In my podcast Skeptoid, I cover a lot of topics. Some of them are fresh to many listeners, some of them, not so much. I’ve talked about tales as hoary as Roswell, The Amityville Horror, Bigfoot, and The Philadelphia Experiment. Things we’ve all heard a thousand times, and about which there’s often not much new to say.
Am I preaching to the choir? Am I wasting my breath? Am I repeating old information to an audience that’s already tired of hearing about it? If I were, that would probably be a waste of time. Maybe skeptical outreach should avoid the old subjects.
I also do a lot of speaking at schools. When I do, I try to ask a couple of questions. Do you ever listen to podcasts? Few do. Have you ever heard of James Randi? Rarely has anyone heard of him. Do you know anything about the Loch Ness Monster? A few hands go up. Have you heard of Sylvia Browne? No one ever has.
You see, what to you & I is an old subject, is brand new to nearly all young people, and to most people outside of the tiny critical thinking community.
Why do you think Discovery Channel, History Channel, and all the other paranormal TV channels keep giving us shows about Bigfoot? Isn’t Bigfoot over? Isn’t it a tired enough topic yet? It may be, to some people; but not to the masses. Discovery Channel needs a hook, they need a subject that will catch their viewer’s ear when they see a commercial; so they go for a subject (like Bigfoot) that most people have heard only enough about to be curious. You and I may groan and say “Oh no, not another Bigfoot show,” but we’re not the meat of the bell curve.
When a religious missionary comes to your door, do they open with a question about Michael Behe and irreducible complexity? No, they don’t, because nobody’s ever heard of that. They open with some generic question about how you think you’re getting to heaven when you die, or some other such subject that everyone knows. They understand what the Discovery Channel understands. You need the familiar subjects to gain a toehold with your audience.
If you are a speaker at The Amazing Meeting, you will indeed be uselessly preaching to the choir if you give a talk about how there’s this thing called Bigfoot and we think it’s bogus. But if you’re doing outreach to the general population, Bigfoot is a perfect topic. Such topics are perfect because they are familiar enough to command attention, and once you have their attention you can employ these topics to educate about the scientific method and the critical thinking process. Engage your audience first.
Preaching to the choir has no value, but skeptical outreach has huge value. Effective outreach requires the approachability offered by familiar topics. So the next time I appear to be preaching to the choir, know that it is by design, and also know that there’s a good chance it might be really valuable to someone with less experience than you.