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Preaching to the Choir

by Brian Dunning, Nov 06 2008

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.

27 Responses to “Preaching to the Choir”

  1. Bruce Critelli says:

    Don’t worry Brian, Skeptoid is getting the word out. I regularly send out links to my friends, family and co-workers.
    My sister is the queen of woo woo and she needs to be sent another episode nearly every week after she calls to tell me of the latest Tibetan healing technique she learned over the internet!

    BTW, I enjoy the episodes myself even though I’m in the choir.

  2. I am also part of the choir (although I can’t sing to save my life…), but I enjoy listening and reading all you have to say (that goes for all you Skeptologists). If nothing else, you give us a great library of resources to send to folks like Bruce’s sister (I have a sister just like that too!).

    I do find it dismaying that a lot of the popular media is catering to the lowest common denominator, and that the denominator seems to be sinking lower and lower… The biggest impediment I find with outreaches is that so many people have such mental rigidity and emotional investment in these outlandish ideas. They don’t even seem to understand BASICS of logic and rational thought, and I feel as if I just run into a brick wall at every turn. A basic education is needed before you can even start the outreach.

  3. Steve Norley says:

    I also like to say that, as part of the choir, I still find the different podcasts and websites both entertaining and hugely informative. Even when I’m listening for the umpteenth time to a report about ghosts, bigfoot, homeopathy etc there is nearly always something new and even when not, hearing the the same data from a different point of view is informative in itself. I also think that being repeatedly reminded of certain facts keeps things fresh in my mind so that when I do debate with a true believer I am well informed about the subject and about the non-rational point of view. Keeping members of the choir on their toes is always good for outreach and is never a waste of time, in my opinion.

  4. Kevin Johnson says:

    Never underestimate the influence of your work, Mr. Dunning, and its ability to reach to people. For many years, I simply wavered between belief and doubt and never gave much thought as to a guideline or system on how to define my position. It was only after stumbling onto your blog (and others) that I began to realize the importance of asking why do I believe what I believe, and better yet, what methods are available to help me judge between beliefs.

    And now, considering myself resolved to be a skeptic, I in no way have stopped learning. To be quite honest, from your intros to your podcast there are times that I wonder aloud “How is he going to debunk this???” And sure enough, you come up with something new, a question that I myself make a point to endeavor to learn to start asking.

    So, I remind you, you are not just preaching to the choir. I was a full fledged believer in the paranormal — even believed I had once made contact with a ghost. You didn’t talk me out of it. You just nudged me, and said,
    “Have you really thought about some interesting questions about your beliefs? ”

    Man I’m so glad you asked. And I’m also glad you’re still here to help me make the next steps.

  5. Joe Garavito says:

    Although I enjoy other skeptical podcasts, Skeptoid is definitely a better way of getting to people who are not pre-disposed to skepticism. I enjoy Skeptoid because you include all of the evidence and everything that a believer might say, leaving things clear and in a very polite way… it’s easier for a believer to listen to.

    Also, it’s really good to have a primer on all of these subjects and cover the basics… this allows us to move on to the next subject. Plus, I’m a history fan and love hearing the back story to all of the woo.

  6. I’m in the choir because of podcasts like the SGU and Skeptoid. I started listening to them when I was exploring several spiritual avenues. If I’m perfectly honest with myself, I included them in my considerations, because I wanted to hang on to my irrational beliefs, and I had to know the arguments against them in order to defend them. Except, the arguments against them were so cogent and sound, there was no defense. So for the past ~2 years, I’ve been a convert, and I still have a lot to learn, even from the choir. So thanks to you and everyone here for teaching me something new every day, even if the topics are old!

  7. If we assume for a moment that the negative responses you highlight every now and again are even a large minority (or small majority), it seems your message is certainly getting out there. The major problem I’ve noticed about any given podcast is a majority, if not all of them, find their core (and majority) audience already in their camp. Anecdotal? Yes; but I haven’t seen the data yet.

    Like religious gathers or any grouping of people, they cling to each other and usually enjoy listening to what they already know or hear that how they view the world is correct. This, in part, is what podcasts (and conventions) are mainly used for (not necessarily what the authors intend). In this, stances are often less inviting to believes and in some cases hostile to them. While your show is one of the least of these, and one of the best formatted, how you approach the subjects and the conclusions thereof are often cold and unforgiving.

    While these podcasts again serve multiple purposes, their authors must remember they will be generally handicapped in “converting” believes or changing minds. This said, their ability to do this cannot be overlooked and this is a primary reason to continue them.

