The Skeptic movement

The picture above is from The Amaz!ng Meeting, an annual gathering of Skeptics in Las Vegas

Skepticism is an interesting and vibrant movement that has arisen in the last 40 years, which is to some extent part of the grassroots philosophy landscape. Skeptics might baulk at that affiliation, as they often see themselves as pro-science and, on occasion, anti-philosophy. Nonetheless, philosophers have played an important role in helping modern Skepticism grow, and the Skeptic movement’s vibrancy offer useful lessons for other philosophy groups.

Skepticamps: a recent addition to the Skeptic universe

Skepticism can be seen as a remarkably successful informal learning movement, which has proved that people want to spend their leisure-time learning, discussing ideas and socialising. Today, the Skeptic movement has, by some reckonings, over a million members worldwide. There are large and well-funded Skeptic organisations like  the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation, as well as a flourishing grassroots – roughly 40 Skeptics In the Pub groups around the UK, as many as 200 local Skeptic groups across the US, and other Skeptics groups in Australia, India, continental Europe and beyond. In the last few years, the movement has started producing ‘skepticamps’ – small, informal and self-run pop-up conferences. The Skeptic movement also has several larger conferences like The Amaz!ng Meeting, which attracts around 1500 attendees. There are several popular Skeptic magazines and podcasts, and posts on the leading Skeptic blogs regularly attract several hundred comments. Skeptic books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jon Ronson and Richard Wiseman top the bestseller list.

More generally, the Skeptic movement has helped to shift cultural attitudes and led to greater social appreciation for scientific thinking, intelligence and ‘geekiness’, and may have contributed to the sharp rise in the number of openly atheistic people in the US. Skepticism is arguably the most vital community within grassroots philosophy, though its growth has also brought teething problems.

A brief history

Paul Kurtz, founder of CSICOP

The modern Skeptic movement, as an organised force, arguably first appeared in 1976, when the philosopher Paul Kurtz proposed the establishment of a Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) at the American Humanist Association annual convention. CSICOP launched as a committee with founder members including the magicians James Randi and Martin Gardner. The founders were startled by the popularity of paranormal and New Age beliefs in the 1970s, and the extent to which paranormal claims by gurus like Uri Geller were disseminated unchallenged in the media. CSICOP’s charter called for the establishment of a network of Skeptics to investigate claims of the paranormal, as well as a magazine (initially called The Zetetic, then Skeptical Inquirer) and conferences to spread Skeptic thinking.

The Skeptic movement grew out of Humanism and atheism, which established themselves as social movements in the mid-19th century. But while the Humanist movement attempted to be a positive belief-system and often copied aspects of organised religion (hymns, rituals, holy days and so on), Skepticism confined itself to joyfully debunking others’ outlandish truth-claims, particularly belief in wacky phenomena like UFOs, Big Foot, astrology, spoon-bending, psychic mediums and so on. It was more irreverent, and more aggressive, than traditional Humanism, and it was also arguably more media-savvy and more entertaining, thanks to the magicians in its ranks, like James Randi, and later to the many comedians who supported the movement.

Fans of James Randi at The Amazing Meeting

In the 1980s, CSICOP started to set up local groups: the first was in Austin, Texas in 1981, followed by the Bay Area Skeptics in 1982. CSICOP organizers travelled the world, building networks of correspondence and inspiring the foundation of other Skeptic organisations and local groups in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. The magician James Randi, in particular, played a tireless missionary role, nurturing the global Skeptic community both through his TV appearances and tours, and through his correspondence with Skeptics around the world. His visit to Australia in 1980, for example, inspired the foundation of Australian Skeptics and its Skeptic magazine. He has also encouraged the UK’s Skeptics In the Pub movement, through his friendship with Sid Rodrigues (see the appendix for interviews with Randi and Rodrigues).

While the Skeptic movement continued to grow in the 1990s, arguably it really took off in the noughties, thanks to the internet, which enabled Skeptics to organise into groups, and to communicate with each other via podcasts, blogs, forums and email lists. The grassroots of the movement started to blossom, without any intervention from larger organisations like CSICOP. In 1999, philosophy PhD Scott Campbell launched Skeptics In the Pub in London, inspired by Australia’s Philosophy In Pubs and Science In Pubs movements (see the appendix for an interview with Scott). Skeptics In The Pub events typically feature a well-known speaker giving a talk for around 40 minutes, followed by a question-and-answer session and general drinking and socialising. Scott says: “The events tended to be less serious than Humanist events. They were not very solemn at all, more jolly and drunken.”

