Your Thoughts on Making Skepticism Commercial
A proposal for how we can make skeptical programming more attractive to a larger audience.
by Brian Dunning
April 12, 2016
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Perhaps the biggest reason that woo and pseudoscience are so much more popular than skepticism in the marketplace is that that's where people direct their money. People want magically easy solutions to problems more than they want realistic ones, and people want sensational news more than they want true news; and so we see worthless fad products flooding the stores, and television networks swamped with garbage faux-documentaries and paranormalism. What can we do about this? I went out to Skeptoid members and asked that question.
I've visited this subject before; a few years ago, episode 163 was devoted to my own thoughts on this matter, particularly with television. We're not going to persuade people to stop craving sensationalism, so we have to make good science and good information more sensational. I argued that it's a difficult prospect, because producing quality programming means you have to adhere to certain standards that current cable networks ignore. But it's not impossible, for any producers willing to work hard enough. Unfortunately, few see the upside.
Skeptoid supporter Allen echoed thoughts that are very similar to my own on this question:
I feel our most rewarding avenue of pursuit must be the unwavering focus on producing entertainment of tremendous quality. We can't endeavor to make a program with an outstanding representation of skepticism, but rather we must endeavor to make an outstanding program with a nominal representation of skepticism. If the main course is bland, it won't matter how incredible the dessert was. Let's become great entertainers and storytellers first, before becoming great skeptics.
This still remains my best advice to people in media who want to engage the public to embrace skepticism: First, think about creating something great that people love and want to watch; and second, worry about inserting the secret payload of skeptical content. So what exactly should that great, watchable programming be?
Many of you who answered my question sent in ideas for TV series. Here's one from Jack:
My suggestion would be a program in the close format of an old-fashioned mystery story or detective story.
Wonderful; I think of Sherlock Holmes or Mulder and Sculley from The X-Files; imagine the advantage a healthy scientific skepticism would confer upon such a character. Supporter Justin also came up with a similar twist on a familiar format:
I was thinking of a children's mystery-solving cartoon show. Consider it a modern-day version of Scooby Doo, but more focused on debunking wild theories by exposing their foolishness.
Many of us in the brotherhood consider Scooby Doo to be in the all-time Hall of Fame for great skeptical programming; so why not refresh the concept and broaden their scope to more than just ghosts?
I think that one type of ideas that people are often drawn to are those that appear as like revealed knowledge, or somehow subversive or antiestablishment... "Here's the real story".
That's a great concept that's been used many times, but usually turns into a show promoting conspiracy theories. But once we apply skepticism and discover that there is no conspiracy, such a show would probably get stale quickly. So we haven't found the angle on this one.
As I've mentioned in the past, at least a couple times a year, some production company will approach me about doing some TV series. It usually goes as far as a screen test, at which point they discover that I am artless and ill-favored, and that's the end of it. But the concept for the show is almost always the same. They want "a skeptic and a believer" to go out and investigate mysteries together, and argue. Here are some similar proposals from you, first from David:
I'd recommend highly technically polished productions of scenarios to compare approaching situations by thinking skeptically versus thinking magically, superstitiously, or pseudo-scientifically. One might juxtapose the effects of prayer with helping people grow food or build a school. Or we might track how two people address a fungal infection. One would visit a physician for a diagnosis, prescription for pharmaceutical treatment, and resolution; and the other would avail himself of acupuncture and herbal tea, thereafter to be consumed entirely by the fungus.
OK, so the person using real science is going to win in every fair comparison, obviously. Here's Kåre's idea:
What about a web show where a skeptic would invite people to convince him or her of their various unscientific beliefs. In return, they would allow the skeptic to convince them of the science.
And, again, Steve's thought, dramatically shows the difference between what happens when you base your decisions on good information compared to when you based them on woo:
I think you do it by contrasting success stories with failure stories. The person who made the smart investment plan rather than going to their psychic; the person who chose scientific medicine over whatever snake oil is being peddled that month.
Now I'm as far from being a television insider as it's possible to get, though I have been battered about the edges a bit. And what I learned in every pitch testing pseudoscientific claims, or comparing the findings of a skeptic to the findings of a believer, was that the networks universally asked a single question:
The paranormal explanation will turn out to be the true one at least some of the time, right?
