How to Make Skepticism Commercial

Critical thinking offers the opposite of what seems to be popular. How do we get people to want it?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #163
July 21, 2009
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Today we're going to answer the question that's had a lot of skeptics scratching their heads for a while, myself included. I'm going to show how to make the promotion of skepticism both profitable and popular. You may not like the answer, because it requires a lot of hard work; but it's simple and it's doable.

There are many of us who spend quite a lot of time trying to think of ways to make the promotion of critical thinking profitable. The people who sell bad and even harmful information make lots of money, because they're selling easy answers. But, try to sell good information that will actually improve peoples' lives, and nobody will buy it. Skepticism is the opposite of what people want to buy. It's the opposite of what characterizes an attractive product. We're not selling magically easy answers to real problems, and so nobody wants to listen to what we have to say.

And so, we're left toiling away, making podcasts like this one, writing books, giving lectures, and having to give most of it away for free, and reaching only a tiny audience who is already predisposed to hear our message. It's clear that what we've been selling so far has not been successful in the marketplace.

But of course, you might argue that commercial success is not what we're going for. We're not here to make money, we're here to teach people to think better so they can make better decisions and lead happier, healthier lives. It's a public service, not a money making scheme. I say the two go hand in hand. If a message can be made commercially desirable, it's going to reach a lot more people. People will want to hear it. We need to deliver the message of critical thinking in such a way that it enters the pop mainstream. A desirable message that people clamor to pay for has a thousand times the reach of a message that must be given away for free.

And here we've sat, rubbing our chins and trying to solve this conundrum. Many times I've had lunches or Skypes with other skeptics and we've wondered how to bend the edges of the skeptical message into something popular. How do you take the opposite of what's popular and make it popular, without changing it? And nobody's ever had a clue. But then, one day not long ago, the clouds opened, I heard an angelic chorus, and the answer came to me.

Let's begin by establishing a premise. Let's understand the characteristics that make a popular product desirable. If we're interested in television programs, we should look at the popular shows that promote bad information and understand what makes them popular. I argue that it's characters, storyline, and excitement that make them popular, not the bad information. Audiences demand a show that entertains them; they don't demand that shows contain bad information. A skeptical TV show should no more be pitched as presenting good information, than a show about psychics should be pitched as presenting bad information. The quality of the information given in a show is not its selling point.

If audiences aren't demanding shows that present bad information, like psychics and ghosts and magical cures, why do networks tend to respond with so much programming filled with it? Simply because psychics and ghosts and magical cures are an easy, low-budget way to get the Wow! factor and make a show compelling. Nobody at the network is twisting their mustache and plotting ways to spread harmful information to an unsuspecting public, and no TV viewers are writing in and asking for shows to further reduce their scientific IQs.

Hollywood has a term for the mechanical plot element around which a story is built. Describing the meaning of the term 'MacGuffin', Alfred Hitchcock said "In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." But the actual story you're enjoying is about Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. The MacGuffin is there, but it's not the main point and it's not what makes the movie good. To insert a message of critical thinking into a movie, it needs to be like the MacGuffin. You must deliver a good, exciting, engaging story first; and within that story you can weave the importance of critical thinking. But if you set out to make a movie about critical thinking, you set yourself up for failure.

If you're talking about news outlets that badly distort stories in order to add zing and make headlines like Scientists Baffled by Image of Jesus in Tree Stump, the cause is exactly the same. The newspaper's motivation is not to promote bad information, it's to entertain and sell papers. Promotion of bad information is simply one easy way to do that. The editors aren't deliberately trying to ensure that the information is wrong any more than the readers are demanding that they get more stories wrong.

Look at bad information in business, like a multilevel marketing scheme built around some health product. The products are usually overpriced and worthless, and the business models can only succeed for the people at the top selling the product, never the distributors required to buy the product. To get good salespeople, you have to pay for them: That's expensive and good people are hard to find. It's an easy, seductive alternative to simply deceive people into thinking they'll become millionaires if they buy your product at the special "distributor price" and pass that savings along to their friends.

So we have people promoting bad information in entertainment, news, business, and other walks of life, simply because the supernatural, the miraculous, and the too-good-to-be-true is an easy way to generate interest. When your job is to generate interest, you stick with what works. The inevitable result is that the population is continuously reinforced with a pattern of thinking founded upon faulty beliefs, and that leads to decision making based on wrong information. For any product of any type to deliberately promote bad information as a lazy shortcut to make it interesting, is exactly like promoting high-nicotine cigarettes as an easy way to get a cheap high. It's lazy, and it's ultimately harmful.

