The Long Tail of skepticism

By Phil Plait | November 25, 2008 12:56 pm

Tim Farley is a skeptic and the creator of the What’s the Harm? website, where he details the harm in believing in antiscience. He also writes a blog called Skeptical Software Tools, and he had a very interesting post recently about the Long Tail of blogging skeptically.

The Long Tail is the idea that in any population, a few objects get the lion’s share of the influence. For example, take something you judge by popularity — TV shows, books, blogs — and you’ll see a very few are hugely popular and enjoy a lot of traffic, but the vast majority don’t get nearly that much traffic. However, taken collectively, that long tail distribution of less-popular things might have the same traffic in total as the most popular things.

An example: PZ Myers has the most popular science blog on the planet. Mine gets less traffic than his, and a handful of other science blogs may get what’s considered to be a lot of traffic. Then there are the thirty bazillion remaining science blogs which get less traffic individually… but if you add up all their traffic, they probably get as much as PZ and me and the other "top" blogs combined as well.

I get email sometimes with someone asking me how they can write a blog that’s really popular. I tell them, first build a time machine… because you’ll need to start ten years ago.

Tim’s point in his Long Tail post is similar. You’ll probably never be able to start a skeptical or science blog that’ll get huge (you might, it’s just unlikely at this point). But that’s not to say you can’t make an impact. In fact, there’s a real niche — and a need — for targeted skepticism. Instead of tackling a broad range of things, find one thing that ticks you off and have at it. Jenny McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, James van Praagh, Kevin Trudeau– these are all people who need debunking, and a blog dedicated to tearing apart their antiscience can still generate traffic, and get good Google search engine results.

Look at Stop Sylvia Browne, a blog by Robert Lancaster. By staying focused and targeted, it swiftly climbed up on Google and is now one of the top searches on her name. Same thing with Stop Jenny McCarthy. Take on one of these people, or a specific flavor of antiscience — there’s plenty to choose from, sadly — and you can make a real difference.

I encourage you to try. If there’s some particular brand of nonsense that sticks in your craw (and if you read my blog, I’ll bet there is), start writing about it! And don’t be afraid to ask for links from bigger blogs. The next thing you know, there might be one less thing to write about, and the world will be a better place.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Skepticism

Comments (50)

  1. I guess I’d be at the end of that tail. Just a tiny blip. :)

    I’m much to “random” a person to ever take up a focus like some folks have. I just like using a blog as a place to make updates, post thoughts, and even preserve something interesting I found. Although, about that time machine, I may have one if you really want one. It’ll cost you though!

  2. Many bloggers are now abandoning them in favor of Twitter. It seems that the blogosphere has been taken over by corporate media.

    OT… Global News just ran a story on the Edmonton Fireball. They say that scientists determined it to be a chunk of an asteroid about the size of 2 large elephants. I’d love to know how they determined that! They have narrowed down the area where they think it came down to an area in S.W. Saskatchewan, near the Alberta border.

  3. Great points in this post, Phil! My blog tends to cover lots of issues, so it will probably never get the huge bump some of the more established ones have, but that’s OK.

    BTW – your link yesterday to my site just about doubled my average number of subscribers and hits for the last two days. Thanks!

  4. Sili

    My ‘problem’ is that I have no idea what’s happening on the Danish ‘market’. I get all my news online and am much more focused on international blogs than anything.

    So I don’t know what sorta crap is happening with Danish science and politics, nor do I see what woo is dabbled in. And just as importantly I don’t know if anyone is actually already out there debunking it.

  5. What’s that about targetted skeptical blogs? Say, a target like Canada & Skepticism?

    Why, if only there was a blog like that. I don’t want THE Canadian skeptic (blog). I just want SOME Canadian skeptic (blog).

    Oh wait! I haz one!

    And it’z meeeeeee!!! For instance, did you know that recently, the Canadian Prime Minster, Stephen Harper, named a chiropractor and accupuncturist as our new Minister of Science and Technology? For more information, http://somecanadianskeptic.blogspot.com/2008/11/watch-your-back-goodyears-good-year-may.html go there! And then go often! It’s free! And I’m shameless in my self-promotion!

  6. I host a website on critical thinking in martial arts, Bad Martial Arts. (Yes, I shamelessly copied Phil’s “Bad” theme, with his permission, mind you!) Martial arts are so filled with ancient pseudo-mumbo jumbo that I’m sure I could fill many volumes debunking all of it – I just have a “sample” (i.e. quite a bit of stuff) on the website.