In 2003, the James Randi Educational Foundation started to hold an annual conference, called The Amaz!ng Meeting, which hosted a mixture of scientists, magicians and comedians. TAM has run every year since then, and attendance has grown from 150 in 2003 to 1650 in 2011. Other Skeptic, atheist and free-thinking conferences include Skepticon, CSICON, Skeptical, NorthEast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), the European Skeptics Conference, and the World Skeptics Congress. There are even Skeptic cruise-ship package holidays.

The Skeptic movement has become increasingly politicised

The Skeptics movement reached a critical mass in the last five years, in part thanks to the success of New Atheist books by thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have also been prominent speakers at Skeptic events. In the last two years, over 15 Skeptics In the Pub groups have been set up around the UK, bringing the total number to around 40. The movement has gone from marginal to mainstream, much to the consternation of some members.

Skepticism has become more politicised – see The Geek Manifesto for a recent rallying cry – and in the UK, it successfully campaigned to reform English libel laws after one of its prominent members, Simon Singh, was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (Singh won the case). The British Skeptic community has also recently supported the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign to protect government funding of science, and has waged public campaigns against the truth-claims of homeopathy.

Skepticism’s ‘teething problems’

While the ranks of the Skeptics has grown, it remains dominated by white, middle class males. According to a survey by Rodridgues, 98% of attendees of London Skeptics In the Pub are white, and around 70% are male. The age demographic may have broadened in the last decade, however, with 27% of attendees under 30, 23% under 40, and the remainder over 40.

The movement prides itself on its intelligence and academic qualifications: a survey in 1991 found that 54% of readers of the Skeptical Inquirer had an advanced degree and 27% a doctoral degree. It may be becoming less academic as it broadens into a mass movement, and there is some evidence that many recent ‘converts’ to atheism have a lower-than-average standard of education, but Rodrigues’ 2010 survey of London Skeptics still found that 40% had a degree and 34% a postgraduate degree. Roughly 80% of London Skeptics are atheists, according to Rodrigues, and 8% agnostic.

The success and rapid growth of the movement over the last five years has brought some “teething problems”, in the phrase of Rodrigues. On the one hand, there have been concerns within the Skeptic community about the aggressive tone and incivility of discussions, particularly on blogs. Paul Kurtz, the founder of the movement, resigned “under duress” from CSICOP (by then called the Centre for Scientific Inquiry) after protesting against the organisation’s “mean-spirited ridicule and criticism” of religion, including its sponsorship of ‘Blasphemy Day’.

Others have complained that the movement is becoming scientistic, close-minded, anti-philosophical and even anti-intellectual (see, for example, the concerns expressed by prominent Skeptic Massimo Pigliucci in an interview in the appendix). The movement is also going through a internal wrangle over the continued gender imbalance in the movement and the (alleged) misogyny of some male Skeptics online and at Skeptic events. An incident involving Rebecca Watson being propositioned in an elevator (since canonised as ‘elevator-gate’) led to a bitter, vitriolic and on-going debate within the community about the degree to which the community is male-dominated and sexist.

These criticisms (or self-criticisms) are not new. Soon after CSICOP was founded almost 40 years ago, some of its founders resigned in protest, saying it was not objectively investigating paranormal activity but instead was banging the drum for a materialist world-view while suppressing any data that didn’t fit that world-view. In the 1980s, psychic and paranormal investigators criticised Skeptics for being aggressively scientistic and rude, and also for the movement’s dominance by old white middle-class men. They also noted the movement’s Manichean sense of ‘Us versus Them’, and its almost apocalyptic rhetoric.

But perhaps these issues have become more pressing as the community has grown in size, and started to mean more to its members. As more people self-identify as Skeptics and feel emotionally affiliated to a ‘Skeptic community’, arguments over the identity and governance of that community become much more emotionally-charged. This, in some ways, is the paradox of the ‘Community of Reason’ – as soon as it becomes a genuine community, it becomes less rational, and more emotional and dogmatic.

