Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Hiss of Piss on a Bonfire

One of the sad facts about growing older is that, more and more, I encounter people who seem to have serious issues with the manner in which people enjoy themselves, or how they do things which they enjoy doing.

I'm guilty of this myself, admittedly. I've never seen the appeal of night clubs, for example. If I wanted to spend the early hours of the morning in a converted warehouse with eye-wateringly poor lighting, inhaling the sweat of strangers while my ear drums are almost shattered by monotonous music played at volumes that could drown out a nuclear assault by a preening dickhead in shades, all while cradling a horrifically overpriced drink, then yeah, I'd probably go to a nightclub

But I have no problem with people who do go to nightclubs and have a good time. It's not for me, but I'm one non-nightclub-going person. But I've had several arguments with people who do go to nightclubs and insist that I should go too, as 'I'll enjoy it once I'm in there'. My patient explanation that I have been 'in there' several times and never even slightly enjoyed it seems irrelevant. I'm apparently wrong, they know what I like better than I do, and by not agreeing I'm being 'no fun'.

Football is the same. I can't see the appeal in watching 22 wealthy dickheads running around sporadically on a green rectangle, trying to place a sphere in a specific place without using their hands. For nearly 2 hours. But millions of people love it, so it's obviously enjoyable to many. Some of these people can be, admittedly, a bit overenthusiastic (read 'violent thugs' for that last bit if you like), but for the vast majority it's an enjoyable pastime.

But if I were to go into nightclubs, turn the lights on, unplug the amps and insist that everyone put some clothes on, I wouldn't be thanked for my efforts. Similarly, if I wandered onto a football pitch during a big game and told the assembled crowd to go home and do something more worthwhile like put up some shelves, I wouldn't be praised for this. I might be prised apart, but not praised.

As some of you probably know if you've read this before, I do stand-up comedy. I'm also co-organiser/host of Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub, and do a lot of talks for the skeptic community and beyond. These are things I do for my own enjoyment, and for the potential enjoyment of others. But apparently, these things I do voluntarily and for little or no reward beyond the actions themselves, I'm doing wrong.

Alom Shaha, lovely guy, excellent writer, gutsy bloke, wrote a piece in the Guardian about how Skeptics in the Pub is preaching to the choir. It was a while ago, but brought up again in my social circles again recently. What's the point, he argues, in talking to people about what they already know? Why don't we spend our time trying to get other communities and groups (e.g. children, ethnic minorities) interested, rather than catering to those who are already onside.

As well meant as the article is, this is just another example of this I've encountered, and it's getting to piss me off. It's a bugbear of mine. Here are the reasons why (and if you don't want to know, or care, then feel free to stop reading and do something more useful, like make a sandwich).

It's probably something to do with my comedy background. One of the ways I've noticed in which a comedian will try and exert dominance over another is to criticise their performance, and offer unsolicited advice on how to improve. The advice itself is invariably completely subjective and, often, utterly useless, but the group dynamics of these interactions are startlingly clear, as is the thought process involved, for all that it might be completely subconscious.

I've lost count of the number of inexperienced (or just plain shit) acts giving unasked for advice to more experienced and much better comedians (based on audience response, not just my subjective views). By giving advice and 'helpful' criticism, they are (unjustifiably) asserting their superiority over the better acts in order to reinforce their sense of self worth, but to the detriment of the better acts. The fact that this is presented under the guise of 'being helpful' means that social convention often lets them get away with it.

It's teeth-grindingly infuriating to see this happen as soon as a great but fragile ego'd comic (and there are loads of those, the criticisers can pretty much smell them) walks off stage after a storming performance, only to be rewarded with a volley of 'helpful' advice and criticisms. It happens to me more often than not, I think it's because I'm not particularly confident seeming or arrogant (says the guy on his own long winded blog, but please trust me on this). Also, I have a PhD in neuroscience. A lot of comics pride themselves on their superior wit and intellect, me telling them my qualifications (after they've asked, usually about half way thorough the night) tends to be very unsettling for them. Sometimes they even accuse me of being arrogant. The implication being that I've spent over a decade following a difficult, complex and financially unrewarding career purely to upset them. This makes ME arrogant. Logical.

