Skeptics in the Pub: A meeting of independent thinkers
According to James Garrison, establishing a skeptics group in Oklahoma is like “trying to start a vegan restaurant in Stockyard City”. Judging from the attendance at his “Skeptics in the Pub” recently at Picasso’s Café in the Paseo District of Oklahoma City, he might be right.
In his experience, skeptics are strong-willed and independent thinkers. “Herding skeptics is like trying to herd cats.”
But Garrison is undeterred. Fueled by his refusal to blindly accept assertions by those who would profit from disseminating half-truths and pseudoscientific “research”, he feels compelled to share his passion for holding those people accountable by openly challenging them on his Oklahoma Skeptics Society blog.
Garrison describes himself as “a skeptic living in the bible (sic) belt”. Although he was born and raised in a fundamentalist Oklahoma family, whose members reject traditional scientific practices and practice faith healing. Garrison has always been a critical thinker who requires proof. This put him at odds with his surrounding community from an early age; in kindergarten his natural skepticism and logical reasoning led him to reject the concept of Santa Claus, an opinion he shared freely with his classmates, with admittedly pugilistic consequences.
Not one to be easily dissuaded, Garrison has never stopped questioning. His convictions led him to establish the Oklahoma Skeptics Society in 2012, an organization he characterizes as an “intersection between science education and consumer protection.”
In a refreshing change to the current climate of public discourse, his goal is not to be confrontational – Garrison respects those who have come to their beliefs thoughtfully – however he will not shy away from challenging assertions that are false, cannot be proven or are flat-out harmful. He cites homeopathy as an example of this, referencing instances of people who have been hurt, or even killed, by bogus medical treatments.
Founding a skeptics’ society in Oklahoma has not been easy. It is still a small group, the backbone of which is Garrison himself, his wife, Beth Griesel (who works in biomedical research) and the group’s Vice President, Shana Gammil. Garrison feels that the difficulty in attracting members is due to a majority rural culture that does not value or emphasize education and who, for a variety of reasons “don’t have a good background in science and critical thinking.”
For him, this is typified by his own family, who he says is “not fond of education.” In fact, his father stopped speaking to him for a time after Garrison enrolled in college. Nonetheless, he persevered and graduated with a degree in Agricultural Education from Oklahoma State University.
In addition to the blog and Facebook page, Garrison began a “Skeptics in the Pub” series, inspired by Irish / Scottish / English tradition; it’s an open forum series of meetings for the purpose of discussing all manner of topics. Garrison chooses a new location for each meeting based on a majority vote and not surprisingly, his preference is for locations with casual atmospheres that are conducive to informal conversation.
This night, members met at Picasso Café to discuss conspiracy theories, how and why they exist and the reasons that certain people seem to need them. Based on his blog post “Conspiracy theories for the beginning skeptic”, Garrison discussed the concept of conspiracy theories as it relates to topics such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination (multiple shooters), the moon landing (it was staged), Holocaust denial, and other such assertions.
This is not to say that Garrison does not believe that conspiracies exist. On the contrary:
“People work together to get other people fired or arrested. They may form a conspiracy to throw someone a surprise birthday party. But one thing to remember about conspiracies is this: humans are involved, and humans suck at keeping secrets. No matter how much you pay people, or what oaths you make a group take, at some point someone is going to tell, due to their conscience, accidentally talking about it while inebriated, or wanting a bit of fame that goes along with being part of whatever the act was. And the more people that are involved, the higher the odds that someone is going to talk.”
After providing basic groundwork, he continued the discussion regarding how conspiracy theories are created and why/how they persist. Conceding that he is neither a psychologist nor psychiatrist, Garrsion states two of the main reasons conspiracy theories continue are, in his opinion: 1. People are naturally uncomfortable with the concept of things happening for no apparent reason, and they need to provide explanations for seemingly random events and; 2. Conspiracies perpetuate because they cannot be disproven. However, one of the most compelling reasons for Garrison as to why most conspiracy theories cannot be true is human nature, as previously noted. Put simply, somebody always talks.
Garrison also asserts that some these conspiracies can be dangerous, citing the spread of disease among communities who refuse to vaccinate children or people who die because they reject traditional medicine and turn instead to unproven homeopathy or faith healing.
Although not affiliated with The Skeptics Society (a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific and educational organization), Garrison does reference their Skeptic Magazine, along with other independent information sources such as Snopes.com, Wikipedia, and many other online resources.
The Oklahoma Skeptics Society would love to have more participation, both in this Pub series and in their online sites. Diverse opinions and lively – even heated – debate are encouraged and welcome, as long as people base their arguments on facts, rather than conjecture.
As Beth Griesel contributed: “Anecdotes do not equal data.”
First-time participant, Lorrie Meek, appeared to have enjoyed the discussion. When asked what prompted her to attend, she observed that “you can get stale if you don’t continue to change your way of thinking.” She feels that people need to “program” themselves to asked questions, and not passively accept the status quo.
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