From an outsider’s perspective, the US Skeptic community may be more emotive and vitriolic compared to the European and Australian communities, perhaps because American Skeptics are much more outnumbered, marginalised, and disliked in American society. This is likely to make American Skeptics identify more strongly with the Skeptic community, and also to make the tone of American Skepticism more strident and confrontational – there is still so much to fight for in the US, where the Religious Right is a serious political force.

There are also, perhaps, clear political differences between American Skepticism and European Skepticism, and these differences may widen as the Skeptic movement becomes more politically mobilised. American Skeptics are more likely to be libertarians, or even Objectivists, whose core value is freedom, while European Skeptics are more likely to be progressivists, whose core value is social justice. This split can be seen particularly in the Skeptic movement’s attitudes to climate change, where American Skeptics are much more likely to be skeptical than climate change is man-made or a threat to business-as-usual.

What’s the cultural impact of Skepticism?

These feuds and disagreements aside, the Skeptic movement should be applauded for its success in building a vibrant grassroots community, and other philosophy groups can learn lessons from its success. First of all, the community works through a combination of well-funded, top-down national or regional organisations, which host large conferences, and smaller, local, self-run groups. Secondly, the movement draws a lot of its vibrancy from magazines and podcasts. Thirdly, the movement is funny, entertaining and irreverent. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has a lot of comedians, magicians and other entertainers in it. Finally, it has started to define clear political goals, and also has found (some would say even nurtured) easy-to-hate enemies.

The movement may have contributed to the steep rise in self-reported atheists in the US (from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2011) and the fall in those who describe themselves as religious, from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2011. It is becoming less taboo not to be religious in America.

Geeks: from outsiders to mainstream heroes

The movement has also contributed to a greater cultural acceptance, and celebration, of ‘geeks’, ‘nerds’, ‘boffins’ and so on – it has become something of a badge of honour to describe oneself as that. There are many reasons for that cultural shift, perhaps primarily the dot.com boom and the rise of nerds geeks like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to the top of the global rich-list. In a knowledge economy, the more intelligent and scientifically literate you are, the more you are likely to earn, and the more attractive you may be as a mate. This is good news for nerds.

You notice the cultural shift particularly in high school and college movies. In Grease (1978), the school nerd, Eugene, is still a figure of ridicule while the dominant males are leather-jacketed rebels. By the time of 21 Jump Street (2012) or The Social Network (2011), the nerds are the dominant males.

The rise of Skeptics has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of geek culture like superhero comics, sword & sorcery fantasy and science fiction: many Skeptics are also sci-fi, fantasy and superhero nerds, who will attend both TAM and Comic Con (indeed, some comic conventions now hold Skeptic side-events). You could speculate that the Skeptics, having rejected organized religion, instead construct their own, disposable religion out of Batman, Gandalf, Dr Spock and other pop culture icons.

Superhero movies, which are now mainstream blockbusters, often tell the story of the rise of the geek from nerdy outsider to all-powerful dominant male (think of Spiderman, or Iron Man, or The Hulk). It is the story of the scientific intelligentsia’s own rise to power since World War II, turned into myth, and endlessly re-told. But the Skeptics’ self-mythification as put-upon outsiders may be growing as tired as the superhero story. The nerds aren’t outsiders anymore – they already run the world.

Comments:

  • Kirk says:

    What bothers me most about the skeptic movement is that it essentially says the same thing over and over again. I used to read a couple of their magazines, and every other article was about proving the non-existence of god. There is also a clear “we’re better than you” mentality which is very dangerous.

    On the other hand, I think the work these people do regarding medical issues – especially Steve Novella and his Science Based Medicine blog – is essential. Too many people get swindled by bogus “alternative treatments,” and the anti-vaccination movement has already led to an increase in certain diseases.

    However, these are two very different parts of a heterogenous movement. I think some of these people do a lot of good, but many of them do more harm than good because of their attitudes.

  • Frugal Stoic says:

    They don’t exactly resemble the Academic Skeptics, do they? Although perhaps the constant questioning of God is an accurate parallel.

    By the way, are you coming to the USA anytime soon? I didn’t see anything on the Events page. I’d be happy to help if you come to my city, feel free to shoot me an email.

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