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Ask Me Anything, 2022 Edition

Donate In which we wrap up 2022 by letting Skeptoid premium members Ask Me Anything.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #864
December 27, 2022
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Ask Me Anything, 2022 Edition

Today we are going to do something that we never have on Skeptoid before, and that's devote an entire episode to your questions for me, our very first "Ask Me Anything" show. I put out this call to premium members of the podcast, and received many more questions than I could include today. And that's great! I set no rules, people could ask me about anything they want, and today you'll learn what they came up with within those broad parameters.

If you sent a question and I don't include it today, then there's a strong chance that it will be in a Student Questions episode coming up in a few weeks. If your question was more of a Skeptoid question than a Brian question, then that's probably where you'll get to hear the answer.

Hey Brian, Simon Matthews from Australia. I love supporting activities and programs that educate, and particularly science education. And in schools, for example, we measure the impact of education through proxies like examinations and tests. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how we could measure across time the impact of Skeptoid.

Yeah, measuring impact is really important. Since we're a nonprofit, we have obligations like providing annual reports and things to donors; and we're always applying for operating grants, and impact is something grantors want to know so they can evaluate whether you're worth throwing their money at. Unfortunately it's really hard to do. I can tell you how many listeners we have, or how many downloads there are; but I can't tell you anything like how many people we encouraged to go to a doctor instead of a naturopath, or what the impact to society has been of listeners becoming more aware that Ancient Aliens is worthless drivel. That kind of information just doesn't come back to us. So we end up doing basically the same thing as schools and other public broadcasting agencies do: we use the download and listenership numbers as our impact. It's not perfect, but it's the best solution our industry has come up with.

Hi, this is John Ordover. My question is what would it take to colonize Antarctica? Ice has covered most of that continent for 20 million years. What could be buried under there is far more interesting to me than what we might find on Mars.

It's an interesting question. The technical and economic challenges to colonizing Antarctica are very real but also solvable; it would just be really expensive and inefficient to have to bring in everything by air and ship to a continent where there are no natural resources except water. A bigger challenge might be the political one; it would be illegal under international law to colonize Antarctica, and I honestly don't see that changing any time soon.

But what would those curious colonists find under the ice, if they had the interest to drill down through an average of two kilometers of ice? Probably very little besides glacially carved rock. About the only other interesting thing would likely be similar to what scientists have already found by drilling down to subglacial lakes, which is some 4,000 species of microbes.

Brian, good morning, this is Mark Nuttall from Birmingham England, wishing you and all the other listeners a very happy Christmas and best wishes for 2023. The most important question of the year: Who's your favorite Doctor Who? Thanks very much for a great podcast.

Well that's an easy one, it's Tom Baker, and I think one reason for that is he's the one who was in the role when I first started watching. So, to my brain, he's always the O.G. But of course the real reason is that ever since that day, I've lived my entire life hopelessly in love with Sarah Jane Smith. My wife's had to learn to live with that. And what can I say, I'm only a weak fallible human, prone not only to massive fails in judgement, but also to brain-dead blunders. But hey, come on, it's Sarah Jane Smith. Any reasonable human can only but sympathize with me.

And now a question from Clint:

I would like to hear the origin of our skeptical hero. Were you a lonely student bullied by New Earth Creationists, Flat Earthers, and cryptozoologists? who, one day after being flummoxed by bullies, was taken pity upon by a kindly janitor who used his bullshido to defeat the bullies, and gave you an old copy of a skeptical magazine.  Afterwards were you able to  spot all 12 prime logical fallacies! and say things like "Wait a minute", and "That's not right!"? 

Got it! First guess.

Hey Brian, it's Kraeg Minett here. I just wanted to ask you, how do you know when to stop talking? What I mean is whenever I'm trying to have a conversation with somebody about some woo that they buy into, I can never just sort of get a point across and stop before they start to hit a very angry phase. I know it's my limitation, I'm just wondering if there's something you kind of look for, or that you've learned to recognize that I keep missing. Thanks, and great show, I absolutely love it, I look forward to every episode. Thank you.

So yeah, people ask me this all the time. I guess it's something we all struggle with. Way back in 2010 I dedicated a whole episode to (basically) this question, called "Emergency Handbook: What to Do When a Friend Loves Woo". My answer now is the same as it was then. It's that I usually don't get to a point where I have to make that call, because my normal process is never to go down that road at all. I mean, if someone wants to have that conversation, then fine, I'll have it with them; but I don't spend a lot of energy on it. Few people ever want to have a reality debate because they actually want to learn more; it's usually that they already know they're right and just want to show you. My preference is to never have those conversations in the first place. When someone at the table goes off on some subject, I prefer to smile, keep my mouth shut, and have another sip of whisky.

But if you are into it? When do you know when to shut up? I'd say the instant you can tell they're invested. The instant they start trying to convince you. At that point, anything you say is just a waste of breath. And I never talk when someone doesn't want to hear what I have to say.

Should I go back and answer Clint's question about my origin story? Because I kind of feel it was mean to just give the wise answer. OK Clint, since this is Ask Me Anything day.

