Michael Marshall is the co-founder and vice-president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and appears on the ‘Skeptics with a K’ and ‘Be Reasonable’ podcasts. Besides organising the national and international 10:23 Campaign against homeopathy, he writes about the often-unsuspected role of PR in modern media. Michael has written for the Times, the Guardian and the New Statesman, and has lectured as part of the Sheffield Hallam University journalism degree.
I think I’ve caused quite a bit of mischief in the past.
On becoming interested in science
I guess I got started in skepticism…well, I guess I’ve always been involved in skepticism, even when I didn’t know that it was a thing. I just thought it was the way the world works. So I think there were many, many conversations I’ve had with friends where we’ll talk about, um, astrology, and I was always the really annoying guy who’d pick up a magazine when you’re with friends and you’d ask them for their star sign and you’d read out the astrological reading, and they’d say, ‘Oh that’s really great,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh sorry, that was the wrong one. That wasn’t yours.’ But it turns out that it’s just as accurate because all of this stuff is just nonsense. It’s very, um, stuff that could apply to anybody.
So I was always that kind of person, which sounds really irritating, but I was much better with it, I do promise you. And I think the reason that we started to get more involved in skepticism, we started to put these kinds of groups together, is because I would see something, like you see a psychic on television and they’re doing these really horrible things where they’re really exploiting the grieving and people who’ve lost loved ones. And I was really affected by that, and I thought, because I’m an also an atheist, I don’t believe there’s an afterlife, so I think the life that you have now…if somebody is doing something, if they’re lying to you, if they’re affecting your world view, if they’re unnecessarily exploiting you, they’re ruining the only chance you have of life. And I think it’s really important that we do what we can to stop that happening and try and give everybody a chance to have their lives and do the things they want to do, and not be duped by people who – rightly or wrongly or knowingly or unknowingly – are selling them nonsense.
So I was always really affected by that, but everybody I spoke to seemed to not really care that much. I’d met very few people in my friendship group at the time who actually believed in that kind of stuff, but I’d also met very few people who cared about disbelieving in it or who cared about telling people it didn’t work. So the reason we started…I started, actually, looking on the internet and finding people and putting groups together, is so that we can have a space where you can talk about what affects you and why it bothers you that people are, um, you know, believing that faith healers will cure them of their cancer and how damaging that can be. And to then try and do something about it, but ultimately I guess to try and forge a sense of community. In the same way that churches have these community groups, we can have our own community groups based not on belief in something divine and supernatural, but just on appreciation of the fact that we’re here, this is the life that we have and let’s make the best that we can, really.
I’m trying to think what really got me to really start focussing on things. I actually came in through very odd ways. A lot of people I meet tend to come into skepticism through atheism. So they started having the God conversation, because we’re all taught God at school, and they started to question whether that was all true and then that led them to start questioning other things. And you get used to the kind of arguments against God, and then you can see that those arguments also apply against astrology and horoscopes and alternative medicine and things, that a mistake of thinking is a mistake right across the board.
But, weirdly, I never really cared about the God thing that much because I always kind of had the impression, even as a child I think, that people did this not because it was real, not because people believed in it, but we just did it. It’s like when people say ‘touch wood’, they don’t really think it’s going to give them a protective spell that’ll stop them being cursed, they just do it because it’s a social convention. So it really kind of affected me, I guess, at about the age of 13, when I really realised that people take it seriously, people actually believe this and live their lives by it and ruin other people’s lives because of it.
But I never really got into skepticism because of that. I think I came in through slightly odder ways. I was certainly always very affected by psychics; I don’t like anybody who’s grieving or lost someone to be exploited, whether the person knows they’re doing it or not. I find that really quite upsetting. And I think other stuff, really, um, when it comes to people’s lives being influenced against their will without their really knowing it. And I think one of the weirdest ones that probably got me into it was infant circumcision, believe it or not, male circumcision. It always struck me as a really weird thing that we do this to boys’ genitals, and that it’s fine because we just do it, we cut…if I took a knife to any other part of a baby, I always thought, you’d be wrong. But do it there and that’s fine, we just do that; that’s absolutely fine. And I think I started looking into that, and that led me into podcasts, and then that led me into groups, and here we are. I’m able to help organise a conference for 500 people and skeptical events that have 17,000 people trying to kill themselves with homeopathy and failing, and that kind of thing. And I think it’s all about, really, once you embrace the fact that you’re only here for the time you’re here, and you embrace the fact that a duty you have to fellow man is to try to stop people being duped, where you can, then I guess that it’s a responsibility to be out there helping people. And also, I get a real kick out of causing mischief for people who deserve it. If you’re going to sell someone something and know that it’s nonsense, or not look into the fact that it’s real or not, you’re putting yourself out there, and it’s perfectly legitimate for someone to come and say, ‘Where’s the evidence? Does this work? And if not, we’re going to do what we can to stop you until you can prove that it works.’
On science role models
I don’t think I have a particular hero, and I think in part that’s because I like the fact that I don’t embrace religion and I don’t embrace that set of idols. And I’m very reluctant to then replace that with another set of idols. So I think the people that I admire most are the people that are doing real work, and there are a phenomenal number of great scientists out there doing that. And I think we can respect the work, but I try not to hero-worship anyone or raise anyone above that. But I absolutely love hearing from people who are out there, especially in the field of skepticism. I particularly love skeptics who are out there and are engaging with people from the other side of the debate – who believe in stuff – and they’re being very nice, they’re being very polite, they’re just focussing on the evidence. And they’re really thinking compassionately about who that other person is and what they’re doing and why. And they’re trying to understand people. So I think you could say, I guess, that my hero in skepticism is the people who…everybody who’s involved, trying to make a difference. So the movement as a whole, I guess. That probably sounds like a very wishy-washy answer.
