Podcast Episode

Episode Eighteen – On The Placebo Protest (Skepticism And Communication Part Three)


The direct Mp3 download of this episode is here.

Welcome to Episode Eighteen! This particular episode is another conversation with Michael McRae, about the #boobquake day, held on the 26th April, earlier this week. 

I also, thanks to the Virtual Drinking Skeptically chat which inspired me, have Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking included! As a community outreach worker, she brings her own experiences in terms of rallies and protests – what did she think and what did fellow feminists and skeptics say to her?

After he published an essay on the SheThought site, I decided to clear up a few things in regards to what really was happening, was it about communicating science, as some claimed – or was it something that really showed how not many of us are reflecting on the impact of actions skeptics take?

From Michael McRae’s ‘The Rise of the Placebo Protest‘:

“However, for skeptics who actually desire a public change in attitude and have hope that the next generation will have a better grasp of critical thinking, protests and stunts shouldn’t be considered as part of the solution. What’s more, they should be considered as potentially counterproductive, sacrificing the very things that make science so useful for a grab for headlines and nodding heads. In the very least, they should be treated as if they will actually produce some form of results.

Dismissing criticism of such events is no different than those who defend religion, alternative medicine or a belief in fairies as in the least harmless and at the most productive thanks to the mere possibility of their illusionary benefits. Placebo protests are fundamentally little different to placebo medicines, and demand the very same critical evaluation for evidence.

There will be more Boobquakes, homeopathic suicides and similar skeptic protests in the future. They’re simple and get a response that satisfies our confirmation-biased brains. Such events aren’t intrinsically good or bad. But to claim they’re useful for engaging the public in science, promoting skepticism or encouraging more people to think critically simply isn’t supported by the evidence.”

Desiree Schell can be heard on www.skepticallyspeaking.com and Michael McRae’s work can be found at Science By Email.

Previous post

Episode Seventeen – On How We Only Like You Because You're Good In Blog - Blogging Skeptically

Next post

Episode Nineteen - On Skepticism And Education (Interview With JREF's Michael Blanford)


  1. […] Check this out: New episode of Token Skeptic, inspired by last night’s chat […]

  2. dorbie
    May 3, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Having just listened to this podcast (I really enjoy most of them), what struck me was that it began with the assertion that you must back up claims of success for boobquake with evidence beyond the publicity it generated. It was remarkable to then hear a lot of unsupported assertions by the guest on a range of issues including boobquake’s lack of success. It was nothing more than opinion and an appeal to the authority of the guest, who really needs to take his own advice.

    Compounding this was the insipid and shallow analysis of Boobquake including tying a measure of success to original intent, (by this standard companies like youtube were failures) or the preposterous suggestion that success should in any way be linked to whether it converted anyone from a genuine belief that cleavage causes quakes.

    It is relevant that there have been quake plots and statistical analysis of earthquake frequency since the initial headlines, moving well beyond the joke/protest. There have also been community ties back to our own clerics who have made similar silly faith-based claims, helping raising awareness of the underlying flaws in such systems of thinking.

    This podcast gave the impression that there was some underlying resentment on the part of the participants over the inadvertent publicity generated by the relatively frivilous boobquake campaign.

    Get over it.

  3. May 3, 2010 at 4:44 am

    From the Digital Cuttlefish at http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2010/05/placebo-protests.html
    I was just listening to Token Skeptic #18, and nearly gave myself whiplash with all my nodding in agreement. In my classes, I am known for my opposition to the goal of “raising awareness”; fuzzy, ill-defined concepts like that do more harm than good. Take a page from the success of science, and operationally define the things you wish to change, or it is too easy to either see change where there has been none, or miss real change that has happened while you were off looking at something relatively irrelevant.

    Michael McRae (featured on the first half of the podcast) uses the term “placebo protest” to describe a protest which makes the protesters feel good, but which has no measurable effect on the actual problem. To my cynical mind, such protests, along with ribbon pins and magnets, and prayer, are much more about making us feel like we are doing something, than they are about actually doing something. The second half of the podcast features Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking, whose experience as an organizer leads her to a very similar view as McRae’s (in part; she has considerably more to say, as does McRae–I am focusing on just one part).

    Mind you, not everything we do needs to be for a reason, nor should we hesitate to admit it when we do something frivolous for fun (like, say, this blog) without knowing if it has positive, negative, or no effects at all on the problems of society. But when we wish to make a difference, we have tools which we should use.

  4. […] to everyone who commented on the last episode, ‘On The Placebo Protest – Skepticism Communication Part Three’ – particularly the Digital Cuttlefish for writing in verse and Gold from the NZ […]

  5. Since when does pointing out a clear lack of evidence for a claim itself demand evidence? I would have thought it was self-evident, personally.

    ‘Success’ is a contextual claim that demands a qualifier to make sense. Boobquake did indeed attract attention, and so if the qualifier for success was simply to reach a number of people with an emotive message, then as stated it was indeed quite successful. However, one doesn’t need to look very far for supporters to equate this output with effectively doing something more, including the promotion of science, which was the fundamental point behind the discussion. The risk, therefore, is that if this perception were to go unchallenged, others in the future may well be inclined use similar public engagements with this specific aim in mind, confusing output for outcomes, in spite of the fact it is an assumption that is without merit.

    The respondent repeats the same insinuation that the statistical analysis and the very fact the protest shows the imam’s thinking is ‘silly’ is beneficial to ‘raising awareness’ of a skeptical conclusion. I’m still not entirely sure what this implies. ‘Raising awareness’ makes for great political rhetoric, mostly because it is a meaningless phrase that implies the communication of a message does something. In any case, assuming the goal is to promote the acceptance of a belief, I question if this contradicts the very point of skepticism, which to me is to encourage thinking rather than to simply accept a belief because it seems appealing or the alternative sounds silly.

