Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Alien Abduction behind the Zion curtain

While I may not be a loyal reader of the Salt Lake City Weekly newspaper, I had to pick up a copy when I noticed three big headed gray fellows on the cover along with the headline, "Touched By An Alien." The cover story starts off with a trio of anecdotes shared by people who believe they were abducted by aliens. Next, some quotes from a representative of the Mutual UFO Network are plugged into the story. So far so good, I haven't been convinced that people are, seemingly at random, being abducted by aliens from their homes and cars but nothing in the article is wildly offensive either. Then the article introduces a hypnotherapist who, "prefers," to work with people who, "wish to explore their extraterrestrial experiences."

Now, it would have been nice if the author of the article had taken the hypnotherapist to task about the appropriateness of this approach. I guess hypnotherapy uses and abuses could be a story for another day. Personally, I find it odd that there are hypnotherapist who uncover repressed memories of alien abduction, others who find ritualistic cult abuse and others who tap into past life experiences. I am still waiting to hear from the practitioner of hypnotherapy who has stumbled onto all of them. What seems more likely, that these unexplained phenomena are going on and are discovered only by hypnotherapists who specialize in in aliens or cults or that suggestible people are being led down a primrose path by unscrupulous individuals? Then we can get into the whole topic about the nature and accuracy of human memory and it gets more complicated from there.

All bashing of hypnotherapy aside, back to the article. To bring some balance to the story, a skeptic and an atheist got to share four paragraphs toward the end of the article. Kudos to Partick Orlob, president of Salt City Skeptics (who knew such an organization existed?) for bringing up the alternative explanation of sleep paralysis without coming across as snarky or condescending. Also, bonus points to Joel Layton of Atheists of Utah (again, who knew) for getting a Carl Sagan quote into the article, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," says Cosmic Carl. I would have been alright with the skeptic and atheist getting less space in the story since it looked like they were going to get the last word in, but the last three paragraphs switch back to the alleged abductees sharing tales of extraterrestrial intercourse and post-coital alien goo, quite the final image for the article to leave you with.

While after reading the article for the first time I felt it wasn't so bad, upon a closer look it is disappointingly uncritical. The MUFON person isn't challenged about the vast number of UFO sightings they claim are taking place all the time and the applications of hypnotherapy are not taken to task. I am alright with the alleged abductees not being challenged or interrogated. These are people who think that something bizarre and unsettling has happened to them and ridiculing them accomplishes nothing. Equal time for skeptics would have been nice, even though I think the little space they were given in the article was persuasive.

As always, questions, comments or allegations I am part of the vast government cover up of the awful truth are welcome.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Skeptic Mix Tape 2009

Normally, I wouldn't think it was worthwhile to just point toward something that another person had put up on the 'net but this is an exception. The critical thinkers over at skeptic magazine have created a skeptic mix tape. After checking out the tracks, a few of them grabbed my attention.

Dr. H. Paul Shuch, also known as Dr. SETI, contributed a track called Cosmic Carl. Now I am not usually a big fan of acoustic guitar folk music, but a song about Carl Sagan merits an exception. If you don't know why they keep singing, "Billions and Billions," watch Cosmos already. . . uncultured savage.

A group called the Bad Detectives, belittle patent medicines with the tune, Rattlesnake Oil. Nothing like some upbeat rockabilly to remind us all that some claims have not been substantiated by the FDA.

The Canadian bluegrass group, Dirty Dishes, remakes an old school parody tune about patent medicines called Lily The Pink. It's an amusing enough tune, but it does make one wonder how much things have changed in the century plus that the Pure Food and Drug Act has been in effect.

Okay, one more and I'll stop carrying on about the artists on the mix tape. Coco Love Alcorn (you've got to appreciate a name like that) contributed a track called thinking cap. That song was cool but if you wander over to her website, you can check out some youtube videos she has up including a video for a song of hers called Intellectual Boys:

Guys, before you go running off to the great white north to throw yourself at her feet yelling, "Take me, take me now nerd lover, I'm so freakin' yours!" Check out the size of the ring on her left hand in the video. Seems another intellectual boy got to her first. Anyway, in the future I'll try and have more original content for this blog and not just link to the cool work that other people are doing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Social media, the good and the unexceptional

When I heard that the website mashable was sponsoring the summer of social good and were going to do it though social media, I was intrigued. However, after finding out what their plan was, I was less than impressed. They are using twitter, facebook, blogs and the like to raise money for the humane society of the United States, Oxfam America, the world wildlife fund and the Lance Armstrong foundation. Now, as far as I know, all four groups are worthy organizations doing good work. My real issue is that they couldn't find anything more original to do with all this great 21st century technology than to beg for money online? Come on guys, is there any way to make social engaged people feel unvalued and disregarded faster than saying, "give us some money and leave doing good deeds to the professionals?"

I am much more impressed with the application being developed by The Extraordinaries that allows people to engage in on-demand volunteerism by mobile phone. Now that is using technology in a new and unique way. How often do you get to throw around fun terms like crowdsourcing and actually have it be relevant? If somebody is motivated to donate money by the summer of social good, that's fine, but I think it's more engaging and ultimately more useful to have applications like the one offered by The Extraordinaries. Then again, maybe I've just been solicited for charitable donations a few million times too many.

Monday, June 8, 2009

To wiki or not wiki

That is the question, or at least a question. Running in the circle of graduate students and university professors, I hear a lot about how bad wikepedia is and how little value it has as a resource. However, I recently got to hear some rather die hard music fans discuss wikipedia and they had a much different opinion of the site. In general, they were impressed with the depth of information available on the site, how fast errors get corrected and how potentially inaccurate information get the, "citation needed," tag to raise a red flag for viewers of the page.

So, why the discrepancy between the two points of view? I suppose you cold write it off as the difference between some ivory tower intellectual snobs on one hand and a bunch of uncritical fanboys on the other. I do not think it is that simple. The academics are looking for by lines and some form of accountability for the content they view online. The music fans are interested in finding out more about their favorite bands and getting a more complete picture of the people in those bands. The different goals lead to much different views of the value of wikipedia.

When all else fails, look to motive. The academics are looking to pad their CV and to secure positions in academia. Contributing to or using wikipedia is not going to help them in their quest. On the other side, looking to fanboys for motive is missing the point. Look to the bands they are following, they have a motive to get their image and music out there as much as possible. A wealth of online content could help them in that endeavor.

The mixed motive behind commercially oriented wikis like wookieepedia and other large wikis hosted by may indeed be inadequate. There is a serious component that is just that there are people out there who love to discuss their hobbies. Be it marvel comics, recipes, genealogy or that massive time waster world of warcraft, some people just love to carry on about the things that occupy their spare time.

