Saturday, 16 March 2013

Event Report - An Introduction to Skepticism

Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic Magazine, came to give a fun and informative talk about what skepticism is and its place in the modern world. Hyde first emphasised that skepticism is a diffused and diverse movement. There are many magazines worldwide that specialise in the topic and they communicate with each other. Groups such as the Westminster Skeptics are interested in skeptical issues in law and government, while the Soho skeptics focus more on science. Hyde's online alter ego Jourdemayne specialises in superstition, religion and the supernatural. Hyde explained how she first became interested in skepticism through her research into the supernatural. She realised that there are people that believe as fervently in vampires as in God.

She explained skepticism as denying the possibility of knowledge in a particular sphere. Humans have perceptual and cognitive limits, and these limits must be understood to gain a better understanding of reality. Skeptics believe that knowledge must be supported by evidence, and they are not the same as cynics, as some things can be established as true.

In practise most skeptics tend to be atheists also, but this is not essential as people can hold these two ideas in their minds at the same time.

The issue of the spellings of 'skeptic' vs. 'sceptic' was addressed. The 'skepticism' movement began in the US, meaning that international members of the movement use the American spelling. It began in the 1970s when new age beliefs were in fashion, with figures such as Uri Geller gaining popularity.  There was a motivation to debunk these ways of thinking, with James Randi drawing attention to the flaws in Uri Geller's act. Another reason to use the spelling 'skeptic' is that 'sceptic' can be used more generally such as a '9-11 sceptic', and these opinions are totally separate from the skepticism movement.

Hyde stressed that the movement is not centralised in any way, it's a grass roots movement where people meet like minded others to start projects they're interested in. The movement also doesn't include a body of knowledge - only a dedication to the scientific method.

Common interests of skeptics and subjects covered in The Skeptic magazine were discussed. Cryptozoology, urban legends, conspiracy theories, the paranormal, UFOs and alternative medicine are issues which interest skeptics. Skeptical campaigns which have gained attention include the libel trial of Simon Singh vs. The British Chiropractic Association. The BCA attempted to sue Singh after he labelled some of their claims 'bogus', but the case was eventually dropped. The 10:23 campaign challenged homeopathy, with skeptics taking a mass overdose of homeopathic remedies to draw attention to their complete ineffectiveness. This aimed to inform people who weren't sure of what the remedies really were and bought them casually. The pharmacy Boots has admitted that they sell homeopathic remedies which have 'no evidence' of effectiveness.

Skeptics also challenged the popular psychic Sally Morgan. After rumours of her using earpieces at performances to feed her information she was offered a chance to test her powers under controlled conditions. She obviously refused.

Finally, Hyde stated that she hopes that one day the term 'skeptic' will be redundant, as society will accept the scientific approach as the best way to discover knowledge, and will be better educated against bad arguments.

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