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The Principle of The Thing PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Steve Cuno   

(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.

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written by keydetpiper, November 16, 2009
Back in my church going days, the most sensible pastor I ever had said the same thing about evangelizing: don't try to force it down someone's throat. Start a real conversation first and wait for the right time to bring it up. If there isn't a good time to bring it up today, there might be down the road. It's a very low-pressure way to spread your viewpoint, simply because you don't make enemies.
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written by bosshog, November 16, 2009
Another risk run by "boorish asses" is the possibility that we may, after all, be wrong.
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written by MadScientist, November 16, 2009
My preferred method of playing the ass is to ask questions. That way the orator looks a royal ass as well (although I'm always the one despised for being the party pooper). According to Plato's stories of Socrates, that technique of asking questions riled people over 2000 years ago as well.
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written by Steel Rat, November 16, 2009
an evidence-based marketing firm


Isn't that an oxymoron?
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written by Otara, November 16, 2009
The problem of course being that some people are attracted to this area precisely because it offers the ability to spread the truth to the masses and provide that important information about 30fps really being 29.997 fps or equivalent. The guy in the Big Bang sitcom is not an entirely unwarranted stereotype.

So asking people to tone it down is a worthy goal but dont set your hopes too high is my view.
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Me too
written by bestservedchilled, November 16, 2009
Oh dear, I fear that I have also fallen into this trap. I'm sure some of my friends must think I'm an ass too because sometimes I can't help it and hear myself launching into another diatribe trying to crush homoeopathy, mediums or something... I know that most of the time it's futile, but that doesn't stop me. I think I'll try adopting the arm's length approach from now on - until the next time.
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Some more pedantry...
written by ianmacm, November 16, 2009
The article should of course read: "standard videotape in NTSC countries with a mains frequency of 60Hz runs at 29.97 frames per second." In PAL AND SECAM countries with a mains frequency of 50Hz, it is 25 frames per second. smilies/tongue.gif
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written by popsaw, November 16, 2009
Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting - pardon the allusion - hiding one's light under a bushel

Why pardon the allusion? It is a good one!
Good article, wisdom and intellect are not mutually exclusive.
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>:3
written by Quakeulf, November 16, 2009
At times when someone thinks I'm wrong I'll pull out the failsafe "your mum"-joke and insta-win any conversation.

It's tried and tested, QED.
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Lunar Crime reply to retired policeman
written by Holmstrom, November 17, 2009
"You know, I had heard that too, but LAPD commissioned a study in the 80's to find lunar cycles of crime. There were none. In fact they found that more crimes were actually committed, (by a very small percentage,) during the 'new moon.' Being "a dark and moonless night," I suppose that makes sense."
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written by OldProf, November 17, 2009
Just ask my wife. I am also very guilty of this.

However, in the US at least, there is far more damage done by people being polite and not saying things than the other way around. It's just that you have to accept scorn and distaste.
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written by nankay, November 17, 2009
When someone makes a blatantly ignorant/misinformed comment, I too have a hard time letting it go. (I am not talking about correcting someone just for the thrill of being right like the young man in the script class.) By not confronting ignorance, do you not aid in the proliferation of "woo"? Why should the policeman in this case, get to spread his ignorance to those listening, but the one with accurate information has to stand idly(politely?) by? So what if the policeman didn't listen. Perhaps you planted a seed of skepticism in those around you.

What if someone says something racially offensive/ignorant? How about dangerous health advice? Are we to be polite and let that go too because we're not in the "right audience"? Are there some types of ignorance you don't give a free pass to? At what point do you step up? Is there "a line in the sand" that ignorance has to cross before you confront it?

Of course there are ways of stating a case or debating an urban legend that can distinguish one from a know-it-all ass from someone knowledgeable. But for one to always wait for the right audience--one receptive to information--one would find himself repeatedly preaching to an already skeptical choir.
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It's all in how you go about it...
written by Griz, November 17, 2009
...a lot of "nerd" types confront on an intellectual basis because they don't have the tools for physical confrontation. Either way, confrontation is confrontation, and you never get the desired result when you challenge someone directly and back them in a corner. It becomes a pissing contest every time because it's no longer about the issue but it's about who's right. A crowd of people being regaled with interesting stories from a cop who's sure that the full moon brings out crazies is not interested in the wet blanket intellectual's data and references on full moons and confirmation bias. You will be seen as a party pooper and rude for basically telling the cop he's either lying or ignornant.

It's basic social interaction 101. You pick your battles. I know lots of cops, firemen, and even folks at the ME's office in my county. They all are convinced that a full moon increases their work load because they've all seen it and every other cop or firefighter they know says the same thing and there's no real point in trying to fight that misconception because they will not believe any scientific study over their personal experience. These folks have no basic grounding in research or scientific methodology and without that they will never understand or accept any of the references you give them.

