Page last updated at 09:05 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Out of the labs, into the pubs

By Owen Duffy
Step Up, BBC Scotland

Science and critical thinking can be seen as exclusive and elitist. But now a new group is aiming to bring scepticism to the masses across Scotland.

The Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub group listening to guest speaker Dr Simon Singh
The Glasgow Skeptics hold monthly meetings in a city centre pub

The audience sits attentively, absorbing every word.

The speaker, a visiting doctor of particle physics, is discussing the effects of libel laws on science publishing.

But this isn't a university lecture hall or a scientific institution - it's a crowded pub on a Tuesday night in Glasgow city centre.

The organisers of Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub have been arranging monthly meetings since November last year.

Each event features a guest speaker addressing issues related to science, rationalism and critical thinking.

Organiser Ian Scott said the events were becoming increasingly popular.

"When we first started we only had a handful of people, but the group has been growing," he said.

"Lately it seems as though we're getting about 20 new people each month."

Fed up

The crowd is diverse. Ages range from the late teens to mid-50s. Of the 65 or so people in attendance, roughly a quarter are female.

They have come to listen to Dr Simon Singh, whose book Trick or Treatment examines the efficacy of various forms of complementary and alternative medicine.

"The people we see here tonight are fed up with a growing irrationality which has existed over the last decade, whether that's creationism or things like homeopathy," he said.

"They've looked to politicians and learned societies to act, and unfortunately I don't think they have.

"So now these young people have started saying - 'well we're going to speak up, we're fed up with these outrageous claims'."

Dr Simon Singh speaks at Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub
Simon Singh spoke at a recent Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub meeting

Dr Singh has become something of a figurehead for this new, outspoken sceptical movement.

In 2008 he was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an article in a national newspaper in which he accused the organisation of "happily promot[ing] bogus treatments".

Groups including Sense About Science and Index on Censorship said the case showed the impact that libel law could have on science writers and have called for legal reform.

The BCA has also suffered a backlash. A group of sceptical bloggers angered by the lawsuit scoured the internet for unsubstantiated medical claims made on chiropractic websites.

They filed complaints with local Trading Standards offices and the General Chiropractic Council.

Wider audience

More than 500 complaints were made against individual chiropractors in 24 hours.

This is not the only example of a groundswell of sceptical activism.

A recent campaign against homeopathy saw sceptics take to the streets across the UK. Demonstrators swallowed vast amounts of homeopathic pills in an effort to show that they had no effect.

Several Skeptics in the Pub regulars from Glasgow and Edinburgh took part in the event.

The dictionary definition of a sceptic (or skeptic) is someone who maintains a doubting attitude
Many sceptical groups use the American spelling, with a K, in preference to the British spelling
Alex Pryce of the Scottish Skeptics Society said the spelling aimed to set them apart from the more cynical connotations of the word
He said it also made the group a recognisable brand

Meanwhile, a new group is now attempting to promote scepticism on a national level and bring science and rationalism to a wider audience.

Organiser Alex Pryce said the Scottish Skeptics Society would attempt to appeal to people beyond the scientific community.

"The society will aim to promote education and the idea that you don't need to be a scientist to understand things," he said.

"You just need to think, read, even get an audiobook."

And he added: "Scotland was so heavily involved in the British enlightenment that it really has to be at the forefront of the new movement that's taking place in the 21st Century."

The group plans to publish information on the internet, visit schools and help to establish sceptical discussion groups outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But isn't an ardently sceptical outlook a rather curmudgeonly approach to life? Mr Pryce thinks not.

"I think a lot of people confuse scepticism with cynicism," he said.

"That's a tendency to reject ideas out of hand without giving them any real consideration, and that's not what scepticism is about.

"Scepticism isn't a set of beliefs. It's a system of inquiry that ultimately gives people the ability to understand the world around them - and I think that's a really positive thing."

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