which might really benefit from being exposed to the kind of ideas about critical thinking that skeptics espouse.

I'm not alone in thinking that people from ethnic minorities are under-represented in skeptic groups. I had to bite my tongue when told by a skeptic in a pub that "they're not interested in these things" because otherwise I would have had to point out that they were perilously close to saying "you're not like the rest of them", that favourite get-out clause for my racist childhood friends. Recent experiences in my own life, since "coming out" as an ex-Muslim atheist, have led me to believe that there is a pressing need to create opportunities for people from Muslim backgrounds to engage with skeptic and atheist movements.

There are cultural issues that make it difficult for people from certain backgrounds to engage with other skeptics or to be openly sceptical about things like religion or "alternative" medicine. The mainstream skeptic community should be aware of this and do what they can to help support those less fortunate than themselves. It's not good enough to tell people with concerns like mine that "no one can prevent you from setting up a forum for black atheists".

But that's not the only aspect of the UK skeptic movement that I think needs challenging. To me, it looks like skeptics spend a large part of their efforts "preaching to the choir" or trying to change the minds of people who are just never going to change their minds. I see little evidence of the UK skeptic movement targeting that group of people who are still in the process of deciding what to believe and how to think about the world: children.

There is a genuine need to help young people improve their critical thinking skills. It seems to me that campaigning to make the teaching of critical thinking more important in schools, or creating resources to help schools teach it, might be useful things for skeptics to do. Tim Minchin's Pope Song is a work of genius, but it's hardly appropriate for use in schools. How about putting some of that imagination and creativity to work producing stuff that might get used in school religious education or science lessons?

If you're poor or if you're from a strictly religious family, like many of my students are, then it's likely that school is the only place you might ever get to listen to and engage with someone like Richard Dawkins in person. So, instead of getting these brilliant people to go and talk in pubs or at conferences, where everybody already knows what they're going to say, why not get them into schools where they might inspire a new generation of skeptics?

Sure, there are practical hurdles and you'll need to find out a little about the rules and regulations that schools have about these things, but a lot of schools already have external speaker programmes and many would welcome the calibre of speaker that Skeptics in the Pub attracts. Children are natural skeptics, they want to challenge authority and doctrine – help them do so.

Let me be clear: I know of, and hugely admire, the good work that many skeptics do, for example when they challenge the false advertising of "alternative" medicine and the inappropriate use of NHS funds, and expose the charlatans who make money by lying to the bereaved and desperate.

I'm glad there is a skeptic movement in the UK. I'm glad that skeptics have a sense of community and find ways to hang out together and celebrate their common beliefs. These things are important – ask any churchgoer. But if skeptics are going to live up to some of the crusading hype that often accompanies their rhetoric, they're going to have to step out of the pub far more often.

ollowers gather in pubs and hotels to hear famous skeptics reinforce their own sense of superior rationality.


yeah, I see that.

Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!

PostPosted: 06 Jul 2017, 20:18 
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