So why bother? The short answer is what I said above: the know-it-all has to spout his knowledge or he's not a know-it-all. Nobody likes a know-it-all, especially when he's smugly right.
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Nankay
written by Griz, November 17, 2009
I just have one question, and I mean this with the greatest possible respect, but who put you in charge of people's ignorance? I figure it's up to them to figure it out for themselves, just like it's up to me. Why shouldn't they do the same thing I have? Why is it my responsibility to try to get them to do it, especially when my challenges are not welcome and therefore unlikely to be constructive?

A while back there were flyers posted all over one of the building I work in. They were asking for contributions to raise $30,000 so this cop with terminal cancer could go somewhere in central america for "stem cell therapy" as a last resort. Since I knew the people that were spearheading this effort, I really struggled with going to them and explaining that this was a scam and a waste of thirty grand, but in the end I said nothing, for all the reasons I cited above. I don't think it would have made a bit of difference in the whole thing, and I would have put myself in the position of being the messenger of death, causing a lot of heartache, and all to no avail. I'd rather start fights I can win.
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written by DKrap, November 17, 2009
The problem here is that the ignorant person, the retired police officer, was probably being viewed by his listeners as a person of authority. What better person to "know" the "truth" about crimes during a full moon than a police officer! My own spouse, who worked in hospital emergency rooms for decades, has the impression that there are more accidents requiring ER visits when there is a full moon, especially if the full moon coincides with Halloween. From these examples, it is not so much the message that is taken wrong, it is the fact that it is a social gathering. If the police officer were giving a talk at a seminar, then he should be rightfully called out to produce empirical evidence and/or studies to support his claim.
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written by nankay, November 17, 2009
If all people hear is one side of something, many just assume that that is what is and go no further. They do not know another side exists to even be looking for it. Planting the seeds of doubt by merely questioning, MAY lead some to look further. By letting "woo" go without a mention, one is contributing to the problem. As a young,inexperienced teacher, I too bought in to the "sugar and the full moon makes kids crazy" line of thought because that's what all the experienced teachers and parents said .I "saw" it myself. The day after Halloween was always dreaded. Until someone mentioned that there were studies out there that showed maybe it just wasn't so,the thought had never crossed my mind as I was so steeped in my own confirmation bias. Just the mentioning of another side of things made me look further and discover the error of my thinking. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.


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@MadScientist
written by AlmightyBob, November 17, 2009
...and look what happened to Socrates smilies/smiley.gif
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written by Otara, November 17, 2009
I think people are reading this as saying to no challenge the idea at all.

I think whats really being said is timing is important with challenging or correction and doing it as its said in a public setting like the policeman is often the worst possible time. For instance you could talk to the guy afterwards by himself as a conversation and possibly stop that story being said to hundreds of people in the future by an authority figure, rather than embarrassing him in front of that particular group. Very few people enjoy public debates in a social setting and it will almost inevitably become more about saving face than about finding out the truth, the chance of a seed being planted is vanishingly low in my view, if anything this kind of image is what tends to make skepticism unpopular in my view.
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Lunacy
written by tmac57, November 17, 2009
Maybe you could have said to the officer: "Hey, given that this is true, its a wonder that the Apollo astronauts didn't try to kill each other ON the moon" smilies/wink.gif
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Hmmm
written by pxatkins, November 17, 2009
Can someone show me the study that contradicts the ex-cops' claim?
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written by nankayk@hotmail.com, November 17, 2009
The time,place and method makes all the difference in the world! I would probably offer an interested ,"Really? Huh..I've been reading some stuff lately about the full moon effect that says..." Not an attack at all. In the case of some old wives tale my mother-in-law pops up with,I would LOVE to attack with all claws and teeth, but to keep peace,I usually say something like,"Yeah,I've heard that,but I think some (scientists,doctors,whatever)are rethinking that now saying...blah blah blah." It gets the info out there, no one has been shamed and life goes on.
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to pxatkins
written by tmac57, November 17, 2009
This link to the Skeptic's Dictionary has a good run down, and cites sources.
http://www.skepdic.com/fullmoon.html
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written by Caller X, November 17, 2009
[qoute]Hmmm
written by pxatkins, November 17, 2009
Can someone show me the study that contradicts the ex-cops' claim?

If you mean "will someone google this for me or look it up on Wikipedia for me?" the answer is a firm but fair "No". First, because to do so would actually be to do you a disservice, and second, because it doesn't matter if such a study exists or not. The ex-cop made a claim; it falls to him to substantiate it. Simply say "Anecdotal evidence, argument by assertion. Dismissed. I said ' Dismissed!' " What you should be asking is where is the study that supports his assertion. That would be using the old noggin, aka the brain bone.
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I disagree caller X
written by Bill Henry, November 17, 2009
While it should be up to the person making a claim to substantiate it:
1) the fact is his evidence would likely be personal knowledge and experience, and
2) there have been a number of articles done on this.

This web site has a number of them I believe.
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@griz
written by Steel Rat, November 17, 2009
I'd rather start fights I can win.