Unlike most of my fellow science communicators, I came into it via entertainment, not via science. I double majored in computer science and film directing, but ultimately transferred into a Writing for Film and Television program, and spent a few years mostly failing miserably in Los Angeles. But anyone who knows what a dweeb I am knows that Hollywood is not an ecosystem I would thrive in, and I didn't. So I worked a largely boring and unfulfilling career in tech. I was part of IBM's effort to develop BizTalk back in the early days of XML; I was a Silicon Valley CTO in the go-go days; I consulted at Lawrence Livermore National Labs; and about the closest I ever got to entertainment was being a tech editor for a software magazine. I was (as I remain) a very boring person. But then when podcasts came along in the mid 2000s, that's when I found the perfect convergence for all my interests. And, boom, here I am, sixteen years later, making movies and podcasts.

Hi Brian, Paul in Germany here. I wanted to ask you your favorite cryptid. As in, what cryptid do you wish were real?

Well I have to say Bigfoot for my favorite, because that's largely what got me into science and science fiction. Plus it haunted my dreams and terrified me well into my 20s. The big damn walking carpet. So I don't wish they were real, because that would be scary. For what I do wish was real, I would turn to mermaids. But not in a creepy way; hear me out. Imagine a whole other race of intelligent humanoids here on Earth, the mer-people, with their undersea knowledge. I think it would be a wild exchange of cultures, but also an unprecedented synergy for combining their knowledge with ours, their scientists working with ours, just think how much better equipped we would be to tackle problems like global warming and ocean acidification. I think having mer-people to chill with at the beach would be super cool.

Here's a question from Alex:

Hey Brian. My question is would you ever do a followup to your QAnon episode? Since you did the first one, Trump lost re-election, the Capitol insurrection happened, and voter fraud has taken on whole new layers with those kinds of people. Thanks.

No I probably would not, because nothing has changed. The QAnon conspiracy theory remains what it always was, it's just less and less prominent as the Trump administration fades farther and farther into memory.

Honestly it sounds like you're asking for an episode critical of what you term "those kinds of people". Well, here on Skeptoid, I try to limit my criticism to faulty beliefs, and not to people, and certainly not to groups of people. I want Skeptoid to be a show where everyone can feel welcome and everyone can find something positive to take away.

Skeptoid would never turn into a show advocating one political party over another — though I would advocate (and have in the past) voting in favor of pro-science legislation. There are plenty of politics podcasts out there for those who want them. Anyway, the science is pretty clear that no political party is free of faulty thought patterns. Remember how easy it is to backspace over "George Soros" and type in "the Koch brothers" — far left and far right conspiracy theories are pretty interchangeable and equally prolific. It's that kind of thinking that we need to address, not one specific half of the people who fall into the trap. The trap itself is the problem.

Here's a question from Darren:

Hi Brian. I have a question about probably one of the biggest conspiracies of all time, and it's still currently ongoing. Now I'm afraid that you're not going to be able to respond to this, because actually are part OF the conspiracy, part of the coverup, as is pretty much everybody I know. Of course I'm talking about the Santa Claus conspiracy. I mean when we look at conspiracies, the larger it is, the more people involved, the more it is that somebody's going to leak it. Yet, the Santa Claus conspiracy, kids pretty much just find out about that on their own, eventually. What would that look like, to apply the skeptical eye to the Santa Claus conspiracy? Thanks.

So I guess this is something of a tongue-in-cheek question, but also if you think about it, it's true. Nearly everyone has, at some point, mentioned Santa Claus to a little kid. And so it's true that we are all part of a global conspiracy to perpetuate the myth of the existence of the jolly fellow in red.

Interestingly, Darren mentions the improbability of a conspiracy remaining hidden the more people are involved — a callback to David Robert Grimes's famous 2016 article in PLoS One, "On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs". In this article his gives the math, based on a number of actual conspiracies that were eventually uncovered. I'm not going to bother plugging in the numbers here; as since nearly every person in the western world has mentioned Santa and also knows it's bogus, the chances of it remaining concealed are near zero. And that's exactly what we see.

So to answer your question directly, applying the skeptical eye to the Santa Claus conspiracy would find that it's essentially impossible for it to remain hidden.

And so that's a wrap for our official first "Ask Me Anything" episode. Perhaps we'll make it an annual tradition. Until next time, remember to always be skeptical.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Ask Me Anything, 2022 Edition." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 27 Dec 2022. Web. 31 Jan 2023. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4864>

 

References & Further Reading

Bowen, D., Strickler, S. A Good Friend For Bad Times. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004. 34-67.

Dunning, B. "Emergency Handbook: What to Do When a Friend Loves Woo." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 5 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 Dec. 2022. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4187>

Editors. "Sarah Jane Smith." TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki. Fandom, 30 Mar. 2019. Web. 22 Dec. 2022. <https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Sarah_Jane_Smith>

Grimes, D. "On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs." PLoS ONE. 26 Jan. 2016, Volume 1, Number 1: e0147905.

NTI. "Antarctic Treaty." Treaties and Regimes. Nuclear Threat Initiative, 19 Oct. 2021. Web. 22 Dec. 2022. <https://www.nti.org/education-center/treaties-and-regimes/antarctic-treaty/>

Thompson, H. "Thousands of Microbe Species Live in This Buried Antarctic Lake." Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Dec. 2022. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/thousands-microbe-species-live-buried-antarctic-lake-180952415/>

 

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