When I was a child, Johnny Ball used to be my hero. He hosted a UK TV programme, called ‘Johnny Ball Reveals All‘. With the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, he bounced across the TV screen while explaining science questions: ‘Why does a volcano erupt?’, ‘How do my eyes work?’ and ‘What is electricity?’ He was an inspiring and eccentric character, who helped give me a love of science.
I’m still excited about science today, and try to share that passion with others. But some people don’t seem to get quite as passionate as me: My wife’s eyes normally glaze over when I start to get animated about quantum physics!
But I’ve stumbled across a new breed of science lovers: a movement of armchair scientists, on a mission to separate fact from fiction. They call themselves ‘skeptics’ and are determined not to fall victim to any hoax or scam. They meet together in pubs and cast a questioning eye over anything controversial. In recent months, numbers have been mushrooming and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I picked the brains of Hayley Stevens, co-founder of the Bath Skeptic Society to find out more….
What is a Skeptic?
We live in an information-overloaded world. Sometimes It feels like the media are bombarding us with messages on the ‘right way’ to live: Buy Yoghurt with with added probiotics! Avoid using a mobile phone; they give you cancer! It is out of this utterly confusing mire of urban myths that this a new generation of rational thinkers has emerged.
I happened upon ‘skepticism’ when listening to science podcasts. I’m one of those irritating people that insist on walking around with headphones in their ears. I don’t block out the world by listening to Metallica: Most of the time I’m listening to science documentaries and podcasts (I know, I’m such a nerd). Some of the best and most entertaining podcasts are made by people calling themselves ‘skeptics’.
I wanted to ask Hayley Stevens whether skepticism was a cult or a pseudo-religious organisation. She told me that anyone can be a ‘skeptic’ if they have “an open mind and curiousness”. A skeptic is someone who approaches claims of ‘miracle cure’, ‘instant cash’ or ‘life enhancement’ with a critical eye. And you don’t have to be a science boffin either; Hayley has no lofty academic background or science PhD.
Hayley gave an example of what the ‘skeptical’ approach to meeting someone claiming to have psychic powers:
“A skeptic is open minded to the idea of psychic powers existing, they just need to see some valid, testable evidence before accepting that claim. A skeptic is also willing to change their mind about a topic too when more information is made available. If I use the psychic powers example again, as a person who uses skepticism I don’t currently believe psychic powers exist, but if strong evidence was to come to light that suggested such powers exist I would be willing to change my mind.”
What do Skeptics do? Are they just a bunch of frustated science geeks?
I wondered whether being a ‘skeptic’ was an excuse for a bunch of frustrated academics to get together in a pub to have a whinge about the lack of evidence for homeopathy. Hayley insists that there is more to it than that:
“[Skeptical Groups] are mainly there to provide a way for people in the area to meet other likeminded people, to provide social events they can meet at and talk to one another at, and to provide interesting talks from people who are knowledgeable about certain topics of interest to skeptical people. However, it can be a bit more serious than that if required, if there is a national campaign then the group may get involved in it.”
National campaigns? It was surprising to find out there are actually quite a few things going on around the world. In the UK there is the:
- The 10:23 Campaign: Thousands of people deliberately took a homeopathy overdose earlier this year to try to demonstrate that homeopathy doesn’t work.
- ‘The Amazing Meeting’ Conference: An annual event hosted by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, and Graham Lineham (writer of Father Ted).
- The Libel Reform Campaign: A British campaign to change laws to allow for more freedom of speech.
Skeptics all sound rather negative and dull…
Where is the fun in life for a ‘skeptic’?
Can you have a religious faith and be a skeptic? Hayley told me that being a skeptic is about your approach to the world, not what you believe:
“A lot of people mistake skepticism for a belief system and it isn’t. To clarify, you can be a believer or a non-believer in something and use skepticism.”
One of the ‘big names’ in the world of skepticism is Brian Dunning and he thinks that skepticism is actually a powerful force for good. He says that you can be a skeptic and believe in ghosts, UFOs and the paranormal.
“It’s thus inaccurate to say “Skeptics don’t believe in ghosts.” Some do. Many skeptics are deeply religious, and are satisfied with the reasoning process that led them there. Skeptics apply critical thinking to different aspects of their lives in their own individual way. Everyone is a skeptic to some degree. Skepticism is, or should be, an extraordinarily powerful and positive influence on the world. Skepticism is not simply about “debunking” as is commonly charged. Skepticism is about redirecting attention, influence, and funding away from worthless superstitions and toward projects and ideas that are evidenced to be beneficial to humanity and to the world.” (Brian Dunning)
Do you believe in ghosts?
I’ve never seen a ghost, but Hayley just may have. Although she doesn’t believe in ghosts, in her spare time she tries to find out if there is any truth behind ghost sightings. Boy, does she have some great stories to tell!
Slamming doors, moving objects, ghostly footprints and disembodied voices…
But I think I’ll save those stories for another day…
Find out more about Skepticism:
Hayley is co-host on a podcast: Righteous Indignation
The website of The Bath Skeptical Society
Read the Skeptic Manifesto
Read about The James Randi Educational Foundation in skepticism
My favourite skeptic podcasts
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast
The Reality Check podcast