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VIP Interview-Brian Dunning

Posted in Uncategorized, VIP Interview by Skepdude on October 13, 2008


Brian Dunning is the host and producer of the weekly podcast Skeptoid, author of two books “Skeptoid” and “Skeptoid 2“, producer of the free 40 min video on critical thinking called “Here be Dragons” and the skeptical show “The Skeptologists“. Brian was kind enough to spend some time with us and share his thoughts on various issues. Here is the complete interview. Remember, all fan mail should be sent directly to Brian. His contact info is here.

SD: Define the word “skeptic” in your own words.

BD: A skeptic is someone who requires a high standard of evidence. Conspiracy theorists call themselves skeptics, but that’s because their standard for evidence is different. To them, good evidence is any suggestion that differs from the establishment’s position. The mass media often assigns higher importance to poorly sourced evidence than to well sourced evidence, so they’ll use the word skeptic to describe the people who fear the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the Earth. Nearly everyone considers himself a skeptic, it’s just that there are many varying standards for what constitutes good evidence.

SD: In your opinion, is formal scientific education necessary to be a good skeptic, or is skepticism available to anyone willing to put the time and effort into it? Given that you have no formal scientific training, do you see yourself as the exception to the rule or do you represent the rule?

BD: Well, first of all I wouldn’t agree that I have no formal training. I spent years in school in computer science and have decades of practical experience working with top experts. But I wouldn’t agree that a science background is necessary to be a skeptic; in fact, I’d actually say the reverse: A good skeptical outlook is necessary to be a good scientist. Anyone can learn to be a skeptic, including many people who aren’t really aware that “being a skeptic” is something you can do; and that will improve their ability to apply the scientific method. Taking science classes will certainly not make a person a skeptic. Anyone can complete any course of study, it will not change who they are or how they view the world.

SD: Take us through your research process when you’re preparing for an episode of Skeptoid.

BD: Generally I try to gather three sources: The impartial straight facts or popular reporting of a phenomenon, the claims of the true believers, and previous skeptical research. When you can find all three, it’s usually pretty easy to sort what’s real from what’s bogus, but I often have to go out and find more sources for something like an event about which the accounts simply can’t be reconciled. Next I choose what to talk about. Since my podcasts are short, I can never cover all aspects of the story. I try to choose aspects that have not been thoroughly covered, and try not to simply duplicate skeptical articles that have already been published. I always try to find that fresh Skeptoid perspective to keep it interesting for seasoned skeptics as well as newcomers.

SD: How do you determine if a source of information is reliable or not? How much do you rely on Wikipedia and “Google University”?

BD: Quite a lot, actually. They are great starting points. The average Wikipedia article provides pretty much all the talking points that you need to go out and research. Skeptoid episodes are usually about controversial topics, and controversial topics are the one area where Wikipedia is truly unreliable (though it’s impeccable for non-controversial topics, like if I wanted to find out stuff about boron). Use it to start your list of people and events that you need to go out and research.

SD: Skeptoid has been on the air for about 2 years. When did it really take off and to what do you prescribe its success?

BD: There is no substitute for good content. There is no advertising you can do, no Google index tricks, no secrets and no special podcast listing sites that will give you strong listener bases. Skeptoid grew for one reason: Consistently good content that, fortunately for me, appeals to a lot of listeners. I didn’t have any special training or background in broadcasting or podcasting; it’s just that whatever I’m doing, it happens to be what a lot of people enjoy.

Back in January of 2008, Skeptoid made it onto the front page of the science podcast section of iTunes, where it has remained ever since. Getting there was huge. That took my subscribers from 13,000 to 40,000 almost overnight, and it’s continued growing ever since.

SD: Do you have any updates in regards to “The Skeptologists”

BD: Nothing I can discuss, unfortunately.

SD: What has been the reaction to “Here Be Dragons”?

BD: Extremely gratifying. I made it for zero budget in two weeks that I took off work, depending largely on donated talent: Most obviously the excellent original musical score by Lee Sanders; the computer graphics by Jeff Knapp, Mark Coleran, and Scott Carnegie; the street interview footage by Mark O’Leary; and numerous other contributions. Most significantly, I was floored by all the offers of help that I received. I received way more help than I was able to accommodate. That was humbling. I only wish I’d asked for a director too, instead of applying my own ignorance and inexperience to such a task like I did.