The idea behind wikis has been put to some good use to create collaborative history projects and school related wikis for various purposes. Also, some wikis have been set up for groups that are not great in number or media access, such as a neopagan wiki or a traditional witchcraft one. So with all this wiki rambling, is there any kind of conclusion I can draw from this? I would say that wikis can be used as a learning tool, a way for virtual communities to come together and for commercial properties to promote themselves. For a more serious version of wikipedia, check out citizendium. Personally, I think that wikis are good sources for information that you are curious about, but it really doesn't matter if the answer is right.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Summer reading

Okay, the days are getting longer, discussions of global warming have started heating up again and the under served students in public schools around the country are getting closer to the end of their 180 days of standardized test preparation. Those things can only mean that summer is here yet again. With summer comes the obligatory recommendations for summer reading. It is in that spirit that I offer up a couple of selections, something to relax with while on a summer vacation or while taking shelter from the oppressive heat, someplace air conditioned.

First up is The The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. For those of you who have been following this blog from it's initial entry, you know I wanted to call it candles in the dark, so clearly I found this book influential. If you happen upon a copy in a library or book store, I recommend turning right to chapter 12, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection. In this chapter Mr. Sagan presents a baloney detection kit filled with tools for skeptical thinking. Among these tools are definitions of "the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric." (Sagan, p. 212). Great stuff to keep i mind the next time you hear a politician talk. Sagan writes intelligently but also accessibly, so you don't need a degree in astrophysics to follow him.

Second, I recommend Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer. You might imagine that the publisher of Skeptic magazine would be a little shrill and possibly confrontational but that is not the case. Mr. Shermer comes across as a person who seeks to understand why people believe the things they do and to seek the truth whenever possible. I think one of the more profound things you can take away from his book is that skepticism is a method, not a belief. If you turn to chapter 3 of the book, How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things, you might be reminded of chapter 12 from Carl Sagan's book. They both cover similar material but do it in sufficiently different ways that I think both are worth a read.

I think that a couple of books about science, skepticism, and critical thinking are in order this summer. After all, this is the first summer since the eight year mini-dark ages that the United States had to endure. You remember, when science was scorned and sidelined, intellectuals were laughed at and dismissed, and religious fundamentalist ran wild in the streets, burning copies of The Origin Of Species and frightening the children. In short, it's time to take to heart the words of J-Bone in Johnny Mnemonic when he said, "Snatch back your brain, zombie, snatch it back and hold it!"

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ken Rand (1946-2009)

About a month ago, I was looking through some second hand books and saw a copy of Star Trek Strange New Worlds II which, I remembered, had a story by my friend, Ken Rand. Flipping through the volume, I saw his story, "I Am Klingon," on page 107 and knew I had to add the book to my steadily growing library. The find also left me wondering how Ken was doing, I knew his health had been in decline for a while. Shortly thereafter, I got the sad news that Ken had passed away on the 21st of April.
I first met Ken in Logan, Utah at CON2it, the short lived spin off of the CONduit sci-fi convention. As Ken would later recall, "You, me and the other dozen people who were there had a good time." While there were slightly more than a dozen people in attendance, it still was a rather small gathering. It was there that I first had the opportunity to hear Ken talk about the craft of writing and I purchased a copy of his book, "The 10% Solution: Self-editing for the Modern Writer." He was kind enough to autograph if for me, "Stan - I hope this helps - at least 10%!"
Ken's hope did pan out. After reading the book, I got all inspired and started writing. One of the stories that came out of that fit of inspiration was, "Drug Runner," it ended up winning the Weber State writing contest in the fiction category and got published in volume 19 of the university's literary magazine, Metaphor.
At CONduit 11, somebody was kind enough to get several copies of Metaphor and put them on the, "Freebie table," with a note mentioning my story and that I was a convention member. Right in the middle of a writing panel that guest of honor, Alan Dean Foster, was conducting, Ken saw me in the audience and, rather spontaneously, blurted out, "I read your story, it was really good." It took Mr. Foster a bit to get the discussion back on track. After the panel I got the chance to talk to Ken and tell him how much his book had helped my writing.
We continued to run into each other at conventions and even a meeting of the USS Ticonderoga Star Trek fan club. I like to think that he took some pride in his contribution to my success as a writer. One of our more interesting meetings was at the second Anime Banzai convention, when they packed the student union building of the Salt Lake Community College to the gills with over a thousand fans dressed up like characters from Naruto and Inuyasha among many, many others. Ken got a table in the dealer's room right nest to the manga guest of honor, Amy Reeder Hadley, so he got a lot of foot traffic and interest in his books. We both commented on the size of the convention, who knew it was going to double in size from it's first year? Not to mention the age of the attendees, if I remember the numbers right the mean average age of the people going to the first con was 16.5, making me more than double the average and Ken . . . somewhat more than that.
While my writing is better for having met Ken, I think that my life has been richer for the times I got to share Ken's company. Ken was a friend and a mentor, he was an original character with a great personality, he will be missed and he will be remembered. For those of you who didn't have the chance to know Ken, I recommend you go out and read, "Fairy Brewhaha At The Lucky Nickel Saloon," it should put a smile on your face.
(Photo Credit: CC from Nihonjoe)

Monday, May 4, 2009

The zombies of science education

While digging around for articles on how science is taught in schools, I found this article: "State of Utah Taps FreshBrain to Ready High School Students for Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math." First of all, did nobody in public relations stop and point out that the choice of words makes it sound like the state is preparing it's youth to be fed to a bunch of zombies? Actually, that might not be such a bad conceptualization for what they do want to do, turn out high school and college graduates with fresh brains that the zombified corporate structure can suck dry to try and fuel their bottom lines. You could imagine that the name fresh brain had to come after a long night of watching John Carpenter movies.

This does seem to draw attention to a problem with how science and engineering are pitched to students. It always sounds like some kind of late night infomercial shrieking, "Do you want to make more money?" Most unfortunate channel surfers who stumble upon such a claim would presume it is some form of scam and continue on their survey of their 500 channels. By the same logic, is it no surprise that students in public schools have a rather tepid reaction to some one promising them fortune and glory if they just jump through this series of science and math flaming hoops.

I believe that you have to change the focus from the, "Hey little girl, want some candy,' approach of promising fat future paychecks to something completely different. Present science and math as interesting and relevant ways of understanding the world, show engineering as a creative and effective way of addressing problems. Depicting the aspects of, what the state of Utah would call STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math that are dynamic, innovative, interesting, engaging and showing the passions of the people involved in those fields would draw more people to them than would be interested in the lucrative aspects of these fields.