    I’m familiar with martial arts, having taught it for 8 years, but there are other subjects that I’m not as knowledgeable about that it would be nice to have targeted skeptical blogs/websites about. (For instance, and this is just a suggestion for others that might be in the know, there needs to be some critical thinker applying his/her skills to the world of nutrition supplements/protein bars, etc.)

    So like Phil said, there’s definitely room for specific skeptical stuff!

  7. James the Militant Agnostic

    So, I should stop unleashing all my vitriol in your comments and carve out my own little acid bath in the blogosphere, is that what you are saying?

    Only problem is that I couldn’t bait militant athiests on my own blog.

    They would never come there in the first place.

  8. I should make a list of needed topics.

    Bad infomercials.
    Bad ads.
    Bad TV shows/movies (I kinda cover that, but there’s room for more).
    Medicine has a hundred disciplines where help is needed
    Different flavors of astrology.
    Palm readers.

    On and on. This list is endless, literally, because it grows faster than we can strike through it.

  9. “And don’t be afraid to ask for links from bigger blogs.”

    Yes, I remember doing that: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/10/23/zoned-out/
    “The URL is fixed. Sheesh.”

    My blog (which features the powerpoint of my own National Skeptic conference in Australia, on addressing the ‘long tail’ that was brought to my attention by Reed of SkeptiCamp) is on my site, along with the essays on gender, superstition and the biggest paranormal survey yet done in Australia for my M.Ed. Yes, working for stopjenny.com is something I’m quite proud of too! :) I hope to do more when my research dies down a bit.

    So, in the spirit of asking for recognition – the Skeptic Zone podcast is advertising for listeners to WIN Dr Plait’s book! Check out the great advert we have in the last two episodes and even if you have your very own copy already (as you should), this will be a great present for someone who needs more science – http://tinyurl.com/deathskiesprize

  10. Actually, Dr. Plait just said something that can be incredibly depressing:

    This list is endless, literally, because it grows faster than we can strike through it.

    Think about that for a bit. As a skeptic and lover of science, I feel that more and more of my efforts are spent refuting the trash than showing the gems. I went to the local “Science” museum once, and was explaining gravitational lensing to my daughter. During my talk, I started getting barraged with questions from folks who happened to be standing within earshot of me about UFOs, astrology, alien abductions, etc. Now, I appreciate the fact that those folks there were willing to ask me about these subjects considering I am not a trained astronomer; but it took away from all the other really cool subjects I could have been talking about. (I did get to talk about real stuff with my daughter once we got home.)

    The fact that we need all this debunking is getting to me personally I guess. I know that getting folks to apply critical thinking would solve the root of many of these problems. Too bad it’s not easy. *sigh*

  11. bjn

    Phil, you have a (mostly) science blog with an emphasis on skepticism. PZ has a (mostly) cultural rant site with some occasional interesting science. I visit your site daily, I don’t visit PZ’s because it’s predictable, predominantly negative, and the comments have become fanboy echo chamber.

    Is traffic a measure of impact? I suggest it’s meaningless without context. PZ targets his own kind and I suggest that does little to promote skeptical thinking where it’s needed most. I think your approach of humor and unabashed enthusiasm is probably more persuasive and approachable by readers who aren’t already skeptically inclined. In all too many cases, sites with that seem to have the lion’s share of influence are in reality an example of “the pigs take all”.

  12. Davidlpf

    How about all the combo anti-science, like, the world will end because the end of the world will end in 2012 bacause the Mayan calender predicts a Sumerian planet will come and is hidden by the evil astronomers/freemasons.

  13. Hey BA! Got it today. Thanks much!

    -es

  14. Cairnos

    Michael L said: “OT… Global News just ran a story on the Edmonton Fireball. They say that scientists determined it to be a chunk of an asteroid about the size of 2 large elephants.”

    I have come to resign myself to the fact that the popular media units of mass and length are, repectively, the elephant and the london double decker bus. However I wish they would specifiy if these are metric or imperial elephants. Does anyone know the correct unit abbreviation for these new units of measurement. Is anyone storing a unit standard anywhere?

