Skepticisim, civility, and inclusion.

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.


Comments are pre-moderated. No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters. Other comments published at my absolute discretion.

A jubilee letter from a republican

When the queen came to the throne in 1952, Winston Churchill was prime minister; and now her prime minister is four years’ younger than her youngest son.

We now have only one current MP first elected in the 1950s (Sir Peter Tapsell) and two people alive who served as MPs before 1952 (John Freeman and Tony Benn).  Whilst there are three or so current peers who have sat in the house of lords longer than the queen has reigned (Lord Carrington entered in 1945), there are very few figures in British public life which have had any prominence over the same period.

Perhaps only Dame Vera Lynn has been a national celebrity for a longer time.

Sixty years of public service is something to be celebrated.  And the way the queen has done it also should be cheered: her self-control and lack of personal showiness is a model of what a monarch should be like, if we are to have a monarchy at all.

There are somethings to be said for the crown in domestic politics and law.

First, it is less important for the power it has than for the power it prevents others having.

Second, it provides the most general concept of the state we have in (at least) English law – almost all executive, legislative and judicial power is exercised in the name of the crown, one way or another.

And third, it provides a superficial sense of continuity from medieval times (if one ignores that in 1640, 1660, 1688, 1714, and 1936, the fate of the crown was determined by others).

All that said, there is a basic principle: supreme executive power in any modern polity really should be in the hands of someone who is accountable and capable of removal by some formal process.

Nonetheless, switching a “united kingdom” to a republic would be a complex and slow process, and it is one unlikely to be done by any government one can imagine.

The current generation of politicians cannot get round to reforming the house of lords.

Indeed, they cannot even modify a honours system ridden by “knights”, “dames” and the “British Empire”.

So republicanism will remain as a frame of mind, a sense that things could be better organized, rather than as a serious political programme.

And this taming of republicanism is not the least of the queen’s achievements, though one suspects it will not be one of her eldest son’s.


Comments are pre-moderated. No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters. Other comments published at my absolute discretion.