Most experts agree that one...
...is a number.
And so, I have done a number of talks like this before, but always "in-character"...
...as the fabled YouTube superhero, Captain Disillusion...
...debunker of fake viral videos, explainer of visual effects...
...or sometimes as his adorably nervous intern, Alan.
But, not today, because this is Skepticon, one of those skeptic conferences that has "skeptic" right in the name.
So, I know you're not interested in all this tongue and cheek, you know, fluff.
You want facts and figures and practical advice on how to communicate critical thinking online.
So that is what I will attempt to give you today as just myself, just Alan Melikdjanian, a humble filmmaker, creator...
...producer, director, editor and writer of...
...a YouTube series some have described as legendary.
So, a little bit of background on myself:
aided by graduate degrees in several scientific disciplines...
...and a lifelong deep commitment to skeptical inquiry...
...I spent a number of years developing the concept for Captain Disillusion through extensive market research...
...the makeup and wardrobe went through several stages of design...
...and the whole symbolic meaning behind the character, the meeting of illusion versus reality, it was worked out well in advance before the first episode ever went up on YouTube.
To this day, there are tiny clues dispersed throughout the episodes to give you tiny inklings-
I'm so sorry, these are the wrong slides, I'm just gonna pull up the correct version of the presentation .
Bare with me, I'm sorry.
Okay, this is that one.
...so okay, sorry about that, um.
As I was saying, um, I begin a typical episode with, uh, the following introduction
"Greetings children, it's me, Captain Disillusion."
Now, that makes it seem like you're watching some sort of like cult classic 90's children program and, uh...
...that's not true, I mean sometimes I curse and there are kinda adult jokes here and there so it's a little bit misleading...
...but I do that, because in the minds of my audience, which is predominantly men ages 24 to-, 25 to 34,...
...this invokes an emotion called nostalgia, and this emotion has been known to create an illusion of quality and substances, where there might otherwise be not that much of it.
So, normally, I then go on to introduce some sort of strange, unusual, unexplainable video from the internet.
"And then there's this bizarre traffic sighting, 'The Russian Ghost Car' "
"While making a routine turn at a intersection, some drivers are cut off by a car that springs up out of nowhere,"
"Causing the most mildest accident of all time."
"My mind is getting blown harder and harder with every in-run, every takeoff and every knoll!"
"How'd they do it?"
"It just showed a young girl floating in the woods."
"Could such a thing be faked?"
And I go on to analyze the details in the video looking for evidence of fakery.
"Let's completely stabilize the position, rotation and scale of the floating girl..."
"...like some on YouTube have already done, but better!"
"And watch it rotate on an endless loop until we've achieved a state of pure skeptical enlightenment."
"I'm starting to see some meandering artifacts behind her head, and whatever that is at the base of her leg, and when I stabilize the part on the ground, there's like a giant hole in her coat or something."
But I don't just theorize, I go in and explain the details of the visual effects work.
"The Porta Potty scene is also made of two pieces, but not in way you might expect."
"The tape throw is real, assisted by a wire run through the door handle and pulled from the inside, but when the door opens, the wire operator is masked from our view by a different take of an actor on the toilet."
"In both takes the door was opened at about the same speed and any slight discrepancy was easy enough to adjust on the tape measure."
"But it wasn't so easy once the toilet guy starts to close the door in his take."
"In the thrower's take, the door stayed open, but we see the real tape measure suddenly replaced with a stretchy animated mess that follows the door back."
"It wrongly connects to the door at the edge instead of the handle and peaking above it, we can see the wire that actually pulled the door open in the toilet guy's take."
And I'm not above explaining innocent illusions that were never meant to fool anyone.
Such as this:
"What seems like a toss into the mirror and back..."
"Is actually two identical bounces against the mirror."
"During the first, the camera follows into the the reflection;"
"During the second, it follows back to the hand."
"Of course, there's a second copy of the ball visible during every part of the journey..."
"And often the best use of visual effects is not to add things into the scene, but to subtly take existing things away."