  15. I’ve been blogging since February 2002, mostly about astronomy, but also about whatever strikes me that is more or less connected to astronomy and space science. Before that I merely had a web page. I’d LOVE to get more links from bigger pages, or even a sweet deal like Phil has, but I’m also aware that my blog has to have some kind of “draw” that brings in many, many readers in order to make a “sweet deal” possible. I keep working at it…

    In fact, of all the blogs/bloggers I read about science and astronomy, etc., I note that we all work hard at what we write. I see a real love of the subjects we all cover, and that’s important.

    I began mine as an outlet from the tension of working on an astronomy book and writing documentary scripts. Over time my blog has grown to include many things, and I have a devoted cadre of readers that is quite satisfying.

    Writing a blog requires thoughtful commitment; you have to have something in mind to write about at least every day or two. And know what you’re talking about. (That’s important.)

    So, to the folks who DO want to blog and get mass audiences, Phil speaks truth to power here — think of a thing that you can write about well that will also entice readers to follow you.

    I’ve often thought about going after some of the “wooo prey” out there, but honestly, I could also go into the political aspects of astronomy and space science as easily as I go into the “wow look at the cool stuff we’ve found in the sky” material that I do write from time to time. And, maybe I’ll do more of that political stuff… it’s heady.

    And then, of course, I could do more about planetariums/full dome theaters…

  16. Re: PZ; I have to agree with bjn. Though my views of him are a lot less negative.

    @BadMA,

    I’ve been to your site, I really like it. I myself have had a long standing interest in martial arts. I’ve studied Judo, and Tae Kwon Do. Some juijitsu and Karate as well, but very little. I’ve actually been looking for a good dojo here in Atlanta. I went to your website to see if you had any tips on cutting out the bullshido. Keep it up!

    —-

    My blog has become more of a personal blog, and I try to put science and skepticism in regularly, but whenever I do that it takes a lot out of me because I feel it has to be researched meticulously for accuracy.

  17. James the Militant Agnostic

    Cairnos,

    If you google for it there is a conversion site for anything into anything; New Scientist delights in reporting the weirdest units it can find.

    some of my favourite REAL units of measurement:

    the smidge ( 1/16 of a nudge, or 12 hairs)

    the smoot (5’7″ the hight of oliver r smoot)

    proof ( 58 % by volume, the concentration of alcohol needed before gunpowder soaked in it will ignite)

  18. @bjn: I liked how you combined a complaint about negativity with a broad insult aimed at numerous people in the same sentence. Kudos.

  19. Davidlpf

    There is one topic in psuedoastronomy I think that should be blogged about but I will not mention the topic because some trolls may appear. But since at work I was voted “most likely to throw a monitor” this probably will not me or at least soon.

  20. IVAN3MAN

    I CAN’T BE BOTHERED TO BLOG BECAUSE I’M A LAZY BASTARD!

  21. IR

    Interesting read. I guess I’m in a minority in that I kind of like being way way down in the Long Tail. My wife is the only person that is aware of my blog and knows me personally. I like to use it as a general vent/rant/personal interest outlet. Just something to do.

  22. Phil says: “Take on one of these people, or a specific flavor of antiscience — there’s plenty to choose from, sadly — and you can make a real difference. I encourage you to try. If there’s some particular brand of nonsense that sticks in your craw (and if you read my blog, I’ll bet there is), start writing about it! And don’t be afraid to ask for links from bigger blogs.”

    In that spirit, I encourage all of you to read a series of posts on my blog with some subduction denialists (i.e., expanding Earth hypothesizers). I am a geologist and, against my better judgement, decided to engage in a discussion with these guys. I show just the tip of the iceberg re evidence for subduction … they still deny and come up with “interesting” mechanisms for the observations, hilarity ensues.

    Part 1 is here: http://clasticdetritus.com/2008/11/14/subduction-denialism-part-1-the-backstory/

    But, the real fun is in the comment threads of parts 2 and 3 … please feel free to jump in if you like that sort of thing.

  23. JoeSmithCA

    I refuse to blog in that what ever I say on the web may come back to haunt me. I can still find email entries from me way back in 1988–boy was I an idiot. Well maybe I still am, but I think I’m a more informed idiot that I was back then :)

  24. Ad Hominid

    James the Militant Agnostic:

    Don’t forget the jiggawatt, famously used in Back to the Future. As all scientifically informed persons know, this is a jillion watts.

  25. Quiet_Desperation

    (gets brain wave)

    A porn skepticism site…

    (slips back into nappy time)

  26. Quiet_Desperation

    Don’t forget the jiggawatt

    Or the gigawatt.

