Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Message Map for Skeptics - Part One

Last weekend, I attended the SkeptiCAL conference in Berekely, California.  This was my first experience at a formal skeptical meeting, and it was excellent. I want to offer kudos to Shane Trimmer, Eugenie Scott and the other organizers - the presentations were entertaining and timely, and the networking opportunities with other skeptics were priceless.

One of the breakout sessions was titled “5 Myths About Skeptics,” and, arriving a bit late, I never did learn what those myths were. Instead, I walked into a spirited discussion among the thirty to forty people in the room about the challenges that skeptics face in getting their message out.  I won’t go through the whole familiar list, but speakers touched on everything from what we call ourselves to media indifference to rifts between subgroups of skeptics to the difficulties presented by ignorant or pandering politicians.

What struck me as I listened is that we really have a crying need to address messaging in the skeptical community.  We need to develop a message platform that frames our key messages and provides a bridge to communicating better within the skeptical community and with the rest of the world.

Unlike many skeptics I do not have a background in science.  I work in  marketing and public relations, and what I’m suggesting is normal practice in my world. The idea is to develop a set of key messages that positively state what your company or program or, in our case, movement is all about. And those become the core set of messages that your spokespeople go to whenever possible.

Does it work? Well, think about people on the other side of issues that are important to us, particularly politicians. Look at this statement from Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, which constitutes the first paragraph of a speech he gave on global warming:

As I said on the Senate floor on July 28, 2003, "much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear, rather than science." I called the threat of catastrophic global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," a statement that, to put it mildly, was not viewed kindly by environmental extremists and their elitist organizations.

I guarantee you that the good Senator has a focus group-tested set of talking points on this subject that tells him exactly what buzzwords will generate the kind of response he wants from his listeners:  “...predicated on fear... “...greatest hoax...” “...environmental extremists and their elitist organizations...”  These are the kinds of emotion-laden phrases that get to people. They have nothing to do with the science of global warming, but they are crafted and calculated to strike a specific chord with the people who hear them. The words lead to emotional responses, which leads to votes, which leads to the Senator maintaining his nice position in the US Senate.

This is common practice in politics of course, and the term “talking points” often has a negative connotation as a result. Talking points are seen as craven efforts to curry voter favor, not honest efforts to communicate.

But they don’t have to be.

Take a look at Apple’s Steve Jobs, a master of messaging.  Any time Apple introduces a new milestone product, Steve Jobs takes the stage and delivers a master course in messaging.  When introducing the MacBook Air, the phrase “the world’s thinnest notebook” was repeated over and over again and almost every newspaper article about the product parroted that phrase. With the iPhone it was “Apple Reinvents the phone.”  With the iPod it was “one thousand songs in your pocket.”  None of these phrases attempts to get into the specifics of functions and apps and features, but each neatly summarizes what the product is and makes it instantly understandable to consumers. And, more importantly, Jobs and Apple never missed an opportunity to utilize that specific phrase when talking about the product.

Because we have science on our side, we in the skeptical community often tend to believe that we will ultimately prevail in the court of public opinion. But the reality is that those who don’t give a shit about the science, and who have a political, religious, economic or power-based reason for purveying their point of view are much more organized and disciplined about their messaging than we are.

Unless we manage to tackle our own messaging with a bit of discipline, we will always lag behind those that do.  

For part two of this discussion, which includes my thoughts on how we might tackle the issue of creating a messaging platform, click here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Skeptic in the Room - Now Downloadable!

I have received several requests to make an mp3 file of my song, The Skeptic in the Room, available to interested parties. Not knowing how to accomplish this, I have basically ignored those requests until now.  After doing a little research (ie, an educated Google search) I discovered that this is actually rather easy.

So, if you want a copy of the file for your ipod or other digital music device, feel free to click on the link and download away. 


The Skeptic in the Room.mp3

Monday, May 16, 2011

I Guess Power Balance Magic Improves Dentistry Too!

So this morning, after I got my teeth cleaned, my dentist wandered in to give me the usual cursory examination before trying to talk me into a bunch of probably unnecessary dental work.  And the first thing I noticed as his hands drew near to my mouth was that he was wearing a Power Balance Bracelet!

I stopped him before he could start probing around in there and asked him how, as a doctor and a man of science, he could possibly be wearing (and therefore promoting) such nonsense.

His answer:  He’s a baseball coach (and a basketball and soccer coach). And, while he doesn’t see any benefit for his basketball and soccer players, it does appear to work for his baseball players. He said he knows it’s a basically a placebo effect, but baseball players are superstitious lot, and, in his words “the placebo effect works.”  That didn’t explain why he would wear the silly thing to work, though, and I didn’t press him on that (I find that it’s probably best not to be too confrontational with a man who will be wielding a drill in one’s mouth).

We chatted about this business for a bit, and he didn’t back off of the belief that the placebo effect, in and of itself, was a good thing.  Even though it was essentially ‘mind over matter,’ if that had good results on the diamond, then why fight it?

And I guess that’s a good question to ponder a bit. If an athlete truly believes that that bit of plastic around his wrist is improving his skills, and he therefore performs better as a result, is that, in fact, not a good thing?  I know the correct skeptical answer, but how do you answer someone like this – an educated man, a doctor, who is bought into the woo because he believes he sees it working?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What am I Doing in California?

As a kid growing up in rainy Seattle, I learned to always take advantage of the sun when it shined. In fact, I can still remember my mother admonishing me to "not waste the sunshine" if I was indoors on a rare sunny day. And even though I've now lived in California for over two decades, I still feel guilty if I'm not taking advantage of every sunny day. But, since it's sunny pretty much every day (at least from, say, April through October), it's no longer rational to harbor that guilt.

So a while back I wrote this song, in which I tried to capture my ambivalent feelings about living in the great, goofy, frustrating and sunny state of California.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ah, the Genius of Tim Minchin

There's nothing particularly new about this song, but it underscores the fact that Mr. Minchin is coming on a US tour this summer, and I've got to figure out how to get to Seattle, Portland or LA (why no San Francisco!?) to see him in person.

Oh, and "you fall within a bell curve" may be the funniest song lyric ever.