The latest “Skeptical Podcasts” column in Skeptical Briefs (Spring 2017) features my podcast 15 Credibility Street. The questions/answers will give you some insight into how Torkel, Howard and I roll on the show and why we do it. I reproduced my answers to Gurmukh below but here is a PDF of the article as well.
Just a note: It’s not easy to eke out a spot in the podcast cloud even with a unique concept. It’s hard to get subscribers and to break out of your core collective social media bubble. So, I’m asking you to give the podcast a try. As I say below, you need to hear real people talk about it, not just read it. You don’t need to know anything technologically fancy. Just click on the embedded player in each post and have a listen for about an hour every two weeks. Give us your thoughts on what we say. As you will see below, I’m a bit glum about the state of things these days and we need to get it in gear to make rational voices heard in the chaos and nonsense that makes headlines every single day. I don’t need cash, I need ears and eyes to pay attention and then to spread that message. Thanks for your support.
How is managing a site like Doubtful News different from doing a podcast?
A blog and a podcast are totally different vehicles for content. The goals are not even the same. Doubtful News (DN), when it was at its peak, was tremendously time-consuming – news feeds were monitored, there were constantly tips to check out, and considerable research to be done for each story. The aim was to get as high in search results as soon as possible to combat the misleading information. At one point, Torkel and I did produce some weekly short newscast-type segments for DN. But we didn’t commit to a podcast then and stayed focused on daily, current stories. With just a few people contributing and filtered through just one main editor, I could not sustain that demanding level of work. DN would have been a full-time job for more than one person. I did the best I could until it became too much. Then I took a break. And I even closed up for a while.
But I was compelled to write. I decided to only write about topics that were personally interesting to me. So the volume went way down. The podcast is a continuation of that. We cover specific stories that we want to share. It’s far more casual. Any type of venture like this, if you want it to be of decent quality, takes a significant commitment of time and effort. Shifting to the podcast format and easing back on DN allowed me to reclaim some sanity in my life and not be a slave to newsfeeds. With the blog, I learned skills like careful phrasing to avoid legal troubles or confusion and why certain stories grab attention. And I gained experience in dealing with trolls and hecklers. I’m learning different skills now – vocal delivery, sound editing, interviewing skills – these are all excellent things to practice and improve upon as outreach remains my primary aim. Now, we get to have some fun conversations and inject more personal aspects to the content. It’s been a significant but gradual shift.
Why do a podcast? What makes your show different?
I realized that it’s important for people to hear voices and personalities behind a viewpoint. We really had a strong and unique viewpoint with DN. No one else did anything like that – an authoritative skeptical eye on the media portrayal of news stories in real time. I still believe that is greatly needed but the podcast was a way to bring some humanity and emotion to a critical viewpoint, to show why it’s necessary for people to think and question dubious claims. There are so few female voices advocating critical thinking. There is still very widespread negative opinions about the typical “skeptic” out there and I am determined to not be the closed-minded, dismissive curmudgeonly stereotype. There are almost no women talking about science and the paranormal in this way and I think it’s sorely needed.
Also unique is our rather freewheeling format and our mix of local and international perspectives. Howard and I live within 6 miles of each other in Pennsylvania so we see some local and state activities that we specifically know something about that may apply to other places in the US as well. Torkel provides a European perspective. I take a scientific approach, Howard can comment on legal aspects, and Torkel sees popular cultural themes.
Another aspect that separates us from typical skeptical podcasts is that we eschew any connection to atheism advocacy. I am a firm advocate that practical skepticism is a benefit for everyone, no matter what your spiritual beliefs. So we do not promote atheism in any way. If we can instill an appreciation for a scientific and rational approach to any topic – whether it be the paranormal or alternative medicine or social media panics over UFOs – that’s what’s important.
We are trying to convey the process of how to think through some questionable claims delivered by the media and reinforced by our own social bubbles. It’s a very tough thing to do but I think people appreciate listening to friends talk about how we work through it. It can connect to them more effectively than just a blog post would because the strong emotion comes through in our discussions.
As a participant in the skeptical community for over 20 years, what do you think works to spread critical thinking?
Nothing much so far, I’m afraid. Certain charismatic personalities have been successful – people like James Randi, Michael Shermer, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. But their popularity and cheerleading for science and rational conclusions are not nearly enough. There is a dearth of media spokespeople delivering a fact-based position statement. There are no real-time responses to news events now that Doubtful News changed format. To me, that is unacceptable! Promotion of critical thinking about current events NEEDS to be a priority. Journalists WANT the skeptical viewpoint, it’s expected to be included as part of the narrative. I’ve repeatedly stated that I feel the “skeptical community” has failed miserably at this. The Critical Thinking POV has to be widely available through social media, apps, YouTube, podcasts, places where people get their news and form their opinions. It’s a shame that with all the talented people in the skeptical community, we have so little modern content delivery. An investment in the future was not made and that is dreadful. I see mission drift and distractions that have sidelined any forward motion. Insular conferences and meetups can be fun but they are worthless in advancing a positive agenda. The focus must be towards the public. Australian Skeptics and the Good Thinking Society (UK) have been successful because they have thoughtful effective strategies and focus. Finding the right people, hammering out a clear mission and achievable goals, and removing barriers to participation are what needs to be done. Support in terms of patrons and funds, I believe, would flow naturally into such a venture were it to start in the US.
“We need a cultural shift away from the consumption of junk news and biting at the click-bait. We desperately need a strong skeptical voice, but no organization currently provides that.”
After covering Doubtful News for 6 years, how did you view the mainstreaming of “fake news” and what did you think of it becoming a headline story in itself?
We were fully aware of the whole “fake news” business years before it broke in mainstream. Fictional content masquerading as news is as old as newspapers themselves. This should not have been surprising that it took hold once again. It was abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that “people really believed this stuff” no matter how ridiculous it sounded. So I was floored when major news outlets seemed to suddenly “discover” how gullible the public generally was. I mean, where have they been all these years! From 9/11 conspiracies to Sandy Hook truthers to UFO disclosure, 25% or more of the American population subscribes to outrageously false worldviews. The media failed us in so many ways – they chased every squirrel, so to speak, and lost the narrative. Again, the skeptical voices have been screaming into the void for years but we could not achieve the platforms that pundits and provocateurs secured.
I see opportunities in the reaction to fake news. I see an opportunity in the anti-science, irrational Presidential administration. People want grounding and solid information. But a few people can only do so much. Somehow, those of us who value critical thinking and rational, science-based discourse have to come together as a unit. We have to get our act together and be heard.