Where Is The Effective Sceptical Activism Really Happening?

Skeptics are a funny lot. I have jokingly in the past suggested that modern organized Skepticism follows on from what Charismatic Christianity was in the mid 80’s, Wicca was in the late 80’s/early 90’s and  ufology was in the 90’s and Ghosthunting was in the early 2000’s. It’s a popular movement that attracts intelligent people. They tend to also be White, Middle Class, and liberal-leftist in my experience. Nowt wrong with that.

Now I have many times touched on “effective skeptical activism” – I regard effective skeptics as those who interact with the wider community, and have an informed perspective — lots of examples of this, people like Hayley Stevens, the dudes at RatSkep, and many of the JREF forum posters. However if I ask about effective skeptical activism, people might think of Rhys Morgan, or more likely maybe james Randi, Michael Shermer, and of course the wonderful Ben Goldacre.

But, nah, my eyes have been opened.All these people reach a wide audience – but mainly middle class types I think. Working class types like Trystan and me are still pretty rare in skeptical circles – dunno if Hayley would consider herself one of us, but a lot of sceptical books seemed targeted at Guardian readers – maybe because they are among the few people who still go to Waterstones? 😉

Nope, my eyes were opened because my housemate had a job that required an hour long bus journey each way. So she started to buy Take A Break, Chat, That’s Life, etc, etc, to read  on the bus. These magazines are filled with terrible tragic horrible stories and make me realize just how lucky I am to live as I do, a life where people do not end up regularly end up being murdered, in prison, or with 14 kids or as in the harrowing account I read in one stuck on the loo for five days, paralyzed and too big to escape after a stroke 😦 It’s all a bit Jeremy Kyle, but there are some happy stories in there.

Now I suspect the average skeptic does not read these magazines, where a journalist interviews some unfortunate and tells their woeful tale. Some of the people I find really hard to sympathise with: other i genuinely feel for. Yet this is I think where a huge amount of mass appeal scepticism goes down.

Most of the British public have little interest in evidence based medicine, peer review etc, etc. What they can relate to is stories about people who ended up in hospital after trying a tanning treatment, a diet pill, a miracle supplement, etc, etc. And these little magazines are absolutely full of them, with terrifying before and after pictures. The MHRA and ASA do sterling work, but the first hand accounts in these magazines, along with the wonderful Consumer Affairs show Watchdog, that’s where the real Word goes down.

I’d encourage all skeptics to think carefully about the reach of these publications, what we can learn by looking at them and reading them, and consider buying them alongside The Skeptic and other worthy journals. It’s easy to be snobby: but one story in one of these probably reaches a lot more people whoo might be tempted by scams than a hundred SitP meetings will. Sad, but true.


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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3 Responses to Where Is The Effective Sceptical Activism Really Happening?

  1. vjohn82 says:

    I tried my hand at a number of skeptical blogging activities and interactions and the end result, of being skeptical about a religiously focused book and the author’s marketing strategy, has been a six figure libel court case which still has no end result.

    I see no reason to take any more care in my future writing than I have done in the past as a result of the case but I have lost a year of blogging because of it. I tend to focus more on religious indoctrination within the field of education and other faith based initiatives but I turn my hand to mediums/physics and the like every now and then as my Faith Fruitcake blog attests.

    I am working class, use bad language as a result of my upbringing rather than to be “fashionable” and any education I do have has been the result of my own hard work and not paid for by mummy and daddy. I’m sure my life would have been easier in some respects had my family been richer (and there’s no inherently wrong about families supporting their children to get an education) but I feel like I am constantly in an underdog state when I want to get my voice heard.

    Do other working class skeptics have the same problem in what seems to be a crowded middle class marketplace? Does blogging in general suffer from the same problems people experience as a result of the British class system? Reginald D. Hunter made a point that the British class system is an advanced form of racism; you use it to discriminate against people who look like you. I found that quite funny. That said I find that there is not much which brings people together, from all walks of life, quite like the skeptical movement.

    What you have hit the nail on the head with is that a lot of quackery takes place in the typical women’s magazines and you wouldn’t believe how much takes place in men’s fitness mags (it’s actually quite scary).

    When all is said and done with the libel case, you’ll see more activity from this working class skeptical blogger.

  2. gamerunknown says:

    ^ I think he was pointing out the effectiveness of individual accounts in mass appeal. Sam Harris had a similar point focused on Dunbar’s number, it’s a kind of cognitive bias. More people cared that Amy Winehouse died than 76 Norwegian students for that reason. Likewise with the poor Chinese girl that got run over: it’s easier to empathise with her (unless one has a just world/strict father morality) than with a statistic like “15m children starve to death each year” [don’t have a cite admittedly] and that Wallstats says that the projected cost of wiping out starvation in 2011 was the equivalent of what the US spent on nuclear weapons in 2011. Course, it’s also far easier to institute a bystander rule that penalises individual apathy rather than national apathy.

    The issue is the spotlight fallacy. A small sample group with sensationalised findings can be very, very difficult to dispense with once it’s overstayed its usefulness. As a lefty “sceptic” that’s undergoing an indoctrination/education process (and doing a rather bungling job) I admit that when I check findings I usually only read the abstract and if it agrees with my biases, accept it more or less uncritically. But with studies like Wakefield (1998) or Thigpen and Cleckley (1954), the small sample sizes may be an alarm bell.

    Anyway, hope you had a good Christmas. I’ve been spamming your article on Mythmas on facebook and Straight Dope! You can find me at googlemail (email obvious) or youtube (same username as ever).

    Peace and goodwill,

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hi gamerunknown great to see you here! Ill send you an email tomorrow be great to chat — been ill for a while so sorry for my crapness in responding so late!

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