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