Friday, March 5, 2010

On Swedish skepticism

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What would motivate Jane or John Doe to join the skeptic movement? That is a question the Swedish Skeptic society may need to address very soon. Because in the public eye, it seems like the Swedish Humanist Association has already found an answer. Under chairman Christer Sturmark, the secular humanists have had an exceptional growth in the last five years. Sturmark has achieved lots of media exposure and he is often the preferred choice when TV producers cast debates on issues concerning religion, creationism, and, yes, New Age, occultism and paranormal phenomena - issues that one would think are more appropriate to be dealt with by the skeptic society. There is a reasonable possibility that the Humanist Association soon will start to attract support and members with a main interest in skepticism rather than secular humanism, if it doesn't already.

Is such a development necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. The skeptic cause needs active promotion and the keyword in the term "skeptic movement" is movement, i.e. the opposite of standing still. I would also like to add being open to change, and ability to adapt according to the conditions provided by the environment in which the movement aspires to have an influence. An organization not willing to actively promote the skeptic cause, not willing to move in a direction beneficial to the growth of skeptical influence, and not able or interested in adapting to its environment should not carry the skeptic torch. An organization willing, able and interested should, even if it means that the torch in Sweden is carried by the Humanist Association or a completely new skeptic society. As New Age is spreading and getting increasing support, acceptance, and media exposure, the skeptic cause has to be furthered through active effort. A skeptic movement has to oppose and even confront this development. Just being available to provide rational and natural explanations to supernatural claims, if somebody wants them, is not enough - such an approach is in reality a non-approach, it is lack of movement and activity.

In a recent article in the public online article portal, skeptic chairman Hanno Essén and former chairman Jesper Jerkert stated that they mainly see the Swedish Skeptics as a sort of consumer agency that students, authorities, journalists and people in general can turn to with questions about paranormal claims. They also noted that public official statements from the organization will continue to be scarce in the future. They do, however, encourage members and supporters to actively defend a scientific perspective. So the message is clear and explicit: availability, not activity, is to be expected from the board of the Swedish Skeptics, i.e. the core of the organized Swedish skeptic movement does not include movement. That this is the strategy dominating the actual work of the board is admitted by a board member on the skeptic forum; the board isn't that active in public discussion and when it is, it's only after long and slow discussion aimed at not offending anyone. Is that a rational adaptation to a modern society characterized by the information highway and communicative speed? Is that a rational strategy in a media climate where individual cranks make the effort to seek attention and very often gets it? In a culture where new media collides with old, where the distance between media consumption and production is shrinking at rapid speed and audience mobility is a striking feature - is a public relations policy of the 1960's sound? When technology, economy and accessibility is more favorable than ever for small and relatively poor actors on the opinion market - is this the time to chose silence, or answering only when questioned, as a principal approach?

The Humanist Association has chosen a very different strategy. Whenever a media discussion that concerns the organization's interests emerges, chairman Sturmark or someone else on the board makes a contribution in the form of an article or a public statement. Always. Regarding ongoing issues such as creationism, religious influence on education, or confessional schools, the board initiates public debate in every way and media they can. Representatives from the board regularly participates in arranged panel discussions on topics like humanism, religion, and even New Age. They also arrange such events and seminars themselves. Last year, the Association ran a nationwide ad campaign themed "God probably doesn't exist." They engage in networking and even have a group in the Swedish parliament. And, as indicated earlier, media increasingly tend to pick them as representatives for a skeptic view as well as for secular humanism - even when the Swedish Skeptics would be a more appropriate choice.

Devoted skeptics are complaining, of course. However, they don't arrive at the conclusion that skeptics can learn from the humanists. Instead, they've started to engage in bashing them. Chairman Sturmark has a history in computer and internet market speculation which means that he is immoral and a bad representative for the humanist movement. Whenever he appears on TV, he fails to explain all relevant facts and arguments and relies heavily on repeating catchword phrases. During the expansion, the humanists have also attracted some celebrities and that's always a big help. Oh, and they receive donations. And the humanist boom is not an effect of the efforts of the Swedish humanists, but of a global secular humanist boom. Etcetera, etcetera. What the complaining skeptics fail to realize is that the undeniable success of the humanists is the result of strategy and organizational change. Their member stock has increased with 500% since 2005, which means that they once were a rather small organization with very limited resources, much like the Swedish Skeptics is now and has been since it was founded in 1982. But the humanists are going somewhere, they have made a change. They are able to convey their message in a more effective and attractive way now as a result of intentional effort. The key elements in this effort are not celebrities or donations - those are bonuses, but motive and intent. They have also realized that promoting secular humanism will upset a lot of people but chosen their cause over the convenience of their opponents, i.e. they have remained loyal to their reason to exist, even if it means that some, or even many, will consider them evil or immoral.

Sadly, it appears as if the skeptics are inclined to chose the convenience of their opponents over the cause. At the moment, the main topic of interest at the skeptic forum is the current "tone" of argument. Apparently, some members are afraid that heated discussion and frank dismissal of certain woo-woo claims might scare people off. Don't take this the wrong way; the skeptic forum has an excellent staff of moderators who are doing a great job, it offers the standard possibilities to report abuse and of course the obvious choice not to take part in heated discussions or the forum in general, but some say that isn't enough to prevent people from "feeling bad". There is a lack of empathy among some of the forum members. Not among the hordes of attending woo-woos - their everlasting claims of being subject to "intellectual oppression" has rooted successfully, but among skeptics. There has even been a motion submitted for the upcoming annual meeting suggesting that the board appoints a committee to define ethical guidelines for member behavior. So, instead of worrying about how to promote the skeptic cause effectively, the concern is how to cripple it.

But let's go back to the initial question: What would motivate Jane or John Doe to join the skeptic movement? Well, if Jane or John are predisposed for New Age or some related lunacy, the chance they would join the skeptic movement is nil. What if they are "sitting on the fence"? Well, the probability that they are interested at all in these issues is rather low and to make them interested under the conditions stipulated by the media culture we live in would demand resources that even the humanists lack. But what if Jane and John have started to react negatively on the current swarm of psychics, healers and miracle mongers and would be inclined to contribute to an organization that is against woo-woo? Would they be attracted to an organization that is available for questions and mainly concerned with not upsetting anyone, or would they be more attracted to an organization that often, actively and publicly denounces woo-woo claims in a clear-cut and uncompromising manner? I know the bulk of devoted skeptics will yell that there is a middle course, but in the end I think the Swedish Skeptics will have to come up with rational answer to this question. I know the Swedish Humanist Association has done so.