Skepticism

What show do you want to hear?

Okay folks, I have my directions from PRX about the next stage of the Public Radio Talent Quest: I have to produce a 5-minute demo on the show I’d ultimately like to do. It’s wide open, so what do you want to hear? I’d like to hear your thoughts on format, content, interviews, locations, whatever. Go wild!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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23 Comments

  1. I know it would be hard, but I'd like to hear a biography of someone… an anecdote about them, some life history, etc. Perry comes to mind; mostly because I know little of him before the SGU, and I'd be interested in knowing more.

  2. I know that this may seem like more of the same, but I would like to hear an antidote to Art Bell-type of radio: a discussion of urban legends as urban legends with experts who not only debunk the craziness, but also discuss where it came from, why people believe it, and how we can avoid similar traps in our own reasoning. I would like to steer away from simple name calling but would rather hear someone like Joe Nickell who respects those who hold the beliefs while discarding the beliefs themselves.

    If you are looking for a specific topic, I think that you could pick them as well as I could: 911 conspiracies, psychics who speak to the dead, astrology, homeopathy, various cryptozoological claims, various government conspiracies like the memo 46, food fads, unsubstantiated medial claims, etc.

  3. Basically, that's time enough for a brief segment and and brief call-response.

    Alternatively, you could just ask Jimmy Carter back on, and be all like "look at me all you other contestants, you're making fart noises with a soundboard while I'm chatting it up with a PRESIDENT, lol"

  4. Do the skeptic thing, but remember, people are still voting on this. Once you have a show you can piss off all the people you want. Major woo issues could be trouble at this point. So my advice would be to pick something that you feel passionate about, but which ordinary citizens will afterwards feel informed about–a subject they knew little about or were unaware of. Perhaps even one of the classics, like bigfoot or UFOs, and take an angle that makes people question what they think they know rather than simply debunking.

  5. How about looking at the increasing public profile of atheism, as it's pretty topical? The best-selling books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris. The atheism section in Borders. Is atheism becoming respectable, or is it just a passing fad? There's scope for interviews, maybe vox pop recordings in a book shop. I'm not sure what a "demo" consists of. I guess it would be like a sampler of a full programme, with interview clips, maybe snatches of music. Some field recording out of the studio would add colour.

  6. You mean you haven't THOUGHT about this yet? Dude…

    The question is, what are your interests, and what are your assets? You care about science. Forget the woo, woo is okay but that is what SGTU is for, and what Skepticality is for, and POI. Science Friday investigates new results…

    How about a show that sort of looks at careers in science? What are cool things you can do with a science degree? What do "scientists" actually DO? How do they know what they know? Why should we believe them?

    I know, you're destined to sit around in a lot of rooms full of computers while people do strange things. But the strange things they are doing are fascinating to them, and there has to be a way to make them fascinating to us. You'll need some production, and about 50 minutes of tape for your 5 minute segment, but still.

    I guess I can picture a paleontology show, where you go out and meet volunteers on a dig, or a cancer research show where you interview test subjects and researchers, that kind of thing. But the focus is on the job that some person has and what makes it great.

  7. I think your hostiest asset is your curiousity so follow the whole spectrum those paths lead you down. A show that reflected all the facets of your personality and interests would be great – Bad Astronomy and woo-busting one day and a skepchick look at some girlie stuff like and the science behind cosmetics and weight loss and throw in some of your pop culture interests.

    Keep it as smart and amusing as you are.

    I cannot help but think that PennRadio is not a bad model to draw inspiration from.

  8. Thanks for all the thoughts! Good stuff, especially those focusing on longterm concepts.

    seth: Of course I've thought about it, silly, but I want to hear your thoughts. I have something in mind but may not be able to pull it together for a demo in just a few days.

    mcmatz: PennRadio has definitely been on my mind!

