Some of the most important work in promoting science and skepticism happens at the grassroots level. There are regional skeptical organizations all over the world that serve their local communities, and we like to regularly shine the spotlight on some of them.
The Skeptics in the Pub model for organization has proven extremely popular all over the world since it originated several years ago in the U.K. Local Skeptics in the Pub groups serve as a central place for the science-minded to gather, socialize, and even create new skeptical activism projects that serve their local community.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting Vancouver's Skeptics in the Pub group and came away very impressed with the liveliness, hospitality, and passion for promoting science and critical thinking that was on display. I spoke with Fred Bremmer, about what makes Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub tick.
Brian: When did Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub get started?
Fred: After I came home from having a wonderful experience at my first skeptic conference, The Amazing Meeting 5 in 2007, I wanted to find out if there was any similar community of skeptics for me to join here in Vancouver. I soon discovered the recently-formed Vancouver Skeptics Meetup group which had met a few times already but didn't have a Facebook presence yet. I teamed up with the Meetup group founder and created the corresponding Facebook group named "Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub" to let us cross-post our event invitations to both Facebook and Meetup.
After a while we started meeting every month at a great old bar downtown, The Railway Club, where you can still find us every third Tuesday of the month. Last year we added another monthly get-together on the first Wednesday of the month at the Billy Bishop Legion just outside the downtown area. Shortly after that, our local CFI branch started another Skeptics in the Pub event in nearby Richmond, BC, so now it's possible to hang out with our local skeptics for a drink and a chat at least three times a month!
Brian: What appealed to you about the Skeptics in the Pub model?
Fred: Before my first skeptical meet-up I had attended a few meet-ups of "Drinking Liberally", a social group for people interested in progressive politics. I liked the way that group brought together people with similar interests and values and made it easy to meet new people and have interesting conversations in a casual setting, without any barriers like memberships or fees. At The Amazing Meeting I always enjoy the speakers and panels in the main program, but some of my most memorable highlights from TAM have been the late night conversations about science and skepticism with people I've never met before, but who listen to the same podcasts as I do, read many of the same blogs, and who share my appreciation of science and concern about the harm of pseudoscience and irrationality. Skeptics in the Pub allows me to have those kinds of conversations all year round.
Before I identified as a skeptic I used to be a devout Christian, and I was quite involved in my church. I lost touch with that community after I became a skeptic and an atheist in 2005 and left my church, but at that time I didn't know how to find a community of skeptics and science enthusiasts who shared my then-new appreciation for evidence and reason. I hope this won't be taken the wrong way, but I see Skeptics in the Pub as one way to recreate some of the positive social aspects of a church community, such as providing a friendly environment for meeting like-minded people, without what I see as negative aspects of churches, such as dogma, authority figures, supernatural claims, or the promotion of belief without evidence as superior to belief that's proportioned to the evidence.
Brian: How do your members interact with other local science and skepticism groups?
Fred: One thing I think Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub does well is cross-promote lots of groups and events that our attendees are likely to be interested in. I don't normally arrange a speaker or a video to present at our events, but there's already a Café Scientifique group in Vancouver that meets monthly at the pub for a brief talk by a local science expert, followed by a Q&A session with an audience of mostly non-scientists. Sometimes Skeptics in the Pub and Café Sci will co-host a combined event (which lets us introduce members of each group to the other group), and I always mention Café Sci's upcoming talks when I do the announcements at our Skeptics in the Pub nights.
I also announce events put on by other organizations, including CFI Vancouver, the local university skeptics and freethinkers groups, and the local science museum when they put on "Science World After Dark" - an adult-only evening where they serve beer and wine and they let grown-ups enjoy all their science exhibits without the usual crowds of children running around. I always open the floor during Skeptics in the Pub to announcements from any other groups that want to reach out to the local skeptic community, such as Radio Freethinker, Reasonable Women, or the BC Humanist Association. In addition, our members have been many of the volunteer organizers and presenters at all five of the Vancouver SkeptiCamp open conferences.
Brian: What have you done to attract new people to Skeptics in the Pub?
Fred: Surprisingly little! Somehow our Facebook group has grown to almost 500 members anyway. I give most of the credit for that growth to our wonderful core group of regular Skeptics in the Pub attendees. Once we reached a critical mass of friendly, intelligent, and welcoming women and men who share an interest in science and skepticism, our group just kept attracting new people by word of mouth and through people mentioning our events on Facebook. Many of those new people keep coming back and they become part of the core group themselves.
Recently I've started asking people to raise their hand if they've only been to one, two, or three events. We usually have several who raise their hand, which lets them know they aren't the only new people in the room, and it lets the rest of us know who to invite to join our conversations. At our downtown events I put up signs in the bar pointing the way to the room reserved for our group. Those signs also say, "Any interested science enthusiasts and critical thinkers are welcome to join us." I also include the Carl Sagan quote, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" so people who see the signs will get some idea of what we mean when we say "skeptic". Those signs have brought in a few unusual characters who believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories or ancient astronauts, but also some new people who share our interest in science and empirically testing claims.
Brian: Has anything come out of your meetings that has taken you by surprise?
Fred: My biggest surprise is that building a thriving community of skeptics doesn't have to involve a lot of work or take a lot of time or money. The Facebook group doesn't cost anything, and our venues gladly give us a standing reservation to use their rooms for free. I spend a few minutes every month making the Facebook event invitations and including links to other upcoming events, and then all I have to do is show up for drinks and conversations with my friends and welcome any newcomers who drop in and join us. We started out small, but now we regularly have 30 or 40, and sometimes over 50 people coming out to the pub to talk with their fellow science enthusiasts. I encourage anyone who likes hanging out with skeptics to find their local Skeptics in the Pub group, or create it if there isn't one already.
Brian: What are your future plans for Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub?
Fred: I'm finally getting around to setting up a website for our group at VancouverSkeptics.org where I plan to host links to our events and all the other skepticism-related groups and activities in our area. Our Facebook group should grow to 500 members soon, and in a few months I'll celebrate my fifth anniversary of being involved with skepticism in Vancouver. We've hosted a couple of excellent pub-quiz-style trivia contests where teams of skeptics compete against each other and against teams in other Canadian cities. Those have been a lot of fun, so I'm looking forward to doing that again soon.
One idea I'm thinking of trying is to have one of our members give a brief presentation on a skeptical topic - just 10 minutes or so - followed by questions from the audience, just like we've done at our SkeptiCamp conferences. Vancouver SkeptiCamps were successful, but it looks like no one is volunteering to organize the next one, so instead of organizing a one-day conference filled with many 10-minute talks, I'll try lining up just one talk a month at Skeptics in the Pub. That seems like a good way to add some skeptical content and interaction, but I don't want it to disrupt the social atmosphere that's working so well for us already.
Thanks for the questions. By the way, anyone reading this is invited to join us at the pub next time they're in Vancouver. Cheers!
Brian Thompson is the Field Coordinator for the James Randi Educational Foundation.