During my PhD as part of my transferable skills training, I was given the opportunity to take a course to develop my presentation skills. The irony, however, was that the individual running it was awful at presenting and did the whole course using PowerPoint slides.
When Frank Swain presented at Westminster Skeptics last week, I had high hopes for his talk as I certainly have concerns about some of the motives within the Skeptics community, for example that skeptics seem to meet at events just to pat each other on the back. I had heard that Frank is an engaging speaker, and I expected a constructive critique of what we can do better in terms of reaching out to the public. I was disappointed with his talk and had little to get excited about: I am not so bold as to say that he is a poor public speaker (in fact, I believe the contrary is true) but he was highly critical, confrontational, and only in a few places did he provide any direction on what we can do to improve. It stank of a talk that was not about providing tools and engaging the community but simply to cause a stir.
My concerns started as Frank implied that the Skeptics community is a homogeneous set of ideas and beliefs, yet he refused to define exactly what the Skeptics community is and weaselled his way out of explaining several other strong points. Vibes of the mainstream media tactics employed in the recent story on the oral contraceptives in 11-year-old girls rang throughout his talk. Frank seems to have very personal ideas of what engagement is and what is the singular way of progressing the movement: the 10:23 Campaign, for example, was always a protest aimed at Boots and their continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, but his view is that it was not an engagement. Even if this were the case, in my opinion this does not mean that 10:23 did not educate or achieve something (I will not dwell on this point for long as it has been covered well elsewhere).
In November 2009, I launched ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ (SITP) in Cambridge. The major aim of the group is to bring people together to gain a greater understanding of the world, to promote critical thinking, while engaging the non-university population in the hope of bridging the town-gown divide. Holding the talks in a pub, rather than a lecture theatre, is one of the attractions of the group to our target audience. Due to the sterling work of Simon Singh when we launched, our main press engagement was through BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. We never tried hard to pull in the Skeptics crowd; they found us by themselves.
At the talks themselves, we may at times be guilty of preaching to the crowd, but SITP is an engagement activity on some level. Considering that I have never been to another SITP meeting, I came up with the format for the Cambridge group with no prior knowledge as to how the other groups were presented. Looking at other Outreach projects within Cambridge, I found there was a hole that needed to be filled.
Despite Frank’s attempts to debate the field as a whole, skepticism has a wide range of active supporters; therefore, you cannot critique a casual blogger in the same way as you would the achievements of Evan Harris, who campaigned for many causes in Parliament. The implied result is to tar a group in Cambridge (which works in conjunction with a world-leading university’s Communication Office and alongside some other amazing societies such as Triple Helix, Café Scientific or Pugwash Society) with the same brush as someone who writes a blog in the corner of the web. This is not unfair, it is nonsensical, and is about as valid as saying that those who blog about and attend football matches are Premier League footballer players. (That is not to say that you do not need both.)
My feelings on the subject as a whole are that there is not really a Skeptic community or movement yet. Skepticism is a way of thinking. For many, it is hobby more than protest, which is a great thing. For me, SITP was never about skepticism; it was about letting others and myself gain access to topics that we would just love to hear about. I am not a skeptic or hobbyist but a full-time research scientist. At work, I use critical thinking and reasoning. When I go the pub, I am just interested to hear other people’s opinions, and that is exactly what you get at the SITP talks: opinion, not fact. They are always interesting and you never know what might inspire people.
The beauty of skepticism is that it is never going to be a singular idea. It does not force people to agree, rather it is a way of thinking and working with information. Skepticism and critical thinking is the basis of not just science and maths but the arts too: I have fond memories of GCSE History lessons involving discussions based on both fact and opinion. While every university has an Outreach department, while people work in school engagement or communication, then skepticism will keep growing.
Here is my solution to what you you should be doing. Create engaging activities, blogs or websites. Do not necessarily make them about skepticism, but do incorporate it. Have your own agenda, do not follow that of others for the sake of it. SITP is a wonderful brand but do not rely on it, there are plenty of other things to be done. If you are successful, you may get noticed, but do not expect thanks or money.
I will end on this point: if Frank’s talk had really covered the points well and engaged us, we would have learnt from it and currently be planning what we could do better. It is a shame as, even though he had some important points that we really need to take notice of, he just failed to communicate them.