Griffith University Skeptics and Freethinkers

“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?”

In Discrimination, Ethics in Schools, GUSSF Events!, Helping our community., Responses to the media, Science, TAM Australia on October 27, 2010 at 5:13 PM

Why not do both?

The following (rant) was written in response to this posting by Alom Shaha on the Guardian Science Blog, and so without first reading Mr Shaha’s article, my response may make little to no sense although I’ll let you be the judge.

Alom,
Where does this plainly false dichotomy come from?

Have you considered that perhaps time spent at gatherings of like-minded skeptics is not a waste of time, or rather has the potential to not be, or that perhaps not all Skeptics in the Pub events are alike?

Have you considered that perhaps the time spent at such events does not equate to time not spent engaging with “the public”, particularly when such events are open, welcoming and/or even appreciated by the public?

Have you considered that I do not self describe as a ‘Skeptic” because I want to show off that I’m super smart and rational (the former couldn’t be further for the truth while the latter is an aim, not a guarantee due to my all too human brain).

I organise a Skeptics in the pub event that does not have a guest speaker as such, but is more of a round table discussion of recent news, activities, tactics, anecdotes, jokes and social drinking.

I assist in other Skeptics in the Pub events that host speakers from an impressively wide range of fields and specialties have extensive and sometimes heated Q & A’s after, and at not one of these events have I left the talk having not learned something new.

I definitely enjoy a few pints at each, but never have I gone home with ‘beliefs’ in how smart and rational I am confirmed or denied, rather I feel the satisfaction of learning something new and anticipate the further questions all new knowledge raises. The more I learn the more there is to learn, as I’m sure you can appreciate.

We have had “celebrities” at our events, such at Professor Ian Frazer, past Australian of the year and creator of the HPV vaccine speaking on the history of opposition to vaccination. I should point out that our events are open to and advertised to and for the public to attend, are informative, educating and entertaining events that would not exist were it not for the dedicated skeptics that volunteer to organize them.

Here in Australia we have one conference per year and this year we are fortunate enough to be hosting TAM Australia in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics Annual convention, and I am greatly looking forward to the talks of every single speaker, not to bolster my own ‘beliefs’ but to learn and share ideas. Between the lectures, I’ll be helping to manage a Freethought University Alliance stall that is being provided free of charge by the organizers of TAM Australia.

In comparing any event/conference/convention to a church, I do not understand what your goal may be or what you believe is achieved by the comparison?

May I humbly suggest that the divisive, misguided and cruel “Skeptic baiting” you refer to is based entirely on your own assumptions and generalizations, is a slap in the face of all the people who have worked bloody hard to organise such events, and is as far from constructive criticism as you can get.

If you see a genuine 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, don’t insult and complain about the very people to whom you are trying to get your message across!

Isn’t the “skeptic movement” achieving definite and quantifiable results through achievements world wide, growth, and recognition internationally both within our community as well as externally through both the internet and traditional media. Our internal publics are growing, but our external publics are far from forgotten and are actually in some cases aware of our existence.

You met a skeptic who held what I would consider a racist attitude, and you’re not alone in thinking that people from ethnic minorities are under-represented in skeptic groups, however I don’t understand the relevance of these important issues to the “skeptic baiting” proceeding it. You say you “had to bite your tongue’ but the reality is you choose to bite your tongue in response to an ignorant statement that happened to be made by an individual at a Skeptical event. That was your choice, not the one I would have made, and the venue where this discussion took place is irrelevant as I’m sure you must know. Unless you are attempting to imply some sort of implicit or explicit racism within either critical thinking or scientific skepticism, I fail to see your point, assuming of course that there was one.

Every Skeptic event I have hosted, helped with and/or attended has been nothing if not inclusive. I have had members of my university group from all nationalities, ethnicities and backgrounds, but I’ve never considered this as an issue, rather I was pleased to have attendees at all and all our members were pleased to have a venue to speak freely, to discuss, to debate and to share knowledge as equals.
Skepticism (with a K to denote it as scientific skepticism rather than philosophical skepticism) is many things to many people. To me it has become evidence based social justice, activism, investigation, science communication and education, promotion of critical thinking, consumer advocacy and above all a methodological and informed way of thinking based on logic, reason and the scientific method.

Advocacy of quality science education and critical thinking programs in schools is not the exclusive domain of the Skeptical community although I’m sure the majority of members of said community support the application, assessment and improvement of both. For the reasons outlined in Daniel Loxton’s “Where Do We Go From Here” essay, I believe it should not be our primary concern, rather one of many causes we can support.

“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?”

This assertion that Skeptics in the Pub events are somehow detrimental to school children’s education is patently absurd. As I mentioned, I for one don’t arrogantly assume I know exactly what the speaker at such events is going to say, nor do I believe that holding open, public events aimed at educating members of skeptical groups as well as the wider public is somehow taking away opportunities from school children.
I share your admiration in

“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.”

However failing to acknowledge that Skeptics in the Pub events serve many functions that aid in creating and strengthening the communities that can co-ordinate to perform “good work” is a massive failing on your part. If you want to be involved, be involved, if you don’t, don’t, but if you really want to influence this movement then lead by example and do it from the inside, starting with self-criticism, a dash of humility and perhaps a helpful suggestion or two, otherwise your petty venting will appear to be just that.

Jayson D Cooke

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