Unfortunately, I seem to be about 180 degrees from where this state is going with USTAR, the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative. In describing this initiative they state, "This initiative focuses on leveraging the proven success of Utah's research universities in creating and commercializing innovative technologies to generate more technology-based start-up firms, higher paying jobs, and additional business activity leading to a state-wide expansion of the Utah's tax base. " One is reminded of the Ice Cube lyrics from back in the NWA days;

"To a kid lookin' up ta me

Life ain't nothin but bitches and money."

That's right, made the leap from USTAR bureaucratic jargon to the lyrics from "Gansta Gansta," if the shoe fits. . .

To sum it all up, science, math and engineering should be taught because they have value in and of themselves, not for their ability to produce lucrative cogs for corporate machines. Also, get away from treating students like human capital, schools should serve their students not the business sector, the last thing you want is people not being able to tell the difference between public school policy and gangsta rap.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Science yes, but to what end?

Alright, this has been a pretty pro-science blog and that is more or less by design. Science and technology have brought lots of great things into our modern lives. I really don't want to imagine a world without indoor plumbing and vaccinations to name just a couple. Above and beyond just practical applications, scientific reasoning has increased by leaps and bounds humanity's understanding of the world.

It is not 100% positive though, most technologies are a mixed blessing. Let's take for example, our friend the airplane, in just over a century of flight, it has really transformed the way people from technologically advanced countries think of distance. It can also really be a help, loaded full of relief supplies and personnel, it can speed up the recovery from natural disasters and the like. On the down side, the same airplanes could be filled with soldiers to invade a country or hijacked by fundamentalist chuckle heads and smashed into buildings. To take an example from more recent headlines, an airplane could seal a hundred or more people in a flying aluminum can with a carrier of swine flu and deposit all those people several hundred miles from where started to distribute the virus to a whole different geographic region. The point I am trying to make is that science and technology too often taken into our lives without critically analyzing the full effects down the line.

Another point to make here is that science if great, science as the obedient lapdog of business and industry, not so good. If you want to go into medicine, great but try and model your career more after Jonas Salk than after the team of pill pushing ninnies who brought you Cialis. If you want to be an engineer, look to the people who designed the H2 and H3 Hummers as a cautionary tale, not as role models.

Continuing with the polemic rant, next up is the scientific world view. While it is certainly preferable to the world view that produced the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition) the scientific world view does have a disturbing habit if devaluing any other way of knowing. Forget all your traditional lore, historical place knowledge and things like that, all that stuff is devoid of value unless it can be quantitatively verified by somebody in a white lab coat with a clip board and advanced degrees from a properly accredited institution. Of course, a lot of this is more a problem with how science is done in modern society than with the idea of a scientific understanding of the world. If you stop and think about it, it an expert comes forth and says do X, a scientific society would look at their research, try and reproduce their experiments and then, maybe, if they came up with similar findings, they would go along with X. That is not what happens most of the time. More often the expert is taken at their word because the social institutions of science and technology are losing their ability to be self critical.

In conclusion, be skeptical of new technology, don't trust a businessman further than you can throw them, and be sure to tell the next expert you are confronted by that they are full of bologna.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's day aside

I thought I would take a break for serious blogging and present some silly, "What ifs," with the help of Xtranormal. Yes, I do take fully responsibility for the content. First up, what if Sara Palin went on vacation to Australia:

Next, what if George W. went on the talk show circuit and discussed women's reproductive rights:

Finally, what if a fast food restaurant adopted AIG style management:

Back to serious blogging in the near future.

Monday, March 30, 2009

New media and the message

In the first Q&A on this blog, Brian Dunning gave a pessimistic assessment of new media that took me somewhat aback. Just to keep me on my toes, Dr. Harriet Hall and Dr. Stephen Barrett both gave a positive view of new media and it's impact. Derek Colonduno chimed in with a positive future looking opinion on new media. Most recently, Dr. Kirsten Sanford stated her opinion that new media is fragmented, or at least, it's presentation of information is.

I think the concept of fragmented new media can be helpful in reconciling these carrying assessments of the value of new media. Medical information is something that people will go out of their way to research and find out about. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that Dr. Barrett and Dr. Hall would state positive views of new media. Get the good information about medicine out there, and people will make an effort to find it. Now it only it was as easy to steer them away from frauds and charlatans. Brian Dunning is looking to bring enlightenment to the masses, to lift up the veil and show reality as it is. People don't often use search engines to challenge their preconceived notions as much as they use them to look for medical information, so it is not that big of a surprise that Mr. Dunning has a different assessment of new media than the founder of quackwatch and the skepdoc. Perhaps Derek Colonduno is right and all this effort going out into new media is having a disproportionate effect on younger generations and will have a positive effect on the degree of skepticism and scientific literacy of people in the future. . . Well, I guess we can only wait for the future to arrive and find out.

In the meantime, I think there are some statements that can be made about what can and cannot be reasonably be done with new media. New media does seem to be effective in getting information out that people will look for, such as medical information. It is also good for preaching to the choir, hi choir. New media is not an on ramp to the mainstream media, your blog or podcast is not likely to get picked up and developed into a TV series by a major, or minor for that matter, network. New media is not the ideal tool to reach out to people who are on a different political or ideological wavelength. Still, I don't want to leave you all on a down note, so I leave you with the words of the Killer Dwarfs who said, "Stand tall, stick to your guns, show them what you're made of!"

Friday, March 20, 2009

Q&A with Dr. Kirsten Sanford of This Week In Science

Dr. Sanford is the founder and co-host of the This Week In Science radio program, among other things. To find out more about the scope of her work, . . . you are just going to have to read to the end of the blog entry.

Here, we'll treat this question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself to the group and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

I hold a B.S. in Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology and a Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology from U.C. Davis, and am a specialist in learning and memory. I originally thought that I wanted to work for Greenpeace and save the whales, but I realized that was more interested in birds. I got a job as an undergraduate working in a lab that dealt with avian learning and memory, and I was hooked. From there I decided to go to grad school and follow my dreams of looking at bird brains, but along the way I realized that I enjoy teaching science more than being in the lab. So, I finished my PhD on bird spatial memory abilities, not with the intention of continuing in academia, but instead of finding new and different ways of talking to the public about science.

Talk about This Week In Science and how you came to be involved in the show.

I am the founder of This Week in Science, a weekly radio show broadcast from U.C. Davis and avidly followed by thousands of fans worldwide via rss feed. TWIS evolved naturally from late night beer-fueled conversations between myself and my friend (and co-founder) Ted Dunning. We used to stay up late at night discussing recent scientific discoveries, and one night I said, "Hey! I know the program director at the campus radio station. Maybe we can do this on the radio." And, the show was born.

What do you hope the impact of TWIS is?

