The first Q&A here at Skeptical Literacy is with Brian Dunning from Skeptoid.com. I was thinking of copying and pasting his bio from the media section of skeptiod.com, 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 HereBeDragonsMovie.com). 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 (http://skeptoid.com/party.php). 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 Skeptoid.com and click on Live Shows (http://skeptoid.com/speaking.php).
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.