By Keir Liddle
EDITS: This post has been edited to add a link to the original post and with additional/commentary in bold.
The attack is aimed at Merseyside Skeptics in the main but is also a broadside at UK skepticism in general.
Donnis bemoans the current state of UK skepticism and how the skeptical landscape has changed since he was “heavily involved” in UK skepticism with the bad psychics website. Ironically Donnis quotes “Former UK skeptics kingpin” John Jackson saying:
“A few of these ‘societies’ cropped up a few years ago. ‘Society’ being a euphemism for ‘a couple of blokes with a blog’.”
Which, from the tone and target of the blog, is presented as a comment with which Donnis agrees with. Certainly no qualifier is offered to indicate that he does not share this view.Which seems a little rich since given the nature of Donnis “heavily involvement with UK skepticism”.
Before addressing the sunstance of Donnis argument, that seems buried beneath layers of infective targeted against those more relevant than himself, It might be worth addressing Donnis negative view of UK skeptical societies that Donnis declares to be “a couple of blokes with a blog”. A correction here Donnis does not make the declaration but uses a quotation from someone else to make this point. Though again as the quote is presented one has to assume that Donnis does not disagree with this view. Perhaps he would care to clarify?
There is an every growing number of Skeptics in the Pub groups in the UK running regular events for skeptics in all corners of Britain. There are also a small number of Skeptical societies dotted around the country: Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and yes Merseyside.
Edinburgh skeptics, for one, would probably object to being called a “couple of blokes with a blog” and not least because it’s run by a committee of both genders but also because it doesn’t have a blog. It does however hold regular monthly events and started the worlds longest free festival of science and skepticism as part of the Edinburgh international fringe.
Greater Manchester and Merseyside Skeptics could also rightly take offence at being labelled thus. Responsible as they are for the UKs biggest skeptical conference.
Merseyside also being behind the 10.23 campaign and a number of challenges to psychics and makers of power bracelets.
It is for these activities that Donnis takes Merseyside to task accusing them of engaging less in skepticism and more in self promotion. Donnis has said in the comments below that he has not criticised 10.23. Though I would suggest the opening paragraph of his article lumps it in with the types of publicity stunt and self aggrandizement he is purportedly attacking.
In the case of 10.23 Donnis criticisms are misguided. This was a truly international campaign that I would credit withkickstarting grassroots skepticism in the UK. Bringing disparate groups of skeptics around the UK and making skepticism in the UK about a lot more than blogs and podcasts.
There are some decent criticisms within Donnis, ultimately self serving blog, particularly regarding the issue of skeptics embracing the publicity stunt as a way of getting our message across and these are worth considering.
Publicity stunts are not science and while they may be about skepticism they are not skepticism. They are about presenting a narrative, a story, to the public and attempting to draw the medias spotlight onto the issue of your choosing. In this sense Merseyside skeptics have been remarkably successful. Possibly doing more to damage the reputation of homeopathy in the UK than any previous skeptical endeavor.
As the saying goes “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth gets it’s pants on” and we perhaps as skeptics need to accept that we have to address that. However how we address it is something that we do need to consider.
I worry that adopting the publicity stunt wholesale as a means of getting our message across leaves us open to easy dismissal by quacks and psychics etc. Particularly if we employ sloppy methodology in order try and seize or make the story. If we make our arguments easy to dismiss we risk gifting those peddling pseudoscience and mysticism to vulnerable people.
Essentially I am concerned that if we lower our standards, to grab media attention, we basically make a rod for our own back. We weaken our arguments by making them easy to debunk.
This is something we have to be careful of. Skepticism by press release is not inherently a bad thing but it is something we have to approach with caution and care.
In general we have managed to do so up to this point and I would only take to task MSS on their power-band bracelet video. Which debunked the bracelets using an experimental group of one. As an illustrative example to get the story in the media it was highly successful and luckily the manufacturers did not pick up on this as they could have very easily dismissed the stunt rather than choosing to provide an ineffectual defence.
Donnis criticism is ultimately unfair and largely overstated and, in my personal opinion, more about him than anyone his ire is directed at.
Merseyside skeptics may have made one small mistake but they have done a lot more for UK Skepticism than many others who could more easily be accused of using skepticism for self aggrandizement and self promotion.
Those who live in glass houses…
You can comment here on Jon Donnis blog about this article here if you so choose.