I hope TWIS reaches people who at some point in their lives decided that they "hate science," or that science is "too hard" for them, and gets them to reconsider. I want TWIS to get people excited about science, and tear down the perception that science is only for "scientists." I once received an email from a listener who had quit school for whatever reason. He said that TWIS convinced him to go back to school and get a science degree. That is the best impact I could ever hope for.

This Week In Science actually goes out over the radio waves. Any thoughts about how science and technology are treated in the, "traditional media?"

Technology gets much better treatment than science by the traditional media. Science news if it is found in the traditional media consists of health and medical coverage and news relating to the strange or spectacular. Then, the average coverage consists of a regurgitated press release. Traditional media's lack of support for science is resulting in poorer and poorer coverage. There was a time when all major newspapers had a science section with fantastic writers covering interesting topics, but those days are over.

In addition to podcasting and providing a streaming version of TWIS, you are a blogger, vlogger even. What role do you see, "New Media," playing in facilitating scientific literacy in society in general?

Science is lacking in the traditional media. To get science reporting you have to go to specialized science publications. Newspapers are closing their science sections. CNN dissolved its science department. The future of science media is in new media. I've almost given up on the traditional distributors.
Unfortunately, new media doesn't allow a "mainstreaming" of science information. The information is fragmented, which will make it harder for people to access. Those who want science will find it, but it won't be generally available unless something is done to change the path we are on.

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the functioning of a democracy?

I think that an informed populous is better able to make the decisions necessary for a democracy to function. Along with scientific literacy come critical thinking skills, which are essential for individuals to evaluate the information that surrounds them. If people continue to vote without thinking critically about the issues before them, we will not truly live in a democracy.
Who do you vote for? Why? Do you vote yes or no on a stem cell funding issue? What about water and agricultural regulations? How do you assess the possible options without some amount of knowledge and insight?
I vote for the people I think best represent the interests of the people. Predominantly, that means I vote Democrat, but I am somewhere between a Libertarian and a Progressive. I think the people are best served by a government that functions to protect them from harm. I voted yes on the stem cell funding issue. Water and agriculture regulations depend on the regulation. Fresh water is a scarce commodity, especially in California, and needs to be preserved for both people and agriculture. It is an issue of need, not desire.
I assess the possible options by doing some research. I try to find out who is for and against an option, and why. I talk to people. I read literature. I educate myself as fully as possible, and knowing that I can never fully understand an issue I am not immersed in, I use my best judgment.

Do you think that advancements in science and technology can impair, in any way, the functioning of a democracy?

I think that advancements in science and tech so far have benefited the functioning of our democracy. Never before have the youth been so involved in government as now in this age of the internet. Basic science led to the development of technology that now allows ever greater sharing of information. With that sharing of information, people are more able to understand the issues facing the government, and to be involved in helping to make decisions in an informed way. That is a real democracy.
The only way that advancing science and technology will impair the democracy is if the people allow the government to use that technology in such a way as to block the will of the people or stifle the people. But, then it will no longer be a democracy.

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place." If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I would talk to him about the importance of educating not only the children about science, but also interesting adults in science. If adults find science interesting and seek out science-based events or activities, this interest will be passed on to the children. Children learn from the adult role models around them. When a mother helping her daughter with her math homework (or, insert science for math) says to her daughter, "Oh, I never liked math... math's hard," it instills similar feelings in the child. We need to create a positive environment for science, math, and knowledge in general. When excitement builds around learning, it will only help our nation excel.

On your blog, you declare yourself a Tae Kwon Do black belt. Do you find yourself facing the, "so, you think you can kick my butt," question a lot?

Every once in a while I find myself facing that question. I never have to prove anything because I have bodyguards. Although, I did once kick someone on top of the head just for fun.

Finally, anything important I missed? Any shameless self promos you need to get out there?

In 2005, I was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Science & Engineering. Following the fellowship, I worked as a television news producer at WNBC in New York City with noted health and science reporter Dr. Max Gomez. In late 2007 and early 2008, I expanded my communications work into online video, starring in both On Networks successful series Food Science and Revision3's variety show PopSiren. I also appear regularly on Revision3's Systm, and hosted MacBreak during the PixelCorp's coverage of the 2008 and 2009 MacWorld conference. I am launching my newest online video venture, Science Word, in March, 2009. Additionally, I host Potential Energy, a podcast about alternative energy concerns and solutions, and am a regular guest on both This Week in Media and This Week in Tech. I contribute weekly to and to my own blog,, and am looking to launch a new scientific media venture with noted technology pundit, Leo Laporte. These new media efforts initiated my entry into television in 2008. Pending purchase of the pilot, I am slated to co-host a new, skeptical reality TV show called The Skeptologists. I am also reporter-at-large for the Science Channel and a contributor to their recently launched show, Brink, and have appeared on CBS's The Doctors.

I'd like to thank Dr. Sanford for taking the time to chime in with her insights. For those of you out there who are disappointed at the lack of clickable links in the blog entry so far:

This Week In Science

Potential Energy

This Week In Media

This Week In Tech


The Skeptologists

Friday, March 13, 2009

Q&A with Derek Colanduno of

Derek Colanduno is one of the hosts of the skepticality podcast. You can find out more about him and the podcast at the skepticality website.

Here, we'll treat this first question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself to the group and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

My education in college was a degree in Computer Science, but it didn't start that way. At first I was a Pre-Med student, then realized that, even though it interested me greatly, I knew I wouldn't have the rigor to follow through with the work that I wanted to do, time, amount of school, etc... I wanted to be a surgeon. When I talked to other surgeons at the time, I realized that I wouldn't make it in the end, so I switched to Computer Science, which was VERY easy for me, my father pushed computers on me since I was around 7 years old, and I learned how to program before there was even a 'real' home computer.

Tell us a bit about skepticality and how you became involved with the podcast.

Podcasting was just me wanting to do what I always wanted to do. Back in college I worked for old-school over the air radio doing engineering and also on-air DJ work. I worked as the engineer for National Sports Radio Network, (which I think was bought by ESPN), and also one of the last privately held Rock stations left, which was an Alternative Rock Station doing late night on-air stuff now and then as a fill-in. Swoopy would come to the studio back then and we'd like to toss on music WE liked, since it was the middle of the night and the boss types were all long asleep. So, when we heard about Podcasting, we had that moment of, "HEY we can do the show we ALWAYS wanted to do!" And since we had tons of Audio/Video equipment already, it was easy to start doing it.

What impact do you hope skepticality will have.

