Wednesday, 3 September 2014

This is not the Activism I'm looking for...

I’ve been attending Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub for almost 2 years and always considered it a bit of “info-tainment”. An opportunity to perhaps learn about something I didn’t know about, experience a different point of view and meet interesting people.

During this time I’ve found that the best company and best skeptics have been the people  whose most likely answer to a question is “I don’t know” or “that’s interesting”. Exploring an issue or opinion through conversation and consideration seemed the most easy way to understand something and avoided the sham dichotomy of a show-boat debate.  Its always been a positive and friendly environment - if a little comfy.

Following @MrMMarsh excellent talk last month about his work in Skeptical Activism I (and others) were provoked into considering if Skeptics is just for a nice night out once a month, or should we put our money where our mouth is? So @TheWholeT00th and I have decided to see of we can create or at least start a group interested in exploring what Skeptical Activism might mean in the East Midlands.

I have no real idea what this might look like or what it will try and achieve, however this month’s Skeptics meeting offered an opportunity to see what a well established and vocal activist group do.

On tuesday night @iamhazelgibson spoke to us about her PhD research into different perspectives on fracking, based on interviews with, and consideration of Scientists (she is herself a geologist), Activists and Local Residents.  The talk itself was heavy on the “tainment” and a bit light on the “info” however, the Q&A afterwards provided a fascinating case study into the perspectives of one of the groups, the Activists. The following are some observations I have and lessons for any Activist group that I would want to be part of.

They were obviously committed, impassioned and well organised.  Several members of @FrackFreeNotts were present and were armed with posters, flyers and pads for making notes and taking names.  All of which seemed a bit of overkill for a relaxed chat in the pub on a tuesday night.  It seemed to me that they came having no real idea of what Skeptics was for, or about, and seemed committed to use it as a platform for themselves rather than any genuine attempt to engage with the people there.

@FrackFreeNotts had earlier tweeted that they were looking forward to the debate at Skeptics. However a debate about fracking when was not the purpose of the talk and it was never advertised as one. No Nottingham Skeptics meeting has ever been a debate. So, it seems a good idea that an activist should pay attention to the where they are going and make sure they understand other people’s purpose for being there. This will help to align your goals with theirs and engender sympathy for your point of view.

At Skeptics there is always an element of people wanting to talk about what they think rather than ask a genuine question and each Q&A is always preceded with a request to make the questions actually questions and (hopefully) to the point.

Sadly, the Fracking Activists seemed determined in giving (at length) individual opinions with “why didn’t you say that?” at the end to provide a mask of inquiry.  I found this deeply frustrating and it took up valuable time that meant regular attendees may have been unable to ask their questions fully. It struck me that if you disagreed with someone, you could simply challenge them by asking a better question, rather than reeling off your contrary position. For example, rather than listing (again at length) a number of studies that do not agree with a statement made by the speaker you could easily ask... “ you make it sound like there is a scientific consensus that fracking is safe, is this true?”

It takes about 15 seconds, is in total context with the evening and puts the knowledge and honesty of the speaker to test. The approach of The Fracking Activists suggested that they didn't seem to understand or care that people in the room weren't as passionate or turned on to their cause or point of view as them and only interested in using the evening as a platform for their goals rather than being interested in the evening itself or the people there.  It became perilously close to Bullying.

This was a shame as one of the best challenges to Hazel was about how her depiction of activists was stereotypical and mocking.  Due to the slightly glib and entertaining presentation style I think this criticism was fair and I was glad that during the Q&A we could explore the ordinary, local activists and the positive action they are taking.  Sadly, this challenge was followed up by asking how Hazel’s PhD was funded.  The inference of that question is quite insulting to someone who spent 6 hours on a train for no payment other than a couple of pints and a night in the Jury's Inn Hotel. Make it personable not personal.

After the event I spoke to a few regulars and friends of mine. None of us really know anything about fracking and certainly hadn't formed any opinion about it prior to the talk.  None of us had been able to by the end of the night either. However, a lot of the “don’t know’s” were turned off by the Fracking Activists and left being less sympathetic to their views. I can only imagine that this is the opposite of what they wanted to achieve.

There are circumstances where aggressive, disrespectful action is appropriate and necessary and I can easily imagine glueing yourself to a bulldozer outside a local beauty spot to be one of those.

However,it seems clear to me that if you genuinely want to affect people opinions you need a plurality of message and the ability to appropriately apply that message in context.  A warm, personal approach will always so much more useful than the hectoring indignation of believing you are right.

So, I don’t know what Skeptical Activism might take place in the East Midlands, but I do hope it will be charming, friendly and win over the “don’t knows” by being not only right but also being very bloody nice about it.


  1. Please try not to focus too much on the behaviour or lack of presentation skills of some activists. Many people are deeply upset for good reason - the Fracking Compendium by concernedhealth.ny gives some good examples of why. In Sussex I've heard one or two people say 'I'm pro-fracking just because I don't like the protestors'. That really is supremely illogical. With patience and research, it soon becomes clear why there is so much angst and upset. The facts are available, please look for them to ensure things keep on topic and, indeed, don't become personal.

    1. Thanks for the reply Beki,

      I agree that we mustn't have our heads turned by style of over substance! There are many ways to be an activist and being able to tailor your approach to the circumstances at hand is a great skill. It can be hard when you're so passionate to be able to temper that passion (I know) - but ultimately doing the most effective thing and not necessarily the noisiest has to be good activism.