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
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.
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.
- If you are making a TV documentary, go the extra mile and blend correct information with dramatic storytelling. Do not take the easy way out and suggest that ghosts might be the answer.
- If you are writing a newspaper article, go the extra mile and find what's really exciting about the actual facts. Don't cheat with a misleading headline or go for some lame "human interest" angle that focuses on someone's incorrect beliefs.
- If you are looking for a product to sell, work hard and invent a truly good product. Don't shortcut and sell a worthless health supplement or some imported plastic crap that you can lie about in an infomercial. Go the extra mile to design a distribution model based on sound principles and hard work, rather than taking the easy way out and planning to deceive people into believing they'll become millionaires joining your multilevel marketing network.
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.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "How to Make Skepticism Commercial." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
21 Jul 2009. Web.
26 Mar 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4163>
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.
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