Shkeptisssh inna pub

You do know about Skeptics in the Pub, don’t you?

Skeptics in the Pub (SitP to its friends) is a monthly social gathering intended to build community among the critical thinking set. It was established in London England in 1999 by Dr. Scott Campbell, based around similar science and philosophy groups in Australia.

I think the first I had ever heard of Skeptics in the Pub was on the mighty SGU. Skepticism and pints? Someone was singing my song. But it was something that was happening in Boston, Sydney and Atlanta and other places decidedly not Vancouver…or so I thought.

One day I decided to see what came up on Facebook when I did a search for “Skeptic” and there at the top of the results was an event for Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub the very next night.
Vancouver SitP had just taken up residence in the back-room of one of the city’s most storied live music venues — The Railway Club. Everyone has a story about how they saw Luke Doucet (in my case) before he was anyone. The artists who have played the Railway before they were famous (and since) is long and very Canadian. I was delighted to be going back to one of my favourite rooms in the city.
The crowd at my first visit to SitP was small. Maybe over a dozen people, but only barely, and dominated by grey-haired men over the age of fifty. The organizers, Graeme Kennedy and Fred Bremmer had a quick game of “Science or Fiction” for everyone, but for the most part the night was filled with low-key discussion of common skeptical subjects that wouldn’t be new to anyone who called themselves a skeptic in the scientific sense. No one’s mind was challenged or expanded, no exciting or even interesting news was shared.
That was two and a half years ago, and how things have changed….

Three times in the past six months the room has been filled to standing room only. The mean age has dropped by at least two decades. The proportion of women is regularly over 1/4 and often near 1/3. And the conversation has expanded in many directions.

Most evenings now at SitP Vancouver are primarily social. Picking the minds of fellow regulars at the pre-Olympics Skeptics in the Pub in early February, it was clear that one of the biggest draws for attendees is to have a room where they can safely talk about anything for a night without the least chance that someone in the group is suddenly going to start espousing the benefits of their newly discovered psychic powers; the amazing homeopath they have started seeing; or how George Bush personally flew an airplane into Building 7 of the WTC. It’s a place where you can discuss tactics for advocacy amongst like-minded people; how the story-telling in Buffy was influenced by Xena; the latest news out of the UK on libel-laws as the fresh Google-alerts arrive on your iPhone; or how you wish James Cameron’s scripts would be equal to his visuals. Everyone appreciates a place where they can go and speak their mind to people with a similar worldview.

Other things do happen at SitP. Practically every month there is an announcement of any events of import that may be of interest to skeptics, and almost as often there are announcements of any local activism that people can play a part in. Lectures and talks happen on rare occasion at Vancouver SitP, though they are common at other cities events. (Cafe Sci, at the same venue does an excellent job of filling the monthly need for discussion on scientifically relevant subjects locally.)

In January, Vancouver SitP was the host of the Vancouver portion of the Western Canadian Skeptical Smackdown Pub-quiz. The July meeting this past summer featured an extemporaneous presentation on the events at TAM7 by the people present who had just returned from Vegas. Each of these events were among the best attended nights at Skeptics in the Pub, busting room capacity at the seams. And once upon a time, about a year ago, James Randi walked in the door. Honest to dog. Even though we knew he was in town, I don’t think anyone expected that to happen.

If only Mr. Darwin had come to visit on Feb 12th,
the awesomeness could be grokked to the fullest.*

For some time now it has been apparent that Skeptics in the Pub is out-growing our home in Vancouver. We may have found our new home, but leaving will be bittersweet. (I’ll make sure an update gets added to this post once a new location is confirmed.)

As it turns out, Vancouver may actually be a big enough centre to host more than one SitP by expanding out from the city centre to where it may be easier for sub-urban skeptics to attend.

So, what if that were you? What if you wanted to start a Skeptics in the Pub in Flin Flon, or Jonquiere? How would you go about it? You can take some hints from the Drinking Skeptically website – who can also help by including your event in their list.

But for starters, what you really need is a Pub. Not one of your own (though that might be nice) but one in an accessible location that you can meet at reliably. Obviously this is something that only a boots-on-the-ground local like yourself can really suss properly, but a place where conversation is possible without having to yell is a necessity. A place with a backroom, a banquet/meeting room, a mezzanine or any other distinct area that can be reserved as ‘yours’ for the evening, once your numbers get to a point that warrants it, is also a good idea. It is probably best to let the management of the establishment know that you are going to be there, will be coming back monthly, and hope your numbers will grow and make regular bookings a necessity – even though you probably won’t have a lot of people at your initial meetings. Most places will be delighted at that prospect on slower nights, such as early in the week.

I’m of the opinion that under the circumstances of a night like SitP, bar-service is preferable to table-service. You’ll be interrupted less (and only when you want to be) and you won’t have wait-staff who are anxious about constantly shifting seating and whether they are going to be adequately tipped. While you won’t notice the difference of wait-staff that is not there, you will notice grumpy wait-staff who are there.

Having polled a few organizers of Skeptics in the Pub meetings across the world, it seems clear that one thing you must do is be patient and consistent. Be prepared for the likelihood that initially the attendance is going to be low — 3-12 people for months should not be too much of a surprise. But “if you build it, they will come.” Keep the nights as predictable as possible (e.g., the first Tuesday of every month) with any variations heavily publicized through whatever social media and event calendars you use to promote the event.

I spoke with one organizer from Victoria who informed me that Victoria SitP failed on a first attempt and that reliability had not been their strong suit. (Good news though. The second coming of SitP-Vic has arrived and I’m told the lesson has been well-learned.) So, whatever you do, be sure there will be someone ready to “talk skeptic” at the agreed location, on time, and for a few hours after. The more regulars you can rely upon to be there, the better chance that other people who come sporadically will take you seriously, find people that they relate to, and (here’s the key) become regulars themselves.

Without a doubt, being in a larger centre will help your attendance, and being near as many educational institutions as possible will improve your options for interesting speakers, allowing you to draw from both locals and visiting luminaries. Sid Rodrigues (who has held the reigns in London since 2007) tells me that they were regularly getting over 300 attendees until the landlord brought down the boom and limited them to their fire-code maximum of 250. He also pointed out that they’re “quite lucky to be in one of the largest cities in the world, as it always has a lot of notable people who are passing through or are happy to take a trip to London if their travel expenses and sundries are covered.” Certainly being that London has had an SitP for over ten years doesn’t hurt their cred and turn out, either.

The Skeptics in the Pub page has links to Skeptics in the Pub events in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Victoria, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Wolfville, and Kelowna. But there is no reason that there can’t be one in every major and medium sized city in the country. (Even in smaller places too!) If you find yourself feeling as though all your skeptical friends are long-distance and you only know them on-line or from TAM or Skeptrack, then perhaps it’s time to make a SitP Facebook group for your hometown, find a good watering hole, put up a handful of cheap 8 ½ x 11 posters where like minded people might see them (hint — where do YOU go most often?), then start and commit to showing up on the same night every month….

Build it. They will come.

*Photo credit (all photos) Fred Bremmer.

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  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.