This is a translation of a blog post I wrote earlier in Swedish.
The most important resource in any kind of collective enterprise, including the skeptical movement, is the members’ relationships with each other, in pairs as well as in groups. It’s when people see each other that they become motivated to begin and continue both their own and the collective work. Because of that, it’s very important how the meetings are organized and in particular in what degree they promote building relationships and community.
Partly with this in mind, I visited the skeptics conference TAM London 2010. Here are some reflections about that conference in particular and how to build a movement in the most efficient way in general.
The conference program was very impressive. From nine o’clock in the morning to half past five both days (and a couple of hours on Saturday evening), there were twelve main speakers, two interviews, two panel discussions, artists, entertainment, award ceremonies and a few minor speakers, interviews and so on. Potential interactions between the participants had to be done in the five or ten minute breaks between the program events, and also before and after the program itself.
Since I was very curious about how the participants experienced the program format and what kind of activities they organized themselves I talked to a group of British grassroots skeptics. They told my they had local Skeptics in the pub in the cities they came from (which were quite small for UK), and that it had started during the last few years. Concerning the conference they said there were way too many speakers and that you didn’t have energy to listen to everything, that there weren’t enough time to see other participants and that you felt anonymous among the thousand participants (last year there were only five hundred).
Another group of Brits were also critical of the conference not giving them enough time to see other skeptics, which were one major reason they attended. On participant I spoke with said he attended most of the previous TAMs, including last year in London, and this one was probably the worst of them all. In Las Vegas, he said, everyone stayed on the same hotel so they had to interact with each other. It wasn’t as spread out as in London. Also, it lasted for several more days, so people also had time to get to know each other.
TAM handled their program well, but my discussions with some of the participants showed that they wanted something they didn’t get here – i.e. bonding and making connections. Surely some of that happened outside the program, so it was obviously a good thing the conference happened at all. The question remains however how to arrange a conference whose program aims at buildning the community and creating and maintaining relationships, rather than merely entertaining an audience.
What I think is necessary is activities where the participants rather than the speakers are at the center. Normally the participants are able to interact partly in the Q&A-part after the event and partly during the breaks and outside the program. However, to just do it in this way is unnecessary and inefficient. The most important thing in a movement is it’s members and their relationships with each other, both pairwise and in groups. To help the creation and maintenance of relationships, it’s imperative that the members can interact as much as possible. If you also want a growing movement it’s important that the groups are open. Often, when people become friends, they’ll close their group to outsiders and have a really good time, which is unfortunately destructive for the movement’s growth. Speakers and talks should be viewed as means for discussions between members and celebrities should be seen as motivation for the members to gather. Celebrity talks and building the community can form a synergy, but TAM London showed the trade-off relation between them.
The basis for a conference program should be discussions in small groups. Most people are too shy to talk in big groups which in effect is like acting in front of an audience, rather than an informal discussion in a small group which almost everyone are able to do. In this way, more people get to talk and be heard. Making this contribution and getting this attention will make them feel both like they make a difference and are important and contribute to something larger than themselves, i.e. the movement.
The discussion groups should be formed randomly which automatically creates open groups. This way, the members get an opportunity to get to know new people which helps both to create new bonds and shy people to interact. Then, during breaks and outside the program, members can see each other freely and will have an easier time talking to the new people they met in the discussion groups. To facilitate free interaction during breaks is at least as important as the program itself and proper places should be fixed for that including drinks, snacks, chairs and tables, and perhaps even pens and paper. Talks, panel discussions and interviews should not be seen as goals in themselves but as means for further discussions and interactions.
This is in principle what the meaning of Skeptics in the pub is, with the difference that the interaction is not controlled and thus disfavors some people, as for instance the shy or those with hearing or concentration difficulties. The great benefit of uncontrolled interaction is that most people find it hard to interact according to rules, since it will feel awkward, but the downside is that the differences of communication skill between people will increase. Nevertheless, this is better than talks with Q&A-sessions and then nothing more since it’s a better adaptation to natural social behavior.
Some remarks can also be made concerning what subjects to discuss. There are two main subject areas that in effect are separate but of equal importance. One is classical pseudoscience and the other is strategies and tactics for skeptical influence (including growth). If the latter is important, than a substantial part of the subjects should be about that. It can be very easy and down to earth though, as for instance “how to handle believing friends and relatives in a nondestructive way”. If no one wants to discuss those subjects, then of course it would be counterproductive to enforce them. But in that case there will probably not be much of influence or growth.
Any community that wants to be efficient at influencing people needs constant self evaluation. Because the subject area is partly open-ended (i.e. based of values), and also because more minds can come up with more ideas and more criticism and above all, spreading them more efficiently among themselves, group discussions are a neat way of evaluation. Even if you have a lecture on the latest research on optimal influence, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the audience will integrate that in their own behavior, simply because they’re listening to it. It will be especially hard if they get it all at once without the possibility of reflecting over the parts and their own behavior. However, the probability for change (including more motivation for existing behavior) is greater if they discuss it in groups, preferably with a short talk about one or two points beforehand.
There will also be a risk of religion taking up all available space if you let it in. Of course, there’s plenty of pseudoscience in religion that should be dealt with, but religion has a way of controlling both believers and non-believers in a way that runs the risk of putting a shadow on other more important topics. That was quite evident at TAM London. But that also depend on whether it’s a purely skeptical context or not. Moral and political questions should be avoided unless they have a clear connection to science or pseudoscience (but there’s plenty of cases of that though). Also, it could actually be a good thing to have one or two activities or talks about something completely unrelated.
There is however a general goal (instrumental for the movement but intrinsic for the members) that the suggestions I’ve made must yield to if they come in conflict with it. It must feel like a meaningful thing to do for the members. That can take many forms, like being fun, challenging, helpful to victims etc. However, if any of the ideas above put people off when practiced, then it has to be changed some way or thrown out as useless.
In conclusion: the skeptical movement simply has to become more democratic and adapted to