Post-Truth. Fake news. Nefarious social media algorithms. It seems fair to say that 2016 was the year of misinformation. To learn more about it, I met up with Brian Eggo, head of Glasgow Skeptics. Here we discuss how he became a part of the skeptics community, their growth, the Bill Nye/ Ken Ham debate, how to argue effectively, the pros and cons of Santa Claus and much more besides. Enjoy!
C&Q: First thing’s first, how’re you doing?
BE: Doing very well. Looking forward to Christmas, just got over a chest infection, ready to kill it!
C&Q: Nice! Tell me a little bit more about yourself and what you do as a skeptic.
BE: I started coming to Glasgow Skeptics just as a punter about two and a half, three years ago. It was not long after meeting my fiancée and she told me all about this great thing called Skepticism and that there was fun to be had in Glasgow during the week that didn’t involve serious drinking.
So, coming along as a punter, just really enjoying the talks, getting to know some of the organisers, then slowly I started helping out, moving chairs mostly. Then, just over a year and a half ago, the founder of Glasgow Skeptics Ian Scott managed to land himself a fine job with the British Humanist Association down in London. Obviously he had to move away and there was no one really else to pick up the reins.
So, I kind of stumbled my way into running Glasgow Skeptics, but it’s been a lot of fun. You’ve already met a few of the other guys, very knowledgeable bunch. I like to describe them as my oompah loompahs… my evil henchmen…
C&Q: …your elves?
BE: Yeah, let’s go with Elves. That’s flattering enough!
C&Q: So you feel you’ve met the challenge?
BE: I think so, yeah! I was looking at the list of events for my intro tonight and this is actually our 36th this year, which is more than any other year Glasgow Skeptics have ever done. In the past year or so we’ve ramped it up to try and fill every single Monday, besides holidays, mostly with lectures, some social gatherings.
The most underused hashtag on Twitter is #mondaynightisskepticnight. It’s not really caught on yet, but we’ve been living the dream for the past 7/ 8 months, making sure that people in Glasgow or the Glasgow area who are interested in science or skepticism or finding out stuff, having a chat, having a debate, having their views challenged, will be able to do that on a Monday night, usually here in the Admiral Bar or close by, so I’m really happy with that and the way things are going.
C&Q: What would you say to people who say skepticism is just science-light? Is it an important skill/ attitude to have, even for non-scientists?
BE: I’d be interested to know if the people who say that would consider it a derogatory term. If they do, then I’d disagree, because I think it’s a reasonable approximation. If you consider that the majority of the public aren’t scientists, then aspiring to at least have a basic level of scientific literacy is something to be admired. Applying a scientific mindset in your daily life can help you differentiate between what’s true and what’s not… and to help understand the nuances of the grey area between the two. It’s an important part of the decision making process in every aspect of your life, so the consequences are significant.
Why? Well, the consequences of bad decision making can range from zero to dead, and that can be for you as an individual, or those who are affected by your actions (or lack of). I’m no mathematician, but I think it’s safe to say that the less bad decisions you make, the less chance you have of suffering negative consequences. Of course, that’s a very simplistic look at a much more complicated issue, but for specific examples of the dangers of credulity I’d recommend taking a look at a website called ‘What’s The Harm’ .. you can search by subject matter and see in cold detail the consequences failing to think critically.
C&Q: So other than bringing like minds together, are there any other goals Glasgow Skeptics have, like campaigning? Fighting homeopathy, that sort of thing.
BE: We’ve dabbled in some skeptical activism… around 2010/ 2011 when the 10:23 homeopathy overdose campaign was going on, Glasgow Skeptics were involved in that. Two years ago, when it was psychic awareness month there were representatives from Glasgow Skeptics outside Psychic Sally shows, handing out leaflets to the people going in to try and encourage them to think a bit more critically about the event they were going to go and see.