I don't mean to be insulting, but isn't that rather cowardly? Maybe you meant you'd rather start fights worth fighting?
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written by Gary, November 17, 2009
Sadly, you must consider the audience. As my wife says, "Well, you believe what you want to believe and I'll believe what I want." I've learned to keep my mouth shut
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Steel Rat
written by Griz, November 18, 2009
It's very telling that you chose the word cowardly. It's cowardly when you back off of something because you're scared of it. I don't mean to be insulting, but if that's something you have to deal with, please don't project it on me. Starting a fight you know you can't win is stupid, illogical, and causes all kinds of grief that is rarely constructive, all to make some obscure point that no one cares about anyway (see my post above.) Problem is, when it comes to confrontation, a lot of people will confront BECAUSE they're scared and they don't know whether declining the engagement is for a good reason or because they're afraid, therefore they confront. Those are the kind of people that take a lot of ass kickings over the course of their lives.
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written by Caller X, November 18, 2009
written by Bill Henry, November 17, 2009
While it should be up to the person making a claim to substantiate it:
1) the fact is his evidence would likely be personal knowledge and experience


As I said, anecodotal evidence and argument by assertion. Gratuitously asserted, just as gratuitously denied.

, and
2) there have been a number of articles done on this.


Much like the Hollow Earth theory.
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@griz
written by Steel Rat, November 18, 2009
You're reading way too much into the word. Forget I mentioned it.
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To be pedantic...
written by kdv, November 18, 2009
I really hope the teacher's reply to the student was along the lines of "30fps to two ( or, as it happens, three ) significant figures". Just because the student was more exact, the lecturer was correct, because he only quoted two significant figures. If he had said "30.00fps" he'd have been wrong because he would have then been expressing four significant figures.

We all round numbers every day, and providing we don't claim an accuracy greater than the significant figures stated, it is perfectly correct and acceptable. Imagine if I was buying sugar, and the label had to read 400.0173492.....etc etc grams. I think I'd die of a headache!
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Steel Rat
written by Griz, November 19, 2009
Heheheh, thanks for illustrating my point quite effectively!
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Pedantic
written by GusGus, November 19, 2009
I was just about to make a similar comment. In my opinion the instructor should have said "approximately 30 frames per second." The students believe everything the instructor tells them -- therefore technical-minded students not hearing the word "approximately" would think that 30 was exact. That's the difference between humanities-minded folks like the scriptwriting instructor and technical-minded folks like the student who corrected him.
.
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Great advice, and so difficult to live up to
written by huonia, November 19, 2009
I teach science to 12-year-olds, and therefore have a great pulpit for encouraging critical thinking. With kids, you can set up the situation (TV faith healers, psychic mediums, etc. and get them to hypothesize non-supernatural explanations. Therefore, you're not put in the position of being the drip.

But oh, how I slip up with my friends, family, and colleagues. So difficult to keep my trap shut when no one has asked for my brilliant insights. I'm getting better, but it's always two steps forward, one step back.
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written by Steel Rat, November 19, 2009
Heheheh, thanks for illustrating my point quite effectively!


If that's what you think, more power to you.
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written by LuigiNovi, November 19, 2009
Steve, as a sketptic who worked in market research for almost ten years, and who understands how some can react to skepticism when offered in certain venues, I can sympathize with you. Good piece.

[bS]teve Cuno: Steve Cuno is the founder of an evidence-based marketing firm...

Steel Rat: Isn't that an oxymoron?
Luigi Novi: No, because that's what market research companies employ in their work: evidence. They don't generally employ ouija boards or tarot cards, after all. smilies/smiley.gif
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Luigi Novi
written by Griz, November 20, 2009
No, because that's what market research companies employ in their work: evidence. They don't generally employ ouija boards or tarot cards, after all.


Exactly. It means they've researched which lies and innuendo work best.
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who says obscure knowledge will never really be useful
written by msexceptiontotherule, November 24, 2009
Lots of people.

But, seeing as I've found a way to get around that line of thinking, by taking time to share my vast quantity of obscure factual information with those less fortunate (or lucky to have been raised by non-teachers for parents who had no idea kids should be routinely encouraged to think about things from outside the box but only from the safety ensured from doing this only while in their home - once they started going to school and found out that dinosaurs may *not* have been something God put in the ground so that we'd find their fossils and be entertained with trying to re-create such animals who never actually existed.)
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written by msexceptiontotherule, November 24, 2009
this feeling of obligation I have, to share all of the random and obscure knowledge with others - yeah, it's not just so I can always manage to completely shock and amaze people by having the correct answer to their questions that were assumed impossible to answer. And really, it's not all that great for board games on trivia either.

However, there is something that I've developed strong negative feelings about - which is when someone tries to inform me that my list of shows about the paranormal has neglected more than 20 offerings, and then goes on to tell me the real reason for a particular show's being on extended hiatus, blahblahblah making some movie blahblahblah will see a new season starting next month blahblahblah. If I was actually writing something that supported (for the purposes of the story here, we'll just go with the one that seemed to be getting most of the reaction) the reality show which actually can prove how easily an entire group can be influenced, especially if the information that they're getting is from a source they consider to posess a substantial level of experience and/or knowledge - but otherwise doesn't prove anything else, unless you count video-records to prove college kids spend way too much time out screwing around in someone's basement they heard was haunted, or in the woods at 3am.
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