  9. I'm with mcmatz as far as emulating PennRadio…that was a great show to catch every day. But it might be hard to make in demo form as so much of what they did relied on the callers. But as far as the range of topics under discussion, the overall tone, and the way guest episodes/debates were handled, PennRadio is a great example of a popular skeptical yet cool show. I guess instead of espousing the "libertarian nut" position as Penn does, you can go with the "liberal hippie" position? :-P

    I'm tempted to say that some conducting some sort of interview or experiment on air would be a GREAT start. I know you're familiar with Richard Wiseman…are you familiar enough to contact him and ask for an interview/sample experiment in Quirkology that you could test out on people on the street or callers-in? But I suppose I'm thinking more of a longer thing than the five minutes you've been allotted. Still, perhaps something along those lines could be fit into the time limit?

  10. Wiseman! he's not known well enough here in the states, and he's quite entertaining.

    Edited to add:

    And BTW, when you, I, and Ira Glass have our pre-destined threesome, Perry will be watching from Heaven. Oh, yes he will.  :)

  11. Rebecca,

    If you get the success you clearly deserve, are you likely to have a niche you can define for yourself with a basically free rein, or will you be given a range of areas to cover?

    I guess for any programme, you need something you are interested in, *or* that you can become interested in even if it's something you don't necessarily understand. The latter could be trickier to imagine, but are there any things you want to learn about that you could be an 'intelligent audience' for?

    One of the very best radio interviewers for informative programmes I'm aware of over here is Melvyn Bragg, who I think is originally from an arts background, but whose main BBC radio programme ('In Our Time') is about 50/50 arts/history and science, with one topic per programme, and usually 2 or 3 noncombative guests, but what really comes across is the basic feeling that he really wants to understand things himself, and that if a guest is nervous (and even seemingly hopeless for radio), if he doesn't think they have entirely explained something so that the listeners should hopefully get it, he'll usually get them or someone else to explain, but make it come across more as a problem of him not quite understanding, rather than them being a stammering bundle of nerves. One possible advantage of the areas covered is that quite a bit of the science is at least partly history-of-science, which I suppose people can follow without needing a great understanding of the precise details.

    I suppose knowing enough to steer a conversation properly while not giving the impression of being scripted can be a fine line to tread.

  12. I want to make another plug for my idea about profiling working scientists, humanizing them. Over on Aetiology, I've been involved in a few thread wars on HIV denial and Germ denial (yes, Virginia, there are germ theory deniers in the world). These memes depend on the villification of scientists to work. If you don't believe that biologists are, by and large, cowardly fools with no real love of the science or the truth, HIV denial makes no sense (nor does Bigfoot, for that matter.)

    People therefore need to meet more biologists. AIDS researchers, for example.

  13. Ira Flatow knows too much, and misses lots of obvious questions because of it. Pick something you are genuinely curious about, and that you've done your background research about, but aren't an expert in yourself.

    Aim for something that fits you and what you care about but has broad appeal.

    I think some part of the demo should be out of the studio–a demonstration by a scientist, a location interview with stuff to talk about, a tour? If you have some time, listen to this presentation by David Kestenbaum: http://thirdcoastfestival.org/annual_conference_2
    I think his points about having scenes in a feature can be applied to interviews as well.

  14. As others have said, a show strictly about skepticism is gonna run out of steam after a while, unless you add other stuff to it. And for a demo, the subject you choose might upset too many potential listeners.

    Likewise, I think that a show strictly about science or scientists might come across as dull and difficult to grasp.

    I think the "educational" format is a good idea. Take a subject you yourself still have some questions and confusion about, and have someone clarify it on air. And this can range from anything like bigfoot and homeopathy to quantum mechanics or recent developments in astronomy.

    Most importantly, it's not just chatting with someone interesting, it's having someone interesting explain something you (and the audience) didn't know yet.

  15. A few quick suggestions (I just wrote down the first thigs that came to mind and I didn't read the other comments):

    1) Interview normal working scientists. A person doesn't have to be the leader in his field to have interesting stories. Try to convey the excitement and enthusiasm that many scientists have for their work. Put a human face in science. Don't just talk about the science, just have a casual chat.

    2) Investigate the ubiquity of science and technology: We are so surrounded by and immersed in technology and science that we don't even realize it. Don't go for big (and obvious) subjects like the internet or cellphones – keep it simple. It is an idea that has fascinated me for a long time. I once tried to write down all the scientific, technological and mathematical advances that had to occur to enable me to wear the t-shirt that I had on – I only stopped after filling quite a few pages.