We try to nudge newspapers and such any time there’s any credulous reporting. We chased after the Daily Mail after a quite irresponsible story on the rutherglem poltergeist recently, not with much joy I hasten to add, but there are a lot of Skeptical organisations across the UK and wider, and occasionally for example Michael Marshall, The Good Thinking Society, Merseyside Skeptics, etc will email around to focal points at the skeptics groups in order to promote a campaign that they’re having, even if it’s just some petition signing and that sort of thing, so – we do some, we probably should do more, maybe we will time permitting.
C&Q: It does seem that what you do here serves a great purpose in terms of bringing people together, so that they can, in theory, arrange these things themselves?
BE: Well, we do, but, we’re often accused of preaching to the choir a bit, which maybe we do to a point. But, there are plenty of events that we’ve held during the year where there have been great debates and discussions and disagreements with the content that’s been presented to us by the speaker or even just in the bar afterwards when we’re picking apart what’s been discussed.
Our most well-attended event of the year was when there was a 9/11 conspiracy theory discussion and as you can imagine that’s a very polarizing topic, and I think we dealt with it in a respectful manner. I think perhaps we managed to change a few minds, but we certainly did our best not to ridicule the truthers. We might’ve done so a little bit at times (C&Q – laughs) but not too much. We’re always open to discussion and we opened up the Facebook group beforehand for that sort of thing, so, it’s not just preaching to the choir, but if you look at our audience there’s a… certain amount of convergence in our opinions, if not completely.
We do a bit of outreach as well. Ordinarily in conjuction with Edinburgh skeptics or whoever else, if there’s say a festival on, we’ll have a stall where people can come and talk to us, ask questions, etc. The most successful one we had was over Glasgow Science Festival, so over the weekend in Kelvingrove Art Galleries there were stalls from all sorts of representatives at the festival. There’s families coming in, literally myself and Graham at the stall for five hours on a Saturday and a Sunday, we didn’t have a minute spare, we were speaking to people for the whole time.
The reaction we got was fantastic. We had a lot of great discussions with people who had never, ever heard of skepticism before. We got to talking about homeopathy and psychics and aliens and dousing and all the sorts of fun things that skeptics like to talk about. We had a couple of fun, interactive things with families who were there with their kids, we had little kids trying out our dousing experiment, we tried a little astrology experiment as well, so we do plan to do more that next year to preach outside of our regular audience.
C&Q: Speaking of picking things apart, what d’you think are the main ingredients for a skeptical mindset? How can a person actively become more skeptical about things?
BE: For a skeptical mindset I think that the first thing to be aware of is your own set of personal biases, because there’s no denying that that affects your view of everything. The other thing is to make sure to look very carefully at the sources of information that you’re gathering. Whether it be a news story you read or a claim made by a political party, or a report on a scientific experiment, you have to make a decision on where you’re going to gather your information from, what the reliable sources are, weigh it up against your own personal biases and how much time you’ve got to evaluate it and just try your best to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. Choose where to fight your battles because there’s never enough time to cover everything. A throwaway news story isn’t going to be as important as an election, say. I think it’s very important to admit when you’re wrong as well, and openly change your opinion based on new evidence.
As time goes on though you can base your trust on people who are consistently accurate and reliable. Unfortunately no one’s as consistently accurate and reliable as we’d like to be all the time, but more and more I’m seeing the difference. Take my skeptical role models, like the top one, Steve Novella of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, because not only does he have an in-depth knowledge of his subject, he’s a neurologist, but he also does an incredible amount of research on all the stories they cover on their podcast and once in a while they come back with a retraction and a correction.
There’s been an interesting case recently, where I read the book, ‘bad science’ by Ben Goldacre, which is a lovely bit of pop science, cos I’m not a scientist at all, but it’s written in good simple terms and it’s a real eye opener. One of the things that he talks about in the book is the placebo effect, which is a fascinating phenomenon, but in the last couple of episodes of a podcast called ‘Skeptics with a K’, the presenter has been really really picking apart some of the stuff that Ben Goldacre wrote about, so that’s one skeptic criticizing another skeptic, and seems to be making a very valid point, so I’m having to re-evaluate now what I think about the placebo effect, I’m not saying the guy from ‘Skeptics with a K’ is right, but, it’s making a lot of sense what he’s saying and it certainly brings the subject into much more controversy than it would’ve been beforehand.