I'm not saying Alom and the others who have expressed concern with the skeptic ethos are doing this, I'm just explaining why it pisses me off so much. I can only speak from my experience, but I don't really agree with much, or any, of the criticisms aimed at the skeptic 'movement', whatever the hell that is. It's true that there may be differences between SITP events in different towns and cities (it being a grassroots voluntary movement with no central coordination, this is inevitable), but seeing as the criticisms are pretty much always generalised to the whole, then I'll do the same with my response.

The main criticisms seem to be that there isn't enough inclusion of ethnic minorities, there should be more attempts to educate children and those who don't hear about skeptical stuff etc. And of course, we're just preaching to the converted, which is arrogant and pointless (like the Pope).

I can only speak for Cardiff, but we get a few ethnic minorities there. We don't actively try to get them along, but we certainly don't actively exclude them. This is because I (and most people I know) don't see any reason to differentiate between ethnic minorities and everyone else.

It may be true that they don't feel as if they'd be welcome at events like SITP, but (at the risk of sounding controversial) how is that our fault exactly? I promise that any publicity we do does not carry a 70's-style 'No Blacks - No Asians etc.' exclusion clause. On the other hand, nor do we include an 'ethnic minorities welcome!' notice. Why not? Because that would be incredibly patronising and, in my opinion, just as racist (albeit in a more well-intended way).

There is obviously much that could be done to encourage more ethnic minorities into these sorts of events. But how much of this should be done? I shy away from any attempt to actively try and change people's minds. And if I start thinking I have the right to decide what people from ethnic minorities should be doing, please don't vote for me when I inevitably ask you to do so.

Obviously there are many factors (social, cultural, religious, political etc.) that might prevent ethnic minorities from coming to an SITP night. Again, none of these are the fault of the rational community, and criticising them for not challenging or changing them seems unduly harsh. If there is a way in which I and my fellow organisers can encourage more ethnic community members to come to these events without being patronising, divisive or just outright racist, I'd love to hear it.

As for the active spreading of our viewpoint for people's benefits, that's the same goal of people who scream about Jesus in the High Street. These people aren't appreciated, nor are they widely respected. By and large, they're ignored, or mocked. They are by me, at least, so I certainly wouldn't want to become one of them.

I've also butted heads with many in the Science Communication business about this whole 'Think of the Children!!' attitude. I'm glad there is an ever-increasing number of people who choose to try and educate and communicate with the younger members of society. I've even done it myself several times, having spoken at quite a number of events aimed at school pupils of various ages.

But for many people involved in these activities, there seems to be some bizarre view that as soon as someone leaves the school system they become a lost cause. I prefer to try and communicate to adults, because looking like I do means it's always a bit weird when I offer children sweets. And also I like to communicate in high-brow sounding gibberish, which most children would struggle with. Most adults do too, but social etiquette prevents them from calling me on it, which would upset me and my fragile non-arrogant ego.

In seriousness, I think adults deserve as much attention as children when it comes to communicating scientific matters. Possibly more so, as they may have children of their own, so it could be a 2-for-1 deal.

And finally, there's the whole 'preaching to the choir' thing. I guessed I missed the memo, but I wasn't aware that having an interest in things scientific and rational meant you weren't allowed to socialise with like-minded people. A group of people getting together with other people who have similar interests, to hear about and discuss the things they're interested in? Such a thing is unheard of! And any people who do this sort of thing are clearly a collection of arrogant smug bastards of the highest order.

That's how I see SITP first and foremost; a social event where people with an interest in scientific things can go and have a chilled out evening with similar folk and hear about something interesting (usually something they DIDN'T already know, despite assertions to the contrary). Any lobbying/campaigning/outreach that comes from it is all well and good, but it's an 'event' first and foremost. This means; People choose to attend, the organisers don't choose who attends

That's what I think anyway, I could be completely wrong in this. It's my blog though, so only got my own views to go on.

It generally boils down to a lot of people saying 'You could do more to [insert preferred thing to do]'. But where does that end? I do comedy in comedy clubs. where people are there to see comedy. Is this arrogant? Should I just start wandering into Mosques and nursery schools and bellowing my material at anyone I find? If I don't, am I just arrogantly preaching to the choir?

We spent a lot on the catering for our wedding, why didn't I just get a black bag full of sausage rolls from Gregg's and give the rest to charity? (It was mostly because many of my in-laws are vegetarian, and Gregg's also don't take £50 notes).

