A List of Skeptical Things…


People are always asking me what skepticism is. As this is a notoriously difficult question to answer accurately in a few words, I tend to mumble something incoherent and run away. The same goes for questions about what happens at Skeptics in The Pub events. Trying to dispel the notion that we simply get together for a few drinks and slag things off is difficult to do in casual conversation. Especially as Skeptics in The Pub does occasionally fit that description. I would rather never have to answer these sorts of questions at all. The problem is that at the same time, I do want to convey to people outside of our strange little world what it is exactly that we do, and why it interests me. Why do I go to skeptical events at all? What first grabbed  me and pulled me into this world that so many of my friends and family think is some kind of science cult for the culturally depressed?

I don’t think that giving a description of ‘what skepticism is’ is going to help illuminate someone who is coming to this cold, if only because I don’t think people come to skepticism cold. They come to it gradually, absorbing it piece by piece through a kind of osmosis. Then one day they realise that their vaguely connected interests and questions have led them into a particular area of thought and activism called skepticism, like walking down a cul-de-sac to find a party at the bottom. Then they find they have to put up with people asking them ‘what skepticism is’ and are reduced to writing amateurish blogposts like this one in order to avoid giving an answer…

What I thought I would do instead is go through a selection of some of the books/podcasts/programs that formed my skeptical education – for want of a better term. All of these things opened up my mind in some way, either teaching me something I didn’t know, portraying the things I already knew in a fresh light, or both. They cleared away some of the mental fog that surrounded me, and simultaneously made me realise how much I didn’t know and how much there was to learn. In short, they woke me up a little. I list them here as suggestions for those new to skepticism, in the hope that the effect they had on me may be replicated for them. Even if only one person is inspired, that is still worth the attempt. I’m probably not suggesting anything here most skeptics haven’t already heard of, as I won’t be going far from the beaten track so to speak, but you may get something from my tuppence-worth of thoughts on them regardless. It’s not an exhaustive list, just a list of books I’ve read essentially, and of other things aside from books, too. This is basically my attempt to justify all those hours of my life spent absorbing knowledge that has basically sat in my head all this time with nowhere to go. Validate me, oh wonderful blogosphere!

Books:

The Bible – my first exercise in skepticism, when I wasn’t even aware what it was. You often hear from theists turned atheists that reading the bible from beginning to end with an open and critical mind was the turning point in their journey away from belief. I can completely understand why. Although I have always been atheist, I have also always had an interest in religions themselves, and a few years ago while on hard times and unemployed with lots of spare time I decided to read the Bible right through, in as objective a way as possible. What you get, divorced from the highly selective quotes priests throw out of pulpits like m & ms designed to lead you, ET-like, up the garden path of belief, is a fascinating collection of historical texts from many different periods of time, that give a huge insight into what people have believed in over the years, their intentions and their dreams, their preferred reading materials, their rituals, way of life: everything. It is a great historical compendium. It is also an extremely unpleasant book, filled with the worst kinds of disgusting violence, racial hatred and misogyny, just to list a few of its repellent peccadilloes. However, what you receive overall is a sense of how building a narrow religious worldview around a book such as this is in reality a rather daft and thankless task. You wonder why they bother; but then, maybe the main lesson to be learnt here is that most Christians don’t read the whole Bible. They should, because by doing so, you realise that believing in God isn’t quite the sane idea it may have once seemed. If you read the Bible objectively, it becomes much more difficult to argue the case for God without running into all kinds of complications, some linguistic (we’re talking translations of translations of translations here: of texts written by people who often disagreed with each other in the first place), some historical (it could after all, just be made up: the archaeological evidence is sketchy at best for most biblical events), some rational (donkeys and snakes don’t speak; the Noah’s ark story stretches science into the realm of fantasy), and some philosophical (is God love, or is he an utter bastard?). At the end of the matter, it just boils down to applying your own judgement. You should never beleive in God because of someone else’s interpretation of a book you’ve not fully read or understood. You have to do that yourself. That is Skepticism.

For the record, I skimmed a lot of the prophets, and the psalms. This was for my own sanity. My favourite book of the Bible was Ecclesiastes. You don’t need to know this, but now you do.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This book is famous more for the responses to it than for anything actually in the book itself. It annoyed a lot of Christians. It probably also annoyed a lot of those ghostwriters for shit celebrity ‘auto’biographies who were kept off the number one spot in the bestseller lists. It could also be argued that it didn’t do any favours for the perception of atheists in the media either, and this could be down to what a lot of people saw as Dawkins’ holier-than-thou tone in the book, sometimes adopted by slavish fans of the book who just want to get one up on the creationists. Dawkins maintains his writing is simply passionate, and that the accusations say more about religion’s easily bruised sense of blasphemy. Anyway, all this would be to miss the point. I read the book to see what all the fuss was about, and it was quite easy to see why it has become such a touchstone book for many atheists. It really is one of the best argued cases against the idea of a God: well constructed, and extremely well-informed and presented. Dawkins knows his stuff, and knows how to write. The tone can occasionally grate, but it’s worth it. Read the Bible and then this and you’ll feel like a professor.

On a side note, I can sometimes get frustrated by what comes across like a skeptical obsession with evolution. It used to seem strange to me that nearly all the science focus in skepticism was around evolution. It’s extremely important, yes, but science is a huge and fascinating arena full of many other ideas we can focus on. The problem is that skepticism hasn’t really had any choice, given the rise of creationism over the last few decades (particularly in America, but also to a lesser extent in Britain). I am frustrated by the impression sometimes given that we are some kind of Darwin cult, but if science education is constantly getting attacked by fundamentalists who object to the theory of evolution because it disagrees with their favourite book, then I’m not sure that skeptics have had much choice other than to go on and on about evolution. We go on about it because there is a genuine attempt to confuse people about what it is, and to damage the education of children. There is a genuine fear that if we don’t do our best to convey why evolution is true then science education will just slide backwards until we’re really in trouble. I wish we could shut up about Darwin for a while, but we can’t.

