Friday, March 22, 2013

20,000; SWaK; Virtual Skeptics; Relax

Not buying what we're selling

On the latest Virtual Skeptics Sharon Hill raised the question of the number of active skeptics out and about. I am not sure if she meant in the world, in the English speaking world, or the just the United States. Her estimate was approximately 20,000. I tend to this might be a bit low depending on one's definition of Skeptic, and how it is calculated. However, I agree this is in the ballpark range based upon listenership to various podcasts, magazine subscriptions, and similar bits of evidence.  Whether 20,000 or 50,000 this strikes me as depressingly low. Doing some very rough calculations and considering only the parts of the world where English is the primary language that even bumping the number of skeptics to up to 50,000 means that about 1/10th of a percent of the population are skeptics. This isn't really even a minority. This is a rounding error.

Come Join Us.  Maybe we should
bring cookies?

Granted skeptics are mice that roar at times. The work of the Australian Skeptics combating mystic power bands and anti-vaccination nonsense as well as British Skeptics work against homeopathy are examples. Yet, skeptics are still few and spread thin. The Internet over the past 20 and especially past 8 years has grown the numbers, but perhaps not as much as is thought. It may be that skeptics can just communicate more efficiently, and it give the perception of a numbers bump. Whatever the impact of the Internet skeptics numbers are still paltry in the bigger scheme of things.

Why? Look at Time Farley's list of skeptical podcasts and Doubtful News media guide and there resources galore for the public to tap. There are some mainstream media skeptical friendly shows such as Mythbusters and the long running Penn & Teller's Bullshit. Yet, skepticism just cannot obtain that elusive traction despite our internet connected grass roots skeptical blossoming of the past eight or so years.

To imagine the type of traction that skepticism would require to grows to 5% of the population would be dreaming. However, getting to just 500,000 skeptics seems like a pipe dream and would this would still be under 1% of the population.  I can't help but wonder why is Skepticism failing to take root in a meaningful way? What are we doing wrong, or at least not correct that suddenly viewing the world rationally using scientific skepticism desirable.

Alas, I do not have an answer or answers. Perhaps the message is too tide to a very peculiar personality type. I suspect there lots of folks who generally agree with the skeptical world view, but can't image why bother dealing with the pseudoscientific, alt med, paranormal bullshit at all. (Here, I think of my dad). Maybe, skeptics just need a break such as when a pop culture celebrity appears on Letterman wearing an SGU t-shirt and discusses their love of the JREF. This could springboard skepdom into the public conscience. To an extent all the infighting among skeptics one finds when one does a online search might turn people off. It just might be skeptics are freaks, and normal people just don't want to see the world in a rational scientific light. Whatever the cause skepticism just has not gained any impressive traction despite numerous online outlets.

Be it 20,000, 50,000, or 100,000 skeptics the numbers compared to the population as a whole drive me near despair. What we are doing with our minuscule numbers is impressive, but these small numbers have consequences. Skeptics do not make up enough to matter as a voting block. As was discussed on this episode of Virtual Skeptics the skeptical population is too small to support very many individuals to do Skepticism for a living.  Most skeptics are doing their activism on the side after dealing with their day job.  Although I suspect if the skeptical population could grow to 500,000 or so this might be enough of an audience for more to make a living at being a skeptic and supporting larger efforts.  Currently, there is no depth to support a major media campaign or support a true think tank or lobbying effort.

The above being noted it was an enjoyable if goofy episode of Virtual Skeptics. The episode focused on an African mystery of people believing that their penis vanished or shrank due to witchcraft or black magic or whatnot. The results with the panel were juvenile, but good natured. Although good luck explaining this one to the kids in the backseat of the Honda if you're listening in the car.

Marsh wears a freshly pressed shirt?

This guy wears a freshly
pressed shirt?
On the Skeptics with a K Marsh engaged in an excellent discussion of what Skepticism aspires to be versus the reality of skepticism given that imperfect people actually are doing it.  People are biased. People make errors in judgment and logic despite their best efforts.  Marsh discusses this human failing in the context of James Randi's recently discussed and debated remarks regarding Social Darwinism and Marsh's own interview with Will Storr for Storr's book Heretics: adventures with the enemies of science.* Marsh opines that Randi's social darwin statements, later recanted, are not evidence that Randi's body of work is wrong.  However, it is evidence that Randi, a person, can be wrong.  Storr interviewed Marsh at the last Q.E.D. conference this interview, at least in part, made it into Storr's book.  Will's line of questioning of Marsh fed into a biased view of that Skeptics, at least Marsh, are slick chaps with a good line of shit wearing freshly pressed shirts who don't even research that which they feel is nonsense. Storr asked skeptics to name the homeopathic studies to support their view that homeopathy is nonsense.  Few of those interviewed could rattle off the name of such studies which apparently Storr took to mean skeptics are bad.  

