How Far We’ve Come

It all goes back to 1976; to a US press conference featuring Carl Sagan (the supremely quotable scientist), magician James Randi, and philosopher Paul Kurtz. Speaking for a group of scientists and intellectuals, they announced the formation of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP would actively counter astrology, creationism and other bunk that was getting a free ride in the media.

For decades, CSICOP’s magazine Skeptical Inquirer (and the less prestigious but still great British and Irish Skeptic) defined the skeptical movement. Their topics included psychics, alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, faith healing, crop circles, and many more: all things that are dubious, but the magazines illuminated both the proponents and where they were going wrong. We subscribers were sparsely dotted around the country and the world.

In the early and mid-90s, when I started as a skeptical activist, we were a tiny, angry minority, swimming against the rest of culture. Prime-time TV specials credulously touted ghosts, UFOs and psychic powers as real. I’m not referring to the X-Files (which was great) but to supposedly factual programmes. Once in a while, Horizon or QED would say the evidence for psychics or alternative medicine was insufficient.

Inside the cover of Skeptical Inquirer was a list of national skeptical organisations across the world. In the UK, we had the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) and for a while I was on its committee. It still exists, but hasn’t succeeded at reaching the public. Be honest: you hadn’t heard of it, had you?

In 1999, one ASKE member started a group with a different expert speaker each month: Skeptics in the Pub. You had to go to London for it, but it made the skeptical community more tangible. You got your “hit” of critical thinking once a month, rather than once every three months when the magazine was delivered.

That’s what skepticism was like for several years, but then the podcasters and bloggers came along, making skepticism fun and relevant while involving more people in discussion. From being overwhelmingly white-skinned, white-haired men (with notable exceptions like Su Blackmore and Wendy Grossman), the movement diversified in lots of ways.

Ben Goldacre wrote a massively successful skeptical book (Bad Science). Derren Brown made skeptical prime-time TV (sometimes). Skeptical events stopped aping academic conferences and became hugely upbeat and fun.

Now there are more than 40 SitP groups in the UK. It’s no longer weird to spend a night out learning about scientific and critical thinking, and I don’t have to go to London for it. I have a lot more fun, meet a lot more people and, although it’s still a minority pursuit, I no longer feel like we’re losing.

In short, *you* turned up, and I’m so, so glad.

-Martin

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