Since skepticism was born as an organized movement in 1976 with the creation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), a constant goal has been the attempt to reach as wide an audience as possible.
How We Used to Reach Audiences
The skeptic’s message was quite novel at the time—and it still is. We are basically saying that people should be skeptical of unsubstantiated claims, especially if they are extraordinary ones. Back then, UFOs, astrology, the paranormal, spiritualism, and many other similar topics were usually regarded quite valid among the public (and, well … they often still are today!) but had little or no substance at all once you started investigating.
So, how did you go about spreading this kind of counterintuitive information? At first there was the Skeptical Inquirer, pioneer of all skeptical magazines. But even though a magazine is essential to stay updated and go deeper on many subjects, it has a very limited reach. Most importantly, it mainly reaches those who are already convinced. So how could one reach a wider audience?
Well, if one had done enough research and work, one could try and write a book—provided that a publisher was interested. If so, very good! A book allows an author to go a lot deeper into a subject than a magazine article.
But, still, how many of those who watch talk shows on TV, where the paranormal is often the subject of very gullible treatments, actually read any skeptical books about the topics? Probably none. And how many actually read any book at all?
According to surveys, things do not look any brighter today. In Europe, for example, those who read books, according to a survey by Eurostat, are at most 20 percent of the population. And how much time is spent every day reading books? Between two and thirteen minutes a day, says the same survey.
Let’s just look at the time spent watching TV: according to the International Communications Market report, an annual survey by the United Kingdom’s telecoms regulator Ofcom, the average American watches 282 minutes of broadcast television a day, or four hours and forty-two minutes. Things were not all that different back in the 1970s and the following decades. People were glued to the television and were not reading skeptical literature. So, how could you reach them?
Well, the obvious answer was to try and get on television. But that was not easy at all. Of course, someone like the Amazing Randi was great at getting on TV and putting on a fantastic show to watch, and by doing so became an inspiration to thousands—perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands—of skeptics worldwide. But he was the exception.
The lesser-known skeptics usually had to wait for some TV program to call him or her, as an expert, maybe, on a panel. And maybe the other panelists were a vampirologist, a medium, an astrologer, and an aura reader. They all had their say, claiming wonderful and outlandish things.
In the last five minutes of the show, however, the skeptic was asked for his or her opinion and then tried to counterattack the preceding idiocy, but he or she often only managed to appear to be a closed-minded denier, probably a paid shill in some shadowy conspiracy. And, in any case, the skeptic was constantly interrupted by the other guests, who protested against such cruel attacks, and in a blink the time was up. So much for the skeptical point of view.
Reaching an Audience Today
Today things have changed. In less than a generation, we’ve reached a point where what we watch, read, and listen to is no longer determined solely by corporate monopolies but by the viewer. And things can be a lot different for skeptics as well. It is up to us to take this opportunity while there is still time.
Today people, especially young people, read less and less. But, importantly, they also spend less time on TV. Young people should be the main target audience for skeptics, since adults already have their opinions set. Children and young adults are still forming their reasoning faculties, and if they are given the tools with which they can operate in the world and nurture a critical mind, they will become skeptical by themselves when they grow up, with no need for others to tell them.
That’s why in Italy our skeptics group CICAP, after many years of attempts, has finally signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education to offer courses to teachers and students alike, sharing a scientific approach and critical thinking tools. But apart from this, which is not a very practical road for all, there are simpler ways to reach a younger audience.
So where do you find kids and young adults nowadays? Online, of course!
Yes, but where exactly? On Facebook? Oh no, Facebook is for Grandpa! They usually are on Instagram and YouTube. Actually, today 1.5 billion people turn to YouTube every month to search about something that they are interested in and can’t find anywhere else. Many look for the latest funny or viral videos—even the news and TV shows are there—but many just come to learn something new or indulge an interest. And it is to these people that we should be talking right now.
Is this crazy? Making videos and uploading them on YouTube? Absolutely not. There are hundreds of thousands of creators around the world who are turning their creativity into careers, amassing huge followings and turning a hobby into a profession. There are makeup artists, video gamers, travelers who talk about their trips, vloggers, cooks who share their recipes … . Why shouldn’t the skeptics join in?
In fact, some have, and you can find them on YouTube. A few have had fantastic results, such as Captain Disillusion, who has over a million subscribers, or Richard Wiseman, who has more than two million!
But apart from these extraordinary examples, skeptical videos rarely touch the topics that young people are more interested in. They may have very interesting but long discussions about the philosophy of skepticism or some very technical issue. These are both fine subjects, but they are best for an audience that is already skeptical or into these topics. Instead, we should create more videos that address the general curiosities and interests that people have—things about which we skeptics have already talked ad nauseam among ourselves but that to new generations appear as mysterious as ever.
There are a gazillion videos out there talking about the paranormal that portray the mysteries as though they are inexplicable, while in reality the explanations are available—in magazine articles and books. But not in YouTube videos.
My Attempt—and Your Turn
With this situation in mind, last April I started my own YouTube series in Italian. It is called Strane Storie (Strange Stories) and runs weekly every Friday at 1:30 pm.
Each episode is ten to fifteen minutes, and in a light way I examine popular unusual claims and by the end of each show I arrive at a conclusion about their credibility. I have dealt with some classics, such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness monster, the pyramids, the Shroud of Turin, ghosts, and aliens, but also some less popular topics, such as the Cottingley fairies, cursed paintings, the Charlie Charlie Challenge, time travelers, and more.
I started with a few hundred subscribers that I had gathered along the years of doing practically nothing on my channel except uploading the occasional video of a lecture or a TV show I was on. I never produced anything.
After I started uploading videos, I soon reached the first 1,000 subscribers. Then soon they were 2,000 then 3,000, and after six months, they were 8,000 and keep on growing. The great thing about YouTube is that it is not a social outlet, such as Facebook or Twitter, where everything that you publish gets quickly lost in the stream.
YouTube is a search engine; actually it’s the second largest search engine in the world, after Google. And, guess what? Google owns YouTube. This means that whenever someone looks for a specific topic, your video may come up on both search engines. And this can happen the month after you published your video, a year … or ten years!
A magazine only lasts a week; a book may last two or three months in a bookstore and then it’s gone, unless you know what to look for. A TV show lasts only a few minutes and then it’s gone, along with the skeptical guest who was in it. Instead, the videos on YouTube stay there: ready to be found by anybody searching for that very specific subject. There will be three to five billion new consumers coming online between now and the year 2020. That’s why right now is a great time to get started on YouTube.
And this is also the reason I decided to start producing a new series along with Strane Storie, but this time in English. This new series is titled Stranger Stories, and it started on October 31, 2018, with an episode dedicated to Randi and to the extraordinary demonstration he gave during the Allan Spraggett show, where he was able to break a spoon and guess a drawing in a sealed envelope without even having been informed in advance that he had to perform such demonstrations! It was a fantastic demonstration of critical thinking that, I think, is an ingenious and quite entertaining way to introduce viewers to the skeptical approach. I hope you will check it out and, if you like it, subscribe to my channel!
If you think this requires years of preparation or technical abilities, think twice. I am not a tech kind of guy; I’ve worked on TV a lot but always in front of the camera. I had to learn how to do all of what is needed: how to shoot, what kind of equipment to use, how to position the lights, how to use the green screen, how to edit, and so on.
I understand it may seem daunting, but one can just start with the camera on your smartphone. It’s as simple as that! And, anyway, I can assure you that if I was able to do it anyone can. I look forward to seeing your skeptical videos on YouTube!