Skeptical of the skeptics

Groucho Marx (borrowing from Freud, as Woody Allen reminded us in Annie Hall) famously said “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” – and while the point of the joke is most likely self-deprecation, it also reminds us that we sometimes need to be skeptical about the clubs we join – and the clubs we form.

Last night, Skeptics in the Pub (Cape Town) had their second meeting. I missed the first one while traveling, so was keen to meet up with the group and see what I’d missed out on in December. It turned out to be an interesting evening, although perhaps not for reasons any of the other attendees would appreciate hearing about, and made me wonder more than once whether it was the sort of gathering you could (perhaps should) go to once in your life, but never again – because each iteration of these gatherings feels just like the previous one. Every so often, a person, or a person and a few friends, decide that they should form some society or other, recruit people to their cause, and go out and change the world (or manageable little bits of it, at least). I’ve done this myself, many times over – and recently too – so cannot escape whatever self-incrimination might follow from what I say here. The problem is that most things worth doing already have people assigned to the task, and we seem to spend too little time figuring out whether yet another group or society needs forming, or whether we would perhaps serve whatever cause is at issue better by joining forces with some existing entity.

If you have thought through that question, then I’d expect there to be some sort of clearly articulated understanding of what innovation any new group brings to the party – do they have a distinct mission, have they attracted someone influential who might not usually participate in these sort of gatherings, etc. In the absence of any such innovation, the gathering begins to resemble a social club – and a social club does not need to ground itself on any cause other than being social. In fact, it could be argued that by tacking a cause onto a social club, without any clear articulation between the cause and the gathering itself, we may end up doing a disservice to the cause by fragmenting energies, or alienating people who don’t find anything new or interesting in our version of the social club.

There are of course many social clubs who don’t have a USP (Unique Selling Proposition, for those who don’t speak acronym). Churches are a fine example, as within any particular sect, they are selling the same product via different personalities and rituals. And this is the first of the problems I had with last night’s gathering (besides the venue, which was loud and disheveled, and not at all conducive to conversation): The few people that I spoke to bore a remarkable resemblance to evangelical churchgoers, in that the conviction that they were right – that they knew a secret – and that they therefore had something that the rest of the world didn’t, was palpable. At times during the evening, the point of the gathering seemed to be a contest as to who had the largest collection of skeptical quotes or anecdotes, rather than about something useful, such as what were we doing there, and how could we leverage the enthusiasm and ideas into effecting any amount of social change.

As mentioned earlier, members of each generation have these sorts of gatherings, and perhaps it’s simply my mistake in going, and expecting to find anything different to previous gatherings of this nature. Perhaps I’m simply old and cynical – in a relative sense, of course. And I don’t mean to say that everything was bad – one fellow in particular seemed to really be trying to get people to engage, and to come up with practical suggestions or ideas, rather than simply listing the ways in which the world was disappointing. But as bad as it was overall, I didn’t expect to see some very standard and unfortunate South African behaviour, where one attendee, in the course of making some racist remark I can’t recall, puts on that well-practiced mockery of what an “African” voice sounds like.

Which brings me to my primary gripe: the room was a typical middle-class White gathering. This happens, and it’s understandable that skeptics are better represented in this group than in other racial or socio-economic groupings in South Africa. But even where it does happen, you can still hope that the collection of people involved – self-identified as skeptics – might have some sort of sympathy or understanding of the context in which they were meeting – a country in which the vast majority of citizens are concerned with things like feeding their families, or finding the money for school fees. If we want skeptics to make a difference, then focusing on issues that are of concern to a small fraction of the population does not seem the most optimal way of doing it – and spreading your message on White Liberal radio stations, or through podcasts (these were some of the suggestions made), seems to ignore the reality of the situation you’re living in entirely.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with podcasts or CapeTalk – again, I’ve used them myself. But it can’t be all you do, or all you talk about. I don’t want to see that the limits of your imagination and desire are just a small step away from imagining about what you’d like for dinner, and imagining that everyone else will like it too, because you’ve got your finger on some pulse or other.

A final concern I had was around re-inventing the wheel, or sub-optimal uses of time and energy. Many of the ideas being floated last night have been attempted, and in their enthusiasm to have these ideas themselves, it perhaps never crossed their minds that they should perhaps consider what’s been tried, what worked or didn’t work, and why. More importantly, I’m not sure whether the question of whether they have a USP was considered – if other groups are out there doing the same thing, the burden on any new group to introduce some point of difference increases, as otherwise they serve partly to fragment attention, and it becomes ever more difficult to gather a critical mass of whatever sort (skeptics, plumbers, teachers), because some join group X, others group Y, etc., until nobody quite knows how many of “you” there are. Nor, unfortunately, can they necessarily know who “you” are – it differs slightly from sect to sect, you know.

To be absolutely clear: the very best of luck to Skeptics in the Pub, and any other such group. I support the goals and ideals wholeheartedly, and am commenting mainly on strategy and psychology, as well as expressing a concern I personally feel quite strongly, due to my own involvement with other groups of this sort, which are perhaps equally problematic and, more worryingly, stand a similar chance of being utterly pointless, except as a way to allow ourselves to mutually affirm our cleverness.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.