At first when we started our show, we were shocked at how many groups there were out there. We knew about the JREF, and CFI (CSICOP), but had no idea just how many other groups there really were. So, I don't know how much of a hand we had in 'growing' it, as much as giving people who were content that no one else was giving them. So it gave people who thought like us an alternative to what seems to be the mainstream of talk radio, or big media. Something that would speak to people who have always wanted to hear about the information/issues they identify with. That and the world needs more critical thinking in terms of history and science. And that was a big goal of our show when we started. Hope that continues to be the case.

Skepticality is the podcast of Skeptic magazine. Would you care to comment on how critical thinking and scientific literacy are being presented on both, "Traditional Media," and "New Media?"

I think the Skeptical message, when it gets out to the 'Traditional Media', is very much the same as the message on New Media. The big difference is that media is changing quite a bit these days, so things like Podcasts, Blogs, and Online Video are where the younger eyes and minds are going currently. So, hopefully, the Skeptical outlook won't be seen as 'fringe' come 5+ years from now.

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the functioning of a democracy?

Definitely, if you look back at the beginnings of Democracy, it started with some of the first, great, minds of science and philosophy. Learning to think critically, which is what science does, leads you to embrace the power of ideas such as democracy and how laws and countries are run at their roots.

Do you think that advancements in science and technology can impair a democracy?

The only way I can currently see that to be the case, would be when bad people USE the advancements in science and technology in ways to hamper democracy. Such as, blocking access to specific information out on the internet, or controlling messages via censorship. Which, has happened in countries that are not democracies at all. But, I don't see how just the advancement of science and technology would do that on its own.

The word skeptic is a loaded term to some people. How do you define the term and what does it mean to you?

I think if you grab an issue of Skeptic Magazine and turn to the front cover, there is a great definition right there. " Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse "skeptic" with "cynic" and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas: no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are "skeptical," we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe. Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: "All I know is that I know nothing." But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between "know nothing" skepticism and "anything goes" credulity. Over three centuries ago the French philosopher and skeptic, René Descartes, after one of the most thorough skeptical purges in intellectual history, concluded that he knew one thing for certain: Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. But evolution may have designed us in the other direction. Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world. Those who were best at doing this left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants. In other words, to be human is to think."

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place." If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I'd probably have to mention some issues such as internet neutrality, and somehow making it almost impossible to have more push into schools by people who are anti-evolution or anti-science. Not sure what my exact words would be though! :)

Finally, anything important I missed? Any shameless self promos you'd like to get out there?

I think you covered the main points about me. I hope some of your readers will come and check out our show at And also, hope to see some of them at the big Skeptic Track events at North Americas Largest Culture Convention, Dragon*Con!

I would like to thank Derek for taking the time to thoughtfully answer some questions for this blog. While I have not made the trek out to Georgia for Dragon Con, I hear it is quite the event. The fact that the skeptic track of events is just one of more than thirty event tracks at the event give some idea of the scale of the convention. Mr. Colanduno's optimistic view on the future of new media and the gradual rate of change and influence is interesting. To twist an old cliche, "The hand that makes the podcast is the hand that shapes the world." Who knows, it could work out that way.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who's science is it anyway?

In the February 24th issue of the New York Times (ancient history by blog-o-sphere standards), John Tierney penned an article titled, Politics in the Guise of Pure Science. In this article, Mr. Tierney discusses how scientists are prone to viewing themselves as either an aloof researcher, far above the concerns of the day, or as an impartial arbiter, interpreting groundbreaking science for the uneducated masses. Neither caricature is an accurate portrayal of the role scientists play in the political arena. Scientists will identify themselves as speaking for "science," to lend credibility to their political stance and to undermine the positions of their political opponents. At other times they will exaggerate their findings in order to steer the political debate in a direction more agreeable to their beliefs.

In the March 10th edition, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote about how, Obama Puts His Own Spin on the Mix of Science With Politics. President Obama has directed the federal bureaucracy to select science advisers based on expertise and not ideology. This came amidst the reversal of the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research. The article continued to discuss the censorship of science under the Bush administration and contained the stock defense of the policies from the political right. Quoting Karl Rove may have been a subtle attempt to discredit the right wing defense of the treatment of science during the Bush years.

Both of the articles address the question as to the role of science in a democracy. One would have to be naive or extremely partisan to not admit that science took a back seat to party politics during the Bush years. Now the big question is, will science be taken seriously in the Obama administration or will it simply be that scientific voices that are in harmony with the political wind of the time will be heard? Perhaps it would be better for public dialogue if everyone admitted that science does not speak with one voice, not would you want it to, and that all scientists have biases and preconceptions, not matter how hard they may work to overcome them.

It is difficult to find the proper place for science in a modern democracy. Clearly, placing science as the final arbiter to truth and the direction of public policy is not the answer. You simply have to look back at the eugenics movement or phrenology to see how science can be disturbingly wrong. While science is usually self correcting in the long term, for the time frame public policy is shaped in, other factors need to be there to temper cold, analytical science.

Also, the role of the expert is problematic. With all the specialization in the arena of science and in society in general, experts are just a fact of life. It's just not possible to know everything anymore. So taking the advice of experts in one field or another is often unavoidable, in optimal conditions it is even desirable. The downside is that when you have fraudulent scientists for hire that will work backwards from their results to justify whatever political position you happen to have, the role of the expert becomes tainted. Having disingenuous people out there who will say that anthropogenic global warming is not happening in exchange for a generous enough research grant, it casts a shadow of doubt over all expert opinions. While I would like to present a quick and witty solution to this problem, I instead leave you with a famous X-files quote, "Trust no one."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Q&A with Stephen Barrett M.D. of Quackwatch

Today's Q&A is with Stephen Barrett who runs the website among many others. Now on the the questions:

We'll treat this first question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

(from Barrett, M.D., a retired psychiatrist who resides near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has achieved national renown as an author, editor, and consumer advocate. In addition to heading Quackwatch, he is vice-president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, a scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, and a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). In 1984, he received an FDA Commissioner's Special Citation Award for Public Service in fighting nutrition quackery. In 1986, he was awarded honorary membership in the American Dietetic Association. From 1987 through 1989, he taught health education at The Pennsylvania State University. He is listed in Marquis Who's Who in America and received the 2001 Distinguished Service to Health Education Award from the American Association for Health Education.
An expert in medical communications, Dr. Barrett operates 23 Web sites; edits Consumer Health Digest (a weekly electronic newsletter); is medical editor of Prometheus Books; and has been a peer-review panelist for several top medical journals. He has written more than 2,000 articles and delivered more than 300 talks at colleges, universities, medical schools, and professional meetings. His 50 books include The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America and seven editions of the college textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions. One book he edited, Vitamins and Minerals: Help or Harm?, by Charles Marshall, Ph.D., won the American Medical Writers Association award for best book of 1983 for the general public and became a special publication of Consumer Reports Books. His other classics include Dubious Cancer Treatment, published by the Florida Division of the American Cancer Society; Health Schemes, Scams, and Frauds, published by Consumer Reports Books; The Vitamin Pushers: How the "Health Food" Industry Is Selling America a Bill of Goods, published by Prometheus Books; and Reader's Guide to "Alternative" Health Methods, published by the American Medical Association. His media appearances include Dateline, the Today Show, Good Morning America, ABC Prime Time, Donahue, CNN, National Public Radio, and more than 200 radio and television talk show interviews.

