Ask Me Anything, 2023 Edition, Part 1
I thought a great way to wrap up the year would be an Ask Me Anything episode, so I invited all the premium members to send me questions. I got so many I had to split it into two parts, so this week I've got general questions about me and about the show, and next week we've got questions about specific topics. It's been so great to hear from so many of you, so we're going to dive right in. First question, please!
Definitely, and it's all of the above. I don't know if it was just me, or if it's most people, or if it's little kids in general, but up until my teens I was predisposed to believe in just about anything. Tell me it was forbidden knowledge, or a hidden truth, or so new that scientists didn't accept it yet, and I was all-in. Over the years, belief in Bigfoot and ghosts and aliens evolved into curiosity for why the stories existed and what made people believe them. And the nostalgia, as you describe it, became a love for the genre; just about everyone I know who works in the sciences or in science communication is a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, fandom in general.
My own little tagline for Skeptoid, which was suggested by my good friend Brian Brushwood, is "celebrating the stories that brought us to science." I couldn't do this job, and people wouldn't listen, if we didn't all love the stories.
So I came into science writing not via science, but via writing. In school I studied writing for film and television, mostly at UCLA. I also started a minor in computer science, but never finished it. I spent nearly all of my twenties trying to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. I only ever sold one thing: an episode of Duck Tales for the Disney Afternoon — and if it ever got produced, I never saw it. Mostly I was writing feature screenplays and since the Internet didn't exist yet, any research that was needed had to be done at the local public library. I would take a yellow legal pad filled up with questions and things I needed to learn, and then I'd go spend entire days at the library learning all I could about whatever it was I needed. I had to learn all about the tobacco industry on the Mississippi River in 1850. I learned the whole ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. I learned everything about the layout and systems of an Iowa-class battleship .I learned a thousand other things, all from books and the library's card catalog. Those years, I think, were when I developed the love I have of doing really deep research on things that are often obscure. And to this day, the research is my favorite part of my job.
During those years of failing to sell well-researched screenplays, I supported myself by screenprinting T-shirts in my garage, and became more interested in the software side of the business than the T-shirt side, so I dusted off that computer science and got into writing database software; first to run the T-shirt business, and then for other clients. Got more into software and online stuff — went through a whole boom & bust as a founder and CTO during the Silicon Valley glory days — and then podcasting came along.
Podcasts were the perfect convergence of all of my interests. The writing and entertainment aspect, the really deep research aspect, and the tech aspect. And so, here I am, seventeen years of podcasting later.
That's easy. Following along from the previous question, it's anytime I get to do deep historical research. It's a two-step process: First is finding out the facts of what really happened, what was known or reported at the time, compared to whatever the story has grown and mutated into today; and second is the contemporary cultural context. What was going on in society at that time and place? What were people interested in? What were they afraid of? What were their biases? It's this bringing together of a complete picture of a time in history when something happened — without exception, understanding that helps you understand yourself and where you fit in today. No matter how long I've been doing this, every time I get to follow that process is as exciting as the first time.
Now let's hear from James:
I'd answer that by recalling what it is I try to do with Skeptoid. I try to have a very specific niche: I don't do current events, in part because that's what all the other podcasts do, and in part because we want the episodes to be timeless (you can enjoy an episode in ten years as much as you enjoy it today); and I don't do politics or religion, again in part because that's what all the other podcasts do and in part because we're an educational nonprofit and we don't include any content that would be inappropriate in schools. My jam is the process of telling fact from fiction, and we can all learn to do a better job at that, we'll all be able to make better decisions for ourselves, our families, the environment, the economy, everything. Learning to tell what's real makes the world a better place.
Next, here's a question from Russell:
Yes and no. No, in that I always felt the idea of deities was shockingly foolish, from as early an age as I can remember. I never once accepted it, even as my parents dragged me kicking and screaming to church every Sunday. But I equivocate my answer because there was a brief period when I really tried to force myself to be a believer, and you may be able to guess the reason.
I've mentioned before that I did my freshman year at Brigham Young University in Utah, as my family was Mormon for a few years when I was in high school, and the university gave me a full scholarship and they have a really good film program, which is what I was interested in (the church shrewdly invests in having more church-friendly and family-friendly filmmakers out there). Also there's no better school anywhere if you're into skiing, which I totally was. While I was there I completely fell in love with this girl named Julie and was obsessed with her for years. So my 18-year-old brain forced me to convince myself I was a believer, because Julie was only interested in someone who shared her rather extreme religiosity. I even got baptized a couple years later, still trying to meet her requirements (all in vain of course). In fact the guy who baptized me, Jeff, had been probably my best friend in the film school, and he's now a professor there in Theater & Media Arts. He's a good dude, a monster skier, and a very talented filmmaker.
But once I got over Julie, the self-conversion efforts wore off pretty quick, and I've happily been non-religious ever since.
The skiing didn't work out either, as halfway through the year I had a big crash that crunched my neck and dislocated my shoulder, and took me out of action for the rest of the season.
Here's a question from Andreas:
Easy answer, and I know many of my friends and colleagues in sci-comm give the same answer because we all talk about it: It's when someone emails and says the show really changed their life. I've had people tell me Skeptoid was what made them want to go into science, and they then went to college and eventually got a PhD, all within the lifespan of Skeptoid. I've had people tell me it literally saved their life or the life of a loved one when they first thought to reconsider some alternative therapy they'd been relying on. It's the feedback. It's knowing that for some listeners, the show truly makes a real difference.
Finally, a question from Brendan:
So, again, an equivocating answer: Yes and no. No, in that I hear this kind of question a lot, and what people are really hoping for is that I wrote up a whole episode and then turned over a last rock that proved Bigfoot really is real, or extract of seaweed really does cure all cancers, or it turns out ghosts really do talk to us through celebrity psychics. So, no, I've never found something that totally overturns some standard model in some science.
Most of the time it's much less dramatic than that. Very often I go into an episode not having the first clue what the science shows, but it's pretty easy to get the basics down pretty quickly. There's a neat analogy for science being like an onion: the outer fringy layers can fall away and change all the time as new frontiers are explored and new questions are answered; a few layers down and things start to get a lot more solid and rarely change; and by the time you get to the core of a science field, it's pretty firmly established. Truly fundamental changes in a science field, where we had the most core basics totally wrong, are very rare.
So it is with my research. Even if it's a topic I know nothing about, it's pretty easy to find that core. It's once I get out to the fringes where you find conflicting papers, conflicting accounts; and yes, I will sometimes find something near the end of a project that makes me go back and make some changes. But these turn out to be relatively minor changes. One example that happens kind of a lot is that I'll find an article after I'd been proceeding on the conclusion that no such article exists; and sometimes I have to do pretty deep surgery to the way the presentation was made in the writing of that episode.
Well that's it for this week; we're kind of at the end of our time. So please tune in next week as well when we're going to wrap up our Ask Me Anything with a sort of rapid fire of questions on specific topics, and squeeze in about 8 mini-Skeptoids into one show.
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