The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: The First 50

As I have mentioned before when discussing podcasts (astronomy, roman history), I spend about two hours per day commuting and generally fill that time with podcasts. A few people suggested The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and a month later I have listened to the first 50 episodes.

The Skeptics’ Guide is a weekly podcast that has been around since 2005. With nearly 400 episodes already, I had to decide whether to listen from the beginning or start with the more recent episodes. Since I tend to be a completionist, I started from the beginning.

As is probably obvious from the name of the podcast, it deals with scientific skepticism. Skepticism deals with a wide variety of topics, but the skeptics on the show have a fairly well-defined focus. They basically deal with anything that makes testable claims or claims to be a scientific study. For instance, they do not discuss the validity of religion, but will discuss claims of stigmata or creationism. The host recently wrote a detailed article on his personal views of skepticism.

Back to the podcast itself. The host Steven Novella is the main reason to listen to this podcast. He is a neurologist and is able to very clearly discuss topics concerning medicine and some biology. He is joined by several people, including two of his brothers. While the education level and qualifications of the other hosts, referred to as the skeptical rogues, are not explicitly stated, they appear to be educated laymen—generally interested in science, but do not have specific training or an area of expertise.

The podcast is at its best when the topic is medicine or biology. In many ways, the rogues act for the listener, asking similar questions and making similar assumptions to those made by other non-experts. Steven Novella then either elaborates on the statement or corrects the logical and factual errors. When the rogues themselves authoritatively discuss topics or when Steven Novella discusses topics outside his expertise, the podcast is less enjoyable for me. The one exception is when they discuss paranormal topics—bigfoot, ufos, ghost sightings, etc. They obviously spend a large amount of time studying these areas so as to better debunk the claims.

If you spend any time reading about the Skeptics’ Guide, you will notice there is one controversial person, the skeptical rogue Rebecca Watson. She first appears as an interview in episode #33 and then joins the cast as a permanent member a few episodes later. To be honest, I do not know why she is a polarizing figure. It is easy to find examples of people attacking her and others coming to her defense. For instance, she recently gave a talk at a conference that caused someone to write this scathing review. A few days later this article appeared defending the talk and criticizing the previous review.

My favorite part of the podcast has been the interviews. Some of my favorites have been Joe Nickell, Episode #17; James Randi, Episode #24, Rick Ross, Episode #36; Eugenie Scott, Episode #42; Ray Hyman, Episode #43; Phil Plait, Episode #46; and Gerald Posner, Episode #50.

Listening to this podcast has helped me better understand the motivations and tactics of pseudoscientists. Sometimes it is easy to forget that not everyone plays by the same rules of logic and honesty that most people working in a scientific discipline come to expect. With that being said, I am not sure if I will continue with the podcast in the same manner. It is not the exact podcast I am looking for; while it may not exist, I want a podcast that has Steven Novella paired with a Steven Novella of other disciplines.

I will probably start listening to newer episodes simply to keep up with skeptical items in the current news, and because the podcast is fun and enjoyable. I may also still listen to some older episodes if the interviews sound intriguing.

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3 Responses to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: The First 50

  1. Pingback: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: Just One More | William Hartmann

  2. Pingback: Skeptics Guide to the Universe: Now only Two Years Behind | Between Zero and One

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