Faithlessness, Skepticism

Skeptic Seems to be the Hardest Word

It sounds like heresy but I think it is time to consider adopting other names for Skeptics in the Pub groups.

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EDIT: Some splendid alternative views are now available from Tannice Pendegrass and from the 21st Floor. Please have a read of them.

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I love Skeptics in the Pub. I love organising Horsham SitP. I love it when audience-members tell me how much they enjoyed the evening and how it has affected the way they think about things. Many of these people express surprise; they weren’t expecting something called “Skeptics in the Pub” to be so interesting, welcoming and generally pleasant.

My audience isn’t what you might think of as an audience of skeptics. I suspect many of them are never called skeptics except when they are at SitP.

Outside of SitP and the Skeptoweb, I most often come across the word “skeptical” on the Today programme. Most of these occasions it make me wince. Your experience may differ from mine but I most often hear the word used to express doubt. Not just clean, scientific doubt either but a kind of belief position, an opinion – I believe your claim is doubtful. The word is, in my experience, used as a mealy-mouthed way of saying “I disagree. I don’t believe you” rather than “I will suspend judgement until more evidence comes to light”. Using the word “sceptical” sometimes makes it sound like they are being more open-minded than they really are. I don’t think they’re actually thinking about it that hard though.

(I also think the K / C thing matters only to skceptics, so that isn’t what I’m interested in.)

I Was Wrong Though

You can imagine my disappointment then, when I did a bit of research only to find out that my perception was not that accurate. I was interested in finding out if there was a real problem in the difference between the intended meaning of the word and the listener’s understanding of what was meant.

I carried out a little Facebook survey, boiling down what I thought were the most common uses of the word and asked this question:

 

Which of these options most closely describes what you think people usually mean when they say they are “Sceptical” about a particular idea? (This is about your perception of what other people mean – not what you think it means)

1. That they are opposed to it.

2. That they are willing to form a judgement based on evidence.

3. That they won’t ever form a judgement as they may be unaware of vital evidence.

 

The results came out like this:

They are opposed to it: 12 votes

Will form a judgement based on evidence: 25 votes

Won’t ever form a judgement: 6 votes

 

On the face of it, that is a resounding success for the preferred definition of us skeptics. 58% of those who responded gave us the answer that we would like them to give.

Obviously, this was not a fair sample of the population. I was able to see which way self-identified skeptics voted. Here are the results again, but this time with the number of people I knew to be skeptics:

 

They are opposed to it: 12 votes (3 known skeptics)

Willing to form a judgement based on evidence: 25 votes (8 known skeptics)

Won’t ever form a judgement: 6 votes (0 known skeptics)

 

Skeptics think other people know what they mean when they say “skeptical”

What this tells me is this. Having being specifically asked a question which required skeptics to put themselves in the mind of “most people” and give the answer “most people” would give, the majority of skeptics chose the meaning that most matches their own definition.

It could be the case that the skeptics are right to think most people have the same working definition that they use. Or it could be that skeptics over-estimate the extent to which the word “sceptical” is understood. Indeed, the “right” answer (2) still wins by a long way if the known skeptics are removed from the pool.

Thanks to the magic of confirmatory bias, I am able to infer from these results that I was right all along. A significant number of ordinary people (non-skeptics, I mean) do not use the same working definition that we skeptics do.

The name “Skeptics in the Pub”.

Does the phrase describe anything accurately? If I was to try to define from scratch what the Horsham SitP audience actually is so that an alien would know what I meant, would I say they are skeptics, in a pub? No. A few of them are skeptics, the rest are just people interested in hearing experts speak in their local pub.

Does the term refer to the speakers – is it the speakers that are the skeptics, in the pub? Sometimes.

So the name doesn’t really describe the group or the event in any objective way. It sounds like a club for skeptics. Who wants to go to a club for skeptics? Not even skeptics, probably. A skeptical society could reasonably be called a club for skeptics, but skeptical societies and SitP are clearly not the same thing.

Why do we do it?

So, maybe the term “skeptics in the Pub” accurately describes what am I trying to do with my SitP group? Sort of. I am trying to promote critical thinking and all that flows from it including science, skepticism, scepticism and philosophy while also spreading the word about quacks, fakes, charlatans and religions and other cults. You know – all that stuff.

Who am I trying to reach with this message – is it confirmed skeptics? Not really, except so that we can unite and form a skeptical society.

My real interest, the reason I spend so much time (and money) on it is to reach out to those people who are unaware of skepticism. I want believers to feel welcomed in. While they are in my pub, they can’t escape the critical thinking. I want people who haven’t really thought about all this stuff to come along and find out that they like what the skeptics do and how we think and maybe they’ll be inspired to act like skeptics more in future. I want those of us that already know this stuff to be spreading the word to those who believe the opposite or have just never thought about it at all, actively fighting our intellectual corner. Engagement. Face to face, engagement.

Does the name “Skeptics in the Pub” attract people who don’t identify with the term for whatever reason? Hardly ever.

