TAM 9: Diverse Voices in search of a Common Front

This past weekend in Las Vegas, Neveda, another installment of the largest gathering of skeptics, scientists, free-thinkers, and their enthusiastic supporters ensued at The Amazing Meeting 9, a meeting sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation, whose eponymous head is the great magician and skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi.  The usual suspects were to be found among the 1600 attendees and presenters, including big names like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Nye, “The Science Guy.” However, many attendees were not just idle spectators, but came to this city in the desert to build community, and find their voice for promoting critical and creative scientific thinking among the increasingly credulous populace.

The sparkling specs of hope may be paste in Nevada, but you cannot help but leave a conference like this without feeling rejuvenated and hopeful about the skeptical movement and its ability to reach out to larger communities; spreading the message that scientific inquiry is the best way to answer questions we have about the material world.

The “message.” Often, as science communicators, we forget that the message is not a monolithic meme that should be obvious to anyone with a brain, but it depends just as much upon the listener as it does upon the speaker.  This is why there were so many opportunities at TAM 9 to discuss not only what our message should be, but to discuss the best way to communicate this message to a population that is, at times, curious but confused, sensitive yet suspicious, enthralled, indifferent, hostile, or downright dismissive of science as a way of knowing the world.  In short, we discussed how to convince people without turning them off.

For this is what we risk when we tell people they are wrong: further entrenching mistaken beliefs that are built on a foundation of cultural tribalism using narratives that have less to do with the way the world works and more to do with how people believe the world should work.  I would encourage everyone who is not familiar with cognitive dissonance and its consequences for human thought to read Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s  “Mistakes Were Made but Not By Me,” and you will understand how we clothe a message in cultural vestments that get in the way of revealing what, to you, might be the naked and obvious truth.

The message.  Very encouraging this year was a focus on how to set and achieve goals.  Desiree Schell, of the Skeptically Speaking podcast, Maria Walters, Trevor Zimmerman, and K.O. Myers of the Grassroots Skeptics have developed an Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual that will be very familiar to anyone who has led a group committed to social change, be it a union, an environmental group, or other lobbying organization.  Gone are the days when we skeptics can sit behind our computers, blog and complain and expect to affect any change in the world.  In fact, sorry to break this to you, but those days never existed.  Letters to the editor, we were reminded, only get you on the letters page: when was the last time you were persuaded by or even read the letters page?

We must, as a group, learn to speak in a more polished and effective way, no matter what medium we choose to use.  Sadie Crabtree, a communications expert who works for the JREF reminded all of us that we must be sure of our message and know who our audience is.  This matters.  We must speak differently to a politician than to a member of the public.  As well, we should largely ignore those who are very set in their opinion as there is no point in wasting what precious energy we have on people who we have no hope of convincing, no matter how tempting it may be to pick a fight in public.

The message can also be directed toward our own skeptical community, and to ensure a robust and long-term movement we must have as big a group as possible with a diverse armamentarium of ideas. Two panels covered the communications question.  The first panel, led by our own Desiree Schell and including Jamila Bey, Greta Christina, Debbie Goddard, D.J. Grothe and Hemant Mehta, discussed diversity in skepticism and how to appeal and attract as many people as possible.  The second was led by Sadie Crabtree and included PZ Myers, Phil Plait, Eugenie Scott, Jamy Ian Swiss and Carol Tavris.  Both of these panels were lively, detailed, and well attended.  Since Phil Plait’s DBAD speech last year, the method of crafting an effective message has become a central debate in modern skepticism.  Phil and PZ actually agreed (no really, they agreed, I swear!) that it will take many different means to communicate ideas and change minds, further supporting the idea that we all have a place in the community.

As we continue to refine what it means to be member of the skeptical movement, it is clear to me that Skepticism has evolved from a means to confront what were the scientific unmentionables of “paranormal claims” in the 1970’s to a modern interface between the scientific research community and the larger public;  a public that is caught up in a maelstrom of ever-changing ideas, and who are not given the tools to pick apart and analyze these ideas often presented in as little as 140 characters.

Our biggest challenge at CASS at CFI Canada, and I think at most local Canadian groups, is to inspire people to commit to more than just having a drink at a bar and making fun of silly people who believe odd things.  Those “silly” people are our friends, our family and ourselves, and we cannot continue to marginalize these beliefs as merely silly and stupid.  If we are to get our message across in an effective manner we must actually think about how that message is perceived by our audience and craft it carefully.  This does not mean we should refrain from calling out dangerous ideas when we see them, like homeopathic vaccines for instance. Many different approaches will be necessary, but we must remember who our audience is.  Often times it is not the believer whose mind we are trying to change but the mind of the audience who is watching the debate.  This is a valid method of persuasion but it may not always work, so we must use it wisely.

I usually approach Skeptic North posts with the view that my audience is not a member of the skeptical community.  This post is a bit different.  I am talking to everybody in the skeptical movement in Canada who has felt stifled or left out, has been marginalized by your beliefs, or whose voice catches in their throat when they try to speak out.  Now is the time for you to get involved in your local skeptical organization and get something done.  Now is the time to learn how to communicate better; too long have we sat in the dark rooms of pubs snickering at the misled and the defrauded. We must confront bad ideas, craft a message that speaks to the undecided and, as Bill Nye says, change the world!

At the core of skeptical philosophy is the notion that the natural world can be known, that it is a wondrous story waiting to be expressed, and that reality is much more scintillating than the grandest of fiction.  If we remember why we all became involved in the community and work harder to tell our story to our friends and family we can fight back the tide of ignorance that threatens to overwhelm us all.  Get informed. Get involved. Get real and change the world.

To become involved with CASS and make a difference, please email us at cass@cficanada.ca .  I will be reporting on all of the current CASS efforts later in the week. Photo from Buzzfeed: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/the-50-best-protest-signs-of-2009

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  1. [...] Loxton wrote about his thoughts over at Skepticblog here. Michael Kruse wrote a synopsis at Skeptic North. PZ Myers wrote about communicating skepticism, the panel he was on at TAM9, you can read about it [...]


  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.