It's the start of the new year, so why not be a bit reflective? While listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe's latest episode which is the annual review of the past episode, Dr. Novella noted that currently the show receives around 85,000 unique downloads per new episode. This is an impressive achievement. This started me wondering just what does this reflect for skepticism in general, and how numerous we are in relation to the public as a whole.
Doing some exceedingly rough math based upon the supposition that the SGU is the centerpiece institution that many skeptics listen on a regular basis I attempted to estimate the number of "skeptics" as a whole. (This estimation is quite flimsy and likely chock full of holes. Forgive me.) For each download I am sure a few are automatically downloaded and not listened to at all while other have more than one person listen to it. My guess is that 1.5 people listen to each episode or approximately 127,500 people. While the SGU is quite popular, and it always seems most folks who became active skeptics in the last five years start with the story "I became aware of being a skeptic by listening to the SGU," not all self aware/ active skeptics regularly enjoy the show. I'll say that the SGU only catches one in three skeptics which is about 382,500, so I'll round it up to 400,000. Therefore, roughly 400,000 people who are skeptics or at least rationally minded or curious roam the English speaking world. At first glance this seems to be an impressive number of people, and likely more than the founding fathers of CSICOP, the Skeptics Society, and Australian Skeptics dreamed of being self aware skeptics. Much of this growth has occurred with the maturation of the internet and the rise of podcasts, blogs, FaceBook, forums etc. I am one these new folks to "the ranks" when at the end of 2005 when blah, blah, blah I began listening to the SGU and Skepticality blah, blah, blah I became a self described skeptic.
On the other hand even doubling the above figure to 800,000 the number of skeptics just in the English speaking world, which is around 440,000,000 people not including India but the U.S., U.K. Canada, Australia, Ireland, skeptics are well less than 1% of the total population. A sobering thought at least for me. This is not to say everyone else is in the world are a pack of tarot card, Nostradamus following, big footing believing, clairvoyance practicing "nutters." However, we are a thin spiderweb of active folks weaved into the larger whole. We are not of much use in politics. Our numbers make us not in a worthwhile voting block. We barely make a blip when it comes to consumer markets. It is impressive that our tiny mouse like voice can roar enough to help take down phony dowser bomb detectors, holographic health wrist bands, and push back against danger alternative medicine in the area of vaccination. Yet, we barely exist.
Putting this in perspective that skeptics are a tiny minority of the population, I suggest that we should be proud of what has been accomplished, but also aware of our overall place in society. While skeptics should continue to have honest debate among ourselves regarding issues of tone, the view of religion within skeptic circles, and on issues of the day given our tiny numbers, we should always keep in mind that splintering is not likely to help our general cause or shared world veiw. (No. I do not think skepticism is about to rupture into a lot of infighting groups but skeptics should be on guard against it.)
My above numbers could be way off, and we could number in the lower millions or only be a couple hundred thousand. Either way, we are still a small blot of people. There is a lot of room to grow, but I do not think we ought to be surprised when our sway is not as great as one would desire.