by Tim Harding
(An edited version of this article was published in The Skeptic magazine,
December 2017, Vol 37 No 4)
This article about local skeptics groups is intended to complement those elsewhere in this issue of the magazine by Eran Segev and Tim Mendham. After having been a co-organiser for nearly seven years of the successful Mordi Skeptics in the Pub, I would now like to pass on 10 tips for people thinking of starting up a local skeptics group in their area.
As Tim Mendham writes, the Skeptics in the Pub (SitP) movement has been quite successful with over 100 groups worldwide, including 11 (now 17) in Australia. The Mordi SitP now has over 700 members, although probably only around 10% of these come to the meetups (the rest are social media members). I think the key to this success is the idea of meeting in a social setting over a few drinks and the possibility of dinner as well. This can help overcome the usual objections to boring meetings that we get enough of in our day jobs.
Tim Harding introducing visiting US speaker Susan Gerbic
to the Mordi Skeptics, 2015
- Choose your venue
The obvious first requirement is the availability of reasonably priced drinks and meals. Next is adequate parking and close proximity to public transport. Although most groups start off meeting in a public lounge area, it’s best to choose a venue that has private rooms, if and when you want to have guest speakers later on.
- Choose a local name for your group
There are three main advantages to having an identifiable local geographical name for you group, such as your local town or suburb. First, it helps potential members know where you are. Second, the venue you choose is likely to be impressed by your local name. Third, local MPs are more likely to take you seriously if you want to lobby them about some skeptical issue. (Don’t name your group after the venue, because you might need to change venues and keep your name).
- Promote your group via social media
Once you have your venue and group name, the next step is to announce your existence via social media. At Mordi Skeptics, we found the Meetup web site (www.meetup.com) very useful, both in attracting members and in operating the group. The Meetup web site enables you to effectively operate the group online, without any need for those tedious organisers’ meetings that put busy people off. But Meetup.com costs money to use, for which collecting a couple of dollars from each meetup attendee should be adequate. Establishing a Facebook page and a Twitter handle is also a good idea, and doesn’t cost anything.
- Select a small number of organisers
SitP groups are best run informally, with a small number of organisers – at least 3 and no more than 5. Organisers should be selected by invitation rather than elected at a meetup. Elections require constitutions and other time-consuming formalities you will want to avoid. There should be no need for an informal local group to incorporate, which would require an AGM and lots of tedious paperwork. Also, you are bound to find a few anti-skeptics in the audience, who would relish an opportunity to put their hand up and sabotage your group.
Work out what tasks are needed to run the group effectively, divide these tasks up between the organisers and let them get on with it. Such tasks include speaker wrangling, social media webmastering and liaising with the venue management.
- Develop a good relationship with the venue management
One of the most important tasks is to develop a good working relationship with venue staff member responsible for table and room bookings. This task should be allocated to one of your organisers who should initially meet this staff member personally (rather than just talk over the phone) and get familiar on first name terms. Explain what the group is on about, and how you would like to co-operate with the venue to your mutual benefit. Ask them how many members on average would need to dine and attend meetups for the venue to allocate you a private room for free on a regular basis. (The cost of hiring a room will probably be prohibitive). The minimum number will probably be in the order of 10 for dining and 20 for attending the meeting (at which members are expected to buy a drink – even just tea or coffee).
If the venue is not prepared to give you a private room for free, you might need to look elsewhere if you want have guest speakers. Let the venue know how many members you are expecting at each meetup and the timings (including a mid-presentation drinks break) to assist them in room allocation and staffing plans.
- Consider your audience
We found that there were three categories of people who attended our SitP meetups. First, there are the committed skeptics who want to advance the cause. These are likely to be in a minority, at least initially. Second, there are people who would like to have interesting discussions in a social setting. Third, there are people who would like to meet like-minded people with a view to possible friendship or even ‘romance’ (these people are usually more interested in the dinners than the presentations). You need to try and cater for all three categories of people, although the skeptical cause must remain paramount. After all, you don’t want your SitP group to be just a lonely hearts club.
- Have clear aims and stick to them
The organisers should develop a simple and clear set of aims or purpose, and publicise these via social media. Allow comments on these aims via social media, but don’t allow them to be debated at the actual meetups. Otherwise you run the risk of your group being derailed by anti-skeptics.
One thing I would recommend is keeping scientific skepticism as your central focus. For example, you will find that some people confuse skepticism with atheism, with denialism or even conspiracy theories. In particular, just as not all skeptics are atheists, even less atheists are skeptics. Both groups are more likely to flourish by being kept separate. It’s not as if people can’t join more than one type of group.
On the other hand, don’t let your scope get too narrow. The traditional skeptical topics of paranormality, quackery and pseudoscience can be become a bit boring after a while. Any topic that promotes rationality and demotes irrationality is possibly suitable. We usually found that talks about real science were the most popular.
- Select speakers carefully
Obviously you need to select speakers consistent with your aims or purposes. Ask for recommendations from other skeptics groups. Always have one or two backup speakers in case your scheduled speaker becomes ill on the day, or has some other unforeseen and unavoidable reason for not being able to speak. Your own members would be the most reliable source of such backup speakers.
- Network with other skeptics groups
There are obvious mutual advantages in networking with the big skeptics groups such as Australian Skeptics Inc. based in NSW and the Australian Skeptics (Victorian Branch). These state-based groups have significant resources, experience and expertise. Amongst other things, it is worthwhile applying to them for not only guest speakers but possible grants or loans for such vital resources as a video projector. You should also network with other local skeptics groups in your state, by attending their meetups and inviting their members as guest speakers.
- Have fun
Above all, SitP meetups should be enjoyable – they should aim to provide leisure-time pleasure rather than be some sort of obligatory burden. If the latter, people will eventually become tired or bored and stop coming. In my view, the growth of local skeptics groups is the future key to expanding the worldwide skeptical movement.
Tim Harding is a former co-organiser of the Mordi Skeptics in the Pub group, in a southern suburb of Melbourne.
Mendham, Tim, ‘Pint-Sized Fun’, The Skeptic, December 2017, Vol 37 No 4. pp.22-23.
Segev, Eran, ‘Group Thinking’ The Skeptic, December 2017, Vol 37 No 4. pp.26-29.