HBO premiered the Alex Gibney Scientology documentary “Going Clear” last night. It airs many more times on various HBO channels through April and on their on-demand service – I encourage you to check it out. It is based on the 2013 book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, which detailed many abuses that have gone on in the church. Both the book and the documentary feature damning testimony by many ex-members of the church, some of whom had very high ranking positions.
The church itself, needless to say, is not amused. In typical fashion it has waged a PR war against the film, starting with an expensive full-page ad in the New York Times on January 16. It has continued its assault with a series of articles printed in their own “Freedom Magazine”. (The material there largely consists of a series of ad hominem attacks on the former Scientologists interviewed in the film).
But how is the church expecting any of this additional material to be seen by the general public? Freedom Magazine is not well known outside church circles, and the New York Times ad has not repeated. Who is going to bother to go to this obscure website to read these attacks?
The answer is in online advertising. How the church is using online ads may have some interesting lessons for skeptics.
There’s much to learn when you are interested in skepticism. There’s the human psychology, the history of various scams and hoaxes, the science (and pseudoscience) of alternative medicine, and much more. As a result there’s plenty of material to read – books, magazines, newsletters, blogs and so on.
In my reading, I inevitably come across lots of interesting little tidbits here and there. Finding stuff like this was the basis in part for both What’s the Harm and my Skeptic History daily fact.
But sometimes you find a neat fact that you’d love to call to everyone’s attention, but you don’t have the appropriate place to put it. Social media is often too ephemeral, and blogging is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Let’s assume you don’t have a popular website of your own (most people don’t) and don’t want to start one. Some topics just aren’t appropriate for their own Wikipedia (or even RationalWiki) article. Either there just isn’t enough meat there, or other editors might question the “notability”.
Wouldn’t be nice if there was another place to publicly bookmark little items like this, set up so the general public could easily find them? There is such a place and let me explain why it’s ideal for this.
Because skeptics constantly criticize the claims of others, we often provoke angry reactions. Ideally this provokes some educational debate, but sometimes it goes sour. That can take the form of trolling, harassment or even escalate to legal action. In the United States the legal option tends not to be too successful, thanks to our First Amendment rights. But that doesn’t apply outside the US.
Some opponents of skeptics seek out more creative ways to shut down our commentary. A few years ago a German named Claus Fritsche was paid by homeopathy manufacturers to create spam websites that would poison the search engine results for Edzard Ernst’s name, in an effort to discredit his critiques of alternative medicine. Numerous skeptics have been targets of spurious DMCA claims on YouTube over the years.
Recently the European courts have created a brand new way for the people we criticize to tamper with (at least in Europe) our ability to reach an audience. It is called the “right to be forgotten” and skeptic webmasters need to stay on top of their tools in order not to get blindsided by this.
Read on and I’ll explain.
I’ve mentioned in several articles how important I feel it is to reach out to what Michael Shermer calls fence sitters: the people who have no strong opinion on skeptical topics. These are people who are neither skeptics nor believers. If we can reach these people before they’ve been swayed by a “believer”, we can educate them about what science has to say about the topic areas of skepticism.
An obvious way to do this is through search engine results. Build a website on a particular topic, and do your best to get it ranked highly by Google. Then when “fence sitters” reach out for information on that topic, you’ll be ready for them. Needless to say this takes a bit of effort. For some topics it is very difficult to elbow your way into that crucial first page of search engine results, due to huge amounts of competition.
But what if there were a way to post good science-oriented material on an existing website that is almost guaranteed to be in the first page of search engine results? Then you could focus on the material itself, and not even have to worry about setting up your own site and optimizing it for searches.
Such a website exists, and it is called Wikipedia.