Jun 24 2008

Skepticism and Web 2.0

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Comments: 31

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.

31 responses so far

31 thoughts on “Skepticism and Web 2.0”

  1. ADR150 says:

    I definitely agree that there is a market for skeptical video content. (although I keeping the purely audio format has many advantages too, from a consumer perspective. ie i listen to the SGU on the train, working out, on a bike ride or driving).

    if you haven’t heard/seen them yet, here are some excellent science/skeptical youtube channels:

    http://youtube.com/user/EdwardCurrent (satire)

  2. jonny_eh says:

    As someone who is in the midst of starting a local organization, I really appreciate this post.

    It was somewhat frustrating to here people ask at the Saturday panel ‘how do I start a local organization?’
    I wanted to just stand up and yell, “Just do it!”. But then Dr. Novella said it for me. (IIRC)

    I met some people at TAM who were from Richmond, VA but they never met before. I told them, hey, you just founded the Richmond Skeptical Society. That wasn’t so hard. The hard part is maintaining the momentum and passion. Magazines are great, but they don’t provide the ‘fire’ that a skeptical movement needs. Podcasts such as the SGU, and conferences like TAM do the job nicely.

    Remember, all issues are local issues. I agree that the national organizations don’t interact much with local organizations is a major failing. But the problem isn’t just that they don’t interact down locally, they don’t interact upwards internationally. Take a look at CFI Trans-national. They are doing an amazing job setting up offices in cities around the world, and creating university groups. And, as their name implies, they are not limiting their vision to just the USA, which only represents 5% of the world’s population.

    It was nice to hear that the JREF is considering having a TAM in the UK, it’s a nice step in the direction of going international. I just may go to the UK TAM next year instead of the Vegas TAM. If I had to choose between Vegas or London (assuming it’s held there), I’d take London.

    On the other hand, you’re right that big organizations are not needed to make a difference.A great example of a normal dude, that is a passionate skeptic, that has made a huge splash is Brian Dunning. When you take a step back and look at what he’s done in the past couple years, the skeptoid podcast and book, the Skeptologists pilot, and his Here Be Dragons video, it’s quite amazing.

    (I just watched Here Be Dragons, freely available at http://www.herebedragonsmovie.com/ and think it would be a fantastic idea to burn a bunch of DVDs, and hand them out at street corners.)

    Maybe the best way forward is to use the bigger organizations like the JREF to bring together the little guys, and provide funding to promising projects. Best of both worlds?

  3. daedalus2u says:

    It is interesting that even the Senior Science editor of Newsweek reports that science bloggers are doing a better job. This isn’t due to a lack of resources at Newsweek. It isn’t due to an abundance of resources held exclusively by science bloggers.

    I am reminded of IBM and the personal computer. IBM was the world leader in computers. IBM had the resources to pursue multiple programs in parallel to develop personal computers. They chose not to.

    Newsweek and the other major media have the resources to pursue science reporting. They are simply choosing not to.

  4. What we REALLY need is twofold: A skeptical rock ‘n roll band and more wimmins.

  5. HCN says:

    Dr. Novella, one of your earliest pieces of work online was something I desparately needed at the time.

    Since my firstborn had seizures as a newborn… and later it turned out he has a severe speech disorder (oral motor dyspraxia, with functional dysarthria and some dysphasia)… I tried to find out as much information as possible. Unfortunately one of the books the library had was the dreadful “What to do about your brain damaged child”, which was a book length advertisement for Doman’s clinic in Philadelphia.

    After the internet became more available, I was able to point to your essay about the lack of science to other parents facing the “helpful” advice from others to try it.


  6. decius says:


    a few minutes in the April 11th episode and not really impressed, to be honest.
    Why not investing a few bucks into a tripod? Hand-held filming (if not for artistic purposes) is as annoying as background noise in audio recordings.
    Not to mention the christian guest, who cares, really…

    Forgive me if I sound too negative, I meant my criticism to be constructive.

  7. Nevar says:

    Thanks for all the links ADR150. I’ve come across Potholer before but for some reason I’ve never bothered to look up other users who might be doing science vids.