    As for Bigfoot? As a man in the digital trenches myself, Bigfoot is just plausible enough for the general public to keep the mystery alive. The general quips used by skeptics to “debunk” or counter Bigfoot are often outdated or ignorant of the perspectives and new data that believers currently have. While I might think something is out there myself, I doubt heavily it is a large bipedal ape-man. Personal “experience” and a lack of “respect” for people out in the woods make it hard to sway people away from the idea. You don’t gain “converts” by constantly insulting them (which a lot of podcast do).

    My stance is to hold them accountable to scientific standards, call them on logical faults, and give them cause to pause about their assumptions without insulting them or degrade them like children. This said, I am stern about my stances and challenge them to walk the walk when they speak of the scientific method. In effect, I put them in the hot seat to get out there and find the furry one and stop complaining until then. I also call them out when they begin delving into other more distressing pseudo-scientific beliefs.

    As for the Discovery Channel, History Channel, and the like: ratings and money. Considering most media outlets are own by five mega-conglomerates, profits sadly push these choices of content. Even with the Mythbusters, the simple fact is the show is profitable for the parent company. This is the price one must pay for living in a capitalistic society where power has been consolidated to such a level.

  8. Bill says:

    I’m surrounded by co-workers (or cow-orkers, for Dilbert fans) who are staunchly religious or steeped in woo, and often both. Several of them are young earth creationists who’ve seen me reading popular science books on my lunch break and have taken it upon themselves to save me from my materialistically paved road to hell.

    There are some of them that I simply cannot talk to. They refuse to engage in conversation – they’re only interested in lecturing to me and imparting The Truth. Others, though, are willing to actually talk about the issues.

    In those discussions, the information that I get from Skeptoid, the SGU, Scientific American’s Science Talk and other sources are invaluable. I’ve especially shared transcripts of Skeptoid because it often takes a more common-sense tone when discussing these issues. I’m not by any means disparaging other sources like the SGU (in fact, the SGU is one of my favorite podcasts, so if you’re reading this, Novella, relax!), but those sources can seem more dogmatically rooted in the ‘materialistic religion’ to true believers, and therefore easier for them to dismiss out of hand.

    But there’s another service that you preachers provide to those of us in the choir. After investing a fair amount of engergy in meeting the woo in our lives head-on, we need a way to recharge our skeptical batteries. You, the SGU, SciAm’s Science Talk, Skepticality and Point of Inquiry all help me do that. There are times when I need to just listen and remind myself that there are other people who think like I do.

    Thank you for doing what you do. It’s important. I know you already know that, but sometimes it helps to hear it from someone else.

  9. Bill, you sure you don’t work in my office? I’m in cubilce #42!

  10. Philip says:

    I may be in the choir, but there are things I haven’t heard of that you often bring up. I find them very useful and helpful in my everyday life. One instance in particular was your episode on “The Secret.” I had never heard of it before. Fortunately your episode came out 2 weeks before I needed the information. The owner of a company I used to work for bought 50 copies of the book and passed them out at a leadership meeting. He professed that it had changed his life, granted this isn’t the first pseudo-science that he made that claim about. He wanted us to read this book and we would begin a series of discussions at future meetings.

    Long story short, I quit the company. I did so after trying to sway several of true believers. I was glad to be forewarned of this book and to have your insights on its problems. I would have found the many of problems on my own, but it would have been a waste of time. I still have that copy of “The Secret.” I would have gotten a refund for the book if the owner hadn’t written on the inside cover of each book. The real secret that was revealed to me was how unhappy I was at that job. So in this instance preaching to the choir, has changed one life for the better.

  11. Ballookey says:

    I found SGU and Skeptoid by searching iTunes for science-themed podcasts. I had no idea there was a skeptical community, or that my anti-BS leanings were shared by such a large and wonderful community. Of course, NOW you might consider me part of the choir so to speak, but I only became a part of the choir after finding the podcasts. And I learn SO MUCH more from the podcasts than I ever would on my own. I had no idea that arguments that just “seemed wrong” to me were actually codified into clearly defined logical fallacies. That information alone and understanding them has been invaluable.

  12. Bill says:

    Larian – I run into you at the watercooler at Bad Astronomy now and then. I’m ‘billsmithaz’ over there.

  13. Sean says:

    I think even if I’ve heard about something on Skeptiod before you have a way of nailing it directly. It is a valuable tool to share with people I know who aren’t in the choir. I am also not a scientist or a public speaker. I am a musician. My head so crammed with music theory already that I can’t hold all the skeptical arguments I need. I love being able to go back to the podcasts to brush up on my information so I’m better armed or I can find a source to reference if I have a discussion with a true believer. Skeptiod and the SGU 5×5 are especially good because they are short and its easier to hold someone’s attention long enough to listen.

  14. Jakob says:

    I just wanted to let you know that Podcasts like Skeptoid and the Skeptics Guide even got a German (me! …) into skepticism in late 2006 and he still enjoys them.