Every one of those TV documentaries, news programs, supermarket supplements, and business models could be made just as interesting, as attractive, and profitable if they put in the extra work and founded their product upon sound information. People often ask if we should blame the producers who make the bad documentaries or the audience who demands them. I have to lay the blame entirely upon the content decision makers. The audience is demanding only to be entertained; it's the decision makers who are choosing to do that through the promotion of misinformation. I also blame the supplement makers. Customers ask only to be healthy; it's the supplement makers who choose to deceive customers with a worthless product that claims to confer super health. Neither the documentary audience nor the supplement customers want their product to be based on information known to be wrong.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

So when we, the promoters of critical thinking and sound evidence, ask the question "How do we make it profitable to sell good information?", there is no magic formula. There is no paradigm shift waiting to be discovered in some late-night beer-fueled epiphany. I will not sell you an easy answer. The solution is to work harder than the people who shortcut.

Oprah Winfrey and Kevin Trudeau have become multimillionaires because they grab every piece of low hanging fruit. Oprah finds it easy to get ratings by promoting everything that's interesting without putting it through the reality filter. Kevin Trudeau finds it easy to sell books by playing on peoples' most obvious desires, to achieve super health and super wealth effortlessly. I argue that it is possible to be as successful as Oprah and Trudeau by promoting good information that actually helps people, but you would have to work ten times, or 100 times, as hard as they do. But if you do put in that work, you could indeed have the #1 show on television and the New York Times #1 bestseller that promote sound critical thinking. You just have to find a way to wrap it in good entertainment that people want.

Skepticism is just the MacGuffin. It is possible to successfully sell skepticism, but you must do it by delivering it within something appealing that people want. I'll close with my favorite quote from The Amazing Meeting 7, from Jennifer Ouellette of the Science and Entertainment Exchange: If you want to reach for peoples' minds, reach for their hearts.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Bardi, Jennifer. "The Humanist interview with Neil Degrasse Tyson." The Humanist. 1 Sep. 2009, Volume 69, Number 5: 9-11.

Herreid, Clyde Freeman. Start with a story: the case study method of teaching college science. Arlington, Vancouver, Canada: NSTA Press, 2006.

Hubbard, Rob. "How do we create engaging and effective learning content?" MindMeister. MeisterLabs, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2010. <http://www.mindmeister.com/en/maps/show_public/18195804>

Olson, Randy. Don't Be Such a Scientist. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2009.

Ouellette, J. The Physics of the Buffyverse. New York: Penguin Group, 2006.

Stafford, B. Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "How to Make Skepticism Commercial." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 Jul 2009. Web. 23 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4163>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 39 comments

Skepticism's been made legendarily popular before in the form of Sherlock Holmes. The recent movie was pretty pro-skeptic

Shows like Penn & Teller Bullshit, Mythbusters and Bill Nye the Science Guy all made science and skepticism marketable

My own idea is a change in attitude. So far we talk about how the real explanation is often mundane, etc. We should sell the ways people can be fooled, natural phenomena that can create illusions of the paranormal, and the world's biggest scams revealed are all and should be sold as remarkably interesting information that's cool to know about. "Skepticism" may not be very marketable, but the subject of trickery is.

Jonathan, Earth
January 6, 2010 1:39pm

I heard that "The X-Files" was originally pitched as a show where 50% of the time, the skeptic is right, and 50% of the time, the believer is right. But the believer episodes proved much more popular to test audiences, so they decided to make Mulder right in every episode.

"...psychics and ghosts and magical cures are an easy, low-budget way to get the Wow! factor and make a show compelling."

I see this as mainly harmless, like telling ghost stories around a campfire. I doubt most viewers believe the more outlandish TV shows.

"I have to lay the blame entirely upon the content decision makers."

Unfortunately, I've known a few professors and TV/film producers who honestly believe that their psueodoscience remedies are real. I see them more as victims, albeit harmful ones ... sort of like a violent insane person vs. a non-violent one.

"But then, one day not long ago, the clouds opened, I heard an angelic chorus, and the answer came to me."

Is this why you've decided to charge money for subscriptions? Sorry, couldn't resist. :-)

Abby, Austin, TX
February 23, 2010 12:24am

The first action in the battle for universal enlightenment is to correctly identify the enemy of it, in the certain knowledge that the enemies of that enlightenment have already correctly identified you. We live in interesting times. Never have we needed more to uphold the sanctity of human life. That is the strongest weapon against unreason, for unreason has always been prepared to use death as its ultimate weapon. In this willingness to kill to preserve self-interested unreason, I historically correctly include Christianity. Religion itself however is not the enemy but rather its tool and its toy.

