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Beyond the Echo Chamber:  Skeptical Outreach through Pop Culture

Russ Dobler

April 4, 2018


Organized skepticism has a problem. Okay, maybe more than one, but I’m here to focus on something simple. So many people do so much great work researching, investigating, and compiling the best evidence for or against an unlikely claim—and yet it rarely reaches the people it really needs to.

It’s great that we have networks and regional groups and social media support systems to get that out to like-minded people, and to at least make it available to others who might happen upon it and are able to be influenced. But too often people already decide whether they want to hear you or not based on a label, and many will just tune a “skeptics” forum out, thinking skepticism automatically equates to debunking and ruining everyone else’s fun.

So sometimes, it’s important to keep the fun in there. And it can be even more important to stick some skepticism in places where no one’s expecting it, so it grabs people before they have the chance to deploy a label-based prejudice.

That’s why, since last July, I’ve chosen to focus my outreach efforts on geek culture website Adventures in Poor Taste! (a regrettable name we typically shorten to just AiPT! or AiPT! Comics these days). I’d written for them every now and then for a couple years at that point, and it usually took the form of your standard “science of superheroes” stuff you see all over, done most effectively by former CSI contributor Kyle Hill.

But then I used the just concluded NECSS conference to introduce a new, recurring feature on the site—“The Critical Angle,” which would use the definition of skepticism found in Sharon Hill’s Media Guide to apply those principles to questions of pop culture. What do sales numbers say about which comic publisher is doing better? Are superhero movies really “dumbing down” American cinema? With Stephen King’s It a huge hit at the box office, why do we find clowns so scary? That one required a guest post from the Bad Clowns expert himself, Benjamin Radford!

I looked for more contributors, serving more in an editorial role, trying to match people with topics to see what kind of noise we could make. And here’s the crazy thing—it’s been working. Film buff and New York City Skeptics member Michael Rosch wrote about the GMO fears inherent in the Netflix movie Okja. The day it was published, the article was the number two Google News result for “genetically modified organism,” and it was later republished by the Genetic Literacy Project website.

Dentist and Science-Based Medicine contributor Grant Ritchey used a throwaway panel in the big Marvel Comics crossover Secret Empire to talk about why fluoride isn’t typically harmful. That article was the number one Google News result for “fluoride,” and the number four result for Secret Empire, ensuring folks looking for dirt on the evil Hydra Captain America were also informed about proper tooth care.

In a more analytical example, when the Earth was stolen in the next big Avengers story, No Surrender, I used some geophysical clues to guess that it had been located somewhere that powerful tidal forces operated on it, like what happens to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The title of the article didn’t hint at its scientific nature, but even after people realized they’d been “tricked” into clicking, they still spent an average of seven minutes on the page, so at only 700 words, they were staying to read the whole thing. “Where did the Earth go in Avengers #675?” was a top trend of ours for days.

So clearly there’s fertile ground here. This stuff isn’t niche anymore; geek culture has become American culture. And the more voices the better. We’ve created a framework where all manners of intersections between science, skepticism, and pop culture now fit on AiPT! There’s a great opportunity for specialists and hobbyists alike to get their work in front of a different audience, outside the typical echo chamber. If you’re just starting out in activism, I have a journalism background and am thrilled to provide free editorial advice to help make connections with your audience. Elder statesmen of skepticism—need another media outlet to make consumers aware of your new product? We can help!

So contact me if you’re interested in contributing, or just learning more about what we do, at rdobler46@gmail.com. And follow the Twitter account @AiPTScience! I try to run at least two science or skeptically themed articles a week, but in February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, we leaned extra hard on skepticism, with fourteen articles of that tag alone, nine of which came from different individuals. Check it out for yourself, and I hope we can work together soon to keep that momentum going!

Russ Dobler

Russ Dobler is a geophysicist, journalist, and member of the New York City Skeptics. He writes about the intersection of science, skepticism, and pop culture for the website Adventures in Poor Taste! and can be found on Twitter @russdobler46.