Steve Thoms is a professional music teacher, an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic North, the first pan-Canadian skeptical blog.
The Skeptic North blog has been a tremendous success, and I like to think of it as a spiritual (ha!) ally of the Grassroots Skeptics endeavor. We’re a group of Canadian skeptics, professionals, academics, activists, writers, and bloggers who came together in one place for the first time. We have members from many regions of Canada, and we also have a great cross-section of all strata of organized skepticism: large organizations with an international scope and reach; localized groups, and non-affiliated independent bloggers (like from my own blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic). Skeptic North is a success for three key reasons: social networking, quality-control, and naked good fortune.
When I first joined the skeptic community and started my own blog, I spent several months looking for a cross-Canadian skeptic organization. After all, if Australia could have such a great national organization, then surely Canada (with our similar population, culture and history) would have one too. I came to learn that there was no Canada-wide skeptic organization, and instead saw a field dominated by localized groups (which did great work, to be sure) and independent bloggers. There was no nationwide organization, and I kept thinking, “someone should start one!”
The Genesis of Skeptic North goes back to TAM7, where most of our members (but not me) met up at a special all-Canadian get-together, organized by Desiree Schell and Scott Gavura. After the meeting, a Google group was set up, to keep the discussion going and allow us non-TAMers to engage. I submitted the idea that we should have a one large, pan-Canadian skeptic blog, something that has never been tried and was long overdue. Once a number of us had agreed that a group blog would be a great project, we wanted to make sure that we did it right; we wanted to be organized, and inclusive. We wouldn’t seek to supplant the existing skeptic organizations out there, nor expand into related areas that were well-covered by other organizations (such as atheism, humanism and secularism). With the assistance of Desiree and Scott, we set up a clear line of internal communication, wrote a mission statement, and notified our skeptic friends of our existence via personal letters and press releases… all before we even launched.
Once we did launch, on October 1, 2009, things grew incredibly fast. In the opening two weeks, we were flooded with comments and emails from people saying “I’ve always waited for a Canadian skeptic group!” It seems that we owe a great deal of our success to simply filling a niche. Whereas some skeptic niches are smaller in scope, we stumbled upon a vast, and surprisingly empty niche: the entire country of Canada!
In our first month of operation, we made a regular contact in the Canadian mainstream media, which has since posted twelve of our articles by seven different authors. In our second month, one of our articles appeared as a full-page column in mainstream media print (comparable ad space would have cost over $50,000). Two of our members appeared on Calgary radio, and one of my own articles appeared on the JREF’s Swift Blog.
Most of that attention was generated by our response a bill put forth before the Ontario Legislature, Bill 179, which was poised to grant naturopaths the right to prescribe medication. Several major skeptic outlets followed our lead in challenging the bill, such as Science Based Medicine, various Science Blogs, and my own appearance on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, which all helped to grant a great deal of coverage on this important issue. Sadly, the bill itself passed, but part of what we set out to do when we started this blog was to learn how to be a skeptic organization, and we learned enough to fill volumes. By the time our 3rd month rolled around, I think that Skeptic North had proven itself to be a quality voice for skeptical activism, and our returning visitors nearly doubled from the previous month.
Integral to our success was our use of social networking (especially Facebook and Twitter). For instance, when a pair of naturopaths wrote an article in the National Post making their case as to why they should have the right to prescribe, a large number of skeptics mobilized within a moment’s notice and left a thorough take-down in the comments section (that even got noticed as far away as New Zealand!). While the Bill 179 issue was going on, Skeptic North was building its skeptic and media contacts, and asking for their help. With effective organization at the grassroots level, Skeptic North and our friends helped to make a media story out of something that otherwise would surely have been swept under the rug.
Skeptic North is not, at the moment, a membership organization. While we are trying to be the authority for Canadian skepticism, we know we can’t claim success just yet. For now, we’re a place for Canadian skeptics to come together and write. However, if Bill 179 taught us anything of value, it’s that we Canadian Skeptics are also capable of affecting real change when we mobilize the large number of supporters, contacts, and friends we’ve made, both inside and outside the skeptical community. I can’t say for certain what Skeptic North will look like a year from now, but if we continue to grow at this rate, you can all expect big things in the near future. As an organization that started in the Skepticism 2.0 phase, we have the advantage of adopting all the hard-fought lessons learned by our predecessors: The JREF, the Skeptics’ Society, and the Australian Skeptics. We’ve managed to do in 3 months what some organizations take years to achieve. The space-time compression effect of technology on culture has served us well, and I can’t wait to see what we do next!