Friday, March 13, 2009
Q&A with Derek Colanduno of skepticality.com
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 www.skepticality.com. 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.