Like Jesus said:

They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick… for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Matthew 9:11-13

**ONLY HALF JOKING**

Get to the Point

My point is this. I believe that the word “Skeptic” is often a hindrance to the promotion of skepticism. I believe that when people see an advert for “Skeptics in the Pub” they often don’t read it in the way we want them to (whether we like it or not).

I propose that SitP groups be free to choose their own names. Names that suit their particular corner of the country. That is all.

I believe that this can happen without interfering with what SitP is all about. The excellent support network (Simon Perry’s website/email system) has the potential to support a larger presence than we currently have. We are absolutely blessed to have been provided with such a superb system for getting new groups going. Despite the reputation of atheists and skeptics, we are actually a highly organised group. We share one common goal and we work together remarkably well to make it all happen.

Which makes me wonder why so few people go to SitP. When we were keeping numbers a while ago, it emerged that each month there were a only few hundred people going to these things. For a group with no budget, that relies entirely on volunteers, we don’t do badly at all. But those groups whom we are working against have gigantic budgets and armies of brainwashed volunteers slaving away on their behalf. I am referring of course to the cults, the religions, the anti-vaxxers and the rest. They can use the internet too, and right now, they are winning at it.

We are up against far better equipped forces and if we are to make greater progress then we must pull out all the stops. We can’t afford to cling to things that hold us back, just on a point of flimsy principle. The word “Skeptic” holds us back. It gets in the way of promoting skepticism and scepticism. It gives people an excuse to ignore us.

I would still readily associate the Horsham group with SitP. There is no need to hide the “Skeptics in the pub” name. The network would still be the SitP network, and it would still be supporting pro-skepticism pub talks, but the talks needn’t all bear that name.

I see pub talks as just one facet of skeptical activism. Just one weapon in our arsenal. SitP have proven that when it comes to supporting skeptical pub-talks, they are brilliant. But pub talks are not the whole story. I want more skeptical societies to get started, doing outreachy stuff as well as pub talks.

I have lots more to say, but I have already gone on too long.

In closing, we have nothing fear in allowing ourselves to adapt in ways that help us popularise the concept of skepticism. Even if it sometimes means letting go of that word.

 

12 Comments

  1. September 22, 2012    

    I did write a big old reply to this, but I decided it was too long and so I’ve made it into a far-too-long-probably blog post.

    Here http://bit.ly/NJrq9j

  2. September 21, 2012    

    I am not suggesting ditching the word skepticism. I am suggesting that SitP groups be free to name themselves something else if they think it will help promote skepticism more effectively.
    I don’t know if language has changed, but I know that on the vast majority of instances of the word “sceptical” being used, it is used badly. I don’t see any sign of this changing and I’d rather concentrate on promoting the concept of skepticism than trying to reclaim the word.

  3. September 20, 2012    

    Sorry if this seems a dense questions, but is it your position that Carl Sagan and the other people setting up the Skeptical movement made an ill-advised choice, or that language has changed since then so that the word has taken on different connotations?

  4. Patrick (@paddyrex)
    September 20, 2012    

    You are obviously free to do as you please and I don’t see that it will make that much difference. But then that’s the point, it won’t make a lot of difference. Yours and our audience are mainly people that don’t identify as skeptic, so how are non-skeptics being put off?

    I have dealings with Alpha and they are good, but they aren’t us and in some respects adopting the practices that they do is counter to what we want to achieve, promoting critical thinking and self reliance. If we want to reach as many people as them we have a long way to go. We also have to realise that we are the odd ones out. I’m not saying we are superior, but we’ve realised that we are pattern recognising monkeys and wish to share that. Many people are happy to enjoy the patterns.

    At Birmingham we try to encourage as many people as possible and, for example, the man who shared his UFO encounter with us got a round of applause (very Oprah). Skepticism doesn’t have to work one way and we try to encourage those that are skeptical of the skeptics to come to the skeptic meetings and be skeptical. There is no real evidence that we are successful but word spreads, a range of people come through the door and hopefully we are judged by our deeds and not our name.

    I have no opposition to you or anybody finding a name that is more suited, but I am struggling to come up with one that in some way won’t put people off, will be honest and will attract the non-skeptic. Science in the Pub? Critical Drinkers? I’ll share this post on our Facebook page, it’ll be interesting to see if we get a reaction.

    • September 20, 2012    

      I actually quite like “critical drinkers”! Sounds like an evening event I’d want to go to. Then again, maybe the people who object to “skeptic” will object to “critical thinking” on similar grounds.

      • September 21, 2012    

        Critical thinking does not have the same degree of negative connotation that Skepticism has, in my view.

        Fair points Patrick – I don’t have all the answers and am looking forward to more discussion.