    I also like the irony that even the most far out, woohoo, crazy nutjobs depend much more on (and implicitly trust in) science and tech for their everyday well-being than whatever they profess to believe in.

    3) Cover quirky stories from the world of science, tech, the internet etc. Pretty much the same stuff that you do here in your blog, but keep in mind that your audience will probably be a lot less geeky, so you might have to explain things a bit more explicitly.

    4) Obviously you also have to cover skepticism. I recommend interviews with the same kind of people and much in the same style as you already do on SGU.

    OK, that's my 2 pennies worth. I've got no idea how one might convey any of these ideas in a 5 minute spot though.

    Good luck!

  16. five minute demo?!?

    Well, go with one topic or issue. Something you can cover quickly, and yet back up. I'd go for the "truth is always stranger than fiction" angle. You know, attention grabbing interesting science. Is your real show going to be that way? Who knows? The point is that if you only have 5 minutes to impress people, throw in a few triple jumps!

    I'm reading a book called, "Survival of the Sickest" all about how being ill, with long term things like diabetes and such, kept us alive long enough to breed in the old days. Then I was reading a theory about why we walk upright. The old savannah theory is out, the new aquatic ape theory is in.

    I'm not saying talk about anything like that, it's just sort of cool science.

    I agree the real fun of attacking woos should wait until you have a job!! Though if you want to give old Sylvia Browne a smackdown, I know Robert Lancaster would love to help you. And that could be really cool also.

  17. Rebecca, if you haven't heard WNYC's Radio Lab (http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/), you really should give it a listen. It deals with some of the most abstract and difficult questions in science and philosophy in an amazingly engaging way. It might give you some inspiration.

    Your entries to the PRTQ reminded my of Seed Magazine. I think it would be awesome if you did a show like the Seed Salon (http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/the-seed-salon/). Get two guests, one from the arts and one from the sciences on to talk about the same topic from their different perspectives. There is nothing like this on radio. There are plenty of interviews and shows that pit experts from opposite sides of an issue against each other, but nothing thats actually constructive. I think it could be done and would make for excellent radio, utterly captivating and appealing to wide audience.

  18. Rebecca, what about a Science or Fiction type thing? that would be a cool way of getting some interesting science out there… oh, wait, that takes about 10 minutes, something for the future show? people could call in to voice their opinion!

    what if you did a spot on something everyone uses everyday… a How It Works type thing… speakers and/or microphones would be an obvious choice for a radio show.

  19. Rebecca,

    I think you should stay with what you have been doing with Skepchick. Your theme, "Critical Thinking for the Masses" is perfect. America needs effective instruction in critical thought. Why not do a short introduction to skepticism. You could use Sagan's essay, "The Burden of Skepticism" as a framework…

    http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/saganbur.htm

    But somehow we freethinkers have to show that skepticism does not have to be a burden, it can be source of great joy and benefit. I think with your your humor and intelligence you can find a way…

    By the way, win or lose you have been an inspiration and joy for me and my family. My daughter is sixteen and reads your blog "religiously." I don't think she could have a better mentor. Thanks for your dedication and hard work!

    Best of luck!

  20. Rebecca,

    One thing that I do sometimes wonder about is the national element to science/technology history. I assume everywhere, there's a tendency to stress the importance of local inventions, even if that's just down to a natural concern for local history, but it can leak across into a skewed idea of science compared to a view from a nationally neutral viewpoint.

    Between the UK and US, there are different popular ideas about who deserves most credit for television, the light bulb, etc.

    Even though I'm interested in science and technology and its history, I have next to no idea what, for example, the average French or German person grows up learning about.

    I'd guess that even in 5 minutes, it might be possible to briefly look at various national viewpoints on one or two particular technologies.

  21. From a purely "I want Rebecca to win" angle (rather than "what would make the best show")I think you should stick with the skepticism, at least for this part of the contest. Dance with he who brung ya.

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