by Lisa Goodlin
If you have ever thought you are the only person in your community who doesn’t believe in astrology or talking with the dead consider joining your local skeptic group. You can rant all you want about the ludicrousness of magnet therapy, and you will be met be understanding nods instead of the blank looks to which you are accustomed. No one will tell you that you are closed-minded and that you have to be “open” to alternative ways of looking at things.
While the social aspect of a skeptic group is important, there are other valuable reasons for joining. Skeptic groups can provide an organized response to local news reports about paranormal and pseudoscience topics which are often passed off as science. With a number of members with different interests and areas of expertise, a group should be able to respond effectively to news stories on anything from touch therapy to free energy devices. A skeptic group can also be a source of education for the group’s members as well as the larger community. Regularly scheduled lectures can prove invaluable in helping the members maintain a sharp and critical sense and can introduce the uninitiated to the process of critical thinking.
To find out if there is a skeptic group near you, go to CSICOP’s Web site and look at their list of local skeptic organizations. Perhaps there is no group in your city, but there is one that is one to two hours from you. Consider making the drive; you can spend the time listening to Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World on audio book. Most groups meet at least once a month so you can still participate in some, if not all, of the regular activities of the group.
If the drive to the nearest group is too far, think about forming a local branch of a larger group. New England Skeptical Society, for instance, has branches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Contact the group nearest you and tell them you are interested in starting a branch in your community. Chances are they will welcome your participation. One of the advantages of forming a branch is that the structure of the group has already been established and you can model your group on it.
If you can’t find a group anywhere near you, start your own. It’s not as hard as you may think, and you will find plenty of people who will help you get started. CSICOP can send a mailing to the Skeptical Inquirer subscribers in your area announcing your plans to start a group. Folks at other local groups will be glad to give you advice on getting started. And best of all, you will no longer feel like the Lone Skeptic.
Tips on starting a local group
In April 2002, I started Central New York Skeptics in Syracuse. Many people gave generously of their time and knowledge when I was starting the group, and I am happy to have the opportunity to pass on some of their wisdom.
- Decide from the beginning what kind of group you are going to have. Some groups that have not explicitly stated that they are scientific skepticism groups (limiting their activities to exploring only those claims that are testable and not including religion) have found themselves being pushed to become atheist groups. Some groups are able to successfully combine the two. But it is important to decide from the start what kind of group it will be and not at some later date be pushed by a vocal minority of members into becoming something that was never intended. For example, someone who is both a skeptic and a person of religious faith might want to form a scientific skepticism group so that in the future he won’t feel alienated from his own group when it becomes a skeptic/atheist group. The primary advantage of limiting a group to scientific skepticism is that it allows the group to be perceived as more mainstream than would a skeptic/atheist group. On the other hand, some groups feel it is too limiting to exclude issues of religion and faith.
- When it comes to naming groups there seem to be two opinions. One is that by including skeptic in the group’s name those who are familiar with the work of national skeptic organizations (CSICOP and Skeptics Society) will understand immediately what the group is about. On the other hand some group leaders think the word skeptic is too limiting and not mainstream enough and have chosen names that do not include it. Examples of groups who do not use skeptic in their name: Philadelphia Area Critical Thinkers (PhACT) and Science Initiative of Central Iowa.
- Get the mailing lists from CSICOP and from Skeptics Society to do a one-time mailing to subscribers in your area. Send them information about your group including a membership form.
- You will be contacted by all kinds of people claiming all kinds of things. Ask them to put their claim in writing and send it to you via conventional mail. Asking for a letter will discourage a lot of people who won’t go to the trouble of actually writing and mailing a letter. If the person does write, however, the letter will give you a record of the person’s claim. Remember to treat people kindly, but don’t let them drive you crazy. Your job as a group leader does not include acting as a psychotherapist, even if that is your profession.
- Incorporating will help protect the general membership in the unlikely event of a lawsuit.
- Speaking of lawsuits-try to avoid them. Don’t use the “F” word. Fraud. Attack the idea not the person.
- Have fun! You will meet people who share your enthusiasm for science and critical thinking. You will help others learn the importance of understanding science and employing critical thinking skills. And you will be rewarded by the knowledge that you are making a difference in your community.
Lisa Goodlin is a nationally exhibited artist whose photography and photo-based digital work have been shown in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. She is the founder and president of Central New York Skeptics in Syracuse, New York.