Dr. Barrett's Curriculum Vitae can be viewed online at quackwatch

Talk a bit about quackwatch, your 22 other web sites, and why you decided to start them all.

(also from have never been seriously victimized in any way and am a very upbeat person. I grew up in a family atmosphere that placed great value on education, science, and fair play. My interest in quackery began by accident and was not related to any strong feeling on the subject. During the mid-1960s, I read two books that irritated me greatly. One was about the government's struggle to clean up the patent medicine fraud that was rampant during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The other described how chiropractors had achieved legal recognition even though the theory behind their work was nonsense. When I voiced my concern to my local medical society president, he suggested that I organize a committee focused on quackery. Further discussion led us to form a group that was broad-based rather than composed just of medical doctors. The more we looked at, the more deeply I became concerned.
During the mid-1970s, I began writing about what I found and gradually evolved into a medical writer and editor. As I did so, I gradually reduced my psychiatric work until 1993, when I retired so I could spend more time writing about my findings. The original committee, renamed Quackwatch in 1997, has evolved into an informal network of individuals who provide help when asked.

What do you hope the effect of quachwatch and your other sites will be?

We focus on information that is difficult or impossible to get elsewhere. Our activities help people avoid being quacked, save them money, and provide a way to call illegal activities to the attention of law-enforcement agencies.

What role do you think that, "New Media," can play in spreading sound medical information?

They offer a wealth of reliable information free of charge. However, searching with Google is perilous. It is far better to use reliable sites from a trustworthy list. Our Internet Health Pilot site ( is gateway to trustworthy sites.

As a follow up, is, "New Media," living up to it's potential?

Yes, I believe that people are generally better of as a result.

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the way people utilize the medical resources available in an advanced industrial society?

It should help people make better judgments about who is trustworthy.

How would you respond to the accusation that the medical field is too technical for the average lay person to be able to make sound medical decisions regarding their own health?

Most people need expert guidance, not only because information is highly technical, but also because many sources are not reliable.

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place." If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is wasting scarce research dollars and promoting quackery in many ways. If Mr. Obama had the power to do so, I would ask him to abolish it.

Finally, anything important I missed? Any promos you would like to get out there?

The best source of health information is Consumer Reports on Health newsletter.

I would like to thank Dr. Barrett for helping out with my blog. His answers help shed light on the nature of nature of health care in the United States today. The field is certainly technical enough that an expert's advice is indispensable but there are many disingenuous people out there looking to do little more then separate the desperate and naive from their money. The ability to discern legitimate medical information from pseudoscience is essential and the, "fill in the bubble sheet," style of high stakes testing pushed on educators by No Child Left Behind is not a tool for developing critical thinking. Public schools who produce students with little critical thinking ability and even less ability to critically judge sources of information are only going to make things more difficult for Dr. Barrett and his colleagues who try to get sound information to the public.
The significant number of web sties that Dr. Barrett runs was mentioned in the Q&A, here they all are:
(health fraud and quackery) (under construction) (under construction) (guide to autism) (under construction) (legal archive) (chelation therapy) (guide to chiropractic) (under construction) (guide to dental care) (under construction) (under construction) (guide to homeopathy) (guide to reliable information) (guide to infomercials) (under construction) (multi-level marketing) (naturopathy) (under construction) (nutrition facts and fallacies) (under construction) (National Council Against Health Fraud) (consumer health sourcebook)
Now I don't think that Dr. Barrett is a cyber-squatter who is looking to sell off some of these sites for a profit. Rather, this shows the nature of the concerns in this area. It would be almost impossible for one person to be an expert in all these areas, so the expert and their role is here to stay. What is more realistic is more realistic is for a person to be a critical thinker and to be able to evaluate sources of information. Hopefully, sources like quackwatch can make getting sound information easier.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Q&A with Harriet Hall M.D. of

Today's Q&A is with Harriet Hall M.D., you can find out more about her at her website

Now on to the questions and answers:

I'll treat this first question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself and talk a bit about your educational background and research interests?

My name is Harriet Hall. I’m a retired family physician and also a retired Air Force colonel. I graduated from the University of Washington School of Medicine, did an internship at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in California, spent 6 years in Spain assigned as a General Medical Officer, did an Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base, and held various assignments as a flight surgeon, family physician and in combination patient care/management positions such as Chief of Clinic Services. Women were in the minority in medicine, the military, the flight surgeon job, and in aviation (I was an instrument-rated private pilot with my own plane). In all these areas I ran into prejudice and had a lot of frustrating and funny experiences which I wrote about in the book I recently published, “Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon.” After retiring, I got interested in alternative medicine and quackery and started investigating and writing about it. I became an editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and a contributing editor to Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazine, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and a founding member of the Science-Based Medicine blog. My website is

Talk a bit about your work with quackwatch and the science based medicine blog.

I got started with Quackwatch by participating in its Healthfraud discussion list, where I still contribute regularly and where I have learned a great deal about the health nonsense being marketed around the world. Dr. Barrett asked for a volunteer to look into dubious genetic testing, and I ended up co-authoring an article with him and went on from there. (I had co-authored two articles with him before I ever met him – thanks to the wonders of the Internet). The Science-Based Medicine blog began in January 2008 when Steven Novella invited me and 3 other MDs to collaborate. I write an article there every Tuesday. We try to comment on controversial subjects in medicine, new studies, bogus claims, etc. and we promote the concept of true science-based medicine as opposed to the common conception of “evidence-based” medicine.

What role do you think that, "New Media," can play in spreading sound medical information?

I think it plays a wonderful role. PubMed and reliable resources like the NIH and American Cancer Society websites abound. Wikipedia explains scientific concepts and covers topics not available elsewhere. Quackwatch has been invaluable. We SBM bloggers got frustrated waiting for articles to be published in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and elsewhere, and the blog allows us to respond to issues in a timely fashion and to provide a resource where readers can get “the other side of the story.”

As a follow up, is, "New Media," living up to it's potential?

