Let’s Get Creative
The skeptics among us appreciate the dangers that can result from a non-evidence based framework for thinking. From the attacks of 9/11 to the denial of funding for stem-cell research, the consequences of such a mindset can be horrific. This provides us with the very real need to supply others with the tools to think skeptically, in order to ensure that well informed decisions can be reached by all.
A word of warning: this article does encroach on my first post, which was lifted in part from this one so as to deal more specifically with one small point made here. Any comments regarding the Facebook quiz idea that I propose here would probably be better directed towards that post. Apologies for the repetition.
Preaching to the choir
As it stands, the Skeptic Movement is at risk of simply preaching to the choir. Excellent material is available, but will usually be found by those who actively search for it. These tend not to be the sorts of people in need of persuasion. This is not to say that their involvement is not needed. On the contrary, it is vital that such individuals are aware that there exists a community of like-minded people, who too are tired of the destructive power that pseudo-science and scientific illiteracy hold over so many. Only as a movement, rather than a group of individuals, can Skepticism develop and win its battles. It is for this reason also, that separatist branches of the Skeptic Movement, who for the most part will never have considered themselves in such terms, must come together as one voice. Such branches include the scientific community and perhaps most importantly, the Atheist Movement.
For those of us who not only wish to base our own understanding of the universe on rationality and evidence, but who wish to spread this way of thinking throughout the world, there is a need for a new, detailed plan of attack. Of course, this is not a new idea. Most, if not all, organisations dedicated to the cause have some guidelines regarding their own methodologies. The problem as it stands is that most of these fall somewhere along the wishy-washy lines of ‘We must strive to increase public awareness and understanding of such-and-such issues’. Now we skeptics are not fans of wishy-washy. What we need to address with no vagueness whatsoever is the ‘how?’ part of such objectives.
The overlying objective: recruitment
The most overlying objective of the Skeptic Movement must be to increase its arsenal by recruiting members, particularly those in positions of power. The most obvious way to accomplish this is to reach a wider audience, as is being continually and increasingly achieved most notably by the Atheist Movement. Fantastic and daring authors including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have accelerated this movement drastically, not least by successfully marketing bestselling books concerning a controversial subject. The all-encompassing issue of Skepticism however, unfortunately does not hold the controversial status that Atheism does. It is for this reason that fantastic books such as Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’, while reaching and affecting many, cannot hope to reach the sheer volume of potential Skeptics that Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ managed through extensive news coverage. We must therefore find new ways in which to extend our reach. One useful act would be to more formally align ourselves with such movements as the Atheist Movement, perhaps through conversations with Professor Dawkins, who is not only an Atheist activist but a true Skeptic activist in every sense of the term, but at present does not use such semantics. Were he to commonly refer to himself publicly as a ‘Skeptic’, the number of Google searches for the term and the overall awareness of the cause would expand drastically overnight.
The first step in recruiting Skeptics must be a hook: an enticing glimpse of our stance that leads people to look further into our work. The hook must be positioned such that anybody might be caught by it, Skeptic or not. We must take full advantage of the far-reaching mediums available to us in the 21st Century. The internet is a potential goldmine, but if we are to draw in members of the general public to our websites and literature we must take a leaf out of the advertising industry’s book and first entice them through the virtual areas that are common to all. Such areas include Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook. It is of course recognised that because of its general non-profit nature, the Skeptic Movement does not have the available funding to throw money at advertising, which is why we must get creative. It should be noted that at no point does there arise a need to involve ‘dirty tactics’.
How naive are you?
To take Facebook as our first example, there are several ways in which we might go about casting our line. Spamming, although potentially far reaching, would be counterproductive, giving newcomers a reason to instantly associate the notion of Skepticism with annoyance. It is of the utmost importance that being termed a ‘Skeptic’ becomes a favourable label (an issue which, I fear, already lands the word on dangerous territory because of its connections in common parlance with the negatively charged word ‘cynic’). A more productive use of Facebook might be to create an application in which the user answers a series of questions regarding their beliefs in such phenomenon as the tooth fairy and homeopathy. At the end of the questionnaire the user is presented with their results in the form of a position along a sliding scale with ‘dangerously naive’ at one end and ‘well-informed Skeptic’ at the other. Below the result is a link to a Skeptic website where the user can ‘find out more’ about the answers they got wrong. This example has the added benefit of particularly attracting those who scored lowest on the test.
