Skeptics and publicity stunts

By Keir Liddle

EDITS: This post has been edited to add a link to the original post and with additional/commentary in bold.

Jon Donnis, of the Bad psychics blog, has launched a scathing attack on Merseyside skeptics for their latest challenge to celebrity psychics.

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.

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0 Responses to Skeptics and publicity stunts

  1. Jon Donnis says:

    Wow! I will ignore the multiple typos as I am just as guilty sometimes, although I always try to proof read after I have written something.

    You have made quite a few misrepresentations of me here, and the fact you do NOT link to the original article means that your readers are not in possession of all of the facts. Misleading much?

    Right then where to start:

    “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”

    Why is it ironic that I quoted John Jackson?
    I enjoyed his work, he worked hard and provided a great resource of information and education. I do not recall him ever promoting himself before that of what he was doing.

    I don’t always get on with him and we disagree on many things, but I enjoyed his comment regarding the MSS, which is why I quoted him.

    “Which seems a little rich since given the nature of Donnis “heavily involvement with UK skepticism”.”

    Again I will ignore the typos, but why is it a little rich? Again that was John Jacksons comment not mine.

    “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”.”

    Donnis declares? Did I? Where? John Jackson said that, not me.
    Whether I agree with him or not is a secondary question which has not been asked of me.

    As for people being more relevant than me or not. I have NEVER been in skepticism to be relevant or a name. I have turned down TV appearances, Book deals, Skeptics in the Pub lectures, Radio interviews and much more.

    I retired from public skepticism 2 years ago and only recently restarted my website in a streamlined manner.

    I have no interest in fame or being known. And I never have. For me it is about the message, the education, not whether I am relevant or the most popular. I am not at school you know.

    “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.”

    Yes I know, I am the founder of Birmingham Skeptics!
    Not sure of your point in this. I DO have a problem with some of the people who do the SitP circuit as it is all about them, their new book and promoting something else, as opposed to education. But my issues there I take up directly with the organisers if I so choose.

    “Edinburgh skeptics, for one, would probably object to being called a “couple of blokes with a blog””

    Again you are talking about something John Jackson said, in a general manner, and not to any group specifically.

    I have to like Edinburgh Skeptics, and find it interesting you are deliberately misrepresenting my position here.

    Perhaps in an effort to encourage them to attack me?

    “It is for these activities that Donnis takes Merseyside to task accusing them of engaging less in skepticism and more in self promotion.”

    I have NO problem with the 10:23 campaign, and I supported it at the time. Again strange you keep misrepresenting me!

    I DO take them to task for their publicity stunts, like the one with Sally Morgan Challenge last year.

    “In the case of 10.23 Donnis criticisms are misguided.”

    I Haven’t criticised this campaign! I supported it!

    “Donnis criticism is ultimately unfair and largely overstated and, in my personal opinion, more about him than anyone his ire is directed at.”

    Everyone is allowed an opinion, but I find it sad that you deliberately misrepresent me and my opinions, you fail to link to the article you are unfairly attacking, and you hackjob on me is very interesting, let me guess I have probably criticised you in the past for something you have said and this is your little revenge trip.

    I have no problem with people criticising me, but if you are going to do it at least have the common courtesy to not misrepresent me, read what I have write properly, and fully understand what I have done and said in the past. Otherwise you come across as small and jealous.

  2. I have now edited the above article to include a link to your article and have corrected where I mistakenly attributed the quote you use in the blog.

    I wouldn’t worry about Edinburgh Skeptics being motivated to attack you and as their president can put any concerns you have at rest on that matter. This article does not speak for Edinburgh Skeptics and simply reflects my personal opinion. Edinburgh Skeptics has, and will likely never have, any official or unoffical stance on Jon Donnis or any other individual.

    As for this apparently being a reaction to some criticism I may, or may not, have received from Jon Donnis I am unaware of anything he has ever said or may have said about me, Edinburgh Skeptics or Skeptics on the Fringe.

    As for misrepresenting Donnis on 10.23 I might ask why, given the overall tone of the article is highly critical of Merseyside Skeptics and very negative about publicity stunts in general he includes reference to it in his opening paragraph? Without qualifier how is the reader to determine that Donnis view of 10.23 is not negative given the overall tone and impression the rest of the article gives?

    Also regarding the quotes used – Donnis makes no qualification here either. One therefore assumes that he agrees with the quotes and indeed I shall continue to believe this to be the case until clarification is offered.

    Donnis post can be seen as a swipe at UK Skepticism when he writes:

    “It seems that since the early days of BadPsychics when I was heavily involved with skepticism, that these days its all about the latest stunt to self promote which ever group you are in.”

    and

    “This is not what skepticism should be about, it should not be about a bunch of people sitting about with smug looks on their faces, patting each other on the back. But that is exactly what I believe it has become.”

    As for my accusations that those in glass houses should not throw stones may I remind Donnis that his website is titled “Jon Donnis presents…” and subtitled “Jon Donnis is on a mission to civilize! One woo at a time!”. Alternatively I could quote from Donnis 2010 “resignation letter”:

    “For 6 years I have turned a 5 page website about Derek Acorah and Most Haunted into the UK’s largest skeptical network.
    Millions of page views each month, sites covering everything from psychics to homeopathy, from ghosts to religion.
    If its woo we were there!”