  27. JoeSmithCA

    That reminds me, I wonder what would happen if Mercury physically did go into “retrograde” some invisible, unknown force suddenly imparted enough energy over the entire planet surface to reverse it’s course. Egads imagine the amount of energy required just to stop it in its tracks. Hmmm would squish flat, compress, explode? Hmmmm…

  28. Ad Hominid

    Yes, Quiet, I know what a gigawatt is.

  29. Davidlpf

    @QD, you tell us what fake or not on your skeptics site.

  30. Good points Phil, I’m still hopeful Astroengine will dominate the www though (can you hear the distant rumbling..?) :-D

    But you’re right, you need to find a niche. When my site was a “broad interest” site, you could hear the crickets echo. But when I focused on space news and opinion (including the ripping apart of thrill-seeker doomsayer theories), traffic started to flow. It also helps massively if you already write for a huge space blog — my writing for Fraser at the Universe Today meant my articles jumped ahead by a few years, I had a running start. In fact I’ll always be in debt of Mr Cain for the rare opportunity to be on the UT staff.

    Then there’s SEO, if your site doesn’t know how to jive with Google, that is a major negative.

    Also, use social bookmarking sites. Not by cheating (i.e. don’t post your own articles – gets ya banned that does!), but by participating. Make friends (there are a lot of very knowledgeable and wonderful people out there – they can teach you a lot), exchange links and be a good member of the Web 2.0 population. Eventually, people want to see what you’ve got to say.

    Also, diversify. Whether that means writing for other blogs, news sites or real-world magazines. Most probably won’t hit the mark, but occasionally someone with a big site will notice and link to your blog, especially if you are working a niche. I’m doing a little radio show now for a station in Texas (WPRT Radio), and although it’s pretty humble at the moment, hopefully I’ll be able to provide a service that peeps can find on the web and (eventually) the airwaves.

    Its all hard work, but if you enjoy writing about your favourite subject in the world, it shouldn’t be a struggle :-) And if you’re good at it, you might be a hit.

    Cheers, Ian

  31. PJE

    I checked out that “What’s the harm ” site..did it seem like mostly a collection of anecdotes? To be fair, I didn’t click the “read more” section, but heh…”the plural of anecdote is not data”

    Any other opinions on that or am I in the minority here?

    Pete

  32. An article I wrote on the evidence against medical magnets back in 1998 holds second position in Google for “medical magnets.”
    It is the only evidence-based link on the page, other than a simple definition of the term.

  33. Oh well, my site is not a blog or a debunking site, but it’s totally community-driven, and that’s the problem!

    Maybe I will try to write a blog about Extrasolar Planets and stuff, the problem is that my english is not that good. :P

  34. I targeted bodytalk in a couple of my posts.

  35. Gonzo

    What’s The Harm? is full of epic win. What does anyone know about this Tai Chi stuff and its claimed health benefits? Any good skeptical links?

  36. Gonzo

    Any other opinions on that or am I in the minority here?

    I liked it a lot because it puts these things into an everyday, “how does this affect us” context. That said, some of the stories were only tangentially related to their topic. The read more links were useful, many led to news stories, or personal websites. There may have been some anecdotes in their but the good majority (and I spent about an hour or so clicking around) seemed to be based on solid and confirmed facts.

  37. Gonzo

    And pardon my horrible use of “their”. Grammar police, take me away. :-(

  38. James(militant Agnostic)

    Gonzo:

    I wasn’t aware that Tai Chi promised to do anything other than aid concentration, agility and balance, which is all someone should be claiming for any martial art.

    But then I’ve only ever read adverts for it in a ‘sport’ context, an ad posted in a spiritual healing rag would be a bit different I suppose.

  39. PJE said: I checked out that “What’s the harm” site..did it seem like mostly a collection of anecdotes?

    That issue is addressed in the FAQ on the site. The site is largely designed to fill a very particular rhetorical role: answering a believer who is offering only anecdotes or testimonials to support their nonsense. Often one finds these people just glaze over when you try to explain logical fallacies and scientific evidence. The anecdotes on the site give you some material to feed them that they might better understand.

    And, of course, it is intended as a motivational tool for skeptics. These cases are what we are trying to prevent.

  40. Cheyenne

    Phil- Your blog will have more readers than PZ’s in one year. Here’s why- you cover more topics (and appeal to more people) than he does. And, quite honestly, you’re not as much of a bitter guy as he is.

