Our First Year
Well, the month-long festivities are finally winding down. Given the parades and national press coverage, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t know that 4 November marked our first anniversary. I’m sure everybody has a story of how they celebrated the Ottawa Skeptics Day break with their family, what gifts they gave each other and where they travelled on their time off.
At our meeting this month, Jon gave a state-of-the-organization address to mark our accomplishments for the year, but we almost let the month go by without posting about it. So let’s have a self-indulgent look back.
A year ago, no one had a clear idea where we wanted to go with the group or how to get there. All we knew was that we wanted to make a difference in the community, promote science and critical thinking, and meet fellow skeptics in the area. Some of our initial ideas were to create a website, host a discussion forum, do local investigations, write articles, start a podcast and generally make a name for ourselves. I remember thinking that, if we could accomplish one or two of those things, we would be doing well. A year later, we have achieved all of them.
Forming the group
New members came to Ottawa Skeptics from different directions but with generally the same aim. Some were familiar with the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), the Skeptic Society or the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) in the US but didn’t know if there were any skeptic groups in the city. Some already belonged to local groups, like Ottawa Brights, the Humanist Association of Ottawa (HAO), University of Ottawa Skeptics Association (UOSA) and Carleton Secular Alliance (CSA), but were looking for something different. Others had never heard of the skepticism movement but, like all of us, wanted to find discerning, like-minded people with whom to engage about the pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and uncritical thinking they were encountering all around them.
Yet, it was Jon who got off his butt to start the new group. He sent out a feeler message through Meetup.com and Facebook., and on 4 November 2007, a handful of us met at Steve and Seanna’s house, the group’s headquarters in the early days. Nearly all the early regulars – Jon, aDam, Ashley, Barry, Catherine, Chuck, Dana, Halden, Horatius, Lee, Mike B., Nick, Pat, Seanna, Steve and Xander – are still with us today.
The first order of business was to name the group. The working title that Jon had picked was Ottawa Skeptics, a name appropriated from a group that had existed at least a couple of times in the past but had become defunct, and so Jon became the latest founder of Ottawa Skeptics. However, seized of the need to change that name, we hunkered down, brainstormed some creative titles (see examples below) and decided on … Ottawa Skeptics.
We also saw the need early on to develop a mission statement and a motto, but we were less successful here. The work on the mission statement did confirm for us that we wanted to steer clear of the freedom-from-religion side of skepticism and stick more to scientific skepticism. Our feeling was that there already exists the former type of group in the city and we wanted our group to be accessible to anyone who is a critical thinker in traditional areas of skepticism. Unfortunately, the result of our effort was a mission statement that reads as if it were written by a committee, which of course it was.
For the motto, we came up with several suggestions (see examples below) and had a lot of fun doing it. Officially, “Question the questionable” won by elimination vote, but we never fell in love with it. A close runner-up was “Ignorance never settles an argument” partly because Xander got it in a fortune cookie and so it came with ironic provenance.
What did turn out well for us was the creation of our logo. We had a few initial suggestions, but the minute that Pat showed us his excellent rendering of the spyglass logo, we knew we had our brand.
In February, Jon and Pat rolled out the current website, and we all moved over from our temporary home on Google Groups. Halden got the discussion forum going with the few initial subscribers that we had. Now there are over 160 registered users. The website has been great and has only a few technical bugs with the forum. I’ve found that, if you ask Jon about the bugs, he will just say “Joomla” to you, as if he were swearing at you in Boer. (Secretly, Pat tells me that he can fix all the bugs but that Jon keeps him from doing it in order to keep us all humble.)
Early on, we looked around to see what other skeptic organizations existed in Canada and even contemplated becoming a local branch of one of them. However, we found Skeptics Canada to be relatively inactive and CFI to have different interests than us. Ultimately, Jon was invited to participate in a CFI event in Amherst, NY, and we have kept in touch with Justin Trottier at CFI Ontario in Toronto. Locally, we have affiliated closely with Ottawa Brights, HAO, UOSA and CSA – a virtual skeptic community – a citywide collective – The Illuminati … Wait, I’ve said too much.
