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Skeptical Activism? A real thing or just talking to the choir?

This is a version of a talk I gave to SkeptiCamp Sydney in May 2015.


A phrase which seems to be heard very often these days is skeptical activism, and we are always being encouraged to do it, whatever it is. It is interesting to note that the theme for the 2012 Australian Skeptics National Convention was active skepticism.

I'll start off by showing you some real activism.

That picture shows exactly the view I had when several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Sydney to protest against the Vietnam War. I like to tell people that I'm the one with the long hair, but I'm not actually in that picture. It was taken over my shoulder. The objective of the activism was to get the government to change its policy on the war and conscription. It took another couple of years and a change of government before we got what we were protesting about.

As an aside, this is one of the reasons why have no time for people claiming conscientious objection to vaccination, because the only way you could establish conscientious objection to conscription was to argue your case before a magistrate and several of my friends went to prison because the magistrates didn't think their stories were good enough.

When people encourage us to do skeptical activism there are generally three or four things that they say we should do, so I'll have a look at some of those. I'd like to point out in advance that I'm not criticising these things for what they are (with one exception), but because of their possible effectiveness.

The first of these is RBUTR. This is a system which allows notifications to pop up when people visit websites if someone elsewhere on the web has produced something which contradicts or comments on that particular page. It works through a plug-in in Chrome and Firefox (although I couldn't get it to work in Firefox for some reason). The main problem I see with this is that the people who need to use it don't know it exists. I would hope that nobody in this room would need to be told that Natural News is a worthless website, but a very large number of people don't know that and there is difficulty in getting them to use a system which can advise them of the problem.

It's also a bit clumsy when adding rebuttals, but this is just probably a matter of experience. One day when I've got time I might go there and add the 250 odd pages that I have rebutting or commenting on various websites.

The next one is Web of Trust. This is a rating system for websites, and anyone can go to the web of trust website, add a URL, and give it a rating. Again this requires a plug-in in your browser to see the results and what that does is put a small green or red circle next to links that appear in places like Facebook, search results and so forth indicating its rating. It's a lot simpler to rate something in web of trust that is in RBUTR but that's part of the problem it's too easy and open to abuse and rigging. A significant problem is that it is simply statistical it grants a rating based on a simple majority of votes, so if five people rate a site and three of them say that it is bad it will get a red circle but if three of them say it's good it will get a green circle. There is also the problem that it seems to work at the domain level, so if Buzzfeed decides to produce a list of the 17 most disgusting and revolting things ever shown in porn movies it will get a nice green circle next to the link if someone shares it on Facebook.

It's not all bad of course.

The third one which we are constantly being urged to use is unlike the previous two in two ways. Firstly, a lot of work has gone into RBUTR and Web of Trust, but this one could be churned out in about an hour by anybody competent with HTML. The other way it is different is that it is absolutely useless.

It is Do Not Link and you might ask why I think it's useless. Its purpose is claimed to be that by using it you do not produce links which can be used by Google or Bing for page ranking or for pushing a site higher in search results, and it is particularly recommended for use in Facebook and Twitter when linking to bad sites. The major problem with this is that Google hasn't followed links from Facebook and Twitter for about two years, and add to that the fact that Facebook and Twitter are not in the business of giving any advantage to anybody else so they take any links and change them themselves to a form which tells Google and other search engines in a legitimate way not to follow the links. This legitimate way is called robots.txt protocol and you can look up in your favourite search engine. Also, if Do Not Link could really do what it says it does, Google would have been unpacking the links five minutes after it was invented in the same way they unpack shortened links produced by sites like TinyURL. They do not like people gaming their system, either to increase or decrease ranking. Using Do Not Link is a total waste of time although I suppose some would argue that as doesn't require any browser plug-in like the other two I've mentioned it might get used by people who aren't necessarily skeptics, but it doesn't really tell them why it is doing what it does or why that is a good thing.

If you're going to do skeptical activism you have to top stop talking to skeptics. They already know what you're going to say. It is also not much use trying to argue with fundamentalist true believers, so if you go the Mind Body Spirit Festival tomorrow you won't achieve much by having long convoluted arguments with Crystal healers, other than to reinforce the stereotype of skeptics being humourless cynics..

I want to finish by talking about two successful cases of skeptical activism. One was the destruction of the power balance rubber bands. The success here wasn't because we kept talking to skeptics about how dreadful it was but because we got the media to run stories about it that got organisations like the ACCC on side. The other one very close to my heart is Stop the AVN. It took us six years but the AVN is now dead. We didn't achieve this by talking to each other - we did it by talking to politicians and bureaucrats and media outlets and journalists and gradually building a ground swell against them. It is possible for skeptics to make a difference.

So what can you do? If you hear something crazy on the radio then ring them up if it's talkback or send an email complaint about it. If you see something in the newspaper write a letter to the editor. Fight these things in the venues where what you do will be seen by people who need to know the answer but don't necessarily know they need that. Don't be frightened of talking to journalists because most of them are honest people and it won't take you long to figure out those that aren't or those who will distort what you have to say. I've been on A Current Affair and Today Tonight many times and I have never been misrepresented or edited to change my message. Just make sure you know what you want to say, and expect to be edited. And never be afraid to say "I don't know" or "I'm not an expert in that area". And never be afraid to ask for help if you don't think you can do it by yourself.

You can make a difference but it's no good preaching to the choir.

Thank you.


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