What we're about
"Skeptics In The Pub" started in London in 1999 as an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and social networking among amateur skeptics, rationalists, freethinkers, science enthusiasts, and other kindred spirits. The group is now held in various forms around the world, with well over a hundred local chapters.
The Philadelphia chapter of "Skeptics in the Pub" hosts bi-weekly group discussions on a range of topics related to science and rationality. There's several things that set our group apart from many other skeptic groups out there:
(1) While most Skeptics in the Pub chapters rely on guest lecturers, we're primarily an intellectual discussion group for people who want to improve their scientific knowledge and work on their critical thinking skills. That means that our regular bi-weekly meetups have a discussion topic and require some preparation in the form of reading & watching videos and involve active participation by our members.
(2) Most other chapters of Skeptics in the Pub host their events in "pubs" as the name suggests, but we typically host our small group discussions in cafes & other quiet areas so that noise levels don't interfere. However, if you're into beers & bars, fear not! We also regularly attend several monthly science-related events in Philadelphia where drinks are served, such as "Science After Hours" at the Franklin Institute, "Science on Tap" at National Mechanics, and "Nerd Nite" at Frankford Hall. These events tend to be more social & require less preparation from participants, so if you're looking to just have fun & meet people while learning about science, these events may be for you.
(3) When it comes to addressing irrationality, we look for intellectual challenges instead of easy targets. Therefore, we tend to address controversies among serious scientists & scholars that aren't clear cut rather than just debunking fringe beliefs like homeopathy, Flat Earth, Bigfoot, ghosts & alien abductions for the hundredth time. We typically only address pseudo-scientific beliefs once they become widespread enough to cause major risks or interfere with major benefits to society (e.g. the anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, anti-nuclear power, and climate change denial movements). To help members better understand scientific debates, we periodically review some basic statistics and concepts from the philosophy of science.
(4) While we champion the scientific approach to empirical questions, we're careful to avoid a common pitfall of some skeptic groups -- i.e. "scientism" -- the application of science to non-empirical questions in fields like ethics & aesthetics. Also, while we value the scientific method, this doesn't mean that we engage in "hero worship" or hold individual scientists or scientific institutions above question. In fact, we often cover problems within scientific fields such as hiring biases, censorship, fraud, funding biases, pay-to-publish journals, cargo cult science, etc.
(5) When we cover conspiracy theories, we tend to focus less on bizarre beliefs about Reptilians, Men in Black, Satanic cults and the Illuminati in favor of somewhat more plausible allegations of political corruption, corporate malfeasance, police cover-ups, covert military actions, domestic spying, etc. Our focus is on distinguishing the credible aspects of conspiracy theories from the less credible claims that resemble paranoid “folk theories” and “urban legends". The reason we operate in this grey area rather than the black & white, open & shut cases is explained under Point #3 -- we're looking for intellectual challenges instead of easy targets. We try to familiarize our members with the basics of "institutional analysis" from political science, "elite theory" from sociology, and "public choice theory" from economics in order to understand how real conspiracies typically work.
(6) When we address problems with the news media, instead of debunking obvious hoaxes from junk tabloids & "fake news" websites, we tend to focus on problems with mainstream media coverage, such as the oversimplification & distortion of scientific research in pop science journalism, along with the way the 24-hour news cycle & competition for viewers drives sensationalism & media circuses. We often debunk "moral panics" where the news media creates overblown fears of statistically uncommon threats. Helping our members spot moral panics & hoaxes and develop news literacy & fact-checking skills are among our major goals.
(7) Although we occasionally address political issues, we do so from a non-partisan, empirical approach. Any politician, pundit or political party that makes claims that are unsupported by logic & evidence are open for criticism. Members are free to reason & argue based on whatever moral & political philosophy they prefer. The only moral values that are mandatory for members are intellectual honesty & the principle of charity in debate. The only political values that are prerequisites for members are belief in traditional civil liberties like freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, separation of church & state, as well as an understanding of the value of institutional norms like academic freedom & transparency, since without these principles the skeptic movement couldn't function.
(8) While most skeptic groups double as atheist groups, this meetup doesn't require members to have any particular position on abstract metaphysical questions like the existence or non-existence of a "higher power” (however you interpret that), whether or not free will & the self are illusions, whether or not we're living in a simulation or a multiverse, etc. That said, applying skepticism to the more concrete supernatural claims of the world's major religions tends to result in atheism, agnosticism, or the sort of philosophical deism/pantheism adopted by some scientists. Rather than endlessly debating the existence of God or debunking creationism, past life regression, demonic possession, or faith healing for the hundredth time, when we address religious issues we're more likely to discuss something like the historicity of major religious figures, the evolutionary psychology of religion, the connection between religious extremism & violence, legal issues pertaining to the separation of church & state, etc. Once again, the reason for this is explained under Point #3 - we're looking for intellectual challenges instead of easy targets.
(9) Like most other skeptic groups, we practice "scientific skepticism" - i.e. we question the veracity of claims lacking strong empirical evidence. However, we mix scientific skepticism with elements taken from "New Atheism" as well as the "rationalist" and "post-rationalist" communities. While the skeptic community has typically focused on debunking irrational beliefs held by various fringe groups, the "New Atheists" have mostly focused on criticizing religious fundamentalism and its role in exacerbating social & political conflicts. Conversely, the "rationalist community" tends to focus on cognitive biases that all humans have, how they distort our thinking, and how they can be mitigated. Meanwhile, the "post-rationalist community" tends to focus on the *social & psychological effects* of the various beliefs, rituals & symbols that make up our culture, how cultures evolve over time, how people use culture to derive meaning & find a sense of community, and how rationalists can reconcile themselves with life in a world where most people are at least somewhat irrational. By combining aspects from all four of these subcultures based around critical thinking, we can get a more comprehensive understanding of human rationality & irrationality than would be possible if we limited ourselves to just one of them.
If this sounds interesting to you, we hope you'll join us!