Skeptical Activism from the Bottom Up

Michael Marshall

For someone who may well be the only full-time skeptical investigator in the United Kingdom, my exact route into skepticism is somewhat hard to recall. Lacking any previously unshakable belief in something entirely unsubstantiative, there was no Damascene moment of dramatic volte-face for me. Instead, my discovery of the skeptical movement came piecemeal, in what is doubtlessly a story familiar to many people: watching a TV show led to finding a podcast, which opened up a world of skeptical media, which prompted me to search for local skeptics and, soon, to set up a skeptics society.

When I cofounded the Merseyside Skeptics Society in early 2009, Skeptics in the Pub groups had only recently begun to spread beyond the well-established London event, with groups in Oxford and Leicester before our own in Liverpool. If numbers tell a story of success, the growth in the Skeptics in the Pub movement is encouraging: seven years on, there are over forty active local groups. In effect, there’s barely a town in the country that doesn’t have a nearby skeptical presence.

The organic growth of the U.K. skeptical scene arguably demonstrates both the strength and weakness of a bottom-up, decentralized movement. Apparently uniquely across the skeptical world (or certainly across Europe and North America), there is no official organization at the head of my country’s skeptical efforts. With no central body determining what can and can’t be done, local chapters run autonomously, making the barrier to entry as low as the ability to find an adequate venue and to book a suitable speaker. This openness has undoubtedly done wonders for the rapid growth of the U.K. skeptical community in the past decade.

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The inevitable downside to a movement with no center is a lack of a figurehead to drive activism and direct enthusiasm into effective pursuits, meaning opportunities to counter pseudoscience directly and publicly sometimes pass by, with local groups focusing their energies on their own local activities. This downside is certainly not insurmountable if approached correctly. In fact, within a year of the formation of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, we had started the 10:23 Campaign—a series of publicity-raising stunts designed to drive home to the public the inefficacy of homeopathic remedies (a pseudoscience that carries a particular embarrassment for British skeptics, given the U.K. government’s support for homeopathy in the National Health Service (NHS) to the tune of some £4 million, nearly $6 million).

The stunt itself was nothing new: taking a homeopathic “overdose” in order to highlight that the remedies contained nothing but sugar. What made our plan different from previous, similar stunts was the scale: we aimed to have skeptics all across the country taking a public “overdose” at precisely the same time, at 10:23 am (the time being a reference to the Avogadro constant, which can be used to explain the inert nature of homeopathic products). To achieve this goal, we needed to convince skeptical groups around the country to get behind our plan and to join us. Fortunately, as I’ve seen on many occasions since, when you approach a skeptical group with an appeal for support rather than a prescriptive diktat, you invariably find a passionate, enthusiastic, and warm response. More often than not, skeptics want to help and want to be part of an idea they can see the value of.

Our 2010 10:23 Campaign was an overwhelming success, with 300 skeptics in thirteen cities swallowing sugar pills in illustration of the cause. The stunt garnered national attention, remaining the top story on the BBC website for the whole day and appearing in every national newspaper. So successful was the campaign that in 2011—astonishingly, in retrospect, less than two years after we first founded the Merseyside Skeptics Society—we took the campaign worldwide, approaching every skeptical group we could find, offering the same appeal for enthusiasm, aid, and action. On February 6, 2011, 1,700 skeptics in seventy cities across thirty-two countries—including a research scientist in Antarctica—collectively took part in a stunt that was dreamt up by a small, local group in Liverpool one afternoon. As one illustration of the effect, sales of homeopathic products across all of Poland fell by 17 percent after the 10:23 Campaign made the national news there.

As successful as the 10:23 Campaign was, NHS funding of homeopathy in the United Kingdom was far from defeated. This, perhaps, is the biggest downside to an autonomous and decentralized skeptical community: only so much can be achieved with limited volunteer time, and volunteers rightly focus their attention and activism where their interest takes them. It is the skeptic’s lot to repeatedly tread old ground, as long-debunked ideas require constant re-skewering. For some skeptics, this same-old familiarity can breed fatigue, and names once-synonymous with a cause drift away as real life and other interests take precedent.

The ability to circumvent that fatigue is one of the real strengths of having a dedicated and professional skeptical body, which is why I was so delighted to become possibly the country’s only full-time skeptic when I became the project director of Simon Singh’s charity The Good Thinking Society in 2014. Among the many projects we’ve undertaken in the past two years has been to systematically chase up and challenge the funding of homeopathy by the NHS, going deeper into the specifics of funding agreements, health policies, and commissioning processes than any voluntary skeptic has had the time, interest, and expertise to do in the past. In doing so, we’ve been able for the first time to accurately expose where in the country public funds are spent on homeopathy and to work with lawyers to bring legal challenges against regional funding decisions with encouraging signs of success.

The space to methodically and tactically investigate has, for perhaps the first time, put homeopathy’s place on the National Health Service under genuine pressure, with our first real major victory coming in June of this year when NHS Liverpool agreed to end homeopathy funding in the city as a direct result of our campaigning. We intend to keep that pressure up around the rest of the country, and having the time and the manpower to stay on top of this issue gives us a genuine chance of a positive outcome. And, naturally, our chances of success are amplified enormously by having the support of a vibrant and passionate skeptical community.

If our chances of dislodging homeopathy from the public purse once-and-for-all give me cause for cautious optimism, we certainly can’t afford to be complacent. Skepticism is still a growing movement, accelerated by the advent of social media but still finding its feet as a broader social phenomenon. There have been growing pains, and to a degree those are inevitable. Some skeptical positions even appear to have penetrated the mainstream: when I first became an active skeptic in 2009, it seemed like the public overwhelmingly conflated the term homeopathic with herbal or natural—indeed, this was the very point the 10:23 Campaign aimed to address in the public consciousness. These days, comedians have entire routines based on the nonsensical tenets of homeopathy—and popular routines at that.

Perhaps the skeptical message is starting to break through. Or, perhaps, that may simply be confirmation bias. I’ll withhold judgment until I have more data. After all, I am a skeptic.