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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Skeptics Who Never Were

First, a midweek plug for the Pod Delusion review of 2009. Again some cracking stuff - Salim Fahdley's report on dodgy bomb detectors is superb, as are Martyn Norris's piece on quotes, and the Gaming Twat and Douchebag of the Year respectively.

There's also Crispian Jago's lovely piece on the top 10 bloggers of the year. He highlights a number of slightly lower profile but rising skeptical bloggers, all of whom are worth checking out, and it has resulted in at least three posts of hearty backslapping, some analysis of what makes a good blogger and much deserved praise back in the other direction.

My contribution this time round was a review of those we lost in 2009, and while such a report is never going to garner much thanks from those featured, doing the research did get me thinking about those who might have been skeptics, but are sadly no longer with us.

2009 feels like the year when skepticism came of age in the UK. Perhaps this is just a personal impression, but people like Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Tim Minchin are popping up far more frequently, and on higher profile programmes like Any Questions and Jonathan Ross. 2009 saw the 10 year anniversary of London Skeptics in the Pub, the launch of both TAM London and CFI London, and the emergence of significant new players like Sense About Science and (ahem) The Pod Delusion. And those on Crispian's list are just the tip of the internet iceberg.

And while this is wonderful, it does mean that the movement arrived too late for some individuals who might have been its biggest champions.

And so, taking a pretty broad definition of skepticism (choose your own from this list), here is a companion piece to the Pod Delusion report - a rundown of 5 UK skeptics who never were.

Karl Popper - Popper was possibly the greatest philosopher of science who has ever lived. Bertrand Russell or David Hume may be more quotable, but Popper's doctrine of falsifiability resonates with many working scientists, and much of his work was aimed at finding a clear demarcation between science and pseudoscience. In addition, he died in 1994, only two years before Carl Sagan, and was based at LSE about 300 yards from The Penderel's Oak where London Skeptics in the Pub meet.

Nicolas Walter - Walter was an anarchist, a secularist and rationalist. During his insanely full life he edited the New Humanist magazine, was vice-president of the National Secular Society and director of the Rationalist Press Association, wrote books about blasphemy, atheism and humanism, and formed The Committee Against Blasphemy Law in response to Salman Rushdie's fatwa. And, if this is not enough to convince you he would have been a skeptic, he also had a reputation as a massive pedant*.

Peter Killworth - Peter Killworth is well known in scientific circles as a prodigious researcher and author, mainly in oceanography and social networks. However, while there are plenty of dead scientists one might include on any list of lost skeptics, Killworth stands out like a beacon because he was also a magician and software developer of note, thus ensuring all bases are covered.

JG Crowther - Crowther was the first Guardian science correspondent during the 1920s and he went on to lead the Science department of the British Council. From this post, he helped enshrine science in UNESCO, and promoted science's ability to transcend international and class divides, helping German and Austrian scientists escape the Nazis. Makes you wonder what Singh and Goldacre are going to go onto achieve.

Douglas Adams - The most obvious name on the list - frankly, where do you start? Hitchhikers is full of gentle digs at illogical thinking and science jokes; Dirk Gently is at least as good an evocation of skepticism as Sherlock Holmes ever was; Last Chance To See is full of joy at the wonder of science and nature. And if you haven't read The Salmon of Doubt, you are missing articles on atheism, the internet age and the thoughts of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry on Adams himself.

I can imagine Adams making his way down from Islington to do Skeptics in the Pub once in a while, appearing on Little Atoms and being the star attraction at TAM London.

This may give you some idea what it would have been like.

*Although, rather beautifully, he thought this was wrong and set out to correct it.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely blogpost. I think you are absolutely right about Douglas Adams. It is genuinely sad that he isn't around to see all this.


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