    “We were true fore runners in the skeptical podcast scene.
    Long before the likes of Righteous Indignation, the BadCast, and all the other PodCasts doing the rounds right now, we were
    bring to you the Audiomartini PodCast, a show which ended up being broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people across America!

    Whatever we did, we accepted nothing less than being the biggest and the best.”

    Also Donnis view on UK skepticism given in that letter is… interesting

    “…Skepticism in the UK is currupt, not as bad as the psychic industry, but it is getting there.”

    Now I don’t know Jon Donnis, so I have no way to know if he wanders around saying his own name like Boston Legals Denny Crane but from what limited experience I have had of him has always involved Jon Donnis pointing out that he was first to do this or first to do that and has always seemed to be more about Jon Donnis than the issue at hand.

    I accept this may be a foible of electronic communication media and Jon is probably a lovely chap in real life.

    But it is important to note this post was prompted by a reaction to perceived hypocrisy as opposed to some fantasy revenge quest I am allegedly on.

  3. Jon Donnis says:

    You could have just emailed me and asked me instead of writing the article? Perhaps got my opinion first?

    Thanks for editing your article much appreciated.

    “As for misrepresenting Donnis on 10.23 I might ask why, given the overall tone of the article is highly critical of Merseyside Skeptics and very negative about publicity stunts in general he includes reference to it in his opening paragraph? Without qualifier how is the reader to determine that Donnis view of 10.23 is not negative given the overall tone and impression the rest of the article gives?”

    The reason I mention it is because that is what made the MSS famous, it was a publicity stunt, a well thought out, and effective one. It had its flaws, huge ones in fact, but it was a stunt that worked and helped raise a discussion on homeopathy, what it is and so on.

    So in itself I have no problem with the outcome, and that was something I considered when I took part, my problems with the methods and flaws, and the potential benefits against that.
    And that is why I do not speak negatively as such about it.

    I just think it is a shame that MSS have to resort to misleading people to get attention to a stunt whereby they already know the outcome before hand.

    With the 10:23 campaign they did not know what the outcome would be, instead they hoped and they succeeded. Very big difference.

    “Also regarding the quotes used – Donnis makes no qualification here either. One therefore assumes that he agrees with the quotes and indeed I shall continue to believe this to be the case until clarification is offered.”

    I found John Jacksons comments amusing, and in part he is correct, of course his comments were a generality, and obviously do not match every “society” within skepticism.

    “As for my accusations that those in glass houses should not throw stones may I remind Donnis that his website is titled “Jon Donnis presents…” and subtitled “Jon Donnis is on a mission to civilize! One woo at a time!”.”

    The reason for that is purely for search engine hits, good or bad my name is spoken of within certain circles of society and those circles are pretty much the people I want to follow my work. By using my name in the title (Not my real name by the way), it helps direct people who are trying to find out more about me to my site.

    “Alternatively I could quote from Donnis 2010 “resignation letter”:”

    All of which is true. Does it make me sound like I have a big head? Yes of course it does, that is part of my gimmick.

    Even now the fact that at least 2 skeptic sites are talking about me and the points I raised means that I have succeeded in making my voice heard. My opinions are being read, whether people agree or not is not the issue.

    “Also Donnis view on UK skepticism given in that letter is… interesting”

    You can call me Jon you know. lol

    And my views on Skepticism as you say are interesting, why haven’t you asked me why I had those views 2 years ago if you find it interesting? Surely you are curious as to why I said that?

    Afterall I am well known for being brutally honest regardless of who I annoy with it.

    “Now I don’t know Jon Donnis, so I have no way to know if he wanders around saying his own name like Boston Legals Denny Crane but from what limited experience I have had of him has always involved Jon Donnis pointing out that he was first to do this or first to do that and has always seemed to be more about Jon Donnis than the issue at hand.”

    I do like to refer to myself in the third person, it amuses me, I have an unusual sense of humour. I enjoy winding people up, and I enjoy portraying a certain character.

    “I accept this may be a foible of electronic communication media and Jon is probably a lovely chap in real life.”

    Only probably? Lol.

    “But it is important to note this post was prompted by a reaction to perceived hypocrisy as opposed to some fantasy revenge quest I am allegedly on.”

    And that is where you fell down a bit.

    Hayley Stevens has wrote a perfectly fair criticism on my article and I have congratulated her on it.

    I dont mind criticism, in fact I have always encouraged it, as no one should take mine or anyones word without thinking first.

    Just because I have an opinion doesn’t mean I am right, and I am always happy to change my position and stance on something if I am convinced too.

    I am far from infallible.

    But I do find it interesting you attack my so called hypocrisy, but you ignore many of the serious points I raised, like why did MSS mislead people into believing certain psychics had been invited to take part, when they plainly hadn’t and their names were only used for publicity, and after as an excuse to attack them for no showing?

  4. “Just because I have an opinion doesn’t mean I am right, and I am always happy to change my position and stance on something if I am convinced too.”

