Bigfoot and aliens — groooan — are so outdated. Right?
Yes and no. They’re outdated, so far as the amount of work left to do to educate the general public; almost nobody takes them seriously anymore. But they’re not at all outdated as far as being in the public consciousness. Almost everyone knows about them, and that’s critical to the mission of science education.
To make headway in critical thinking, we need to start with common ground from which it’s easy to see the reasons why a given subject is unscientific. It’s easy to talk about Bigfoot with almost anyone and have them agree to the low value of anecdotes, logical red flags, and (thanks to the current TV show) the unreliability of ideologically motivated proponents.
Finding this common ground is not always easy. One reason is that people fall into many demographics. Old, young; rich, poor; urban, rural. Marketing’s “prime demographic” (young white males age 18-35) is only one such group. When we plan a campaign of critical thinking education, it’s crucial to know the target demographic.
I do a lot of speaking in college classrooms, and during the Q&A I often like to take the temperature of what the group’s current hot buttons are. I want to know what are the topics of pseudoscience affecting today’s prime demographic. This is important; we have to know where the low-hanging fruit is. I have limited resources, and I want to get the best bang for the buck when I choose topics.
I would probably create three categories of pseudoscience relevant to this discussion:
- Stuff that seasoned skeptics love to talk about, but that the prime demographic is unaware of. This is where we waste our time talking about subjects that our target audience is not interested in. It mainly includes things that are old or outdated and no longer in the public consciousness. Examples are Uri Geller, Betty and Barney Hill, the Amityville Horror, and even Roswell. I’m often surprised at how subjects I’ve thought are so well known are not at all among the prime demographic. (Translation: I’m older than I think.)
- Subjects that all demographics are aware of, and know to be pseudoscience. This is our gateway drug. From a shared base of common ground, we can then proceed to deconstruct the truly harmful things that today’s young skeptics are buying into. About the only subjects that I’ve found all demographics know about and know to be pseudoscience are Bigfoot and aliens (referring specifically to humanoid aliens visiting the Earth). This makes them a great starting point for a discussion about how we tell fact from fiction.
- Pseudoscience that today’s prime demographic of self-described skeptics is totally into, yet does not consider to be pseudoscience. These subjects are the ones on which we have potential to make the most relevant, useful progress. I find this is usually trendy stuff. Today it includes a lot of foodie-ism (raw, organic, paleo, gluten-free) and alternative health fads (detox & cleansing). Tomorrow it will be something different.
I can go into any audience in the world and explain why Bigfoot and aliens are pseudoscientific, and they’ll agree with me, and know that I’m not nuts; and can then move on into more relevant subjects. But many other topics would not at all receive a warm reception. Go into a northern European audience, even a skeptical audience, and talk about 9/11 being caused by Islamic terrorists and they’ll laugh you out of the room — them Euros love their conspiracy theories. Go into a US college audience of skeptics and talk about gluten-free diets being worthless, and they’ll assume you’re a paid shill for the pharmaceutical industry. But both audiences are on board with Bigfoot and aliens.
Topics that cut through all demographics are the best allies of an educator hoping to reach as wide an audience as possible. So, while Bigfoot and aliens are silly, they’re sooo 1970, and nobody believes them anymore, they’re still going to remain on special on my menu of skeptical topics.