Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How JREF Can Become More Diverse

At The Amazing Meeting 9, a panel focused on diversity was moderated by Desiree Schell and included panelists blogger Greta Christina, Executive Director of the James Randi Educational Foundation D. J. Grothe, activist Debbie Goddard, comedian and journalist Jamila Bey and blogger Hemant Mehta. During the panel, the suggestion was raised on how to increase diversity at TAM through having a diversity of topics open for discussion, including diving into the “soft sciences” and discussing issues such as the drug war, poverty, the right for homosexuals to marry, etc. D. J. Grothe spoke with a word of caution against doing such a thing, for a number of reasons. Since I think that spreading critical thinking to the public at large is important, I thought I would present some options for JREF.

First, I will be focusing on JREF solely. In my opinion, local organizations are able to judge what to do, but JREF can be a great motivator for the direction local groups may go. Second, I have not been a member of JREF for even a year. I don’t have an understanding of the history of the organization, so my assumptions may not be correct. Third, when I speak of diversity, I will use the same categories included in the panel, which are a diversity of sex, sexual orientation, race, income, age and ideas. Lastly, with regard to opinions panelists gave at TAM, I am going on memory and notes I wrote. I will also be referring to comments made by people on Twitter, which shouldn’t be taken as representative of any particular group, but are what I gathered as feedback.

Whenever someone suggests an organization should or should not do something, I like to examine the mission statement of the organization. A mission statement is part of the organization’s legal documentation and not just some tag line. Every action that an organization takes should further the mission in some way. If an organization engages in actions which are not in line with the mission, donors could sue the organization to have funds returned. The mission statement of the James Randi Educational Foundation is:
“Our mission is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.”
Based on this mission, it appears that having a presentation on the drug war and/or other social issues would be outside of the scope of the JREF, since the focus is only on “paranormal and supernatural ideas.”

I think it would also be important to examine if the JREF has had topics on issues which may be outside of its mission, as defined. What this may mean, is that the mission statement may need to be changed and/or an event like TAM is considered to be different than an action specifically created by JREF, which would allow for more flexibility in topics. During TAM 9, most presentations can be directly tied to the mission of JREF. There are a few exceptions, however, such as Lawrence Krauss’ presentation on Richard Feynmann and Sean Faircloth’s presentation on Theocrats.

These two presentations and the theme of TAM 9 show where there is room to do what the diversity advocates on the panel are hungering to do. The concern raised, is that by limiting the focus of JREF to just the paranormal and supernatural, you are excluding others from participating. The scientific method and critical thinking are important pieces used to analyze claims regarding the supernatural and paranormal. People who value this method to prevent harm caused by people making false claims will usually have an appreciation for science and discovery in general and would trust analysis of other topics using the scientific method and critical thinking. For example, analyzing the claims made by proponents of drug control policy in the United States to evaluate whether that policy was effective in meeting its goals or not.

Here is where some concern was raised by D. J. Grothe in the discussion. D. J. argued that he goal is to make TAM welcoming to everyone, including having a diversity of beliefs represented. The challenge to that, is that you must increase the diversity of topics discussed at TAM in order to attract a diverse audience. Otherwise you will attract a group of people who are interested in Bigfoot, UFO’s, science and philosophy. D. J.’s partial challenge to that, is that the topics at TAM haven’t changed greatly. The focus is still on skepticism, debunking the paranormal and supernatural claims, yet this year saw growing diversity in attendance, with 40 percent of attendees identifying as women. It will be important to determine why that diversity is increasing and if the selection of topics has much to do with why people are choosing to come to TAM or if there are other reasons why someone is choosing to attend.

While listening to the panel, a few themes from commenters were noted. One comment raised by PZ Myers, is that D. J. Grothe is attempting to play the role as gatekeeper for allowed skeptical discussion. I would say that is a fair claim and is likely one of D. J.’s responsibilities as executive director of JREF. If D. J. allowed for a presentation on the drug war and the presentation was overly political, JREF may be blamed for it and may also be accused of promoting a political position. However, we can see that Sean Faircloth’s presentation, while not advocating for, or against any political candidate, could be seen as being overly political by some who may not view the separation of church and state as important as others do in the skeptical community.

Another commenter mentioned the concern that JREF, by focusing on social issues, could easily become a defender of the Democratic Party. I think the commenter raised this question, since, while someone can evaluate the testable claims made by legislators who created the laws which form drug control policy, it becomes easy to write the next half of the presentation, for example, Congressman Smith, while promoting legislation X, advocated that it would do Y. Since it did not do Y, legislation X is a failure, so I propose legislation Z.

Will increasing the diversity of topics at TAM increase attendance? Maybe. It would take surveys to determine why people are attending in the first place. Can JREF increase the diversity of topics at TAM without appearing to become too political? I think they can, but it is a careful process. Is it important to advocate for skepticism and critical thinking in a more broad sense than what JREF may focus on and reach out to all people. Yes. This is why I think that outreach at the local level by independent groups may lead to greater diversity at TAM.

While there were many presentations at TAM regarding the paranormal and supernatural, many were also focused on diverse topics, such as organizing, being an effective communicator, space exploration, how are minds work, including how we can be fooled and how to deal with mental illness. I see these type of events useful for inspiring an application of critical thinking across a broad range of topics since they are designed, in some way, to make you a better skeptic and a better promoter of skepticism. In this way, you become an advocate for critical thinking in other organizations you may be involved with, whether that is at work, your school, a local skeptics organization or an organization which advocates for social change. Skeptics can be seen as soldiers fighting a battle against woo using the tools of critical thinking, effective, audience specific communication and the scientific method.

Because JREF is silent on issues like the drug war, rights for homosexuals and poverty it is easy to claim that JREF is acting cowardly by avoiding these issues, or even worse, being complicit in discrimination by not acting. Though, the same criticism could be held of other organizations which don’t view themselves as advocates for broad social change. Should JREF become a leading organization, inspiring local organizations to use skepticism to tackle difficult social issues we all deal with, in an effort to increase the diversity D. J. Grothe wishes to obtain? Would or should JREF’s mission change to accommodate this change? Are there members of JREF who would rather not have presentations on “soft science” social issues and appreciate the effort to maintain political neutrality? Are there also members who will feel ignored if his or her issue isn’t discussed? These are tough questions which need answers. The leadership and membership of JREF should address them through considerate research and analysis. The diversity panel is a good start, but it is obvious that JREF will need to determine how to meet the goal of increasing diversity.

In my opinion, which should be taken with a large grain of salt, since I have not been active in the skeptic community for long, is that local groups will be the largest sources of outreach and can affect the diversity shown at JREF. Similar to the papers presentations given on the last day of TAM, a handful of local organizations can give presentations on outreach efforts they have conducted and/or be given an opportunity to give a presentation which is important to their members. If local organizations increase diversity and those local members become active with JREF, the leadership of JREF may have an incentive to expand its mission beyond its more narrow focus to include issues of importance to a wider audience.

I look forward to more discussion on this issue. I don't envy D. J.'s job of steering the focus of JREF to maintain the balance of allowing for thoughtful discussion on complex social issues with less clear methods for testing claims and avoiding criticism for being a left leaning organization without consideration for "other points of view," but I feel diversity won't increase if we don't take the time to determine how to get more people involved. It may be a complex task, but we're clever people, right? We can do this.