Tuesday, 18 November 2014


If memory serves, I first found the SA Skeptics group on Facebook in late 2010 or early 2011. It was really exciting for me, as some friends and I had only discovered organised skeptical activism a few years earlier, including things like the Skeptic's Guide and SkepChick (which I still love and follow), I really wanted to get actively involved in it somehow, and the prospect of connecting with like-minded locals seemed so full of potential back then.

I wouldn't say it was a total waste of time. I met plenty of very interesting people, I went to the local Skeptics in the Pub for a few years, and I learned a lot. It's how I fell into my guest host spot on Consilience, and all sorts of gaming geekery branched off from that. But I think we all, the local skeptics, are very aware that we don't actually fucking do anything, especially compared with some of the big shit that the Americans and Brits and Australians get up to. It's true there are some productive pockets (like Quackdown), but mostly it's just people sitting around talking crap.

And that was alright, while it was good crap. Sadly, it didn't stay good. The Facebook group grew and grew over the years, but it didn't grow very healthily. I took it on myself early on to take sporadic race and gender snapshots of the membership. I wish I'd bothered to record them all properly somewhere, but since it was recorded in the group discussions, I assumed it would be retrievable. If you've ever tried to dig through several months, never mind years, of FB crap, you'll know that's only marginally true. So, pending an archaeological dig, I'm afraid I have no hard numbers to show. On the other hand, it was all a bit informal anyway, and on yet another hand, their pattern was pretty fucking clear: We were lily white and mostly male, and this only got worse over time, as the total group size grew and grew.

And as the group got more white boyish and less intimate, disagreements turned into shouting matches more often, people with serious science backgrounds lost interest, leaving more room for a growing sub-population of real nutcases and very rightwing assholes. There was always an undercurrent of digressions into economics disputes, but mostly it was a science group, interested in science. Now, any mere mention of race, gender or class triggers a flood of bitterness about the mere idea that any form of rebalancing and equality might be a good idea. There was honestly, literally a claim, put forward very earnestly and persistently a month or so back, that black people don't float in water. And that was one of the nicer head-desk threads. Mostly, it's become hateful stuff about how non-whites are inherently inferior, women should quit bitching, poor people should stop being lazy, etc., etc., et-fucking-cetera.

It wasn't a sudden change all at once. The first big clue that the place was out of control was the appearance of outright stereotypical conspiracy theorists, of the secret world government, Moonlanding denying, everything-is-a-lie variety. These occasionally wash into any skeptics' group, I imagine, but shouldn't be able to thrive there. But throve they did. Taking this as an unstated signal, a lot of people in the group just started going off about whatever the hell bugbear they felt like ranting about, and fuck what anyone else thought. It was always an arguey place, unsurprisingly, but they were generally reasonable-ish debates, where some standards could be demanded. Not anymore. Apparently nobody's in control there, and nobody gives a shit about reason, evidence, logic, science, or society.

The last is perhaps not strictly a skeptical issue, but I have argued before that it is central to skeptical activism (as opposed to merely doubting shit in private). I've also personally tended to associate skepticism with Star Trek (no doubt starting with the SGU rogues drawing similar associations on their podcast), and Star Trek has always been about actively trying to make society better. You know the kind of thing that gets shat on by some assholes these days as "social justice warrior stuff".

Call me crazy, but I like to think I can and should be trying to make the world better, and skepticism has seemed like an amazing and vital tool for that (as well as a sub-goal, I guess, a means and an end) ever since I was first introduced to it.

So, I'm out. That group can burn itself to the fucking ground, while I seek out greener pastures. I hope the remaining sensible folk I've left behind can successfully migrate too.

I think the root of the problem was that it was a group started by wealthy white boys, who kept inviting wealthy white boys, who invited wealthy white boys, etc. I don't think this was done consciously - privilege is seldom conscious - and there were certainly exceptions. I tried my best to bring in a lot of those exceptions, and many of these people found the place so hostile that they, er, preferred not to thank me. The end result seems to be the bubbling, over-entitled cesspit we see today.

Any more functional skeptics group, it seems to me, would have to be more inclusive from day 1. I'd love to join such a group, but I'm not in such a big rush this time. I've had more than enough of people for a while. People make me fucking tired and shouty.