(Editor's Note: Steve Cuno is the founder of the RESPONSE Agency, an evidence-based marketing firm in Salt Lake City. He has spoken at the last two TAMs, and has been invited to write for Swift to share his knowledge of marketplace behavior as it pertains to skepticism — and vice versa.)
When a friend teaching a college scriptwriting course told students that standard videotape runs at 30 frames per second, a hand shot up. "Actually," corrected the young man who owned the arm to which the hand was attached, "it's 29.97 frames per second." Thus it began. For the rest of the semester, no gnat was safe from this fellow's interrupting the class to strain at it.
I believe I speak for armchair psychologists everywhere when I say that (1) odds are the young man's classmates and the instructor fantasized doing him bodily harm; and (2) you will find him in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, under "silly ass."
But let's be fair. At times, we skeptics can be found there, too.
Like all enthusiasts, we are prone to assume that what fascinates us holds everyone else equally rapt. And - come on, admit it - some of us get a kick from correcting people and showing off our knowledge. We love tossing out zingers. Then, when eyes roll and people make excuses to leave ("I just remembered-I need to drive to a neighboring state to pick up a pizza"), we fail to consider that maybe, just maybe, we are being boorish. It's so much more fun to be martyrs bemoaning that no one "gets it."
A recovering ass myself, I am at times as guilty as the next skeptic. At a recent social gathering, I had no better sense than to contradict a retired police officer who said that crime increases under a full moon. He, of course, contra-contradicted me, so I contra-contra-contradicted him, whereupon he contra-contra-contra-contradicted me. By this time, the other guests were rolling their eyes. And not at him.
Sure, my facts were right. But - to put it in marketing terms - my targeting was all wrong.
Any message, even a well-crafted one, is doomed if you present it to the wrong audience. This is why a furrier would be ill-advised to apply for use of, say, PETA's mailing list. Had I listened to my inner marketer, I'd have realized that I was in front of the wrong audience. These folks didn't care about lunar truth any more than the scriptwriting class cared about 0.03 frames per second.
A message is equally doomed if it reaches the right audience, but at the wrong time. This is why marketers don't inundate parents with back-to-school offers in May. Likewise, I might have realized that this social gathering, where the focus was hors d'oeuvres, small talk and wine, did not offer the most ideal backdrop for a diatribe on rational thought.
My inner marketer would also have cautioned me that before people will "buy" what I have to say, they must first "buy" me. Contradicting a total stranger who is regaling an admiring audience is not exactly endearing. I may have thought I was standing up for critical thinking, but all I really did was alienate people - from me, and quite possibly from skepticism in general.
With a little thought, I could have avoided an argument destined to be lost, and thus spared skepticism a needless black eye. There is nothing rational about willingly engaging a losing battle. If wisdom is in knowing when to speak up, it follows that it must also be in knowing when to shut up.
I have a long way to go before I'll fully master the art of knowing when to open my yap and when not to. But as I work at it, I am discovering a delicious irony. It seems that the less I bludgeon the unwilling with the critical thought viewpoint, the more the genuinely curious work to pry it out of me. And, the safer they feel doing so. By resisting the urge to pounce, I actually end up with more opportunities to speak up.
Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting - pardon the allusion - hiding one's light under a bushel. When the appropriate forum presents, I stand ready to expound, and I hope you do, too. What I am suggesting is seeking the right audience, time, place, and tone. In the meantime, I am suggesting a better show of courtesy and restraint.
Who knows. We might just increase dialog. In the process, we might also elevate the experience that people associate with us skeptics, and improve their receptivity to skepticism overall.