First things first. Take this quiz. It should take you about five minutes. I’ll wait.
Now that we have the quiz out of the way I have to make some assumptions about you before beginning. I’ll assume that you scored pretty high on the quiz. You probably have some kind of science enthusiasm; you might even blog or podcast or comment on science websites frequently. You are most likely college educated, a man between the ages of 18 and 24, and have been to this website before.
If I’m right about who you are, what you’re about to read will make sense (hopefully). And if you did well on the quiz, you outscored a large majority of the United States population in scientific understanding. If this surprises you, if you thought the questions were easy, this is your first lesson in science communication: know your audience.
Being a skeptic, however we want to define it, means being a science cheerleader in some respect. Skepticism is just a tool, but we can’t help but nerd-out over the reality it shows us. We want to share it with others, the magic of reality, so we take it upon ourselves to internalize and communicate what we find. Knowing your audience means more that that. It means choosing terms carefully, making things as simple as possible but not simpler, and writing and speaking coherently. When we venture outside of this little circle, budding science communicators all, we have to remember that many people have no idea where we are coming from. Systematic review? Standard deviation? Logical fallacy? What are you talking about?
The circle of skepticism envelops a wide swath of pop-culture, but I constantly find skeptics using terms and concepts only familiar to the inner circle. Throwing your weight around in a comment section, pointing out logical fallacies and statistical inconsistencies, is only useful if the audience speaks the same language. Think back to the quiz you took. If you got all the questions right, you scored better than 93% of the American population. Looking at the results, only 31% of people knew that the largest constituent of the atmosphere is nitrogen. The latest data from the National Science Foundation shows the same distribution. Understanding the skeptical position on laser hair regrowth, for example, would be difficult without knowing that lasers have nothing to do with sound waves.
Keep these distributions in your head. Think about what the distribution on a question about reductio ad absurdum might be. Like anything else, the jargon of skepticism can prevent understanding.
While I think some skeptical efforts get it wrong, skepticism is truly powerful when we get it right. Take the fantastic climate change website SkepticalScience.com. It is keenly aware, almost more than any other site I’ve been to, that it is dealing with a complex scientific topic and needs to cater to different audiences. Each page has a version for the newcomers, the advanced, and the proficient in climate change. No matter what your experience level, you are going to find something your speed there.
With that in mind, skeptical communication isn’t about flexing your logical muscles and shooting down fallacies, it’s about knowing your audience well enough to make a difference. Many skeptical websites are coated in a babble that is meant for the choir, not the crowd. It may sound like I am advocating an approach to skepticism that is general, like something you would find in Popular Science or Wired, and I am. Great science communication is a Trojan horse for great skepticism, as communicators like Carl Sagan have shown generation after generation.
So go out and promote skepticism, be the kind of communicator that got you excited about science and rationality. But know who you’re talking to. What’s common knowledge to you might as well be ancient Greek to another. As eminent psychologist Steven Pinker says, assume people are as smart as you, but they don’t know what you know. It’s your job to rectify in the most efficient way.
If you want a slightly harder quiz, see how many elements you can name in 10 minutes! (I think I scored a little over 40, beat that!)
Kyle Hill is a science writer who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom, and runs the Overthinking It blog at Scientific American. Hill has also contributed to Wired, Nature Education, Popular Science, and io9. He manages Nature Education's Student Voices blog, is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational foundation, and you can follow him on Twitter under the name @Sci_Phile.