Friday, 19 October 2012

Skeptics in the Pub: forum or echo chamber?

Unless you've been living under a rock you'll have heard of Skeptics in the Pub; it's a brilliant idea where (as the name implies) a bunch of skeptics meet once a month or so in a pub or other convivial location for an address by a guest speaker. Mobility and other commitments haven't let me get to nearly as many sessions as I'd like, and no one seems to have invited me to speak at one though I've given skeptical talks elsewhere in the past based on my Short History of Bad Acoustics as well as more cafe scientifique type stuff. But most of those I've been to I've greatly enjoyed and I'm grateful to their organisers for doing something I wish I'd done when I was younger and  had the energy. I just think they might be missing a trick.

All the speakers I've heard of being invited to SITP sessions are skeptics themselves, and many of them are fine speakers with important things to say. A few, and I won't name names, seem to be there to tell skeptics to be skeptics, which strikes me as 'preaching to the choir' (though as an atheist ex-choirboy that's not as pointless as it sounds).

Recently a SITP group announced that one of their future speakers would be Rupert Sheldrake, proponent of 'morphic resonance', the idea that you can tell when you're being looked, and that dogs can tell when their owners are coming home. Not many people take these ideas seriously, and  disabusing those who do doesn't seem to me to be the world's most important job. But for the record I disagree with all his conclusions and dispute the reasoning that leads him to them. So is his appearance at a SITP meeting a good thing or a bad thing?

Several twitterers made it clear that they thought it was a bad thing. I'm not so sure, but don't find it easy to condense my reasons into twitter-length, hence this blog-post. The thing is, regardless of how wrong I think his conclusions are, I find the process of identifying and articulating the flaws in his reasoning useful. I'm also aware that I'm not as good as I'd like to be at calmly and lucidly expressing and explaining my opposition to some ideas.

It's a sadness to me that the last time I saw an old friend before his death it was over a cheeseboard and our conversation went from Shropshire Blue to organic farming to homeopathy where it became clear we had a difference of opinion that I allowed to escalate into an unproductive slanging match. I don't suppose I had much if any chance of changing his mind but I could have expressed my reasons better than I did, and maybe influenced some of the other people present if any of them were on the fence. As it happened neither of us was much of an advertisement for our viewpoint, not helped by the fact that we were both in wheelchairs, so a bystander wouldn't have seen either of us as an example of healthy living.

So I'm prepared for the possibility that, as predicted by my twitter-chums, Rupert's SITP session will descend into a 'slagging match'. But I hope it doesn't, because if we Skeptics can't disagree with someone without losing our individual or collective rags then we've got a problem. And frankly I think we can do with the practice, myself included. Some have suggested that this is like the 'false balance' that programmes like Today are often accused of. Maybe it is, but sometimes false balance is all you've got: suppose Today asked you to come on and discuss Rupert's views with him and a presenter who imagines that the truth must lie somewhere between your viewpoint and Rupert's. Opt to stay in bed and he'll go unchallenged. Appear and employ all the withering scorn you like at whichever preposterous idea he's pushing this week but I guarantee that he'll come across as more reasonable and persuasive than you will. Are you quite sure you don't wish you'd come to his SITP session and tried out a few counter-arguments before getting in the Radio Car?

Dog telepathy and so on  is all very well, but homeopaths who provide malaria 'prevention' are potential killers, that should make any self-respecting skeptic's blood boil, shouldn't it? No disagreement from me, but remember when Simon Singh  took them on on Newsnight; each time he was firm and eloquent but he was also calm and respectful. I know too many skeptics who just couldn't manage it, and could do with some practice.

Has the SITP group that invited Sheldrake inadvertently endorsed his views by inviting him to speak? I don't think so, but it would be a lot easier to counter that claim if he weren't seemingly the only non-skeptic ever to be invited to such an event. By the way I'm struggling to find a word for the type of speaker I mean; 'woo' is nice and short for twitter purposes but doesn't really capture it, and non-skeptic has the drawback that everyone considers themselves to be skeptical. Anyway, whatever you call them I'm not for a moment suggesting that they'd all make appropriate SITP speakers. Many are so incoherent and or deluded that debating with them is impossible and an attempt would probably just exacerbate mental health problems. The only place I want to see 'Jasmuheen' is in prison, possibly a psychiatric one.

But that's not the case with all of them and there's a difference between someone with whom debate is impossible and someone who's opinion it's impossible to change by debate. I don't for a minute think that Rupert Sheldrake is going to change his mind during his SITP session, or that any skeptics are going to come around to his views, but debate is worthwhile even so. I'd suggest that my University of Southampton colleague Professor George Lewith would be an ideal candidate for an SITP invitation. I don't agree with his conclusions but I'm sure he can respond to counter-arguments without blowing his top, and I wish I could be surer that the same could be said of a SITP audience.

One last point: you might think that this class of invitee would be unlikely to accept such an invitation (though apparently Sheldrake did). Fine. Being able to say "We invited X to present his case for alien abduction/crop triangles/etc to an audience of skeptics but he/she declined" is not without value. In the meantime, debate is too important to be left to the Institute for Unspeakable Ideas.