Speaking of Skeptical Activism
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.
is the host of the live call-in radio
show and podcast Skeptically
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.
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”).
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.
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
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.
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.