It’s a question that’s asked a lot, and should be. Keeping our finger on the pulse of our own success lets us know when we need to turn up the heat, and where we should refocus our efforts. I’m reminded of a panel on which I sat at The Amazing Meeting Australia in late 2010 when that question was put to us. I felt somewhat lonely in that my answer to the question seemed to be much more doomier and gloomier than the others.
I said I thought skepticism is losing ground, and also that I expected that trend to continue and worsen.
Why? Primarily because of money. I see the public’s level of skepticism to be largely media driven. Those whose message reaches the most people are likely to win the battle of hearts and minds. Reaching people via the most common media requires money. And money is where skeptics are going to continue to lose ground. The reason is that skeptics are not selling anything; indeed, we caution consumers not to buy certain items. Conversely, the opposition — the charlatans, the hoaxers, the ripoff artists, and the honestly deluded — are there specifically to sell products. Miracle cures and magically easy solutions to every problem in life are the real enemy. And, so long as human natures encourages most people to throw their money in that direction, the promoters of those quack products and services are going to continue to be in the driver’s seat. If you have nothing to sell, as skeptics have, you have no economic engine driving your message. And this is why I believe we’re going to continue to lose ground.
One gentleman in the audience pointed out “But we know how to use the Internet.” And so we do. But no better than woo promoters who know how to “use the Internet”; probably not even as well. Shoot, NaturalNews.com alone has some 60,000 pages indexed on Google; compare that to any skeptical web site. PrisonPlanet.com has over 150,000. Oprah.com is pushing a million. The total number of skeptical blogs and web sites probably numbers in the low hundreds, of which maybe a few dozen are at all relevant. How many web sites are there that promote alternative medicine, woo, conspiracy theories? Thousands, at least, if not tens of thousands, and maybe more. Right now I get the Quantum Jumping ad on virtually any Google search or any AdSense page. How many paid ads have I seen for The Amazing Meeting?
No, we are not winning any wars on the Internet.
Randi countered my gloom-doomery with an assertive point: “But we’re right.” He said it with a strike of the fist, and authoritative aplomb. The audience cheered. Yes, we’re right. But the last I checked, being right is not what made Oprah the world’s most influential woman. Being right is not what sold The Secret. Being right is not what launched the most popular shows on The History Channel to the top. Actually working is not what sells Power Balance bracelets. Being right is not what made Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage the four most listened-to radio personalities.
No, being right has nothing to do with how successfully your message propagates.
We’re way behind, and as the promoters and woo get more and more money behind them, we’re going to continue to drop behind. But it’s not over (and never will be). We’re running a distant second in a marathon. Every opportunity to catch up is ours. And we are growing; not as fast as the opposition, perhaps, but still building numbers. I get emails nearly every day from people who thank me for having changed their lives, and I know that my colleagues here on SkepticBlog and elsewhere get them too. As more rational people learn to appreciate the value of reason, more resources are added to our pool.
So, don’t misinterpret my observation as pessimism. I think of our second-place position as an increasingly target-rich environment. We have more and more people to reach. Every blog post, every podcast, ever public talk is heard by someone to whom the material is new. Appreciate the opportunity that we have to make up ground, and do the work that it takes to make it happen. Being right, or having evidence, or being able to prove what we say, are not enough and have historically proven not to cut the mustard. We have to do the work.