Friday, 11 January 2013

Skeptics vs. Skeptical Activists

I'm a skeptic. It's a thing you can be. The internet is full of places to learn about it, but I think a good, thorough starting point is here.

I'm part of the broader skeptical community. It's a thing you can take part in, but it's a bit hard to know much about the skeptics who avoid communal participation, because they're harder to spot. But there's certainly some subset of unsocial, non-communal skeptics. I think it's fair to say they have very little impact on the world, in terms of skepticism. Those who join the skeptical community have much greater opportunity to learn and teach and explore and cooperate.

I also try to be a skeptical activist. A lot of skeptics do, but the term doesn't get used much, perhaps because it sounds a bit clumsy, perhaps because there's value in displaying an apparently united front under a single title (value to the activists because they look more numerous, value to the non-activists because they look more accomplished). Regardless, I think it's worth making the distinction and being clear about who's doing what and why.

There is no King of Skepticism, no Grand Galactic Council of Critical Thinking. Some parts of the world have some formal societies set up, and there are a few celebrities of skepticism whose names are recognised (by other skeptics, at least) everywhere, but the whole thing remains a grassroots effort, and nobody can tell anyone else what to do or not do. And I think this is good. The big names got big by going out and earning it. The societies that lasted and grew did it because their members support each other. If you don't have to do anything, the only way to get things done is by wanting to do things. And the end product seems to be a pretty good indicator of how strong the want was, because while there's nobody telling you what you must do, there's also nobody (internally) limiting where you have to stop doing things.

There are also skeptics, sometimes very social communal skeptics, who have no interest in the activist side. This is their right (until I'm finally crowned Pan-Galactic Hyper-Emperor of Ultra-Doubt), because of the voluntary nature the skeptical community seems to universally share (and I'd love to see a contrary example). I'm not about to put a gun to anyone's head either, but I don't understand that crowd at all. Why accept that skepticism is important and go to the trouble of joining the community, if you're then going to refuse to do anything about it? I have no clear numbers, which limits this discussion for now, but I've spent enough time chatting with skeptics, both on- and offline, to get a reasonably clear idea that there are many for whom that meagre chatting is their sole skeptical effort. They don't want to commit to actually doing something, it seems, and quite a few are even actively opposed to getting involved in society.

Perhaps I'm unfair. What I studied was exactly "how to fix society" and now I work in science education. Writing comes so naturally to me that I would be blogging even if there wasn't an internet. And of course, for logistical reasons, we can't all be guest hosts on Africa's greatest science and skepticism podcast (I'm not even sure how I got that gig). So maybe not everyone can be 100% me. But plenty of non-me people manage to get useful things done. Who organises all the Skeptics in the Pubs/Parks, and the Rumbles in the Pubs (which I must get to one day)? Who got Ideas for Africa going? Who started Consilience, who keeps it going and does all the post-production? Who writes to newspapers or calls radio shows when they're too full of woo? Not me, nor any of a bunch of other things I could be doing to help the skeptical cause. The point is, none of us do every single thing that can be done, we all lean on our strengths; but some prefer not to lean at all, and do nothing to help. These people, to me, feel like a problem.

I struggle to avoid being derogatory in describing and explaining such behaviour. It mostly just seems snobbish and lazy to me, and this coming from a guy who's quite comfortable being labelled lazy. But calling people snobbish and lazy seems unlikely to solve anything; quite the opposite. If they take offence at it, they won't help. If they feel cowed into helping, they're not likely to be hard-working or dedicated. And slave-driving all the non-activists is not the best use of time for all the really eager activists. So is it better to just cut the dead weight loose? This sort of parallels the atheist community's recent kerfuffle over Atheism+ and similar notions that atheists should be social activists, except that I don't think atheism necessarily implies any positive action (because there are quite a lot of different experiences people can have with religion), while skepticism does. Although I'm having some trouble justifying exactly why that should be, right now.

That's where my thoughts on this currently stand: On some path, but clearly not at a specific destination yet. So, give me ideas: What keeps skeptics from acting actively? What could be done about this? What shouldn't be done about it?