  5. September 20, 2012    

    Put “right now, they are winning” in context. The Skeptical movement was, for decades, very, very much smaller and less diverse than it now is. The ratio of skeptical content to pseudoscience or uncritical content in mainstream media was very much less than it is now.
    Skeptic was a one-word marker for a movement, for example in the names of the Skeptic magazines (the British/Irish one or elsewhere), Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptical Briefs or the various skeptic books, or groups like the Association of Skeptical Enquiry (which you can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of). Of course people opposed to skepticism will try to take on the positive associations for their own perspectives: they do that with truth, reason, evidence and any label we ever think up in future.
    I think it was useful to have an instantly identifiable rallying point, so that someone with a shelf full of those books would know that there is a group that’ll be receptive to their views. Maybe the situation is different now- I don’t know either way. I think of what I am promoting as “scientific and critical thinking”. There isn’t a one-word substitute for that, and even that phrase misses the point of the skeptical movement, which isn’t just to do what scientists do.
    You don’t mention at all any of the historical/philosophical meanings of “scepticism”. If people stay true to the relevant meanings, would you accept that as a reason to use the term nowadays. Example: there are popular misconceptions about what a Luddite is, or what a Marxist is. If someone created a social group that was Luddite in the original sense, would you want them to correct it to fit in with popular misconceptions of the word Luddite?

    • September 20, 2012    

      By winning, I refer to stuff like the latest version of the Alpha website http://www.alpha.org/. Which has incorporated even more downloadable materials for Alpha groups to get started, including a snazzy set of interviews with athletes cashing in on the olympics and pushing their message ever more slickly.

      Not only their website but the various huge christian residential gatherings where entire families spend a week praying & celebrating their righteousness. New families are joining up to these groups. Brighton runs three alpha courses a year – each starting with about 100 people, roughly half of whom (by my reckoning) will not have been to one before whereas the SitP group is a fraction of that.

      These groups are getting better at playing the game. Skepticism has done a magnificent job but I feel like we are in danger of losing the initiative. Clinging to names is not the behaviour of a thriving, successful organisation.

      That said, I must make it clear that I am not saying the SitP machine is busted. I wouldn’t change it at all. I think the SitP machine can accommodate groups that do the same thing but with a different name. I would still say that the “Horsham Interrogarium” is part of the SitP group (though whether they would have me if I chose that name is… doubtful.)

      If groups want to stick with the SitP because it matches their ethos – as with Tim above – I have zero problem with that.

      On the Luddites in the Pub question. Firstly, I wouldn’t want them to do anything unless I was in charge of it. If I was in charge, I would argue that the concept of pure luddism is more important than the word “luddite”. I would suggest that a name free from popular misconception would be easier to market, and I would sacrifice the term Luddite in favour of what it represents.

      If it was “Sunflower lovers in the pub” it would be a different matter. Sunflowers in the pub is a name that we could promote easily and without getting bogged down. Luddite and skeptic do have baggage. To pretend we live in a vacuum where this is not the case would be barmy.

      • September 20, 2012    

        I didn’t dispute that “they” are winning. My point is to put in context: the change from the situation not very long ago.
        Fair enough about a Luddite group. Maybe Marxist would be a better example. The point was that you’re using this word purely in terms of a marketing tool: the actual meaning of the word doesn’t seem to be important to you. Not saying that’s wrong: but wanted you to state that that was your perspective.
        I can’t make sense of “Clinging to names is not the behaviour of a thriving, successful organisation.”

        • September 21, 2012    

          If what I’ve written here makes you think the meaning of the word is not important to me than I have certainly failed as a blog writer!
          I am precisely saying that the meaning of the word is more important to me than the word itself.

  6. September 20, 2012    

    “We share one common goal” I’m not certain this is true. At least one SitP organiser of our acquaintance freely admits that the reason he does what he does is to demonstrate his superior reasoning ability to others, and not to further the cause of critical thinking. I hasten to add that this doesn’t make him bad or wrong, just of different (at least conscious) motivation from me.
    That said, I do SitP for a different reason too. I /am/ passionately interested in the promotion of the now ubiquitous “science, reason and critical thinking” but I’m not certain the SitP is particularly about that for me. The reason I run SitP is more about community among skeptics than it is for promoting skepticism among the populace at large; my vision for SitP is “by skeptics, for skeptics” and I want to do other stuff to promote skepticism to wider society, hence my “other projects” (shhhh) that I seek to make more “outward facing”.
    We all do it for different reasons, and we all (probably) do other stuff for other reasons. One of the things I like about SitP is that there isn’t an organisation telling us what we’re doing, how to do it. or why. If you want to change the name of your group to better achieve your aims, that’s cool, but I don’t expect to be changing mine any time soon, It’s fine as it is for my purposes. Of course how many of my regular attendees self-identify as “skeptics” is a mystery to me; maybe I should find out. It still wouldn’t matter. If they all do then My primary goal is achieved, and if none of them do then I’m still cool with non-skeptics coming and learning about stuff, and I get to hear interesting talks and meet cool people. This too is good.

    • September 20, 2012    

      I agree with all of that.
      I don’t wish to impose a wholesale change – there’s no need for it. I just want to use everything single thing that the SitP structure offers, but without necessarily using that name. I wouldn’t distance myself from SitP in any way at all. I’d like to use a different name while assuring the SitP hive-mind that I am not detracting from it at all and that I love them/us just as much as ever.

  1. The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » Skeptic – what’s in a name? on September 22, 2012 at 11:55 pm
  2. Tannice - Skepticism – a rose by any other name? Divisions and semantics on September 22, 2012 at 9:29 pm

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