Phi, Sydney
March 9, 2011 3:38pm

The old adage is that sex and violence sell, but really it is tension and release that makes a compelling story arc. This is why reality shows have become so popular lately without sex or violence: they are built entirely around competition, be it in dancing, global scavenger hunting, or what have you. The more fierce the competition, the better the ratings. People are almost instinctively drawn to confrontation, even if it is about something they otherwise have no interest in.

Skepticism has, actually, grown in popularity fairly briskly in the past two decades, largely because it promotes scientific reasoning wrapped in the theme of confrontation. Skepticism is defined by what it is against: the parnormal, conspiracy theories, etc. That is its selling point. To compare it to Oprah is comparing apples and oranges: you can't compare a movement to a particular brand. On the other hand, MythBusters has become incredibly popular as a brand, promoting skepticism and the scientific method.

So you're right: a good story, with good characters and a sense of humor, can be combined with a skeptical approach to make a marketable product. But this means embracing the theme of confrontation inherent in the idea of skepticism. I noted that the OC Skeptics Club recently changed its name to the OC Science Club. I understand the arguments for this, but if you want to popularize skepticism, this is probably a move in the wrong direction.

Scott, Irvine
April 24, 2011 12:41pm

I dunno, we skeptic folk spend far too much time thinking about it.

Univeral enlightenment doesnt exist Phi. I am sorry that you fee this way.

Thanks to the speed of light, universal enlightenment will never exist. There will never be a point again in the unverse where particles can say, that space was nice, I'd like to be there again.

Dont believe me? Its a fact that the universe is more than 3 times larger in diameter than the diameter that the universe should be if expansion at c occurred.

Thats a factoid that you should have known for 30 years.

Geopolitical enlightenment is easy, and, it doesnt involve extreme exaggeration in the adjective.

Henk v, sin city NSW, Oz
August 10, 2011 10:54pm

Damn!!! As if i didnt announce the nobel prize 2 months ahead!!!

Brian, does that make me psychic? Do I get your $14 dollar prize?

Mud, Sin City, Oz
November 9, 2011 9:13pm

I think that commenters Jonathan of Earth (!) and Scott of Irvine have the right idea. It's important to realize that writers put ghosts (for example) into stories not out of laziness, but because they know that many people ardently want to believe in life after death.

Similarly, people buy 'snake oil' products and systems because they ardently want to believe that they can become healthy, stronger, and so on.

The question of WHY people want to believe certain things that seem unlikely to be true, is at the heart of the "bad information" issue.

Education provides the tools of skeptical inquiry into claims. But we never stop wanting to believe what we want to believe; it's only acquiring the habit of skepticism that can save us from our own inborn tendencies toward self-deception.

Kim, Florida
May 27, 2012 3:25pm

Though he had a bit of spiritualist leaning, Arthur Conan Doyle made skepticism really almost the POINT of every Sherlock Holmes story. It can be done. The stories were great, and then the TV shows and movies (esp. Jeremy Brett) were extraordinarily entertaining. Holmes was charismatic BECAUSE of his unwavering logic.

I hear the producers of "Breaking Bad" have also worked hard to ensure that the chemistry they discuss actually works. Some argue this is the most interesting show on television.

John Bordeaux, Winterville, GA
April 19, 2013 8:08am

"Alfred Hitchcock said..."

"But the actual story you're enjoying is about Cary Grant and Grace Kelly."

Brian, when was the last time you saw a movie?!

Honestly, though, sometimes I worry a little about what the state of entertainment would be if some of us really had our way. We don't have to kill every vampire, zombie or ghost in Hollywood to promote critical thinking, you know. In fact, understanding the difference between fiction and reality should be a critical component of skepticism. The goal should never be to destroy imagination, fantasy, and creativity.

Ben, Columbus, OH
June 18, 2013 1:58pm

You don't think gimmick isnt a bit over copied then Ben?

For a very long time I have thought the value in movies seems to be the technology used to produce it.

Plots maybe getting thicker but I wont find out until someone tells me a movie is really good and explains why first.

Usually enthusiasm doesnt count as any sort of endorsement.

About two years ago I was forced (ran out of chores etc) to sit down and watch a remake of Custers last stand set on another planet with giant blue Indigenes.

I did note Sigourney Weaver was in the movie. The rest was pretty derivative.

If that is imagination worth preserving, it would have been better to have been read and teased out in a novel.

I am actually wondering where science fiction and horror have gone wrong.

Bring back the people with good imaginations..

It may just be that a movie is incapable or presenting a story larger than a 100 page novella.

Marked Duopoly, sin city, Oz
October 15, 2013 5:16pm

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