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Speaking of Skeptical Activism

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

January 24, 2011

An Interview with Skeptically Speaking's Desiree Schell.

I first met Desiree Schell at Dragon*Con 2009’s SkepTrack panels and science lectures over that long weekend. At Dragon*Con 2010, I had the honor of appearing with her on panels about feminism, outreach, and communication for the skeptical community.

She is the host of the live call-in radio show and podcast Skeptically Speaking and a union organizer at the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. She recently gave a presentation on the panel “It’s All Geek to Me” at ScienceOnline2011, the fifth annual international meeting on science and the web, which was held in North Carolina.

Kylie Sturgess: How do you define the term skeptic? Do you consider yourself a skeptic?

Desiree Schell: To me, skepticism means basing decisions on evidence rather than emotion whenever possible. It means being aware of and trying to compensate for my own cognitive biases. It means trying to think critically, even after I’ve made my mind up on a particular topic. And it absolutely means being willing to listen if someone disagrees with me and [being willing] to change my position if their evidence is sound. So by that definition, I’m most definitely a skeptic.

KS: Why did you decide to do a skeptical radio show?

DS: Skeptically Speaking grew out of an earlier show that was similar to Coast to Coast AM. It was primarily a call-in show that featured interviews on a range of paranormal and pseudoscience topics.

As I grew more aware of skeptical media, it seemed to me that many of the podcasts out there were aimed at an audience of people who were either already skeptics or who’d become aware of skepticism and were starting to identify with the community. And while those shows were doing a great job for their listeners, I thought there was a need for something that would appeal to a more general audience. People who might find science interesting but wouldn’t necessarily know what a skeptic was.

I thought it would be useful to focus on the science and include promotion of critical thinking as an aspect of those discussions. To provide a sort of entry point for people into looking at the world in a more rational and evidence-based way. And then if they became interested in “capital S Skepticism,” they’d have a bunch of other great shows to choose from. Skeptically Speaking is a show for people who are curious about the world, whether they consider themselves skeptics or not.

I also thought that a broader sort of appeal was important because we are on the radio, rather than being exclusively a podcast. There’s a much higher potential for us to be stumbled upon by people who might randomly catch us on the air. I wanted something that would be more immediately engaging and relevant. More explicitly skeptical programs often require more background knowledge of concepts and terms; we deliberately try to lower that barrier to entry into the discussion.

KS: Recently on a post by Daniel Loxton on Skeptic Blogs (“Anatomy of an Activist Stunt”), your job as a professional union organizer was mentioned in relation to doing stunts in activism. What are some of the important lessons you try to teach about effective direct-action strategies?

DS: That was a great post, and I’m going to include it in the “additional resources” section of my direct-action course! The biggest thing I try to get across in my classes is the importance of planning and understanding what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. Knowing exactly what your objective is and being able to articulate it so that everyone involved is working toward the same thing. The importance of having that objective be narrow in scope [is that] it makes the action achievable and allows you to effectively assess your success later.

It’s also important to have a clear understanding of your resources in terms of things like money and supplies but also in terms of people. Who’s good at what, and how much time and energy do they have to give to your cause? What outside groups could act as natural allies, and why would they want to support the action?

And being very aware of the specific audience that you’re speaking to. Knowing who it is that you’re trying to reach so that you can create an action that will get their attention. Holding an action to rally your supporters may look quite different than an action designed to speak to members of the public. If you’re speaking to a general audience that isn’t as comfortable with science as skeptics tend to be, it’s much more important to start with a personal or emotional hook that will draw the audience in. While a purely factual argument might be correct, it isn’t necessarily persuasive (see Boston Globe’s “How Facts Backfire”).

After you’ve analyzed your position, then you can choose an action that is most appropriate for your situation and therefore most likely to help you reach your goals. Even the most spontaneous action can benefit from you taking time out to talk about these issues with your group. For a direct action to be successful, it has to have some kind of tangible, measurable impact. Everyone wants to do “something” about the issues they find important, but doing “something” that’s poorly planned can be worse than not helpful; it can actually hurt your cause.

KS: Do you think the aims of skepticism overlap with progressive or leftist causes—can analogies be made? And is it useful [to do] so?

DS: I think that depends on what you define as a “progressive” or “leftist” position. There does seem to be, broadly speaking, more acceptance of science on the left, especially when it comes to things like environmental preservation and climate change. On the other hand, there’s also a lot of distrust and fear of “western” medicine among people who would consider themselves very left-leaning.

I think the area where skepticism overlaps most generally with progressive politics is in the idea that we should be basing policy on evidence and reason instead of a personal conception of morality. But again, that’s not true across the board: the left can get swept up by emotional argument just as passionately as conservatives, if perhaps on different topics. And I wouldn’t exactly call that a “cause” as much as a philosophical position.

This is one of the reasons why I strongly advocate for single-issue campaigns with clear messages, such as pressuring a specific pharmacy to stop selling homeopathy or lobbying the government against giving naturopaths the authority to prescribe medication. [Then] there is one distinct cause to rally around, which allows more people to support the action, regardless of whether they identify as “left,” “right,” “skeptic,” or “believer.” There is also less likelihood of getting caught up in tangential issues that will distract from the campaign itself.

KS: I’ve read online and heard skeptics claim during discussions at conferences that “paralysis by analysis” is inevitable when it comes to researching skeptical efforts. That there’s no one who would be willing to research, find resources, fund, or even ask the right questions and implement improvements to grassroots activism if it were needed. How would you respond to those claims and where can people look to improve their activist methods?

DS: Although there are books and papers written specifically about effective science communication, which is an aspect of what we’re trying to do, there really hasn’t been a lot of research about the best practices for activism [in] science and critical thinking. There is, however, a wealth of resources on social-justice activism, political pressure tactics, and labor organizing that’s been compiled over many years of people planning actions and campaigns and sharing and repeating the methods that worked. With a little adjustment [those] successful tactics, and the planning that went into them, can work for us. (And it isn’t just skeptics who are starting to think in these terms. For an example of folks working at politics and activism from a science-advocacy standpoint, take a look at The Geek Manifesto.)

It’s definitely possible to get bogged down in rehashing past efforts or [in] attempting to plan so thoroughly that you miss an opportunity. But taking the time to think about the potential effectiveness of our actions, and to honestly assess how they lived up to those expectations, helps avoid wasted effort in the future.

Skeptics collectively are very new to operating on the public stage. We’re only just starting to incorporate these kinds of initiatives into our playbook, and it’s inevitable that we’re going to screw some things up as we figure out what we’re doing.

Really, I think that this is actually an argument in favor of careful planning in advance of an action or campaign. If you’ve really thought about what your goals are, what methods are best to achieve them, and how you’re going to measure success, you can sit down after your action and assess how well you did by your own standards. If you didn’t achieve what you wanted to, you’ll be more easily able to determine why and what you could do differently next time.

And it’s not just important for your own group. If we as organizers take the time to realistically assess our actions, we can add to the existing body of knowledge about what methods are best [for] furthering our specific goals and help other groups and activists to be more effective. It’s certainly more work, but the extra effort benefits not only each individual action but skeptical activism as a whole. It has the potential to make our overall message more appealing, more relevant, and more effective. Which, when you’re trying to make a difference in the world, are all very good things.

Skeptically Speaking, which airs every Friday at 6 pm MST, streams live on its website at www.skepticallyspeaking.com and can also be found on iTunes.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.