    Potholer’s series “From Big Bang to Us” was well worth watching and should definitely be spread around 🙂

  8. decius says:


    it was an extemporaneous comment, I was honest about its limited scope, and please, take it for what it is worth.

    Although I am a non-native English speaker, let me to point out that the meaning of the word “constructive” isn’t in any way implying “thoroughness of examination” or ” involving a large sample size”. Therefore, I feel that its choice was justified in describing the spirit of my critique, particularly given the fact that I am a media professional and I was just offering a bit of technical advice.

    I am extremely elated at the fact that you already own a tripod, and I am looking forward to enjoy its stabilizing effect during the viewing of the next (doubtlessly exciting) episodes.

    Since you are so kind as to pass my criticism on to Karen, allow me to better qualify it.
    It isn’t the fact guest had no other qualification than a degree in Unicornology that struck me as uninteresting, but the absolute lack of any sceptical content in the interview. For instance, the guest’s implicit preposterous beliefs in a space-god with a zombie son were never challenged, instead they formed the fabric of a bestowed aura of imaginary authority as he prattled on.
    As you can imagine, “who cares” is the mildest of the reactions available to the dedicated sceptic, for such virulent tripe.

    All the best, and I mean it.

  9. decius says:

    EDIT- It isn’t the fact *that the* guest …

  10. Blake Stacey says:

    I shamelessly appropriated a couple paragraphs from this post for my most recent one, here.

    Oh, and I’m very pleased I was able to meet you (briefly) at TAM!

  11. jim says:

    I greatly enjoyed the TAM meeting and came away with lot’s of web resources from the final days presentations, now to find some way to get more hours in the day to keep up with it all.

  12. jim says:

    PS really enjoyed the live Podcasts you did, not much else would have got me up before 8am each day 🙂

  13. decius says:


    thanks for your reply, and thanks to Steven Novella, whose hospitality I feel I am abusing, as this exchange is way off-topic.
    However, I am confident that Steven will indulge me if I defend my position against any surreptitious or overt attempt at its distortion.

    First, let me reassure you that it will be my privilege to watch all of the show -episode by episode- whenever I will be able to fit one into my schedule and at times of my choice, and there is no real need for you to post the same links over and over.
    Indeed, as we speak, I have already watched the promotion video that you so warmly recommended, but I shall refrain from any further comment -here or anywhere else- until I am satisfied that we can have a meaningful conversation based upon shared grounds of dialectic and logical rigour.

    You clearly took issue with my taking the liberty to comment somehow prematurely, albeit by gracelessly impugning my intentions.
    You did so by loading the word “constructive” with layers of added meaning. I have already addressed this, sadly without success.

    Furthermore, it is common practice (both for the industry and for the critics) to broadly comment on single episodes of any given show. Indeed, entire palimpsests are decided upon single episode screenings (called pilots), as Steven and his fellow Skeptologists will no doubt confirm to you.

    Now, let me ask you: had I commented more positively, would you have objected so vehemently as to the timing and the form?

    I dare speculate that you would have not.

    Special attention shall be given to this stunning phrase of yours, since I am pretty sure that the readers of this blog enjoy it when sloppy reasoning is torn apart.

    You say: “Let alone your stating that the views of a deist skeptic is ‘virulent tripe’… but I think this is an ongoing concern amongst skeptics, how non-atheists are treated…Your comment about ‘why film a deist skeptic’”

    Who is this mysterious “deist skeptic”?

    The interview was about the views of a “liberal christian”, as stated both in the audio and in the clip tags.
    By no stretch of imagination a christian is a deist, nor the guest manifested any deistic view.

    Therefore, if “deist skeptic” is referred to the guest, this is both a straw man and an internal inconsistency.

    Conversely, if the “deist skeptic” is Karen, as interviewer, she wasn’t expressing any view -deistic or otherwise- and I simply pointed out the lack of sceptical content in her questions.

    In this case you are again arguing against a straw man, and you substitute the internal inconsistency with a petitio principii (i.e. begging the question)

    Finally, when you say “how non-atheists are treated” you are indulging in an appeal to pity, like someone certainly not thick-skinned enough for internet.

