Discovering Skeptical Podcasts

It’s funny how things happen in life. Sometimes a seemingly frustrating period can open the doors to something that improves your life or gives you a new angle on it.

When I was orange picking to get my second year visa in Australia, I would spend hours upon hours each day performing manual labour with little to no mental stimulus to distract me. My craving for distraction soon became a craving for intelligent debate and a desire to push my brain as hard as I was pushing my body. My mind felt like it was wasting away and something had to be done.

I browsed the iTunes podcast store for science podcasts and tried out a whole array of different ones. Now, I have to say that for someone who worked in radio for five years and as station manager preached daily at people to make their own podcasts, I am not a big listener to them myself. Obviously I know of their value and importance in getting a message across but I have to admit that until this point I had never been what you would call a “regular listener” to any podcast.

As is often the way with these things, I began by discovering the podcasts that were mainstream, so to speak. By far the most popular UK science podcast is the much-loved BBC radio show “The Infinite Monkey Cage” with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox (from the BBC series “Wonders of the Universe”/”Wonders of the Solar System”/”Wonders of Life”/Wanders About Looking at Volcanoes Wistfully). Interestingly, everyone I know from a non-science background often muses how Brian Cox is “wonderful, but a lot of what he says goes over my head”, whilst all my science friends agree that “his science communication is fantastic but give me a tenth of that show’s budget and I’ll explain entropy to the public without having to fly to Morocco to look moody whilst running sand through my hands”. I have always been of the latter opinion but in “Infinite Monkey Cage” Cox is both self-demeaning and aware of how both sides of his audience perceive him, and he handles this well. He is not afraid to poke fun at himself for you, whilst reminding the audience every now and then that he is brilliantly clever and can articulate and communicate complex scientific topics better than almost anyone when he wants to.

“Infinite Monkey Cage”, running periodically since late 2009, is an entertainment show and each episode lasts only half an hour, probably just long enough for Joe Public to muse about science before getting bored and switching over to “The Archers”. It also features celebrity comedians alongside the experts of the week and investigates faux-topics such as “Which is better: physics or chemistry?” as much as it does real scientific concepts. The episodes live from festivals like Glastonbury are a lot of fun, but I was ready for something scientifically juicier that would stimulate my brain properly rather than just make me laugh because I recognised a reference from my astrophysics degree.

This was when I stumbled across “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe”, a 75 minute American weekly podcast running since May 2005. It is hosted by Dr Steven Novella alongside Jay Novella, Bob Novella (yes they are all brothers), Evan Bernstein and Skepchick.org’s Rebecca Watson, who is a leader in feminist skepticism. The show features long in-depth discussions on the science news stories of the week whilst maintaining a rigid structure and the conversation between the five “rogues” is gripping. I was hesitant at first, but within one episode I was hooked. The show has somewhat of a cult following and regular listeners have followed the presenters over a period during which one has had a baby with his wife, one has been married and subsequently divorced and one, the late Perry De Angelis, has sadly passed away. The SGU host NECSS, a North-East American conference on science and skepticism, each May as a memoriam to De Angelis. They also produce live shows from several other skeptical conferences throughout the year, which are wildly popular. Listening to this podcast is addictive and you start to feel like the hosts are your friends, especially when you can agree or disagree with them as you play along with their weekly feature “Science or Fiction”.

I haven’t really explained what skepticism is, though. Skepticism is the art of thinking critically and objectively, of truth seeking and trying to not have your judgements tainted by your own personal biases whilst accepting that those biases exist. Naturally, the skeptic tag brings negative connotations of being cynical and dismissive of anything non logical. In fact, the skeptic movement teaches never to dismiss but instead to investigate the facts truthfully and use the scientific method to come to the best possible conclusion. Any student of science will at some point have been taught to think critically and skeptically. One of my favourite lecturers at university, Professor Andy Lawrence, once told us that the motto of physics is “now hang on, let me get this straight”. I think he’s right, but I also think that should be the motto of how we approach life in general. Lord knows the media is often biased of, more frequently, just wrong through lazy journalism. Particularly when it comes to science articles, newspapers like to run with a crazy attention-grabbing headline that does not relate to the scientific conclusion reached in the study the article discusses. We are also living in a world where bad papers and bad scientific journals do exist and we have to know which sources to trust and learn to dig deeper than just the one article. Thankfully we also live in an age where online scientific blogs can tear apart bad science articles or papers, and the skeptical movement do that too.

The SGU also give advice on spotting logical fallacies in arguments and how to tell if someone is for instance claiming something is correct because it has been done that way for a long time (“argument from antiquity”) or claiming something is correct because someone with reputation claims it to be so (“argument from authority”) or if they are attacking an individual rather than that person’s claim (“ad homonim”). All of the above are examples of logical fallacies that people employ rather than referring to the correct scientific method and the SGU podcast educates its listeners to spot and counter such bad reasoning.

Skeptoid, a podcast from Brian Dunning in the States, also helps educate by taking one topic each week and explaining it in as much detail as possible in a non-biased way, pointing out common misconceptions. This podcast has recently been translated to Chinese and has the potential t be translated more as it is of a non-conversational format.

For a more light hearted podcast, try the UK’s Merseyside Skeptic Association’s “Skeptics with a K” where the boys are not afraid to say what they think when it comes to slagging off dangerous peddlers of non-scientific claims. There’s also California based podcast “Oh No! Ross and Carrie”, where the two presenters try out unusual and pseudoscientific methods “so you don’t have to” and report back on their experience with everything from homeopathy to genital enlargement tools.

There are many more skeptical podcasts out there and much will depend on where you live as to which one you find most listenable, although the “Skeptics’ Guide” is definitely a good place to start and will no doubt keep you subscribing to it even if you can’t find any others you like enough to keep subscribing to. One of my favourites, living in Australia, is Sydney based podcast “The Skeptic Zone” from Richard Saunders. Saunders is a friend of many of the other producers of Skeptic podcasts around the world and has his finger on the pulse of all skeptical things internationally as well as Australian. Indeed, Jay Novella from the “Skeptics’ Guide” recently helped produce the amusing comedy drama series “Solar Flare” with Saunders. “The Skeptic Zone” also forefronts the movement of skepticism in Australia and has helped legally defeat dangerous anti-vaccination groups, as well as putting on fun events like the “Mighty Mitta Muster Water Divining Contest” where self-proclaimed water diviners can attempt to prove their skill in a scientific environment (predictably none were successful and equally predictably most made excuses despite agreeing that the test was fair in advance!)

If you’re at all interested in finding out how much we actually know in the world of science, medicine or just the scientific method (if nothing else, these podcasts will make you great at pub quizzes) then I’d recommend trying out some skeptic podcasts. It helps if you have time to listen to them like when I was orange picking, but since then I have found time in my busy schedule. These podcasts are far more entertaining and educational than anything on mainstream or commercial radio, that’s for sure.

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4 thoughts on “Discovering Skeptical Podcasts

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