C&Q: I think this ties into what you were saying earlier about trying to be respectful of who you’re arguing with, in that personal research is important, but it’s also a conversation, and if you take examples like Brexit and the American elections, it does appear that, if you shove people out of the conversation, you risk having both sides in separate bubbles and becoming more extreme in their views.
BE: Yeah, there’s a lot of discussion among skeptics about how to best approach an argument or discussion, and I guess you’ve got to separate that out between whether you’re arguing with someone on Twitter, which is tough, or YouTube comments (laughs), or face-to-face with someone which is obviously going to require a different approach.
But, I think we’ve seen again and again that by simply going, ‘you’re wrong, here are the facts’, is as you say going to completely turn somebody off and make them go in the opposite direction, and makes them double down on it. So a lot of the time a better way to do it is by asking them questions. Naively I got myself into a discussion on YouTube recently about some psychic experiments, which he believed were reliable and rigorous, and I… did not. So rather than say, well, they didn’t use this particular piece of technology, so the whole experiment’s rubbish, I said, ‘well, d’you think it’s reliable based on the fact that they didn’t use this?’, and we didn’t come to an agreement (laughs) but it was a more fruitful discussion than many other ones I’ve had online.
So it’s a bit of an eye-opener about how to approach people, but a lot of times when you’re arguing with someone who’s very very set in their ways, for example let’s say you’re debating a creationist, you’re unlikely to be able to change their mind. You might do if you’re really good, but it’s the people around you that are listening that you’re more likely to influence.
C&Q: It’s a very good point. I think Bill Nye made it as well.
BE: He did make that point, and it was the source of much discussion among skeptics as to whether he should’ve entertained that debate with Ken Ham at all, and I think there are pros and cons to it.
C&Q: It won Ken Ham a lot of money and exposure.
BE: It did, and some say it legitimizes the discussion, but you wonder how many Christians were tuning in and thinking, ‘Ken Ham’s an idiot’. Creationism, or intelligent design as they like to call it, is not as prevalent a thought among many Christians, certainly not Young Earth Creationism. There’s a distinct possibility that that debate would’ve turned off a lot of Christians to that type of message. So, without a rigorous study on the opinions of audiences before and after that debate we won’t know for certain.
C&Q: I’d be really interested to see that.
BE: Yeah, I’d love to see it. I don’t know if we ever will, though. *shrugs*
C&Q: Seasonal question, we’ve got to have one – where would a skeptic stand on teaching the idea of Santa Claus to your kids? Is it good to get in the idea of doubt about what you’re told early, or could it make them more credulous, or is it basically fine?
BE: Eh… I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that one. Bringing up kids with the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus can be a wonderful experience and generally speaking, they slowly come out of that belief based on their becoming more rational as they grow older or talking to their school colleagues, etc. But the simple fact is, you are lying to your kids, and if you encourage your kids at that young age to believe in that kind of magical thinking, then it may cause them to have other beliefs, going into adult life, which are harmful.
C&Q: It’s a very formative time.
BE: It’s a very formative time, so if I look back on the cold light of day now, maybe I would be different with my kids, but there are many children who do grow up believing in Santa Claus and they come out of it relatively unharmed and not too credulous. In fact, if you are going to use the Santa myth with your children, make sure that when they stop believing in Santa, use that as a springboard to have a discussion with them about what’s true, what’s not true, and fun things that we believe in as kids that we don’t believe in as adults.
It’s a sad thing to see the innocence leaving your child as they figure out Santa’s not real and not everybody’s nice in the world and there’s war and stuff like that, but it’s all part of growing up and you can maybe use that to your advantage. I’m not giving you a definitive answer on that, write that down please!
C&Q: (laughs) noted! So, the Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth” (BE – head slowly lowers onto table in despair). How can we combat fake news and appeals to emotion that appear to be on the rise in recent years? I suppose we’ve covered that somewhat.