Marsh points out that much of this line of argument is based upon seeing the opposition in the worst light rather than first being as charitable to their viewpoint and then engaging in a discourse.  Randi and Storr made mistakes in logic not because they are bad people, but just happen to be people.  Marsh shared that he did not believe Storr was out to get him, but that Storr took away from the interview what the material that supported a preconceived.   Marsh shared that anyone can do this if they are not ever vigilant.  Unfortunately, nobody is ever vigilant.  

Apparently, being charitable in interpreting an opponents arguments this is called steel manning as contrasted with better known term straw manning and arguing against a bogus weakened version of the others remarks.  The term seems a bit clumsy to me, but it might grow on me.  Just for Marsh's bit of the episode, this week's SWaK was well worth the listen.  If you are lucky enough to attend Q.E.D.  give Mike, Marsh, and Collin a hearty slap ont he back and perhaps buy them a drink, or gift card to a dry cleaner.  

Random Musing

No skeptics on this
particular beach 
I must admit in general I have been on a bit of negative course lately.  I am at dis-ease on the current state of Skepticism.  I really do not wish to be a Donnie-downer.  Skepticism as a whole could use a week on a beach in the Dominican Republic, and no blogger, podcasting, or tweeting could occur related in anyway to skepticism.  Relax.  Hit the mental reset button, and see what things are like upon the return home.  With only 20,000 or so of us I bet Punta Cana could absorb most of us.  Oh well, I can dream.  

*I have not read this book.  I am not even sure if it is available in the U.S.  However, it has been kicking up some controversy.  


  1. Don't be depressed!

    The success of skepticism is not measured in the number of self-described skeptics but in the amount of skepticism that gets done. Remember that the skeptical scene is about promoting skepticism as a way of considering what is real. It isn't a political movement that defines its success by the number of votes it gets.

    Those of us that do call ourselves skeptics are the ones who are the most enthusiastic about the importance of skepticism, but the use of skepticism is not restricted only to the enthusiasts. Those 20000 people are out there promoting it so that the rest of the population might take it into consideration. It doesn't matter whether the rest of them end up calling themselves skeptics. It is in the nature of skepticism that many who use it won't even know they are using it.

    There are so many groups - political, religious, social - that there is a lot of competition for which group someone will identify themselves by. Frankly, there are many groups with more broad appeal than skepticism. So the key is that we try to make all those big groups a bit more skeptical. That's what I want anyway - the world with all its big important groups all being a bit more skeptical. I don't care if only very few of them end up calling themselves skeptics.

  2. I completely agree that skepticism should not be political designation. As I noted skeptics do get things accomplished at our current number. I think a whole lot more could be accomplished on a sustained basis if we had a larger number to support the efforts. Skeptics do a lot of good, but the vast majority of it is done on a thread let alone a shoestring budget. The folks who will donate time, money, energy, and talent are self described skeptics. I fully support the big tent skeptical approach, but I just feel there is a lot more room in the tent than is being utilized.

    I do think you make some valid points, but I think we are failing in reaching a broader audience.

  3. The 20K number seems to be the number of people who are willing to spend money on skepticism at some point. Maybe it's a magazine subscription or book or conference or something. But most of those people do not donate to blogs, websites, podcasts, etc. That number is much much smaller. The number of people who have a Skeptical outlook on most things is MUCH MUCH larger. So, that's good.

    I'm actually optimistic that the worst is over in terms of decline. The factions are splitting into their own things so I expect things will settle down barring some other attention grabbing scandal.

  4. I hope you are correct about the various scandals likely burning themselves out. It can't happen too soon.

    I do not disagree with anything in your first paragraph, but I still think that 20,000 people spread over 400,000,000 or so people is still a too tiny. I would hope that skeptics might do better. Maybe my sights are set too high?