Since the beginning, we’ve been meeting monthly to shape the organization and to coordinate the sweatshop tasks that Jon doles out. We now meet the first Sunday afternoon of each month and have moved from Steve and Seanna’s living room to a classroom at Carleton, much to the relief of Steve and Seanna’s cats. We have also been “Skeptically Drinking” each month under Horatius’s stewardship, but we have not settled on a regular time or place for it yet.
Over the year, we have cast a collective skeptical eye on various strange claims and pseudoscientific targets. We were contacted by someone who was witnessing regular UFO sightings in Gatineau but who ultimately didn’t trust us enough to agree to a meeting. Jon and aDam attended a psychic fair and interviewed someone who claimed to be a psychic. And some of us have crashed local UFO, paranormal and ghost hunter websites.
Our first big hit was the investigation of the Perepetia generator, which the inventor said violated the first law of thermodynamics but was too coy to call a perpetual motion machine. Seanna’s great article helped debunk the inventor’s unscientific claims.
Our article critiquing the claims of the Eska bottled water company got lots of outside hits for some reason and rose high on Google. Other articles by Jon, Pat, Darren and Xander kept our intellectual juices flowing.
A major continuing effort for us has been our involvement in the Bill C-51 debate. Inspired by aDam, we decided to take on StopC51’s outrageous propaganda about the Bill. We wrote several detailed articles debunking their misleading claims and misinformation. Of course, we could never hope to gain the fear-induced popularity of StopC51’s well-financed viral campaign, but we did achieve a degree of notoriety and were even consulted by Daniel Loxton before he published his famous Astroturf article.
We really made a name for ourselves at TAM 6. Eight of us attended the conference, dressed in our bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the Ottawa Skeptics logo. Not only were we acknowledged a few times during the proceedings, including by Daniel Loxton as a panelist, but Lee Graham gave his 3D Virtual Creature Evolution presentation while wearing his red t-shirt. It might have been a factor in the standing ovation that he received … or deserved, at least. After the conference, we sent copies of a book by local skeptical author Dan Gardner to Michael Shermer and the JREF Library to mark our coming out.
Lately, the group’s attention has been focused on producing The Reality Check, Canada’s first podcast dedicated to science and skepticism. You come for Pat’s artistic logo and funky intro music, but you stay for Jon, aDam, Darren, Xander and Cat’s insightful banter. The group now has an impressive 15 episodes in the can. Fans of the show already throw around pet names – the cute one, the smart one, the hip one, the brooding one, and the funny one – but no one has come up with nicknames for Jon, aDam, Darren and Xander yet.
We have also begun an investigation of two local schools that have procured, possibly with public money, and installed in their buildings several pseudoscientific products called EMF Balancers, exposing their students to anti-science nonsense. We have exchanged correspondence with the president of the responsible school board and await the board’s formal review of the situation.
Getting even better
In our first year, we got to know each other, saw what is possible, and learned to stand on our own. For the coming year, Jon has suggested the following goals:
- Write more articles for the website
- Get published in other media.
- Increase our local public profile.
- Get The Reality Check on a local university radio.
- Make a bigger presence at TAM 7.
- Advocate more actively for science and skepticism.
- Bring skeptical speakers to Ottawa.
- Establish a paid fellowship for Barry. (inserted by author)
- Continue to investigate unscientific, unsupported, uncritical and misleading claims that harm the public.
- Continue to confront C-51 misinformation as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.
- Get more serious about the group’s membership and organization.
- Organize group outings and activities.
- Drink even more skeptically (or is it, Skeptically Drink even more)
Finally, Jon passes along the following thoughts:
“I started this organization last year because it wasn’t enough for me just to read skeptical books and magazines and to post on the Internet. I wanted to meet people with the same interest and passion that I have for good science, bad science, good arguments, bad arguments, and everything in between. That goal has clearly been accomplished. What lies ahead is reaching out to more like-minded people who do not know about us, and to plant seeds of doubt in the heads of average people who are neither true believers nor skeptics but who are affected by these issues nonetheless. I’d like, finally, to thank all our members for making Ottawa Skeptics matter.”
Group Name (previous proposals)
|Group Motto (previous proposals)|