Hitchens, Randi and ‘pop’
My second example is concerning YouTube, which is already overflowing with entertaining and informative videos on the subject of Skepticism. Again though, the problem with the current situation is that it is only those who were previously aware of the issues who tend to find these videos. Ensuring that Skeptic videos are found in the ‘related videos’ section adjacent to widely viewed clips could lead millions to stumble upon our message. The kinds of videos needed in such positions are those which possess what the creators of the World Wrestling Federation refer to as ‘pop’. These are those videos that give the viewer a buzz as though their football team had just scored the winning goal in the ninetieth minute. Such videos are already in existence and the magnitude of their effect is outstanding. Perhaps the two leading examples of videos that fall into this category are Christopher Hitchens’ debates with his religious proponents and James Randi’s scientific testing (he dislikes the term ‘debunking’) of supposedly supernatural claims. In both instances the ‘pop’ is provided by the annialation of the proponent. We might term such an approach the ‘Hitchens attack’. Such clips will reel in those who were Skeptics all along, but had never really given it much thought. As in the Facebook example, across the bottom of the video can read the web address of a Skeptic site to which the viewer is directed for further information.
The last example for increasing public awareness of our cause that shall be given here is regarding Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an incredible phenomenon and is, for the most part, a surprisingly good source of information. The US Skeptic magazine (not directly related to this organisation) suggests on its website that members of the public relentlessly edit pages on topics of pseudoscience in order to increase their accuracy. While this is a good suggestion, I would advocate taking it one step further and inserting relevant references that lead to Skeptic websites. The Wikipedia article on any subject is usually the most viewed and most easily found webpage regarding that topic.
To reiterate, it is these practical, creative and most importantly specific methods of approach that require our attention. Not only can such techniques be used to increase our numbers, but also to address the specific issues that are of greatest concern.
The Dawkins approach
The aim of the Hitchens attack is to lead the public to the meat of the argument, or what we might term the ‘Dawkins approach’. For the most part, our Dawkins approach material is already out there in our websites and our literature. It should consist of concise, rational and impenetrable arguments detailing our position. Intertwined with this we must continue to place emphasis on the reasons for believing Skepticism to be a cause worthy of fighting for, as well as simply illustrating it to be a mindset that is suited to the individual. The arguments for this are numerous and convincing, and having read the Dawkins approach material many will agree. The next, perhaps the most important, stage is to give people a way in which they can be helpful.
The issues arm
Although I have stated that the overlying aim of the Skeptic movement must be to recruit more members, this is only useful as a means to accomplishing more specific goals. We might think of our approach as being divided into two main arms: the ‘feedback loop arm’, which aims to recruit members as discussed, and the ‘issues arm’, which aims to tackle the very issues that create a need for Skepticism. Such issues include the Libel Reform Campaign, which incidentally is a fantastic initiative not only because it addresses an issue which has been seen especially recently to be pressing, but because absolutely anyone can get involved. A quick glance at the list of signatories reveals that it is not only professional scientists, but people from all walks of life who are concerned.
While I whole-heartedly back the Libel Reform Campaign, one positive that has arisen from Simon Singh’s struggle, which played a hugely catalectic role, is the media coverage that must inevitably address the question of ‘were Singh’s statements verified?’ The issues that are worthy of our attention are forever changing and so it will be difficult to give specific plans for tackling them here. One thing is universal however, and that is that if we can continue to get publicity by making challenging conflicts with pseudoscience and then proving legally that our claims were completely substantiated, more and more people will come to recognise that fact. An example shall be given here with reference to homeopathy, but could be tweaked to incorporate any issue imaginable: If ‘Yes Men’ style actors could infiltrate news stations posing as leading experts on (and advocates for) homeopathy, and could be heard to make such (shocking but accurate) statements as “it’s almost certainly nothing but water, just with a highly elevated price”, then this scandal would get major network coverage and again, the facts would have to be examined in the public sphere.
Conclusion: Let’s get creative
The opportunities for advancing the Skeptic Movement and making real headway are endless. What is important is that we do not simply preach to the choir and pat ourselves on the back at lectures, meeting only to confirm that we all agree. From a one on one debate at the pub to a worldwide scheme, every contribution helps. What is being advocated here is creativity, not for its own sake, but to raise the possibility of opening unexplored pathways. The days in which advertisers sold products on the basis of their efficiency are long gone and the reason is obvious: there are more intelligent methods of approach. It is time that we Skeptics used our slice of the pie to advance our worthy cause, the only difference being that we don’t have to lie.
Please feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to reply as quickly as possible. Alternatively, you can drop me an email at will [at] skeptic [dot] org [dot] uk.