I just find it ironic that anyone interested in science and rationality is seemingly doing something wrong if they have the audacity to enjoying themselves and not spend every waking moment trying to educate others. That would make us the obsessed emotionless robots we're stereotypically believed to be. And as someone with a rural Welsh background, I'm not a big fan of stereotypes.

Email: Humourology (at)
Twitter: @garwboy


Hapsci said...

Hello, I have said this before, I completely agree with your blogpost. I set up Skeptics in the Pub in Aberdeen, I was new in the city, it seemed like a good idea and I wanted to meet some like minded people who might become my friends. I think 'Skeptics in the Pub' and 'activist' movements should be separated. One is entertainment the other is a form of 'education' (there is no reason why the education shouldn't be entertaining OR branch out from people involved in Skeptics in the Pub but they are different). We are an open group and get a wide range of people attending for debate (old, young, male, female, gay, straight, scientist, non scientist, scottish, english, welsh, european, american). We do not spend any time taking the piss out of people. We explore ideas and debate reasons why things happen.

We have yet to have a 'celebrity' speaker so we have not experienced this side of skepticism yet.

Basically, we meet to debate and have a night out. If someone has an idea from the night to take further as a form of education or activism against something they feel is wrong in the world they could use the skeptic 'network' to help them out. Skeptic in the Pub events, activism, education and people that call themselves 'skeptics' are all different and shouldn't be lumped together.

Alice said...

Couldn't agree more, Dean - not that I'm exactly unbiased, seeing as it is such a pleasure to come to Cardiff every month!

I think a lot of our attendees *are* learning new things. And even if they are not, what on earth is wrong with getting together to chat with like minded people? As a rare rationalist in benighted Pembrokeshire, meeting other rationalists does not happen often and it keeps me sane. It also allows us to share ideas on good and bad ways to communicate critical thinking to the public. And if the public do not want to hear, then why, they may do something else! :P

By the same standards being asked of SITP, all churches should be closed down. Having sat through a great many sermons out of politeness to friends or boyfriends, I find a lot of what is said in churches very bigoted and objectionable, but I am not so intolerant as to criticise Christians' wish to get together four or eight times more often than skeptics do. Nor, I should imagine, are most of us.

And for the record, I am stunned by the number of people who have rushed up to me at the bar at SITP and said "This is a wonderful idea! I'm gutted not to have heard about it before! Cardiff has just been crying out for something like this for ages!"

So, to put it in the most skeptical ane eloquent way possible . . . . nyah!

Simon said...

Couldn't agree more Dean. You also get the criticism for holding it in a pub in the evening excludes parents who need to get a babysitter. No problem, set up a Skeptics in the Coffee house. I may not go as I'll be at work, I don't have a problem with it.

JDM said...

I think the start of Alom's piece describes the London "scene" rather well. The rest of his 2010 Guardian piece wanders into some areas that annoy me a little (and clearly you a lot), but I can see his point as well. The fixation with education/young people is his job.

I'm guessing that some of the regional SiTP meetings, by virtue of being more recently established, haven't yet fallen into the trap of becoming a smugfest for a small elite group who want to hear "science" and knob-gags. Long may that continue. London isn't the centre of the universe.

Next time I'm in Cardiff or Aberdeen, I'll drop by to check it out. Though I know many people enjoy London SiTP, it's not my thing, and I'd like to see how others having taken the concept in their own direction.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to go to child-friendly PopSci events, ta ever so, all the same. Anytime between about 4 & 17, I might have been up for it, but having reached my majority, reckon I'm entitled to prefer events aimed at adults.

Preaching to the choir - I've been in a lot of choirs & as a rule they were comprised of folks interested in choral singing. No-one seemed to find that odd. Why single out SitP for hosting events aimed at persons of a sceptical bent?

One other point, the idea of "ethnic diversity" as passed down from on high by middleclass white boys is tosh. My own immediate family contains considerable ethnic variation thanks to adoption. Oddly, despite clearly apparant anomalies, it rarely occurs to outsiders that we sibs might not share the same genetics. By contrast, a girl I knew in my teens was the genetic child of her Afro-Caribean parents & came in for all kinds of identity botherations because her very light pigmentation made her appear what monitoring forms love to call "white european".

When it comes to ethnic diversity, the faces you see aren't perforce the faces you're looking at.

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