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Skeptical Education through YouTube

by Brian Dunning, Jan 12 2012

As many of you may know, one of my projects is to adapt some of the more popular Skeptoid podcast episodes for the world’s largest single audience venue: YouTube.

I’m posting this blog not so much to make you aware of it, but to solicit your feedback. The show is called inFact with Brian Dunning and is now in its second season. Today’s episode, season 2 number 8, is about conspiracy theorists. Must we assume that they’re nuts, or is there a more rational explanation for why belief in conspiracies is so widespread? See how I answered this question:

I’m trying specifically to hit these points:

  • The videos are intended for the general YouTube audience, and presumes little to no previous experience with scientific skepticism.
  • The videos must be no more than about 3 minutes. Data shows very clearly that most viewers only watch short videos all the way through, and almost nobody even starts videos that are much longer than this.
  • All content is legal. All backgrounds, images, and music are rights released (most are purchased, sponsored, or public domain).

Now obviously, there is far more that could be said about this particular topic. What I discussed – which many of you may recognize as agency detection – is only a single bullet point. When limited to a 3-minute runtime, I have to do my best to make a single strong point. And I have to make it to an audience that I assume has no previous exposure to the subject. Considering my previous experience with Skeptoid, I also assume that many of the viewers are going to have preconceived notions that make them hostile to my message, so I try to be engaging rather than confrontational.

I’ve heard many times from teachers who use the series in classrooms (which is obviously encouraged and free). So far, they like the single subject nature of each video, which allows for focused discussion. And I think the language and presentation is a good mix between accuracy and simplicity.

It’s also noteworthy that inFact is crowdfunded. I’m pleased to report that this has worked quite effectively; it’s meant I’ve not had to spend money out of my own pocket to produce the series since season 1, or to miss a paying workday to work on it. The pace of per-episode funding has not been as fast as I’d hoped, but if we can improve the show and gain a larger crowdfunding base, perhaps that will change too. (The show is ad-supported too, but so far that’s a pittance that’s not even worth counting.)

I’m interested on your thoughts on the show’s content and its direction. I’m less in need of production notes; everyone is Cecil B. DeMille and I do already have talented people continuing to help me with some of the lingering production issues. But your thoughts on content and direction are most welcome. Thanks!

20 Responses to “Skeptical Education through YouTube”

  1. Tim Canny says:

    Probably not exactly what you are asking for but have you found any reluctance due to the use of the word ‘skeptic’ or ‘skeptical’. I know ‘critical thinking’ doesn’t have the same ring to it but there are many who consider skeptics to be chronic disbelievers who are more interested in putting forward their agenda than eyeing the facts critically. Over time I’ve seen you fine-tune Skeptoid into much more about critical thinking rather than “debunking” and that is why I listen to you. Still, the term ‘skeptic’ and the name ‘Skeptoid’ do tend to rub me the wrong way. Are you concerned about this as you push to spread the word on critical thinking or do you just figure most of your potential audience doesn’t usually worry about such vagaries of definition?

    • Definitely. Notice the title “inFact”, and everything about the show, generally omits the use of the word “skeptic”. People think it means “Oh, you’re the people who think 9/11 was an inside job, and that aliens control the government.”

      If I were starting over with Skeptoid, I’d name it something much more marketable like “The Urban Legend Show”. Skeptoid has too much brand recognition to change now, but I agree with you 100%.

  2. Paul Dail says:

    Hearing a Panther and ran to a Tree. Not a good idea at all. Last I checked, a Panther can climb very, very well.And all you did was make the Panther have a late lunch.

    • Nyar says:

      But wouldn’t the panther go for the easy meal, that is the guy who didn’t climb a tree? Sure the panther can climb, but why bother when lunch is already on the ground?

    • Canman says:

      The skeleton in the tree looks like a smilodon instead of a panther.

  3. Greg Middleton says:

    I think it is another and very valuable tool. I don’t tend to browse youtube, rather I subscribe to podcasts. I would certainly recommend Infact to teachers, especially for current affairs classes. I think it is a good tool. You’ve undoubtedly thought of this but a link to a referece/source/rurther reading page would be good. And I’ve just subscribed…

  4. Pete says:

    The series looks cool. But you may have alienated (ha!) about half your intended audience by discussing evolution….

  5. Phea says:

    It’s probably way too complex a subject to cover in a short time, or with just one main point. One of the better explanations I’ve found is at:

    I suppose though that lighting a single candle is better than cursing the darkness.

  6. Adrian Morgan says:

    Brian, from the green tinge on your skin, which is clearly visible in this video, I deduce that your electronic disguise was malfunctioning when you recorded it. For a moment I wondered why, given you’re obviously a reptilian alien, you are not also a world leader. But then I realised that you evidently are.

  7. Trimegistus says:

    I only hope you aren’t exposing people to conspiracy theories they might not otherwise encounter.

  8. Insightful Ape says:

    Very good video. But fossil fuel industry has indeed funded climate change denialist individuals and institutions. In general the more grandiose the alleged conspiracy the likelier it didn’t happen.

  9. Chris Howard says:

    Wow! I had no idea you are doing this show?! This is freakin’ awesome! Great production value, and excellent content. Marketing and advertising is the next step. I guess budget constraints, and all? Perhaps a guerrilla marketing/ad campaign? May I use them for my critical thinking class?

  10. Janet Camp says:

    I think it’s great, but Pete makes a point about a lot of your audience not accepting evolution to begin with (need data), so maybe another approach? Nah, most people looking at the thing to begin with probably DO accept evolution (again, need data).

    My quibble is with the “food industry” bit. They may not be deliberately and maliciously trying to “make us fat”, but they do spend billions advertising to children and lobbying against even VOLUNTARY regulation of their industry. I would have phrased that bit a little differently.

  11. Michael G says:

    Just a quick one, but I think what you’re doing is fantastic Brian. I’m a long time fan of Skeptoid and I think the inFact videos are brilliant and I hope you continue then,

  12. HumanistDad says:

    I like the series and have been a long time listener to Skeptoid podcasts. However, I must give my one criticism of the videos: Brian uses his hands too much in the videos and it is distracting.

  13. laursaurus says:

    I don’t think the way evolution was used in this context is necessarily controversial. I watched the video yesterday, so I’m going on memory here. It was in relation to our human ancestors, whom we accept were tribal hunter and gathers in pretty much the same form as humans today.
    Now if he talked about Lucy and conspiracy theories, that might offend some creationists.

  14. Myk Dowling says:

    The only question that I have is, if the advertising is such a small proportion of funding that it isn’t even worth counting, why bother with it at all? Why not ditch the ads entirely and avoid annoying some potential audience members?