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Skeptics in the pub

The Sunday Times

80 pints of discourse,

please, barman

For others the Skeptics can mobilise campaigns such as in the defence of Singh’s libel case. After accusing the British Chiropractic Association of “happily” promoting “bogus treatments”, Singh was hit with a lawsuit in which he was initially defeated. The Guardian, which had published the piece, settled, but Singh did not. He fought on, alone at first. Then, in May 2009, a Skeptics in the Pub group gathered in Holborn, central London, to support him. “I expected there to be six people sitting round a table, and I opened the door and there were about 300,” recalls Singh. “When I was more depressed than at any time in my life, they gave me the strength to carry on.”

He continued, triumphed in the Court of Appeal and triggered a government commitment to reform.

“When the libel laws change, and they will,” he says, “the Skeptics in the Pub movement will be able to pat itself on the back for one of the greatest advances in free speech in a century.”

The subject matter is not always so highfalutin. The Birmingham meeting heard a talk that was less momentous but no less interesting by Matt Lodder, an art historian. His lecture was on the history of the tattoo. Apparently the t-word was brought to this country from Tahiti by Captain Cook; and a 5,000-year-old man, recovered from permafrost in the mountains between Italy and Austria, was found to be tattooed in more than 30 places — although which one said “Mum” remains unclear.

The Skeptics in the Pub, Cox and the bad science phenomenon are just a few signs of something wider stirring. I spoke at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, 10 days ago on Wakefield and the MMR scare — and we broke the fire regulations twice over in a hall unexpectedly swamped with hundreds of students. In Toronto a similar scrum that formed at Ryerson University was reported in no fewer than 150 blogs and produced a storm of messages.

Technology is bringing together those with scientific interests who were previously isolated. A software kit, developed by Perry in Leicester, to start a local Skeptics in the Pub website can be downloaded in minutes, after which Twitter, Facebook and Skype kick in. “I think the idea of a search for truth is what interests people today,” says Perry, as a contrast to what he sees as the political parties’ unappealing quest for power. “People are tired of bullshit.”

Maybe, but it isn’t all consensus. The Skeptics have spawned sceptics, particularly over “alternative” medicine. Some talks have been accused of picking on soft targets — such as homeopaths — and of overegging the dependability of science. “There is something about this that doesn’t fit comfortably with me,” says Michael Brooks, a science author who has spoken at half a dozen meetings. “They sometimes don’t recognise that intelligent, educated people believe things that are unbelievable because it’s in our nature to do that.”

Other doubts are raised over the use of technology that can potentially be deployed to bully. Perry told me he had developed a toolbar, soon to be launched, that can file complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority against misleading website claims “in 30 seconds”.

I’m just happy to see such a strong interest in picking apart the scientific method — even if last Wednesday the debate was all about tattoos.

Brian Deer’s MMR investigation features in Science Betrayed, starting on BBC Radio 4 at 9pm this Thursday. briandeer.com

Skeptics in the pub
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