Sunday, 22 January 2012

And another Skeptics in the Pub. Welcome Hackney!

Because obviously I haven't got enough to do at the moment, what with a course and a zoo and a bunch of talks coming up, last autumn I let myself be dragged into co-founding Hackney Skeptics in the Pub.

There are already two Skeptics in the Pub in London: London and Westminster. But there are over seven million people too, and James Robson, who works with exotic animals at the Horniman Museum and runs Science in the Pub with Paolo Viscardi, thought there was room for more. In other words, you can blame James for all this . . .

Westminster is the place that focusses on media, law, policy, etc. So we thought we'd be "the Skeptics with a science slant". Like Science in the Pub, we hope to run the odd silly experiment during the interval (when I gave a talk there, for instance, people were invited to taste different wines to see if we could tell which were old, which were new, which were cheap and which expensive. I forget the overall result, but I certainly couldn't). We also differ from other places in another way, by being based at the Hackney Attic rather than in a pub. I personally love pubs (the kind with pool tables and room for conversation, anyway), but this is where we are, and a damn glamorous venue it is too.

It's the fifth floor of the Hackney Picturehouse on Mare Street, opposite the Town Hall and Hackney Empire and, as you see, in a street containing rather a lot of pretty lights. It's a fantastic venue for gigs etc and has a bar and comfortable chairs, and they serve food and can bring it upstairs - so that covers all the necessaries for Skeptics in the Pub without it strictly being a pub. Maybe that'll expand our audience. Maybe it won't make any difference at all. We'll have to see.

Let me digress into exactly what "Skeptics in the Pub" and "Skepticism" is, for anybody new coming along. It is not cynicism or pessimism, or people yelling "I don't believe you". There are various definitions of what Skepticsim is, and useful articles about where it's needed in the face of misleading claims, but a beautiful one was recently shown to me by Tannice, who runs Guildford Skeptics. It's by DJ Groethe, and he says:

"To me, the word is best understood by looking at its roots: it comes from the Greek word 'skeptikos', which just means to inquire or to find out. We say that skepticism is the best way of finding out the truth and is precisely the opposite way of just saying 'no' to others' beliefs . . . Critical thinking is continuous with skepticism – and with science, for that matter. It is simply thinking critically about claims and issues . . . Some people think the skeptic’s work is trivial, but we think beliefs matter very much. If the majority of people believe in the claimed supernatural ability of a TV preacher to heal their illnesses, there are real-world effects: the believers won’t go to real medical doctors."

From here - the whole thing is very well worth a read!

The Greek word may be why we call ourselves "skeptics" rather than "sceptics", although for many of us I guess it is just a habit, a joke, a special sense of belonging. Quite a few of us feel we don't belong among many others - with severities ranging from when all the people in the office are going on about how marvellous such and such a psychic is, to being the only atheist in your family and being constantly told you're going to Hell.

But the nights at almost all the places I've been to are cheerful and bonding. I used to co-run Cardiff Skeptics with Dean Burnett, which was an incredibly happy year - I lived in Wales just long enough to be there for our first birthday party before moving here to London and having to leave. I've given talks at half a dozen or so places, and all the events felt happy and full of learning. Granted, at the Questions & Answers there's occasionally the odd smartypants or shouter, but the evenings are carefully watched by the people running it (and the pub staff!) and I've never yet been to one where I didn't end up in several great conversations.

We're launching our first event of 2012 on Monday 30th January. The speaker is David Allen Green, better known as Jack of Kent. I thought he'd probably be talking about libel law or some other bad law, but he's decided to be more interesting - for that, read "stirrer" (in a smiling way). As we're "the sciencey place", his title is "Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence". In other words, while the scientific method is one of mankind's foolproof - yet counterintuitive - inventions, and has driven our progress for the last few centuries, history and law (and perhaps other things as well?) can be equally evidence-obsessed. He'll be talking to us about that.

We've got more events on the way - Ben Hardwidge to talk about "The Sharks Don't Get Cancer" myth in February, Alok Jha for an unconfirmed topic in March, Deborah Hyde on the origins of zombies in April (her talk was my introduction to Skeptics in the Pub!), and we have some cool plans for May and June too . . .

The challenge I've got this time that I didn't have in Cardiff is local advertising. My experience with this is limited to going round local businesses in Pembrokeshire and asking them if they'll have petitions to save Withybush hospital (the only hospital with an A&E in the whole of Pembrokeshire!), so I may make a complete hash of this. There is a Facebook group for "SITP Organisers" where I asked about advertising and was absolutely pelted with encouragement, ideas and advice. I'll be getting a day free this week - do get in touch if you even vaguely know me or plan to come to Hackney Skeptics and would like to accompany me on some poster-posting!

I hope to see you on Monday 30th!

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