Kevin Folta Blazes Sci Comm Satire Trail with Character Vern Blazek
Science: The term may conjure images ranging from space flight to synapses; galaxies to gametes, and everything in between. Encompassing the vast body of knowledge from all of its branches, science is a perpetual process; a system for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. An often dry and seemingly unexciting discipline, a claim must be based on hard evidence subject to testing and confirmation for a body of experts to deem it “scientific”.
Though enthusiasts like me find science exciting, we know that it’s a grueling and often boring process that only occasionally leads to thrilling discoveries and share-worthy headlines to accompany those findings. I am pleased to play a small role in this new, dare I say revolutionary way to communicate science.
Scientist and Science Communicator Kevin Folta as alter ego radio personality Vern Blazek
Back in May, I did an interview about March Against Myths, an activist organization I co-founded to dispel myths about biotechnology, with a guy named Vern Blazek, a podcaster hosting the Science Power Hour. The episodes were only about a half hour long, and the host’s voice was strangely-modulated and lispy, yet familiar. Blazek, who claimed residence at the “high desert outside of Tilamook, Oregon, near Area 52”, made me chuckle, and I was certain he was a disguise for a far less colorful man.
I’d eventually get to peek behind the curtain. The brainchild of University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, who tirelessly pushes every envelope to communicate science to the public, Vern Blazek is an electronically-doctored, lispy offering from a bygone era. The more we talked about it, the more it made sense.
“I wanted to do a podcast, it is a great delivery system for teaching science,” Folta explained to me during a recent conversation. Looking back on the first of two podcasts I did with Blazek, he was able to pose questions from a completely different angle than a veteran scientist would ever pull off. “It was hard to get people to agree to talk science with a scientist,” he continued. “A doofus retired radio host was much more approachable for the guest and listener”.
How Blazek came to life
Folta decided to invent a parody modeled after the Art Bell’s radio show Coast to Coast AM, a late-night program that the personality hosted from the mid nineties to the early aughts, and again in several stints since. The show frequently featured descriptions of the paranormal, cryptozoology, psychics and conspiracy. The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour incorporates many of the same thematic elements and music, but flips the switch, from endorsing woo to promoting sound science. Previous guests included Cara Santa Maria, James Fell, Yvette “The SciBabe” d’Entremont, and Nick Saik. And though Blazek took a recent hiatus, more episodes are forthcoming, covering an array of topics, from food misinformation to chemophobia, and science activism to biotechnology.
Stay tuned for eyebrow-raising moments in upcoming episodes. “Instead of an actual radio host discussing nonsense, you have a nonsensical host discussing actual science,” Folta said. He’s not joking about the juxtaposition of sound science with silly host—In segues between segments, Blazek is fond of referring to NPR’s sponsorship swag as “crappy tote bags,” promising he’ll never send such items to his esteemed listeners because he doesn’t “roll that way”. If your sense of humor is anything like mine, you can’t help but be amused. The idea is to soften scientific topics, making them more approachable with a fictitious host that walks the line between real and ridiculous, then use that vehicle to communicate actual science. The topics in the original flight of the Science Power Hour ranged from food psychology, to fitness fads, to GMOs.
“People have already made up their minds about me from my blog, science writing, and public talks,” Folta explained. Indeed, the scientist has been a recent scapegoat of anti-GMO bullies; a victim of public records exploitation from organic industry bigwigs including US Right to Know and Vani “The Food Babe” Hari. In character as Vern, the scientist who has been doxxed, threatened, and dragged through the mud (read more here) can coax an objective interview and, as he explained, “let folks make up their own minds about the science”. It’s obvious that Vern Blazek is a skeptic with a lot of the same doubts and questions that the general public has. He wants to hear the evidence. Folta, on the other hand, is neck-deep in evidence; the banter from the scientist simply wouldn’t be the same.
Which is why, Folta says, he invented the parody. “Folks have long used satire to communicate complex topics in politics and current events, here we can try to use such rhetorical approaches to spread science”.
It was also a fundamental need. When he approached potential guests as himself, nobody wanted to talk, presumably because doing a podcast with a scientist like Folta seemed intimidating or otherwise disagreeable. Similarly, when he approached potential guests as himself in the voice of Vern Blazek, people were also hesitant to talk, perhaps believing that a fictitious host might have no problem being unfair or even disparaging.
“The easy solution was to develop a history of interviews that were fair, and maybe informative and entertaining,” he said, inviting guests to the Science Power Hour as the host, Vern Blazek, with no mention of Kevin Folta. “After a couple of episodes, it didn’t seem forthright,” he told me. “While the interviews were straight and actually really good, I ended up taking those down because it didn’t seem honest and transparent, which is essential in earning trust about science”.
Art Bell and Stephen Colbert have a lovechild?
The Science Power Hour now features interviews with guests that know the host is a caricature, but are willing to play along. “It’s like Art Bell and Stephen Colbert had a baby, only not as funny or entertaining,” Folta said.
“My long-term hope is to interview scientists with cool science stories to tell, and then use the Science Power Hour as a way to let Vern help relate their discoveries to a science-hungry, but maybe not science-savvy public,” Folta said. And though I’m not a scientist, I spoke with Blazek last week for an upcoming episode on my soon-to-release book, The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, (now available for pre-order). Throughout the interview, I was thankful that these are audio podcasts and not video; though talking to Vern is always a blast, it’s hard to keep a straight face!
The Science Power Hour seeks to do at least one podcast a month. The current set can be found at www.sciencepowerhour.com .
The other success of the Science Power Hour was that Folta realized that he was comfortable hosting a science podcast. He currently produces and hosts (as himself) the weekly podcast Talking Biotech, which focuses on medical and agricultural biotechnology, as well as plant breeding, receiving about 20,000 downloads a month.