The Rock Stars of Skepticism

Recently in Vancouver, the Centre for Inquiry hosted the cast of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, with George Hrab sitting in for Rebecca Watson, for a live show on their way to Australia for The Amazing Meeting Oz.

It was, simply put, a fantastic show.

Photo by Gary Lyons

We spent about two months planning the event, although we knew it was coming since TAM 8 in Las Vegas, it was still a pretty big effort. The help from the local community of skeptics was great and the result was as awesome as I hoped it would be.

It’s too bad we couldn’t have gotten a bigger room, we very quickly sold out our 350 seat theatre and the after show reception in which we took over a whole restaurant.
The more I reflect on the success of the live show, the more I begin to wonder about the nature of skeptical events in general. Specifically I’m curious about what draws people to such an event?

It’s been the general principle of most skeptical organizations that if you put on interesting lectures, you’ll get people coming to learn and hear new things. We’ve certainly followed that model in Vancouver and it’s been pretty successful.

What I’m learning however is that entertainment is far more important than one might suspect.

Educational events, designed to draw in people so they can learn more about skepticism and critical thinking, simply aren’t enough. The presentation of that material must be equal to the task of popularizing that material.

Poster designed by Gary Lyons

This should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, what huge problem does the scientific community face? Transmitting the knowledge and discoveries made by scientists to a population of people who don’t have the same science-literate understanding. This is even more of a challenge when we move beyond simply explaining the science to defending the science, or even in some cases selling the value of science to a hostile public.

When it comes to general scientific literacy, there is often a correlation with the perceived value of science. Consider the case of the anti-vaccination movement, you have a generally anti evidence-based mentality hustling fear. Or the case of evolution, where we have groups ideologically opposed to fact-based inquiry into human origins.
We just can’t rely on the facts and theories of science to get the job done. The presentation has to be tailored to each goal and target audience.

Now what this means is making sure the presentation of that material is potent enough to draw people in.

It seems like I’m talking about marketing here.

But actually I’m talking about something more, I’m saying that if the product isn’t designed to be entertaining, it’s going to be an uphill sell to the public.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying we need to make all instances of skeptical outreach entertaining and fun for the masses. Obviously some material isn’t suitable for this. Sometimes the issue is far too serious to be taken so lightly. Other times the issue is far too complicated to be made entertaining, it needs to be presented with full context and digested soberly and carefully. Further, everyone should do what they feel best doing. If you’re at your best giving a dead serious account of the dangers of the anti-vax movement, by all means do it.

But when possible, we need to make an effort to provide some bang for the attention of the public though.

I had an interesting conversation with some of the cast of the SGU and they told me that every now and then they get requests to just present the science and leave out the jokes. I suspect if they did that, they wouldn’t be the most popular skeptical podcast in the world. And as they pointed out, if you want that kind of podcast there are plenty to choose from. Many of them just present a sober, well thought out, clear and concise account of the science. But that’s not the show they want to do.

Humour and showmanship have a huge impact on how the product is received. When I look back over the year of events we put on for CFI Vancouver, the most well attended events were also the ones that walked the line between entertainment and education.

PZ Myers visited us in the summer and was his usual witty, educational, funny self. It was also a huge success for us in terms of attendance. Very close to a sell out if I remember correctly.

Photo by Fred Bremmer

Compared to some other events where there was less emphasis on the entertainment and more on the education, even in cases where it was superbly presented and in fact very interesting, there was less enthusiasm.

It’s no secret that the rock stars of the skeptical movement these days are the most charismatic/entertaining/controversial. If the goal of the skeptical movement is to popularize science and critical thinking we need to make an effort to make our popularizing entertaining.

I’m always excited to hear and learn about science, but I’m a skeptic. I care passionately about science and critical thinking. For someone who doesn’t, they’ll get their required science fix from the headlines of the newspaper and move on.

There is an element of free market economics to this as well. If the variable is the nature of the event, educational or entertaining and the latter draws the most people, the onus on us is whether we wish to change that trend or embrace it.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.