And now that it’s done and it’s out there, I’m blown away nearly every day. I hear from high school and college teachers who use Here Be Dragons as required viewing, which is what I’d hoped for but (secretly) did not expect to achieve. The sales of DVDs have continued to be strong, even though it’s available for free. The reviews on YouTube and Google Video and Amazon are fantastic, despite its modest production. People continue volunteering their time to help with its promotion and distribution and adding new language subtitles and torrent files and stuff, people like Yan Melikli and Josh Gray. If I had to choose a single measure of success for anything, it’s inspiring people to choose to volunteer their own time and resources because they believe in the message and want to help spread it. That’s way more than I had hoped for.

SD: Tell us something about the book “Skeptoid” and its upcoming sequel.

BD: Skeptoid and Skeptoid 2 are both available on Amazon or from Skeptoid.com. They are adaptations of some of the best Skeptoid podcast episodes. I reasoned that since so few people listen to podcasts, or even know what they are, I had to make the material available in a more familiar medium. And so the books came to be. They began as self published print on demand books, but there has been enough exposure that I’ve been fortunate enough to get multiple requests from publishers to publish them for real. I haven’t signed a contract yet, but you can probably look for them in bookstores, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

SD: Why do you not accept donations for the podcast?

BD: Only because it wouldn’t generate enough revenue to make a real difference. We still haven’t found the business model that makes podcasts profitable. I’ve been offered advertising deals, a number of times, that would have required me to insert commercial content into the podcast itself. Nobody wants to listen to that, and again, the money was not enough to make it worthwhile. I’d rather help Skeptoid grow by leaving it pure and not annoying listeners by putting my hand out. I have great hopes for where the medium is headed in the broadcast world, and when it happens, I hope to be in as strong a position as possible with as many dedicated listeners as possible.

SD: Skepticism is just as much at risk of turning into a dogma as religion already is. How do we protect ourselves from becoming dogmatic with our skepticism?

BD: Understand that it does happen, and can just as easily happen to you. Don’t make the arrogant mistake of believing yourself to be immune to it. You’re not protected from a threat if you don’t believe it exists. Always be skeptical of your own skepticism.

SD: What is your stance on religion and God? Do you consider yourself an atheist?

BD: I hate the labels, but I don’t have any religious beliefs, and you can call that what you will. I also believe, somewhat controversially, that religion is not really a problem, and not where skeptics should be focusing their efforts. The people who do evil or crazy things under the banner of their religion are evil or crazy people, and would probably do what they’re doing anyway. Obviously we have this growing threat of anti-science from the Young Earth crowd, but in my view, that’s simply people groping for an explanation because of an inadequate science education. Before we start pointing fingers and looking for bad guys, we should clean our own closets and do a better job teaching science. It’s the fault of education that some people believe in a young Earth, not the fault of religion. When a kid answers a math question wrong, the math teacher corrects him. Science teachers need to have the same balls when a kid has a wrong idea about geology or biology, and not tap dance around the issue. School is for educating.

I’m also a big believer in religious freedom. A religious person does not need me telling him what to believe any more than I want him telling me what to do in my own bedroom. Thus, I choose not to shoot my own appeal in the foot by vocally opposing religion. I’d rather have that majority interested in hearing what else I have to say.

SD: Given your efforts with “The Skeptologists” you clearly understand the power of TV to get a message across to a vast number of people that otherwise would not be exposed to it. In light of that what are your thoughts on shows like “House” and “The Mentalist”

BD: Haven’t seen either, so can’t comment on those.

But I will tell you one thing: Nobody sells a TV show by telling the network that it’s about educating and not entertaining. Make no mistake, The Skeptologists and any other projects I might be working on are about great entertainment first. They have to be, otherwise they can’t exist. Our task is to fill that entertainment with as much skeptical education as possible, without sacrificing the entertainment.

SD: How do we apply skepticism consistently, so that we don’t act like Bill Maher who is skeptical of religion but wholeheartedly embraces all kinds of woo?

BD: Bill Maher is a perfect example of my favorite quote of the year: Conservatives cling to ancient superstitions, liberals invent new ones. While George W. Bush represents the worst of the conservatives, Bill Maher represents the worst of the liberals. I think Maher’s anti-religion stance is more the result of a liberal new agey background than any conscious effort at critical thinking. Clearly that’s true of Bush. Really they’re cut from the same cloth: They dismiss each others’ superstitions, but simply replace them with their own. I wouldn’t characterize either one as particularly skeptical.

