I once joked at a conference that when cats complain, they complain of herding skeptics.
The “skeptics” movement is not really a movement. It is instead a number of people who self-identify as a “skeptic” (with a ‘k’). This usually means they have a preference for an evidence-based approach to problem solving and see inherent merit in critical thinking.
Over the last ten or so years a number of “skeptics in the pub” groups have formed, with monthly speaker meeting or similar events. I used to go along to the very first such group – London Skeptics in the Pub – and I now convene “Westminster Skeptics“, which deals with matters to do with media, law, and policy.
There are two potential problems with such groups – and these problems can be labelled conveniently as “civility” and “inclusion”.
In respect of civility, the nature of skepticism means that people are often telling other people that they may well be wrong. As such, there is perhaps a greater need for civility than with other groups who do less contentious activities.
However, there is no challenge which can be made to either evidence or thinking which cannot be couched in polite terms.
As regards inclusion, there is an issue that the meetings do take place in pubs, and pubs are not always where people feel comfortable. Unfortunately, it is difficult to to find space for speaker meetings in town and city centres which can be afforded by a typical group. Meetings take place in pubs because there are few other places where meetings can be had. There is nothing stopping someone organising meetings elsewhere, if they can find a venue.
But pub rooms can be inaccessible to the disabled; evening meetings cannot be easily attended by those who have caring responsibilities; and some people find pub atmospheres intimidating.
At Westminster Skeptics we have tried to address these points by having our meetings podcasted and be being proactive in welcoming those who attend. (I also miss out the “in the pub” part of the name.) Also, and without resorting to tokenism, many of the patrons and speakers are female. The question-and-answer sessions are managed so as to avoid mouthy blokes hogging the mic. But it is nonetheless difficult to see what more can be done other than not to have the meetings at all.
However, the best does not need to be the enemy of the good, and so as the next step in trying to make Westminster Skeptics as civil and inclusive as possible, we are considering having the following short policy:
[Draft] Westminster Skeptics Civility and Inclusiveness Policy:
1. Skepticism is about challenging views and testing assertions. As such it is especially important that the highest levels of civility are always maintained, especially by those seeking to question or criticise what is said by others.
2. It is also important that everyone attending is as comfortable as possible in participating in the meeting. Everyone is entitled to be treated with respect.
3. In the event there is any concern or comment about the meeting, please contact either [male ] or [female].
Such a policy is not an end in itself; the business of a skeptics group is to promote skepticism and not social engineering. But meetings do go better for everyone when those present feel comfortable and engaged. And so such a policy may be a means to a worthwhile end.
Any thoughts welcome.