Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel at Dragon*Con's Skeptrack called ‘How to Combat Woo'. I was honored to be invited to speak with Phil Plait, Jeff Wagg, D. J. Grothe from the Center of Inquiry, and Maria Walters, a founding member of the Atlanta Skeptics and blogger on Skepchick.org. Phil has written about this here and about a new Grassroots Skeptics site here, which I'm excited about. The theme for my part of the panel was "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day."
I enjoy attending TAM and Dragon*Con, and was fortunate to attend several of the JREF-sponsored cruises. In addition to have my skeptical batteries recharged, I enjoyed the community, and miss it when I go home. I live in the Houston area, and had been meeting informally with locals who I met at these conferences or through the JREF forum. In discussing the lack of a skeptical group with fellow Houstonians Sam Ogden (also a blogger on Skepchick), friend Eric Prim and friend Elaine Gilman, who started the Denver Skeptics meetup group, now known as the Mile High Skeptics, we formed the Houston Skeptics site on Meetup.com. I often talk to people who say ‘there is no skeptics group in my area', but as you will see, it's a relatively simple matter to start a group.
Meetup.com is a popular place to organize groups. You simply do a search in your area for the terms you are interested in, such as ‘skeptic.' If no such group exists, there will often be a list of people who may have expressed interesting in joining. For a monthly fee of $12, you can start a group, and the site will automatically send notices to anyone who has expressed an interest in that topic. Other ways you to advertise your group are through flyers on public bulletin boards in bookstores and coffee shops; writing about it in blogs; posting notes in forums such as the Meeting thread within the JREF forum; and submitting the meeting to calendars on Skepchik and Grassroots Skeptics.
Initially, we met in the party rooms at local restaurants, but as our numbers grew we've been struggling to find venues that will hold enough people, be quiet enough to allow speakers to be heard, and have reasonably-priced food and drink. Some restaurants charge for using their private rooms, which requires an out-of-pocket expense by the organizer that might not be covered if a particular meeting has low attendance. I've found through polls that some people are less likely to attend if you charge a small fee, even $3-$4.The city's libraries have meeting facilities scattered across town. The free rooms are booked months in advance, but others are available for a relatively low fee.
When you start your group, think about locations. Are you going to have a speaker, or is your meeting going to be primarily social? Is your town relatively small, where everyone can reach a meeting within a short drive? Do you live in a city with a good public transportation system, where buses or subways can get you to a location? Do you live in a spread-out city like Houston or Los Angeles, where people might be reluctant to drive for an hour to meeting on the opposite side of the city? These factors play into your success at getting members to attend your meetings.
As your numbers grow, you can recruit assistants to help with organizing your events. In our group, a great guy named Mark took it upon himself to organize monthly Skeptics in the Pub at a local bar. I am working with another person to organize another SITP event in a different part of the city, on a different night, so that more people will be able to attend. You can also recruit your own members to give talks at your meetings. So far, we've had talks on the Texas school board, a pediatrician talking about his experiences with alternative medicines, a scientist from Baylor College of Medicine talk about the proof of evolution shown in genetics, a college professor invite us to see his students give presentations on skepticism, and Barbara Mervine spoke about how she got involved in her UFO/alien abduction work. On September 22, Jeff Wagg will be speaking on why it is important to challenge claims of the paranormal (information here).
In addition to being a social outlet for like-minded individuals, we wanted to form a group that could be a local resource for skeptics. A newspaper story about anti-vaxxers? A local TV station gives an uncritical eye to tales of a haunted house? We want to be the ones that they can call to get another perspective. You can also co-op local events into your meetings. For instance, one of our first meetings was to attend a speech given by Neil DeGrasse Tyson at the University of Houston. At the end of September, Dr. Eugenie Scott will be speaking at the Houston Natural Science Museum, so we've organized a group to attend. Living in a city with several universities and medical schools, we can frequently find free or low cost seminars that are open to the public. In a smaller town, you can contact doctors, science teachers, or community college faculties. You might find a local health clinic that would talk the importance of vaccines. We were contacted by a well-known skeptical author, who found us via the meetup site. He's going to be in town for a book signing event and wanted to know if I'd be interested in him speaking at the group. Another time, a reporter called me about the school board votes on science standards, again finding us through a web search.
Your group will likely start small and grow with time. In her talk, Maria said that you must let your group grow organically, and this is good advice. People will enjoy themselves more if you are flexible and welcome suggestions from the members. As you grow, the news of your organization will reach people, and allow you to start making an impact and outreach on the importance of skepticism and critical thinking.
An abbreviated version of my Skeptrack talk can be found here. I'd love to hear stories of your successes and failures in starting your own local skeptic groups.