There were bores in beards, women in sensible shoes and teenage boys in jeans at half-mast showing off their underwear. Last Wednesday, at the Victoria pub near New Street station in the centre of Birmingham, an 80-strong throng was locked in debate about an issue of the day. But this wasn’t a political party meeting, a campaign or a pressure group. This was an altogether different entity called Skeptics in the Pub.
Although imported from Australia in the late 1990s, after a slow initial take-up it has spread across Britain in the past three years as a new face of idealism and conscience. Some 28 autonomous groups have sprung up to debate science, critical thinking and, it must be said, all sorts of nonsense. I’ve spoken at three of them in connection with my work exposing Andrew Wakefield, the doctor struck off over the MMR scare.
A typical meeting — and most groups host one or two a month — pulls a crowd of more than 100, with a demographic to shame modern political discourse. Skinny youths sip from beer glasses half as big as themselves before slipping out with roll-up cigarettes; junior doctors tap their lips, considering the finer points of argument. Science is conversation’s new black.
What has inspired this movement, whose slogan is “pursuing truth through reason and evidence”? Patrick Redmond, a tutor at a local college and the compere of last week’s event in Birmingham, picks out television as the surprising catalyst. “What the BBC has been doing has something to do with it,” he says. “You’ve got Brian Cox, and series like Bang Goes the Theory [which puts scientific theories to the test] have been out doing roadshows.”
Ah, Brian Cox. The pop star turned particle physics professor turned television heartthrob is the influence mentioned by Skeptics in the Pub organisers everywhere. Other big names on the circuit include Ben Goldacre, the psychiatrist whose book Bad Science has sold an astounding 280,000 copies in Britain, and the author Simon Singh, who became a Skeptics hero after being sued for libel over a “quack-busting” report about chiropractors.
“I don’t really know why it’s happening but it’s a remarkable phenomenon,” says David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London and a fellow of the Royal Society.
In the 1960s he marched to ban the bomb but last year he witnessed the same kind of idealism and enthusiasm at a packed meeting of the Westminster Skeptics where Cox spoke on science policy and the general election.
It’s not just in Britain. The Skeptics are increasingly global, with 30 groups in the United States, 10 in Canada, 15 in Australasia, 10 in mainland Europe, four in Israel and two in South Africa.
The topics of debate vary from the sublime to the quirky. Coming events at Skeptics groups around the country include: what genetics can really tell us; how to create your own cult — the Scientology way; you are probably not a Jedi — the census campaign and why it matters. Other meetings will consider crop circles and why ghosts aren’t naked.
Is this a movement, a campaign or something else altogether? Even those on the inside profess not to know. “No one understands what ‘skeptic’ means,” says Simon Perry, a sofware developer who is the main man behind the Leicester group. “It’s very vague, which is intriguing in itself.”
For some it is a situationist experience, spawning a recent jape, for instance, at the expense of Boots the chemist. Last month Blake Hutchings, a Coventry songwriter and Skeptic, made local headlines by “overdosing” himself with homeopathic pills to illustrate the alleged uselessness of the products. Although the principles of homeopathy would presumably make “underdosing” riskier, Hutchings emerged from his ordeal unscathed.