    Now, be a good public educator and take notice or reason, when it’s presented to you.

    Until then,

    take care

  14. Fifi says:

    podblack, may I suggest that decius has some valid critiques and that if one’s going to “speak” publicly – particularly as a skeptic or regarding skepticism and critiquing others! – then it’s good to know how to accept criticism (particularly when it’s valid). The things pointed out may seem superficial to you perhaps but “surface” is very important when working in visual mediums. Most people don’t give entertainment or edutainment programs more than a minute to grab their attention – that doesn’t mean you have to be flashy but it does mean either content or surface needs to be appealing enough to sustain viewer interest and attention. What’s the audience you’re trying to appeal to? Lifelong skeptics? The unskeptical? The general public? Do you know who you’re trying to appeal to?

  15. I watched the 5:04 promo and perhaps ten minutes of the April 11th ‘mooeypoo’ episode before I got bored and gave up. The technical aspects were damning – shaking camera, poor lighting, horrible sound quality, etc. I’m only going to back up and replay something but so many times. I felt the 6:00 preamble to the April 11th show, where the three guys basically sputter on about mostly nothing, could have been totally cut without any loss.

    Going directly from that to the interview with an American Baptist Seminarian, based on Stollznow’s advice that we need to listen to the opinions and beliefs of non-skeptics, was a bridge too far for me. I understand the material emits from Australia, but as an American skeptic I am very aware of what Southern Baptists think and believe, in fact, I am far more aware than I care to be in that it is often shoved down our collective throats. I could have mouthed his words along with the film.

    It struck me as a beginner or primer video for the edification of very young Australians unfamiliar with skepticism.

    There is a truism of film-making that might help: the worse the production values, the shorter the piece needs to be -or you’re just torturing viewers.

  16. adrianmatic says:

    I admit that I need to check out the vodcast that everyone seems to be focusing on, but I have seen the promos of The Skeptologists, which seems to be the more relevant topic for this forum.

    I was disappointed with the pilot, as a few others mentioned at TAM. It was cheesy, badly scripted (and not even scripted in parts at all), lacking in the in-your-face skepticism that those above have discussed, and the characters totally lack charisma.

    Yes, these are reasonably well-known skeptics (although most aren’t known to the general public at all), but we need to separate our appreciation of these skeptics from the merits of the show (or lack thereof). Overall, it won’t work in its current form, if at all.

  17. decius says:


  18. Blake Stacey says:

    The first few minutes of the Skeptologists proto-pilot, in which the team decides to visit the ghost-hunters and the health-food store, struck me as ham-fisted. In my judgment, it would have been stronger simply to say, “Tonight on The Skeptologists: we take a close look at X and Y,” rather than trying to prop up a justification or attempting to relate two remarkably disparate subjects. The host could hand out the assignments in envelopes — a bit of spy-thriller, “your mission, should you choose to accept it” silliness which would be corny in a good way instead of a bad one.

    The general idea of presenting a bit of good science to set the mood — pushing the “wonder button,” as it were — is fine. I like it.

    I was somewhat concerned that all the debunking happened in the latter half. Instead of “Point, counterpoint, point, counterpoint,” it was “Point, point, commercial break, counterpoint, counterpoint.” This has its advantages, particularly if you want a less confrontational show, but it might not work for viewers channel-surfing past.

  19. decius says:


  20. Roy Niles says:

    Well, I’m surely going to regret saying this, but I enjoyed the interview with the seminarian, whatever he was supposed to represent. It was to me a very good demonstration of how to present an understanding of a particular point of view almost purely through inference on the part of the viewer.

  21. decius says:

    I am pretty sure that adrianmatic is a sockpuppet of the git, just confront the two posts.

    The second post thanking the sockpuppet for no reason, and again shifting Fifi’s valid criticism from the vodcast to the Skeptologists.

    Same style, no previous adrianmatic’s posts in this blog, which they both call “forum”. A lot of others subtle similarities.

    What an assclown.

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