Preaching to the choir

Last night, I attended my first British Library Talk Science event: “Science in UK Government: Where’s the Evidence?”, and made it to the second half of the night’s Westminster Skeptics. A bumper night for science, evidence and critical thinking, one might think.

Actually, I think we have a bit of a problem. Of the many people tweeting at the BLTS event (#blts) I recognised many of the names and Twitter handles. I could even put a few to actual faces. Going across town to Westminster Skeptics, I met up with many of the regulars for the Q&A session and a chat afterwards, some of whom have become friends over the last 7 months of my attending and interacting on Twitter, others I could just place either faces or Twitter handles again. And as Jack of Kent pointed out, the Simon Perry, our speaker last night, is not someone who has made his name elsewhere and become a skeptic, but rather made a name as a skeptic.

The long-winded point I am attempting to make is; has skepticism become an echo chamber, where we all know each other and agree with one another? Rather than wandering around the country, talking to each other in pubs, should we be focusing more effort in starting dialogue with others outside of the skeptic fold. In no way am I insinuating that the Skeptics in the Pub movement is a bad thing; it is fun, social and motivates skeptics, but I’m not sure of its value in publicising the skeptic values and position.

We’ve had a warning about this before, as Evan Harris found out to his (and our) dismay. If you had looked on Twitter around the first week of May, I think you would have thought Evan was a dead cert to hold his Oxford West and Abingdon seat. As a community, we were making so much noise at each other that to us, Evan appeared more popular than he turned out to be. This was something he remarked upon last night as “observer bias”; when you are both observing and involved in something, your perception is distorted.

I also think this fits in with JoK’s recent post “The Image of Skepticism“. Coming across as one insular group can also hurt our credentials. The development of skepticism into a close-knit group with its own in-jokes (homeopathy-dilution jokes, skeptic Top Trumps) can make us look like “the nasty party”. We also run the danger of having the possibility to develop a “herd mentality”, where individuals don’t appraise the evidence, but take it as a given because other skeptics (or those in authority) have already adopted a viewpoint.

I’m not sure what the answers to these points or questions are, but I do think that recognition of some of these problems in the growing skeptic community is important. Do other people feel the same way? Or am I off by a country mile here?