It’s hard to say, but I’ve seen some encouraging signs. I’ve written skeptical articles about Dr. Daniel Amen and Dr. Nicholas Perricone, and when you google for their names, my articles come up in the first few hits, so consumers researching them will find my critiques. My articles on the blog have been cited or copied on websites as far afield as Malaysia and I’ve gotten fan mail and inquiries from places like Estonia, Sweden, Turkey, Colombia. What is perhaps most encouraging is that people are writing to ask me questions. Sometimes I can direct them to reliable sources. Sometimes there is no reliable information and I can help by producing some reliable information and publicizing it via the Healthfraud discussion list, the blog, the magazines I write for, and the “Swift” newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation. For example, I recently wrote a small piece in Swift critiquing the Genewize company at the request of a reader..

How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the way people utilize the medical resources available in an advanced industrial society?

The answer to that question is pretty obvious: If the public understands science, they will be able to choose rationally. If they are gullible, they will waste money and risk their health. Consumers don’t understand that under the DSHEA, FDA consumer protection no longer covers medicines marketed as diet supplements. We are wasting taxpayers’ money on nonsense: the NCCAM is paying for research on highly improbable and even previously disproven treatments; the Air Force is teaching battlefield acupuncture. Insurance companies and Medicare are reimbursing for treatments that are not scientifically valid.

How would you respond to the accusation that the medical field is too technical for the average lay person to be able to make sound medical decisions regarding their own health?

The medical field is technical, but patients HAVE to make decisions about their health. They can learn to navigate the media, to recognize the signs of unreliable websites, to look for both sides to every story. On our blog we are trying to provide readers with some of the tools they need to think critically about medical issues and claims.

In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place.” If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

I’d ask him to require his medical advisors to read our blog. I’d beg him to de-fund the NCCAM and to repeal DSHEA. I’d point out that even some renowned scientists lack critical thinking skills and fail to truly understand the scientific method. I’d stress the vital importance of critical thinking in every sphere.

I'd like to thank Dr. Hall for taking the time to answer some questions for this blog. I think the medical field is an area that brings into focus the role of the expert in modern society along with the challenges of being an informed citizen of an increasingly specialized world. Personally, I'm still trying to get my mind around the concept of battlefield acupuncture. To give some footnotes for those who may not be up to speed on government alphabet soup:

NCCAM - the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
DSHEA - the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Darwin day +7

Well, it's been a week since the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday, so I imagine everyone has recovered from their celebrations. Locally, the University of Utah and the Utah Museum of Natural History each had a number of events to mark the occasion. The local PBS station broadcast a two hour NOVA documentary called, "Intelligent Design on Trial." Earlier in the year, the BBC radio 4 program In Our Time had a four part series on the life and work of Darwin. The cool thing about all these things is that they all stimulated thought about evolution and the place of science in society. The down side is that most of this stuff is preaching to the converted. If anybody out there has any good ideas on how to get the commercial media to give more time and attention to science matters, shout them from the roof tops.

To avoid ending on a down note, I'll draw everybody's attention to an article in Tuesday's New York Times that grabbed my attention. It seems that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology has decided to not hold it's 2011 meeting in New Orleans due to a Louisiana law that opens science classroom to creationism. The amusing thing about the story is the city they decided to move the meeting to . . . Salt Lake City. Take that Mardi Gras town. Salt Lake City, more friendly to science than New Orleans, could be a new city motto.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Critical thinking exercise

Alright, I said I would revisit Zeitgeist and Loose Change so here it goes.
First of all, Zeitgeist is overloaded with religious bits and I really don't want to go there.
That leaves the Loose Change video. So, for those of you with a couple hours of free time on your hands, here's an exercise in critical thinking. First of all, watch Brian Duning's introduction to critical thinking, Here Be Dragons. Yes, it is important you watch this one first. Now that you have all the ideas from that rattling around in your mind, take a look at the video Loose Change and apply all your critical thinking tools to the arguments put forth in the show. One thing that is important is to look at each piece of, "evidence," separately. A tactic used by some people advocating off the wall theories is to overwhelm folks with an avalanche of little tidbits, digressions, red herrings and the like. You can see this argument put to use by people who think the moon landings were a hoax. The problem with that tactic is that a load of poor arguments do not add up to one compelling argument. A person who uncritically looks at Loose Change might be persuaded by the sheer number of things they put forth in their video. If anybody finds a compelling argument in the loose change video, I'd like to know about it. Personally, I wasn't convinced. Well, tighten up your thinking caps and have fun.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Q &A with Brian Dunning from

The first Q&A here at Skeptical Literacy is with Brian Dunning from I was thinking of copying and pasting his bio from the media section of, then I thought that if you are computer literate enough to find this blog, you are computer literate enough to find that yourself. For those of you who haven't had a chance to check out his podcast,a couple of my favorites are Skeptoid #73 and #74, A Magical Journey through the Land of Logical Fallacies parts 1 and 2.

And now on to the questions and answers:

Q: Here, we'll treat this first question like it's the first day of a graduate seminar. Could you introduce yourself to the group and talk about your background and interests?

Brian Dunning: I suppose I'm your average science geek at heart. My background is in computer science but that never stopped me from reading anything and everything I could on other sciences. I spent one entire summer as a kid listening to Switched-On Bach through headphones while reading and re-reading the entire Time-Life science library cover to cover. I was thoroughly hooked.

In college I actually majored for a while in film directing, but it never quite clicked with me: My head was full of artistic visions, stories to tell, and things I wanted to say; but translating that into the process of working with actors and cameras and lights and agents and producers, as a director, just didn't work for me. I could write the content, but not being an industry insider I couldn't sell it. So I settled into a career in software design, which is something I'm good at but has never been 100% fulfilling.

Q: Talk a bit about Skeptoid and why you decided to start up a podcast.

Brian Dunning: And then podcasting was invented. It was the perfect blend of all my interests. I could be the geek in the corner with his headphones and his books and his computer, and produce the content I wanted to produce, and be free to do everything my own way. For me it was the rarest of convergences. I was born to produce Skeptoid.

Every week I take a different subject, and it's usually one I read about as a kid, and something that most people have heard about, and generally believe. Maybe it's an urban legend like The Amityville Horror or the Philadelphia Experiment. Maybe it's a popular pseudoscience like detoxification or acupuncture. Maybe it's a conspiracy theory. The world is bursting at the seams with subject matter begging to be revealed. I package each one into a neat 10-minute show, and pack in as much revelation as I can.

Skeptoid has been going for about two and a half years, about 140 episodes so far, and averages 70,000 listeners each week. It's been one of the Top 5 science podcasts in iTunes for a little over a year.

Q: What do you hope the impact of Skeptoid will be?

