10th European Skeptics Congress - 15 years with a skeptical group

Amardeo Sarma, GWUP / ECSO

It is fifteen years after a wave of founding European organisations initiated by CSICOP. In these fifteen years, some groups have grown to large organisations. GWUP is one of these, and I will reflect on our experiences, which may be shared by others as well. These experiences are not only positive and good. Some have been painful. I wish to share them with you. In fact, this reflection has also been useful for me to step back and look at what we have done and achieved, and to learn for the future.

Just for convenience, I will be speaking of belief in the paranormal, when I am actually referring to a wide range of ill-founded beliefs that are not justified by objective experience and are based on magical thinking.

A number of issues that could be at the centre of such a reflection and for guidelines on how to proceed:

Which topics should skeptical groups address, and which should be avoided? For example, should religion be an issue or not? Religion has been extremely controversial in both groups, and most have decided to avoid it.
Who are the stakeholders in our discussions, what is their motivation, and who doesn’t care? How do their arguments compare?
What are the problems in running a skeptical group, especially since they strongly rely on volunteer work? Today, we are still far from being a professional organisation, with the possible exception of CSICOP. What keeps these groups together, and what are the dangers they face?
How do we get information and publications out to the public?
How do we establish core competencies, an information base and a network of experts? It has turned out to be extremely difficult to maintain this core competency in a sustainable way?
Though all these areas merit discussion, I will specifically look at the stakeholders in the area of the paranormal both inside and outside skeptical groups, and how we deal with them. This is because we need to pay special attention to those who support the goals of skeptical organisations and are often their members. This also automatically touches on the question of running a skeptical group, and of some of the other issues as well.

But before we go into this, we should know what our goals are and what our mission as a skeptical organisation is. ECSO has at its core to protect, promote and investigate. The German organisation has put this into a nutshell by placing two core items of our activities at the centre of our actions:

To make available critical and scientifically founded information on the paranormal.
To promote critical thinking.
This we see not only as an intellectual exercise, but also as vital to protect the public from deception and fraud, thus providing a service to society that no one else offers. This is also not to be seen as an immediate remedy to consequences of paranormal belief, but rather as a mid-term or long-term vaccination against false claims.

Back to the classification of stakeholders: I am well aware that any classification will immediately be questioned, since it is hard to find the delineation. But we have to manoeuvre between these groups without losing orientation. My proposal for all stakeholder and involved groups is as follows, fully aware of the fact that there are grey zones, and that the categories may be incomplete:

Naďve believers, who are consumers of paranormal offerings and naďve practitioners of the paranormal. People in this group sincerely believe in the paranormal, and it is in general wasted time to try and argue with them. Still, a dialogue must be kept up, because this is the group that often needs protection from being cheated by clever psychics or gurus. Here we often get the question – Why not let them believe? And then you get the placebo boomerang: If the placebo works, why not let it? Attacking them in public usually backfires: Like for small children, the public rallies around them. I also do not consider attacking them ethically correct – they are after all usually victims of abuse. They will even sing praises of their guru when dying of their treatment. What about naďve practitioners, such as most dowsers? Is it ok to test them even if we know that they will fail? Will this cause them to suffer when they find that they cannot do what they claim? I do not think so. Experience has shown that naďve practitioners recover fast from any failure and invariably find a reason why they could not perform at that particular time under those circumstances.
Sophisticated and commercial practitioners of the paranormal. Often doing business with the paranormal, this group sells its services to naďve believers for a fee. Here we find astrologers, psychics, gurus, faith healers, homeopaths, practitioners of alternative medicine, commercial dowsers and others. In the best case, they just get money for zero performance. Often they have a further detrimental effect by depriving their clients from rational ways of solving their problem. For example, a homeopath may – perhaps inadvertently – keep someone from using scientific, evidence-based medicine, and thus ruin someone’s health or even cause his death by neglect. It gets even worse – and this is no seldom case – when these practitioners cause dependencies and raise themselves to a guru- or godlike status. This is certainly a group that needs to be dealt with firmly but carefully. Investigations to expose them are called for.
Believers with scientific credentials applying scientific methods to paranormal claims. This is where hard work comes in. Many of them, parapsychologist and others, publish in journals such as the JSE (Journal for Scientific Exploration). On the other hand, not all who publish in such journals are necessarily believers. Many are skeptics. It is extremely important that skeptics like Richard Wiseman or Martin Lambeck from Germany publish there to keep discussions going.
However, claims in such journals usually have dropped to statistical effects that would hardly impress the general public, as this is not what they think paranormal effects are. They would not have practical significance. Nonetheless, often this often used to justify larger claims such as Poltergeist.

A special case – observational theories. This gives an insight into how some parapsychologists think. This goes back to Quantum Theory, and an attempt to extend it to psychic phenomena. I will not go into this in detail, but basically it implies that observation interferes with the phenomenon, or that the state of a macro-phenomenon is not fixed until observation – as suggested in Schrödinger's cat paradox.

