Some are born to skepticism. Some are called to it. And some have it thrust upon them. Liverpool-based Mike Marshall thinks he was born that way.
“I almost envy the moments people describe of a sort of Damascene conversion,” he says. He doesn’t mention names, but it’s easy to think of Chris French, whose beliefs changed after reading James Alcock. Instead, “I kind of always felt this way, but I didn’t know what it was until I stumbled into podcasts and TV shows.” He thinks it was Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! series that opened the door to finding others like him. “I was interested that Teller never speaks.” Looking that up led him to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. “From there I started reading the classics.”
“The classics” he names are ones I read in 1981 on first encountering organized skepticism, such as James Randi’s Flim-Flam! and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. I took six years to found Britain’s The Skeptic magazine. Marshall didn’t wait.
“The first thing I did was cofound the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS). It came about because I didn’t know anybody else, or if I did, they didn’t care. I was the only one saying this matters because it’s not true and people are being persuaded.” To get started, he found and messaged a stranger in Liverpool looking to start a skeptical group. A day later, he and Mike Hall started the MSS, which runs numerous events, challenges psychics and questionable medical claims, publishes three podcasts, and hosts the highly successful annual QED conference. This month he became the latest editor of The Skeptic.
Marshall is motivated by the desire to think broadly and take action. “The reason we created a society rather than a Skeptics in the Pub is that we didn’t just want to be a group that puts on events.” Soon, Marshall was arguing with psychic detective Joe Power and offering him this challenge: If Power could prove he’s psychic, Marshall would take down the MSS web page criticizing his work. Instead, Power called the police to accuse Marshall of sending him death threats, a claim Marshall was able to counter effectively. “I don’t wish him harm,” he says. “Just professional harm.”
In January 2010, the MSS staged the 10:23 “homeopathic overdose” event, at which skeptics gathered at locations such as drugstores to down a bottle each of homeopathic pills. The event spread to thirteen UK cities and was repeated in February 2011 at the first QED, when skeptical groups all over the world participated. No skeptics were harmed.
All of that—including a recent deep dive into flat earth beliefs—is just his hobby. In his day job since 2014, Marshall is executive director of the Good Thinking Society (GTS), set up in 2012 by writer Simon Singh to promote skepticism after the British Chiropractic Association unsuccessfully sued him for libel. Singh’s idea was that the voluntary nature of most skepticism means that people abandon efforts when they hit an obstacle, whereas a paid full-timer would have no excuse to quit.
One of Marshall’s first efforts was discovering how much money the National Health Service (NHS) spends on homeopathy and where it goes. To find out, Marshall filed hundreds of Freedom of Information requests across the NHS.
The funding, he says, “was really only in places adjacent to a homeopathic hospital,” he says. He began writing to those NHS bodies to point out that homeopathy is not a legitimate use of public funds. “Previously, any attempt to get rid of it would have been met by an aggressive defense by homeopaths, but they knew we were willing to go to court over it, so they couldn’t just placate us.” In the end, one by one the bodies withdrew the funding. GTS’s involvement, he thinks, enabled the NHS bodies to say that they had to decide based on the evidence when facing contradictory claims.
A more recent project studied crowdfunding for alternative cancer treatments. “Very often, the clinic they’re going to is a quack clinic peddling ineffective treatment, but no one realizes that.” These efforts bypass the United Kingdom’s strict advertising rules because the media picks up and amplifies these cases without the clinic’s involvement. After six to eight months looking at every campaign he could find, Marshall estimated that these appeals raised £8 million between 2012 and 2018. This work, along with recommendations that the media class these as science stories rather than human interest or lifestyle stories, became a cover story in the British Medical Journal.
More broadly, Marshall thinks that circa 2010, classical skeptical topics gave way to alt-med as the prevailing pseudoscience—and that today another shift is underway to conspiracy theories, a combination that is particularly difficult to unpack in medicine, as QAnon posters pop up at anti-mask rallies. “The people who thought 9/11 was an inside job didn’t necessarily think the moon landings were faked,” he says. “Conspiracy has the ability to amalgamate a whole world view.”