"Some judicious frame-by-frame cloning of the background..."
"Is enough to hide the real ball during the second half of the first bounce..."
"And the reflected ball during the return bounce."
"Ok, let's give this a try."
[mirror shatters] "Oh God."
[laughter] Ok, well, ok,
That doesn't always happen.
You know, people all over the world watch my videos.
And they ask me: How do you do it, Alan?
How do you figure these things out in such detail?
How are you so... amazing?
And I say "stop it" [giggles]
I mean, I don't know! I guess I just, uh, observe the world in a slightly different way;
I guess I notice things that others don't;
And... I'm able to surpass my assumptions.
'Cause we all make assumptions, let's face it.
You know, you've seen the skeptical presentations before.
Uh, for instance,
Did you guys realize, that this whole time,
I haven't been talking into a handheld microphone.
(There's nothing in my hand!)
And there's a secret microphone installed on my face!
And I hate to blow your mind, but...
There are no lenses in my -
There are no lenses in my glasses -
They're just empty frames!
These are the kind of, uh, high level detective skills that I apply in my work.
And ladies and gentlemen,
After ten years on YouTube,
And over half a million subscribers,
And 33 million views,
I've noticed a pattern:
I'm always right.
And everyone else is always wrong.
How many of you here are involved in YouTube skepticism in some way?
(Ok, one person)
With this ability to always be right, like me,
... be helpful to you in your skeptical endeavers?
AUDIENCE: (Yes) (Yeah) (Yup) ALAN: Ok.
Well, I'm not sure I could teach raw talent.
But I can give you a few practical pointers.
#1. Try to only talk about things... about which you... know about.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of being part of a panel.
Anybody here saw it?
AUDIENCE: (Yes) (Yup)
ALAN: Ok, awesome. So you know,
You know how it went:
The panel consisted of... [Happy music plays]
Dr. Brad Mckay:
Medical doctor, a host on television, and author.
An Emmy-winning producer, director, and creator of all kinds of documentories on science and medical topics.
And of course, [music stops abruptly]
"Guy who shoots videos at his parents' house for YouTube"
Now don't get me wrong, I was honored to be a part of it...
And it was exhilarating trying to come up with little quips...
...to insert between the brilliant things these people had to say.
But I think most people (kind of) could tell that one of these things is not like the others...
And that's ok. That's fine. Because you know what?
On my YouTube channel, *I* am the smart one. [chuckles]
Okay? Because *I* am the only one there...
And I talk about things that *I* know,
Which are Visual Effects.
And visual effects are very complicated. They involve...
Motion tracking, image stablization, motion tracking, image stablization, compositing...
(uh) computer graphics, compositing, motion tracking, and compositing AND computer graphics!
I've been figuring out a way to talk about the same four f***ing things for ten years!
Where's my Emmy? That's what I think.
Ok, so stick to what you know, and then you don't have to try too hard.
Which brings me to #2:
Since you're talking about things on which you're an expert...
Try not to make any mistakes ever.
Try not to make any mistakes ever. I mean, is that so much to ask?
Let's say you were making fun of a very successful Vine star - a visual effects artist.
And you compared him to a turn-of-the-century filmaker
And you compared him to a turn-of-the-century filmaker by saying something like the following:
"There's really not much that Zach King does that 'George Méliè' didn't do 112 years ago.
Ok. So you can do that type of thing, that kind of gambit...
But it's important to remember to not pretend that you know French...
Because, 'course, it's not "George Méliè", it's "Georges Méliès" (with an "s").
(It- it's right there!)
And, you know, you also saw a movie about it -
A big Hollywood movie where they say the guy's name like a million times,
So that shouldn't be a mistake, ok?
Keep track of little details like that...
Because honestly, the magnitude of even the tinest mistakes is kind of directly proportional to...
...how smug you are when you make it, right?
Uh, for instance, you know how light tends to be either warm or cool and we measure that in degrees Kelvin...