    I assume (and could be mistaken) that the respondent is suggesting that by pointing out how something sounds silly, and throwing in a few statistics and something that looks scientific, it will somehow have an impact on the public’s appreciation of scientific or critical thinking. If so, again, it conflicts with my experience in the field (where I’ve not seen this connection take effect) and I’d love to see something supporting the respondent’s assertion. The term ‘burden of proof’ comes to mind; a term most skeptics are most familiar with, I understand.

    Lastly, ‘appeal to authority’ would be an appropriate slur if I was stating my view is correct because of my experience, which is not the case. Rather, I’m led to my personal conclusions by my experience in the field. Everybody is open to drawing their own opinions and welcome to change mine by providing something substantial, of course.

    I note to date that the responses I’ve received on this topic are either rather supportive, or are ironically attacking the lack of evidence behind my criticism over a lack of evidence.

  6. May 3, 2010 at 9:23 am

    I would also add, ‘Dorbie’ or ‘Gus’, if you recall listening to episodes of this show, you would know that Michael has previously appeared in #9 and #10? Have a relisten and learn something about his qualifications and experience, which far outstrips anyone who has commented thus far.
    If you give specific evidence of what issues you have, then we’ll respond further.
    And thanks for subscribing.

  7. Dacks
    May 12, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Just got around to listening to this episode -wow! I really appreciated the nuanced opinions of both of your guests.

    I reacted to “boobquake’ on a gut level: dismay . How do we advance a discussion of the oppression of women by making a video of ‘girls gone wild’? It gets to a question that nags at me and many of my (over 40) friends: does the highly sexualized presentation of younger women point to an assimilation or a rejection of feminism? Is Lady Gaga a feminist role model? There is an ambivalence in some young feminists that is disappointing to those of us who believed in being accepted on our own terms, not in terms of our sexuality. Why are jiggling breasts an acceptable form of expression, while unshaved legs are not?

  8. nowoo
    May 17, 2010 at 4:56 am

    I’m listening to this episode at the moment, and I’m reminded of two videos I watched earlier today about the value of “Preaching to the Converted” and about Richard Dawkins’ being perceived as too “strident” when he expresses his views clearly:


    I agree that Boobquake wasn’t an unqualified success on all “fronts”, but I detect a bit of confirmation bias on the part of those who wanted to see its approach fail. As a former devout religious believer who was prodded out of my comfortable old beliefs and into skepticism/atheism by (among other things) the “strident” outspokenness of blogs like Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb, I tend to recognize the value of that kind of willingness to preach to the choir and tell people their beliefs are bullshit.

  9. May 17, 2010 at 5:16 am

    Sorry, who wanted its approach to fail? I’m not sure what you’re saying.

  10. nowoo
    May 17, 2010 at 5:52 am

    I’m sorry, I worded that very poorly. Instead of “wanted it to fail”, I meant something like “expected it to fail”. I was trying (poorly, I’m afraid) to say that Michael McRae, and to some extent you, Kylie, and Desiree, gave me the impression that you believe the “in their face” criticism of religious claims, like Jen’s in the blog post that sparked Boobquake, is necessarily counterproductive. I hoped to make the point that, despite what many people believe (possibly because of religious memes that can affect/infect even the non-religious), sometimes ridicule is an appropriate/effective response to ridiculous ideas/claims/positions.

  11. May 18, 2010 at 4:32 am

    1) What would “fail” mean in this case? No goal was defined. It’s not possible to want it to fail if there is no way to fail.

    By the way, if there is no way to fail, there is also no way to succeed.

    2) In regard to “…sometimes ridicule is an appropriate/effective response…”, the word “effective” can’t be used to describe a response. “Effective” requires a goal or a purpose; responses are just responses.

    Whether or not ridicule is an appropriate response isn’t at issue here. Whether or not Boobquake was appropriate is.

    There was nothing in the interviews about “in their face” criticisms, at least none that I heard. It wasn’t about ridicule as an approach to activism at all. It was about thoughtless, careless waste of resources and effort. It was about poor planning and poor execution. It was about ignoring all of the reasons NOT to do it when there were no good reasons to do it. The reasons that people have given me which have stood up to scrutiny have been no more valuable than “it was fun”, and that, imo, is not a good enough reason to sacrifice the things that were sacrificed for it (and I’m not going into those things here; it’s been covered).

    I have yet to see an example of confirmation bias in any of the arguments made by those who thought Boobquake was a bad idea. I’ve seen a few people claim it was there, but nobody has produced an example. If you’ve got one, please share.

  12. May 18, 2010 at 4:34 am

    From Mike McRae:
    I’d ask if they feel ridicule is an ‘effective’ response, it must be ‘effective’ in the context of achieving something concrete.

    To claim it is ‘effective’ you’d need to show the action did what you wanted it to do. In this case, we can only guess that the goal was more than just to demonstrate that people were upset, as it was cited as an act of science outreach and promoting an interest/understanding in science. If it was just a plain old ‘we’re angry’ protest, it’s self-evidential that it worked, so as such it was effective as a protest. No argument there.

    But if ‘effective’ implies something more, we – as skeptics – should seek evidence of that. In addition, we should address the mechanism to see if it is efficient as well as effective. Perhaps people cease discussing those beliefs around you, for fear of reprisal. Mockery is a form of social bullying, used to discourage a belief not out of an epistemological change but using psychological pressure to make a person feel inferior for indulging in it. This product focused form of skeptical outreach seems to suit a lot of skeptics, unfortunately, where the aim is to use force or intimidation to end ‘woo’ rather than communicate effective thinking skills.

    I would add – are you trying to talk about atheism, science or skepticism, ‘no woo’? Because in regards to the communication of science concepts, there is research about what works.