    That is a commendable stance and one that indicates your harsh treatment in the above post may have been unwarranted. So for that I apologise. It is all to easy to attack someone on the internet when your ire is up and you don’t really know them.

    “like why did MSS mislead people into believing certain psychics had been invited to take part, when they plainly hadn’t and their names were only used for publicity, and after as an excuse to attack them for no showing?”

    I have some degree of sympathy with MSS on this having attempted to get in contact with Joe Power regarding a similar test offer while he was up on the Edinburgh Fringe. Initially we could only find a contact email on his website and that went without reply. Though eventually, after some hours scouring google, we were able to get in touch with his press officer or agent (I can’t recall which) who seemed very up for the test after Powers first disastrous show. Regrettably once we started negotiating test conditions it became clear that Power did not want to take part.

    I also have some degree of sympathy for MSS as regards the perception that they are self-aggrandising in conducting these stunts. As I do think that their hearts are in the right place. They want to promote skepticism but the manner in which they have chosen to do so requires a bit of “playing the game”.

    Playing the PR game unfortunately seems to mean “bigging oneself up” in order for journalists and the like to take you seriously. To ensure that they trust you are a serious and important organisation. The danger I suppose comes if you start to believe your own hype and use that as a shield from criticism.

  5. Jon Donnis says:

    “That is a commendable stance and one that indicates your harsh treatment in the above post may have been unwarranted. So for that I apologise. It is all to easy to attack someone on the internet when your ire is up and you don’t really know them.”

    I don’t mind, in fact I like to see people show a bit of passion, but apology accepted.

    My only aim is to improve things in the skeptical “genre” and perhaps use the things I have learned over the past 10 years to help others who maybe do not have the experience of dealing with such people like psychics.

    Often when I criticise someone it is because I made the same mistakes years ago, and I learned from them, if people can appreciate that, then it is better for everyone surely.

    “Initially we could only find a contact email on his website and that went without reply. Though eventually, after some hours scouring google, we were able to get in touch with his press officer or agent (I can’t recall which) who seemed very up for the test after Powers first disastrous show. Regrettably once we started negotiating test conditions it became clear that Power did not want to take part.”

    And THAT is the way to do things.
    You put in the effort! And that I respect, and the outcome is something that you should talk about and tell people about, as it shows exactly what kind of person Joe Power is. (Someone I have exposed in the past and have written about extensively)

    Ask yourself why Marsh spent literally 2 minutes to try and contact various psychics, but then spends hours publicising the fact he has invited them, doing media, tweeting, writing blog posts and so on!

    “They want to promote skepticism but the manner in which they have chosen to do so requires a bit of “playing the game”.”

    Hey I know more about playing the game than most, I been doing it for nearly a decade, I know how you have to do things to get the desired outcome, but when you short change people, when you mislead them, that is a dangerous and damaging route to take, and one that should never be accepted, regardless of any perceived outcome.

    “The danger I suppose comes if you start to believe your own hype and use that as a shield from criticism.”

    And that is EXACTLY what I have seen from Marsh, from Simon Singh and from others involved. They are so convinced they are beyond criticism and that they know best.

    I think it is sad that they do so many good things that they are now tarnished in this way.

    I have seen so many skeptics over the years get to the point whereby they will stop listening and assume they know better than everyone else.

    The day I stop listening, the day I assume I know better than anyone else, is the day I walk away from skepticism.

    I talk to those older than me, I listen to people like Robert Lancaster, James Randi, Richard Saunders. I open myself up to people so I can become better.

    BadPsychics got its name from Phil Plait and the BadAstronomy site, it was a homage to that site.

    I am but a speck compared to someone like Phil Plait, and I will listen forever to someone like that.

    It is a shame that MSS are so stuck up their own arses that they refuse to listen to anyone who dares criticise their methods, especially when those who have criticised know a damn site more about psychics, promotion and walking that fine line between what’s morally acceptable or not.

    ps. Today I tweeted Derek Acorah, he replied within 20 minutes, the actual person, not a secretary, not his wife, not his agent. Sometimes its much easier to contact someone if you use your noggin.

  6. Name says:

    MSS, Jon: you’re both self-publicists. You want people to know what you’re doing and while it can become annoying, you’re perfectly entitled to publicise the work you do.

    Re. a couple of blokes with a blog: Jon’s right. There are numerous instances of one or two people starting a blog and thinking it makes their thoughts worthwhile. I’ve dealt with an American lady whose blog apparently makes her a journalist, despite her complete lack of ability to reason, listen or comprehend beyond her own perspective. Skepticism is no better or worse than other fields for that; it’s a bubble.

    If you have something interesting or worthwhile to say, I’ll read or listen to it. If you’re persistently self-referential or petty, I won’t. That absolutely means I’m biased but I can’t consume everything.

    When I become annoyed, I usually shut up and do something else. Whining online makes everyone seem petty.

  7. Jon Donnis says:

    I cant really argue with anything you have said, however I would say that the self publicising that I do, is for people to read my work, as opposed to getting my face in the paper or selling books.

    I am always very honest about my lack of academia, I never claim to be anything more than what I am.

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