  15. Peter says:

    Brian I love you (not in a gay way lol) because you know what it is all about and I hope I am like you one day.

  16. Mike says:

    I too am in the Choir but don’t stop preaching to us Brian because there is a value in it.

    I have always had a sceptical bent but listening to Skeptoid, SGU etc. has reassured me that a lot of people think like me, has provided me with useful tools and information to challenge dubious propositions.

    I come across a lot of nonsense in my job (I am a Family Physician) which as you know can be downright dangerous. I now relish tackling the patients who ask me whether vitamin B3 can cure dementia (today’s example) or some such health nonsense – may be they will ignore me but some won’t and the sceptical message spreads a little further. So keep up the good work and keep preaching!

  17. Michael Charboneau says:

    Brian, even if some of these topics are familiar to skeptics, I have to agree with Phillip. There are some fascinating examples of woo and pseudoscience that I have never heard before. And I’d rather hear about them from you first than to have my first exposure be from a true believer. With specific points you’ve raised, it’s much easier to have an intelligent discussion and plant a seed of doubt than just polite disagreement.

    Your site and books are also a handy reference. When a friend started talking about homeopathy, I was able to point them to your well-done explanation of what goes into (or doesn’t go into) homeopathic cures. It didn’t totally change their minds about every remedy out there, but it did make them look at most of them with a more critical eye than they had previously.

    Keep up the good work. As long as you have topics, I will be listening.

  18. Keith Daniels says:

    While there might be some element of “preaching to the choir” among all the skeptic podcasts, I like to listen to shows like yours, SGU, and I feel like I learn a lot. Like many naturally skeptical people, I tend to just have a gut feeling when I hear something that doesn’t sound right, a baloney detector as Carl Sagan would say. So even though I may hear about something like Bigfoot or a TV psychic and instinctively suspect it’s bullshit, it’s valuable to me to learn why it’s bullshit. For example, I already figured the Betty and Barney Hill UFO case was a crock, but I didn’t know all the details behind it until I heard your episode on the subject.

  19. dave c says:

    I am a new listener to your podcast and find it informative and easy to follow. There is always going to be information that is somewhat hidden in scientific speak, as your example of Michael Behe does prove, but that for me is the exciting part of being a sceptic to challenge the way we think of things and not accept them on face value.
    So as long as you speak to the choir I for one will be there to listen.

  20. Tressa says:

    Keep preachin’ brother! Amen!

  21. Nomad says:

    Also, preaching to the choir still gives us more information than we had before. I am always learning better, and more subtle, ways of breaking through the irrational belief barrier from skeptical sources. The choir can still use the info given. Most of us already have the tools, but they can always use sharpening.

  22. Alan says:

    Just a comment on the expression. This side of the Pond we tend to say “preaching to the converted”. I’m not sure if this is generally true for the UK, but my experience in choirs (in my youth) is that singing in a church is something people do for a hobby rather than any need to do something for the church. During sermons, we used to read books, doze, make faces at each other across the aisle, listen to the basses’ dirty stories behind – pretty much anything other than listen to the boring old fool. I expect choirboys are texting nowadays. Anyway, your expression makes me think of trying to persuade people who don’t care and aren’t listening, anyway! Cheers, love the podcast.

  23. Glen Wolfram says:

    To me, it’s not the topic, it’s the process.

    Just like Mythbusters, I have found all the shows fascinating, on many levels, but the one thing that has struck me is breaking down the claims in a systematic fashion.

    Let’s take Bigfoot. If this concept really exists, what would be required as proof? In Brian’s episode he talks about a footprint. Someone saying they saw a footprint has a certain amount of value. Finding and exhuming the footprint has additional value. Finding the skeletal remains of a creature next to the footprint would have even more.

    The key is, using whatever example you like, present the steps needed to draw the conclusion “this is more probably real/crap”.

    If it takes “sensationalism” to get the message to the masses, so be it.

  24. Jim Patten says:

    I have subscribed to your podcast and never have been disappointed or “bored”. I like the ten minute format because my ADD allows me to stay with it from start to finish. Five stars for ‘There be Dragons”. I was into all that nonsense and you are a big part of helping me become more of critical thinker. It does not turn me off to hear about something I already know. All the best and know your hard work is much appreciated and you are making a difference.

  25. Fred says:

    Hey Brian,
    That question of effectiveness is bound to come up but consider this – you’re arming the “choir” with the hymn sheets and ability to create hymn sheets. I’ve decided to take skepticism seriously and make some noise purely because of Skeptic podcasts, yours being the primary influence. So thanks, and as PZ Meyers said, he woul still be doing what he’s oing if he only influenced one person.

  26. eiajha says:

    some one called me and ineed to know what is a inchoir im only9

  27. eiajha says:

    alen said inchoir i dont know wat it mean