Jun 24 2008

Skepticism and Web 2.0

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The theme of TAM6 (the just concluded skeptical meeting hosted by the JREF) was iSkeptic – skepticism in the internet age. This was appropriate as web 2.0 has transformed skepticism from a fringe movement to one that has already made major incursions into the mainstream and continues to grow.

Some History

I have been involved in skeptical activism for 12 years, primarily as the president of the New England Skeptical Society and as a writer, so I have witnessed this transformation first hand. For the first half of my skeptical career being a local, part-time skeptic was a great deal of work with little result.

Running the NESS involved all the logistics of maintaining a non-profit organization, publishing a quarterly newsletter (including printing, mailing, etc.), hosting local meetings, doing local investigations, and being a resource for the media. This was all a great experience, but our impact was extremely limited.

For various reasons the national skeptical organizations were simply not set up to interface effectively with the local groups. In my opinion this was a major failing of organized skepticism. Local leaders had to largely reinvent the wheel for each new group. They had no infrastructure to piggy-back onto. Local groups are almost exclusively run by volunteers in their spare time – a setup for burn out and high turnover. Local skeptical talent was not nurtured and promoted. The local groups tried fleetingly to organize themselves, but this was a lost cause as the resources simply did not exist.

Enter Web 2.0

Just as efforts to more effectively organize local groups were failing, the nature of the game completely, and rather quickly, changed. It is only now possible to see the effects of the transformation looking back on the last few years.

The internet has provided a venue for anyone with time, an internet connection, and something to say. The result has been to largely neutralize the benefits of size and the advantages of having a distribution network. It has also largely removed the gate-keepers of information – editors and producers.

What this did for the skeptical movement was make it possible for local or part-time skeptics to have an impact on the same order of magnitude as the national groups. I will use my own podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, as an example. If you look on iTunes you will see that we are consistently a top 10 science podcast – up there with NASA, Scientific American, National Geographic and NPR. We now have about 40,000 listeners for each episode and over 100,000 weekly downloads. That is on a par with the circulations of the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazine.

In addition, the feedback that I get clearly indicates that podcasts are growing the skeptical movement. We are not just providing another outlet for existing skeptics, but expanding the movement and brining in a new generation. Ten years ago skeptical meetings were full of old white guys and the occasional wife. By contrast TAM had an audience that was younger and more diverse by far than any previous skeptical meeting I have ever attended.

Science Blogs

I have been writing for months how that science bloggers have it all over traditional media. The content is better, more timely and increasingly well read. The advantage is that science blogs are generally written by scientists who have an interest in writing, and the occasional writer who has an interest in science. Meanwhile, increasingly, mainstream media is assigning science news reporting to generalists who don’t have a clue. There are still science journalists who try hard to get a story right, and some of their pieces are excellent – but they are shrinking as science blogging advances.

Yet, I was still surprised this past weekend at TAM when interviewing Sharon Begley, senior science editor for Newsweek. She told me, straight out, that science bloggers are doing a better job of covering science news and that traditional media can no longer cover science well. She exactly echoed my own opinions, but I was at least partly attributing my opinions to the fact that I am a science blogger, and so it was surprising to hear the same thing from a traditional media journalist.

As further evidence for this increasingly the celebrities of science (as evidenced by the speakers at time) are science bloggers. PZ Myers made his fame entirely from his blog, Pharyngula. Phil Plait owes his media career largely to his popular blog, Bad Astronomy.

Podcasts and blogging has also provided skeptics with the ability to market their ideas straight to the public and bypass misguided or narrowly focused gatekeepers. For example, my colleagues and I have been struggling to find a venue to promote science in medicine and to counter the rising tide of pseudoscience and anti-science in medicine. Traditional media was not terribly interested in this perspective, however – beyond token skepticism. So now we are accomplishing our goals through a blog – sciencebasedmedicine.org.

Were to we go from here?

For the short term I think it is clear that we should continue to embrace Web 2.0 – blogs and podcasts are working and growing rapidly. We also need to break into video – like youtube and internet tv. Some people are already doing this. Richard Wiseman, for example, has posted a number of videos demonstrating interesting psychological phenomena and they have garnered millions of hits, mostly 18-21 year olds.

I think that we should continue to experiments as well. One additional advantage of the new media and the internet is that experimentation is cheap. It costs little except time and effort to try something new, and if it fails the consequences are little to none. A huge investment of capital for infrastructure and marketing is not required.

The role of the national groups is now in flux as well. They are still enjoying success with their traditional media but their share of the skeptical movement is shrinking simply by the fact that so many independent groups and individuals are able to funnel their activism through successful blogs and podcasts.  The national groups are also branching out with their own podcasts or affiliating with independent blogs and podcasts and I think this will determine who survives and maintains relevance going forward.

Finally, the new media has provided an exceptional platform for the skeptical message and opportunities to turn this platform into a launching pad. Network and cable tv still get several orders of magnitude more exposure than the new media and so, and least for now, using our exposure and growing numbers to break into traditional media should be a goal. The latest effort in this direction is The Skeptologists – a pilot skeptical tv show with which I am involved. At TAM I also heard discussions of other similar projects.

This is a period of high opportunity and optimism for the skeptical movement. Of course, opportunity must be met with hard work and careful thought – and if this past week is any guide I think we have that in abundance as well.

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