Anyway, it’s a good book. Unlike ‘The’ Good Book.

Bad Science: this book is simply a great reference tool (aswell as funny). It highlights another area where woolly thinking and credulity can be dangerous, that of public health. The world of medicine is constantly undermined by the halfbaked claims and sometimes outright fraud of people who claim to be offering viable ‘alternatives’. Names such as Patrick Holford, Gillian McKeith and Matthias Rath will no longer sound innocuous after reading this book. This doesn’t mean the book is character assassination. It is never anything but fair and accurate. The book is ruthlessly researched and reasoned, and is simply one of the best books on the subject, if not the best. If you have any doubts about the latest alternative medicine fad, Goldacre is the man to read.

I would add that while in America religious fundamentalism seems to be the bigger threat in society, here in Britain alternative medicine is the more accepted form of muddy thinking and falsehood. This is why the book is important. Both are dangerous in different but no less important ways. This book helps to show how skepticism can be part of a truly righteous fight in the real world, not just a personal exercise in self growth.

Programs/Podcasts:

TED talks. These lectures from the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference woke up my science brain. This was before I got into skepticism, but was a major step on my way to that destination. The actual conference itself is something of an elitist and expensive backpatting session for smart people, but the lectures are published online for free, and they are great (but short) lectures by leading figures in many areas of research. For me, they reinvigorated the sheer joy of ideas, and experimentation, and finding out about the world. Sometimes, there just doesn’t seem to be enough of that in our everyday lives: the joy of simply knowing stuff.

There’s not just TED: there are science lectures and programs all over the net. They’re even on tv. Carl Sagan’s lectures are highly regarded, though I have yet to see them myself. These days, most science lectures or programs seem to presented by Brian Cox. He doesn’t sleep, I think.

Skeptoid: the first podcast I ever listened to, and the first self-described skeptical product I ever exposed myself to. Each week, Brian Dunning takes a well researched skeptical look at some aspect of pop phenomena. It could be anything from the city of Atlantis to UFOs. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but that’s fine, because that’s part of skepticism. The research is always thoroughly done, and the show always interesting. The first episode to really impress me was the one which completely debunked the conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell in New Mexico. There is research in that episode which I have never seen or heard on any other show purporting to get to the facts regarding the Roswell ‘incident’. That fact alone has caused me to never take any statements regarding unusual theories at face value. I will find as much research as possible via my own initiative, striving for objectivity, and keep a closer eye on those who I know are doing the same. The world of UFO research all too often resembles an echoing chamber, in which only a couple of choice selections of data can be heard, rebounding constantly from researcher to researcher… If you’re interested in getting as close as you can to the truth regarding strange claims, then Skeptoid is a great place to start. Websites by lone bigfoot hunters and UFO enthusiasts who only reference those who only reference them, are not… Skeptoid was good for my skeptical side in that I stopped reading a lot of bullshit which was simply wasting my time.

Podcasts are a huge part of organised skepticism. Essentially web-based radio shows, they can be a great disseminator of skeptical material, and can be instrumental in bringing people together. Indeed, a mutual liking for Skeptoid was one of the catalysts which led to the first stirrings of what became the MSS. Two years later and the MSS now has a well established Skeptics in The Pub night every month, two podcasts and an international conference under its belt. The conference was organised in conjunction with the Greater Manchester Skeptics, who formed themselves after seeing what was going on just down the motorway in Liverpool, and who also now have a very well established Skeptics in The Pub night and a podcast. And all in the space of a couple of years. Check out the list on the right hand side of this webpage for a good introductory starting point in skeptical podcasting.

Skeptics in The Pub:

Skeptics in the pub! That great informer, entertainer, friendship creator, skeptical haven and supplier of food and drink. Skeptics in The Pub is one of the great inventions in skepticism. All the other stuff is made up of things you can do on your own, but if you want to meet other self-described skeptics and/or curious people like yourself, SitP nights are the place to go, and they’re all over the place! Go to one near you. You won’t regret it.

This list attempts to cover all the SitP groups of the British Isles. It probably doesn’t, so if anyone knows of any that I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll include them in the list below. For now, however, this is more than a good start. Most of these groups either have their own website (a quick google should find it), twitter feed or facebook page:

Aberdeen, Aberystwyth, Bath, Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Cork, Cheltenham, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Guildford, Hampshire, Kent, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Lewes, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, The Peak District, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, St Andrews, Sheffield, Swansea, Westminster and Winchester.

Aswell as SitP, there are also various other skeptical organisations, such as Grassroots Skeptics and Ladies Who Do Skepticism, plus other similar groups outside the skeptical umbrella that do the same kind of thing, such as Cafe Scientifique and SciBar. Whatever it is you want in a skeptical community, it is out there waiting for you.

So, what are you waiting for?

 

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  1. #1 by Lisa Chalkley on June 28, 2011 - 21:56

    Shall Tumblr this – good piece

  2. #2 by Tim McGregor on June 28, 2011 - 22:30

    Hi, yeah you missed us (Brighton SitP) off your list) 🙂

  3. #3 by Colin H on June 28, 2011 - 22:35

    Sorry, Tim! Shall add you now!

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