So while these TV series suggestions are good ones, they're probably not commercial ones. Nobody wants to tune in to see hard work succeed and magic fail. That's the harsh reality that viewers are using the TV to escape from. The reality show format has an intrinsic need for sensational things to happen, thus making its name a bit of an oxymoron. This makes it a poor breeding ground for skeptical science content, and explains why Mythbusters lasted only two or three seasons before devolving completely into a mere exhibition of explosions and truck crashes. They don't want to see science trump pseudoscience, they want whiz-bang sensationalism; and so far nobody has found a formula that marries the two.
If you want commercial success that produces real money, I'm afraid you'll need subjects that are a lot more sensitive and controversial than the ones you're using.
That's Erle's opinion, and he's right: controversy always sells. If we're to present skeptical content in such a way that people will fall over themselves trying to get it, be controversial. Be edgy. Maybe even a little offensive. Get attention. Sharon from Doubtful News adds:
Unfortunately, characteristics which attract attention of the media and social sharing are the ones that are disdained by skeptics: things like sensationalism, appeals to emotion, fearmongering, a figurehead personality, things like that.
Producers are going to continue to crank that stuff out. In at least one case, skeptics and scientists have tried to make it easier for them to keep their information on track, as Max points out:
The scientific community established a hotline that writers and filmmakers can call to get actual scientific advice from scientists. It's called the Science and Entertainment Exchange.
So, yeah, funded by the National Academy of Sciences, the Science and Entertainment Exchange "connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV programming." Too bad it doesn't get used as much as it should. Why not? Because the quality of science information in a show is not a factor in its popularity. We still have to crack that nut.
OK, one more TV idea, then we'll move on. Wilko says:
Somehow Deepak Chopra makes a killing selling woo on PBS. Why not do a skeptic infomercial for PBS?
As we discussed in episode 503, those PBS infomercials are built around the sale of products, usually bestselling books. And you're right, there's no reason bestselling skeptical authors shouldn't be knocking on the doors of the companies that produce those infomercials.
BJ offers a way that skeptical content can be welcomed into the workplace:
Businesses, particularly larger ones, seem to spend untold gobs of money on various programs of questionable scholarship, ostensibly designed to foster better teamwork and performance. Perhaps this is an opportunity for skepticism. I would like to see a program designed for businesses to make employees better thinkers, more conscious of their biases, and how to overcome them, and generally improve business activities through clearer thinking and greater emphasis on teasing out actual knowledge from the mass of available information.
I'm actually starting to do this already, I have one course that I present on questioning assumptions that counts for continuing professional education in several industries, and is also great for any company. It's a whole lot more fun than the regular junk professionals have to sit through to get their hours, so check it out if you'd like me to come to your company or industry group.
Susan from Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia has another idea, sort of a way to trick the media into thinking that skepticism is already popular:
We need to support our skeptic projects, authors, podcasts; leave reviews wherever you can leave a review. If we drive those numbers up on Amazon and iTunes, Hollywood will start paying attention. Help these projects out with micropayments and Amazon donations. It really does help. Talk about it, wear it, share it, make some noise. Let the media know we're here.
It's true. I know for a fact that many of these media companies, when scouting for new content, do look at things like Twitter follower counts, iTunes review counts, number of Facebook likes. There's good content here, and it can be delivered better if more people know about it.
Here's a really important thought from Skeptoid supporter Catherine, who aptly reminds us why cracking this nut is an important task that would benefit us all:
Adults need science education too; after all they're the ones who vote (or ought to) and could make sure anti-science initiatives get pushed off ballots and into the black hole where they belong.
Science literacy and the ability to think critically and skeptically are undervalued. I'll close with a quote from my film Here Be Dragons:
The choice between pseudoscience and science is the choice between stagnation and progress: Progress toward long life, health, happiness, a cleaner planet, bountiful food, knowledge, and peace.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Your Thoughts on Making Skepticism Commercial." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
12 Apr 2016. Web.
22 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4514>
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