The do-not-take-a-position group. Examples of this group are usually individuals, such as Marcello Truzzi and Edgar Wunder in Germany. They were often initially involved in skeptical groups, but left these. They do not wish to take a position at all, but rather focus on the continuous debate of both sides. In this they resemble Pyrrhonists or other extreme skeptics, who claim that an opposite position can be taken to just about any hypothesis. In their view, skeptical groups are dogmatic and opposed to debate. It is fine to have such persons outside a skeptical organisation and they sometimes correctly point out flawed reasoning amongst skeptics. It is within a skeptical group that they pose a real danger, because this position undermines the identification of skeptics with their skeptical group.
On the other hand, their usually strong anti-skeptic position is useful as a mirror for skeptics. A few of their arguments bear merit. They are usually quick to point out statements by skeptics that are not well founded, and almost all fall into this trap sometimes. In such a case, it is no catastrophe to concede error as a quality property for skeptics.

But they are only very useful as a corrective when outside a skeptical group because you deal with them at an intellectual level only. But if you have one of them in your organisation with an important position, you have a problem.

“Soft” skeptics, such as Ray Hyman. They take a very generous stand towards believers of all kinds and are strongly interested in dialogue. They are more likely to leave some issues open and give the “other side” the benefit of the doubt. Still, they are clear about their own position.
“Hard” skeptics, such as Martin Gardner. They like to term nonsense as nonsense and strongly attack sloppy reasoning. They may make strong but justified statements and are likely to antagonise believers.
In my view, skeptical organisations must be a place for both types of skeptics. Many organisations thus do both – encourage dialogue with believers, but take a position on important issues that are not left open. Though a skeptic must be open to a revision of any view in the light of new evidence, the job of consumer protection in the paranormal area cannot be done without a firm statement of position.

Skeptical dismissers or disbelievers. They often give skeptical groups a bad reputation, because they dismiss without argument. They are more likely to be involved in lawsuits, though no skeptic is really immune to that no matter how reasonable. If you have them in a skeptical group, be sure they do not make public statements in the name of the group.
The public at large consisting mostly of disinterested watchers. This group is a prime focus of our work. It can be very useful if they have access to the right kind of information when a friend or a member of their family falls victim to the paranormal. Through this channel, success in convincing believers is more likely than via direct information by “outside” skeptics.
We have also realised that the skeptics, our members, are the most important assets we have. It is they who finally give skeptical groups the strength that they have. We have shifted priorities towards them – to serve their needs and interest, especially those members, who have been with the organisation for a long time. It is they who are the most important multipliers for us. Where advertising is costly and difficult and the monetary resources of skeptical groups limited, using members as an asset is an alternative.

Here are some of the actions we have taken of late:

Placing a priority on long-term members and on active skeptics. We are implementing that they get recognition and benefits, and are not neglected over attempts to entice new members and subscribers.
Making sure the voice of members is heard and their proposals taken up as far as possible. Here, we have implemented a process to take up and implement members’ proposals.
What are other essentials to keep a group alive and well?

Broaden the base of active members. Volunteers often suddenly have less time and there should always be replacement in sight. No one should become irreplaceable. Ask yourselves this question. Find the 3 most important people in the group. Assume they all decide to emigrate to Australia. Will the group survive? If not, then you should be looking for people who can fill the gap today.
Make sure that there is consensus on some core issues and communicate this constantly. What are the main goals of the organisation? Keep everyone informed about what is going on and why things are being done the way they are. This provides orientation and stability. Agreeing on and communication a vision for the group that is seen by them as realistic is probably the most difficult of all.
Keep the group together. It is healthy to have a wide range of soft and hard skeptics in the group. But keep those out who succeed in regularly antagonising even the most patient members of the group. Even if they are extremely productive, the harm they do by far exceeds their output.
Let me summarise the dos:

First, have a clear idea of whom you want in the skeptical organisation and pay special attention to them. They are your assets. Communicate clearly with them. It should be clear to them and you that they are the most important people for any action that you take.
Second, be clear in your communication with all stakeholder groups what your main goals and mission is – being able to say this in one or two statements, which can be elaborated if necessary. Identify with which believers a dialogue is useful – know with whom you communicate.
Third, make sure that the base of the group is strong and can survive even if a few key members drop out. Make the group sustainable.
And the don’ts:

Try to avoid having those who antagonize members or the general public from being in a position to speak for your group.
Don’t waste time in dialogue with those, whose interests conflict completely with the interest of a skeptical group, such as in the case of commercial practitioners of the paranormal. They are making money by exploiting others. But go into dialogue with all other kind of believers of the paranormal.
Be constantly aware that you may again fall into the trap of making an unfounded statement – you can never be careful enough.
Finally: use the experience of others, but be aware that there are regional and national peculiarities.

photos from the congress session

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