On working in the skeptical community
I’m currently the vice president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, so we run an awful lot of different things. We’re a group that set up, I guess, about four years ago as a small Skeptics in the Pub group. And there’s maybe 35, 40 of these groups all around the country; it’s growing all the time. It’s people who get together because they’re tired of being in conversations where you have to be worried that you’re going to say something that’s going to offend someone who has a belief about something supernatural, really. So I guess we started setting that up, and it’s really spiralled from there and we’ve done all sorts of things. We did a big campaign against homeopathy, which actually got pretty far. The second year that we ran it, it went to seven cities around the world and hit all seven continents, including a guy in Antarctica doing an overdose of homeopathy to prove that it was nonsense. And we also run the QED Conference with another group in Manchester, which is a big skeptical science conference, a bit of a festival and just lots of people with interesting things to say. And we get about 500 people all together and just try and enjoy the fact that we’re living in the real world and we don’t have to kowtow or bow down to superstition and the silliness that goes with it.
I think I’ve caused quite a bit of mischief in the past. I once, very early on in skepticism, met a not very well known psychic. I won’t go into his name because, oddly enough, the website we have for the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the third highest search term for it is this psychic’s name. So I like the fact that you search for him and we come up on there on Google. But I met him at a book signing. And I went along there to invite him to test his psychic ability, and it’s something that we’ve done since. And he did not like someone doing that, someone questioning him, and he threw out, very, very quickly, all manner of very, very coarse insults that I could never repeat on camera, essentially. And I like the fact that we wrote all this up and it appeared in the Guardian, and he’s now very unhappy with us. But I think people like that, because there are people in that field who can be quite distasteful; some will know that they’re not really psychic, others don’t know that they’re not really psychic. But I think the effect of that, um, it can have a massive effect on the people who they’re selling their services to. And if that service isn’t real then it’s perfectly legitimate for us to ask about it. But following on from that, even a couple of years ago, there is the psychic Sally Morgan, who’s in the papers an awful lot. And there were questions about whether she can really do what she’s saying she could do. So we gave her the opportunity to show us – show the world – she could do it. We invited her to come and meet us in a hotel, she was in Liverpool at the time, we were right next door, basically. And we had a million dollars from an American organisation, on the table, basically, waiting to be picked up by her if she could come and do for us what she does in her shows, under conditions that we could control to avoid anybody who wanted to cheat, cheating. So that’s the kind of mischief I think I like to get involved in.
On skepticism as a form of religion
Well, we do all get together in the same place, very much like people get together in a church in the same place, because we have this place here and said, ‘Do you want to come if you’re interested in this?’ Where we differ from church is we don’t give people a set of beliefs. We don’t say, ‘You have to believe this. Anybody who disagrees with us is wrong. You hold some of our beliefs but you don’t live the way we say, so you’re going to be cast out or we’re going to judge you.’ There’s no real judgement here. But, in a way, the Skeptics in the Pub groups, for example, I think were almost overtly set up to be the kind of space that a church provides. Because amongst the many damaging things that religion gives the world – and I think it does give the world an awful lot of damaging things – there are some positives, and that positive is a sense of community. People will see each other, and, um, friendships will form and support groups will form. But that isn’t an artefact of God, an artefact of religion; it’s an artefact of having people in the same place often. So having people in a Skeptics in the Pub group, I think, could be a little bit like a church, but only in the sense that we’re there to support each other, we’re there to help out. We leave aside all the supernatural stuff, all the weird stuff, all the ‘these are the ways to live your life, these are the rules you’ve got to abide by and these are the people you have to hate because of it’. We just say, ‘come along, enjoy yourself, and let’s all kind of get along’, I guess.
On promoting critical thinking
I guess that the way that I try and spread a skeptical view or a skeptical outlook is, really, I think primarily in the way you approach people who disagree with you, because there’s very few things that upset me more than to see people that, because they disagree, completely write somebody off as a person. I really enjoy talking to someone that I completely disagree with, because I think that it’s very easy for me to have a conversation with someone that I completely agree with. I’ve got a phone that’s filled with numbers of people I can call up of people who I know are friends of mine who will agree with me on most things that I will say or, you know, the broad strokes of them. So I really enjoy talking to people I completely disagree with, and showing that because there is this one issue in the middle – you know, I don’t believe that ghosts exist, you do, let’s talk about ghosts – I’m not going to dismiss you as a person. You’re still a human being. I want to be compassionate. I want to try and understand why you got to that point. And I think that’s what we try and spread, certainly with the work we do at the Merseyside Skeptics Society, is to try and spread that idea that just because people disagree with you, once you write them off as people, you’re writing off any chance of changing their mind. Or not even changing their mind, because that sounds like we’re trying to proselytise, which is exactly what we don’t want to do, you write off any chance of giving them access to the information that makes you think they’re wrong to see whether that is also convincing to them. Nobody…very few people ever change their minds because someone yelled at them. A lot of people will change their mind because they’ve been shown, ‘Here are some really great questions to ask, and if the answers don’t make you feel comfortable in your belief, then maybe you need to change your belief’.