Your Thoughts on Making Skepticism Commercial
A proposal for how we can make skeptical programming more attractive to a larger audience.
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:
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:
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:
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?
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:
OK, so the person using real science is going to win in every fair comparison, obviously. Here's Kåre's idea:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Science literacy and the ability to think critically and skeptically are undervalued. I'll close with a quote from my film Here Be Dragons:
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