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The Amazing Meeting 2011: Skeptic Podcasts

Today’s report from The Amazing Meeting (TAM) primarily comes from separate interviews with the people behind two of the most popular podcasts in the skeptic community (see “The Amazing Meeting 2011: What is the JREF?,” 15 July 2011). Unfortunately, I arrived late to TAM’s Friday sessions with a dead MacBook battery, so my report from the afternoon sessions will be short and sweet.

It opened with a panel discussion on the future of space exploration, moderated by Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer), with Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Neil deGrasse Tyson (Director of the Hayden Planetarium), Pamela Gay (Astronomy Cast), and Lawrence Krauss (“The Physics of Star Trek” and many other books). The discussion was both amusing and surprisingly rollicking, with debates breaking out over whether space travel should be manned or robotic, and the role of pure science in
space exploration.

Then Neil deGrasse Tyson took the stage to deliver his keynote speech, which ranged through an amusing overview of his experiences with scientific illiteracy in the United States, a clip of his debate with Richard Dawkins (which has received 1.4 million hits on YouTube), the decline of Arabic intellectualism a millennium ago, the current and highly depressing statistics on a similar decline in the United States, and a stunning summation of our place in the universe derived from our 20th-century discovery that Earth life is built of the same elements, in the same relative distribution, as the rest of the universe.

In short, should you happen to hear that he is giving a public lecture anywhere within four hours of where you are, kennel the dog, feed the fish to the cat, throw the kids in the back seat, and go. You will not regret it. Both the afternoon’s sessions were of such high quality that it left me wondering what I missed in the morning, and I resolved not to make the same mistake again.

Moving on to the interviews: the first was with Brian Dunning, host of Skeptoid. The second was with the “Rogues” who host the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe: Steve, Jay, and Bob Novella, Evan Bernstein, and Rebecca Watson. Skeptoid focuses on a single story in pseudoscience and popular culture for each episode, while the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe has a panel format that includes a news roundup, interviews, and weekly contests played on the show. The banter on the show is similar to what happened when I asked Steve and Evan how many listeners they currently have:

Steve: “It depends on how you measure the number.” [He then briefly discussed quantitative techniques for counting the audience.]

Evan: “I just use the higher number.”

However you measure it, both podcasts enjoy audiences over 100,000; the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe currently sits atop the science podcast section in iTunes, and Skeptoid is in fifth place. (Editorial note: since three of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe team are the brothers Novella, I’m referring to them by their first names.)

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid is a professional FileMaker developer as his day job, so our conversation kicked off by talking pseudoscience in the computer community: perceptions of the dangers of computer viruses and malware versus their actual threat. Much of the end-user’s experience comes from the dialogs and user interfaces presented by security software, so when Internet Explorer warned users about Web sites storing information in cookies, those warnings made people fearful of cookies in general, although their use can be entirely benign. Likewise, owners of Norton antivirus and maintenance software see many reassuring messages about all of the things the software is doing for them; how much of that is necessary at any given time is
much less clear.

Our conversation took place shortly after the World Health Organization announcement calling cellphones potentially carcinogenic, which led me to comment that perhaps Norton, like the WHO, was deliberately scaring its audience. Dunning corrected me: it wasn’t the WHO that was behind the overblown reporting of a cancer link, it was the mass media running headlines that overstated the risk. Science has a good understanding of how radiation works, and it is fairly certain that there’s no plausible threat from the low levels of radiation coming from handheld cellphones.

Regardless of whether the issue is something new, like Internet viruses, or as old as concerns about our health, the human brain is susceptible to many different kinds of faulty thinking. Newer issues only bring the added fillip of novelty, providing people with fewer points of reference upon which to base understanding.

Dunning believes that getting truthful information out to the public will always be an uphill battle, thanks to the profit motive. There is plenty of money to be made selling magic bracelets that purportedly cure disease; there is no money to be made telling people that rubber bands are equally (in)effectual.

My conversation with the Skeptic’s Guide Rogues happened to start from the positive side of the same point: the Internet allows people without vast sums of corporate money to broadcast, so providing good information is a matter of hard work and consistent effort. The Internet is also a source of bad information, but Steve believes that the Internet disproportionally benefits those who promote truthful and scientific information: the nature of critical thinking leads people to link and spread good information, which then gives solid information a top-ten search rank — even when the person doing the search is deliberately looking for magic bracelets.

Rebecca added that Internet culture is geek culture; there’s a bias in favor of science and critical thinking among many self-organizing groups on the Internet. Steve said that this helps the advantage that nonprofit groups have: businesses seeking to make a profit are competing against each other, but those offering information are working cooperatively to spread each other’s messages.

We also discussed the nature of old media versus the Internet. For example, one of the driving forces behind the groups opposing vaccination was their ability to use celebrities like Jenny McCarthy to garner media attention, for a message that has absolutely no scientific basis. (I say that with apologies, but no hesitation, to those who may strongly feel otherwise.) It’s still necessary to be good at marketing, and to present solid information with style. Audiences for old media are orders of magnitude larger than online, so it is key for promoters of critical thinking to become expert on their issues, then offer themselves as resources to news producers; most reporters will turn to experts as the fastest way of turning out a story,
but only if they know whom to call.

I talked with both Dunning and the Rogues about the nitty-gritty of creating a successful podcast. Both were in agreement on the key techniques: posting new episodes on a regular schedule is necessary to building an audience and creating a professional image. And as Jay said of Steve: “he works his butt off.” My impression is that this is true of everyone I interviewed.

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