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Branding Skepticism

by Phil Plait, Jan 06 2010

Steve Cuno is a skeptic as well as man who knows his marketing — he’s a professional. He’s spoken at two TAMs, both times about how better to market and brand skepticism. His points have hit home with me, because what he says about how we behave as skeptics is something I have seen countless times to be true. He thinks — and I agree — that we need to be more positive about what we know to be true. Instead of only saying "the antivax movement is baloney," (which we know to be a correct statement) we need to promote actual medicine and talk about why vaccinations are important. I try to do that here on the blog, because I know full well how skeptics are seen outside our own circles: naysayers, pointy-headed ivory tower academics, and so on. By being positive, we promote ourselves much better to the public.

Steve Cuno wrote an article for the JREF’s Swift blog which has many excellent points about how we as skeptics need to think about ourselves and our behavior. I think everyone who has ever sat next to an astrology buff at a dinner party or written anything on the web dealing with skeptical topics should read what Steve wrote, and pay attention to it. We could do a lot worse than to follow the lead he’s laid out.

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6 Responses to “Branding Skepticism”

  1. Max says:

    Quacks often do a better job than the federal agencies and scientific bodies at laying out their evidence for the public.
    How does the FDA know that vaccines are safe? How do climate scientists validate their models? Where are all the transitional fossils?
    Instead of just insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence, give people a sense of what that means.

  2. CW says:

    It requires a lot of work and dedication to become a skeptic that is able to challenge/refute pseudoscience. I’ve got subscriptions to skeptic/science podcasts, a skeptic magazine, and am reading a skeptic/science book every other week, but it’s still overwhelming (to me). For example, I’m having to learn three things at once:

    1) General Science
    2) The Issues (the issues that require skeptical thought)
    3) Debate/Discuss (how to argue w/ true-believers and/or pseudoscience claimants).

    I would just tell skeptics to keep doing what you’re doing. And don’t be afraid to go over subjects again and again, because the reinforcement of arguments/evidence may still be relatively recent to the skeptical newcomers.

  3. SicPreFix says:

    Max said:

    “Instead of just insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence, give people a sense of what that means.”

    Yes, that’s really important. And perhaps some well designed, authoritative online database that contains links and/or actual research and evidence that is not only easy to search, but includes meaningful, comprehensive, yet short and concise (where possible) synopses.

    Another thing I think is really important is accuracy, both in terms of claims made, but also in terms of language, diction, and to a slightly lesser degree, grammar and general writing quality.

    There are a few skeptic blogs I no longer visit because the authorities, or official bloggers, or whatever we want to call them, are somewhat lazy with their writing, and in some cases invent definitions for words (I’ve seen that called Humpty-Dumptying), and wrong definitions at that. Such intellectual laziness does not help to give skepticism a good name.

  4. Anthony O'Neal says:

    Conservatives for the past 30 years have had no ideology besides being anti-liberal – this has been wildly successful. Negative ideologies aren’t necessarily wrong and aren’t necessarily hard to promote. I dunno – people just seem to here the word “negative” and automatically assume it’s bad.

    I think skepticism is pretty much defined in the negative. That’s what the name means – we’re skeptical of you. Promoting medicine isn’t skepticism, it’s medicine. Promoting science isn’t skepticism, it’s science. We can talk about that and associate it with the skeptical movement, sure. But debunking is pretty much the central tenant.

  5. Leo says:

    @Anthony: What is your personal definition of skepticism? For me it’s the a process of critical inquiry and shared ethics and values. I think those things are quite positive. However, others define skepticism as the debunking of fraudulent or mistaken claims. The former allows us to be in a position to be guides, to help people understand the process and why we value what we do. The latter just sets us up in opposition to just about everyone else because it’s the rare individual, skeptics included, who doesn’t believe in something extraordinary or unproven.

    While I have no problem with anything Steve Cuno says, the one objection I had was that we have to decide what organized skepticism is now and what it’s going to be before we can talk about branding. Right now I don’t think there’s any particular definition of skepticism accepted by the majority of skeptics.

  6. Michael Horn says:

    Maybe someone here can help. I’d been engaged in a delightful dialogue with Michael Shermer, who I truly do respect, regarding UFOs, where we of course disagree. However, as soon as I introduced the information in my article APOPHIS: ARE THE RUSSIANS READING MEIER’S WARNINGS? it seems that Mike got quite stumped and has…disappeared.

    Of course I know that he is busy and has other things to do but since skeptics always (and quite rightly) want extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, I thought he’d like to have some of the best, most irrefutable evidence available…documentation from the Library of Congress.

    As a matter of fact, I had hopped over to Phil Plait’s blog, where he asks for “predictive evidence” and provided the same to him. He also seems strangely tongue-tied. Heck, I dropped emails to a number of the skeptics and their organizations linked from this site and they all seem to have taken an extended vow of silence.

    Now I know that some people have a tendency to say things like, “Well that’s because there’s nothing credible to comment about, etc.” But in addition to the LoC copyrights, for the truly scientifically minded, I’d like to quote Mike’s own words here, ” It just means that we don’t know everything. That is the very nature of science.”

    So, while I again acknowledge that this is off topic, any help in getting a representative from the organization, should Phil and Michael want to completely avoid the topic, to engage in a little discussion would be appreciated.