BE: Yeah, we have to a point. So, don’t click on clickbait, encourage your friends to avoid clickbait. Find some money in your pocket and actually fund/ subscribe to good journalism, ‘cos it’s very much on the decline. You’ve gotta challenge people if they’re sharing incorrect stuff, and there are ways of doing that without being an ass. I occasionally fall foul of that crime but I’m trying my best to avoid it.
C&Q: Someone advised me to use the ‘compliment sandwich’. Say something nice, make the critique, finish with something nice.
BE: (Laughs) I think the compliment sandwich is a good approach, yeah. But certainly, you have to cater your language very carefully, otherwise you’ll end up just being unfriended. There’s a tendency for people on social media to just unfriend or block, and that’s fine if there’s actual abuse going on, but if there’s disagreement or you don’t like their opinions then that’s different.
C&Q: Something I’ve noticed is that a lot of people don’t seem to see the difference between abuse and criticism, and there’s this pervasive idea that hurts open discussion, of, ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’, and well, to what extent are you if you’re incorrect?
BE: Yeah, exactly. There are old friends of mine from when I was very young who are now very very right wing and overtly racist. Not many, I hasten to add, but a few. It’s been tempting at times to just delete them because they’ve been sharing stuff that’s not savory or appropriate and a lot of times not true. But I think it’s better to challenge them and ensure that they’re not in an echo chamber because a lot of the comments that these people get are from other friends of theirs who I don’t know who share the same view, and if you can be the one that throws something in, politely, then at least you’re gonna let people know that their views are not going unchallenged. I don’t know if we’re gonna get away from this post-truth environment because of the nature of humans and social media, but as skeptics it’s up to us to do what we can.
C&Q: There seems to be a growing distrust of experts, whether in politics, medicine or elsewhere. How do we get around that?
BE: Well, (laughs), that’s a million dollar question and it’s very upsetting to see. Firstly the word expert is thrown about way too much, as a pejorative and just completely inappropriately as well. The story I mentioned earlier about the poltergeist in Rutherglen, there are “expert ghost hunters” coming out. There’s no such thing! There’re amateur ghost hunters, there are maybe people who make some money out of ghost hunting, but that’s not an expert. There’re problems of false balance being used in Journalism, where you may have Brian Cox on one side of the equation talking about climate change and some politician on the other side who has no scientific background whatsoever, spouting their opinions and they get the same amount of time, so there’re false balance problems for a start.
As journalists they have an obligation to try and avoid that false balance, because there’re far too many voices online now, who don’t have to follow those rules, we have to look to the BBC, and Sky, and Huffington Post and god forbid, even the Daily Mail, to be more responsible with their journalism. It’s the only chance we’ve got to restore the good name of experts, and avoid some of the fall out of post-truth, and maybe governments and organisations like Facebook trying to help with pointing out fake news stories, that might make some degree of difference but I don’t know. It’s a significant problem.
C&Q: Are there any other favourite resources that you use personally to find information, and what’s coming up in the next few months?
BE: Snopes is always a good starting point … despite the recent unfavourable (and highly questionable) news reports about it. In general though some sensible Googling is usually sufficient .. Of course, you have to be very careful that you’re not just searching for a viewpoint on a story which agrees with your opinion. There’s an excellent episode of the Skeptoid podcast on ‘How to spot pseudoscience‘ which helps give you some clues that you might be reading something that’s less than accurate.
As for what’s coming up in the near future … we’ve already got a packed schedule of talks for January, and a few in planning for February. Most notably, we’re hoping to get a representative from Monsanto to come and speak for us in mid-February … which will give us the chance to tackle the rising tide of anti-GMO lobbying, and separate that out from other criticisms of ‘Big Agriculture’ in general.
On a personal note, I’ll be travelling down to Cambridge to deliver a talk on Scottish ‘Clairvoyants’ for Cambridge Skeptics at the end of February. I’ve been reaching out to a number of those who claim to have clairvoyant powers recently asking them for 2017 predictions. Mostly I’m being ignored, but hopefully I’ll be able to publish something on the Glasgow Skeptics website around the turn of the year, so watch out for announcements!
C&Q: Cheers Brian, that’s magic.
BE: I’m going to jump down and see if Richard Wiseman’s here yet. Thanks, Gerry!