    Here’s another example of why your blog will grow (the great science writing is the main reason though). The other day you posted a clip from Louis CK that was hysterical. I sent that to about 20 friends (and not the YouTube clip link – your Bad Astronomy link from the post). Everybody thought it was funny, and about 3 wrote back saying “what is this “Bad Astronomy” site? Is it worth checking out?”. And I said “yes, absolutely”. Multiple that by the BA regulars and you’re building a group.

  41. Peter Eldergill

    @ Tim Farley

    Thanks for that. I read you FAQ’s and it explained alot

    Pete

  42. sciencelover

    I’d like to point out something.

    Questioning science is not anti-science. Not even if the science is solid and repeatable and explainable and as beautiful as possible. Not even if it is the millionth time it has been asked. Not even if every PhD on the planet agrees it is true. Even screaming at the top of your lungs that all of our conclusions are wrong, is not necessarily anti-science. Questioning is always good, though perhaps, annoying.

    Anti-science IS saying, “Shut up and stop questioning.” It is also unbelievably, arrogantly rude.

    Every person on this planet is participating in this fantastic experiment called life. Their perspective might be limited, their logic might be faulty, but it is possible they still know some part of the truth we don’t. To be truly pro-science you must listen to find the truth wherever it comes from. Immaterial of whatever kind of non-sense surrounds it.

    Remember, if enough people believe it, there is usually a good logical explanation there someplace.

    I don’t want to come off like I’m discouraging good debate and disagreement. On the contrary. But a little respect for the “other” perspective wouldn’t hurt, you know. It might even encourage them to respect your perspective. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

    The tone of this blog is very condescending. I get so fed up with it on a regular basis I quit reading. I come back because I love astronomy and I love to “feel the love” for astronomy here. But too often it is about being this uber-skeptic. The irony here is that when “they” are skeptical about your conclusions it is anti-science. Not just skepticism.

    Science doesn’t know everything. I hate to tell you that. But I have faith that it will, someday. No matter who shouts, “Everything is all wrong.” We’ll figure it out without ever shutting them up. And perhaps because we couldn’t.

    I guess my point is that science doesn’t need you or me or anyone deciding what is science. It will do it all by itself. And approaching this with so much negativity is only going to hurt science. Please try some humility. I really love the love you have for astronomy. But your nastiness towards those with a different opinion is pushing my buttons.

    It is silly to think that this one person who is asking you to change is going to make you change your blog for the positive. But it is sillier to think that if I don’t ask, that it will on its own. So there it is. Please tone down your attitude.

  43. joel bard

    I think you and all of us may be whistling as we pass the cemetery. That early economist (pseudoscience maybe) Prado postulated the 80/20 principle, that 80% of the interest is caused by 20% of the participants. Now days this is often considered the 90/10 principle. If true, then the world is going towards more concentration. Maybe the internet can reverse this trend.

    Keep up the good work

    joel

  44. I could use some help with a private battle. I’m involved in a discussion on a private mailing list for parents in my area (the ultra-liberal mountains near Santa Cruz, CA (and I’m ultra-liberal, so thats ok.)) about vaccinations.

    The anti-vaccine crowd keeps going on about a Dr. Sherri Tenpenny (board certified osteopath, no less) whom they say “reveals the truth about Big Pharm and the dangers of vaccines”. I haven’t been able to find *any* critical analysis of what this person has written, although I have seen some of her content on youtube (easily refuted statistical maniuplation). She’s written several books on the subject and has a “four hour DVD that reveals all!”

    But has anyone heard of her? No papers published on arxiv.org or in Nature or the Lancet for that matter.

    And to keep this on subject, what’s the best site refuting the anti-vaxxers?

    Thanks,
    –sma

  45. And that’s just what they did [insert Lil’ Rascals theme here]…
    http://bipedalia.wordpress.com

  46. Steve Algernon – I’m from stopjenny.com. I’ll pass on your message and we’ll get working on seeing what I can do about Dr Sherri Tenpenny – my email is on my site, if you wish to give me more details (an email where I can contact you, perhaps?).

  47. Kurt

    That’s right – there’s plenty more market left for the sceptics. Just like the crackpots taking a slice of the ignorance of their flock, you too can have a slice of the pie that feeds the irrationally averse.

    There is no fundamental difference between the majority of so-called sceptics and the majority of crackpots. They are both victims of an ideology and both have yet to arrive at this fact, and there is absolutely nothing that will change their (your) minds.

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