And you know, usually tungsten indoor light is like 3200 degrees Kelvin,
and daylight tends to be 5600 degrees Kelvin?
And cameras have (like) settings for them - white balance settings.
And if you get that wrong (uh) on the camera, it could look kind of weird and get all kinds of anamolies
So if you're doing a video about how this stuff caused a dress to appear a weird color to a lot of people...
And you're being a funny character and you're derisively calling everybody an idiot who saw it differently,
Try not to then (maybe) write 32,000 degrees and 56,000 degrees Kelvin,
Because I mean that's a whole other color...
And you're just kind of adding yourself into the moron pool at that point.
So, mistakes (uh) you know mistakes can happen and they can become even more important
if other people are involved.
Youtubers collaborate and (uh)
You might have a guest, let's say hypothetically
you had a guest in your Youtube video
someone like a founding father
of modern skeptical activism, James the amazing Randi
Let's say for example you had him
and you had him participate in your video
which is like a parody of the movie "Contact"
He's like (uh) a mentor figure who helped you figure out
the secret behind a popular viral ghost video.
But he's just acting in your video,
he's not doing the deconstruction himself.
So he relies on you to figure it out correctly
and write the script for him to say the stuff.
So I would recommend not to then
For the first time in your Youtube career
Get the explanation completely wrong.
And make James Randi say the wrong thing
Instead of yourself
Now I know our memory can be faulty
and we can kind of remember things backwards.
So I just want to re-iterate
I'm saying... Don't do that
Not do do that, okay?
Yeah, I mean I guess it's difficult
Let's say your guest was... an actor.
who portrayed a very iconic character
from childrens' educational TV show in America.
You know how Americans say Dr. Carl is
the Bill Nye of Australia
Well, this guy, Beakman. From Beakman's world, ...
is the Bill Nye of America.
He used to have a sort of a show that kind of started a little bit before Bill Nye.
And so, you've got this guy 20 years later to put on back his costume, his lab coat,
and you made yourself his sidekick.
And together you guys explained how, um...
How, uh, perpetual motion machines are impossible.
Right, and so you again do the research, because this guy is just an actor.
And you figured out all of the script following:
and you made this iconic scientist guy say to the kids the following:
[Video plays] "Opposite poles of two magnets attract.
"The closer they get to each other, the more the two magnetic fields interact...
"And potential energy increases."
Did anybody catch the slight, uh, discrepancy there?...
A little mistake maybe?... Yeah?
As... as magnets get closer, potential energy actually decreases.
Right, you notice that?
Yeah, so did ALL of the Internet. All of it. At the same time.
you know these kind of things can happen and you might think that well I guess
it's over I failed I wasn't always right but that is where
you're wrong because you are not wrong because here's advice number three you
can with almost any opinion kind of look at it a certain way where you might find
an angle where you're not a hundred percent wrong maybe like one percent
right and what you want to do is grab on to that opinion and just kind of defend
it on the on the forum that is designed for this purpose which is you
to comment sections so with the Beekman situation maybe somebody intelligent and
nice might make a comment and say hey I love your video I love what you do the
Beekman thing is amazing but you know there's a slight error
there and potential energy decreases I think they're closer so I just wanted to
flag that for you that's it you know what you have to do you have to stay
just as nicely actually thank you but it is you who is somewhat mistaken sir but
what you see as magnets get farther yes potential energy increases but until
they leave their spheres of influence and then at what Beakman was talking
about is that when they reach each other just say whatever it is your baby brain
thinks how it works because maybe the guy doesn't know but then another guy
might chime in and say well actually no that's not how physics works
Magnus never lose influence on each other even if they're at opposite ends
of the universe and would you say to that okay here's another technique you
just go but Wikipedia I saw a thing in Wikipedia
that kind of sounds like something that I'm saying and the two gentlemen will
proceed to kind of gently educate you that how you're completely wrong because
at least one of them happens to be a physics teacher and you were actually
not so you're going to be overcome at this point with an overwhelming desire
to just go guys I'm sorry if you're right of course we
just goofed up and you know I'll put your comment at the top so that we make
