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06 October 2009

When skeptics fight back

I found this on the internet (through the stalking of Dr Phil Plait, not that it matters). This is a BBC write up about the TAM (The Amazing Meeting) in London. Those lucky droogs are getting to have a lot of fun over there. I'm sure Dr. Plait will have them highly entertained, and hopefully the UK government will stop funding homeopathy and other such nonsense.
Conspiracy theorists have used the internet to co-ordinate increasingly slick attacks on the accepted versions of events, but now a group of scientists and sceptics has decided it's time to organise and fight back.

Conspiracy theories are pervasive and popular.

A poll for the Scripps Howard media organisation in 2006 suggested 36% of Americans suspected government involvement or deliberate inaction in the 9/11 attacks, and belief in a Kennedy conspiracy ran at 40% in the same poll.

A decade after Princess Diana's death, one survey found a fifth of Britons believed she was murdered. And to millions across the world, 2009's Apollo Moon landing 40th anniversary was a hollow sham because we have never been there.

Conspiracy theories predate the internet but the web has provided a fast, accessible platform for groups to unite, gather research and disseminate information without even meeting or leaving their houses.

While many people find harmless fun, others believe there is a darker truth - that conspiracy theories are rewriting history, warping the present and altering the future. Enough is enough they say - it's time to fight back.

Isolated sceptics

Enter the sceptics with the gathering of The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in London, the first of the conferences outside the US. A fundraising offshoot of the non-profit James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), TAM London saw scientists, writers and comedians target conspiracy theories - and their close cousins pseudoscience and medical quackery - in front of an audience loosely allied by their desire for more rational, critical thinking.

"A lot of sceptics feel very isolated," says psychologist and magician Prof Richard Wiseman. "It's not a popular position to be saying 'Father Christmas does not exist' so it motivates people and acts as a springboard for people to see what we're up to."

This brand of scepticism is not new. The movement was first galvanised in the early 80s when spoon-benders like Uri Geller claimed not to be magicians, but to really have paranormal powers. It was an age that saw a test of Geller's abilities make its way into the prestigious journal Nature.

The internet era has changed everything. The web-only film Loose Change, which questions the findings of the 9/11 commission, had already been viewed 10 million times by May 2006. It has had a massive impact. But the sceptics are also using the internet to organise loose networks of informal meetings.

However, using the same medium to fight back is not easy, as British investigative journalist Jon Ronson found when he posted on the British 9/11 Truth Campaign website. Abused and ridiculed, his integrity was questioned because he is Jewish. "When I found myself being attacked by 9/11 conspiracy theorists I found the sceptical community very supportive," says Ronson. "When believers turn on you it is horrible. I've stopped engaging with them because it's like prodding a snake."

Ronson has spent a lifetime lifting the lid on the unusual. He is about to come to greater prominence after being portrayed by Ewan McGregor in the upcoming film, The Men who Stare at Goats, also starring George Clooney. Ronson's book of the same name revealed that the US operated a secret army of psychic spies in the 1970s and 80s.

But the sceptics movement is not just about tackling conspiracy theorists who spread their message by independent means on the internet, there is also a drive to tackle bad reporting of science in the mainstream media.

Direct access

Dr Ben Goldacre's Bad Science website has served as a conduit for those who want to help counter the ceaseless torrent of articles pushed out by snake oil sellers, lazy journalists and badly behaved editors. He has been the leading critic of the media's treatment of the MMR scare.

His solution is to bypass conventional routes to the public. "Mainstream media has repeatedly shown itself to be worse than useless in reporting science and health in many, many fields," says Goldacre. "Scientists should communicate directly with the public via blogs."

These sceptics can garner a good deal of public support. David Aaronovitch has given popular talks to accompany his anti-conspiracy theory book, Voodoo Histories. Goldacre speaks at contemporary music festivals.

And TAM London's 600 seats - at £175 a pop - were snapped up in 52 minutes - despite sceptics' high priest James Randi not attending due to ill health. Instead, Randi addressed an enraptured audience via video link like a general before battle, telling delegates that "it wasn't easy to get people out of beliefs in the woo-woo world".

Randi's foundation was established in 1996 to help debunk paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, but his Paranormal Challenge prize dates back to 1964 when the sceptic offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove the paranormal was real. Donations swelled the booty to more than a million dollars, but no applicants have passed the preliminary test.

The energy at events like TAM London is tangible, but are sceptics just preaching to the choir and can their success be measured?

JREF president Dr Phil Plait cites the myth that an egg laid on the first day of spring will stand on one end. Plait says that 10 years ago half of his audience had heard of the story - now that figure is less than 10%, which he says is down to using the web to disseminate articles that prove the claim is nonsense. "Legends do die," he says.

Then there is the image or branding problem. Not all delegates like the term "sceptic" because it has negative, "anti" connotations, similar to the way atheists are defined by something they don't believe in.

As a result, some delegates prefer to call themselves rationalists, free-thinkers or Brights. "Out there in the audience is the next generation of bloggers and media professionals," Plait says.

But even if the word is spread, will conspiracy theory believers ever listen?

Adam Savage, presenter of the television programme Mythbusters, which uses science to challenge urban legends, is not overly optimistic. He says he doesn't know of any conversions following his Emmy-nominated programme that tested Moon hoax theories.

"They want to believe desperately that someone is in charge," he says. "Even if it is someone who is working against us."
Sadly, I am convinced that the total lack of critical thinking will only have people actually believing in the truth (as opposed to these wacko conspiracy theories) because the skeptics actually got organized. The lack of any synaptic activity from the majority of the population just makes me wonder as to the future of this species.

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