So to answer your question, the best strategy is to be vigilant. Almost all of us colors his worldview somewhat based on our backgrounds, our social network, our environment, our comfort zones. Be aware that no matter how skeptical you think you are, chances are you tend to favor certain types of conclusions. Question all of your skeptical conclusions, and look for alternate explanations. Be aware of the real reasons you believe what you believe.

SD: Do you think a skeptical world view has any bearing upon one’s ethics and moral stance?

BD: No, I don’t. I believe there are all sorts of people in every group. People in different groups may have different excuses for why they do what they do, but you’ll find cheaters and thieves in every country, in every profession, in every subculture. Skeptics included.

SD: Do you agree with the following statement: “Fear is the number one reason why people believe in pseudoscience, the paranormal and supernatural”?

BD: Not at all. People believe in those things because they want a satisfying explanation for the world they perceive, and because of a lack of critical thinking and scientific thinking. People are generally good and they arrive at those beliefs through honest good faith intentions. Recognizing that is an essential first step in teaching skepticism.

SD: Recent studies have pointed out that when people perceive not having control, they tend to see patterns where none exists. Do you think this has any implication for skepticism?

BD: It’s a huge opportunity for skeptical outreach. Pointing out examples of our hardwired pattern matching abilities, that are responsible for so much belief in pseudoscience, constitutes some of the best and most entertaining lessons in critical thinking. I’m working more of these into the talks I give at universities. The human brain is a pattern finding engine of amazing power, and the better people understand this, the less susceptible they become to pseudoscience.

SD: Give me your estimate of how soon will either major political party nominate an atheist for the presidential position?

BD: Never. It won’t happen unless most of the country becomes atheist, and I don’t believe that will ever happen.

SD: Everything else being equal, do you think a skeptic makes a better candidate for positions of great responsibility, such as President of the United States?

BD: Absolutely. A true skeptic is the best equipped human being possible. That doesn’t just go for the President, but for every career in every walk of life.

SD: Besides the obvious reasons, what are some things skeptics need to consider when making up their minds who they’re voting for on November 4th?

BD: I think of skepticism as being mainly about science, not politics. I’m not even sure what it would mean to apply the scientific method to politics. I don’t think any living human can feel truly represented in every way by any given political party, so if I had to give a word of skeptical advice to voters, it would to ignore political parties completely and vote for individuals whose priorities align with your own.

SD: In your opinion, what is the worst thing a skeptic can do to hurt the skeptical movement?

BD: Being confrontational. Telling people they’re wrong. Failing to reach out in an effective manner. Many prominent skeptics have a reputation for being holier than thou, and that should be a red flag that they’re not doing good outreach. Effective communication starts with a welcoming embrace and respect. I don’t often do a great job of it myself, but at least I recognize the problem and understand the solution. Richard Saunders and Ben Goldacre are two skeptics who understand this and are good examples to follow.

SD: Do you think pseudo-skepticism exists? If yes, how do we spot it?

BD: It depends on your perspective. An acupuncturist believes that he is skeptically seeing through the folly of modern medicine and knows the real facts. A 9/11 Truther believes he is skeptically seeing through the Bush conspiracy. From where we’re sitting, those could both be called pseudo-skepticism, and they’d probably say the same about us. So if one could take a giant step back to observe all such positions, are they all equal? No, they’re not. The difference that separates what we call skepticism from what all the others think is the quality of evidence. Quality of evidence is like the speed of light; it’s a universal constant. Empirical, reproducible, testable evidence is always better than anecdotal or hypothetical evidence. So I don’t care who they are, what they believe, or how strongly they trust their own skepticism, they either have crappy evidence or the real McCoy.

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3 Responses

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  1. The mule said, on October 14, 2008 at 2:25 PM

    Thanks Brian D!

    I loved this: “Before we start pointing fingers and looking for bad guys, we should clean our own closets and do a better job teaching science. It’s the fault of education that some people believe in a young Earth, not the fault of religion. When a kid answers a math question wrong, the math teacher corrects him. Science teachers need to have the same balls when a kid has a wrong idea about geology or biology, and not tap dance around the issue. School is for educating.”

    +1 🙂

  2. Psycho Gerbil said, on October 17, 2008 at 7:00 AM

    Thank you, Brian Dunning!

    Skeptoid is seriously one of the best podcasts out there. He’s rarely wrong and very smart. A great consciousness-raiser.

    Kudos! ^_^

  3. […] VIP’s is their definition of a skeptic. Here are some answers I got from previous interviews: Brian Dunning: A skeptic is someone who requires a high standard of evidence. Conspiracy theorists call […]


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