Brian Dunning: The first goal has to be to entertain. Skeptoid must be fun and entertaining, something people want to listen to each week, or it can't survive. How it entertains is up to me, and my choice is to share the fun of discovery. When you're having fun listening to Skeptoid, it's because you're learning some cool new angle on something you thought you already knew all about, or you're learning about some wacky, fascinating new phenomenon you've never heard of. Either way you come out of it armed with new tools for skeptical discovery. I hope people will listen to Skeptoid and find that reality offers more illumination than the medieval beliefs in which most people are mired.

Q: What role do you think that, "New Media," can play in spreading critical literacy in our society?

Brian Dunning: Not as much of a role as you might think. Yes, a scientist can put out a podcast or vodcast or whatever you want to call it, and promote critical thinking. But unless his show is as entertaining, well produced, and glitzy as mainstream media, nobody's going to tune in and he's going to disappear. It's a misconception that new media frees broadcasters of the responsibility to production quality and popular content. It should tell you something that there are no popular shows on television promoting critical thinking. It should also tell you something that paranormal podcasts quickly rise to the top of the science category in iTunes. New media is not the panacea that skeptical outreach professionals (or anyone else for that matter) wish it could be.

Q: As a follow up, is, "New Media," living up to it's potential?

Brian Dunning: I think it's main potential is to let the independent individual compete with major studios and reach the same audience. But this is becoming increasingly difficult as major studios are getting more into the game, with production values that independents could never hope to match. The only area in which we can effectively compete is in quality content, but unfortunately that's not always what determines the success of a show. In a perfect world, new media would be the onramp taking the best independents into the mainstream; but in practice it seems things are going the other way. Major studios are creating new media versions of their existing mainstream properties, and displacing the independents with more familiar, better produced content. My worry is that soon you'll never be able to locate a podcast like Skeptoid in iTunes; it will be buried under mountains of pop trite like Ghost Hunters masquerading as science content. I don't really see a solution to this yet.

Q: Could you discuss your project, "Here Be Dragons," and what you had in mind when you decided to take on making an introduction to critical thinking?

Brian Dunning: People used to constantly ask me to do two things: First to make Skeptoid a video podcast, and second, to address the conspiracy documentaries released on the Internet Zeitgeist and Loose Change. Well, I barely have time to make a weekly 10-minute audio podcast; the additional time and resources required to make a decent weekly video are way beyond what I've got available. But clearly, Zeitgeist and Loose Change did need to have a competing viewpoint. So I decided to set aside a budget and take a few weeks off work, and made the 40-minute video Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking (available for free at It's classroom friendly and aims to provide some of the basic tools necessary to help people recognize that pseudoscience and fraud are all around them, which is something that never even occurs to most people. The childish claims made in Zeitgeist and Loose Change are typical of those that the public is bombarded with every day, and nobody ever seems to suggest there's any reason not to uncritically accept them at face value. Every day I get emails from people thanking me and stating that Here Be Dragons should be required viewing at every school, and sometimes I even hear from a teacher or school that has made it required viewing. Very gratifying.

Q: How do you think that increased scientific literacy can improve the functioning of a democracy?

Brian Dunning: It pains me so much when I see how much is wasted because of pseudoscience. Every town has businesses devoted to useless alternative medicine. Every supermarket is bursting at the seams with fraudulent "supplements" and overpriced magical organic food. The wealthiest man in virtually every county in the nation is the pastor of the local megachurch. Nearly all popular TV shows promote some form of magic. It goes on and on and on. What if all those resources were diverted to methods and technologies that actually benefit people? Think how much farther along we could be.

Q: Do you think that advancements in science and technology can impair the functioning of a democracy?

Brian Dunning: I suppose if someone came out with a new laser weapon and went around cutting everyone in half, that would be an impairment. Otherwise, you're basically talking about globalization and economic implications, topics I avoid. I leave stuff like that to the political podcasters; it's not my area of interest.

Q: In his inaugural address, President Obama stated that he would, "restore science to its rightful place.” If you were given an opportunity to talk to him about science, technology and education, what would you say?

Brian Dunning: Please, fund enforcement! The FDA and FTC are woefully underfunded. Witness the vast number of sellers of pseudoscience making illegal and untrue health claims for their useless products and services. The existing laws are good ones, we've just never been able to enforce them to any meaningful degree. For every Airborne "supplement" that does get nailed, fifty knockoffs get away with murder (literally true in some cases). When people hear about these companies finally getting busted, it's often the first they've heard that there's anything fraudulent about these products, and that's an impactful and valuable lesson.

Science education, especially to help young people become aware of pseudoscience, is another matter. Would it be great if every junior high curriculum included a unit on practical critical thinking in modern culture? Definitely, it would. Do I see it happening when schools can't even afford physical education and librarians anymore? It's too far from the top of the list.

Q: Could you talk about the Skeptologists and let the blog-o-sphere know if there is any news on that front?

Brian Dunning: The Skeptologists is a new TV pilot that I host and executive produced alongside director Ryan Johnson, who first called me and proposed the idea. We have a cast of science experts, our "Skeptologists", who go around and expose popular stories and pseudosciences for what they are, and illustrate how much more entertaining the reality is. The only news I can report is that it's being actively marketed by some of the best and most successful people in television, and that I'm not supposed to give any details about the stage of that process. :-)

Q: Finally, anything important I missed? Any shameless self promos you'd like to get out there?

Brian Dunning: Two things. First, I'm throwing a big party on April 18th to celebrate the 150th episode of Skeptoid at the University of California, Irvine ( It's going to feature some great entertainment and special guests, and best of all, the world premiere of a secret project that's been brewing in the Skeptoid skunkworks for months. The only way to find out what it is is to attend!

Second, I'm doing more and more live shows at colleges, high schools, or wherever. I've got a couple of really fun multimedia shows that always amuse and entertain, and they're skeptical too! You can go to and click on Live Shows (


I would like to thank Brian Dunning for taking the time to answer some questions for this blog. This entry would have been up sooner but I had not heard of Zeitgeist and Loose Change and wanted to take a look at them, and well, more on those at a later date.

I think there is one area where Mr. Dunning and I disagree and that is the relative value of science education and critical thinking in American public schools. Many if the social ills that Mr. Dunning's work seeks to shine a light upon could be far less damaging in a society with a greater degree of scientific literacy. Since the federal government has firmly entrenched itself in public education through No Child Left Behind and other nonsense, it may as well try to be a positive influence. A segment on the January 30th episode of NPR's Science Friday addressed how scientific reasoning cannot be learned through memorizing facts and taking multiple choice tests. By shifting away from high stakes testing toward a pedagogy that encourages and develops scientific reasoning, the Obama administration could bring about meaningful change to American public education. The question as to whether the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, is the man to bring about that change is an ongoing one.