the correction but resist that urge okay don't do it don't say anything at all
you can just keep going and other people will join the conversation it'll kind of
veer off and you can just kind of slink away and the important thing is that
nobody has to admit that anyone was wrong about anything
now that's kind of a gentle approach sometimes have to be a little more
aggressive let's say that you kinda like you know thoughtlessly like made a kind
of a visual gag at the beginning of one of your videos where we were showing
sort of annoying examples of people on YouTube and one of them was like this
like you know feminist speaker and stuff that you kind of saw oh people make fun
of her and you don't know what's going on like you don't know
you know I guess I'll make fun of her too and you kind
sort of inadvertently can contributed some sort of online harassment and um
someone understandably might make a comment like this they might say gosh I
was really disappointed to see that that was really unexpected it's not like you
and it's strange that you would kind of feed the trolls a little bit it's it's
really disappointed me and I kind of want to unsubscribe and this you know
what you have to do you you have to be aggressive here you have to go how
freaking dare you I you're gonna make me say it fine I'll
say I am a feminist okay I how dare you accuse me of feeding the trolls did you
even see the couple of videos I have where there are girls in them and also
did you know that there are girls behind the scenes that my girlfriend is a girl
for God's sake I'll have you know that female viewership of my videos is at an
all-time high of 4% and by the way I am friends with Rebecca Watson kind of from
I haven't talked to her in 7 years but still so don't you tell me I'm a bad
feminist I don't have the bravery to show you the real rest of my comment but
I did say all of those some version of all those things and I suggested that he
unsubscribe and I finished it with literally the words to quote Sherlock
you repel me what I'm saying is I totally owned that guy but told him you
understand and you can too by following my powerful techniques but a word of
warning I mean with great power comes the thing that you know you have to be
responsible with it it's possible to maybe potentially cause a slight I'm
sorry this is what I was trying to warn you about okay use them properly these
techniques can - a chain of events that result in a
very dangerous spatial anomaly the threatens to tear this entire community
apart Oh God here everyone please stay back
stay back be careful it's the skeptic asshole singularity Oh
God please everyone exit the theater it's a
dangerous black hole of social snacks teenis
that threatens to envelop even the most brilliant and intelligent of us making
them just a little bit less than admirable no
don't do it we want to like you oh god no no oh
Hector dr. Dawkins I can't do this no don't look at it thinking is there any
chance to even avoid it's horrible gravitational pull pull up 10 well yes
it is possible to change your tone but I fear so many of you two haven't
got the memo Oh God skeptic after skeptic atheist after atheist succumbing
to this anomaly I can't let this happen I have to do something maybe I can help
them maybe I could Oh God fucking I've been so blind I'm part of
this aren't I I got to do something I got to change I
won't let it get me I have to commit here now and resolve to say but I refuse
to be as yeah
I've been thinking these last few seconds and I think I should amend my
advice to you yes sure stick to what you know stick your area of expertise but
don't stay too narrow maybe expand into other ideas and other topics and maybe
don't stay with too niche and audience because it might lead to kind of an echo
chamber and yes try not to make mistakes if you do you know celebrate that maybe
kind of make it into a learning experience for you and your audience and
of course the third one where you try to weasel out of appearing wrong and maybe
refusing to go with the zeitgeist of changing ideas maybe let's not do that
because it's kind of a dick move but I know that that that that changes
kind of the nature of the entire advice that I'm trying to give you here but I'm
afraid like this is the best I can do and honestly I'm more of like kind of a
airheaded sort of artsy person if you can't tell III even dumbed the advice
down a little bit more I kind of have my own checklist of what I want to include
in my content which comes down to kind of a cheesy thing with three H's one is
humor right obvious you know we know you make people laugh and they can relax and
they can be more open to new ideas and I'm not saying I'm the only skeptic that
uses humor the cognitive dissonance guys are kind of funny but I would argue that
skeptics are just really good at making each other laugh. You know, we've been in
here and we've laughed a lot. I would point out there and would say this is you know
