Thanks to the amazing generosity of Surly Amy and the Women Thinking Free Foundation, I was able to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas two weeks ago.For those who are unaware, this is a large Skeptics conference put on by the James Randi Education Foundation. Leading up to the meeting, I tried to explain to my friends and coworkers who weren’t already in the skeptics movement what I was up to. Now, I work in a museum, so it’s a little easier to explain my interests than it would be at other places. Really, I just had to say “Bill Nye will be there!” and they were completely convinced that was a good enough reason for a trip. Any other excuse was unneeded.
That said, I felt uncomfortable with my attempts to articulate my interest in attending a conference of “skeptics”, and even my ability to articulate what exactly a “skeptic” is. I’m not used to not having a quick and easy way to explain a concept. After all, I explain things for a living. All sorts of things, and not just things that generally considered easy to explain.
At the conference there was a fantastic array of speakers and workshops. We all listened intently to Pamela Gay as she told her story of becoming interested in science through the space program, and her eulogy for said program. We laughed uproariously at Richard Wiseman’s whirlwind tour of pareidolia. We took sides as the diversity panel argued about how to attract a wider audience. We learned about how to teach evolution in the classroom from the lovely people at NCSE and how to debunk medical myths from the Science-Based Medicine crew. We seemed to cover every angle on “how to get our message across” that could be considered.
The one thing we didn’t do so well was the same thing that had bothered me in the weeks before: we weren’t good at explaining our presence to the rest of the hotel guests. One thing that has remained consistent through every trip I’ve taken to Vegas has been the elevators. In the mega-hotels, you spend a disproportionate amount of time waiting for the elevators, watching them stop at each floor and futilely hitting the door close button in hopes it will ignore the fact that the people in your elevator are collectively over the weight limit by a good 300 lbs.
There were two other events going on in the hotel at the same time as TAM, a BMX event and a martial arts event. As could be expected, our 60s pulp inspired conference shirts and our very decorated badges gained a certain amount of interest among the other guests, who would inevitably get into the elevator and ask who exactly we were.
I watched every level of conference attendee, from “first TAMmers” to experienced science communicators, fumble for an explanation. Usually it started something like this:
“Well, we’re skeptics…”
Then the hapless attendee would fumble their way to a better explanation, often to a receptive response. One person I talked to responded “Well, it’s really sad that you need to have a conference on that, but it’s good that you do.”
So, while listening to the fascinating Desiree Schell talk about Skeptical messaging, I tweeted “After listening to us fumble for explanations, I think next year we need a workshop on the Skeptic Elevator Pitch.”
It was an offhand remark, but made seriously. If we are intending to get our ideas out to a wider audience, how can we expect to do so if most of us are so very bad at explaining exactly what our message is?
Now, it’s an artifact of the Vegas elevator situation that we usually had a chance to finish what we had to say by the time the ride was over, but a little tightening up of the “elevator pitch” seems to be in order, and I don’t seem to be alone in this thought. Tim Farley has made an excellent post on the topic over at the JREF: “My Skeptic Elevator Pitch”.
I guess this means I actually have to think through my own elevator pitch.
So here goes…
“My job as a skeptic is to equip people with their own tools for discerning bad evidence and false logic from reality so that they can prevent harm to themselves or others through bad information and to teach people that what’s really going on is so much cooler than any false theory!”
(Yes, there’s an exclamation mark. I get really excited whenever I talk about science.)
I guess you could say this is my meta-skeptic pitch. I’m not trying to debunk, I’m trying to make more skeptics. This really isn’t surprising since, for me, everything comes back to education. As an educator, my job isn’t just to correct false facts or debunk bad theories. My job is to teach other people how to recognize theories as false. It is to help people hone their inate critical thinking skills to do better research and recognize when something is likely to be false.
I can shoot down new “toxin removal” campaigns as quickly as they come up: master cleanse, foot pads, ear candling, and on and on. I will continue to do this. People ask me about the new ones with a distressing frequency. Is this effective? Yes, it is. The people I talk to know that I can generally give them a good explanation for what is really happening, and if I can’t off the top of my head, I’m going to go look it up and come back to them.
So yes, it is a functional method of debunking. However, this is not the most effective one by far. A much better method is to teach people the pattern rather than each specific fact. If I can teach them to be wary of people emphasizing TOXINS!!! and to look and see if there’s some sort of reaction that is explaining the so-called results, then they don’t need to ask me every time.
The same with fighting against creationism. Yes, I can (and do) continue to teach museu staff and volunteers about every little argument the creationists bring to us, but in the end it’s more effective if I explain how the creationists are arguing, and the kinds of things they use for “evidence”, so that with a little thought, the other person can come up with a good counter-argument without asking me.
I’ve had a great deal of success with this, though it takes a greater intellectual commitment and patience than it does to just say “No, it’s wrong. You’re really seeing residue of the burning wax.” or “No, this radiometric dating false numbers argument is wrong. Just like the last four you brought me. Here’s why.” It also takes a commitment on the part of the other person. Most of the time you need to start out with debunking first and then move on to more theoretical information.
Luckily you have evolution on your side in this, we are, as the skeptic canard tells us, equipped to see patterns even where there are none “so we could survive on the serengeti….” Given half a chance and a little bit of patience, this pattern seeking behavior will work for you too, as your fledgling skeptics start to connect the dots that you’ve so carefully laid out for them into a pattern that can carry on through their thinking for the rest of their lives.