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Communicating science and skepticism

On Saturday, March 19 2011, I attended BarCamp Canberra. For those of you unfamiliar with BarCamp, it is an unconference put together by unorganisers. What this means is that there is a venue and some people attending, all of whom are expected to contribute in some way. There is no set agenda, and speakers simply put their names and topics down on a chart of time slots on a first-come, first-served basis.

Here is a version of what I had to say. It is a version, because I spoke without notes and followed leads from the audience, but it covers what I wanted to say and why I wanted to say it in this venue.

My topic today is communicating science and skepticism. Speaking for myself, I've used just about all forms of communication to get these messages out. I write a monthly column for Australasian Science magazine and (almost) regular articles for the Yahoo!7 web site. I've written for newspapers and I've appeared on television, sometimes even as an expert. While you might laugh at the idea of going on "current affairs" programs like Today Tonight and A Current Affair, I take the view that getting thirty seconds to talk to a million or so viewers is better than not being there and giving the other side all the air time. There certainly can be frustrations in dealing with shows like these, an example being that one segment I was on was followed on air by a promotion for the next night's show when a cure for autism was going to be announced, but it's still worth the effort. I have also done a lot of broadcast radio and I am involved in a couple of podcasts. (Radio is not without its frustrations either. I went on air once to talk about the evils of medical quackery and when I put the headphones on I heard that the advertisement immediately preceding me was for herbal supplements that could treat all sorts of illnesses.) To make sure that I don't have any spare time I have a web site addressing scientific and skeptical issues that gets several thousand visitors each day.

But enough about me. I'm here to learn from you people, because I'm always looking for new ideas and methods of getting the word out. Suggestions and comments are welcome.

I want to talk about two uses of social media where we have been able to make an impact over the last year or so. One of the stories is pretty much a standard "success of activism" tale; the other is about a surprise that had useful consequences.

Some background to the first story. Until the end of 2008 if any story about vaccination came up the media almost always called on Meryl Dorey, President of the Australian Vaccination Network, for comment. Despite its innocuous name, the AVN is rabidly opposed to all forms of vaccination and is not averse to bending the truth when it comes to frightening parents. As a result of their actions, vaccination rates have dropped in several parts of the country, most notably in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, the region in which the AVN has its headquarters.

In early 2009, a five-week-old baby died of whooping cough and the parents were amazed to find that they were living in close proximity to someone who was telling people not to vaccinate their children. She was too young to be vaccinated, so she relied on "herd immunity" and this had been severely compromised by the very low rate of vaccination in the area. The parents took the brave step of going public, in the hope of warning other parents of the dangers. The response from the anti-vaccination movement was immediate and bizarre. On the day before the child's funeral, Meryl Dorey attempted to obtain the her medical records, apparently to show that she didn't die of pertussis. (Dorey actually said, in a television show about Dana, that "nobody dies of whooping cough".) The parents were vilified on anti-vaccination mailing lists and Internet forums, and anybody who supported them was accused of being shills for Big Pharma. A friend of mine, Daniel Raffaele, was present at the recording of a television program about the baby's death and was so horrified by his first exposure to the anti-vaccination movement up close that he started a Facebook group named Stop the Australian Vaccination Network.

Membership of SAVN rapidly grew to over 2,000 (it has just less than 3,000 members now), and what this large group of interested people created was the ability to take concerted action. I and others had been fighting the anti-vaccinators for years but we had never had the tools to bring mass action. Now there were people who had the time to take on small projects, and there could be several of these projects going on at once. Complaints were made to the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission, and there was enough varied experience and expertise to ensure that these complaints were properly formulated and backed by facts. I had reported the AVN for operating with an expired charity registration, but SAVN provided people with the time to follow this up, research the matter fully and again make the right sort of complaints, in this case to the NSW Department of Liquor, Gaming and Racing. OLG&R have now severely restricted the AVN's capacity to raise funds and the NSW Attorney General is investigating possible breaches of fiduciary obligations by directors. Magazines which had no idea what the AVN really stood for have refused their advertisements, and venues have withdrawn bookings for seminars. The online activities of the AVN are monitored on a daily basis and anything that looks suspect is added to the pile of information already supplied to the authorities. None of this could have happened without the resources that 2,000 committed individuals can call on.

The really astounding thing about this is that SAVN only exists on Facebook. I have probably ever met only about 50 of the 3,000 current members, and in fact, we had a special lunch function at the 2010 Australian Skeptics conference so that SAVN members could meet and attach faces to screen names.

The second success with communication was a surprise, but it has given us a very effective tool to fight one particular form of spurious argument – the logical fallacy of Argument from Popularity.

At the monthly meetings of Western Sydney Freethinkers, one of our members presents a Media Watch segment looking at news stories about religion, paranormal activity, pseudoscience and other nonsenses. On one occasion he mentioned the soccer player Harry Kewell but spelled the name as "Kenwell" on the PowerPoint slide. That evening, Harry Kenwell appeared on Facebook. At first we all treated it as a joke (we still don't know who "Harry Kenwell" really is, and although everybody has suspicions, those suspicions vary from person to person – we don't really want to know). Then something strange started to happen – Harry started accreting Facebook friends and now has about 1,800 of them. There are about 25 (the people at the original meeting, now known as "apostles") who know that Harry does not really exist. We assume that the rest think Harry is a real person.

The "existence" of Harry has already been used to counter the argument that Jesus must have been the Son of God because so many people believe it. We were able to say that a large number of people believe in Harry but he doesn't exist. The same argument can be used against astrology and other ideas where much of the "evidence" for them is that lots of people have believed them for a long time.

Of course our enemies can turn the Harry experience against us and say that if a non-existent person can have all these Facebook friends then maybe the membership of SAVN is inflated as well by people who don't really understand what it is all about, but we have the results there to prove that the group is effective, possibly because it has a single focus and objective. The SAVN group was awarded Skeptic of the Year for 2010 at the recent Australian Skeptics conference and that means that seven "Skeptics of the Year" are in this room. One who couldn't be here is Cody The Religion Hating Dog (180 Facebook friends, including Richard Dawkins) who also has the honour of being the very first person to be banned from the AVN's own Facebook page. (Ms Dorey had issued a ridiculous media release suggesting that there could be mind-control microchips in the swine flu vaccine. Cody pointed out that he was microchipped and it hadn't hurt him.)

These are just two examples of how we have been able to increase our power of communication using tools that were not available ten years ago, but we still have a long way to go. Skeptics and their travelling companions have a long tradition of talking to each other rather than to a wider audience. The 2010 Australian Skeptics conference was the largest such event ever held in Australia but I doubt that any of the 600 attendees were challenged to change their minds about anything. The Global Atheist Conference in Melbourne attracted a larger audience (to a more narrowly focussed event) but again there were probably very few converts after the show finished.

Western Sydney Freethinkers was set up to address this problem, and we have reached out to all sorts of people to get discussion going. (I haven't been to church so often for years.) This reaching out is the reason I'm speaking here today. This is a geekfest and I have impeccable geek qualifications (I have lunched with the people who developed the mathematical models underneath SQL and relational databases, I've met the person who invented the idea that you can program a graphical interface by dragging objects around the screen, I've stood next to Bill Gates at a function before he was rich or famous, I have a Turing Index of 2 (I worked with someone who worked with Alan Turing) and I worked with one of the team who developed EDSAC at Cambridge, the world's first practical stored-program computer), but I chose instead to talk about science and skepticism because this is not an audience of the already-converted. I might even have converted some of you. Thank you for the opportunity.


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