look at how ridiculous the the the levers are look at how ridiculous those ideas
are the charlatans... That's fine, but when we leave this little huddle and we go
out there and we try to change people mind, people's minds, can we be funny to
them? Can we, you know, speak on their level and make them relax and make them
laugh? Secondly, humility, you know, also kind of obvious. I mean, we embrace the
scientific method we say things are subject to change we know things but if
we find new evidence we will change our views and we celebrate that that's kind
of the essence of being a skeptic. But if
you went out there and you surveyed people I don't think they would say that
humility is part of the skeptic brand - at all - so and I mean it doesn't make sense
because we do embrace that idea and maybe it's just kind of an image problem
and it can be addressed. And lastly, Hope. Also kind of cheesy but you know I think
when you're trying to tear people away from you know the ideas they hold dear
there's not just it's not just simple ideas these are things in which they
placed all their hopes and dreams and this is where their stuff resides if
you're trying to get them away from those things you have to give them
something to put their hope into and their whole identity into so I don't
think we spend enough time kind of saying why is critical thinking good I
mean explain it to me like I'm a five-year-old I think that's useful I
mean I try to be funny in a way that is kind of universal and understood by any
kind of person. I - my character is extremely conceited and cranky and
derisive toward people but this is a satire to say that's kind of silly yes
this guy is smart but also a jerk and you don't want to be that and I like to
think that whatever crazy thing I showed in a video of mine people watch it and
they walk away with like this up feeling like maybe that's fun that I learned
that that's kind of goofy and I think everything's gonna be okay
like I try to project those three things you know in all my content I know that
it works at least in my case I see it in the feedback that I get I get messages
sometimes you know from like young people saying hey you changed the way I
kind of perceive media and the way I consume media online I've this year I
had a couple of students like write me from different parts of the world asking
"Hey can I interview you for... like I have an assignment to interview a person I
admire can I do that?" and I was like "Of course fuck no! I'm not gonna do that I
don't have time for that but it was very sweet."
and you know I have more solid metrics for instance you know the influx of
Captain D Halloween costumes every year these poor kids probably had to spend
their entire evening answering the question who the hell are you supposed
to be but they did it anyway and that's you know that's admirable as well as the
influx of amazing fan art that people send me and you know it does make me
realize that I do have kind of a resting asshole face myself but still the talent
on display is is is admirable so and of course I can tell by just the overall
increase in social media following that I receive especially on Twitter and I
just want to tell you something about Twitter in particular um as you're
following grows this may happen to you you know you get increasingly obsessed
with maintaining your identity and you beg Twitter and they give you a verified
badge and this changes things a little bit because what happens is you have a
new filter in your feed that is for verified and you can click it and it
will filter away all the riffraff of regular people and just show you other
verified and other verified in turn will notice you and you know Verifieds - my
people - are very courteous and we don't just follow each other in silence we
send courtesy messages to each other and we say things like hello nice to meet
you I like your work and stuff so as you're you know growth on social media
happens this will happen to you someone who has like 16 times your following
someone from the world of comedy and entertainment someone who has
accomplished more things than you on YouTube as well as on television will
follow you and they will send you a courtesy message and that message might
be something some version of the following howdy fella I didn't realize I
wasn't following you on here but super thrilled to meet you you've been one of
my favorite creators for eight or nine years now you're also the only skeptic
that hasn't turned out to be an utterly horrible person thank you for your work
you know what you have to do you have to reply so you roll up your sleeves you
crack your knuckles and you get at the keyboard and you say
"Hi! Thank you, very kind of you to say. I'm ashamed to admit I'm just discovering your work,
"...but I'm finding it brilliant. Kudos on your tremendous success!"
Thank you for listening.
(Please also consider helping viewers with hearing disabilities by creating subtitles for other Captain D videos!)