I went to yesterday’s talk by Wendy Grossman to the Brighton Skeptics in the Pub, in the Caroline of Brunswick on The Level last night. The talk was entitled, “What is Skepticism?” which strangely proved very easy for Ms Grossman to explain to her audience – it was a case of preaching to the converted, of course – but almost impossible for her or her audience to sum up to the bar staff, when they asked. Ms Grossman outlined the criteria for being a Skeptic: being curious about something, investigating the facts thoroughly and being guided by hard nosed evidence. It seems to me that there is another requirement too: to care enough about all the nonsense spun by soothsayers and the like to do something about it.
Having founded a movement nearly 25 years ago, her talk was inevitably biased in favour of her success in founding The Skeptic, the magazine. Fair enough, methinks. However, I did wonder at her reluctance back then to be skeptical about religion. Her grounds were that if she attacked the majority of society, she would persuade no-one. She founded the movement in Dublin. She took issue with the New Athiests for much the same reason. However, I am not convinced that religionists are in the majority nowadays and they have, at least in the USA (which seems to run the rest of the world) been making aggressive inroads into politics. If they can attack science, it seems foolish for scientific peoples to restrain themselves in return. Of course, it is a tricky balance to get right. We must always remember that attacking people for their faith led to all sorts of nastiness: pogroms, stake burnings, discrimination and that the realisation of live and let live as a stance towards religious rights has delivered us with a much more peaceable and safe civil society. We can respect the fact that people may wish to believe in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a Roman Pope or whatever but challenge that belief system when it invades education or any other public space.
However, that is a diversion. There were only two of us in the room who were not already skeptics, in the sense of having been along to meetings before. I was one of them and I am clearly a fellow traveller. Therefore, I’ll forgive Ms Grossman for the easy-going nature of much of what she said. She was engaging and witty. I enjoyed her personal anecdotes about the typical questions from the media, the madness that people will believe if merely asked to and the open-mindedness with which she approached everything. She steadfastly refused to mock the science behind the Alcor Life Extension Foundation – the business using cryogenics to freeze the recently deceased in the hope of restoring them at some suitable future point. She vigorously asserted that being prepared to say she didn’t know the answer was the braver approach towards truth than cowardly jumping to easy answers.
The myth seekers, the religionists and the rest have their meetings so it is a good idea for us rationalists to have ours. I’ll be going to the next one. It pisses me off that companies like Boots promote lies (homeopathy) in the name of health care and I’m pleased to see them being challenged about this. Here’s our local Skeptics making the appropriate protest by “overdosing” on homoepathic arsenic outside the store they bought them in: