Skepticism in the Video Box
Skepticism is not just books and talks anymore. With the popularity of social media services, skeptical discussion and inquiry has moved beyond the written word and the podium. If you like your critical thinking in the form of a quick demonstration that can be as short as a music video, YouTube has you covered. We’re going to look at a handful of popular skeptical YouTubers who have embraced the medium and the bandwidth with creativity, insight, and humor.
One of the most popular and recognizable skeptical faces on YouTube, Captain Dillusion (CD) was created by independent filmmaker Alan Melikdjanian. He’s been producing YouTube videos since 2008, featuring his bright yellow track suit and striking silver face paint.
Captain Disillusion focuses on investigating paranormal videos by explaining how such effects can be achieved. To prove his point, Captain Disillusion recreates the paranormal event with common film editing techniques and tools.
Melikdjanian’s lighthearted but thorough approach has gained him more than 23,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/CaptainDisillusion) and 3.2 million views. As of late 2011, you can subscribe to his videos via iTunes as well (http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/captain-disillusion/id461797766). Captain Disillusion videos post only every few months due to his high production standards, but Melikdjanian has recently started a series of “Quick D” videos for quick hit debunks, which post more frequently.
CD has taken on some of the most popular images in popular culture, including the face on Mars and the “ghost” in the Three Men and a Baby movie. He’s also tackled persistent viral videos, such as the penguin slapping the other penguin into the water—yes, it’s cute, but it’s an obvious fake and penguin wings don’t move like that anyway.
“Love with your heart. Use your head for everything else.”—Captain Disillusion’s sign-off
If you need to let off some steam, Skeptically Pwnd might be where you want to be. There are plenty of groups providing sober, reasoned inquiry into paranormal claims. You can listen to academic and intellectual discussions on a wide variety of topics. Or you can go to Skeptically Pwned’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/skepticallypwnd/videos) and watch the Ghost Hunters get kicked in the crotch.
Skeptically Pwned is the creation of three skeptical comedians: John Rael, Matt David, and Jen Brown. In addition to some judicious kicking, they also created the “Shit Skeptics Say” series—a trilogy of embarrassingly familiar high-speed catch-phrases skeptics swap among each other regularly. The Skeptically Pwned videos probably won’t convince any non-skeptics to change their views, but they might help skeptics decompress after a day in the trenches.
Richard Wiseman is a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom and a former magician. He’s also the author of eleven books investigating subjects such as paranormal abilities, self-help books, and the peculiarities of human behavior. He also has a popular YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/Quirkology) boasting 58,000+ subscribers and thirty million views.
In his videos, Wiseman draws on his background as a magician and focuses primarily on mind games and optical illusions. His understanding of misdirection and how the human brain receives and processes information provides sharp insight into how easy we can be to trick. Wiseman’s ready sense of humor make his videos enjoyable and engaging even to people outside the skeptic community. The videos range from thirty seconds in length to about three minutes, so new viewers don’t have to invest much before they get hooked. More information about Richard Wiseman is available on his website (http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/).
Tim Minchin is an award-winning British-Australian musician and comedian who is gradually developing a fan base in the United States after having developed a following in the United Kingdom and Australia over the last ten years. He is an accomplished composer and pianist, and he is best known for his comedic songs dealing with skepticism (“If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out”) and atheism (“The Good Book”). In 2011, he released an animated video of his ten-minute beat poem “Storm” describing a meal shared with a New Age alt-med practitioner. The video for “Storm” is available at www.youtube.com/user/stormmovie.
YouTube is filled with unofficial videos and bootleg recordings, but Minchin’s official channel is available at www.youtube.com/user/timminchin/videos. Many of his videos (along with his tour dates and store) are also available on his website (http://www.timminchin.com/media/), including his popular song about the child molestation cover-up in the Catholic church. (Warning: Tim does not pull any punches with the language.)
Scam School is the brainchild of American magician Brian Brushwood and Internet television network Revision3. In each episode, Brushwood demonstrates and exposes street scams, bar tricks, and other types of close magic. The show’s advertising promises that you’ll never have to pay for a drink again, but it also teaches you what to watch for to avoid being pranked.
Brushwood is an award-winning touring magician known for his bizarre tricks, including fire-eating, putting nails through his nose or hands, and mind-reading. His website with details about upcoming shows and his books is at http://shwood.com. The Scam School video channel is at www.youtube.com/user/scamschool. Scam School has been producing episodes weekly since 2008, and there are more than two hundred on YouTube now. The videos are roughly ten to fifteen minutes in length and include a demonstration and breakdown of classic bar tricks and other stunts.
Brushwood is also host of the Weird Things podcast, which discusses supernatural and other strange news items.
Death by Puppets
Death by Puppets holds to the philosophy that most of life’s problems are easier solved with puppets. They produce short videos with a skeptical flavor, with a generous helping of sarcasm and parody. And, of course, puppets.
Subjects so far have ranged from a support group for the reality-challenged and a restaurant specializing in quackery to a mockumercial featuring an enigmatic chupacabra. They posted their first video on April 1, 2012, and have been releasing videos every few weeks. Maria Walters founded Death by Puppets by bringing together the talents of artists in the skeptical community. Charles Pillsbury, puppet builder and lead puppeteer, builds puppets as needed based on scripts by Steve DeGroof of the Tree Lobsters webcomic.
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) is one of the most popular skeptical podcasts. The five members of the Rogue’s Gallery have taught a lot of people about skeptical and scientific issues. One of them, filmmaker Jay Novella, has also begun producing comedic videos.
SGU Video Productions (www.youtube.com/user/TheSkepticsGuide/videos) is probably best known for a two-part parody of Ghost Hunters, highlighting their paranormal skills in drain cleaning and sump pump installation. The other videos satirize targets such as alien videos, ghost photos, and psychics who talk to the dead. The videos range from five to ten minutes each, and they are based on topics pulled from podcast episodes—not exactly a limiting format, as the Skeptic’s Guide podcast is thorough and operates in a target-rich environment.
Some of the debates in which skeptics find themselves can be dry or esoteric. Those discussions can be a little inaccessible for people new to skepticism—not to mention non-skeptics unaccustomed to hearing scientific data at all.
A secular humanist and artist in the United Kingdom who goes by the name Qualia Soup has taken steps to bridge the gap between detail and accessibility. He creates animated breakdowns of common topics brought up with non-skeptics and theists—for example, being good without God, irreducible complexity, and the burden of proof.
The videos average about ten minutes each and are narrated in a clear and engaging manner. Those who have been involved in skepticism for a while will be familiar with most of the subject matter, but they are good primers for new skeptics and handy to show to non-skeptics.
Mr. Deity is a long-running series of comedic and satirical short films examining different aspects of religion. It stars Mr. Deity (the universe’s creator, who has little understanding of human existence); his assistant, Larry; his son, Jesus; and Lucifer (“Lucy” for short), Mr. Deity’s ex-girlfriend.
The Mr. Deity videos (www.youtube.com/user/misterdeity/videos) are seven to nine minutes long each and cover insoluble religious topics, such as the amount of evil allowed in the world, the meaning of prayer, and free will.
Mr. Deity is the creation of Brian Keith Dalton, who also stars, directs, and wrote the opening theme song. He decided to create a series of short films to express his views about God and religion. The series was a success, leading to a deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment to bring Mr. Deity to HBO. The deal eventually fell through, but Mr. Deity has continued on YouTube into its fifth season. Seasons three and four are available on DVD at http://mrdeity.com as is a soundtrack CD.
Mr. Deity is an engaging, humorous series for anyone comfortable with questioning religious issues. The more devout may struggle with the issues raised or find the whole series blasphemous.
This article touched on just a few popular YouTube channels. There are plenty of others with more being added all the time:
Media Skeptic (www.youtube.com/user/mediaskeptic): This new channel takes a critical look at the tricks and techniques used by the news media and by politicians to sway public opinion. Only a few videos so far but worth keeping an eye on.
Geologic Records (www.youtube.com/user/geologicrecords): Geologic Records is the home of noted skeptic and musician George Hrab. You will find music videos and performances of his skepticism-tinged songs and interviews.
Healthyaddict (www.youtube.com/user/healthyaddict): Healthyaddict is the online handle for Ashley Paramore, development director for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). Her videos cover her current work with the SSA and her previous work as chair for Students for Freethought at The Ohio State University.
Sick Science (www.youtube.com/user/SteveSpanglerScience): Steve Spangler is a science writer and educator who has created short (less than two minutes each) videos illustrating do-it-yourself science projects, including making drag-racing cups and light bulbs.
Symphony of Science (www.youtube.com/user/melodysheep): John Boswell takes talks from noted scientists and skeptics, adds a soundtrack, and auto-tunes them together into music videos.
Skepchick (www.youtube.com/user/rkwatson): Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick website and cohost of the popular Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. Her more recent videos have discussed topics such as homeopathy, then-presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s comments about the human papillomavirus vaccines, and so-called “chemtrails.”