Episode Archive

The Science of Fantasy Sports

D.J. Grothe sits down with ESPN.com’s fantasy sports analyst AJ Mass to discuss how fantasy sports relate to science and skepticism. Success in fantasy sports is about predicting the future, and Mass explains how he learned how to gather useful information and avoid the same kinds of misunderstandings of science and human nature that cause people to find patterns where none exist. He also talks about the methods of Sylvia Brown and other celebrity psychics, and why he was so convinced he had psychic powers himself at an early age. He also explores the role of pareidolia in sports and other areas of life, and how he is held to a different standard than those who predict the future using purported supernatural means.

In Pursuit of Psychics

Famed magician Jamy Ian Swiss sits down with D.J. Grothe to talk about psychics. As an advisor to the James Randi Educational Foundation, Swiss helped put self-proclaimed psychics to the test on ABC’s “Primetime Nightline”. He discusses the phenomenon of celebrity psychics and why their claims should be challenged. But are all psychics knowing charlatans? Swiss says no, resulting from cognitive dissonance, but he explains how even the self-deluded have the capacity to do harm to an unknowing public. And he details the connection between “storefront psychics,” organized crime, and “gypsy” culture.

Why Skepticism Matters

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, James Randi explores the meaning and worth of “skepticism,” and explains why skepticism is not the same as cynicism. He talks about the focus of the JREF’s mission, and to what extent social issues such as GLBT rights, civil rights, economic equality, church-state separation, feminism and environmentalism are within skepticism’s purview. He debates whether God’s existence should be a skeptic topic, and reveals why he is an “atheist of the second kind.” And he details recent activities at the JREF to challenge charlatans and educate the public about harmful paranormal claims, and how listeners can get directly involved with this important and unique work.

Paranormality

Professor Richard Wiseman discusses his work researching the psychology of the paranormal. He explains the value in continuing to research paranormal experiences despite the fact that they probably are not true. He also delves into his history as a magician and how that influenced his decision to become a psychologist. He explores the psychological and physiological responses to fear and how they can bolster a belief in the paranormal.

Faith, Biology, and Skepticism

In this wide-ranging conversation with D.J. Grothe at The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, Richard Dawkins talks about applying skepticism to religious claims. He explores the concept of “untestable” claims and how to address them in a scientific way. He also discusses whether atheism is a necessary result of skepticism. He says anyone should be willing to accept the reality of a claim if it is proven through scientific testing. He also discusses exobiology, including the likelihood that life exists elsewhere in the universe and whether or not it has been shaped by evolution through natural selection. Plus, he touches on storytelling and whether fantastical stories can make children more credulous.

The Marriage of Science and Religion

Rev. Michael Dowd talks about he is an evangelist for the “sacred view of evolution,” and how he promotes the “marriage of science and religion.” He argues that the best understanding of the nature of reality comes not from ancient revealed religions, but from science, and how he derives religious feelings from this scientific worldview. He explains how his views are different than mainline religions who try to accommodate science to their religions, and calls for religion to “evolve” to accommodate science. He argues how his worldview is grounded in evidence, and defends “religious naturalism.” He talks about why he hasn’t abandoned the language of religion even if he has given up many of the religious beliefs he formerly adhered to. He explains how accepting an evolutionary worldview—a “Big History” point of view—may support a high quality of life, great relationships and a peaceful death. He talks about the various audiences he and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, speak to, and how they can be categorized into three major populations: atheist/skeptics and other nonreligious groups, Catholic and Protestant religious audiences, and New Age/New Thought groups, and he explains why his message is well received among all three distinct audiences. He explores whether his message is more of a threat to traditional religion than are the New Atheists. And he explains why he might be more accurately described as an evangelist for “Big History” than for just the theory of evolution.

On Magicians and Skepticism

James Randi talks about how learning magic tricks may lead to adopting a more skeptical point of view about supernatural and paranormal claims. He discusses magician and Houdini ghostwriter Walter B. Gibson and how he may be an exception to this rule, in that he wrote a number of pro-paranormal books throughout his prolific career. He talks about the Tarbell Course in Magic as an entree into skepticism, and to what extent magician and author Harlan Tarbell was himself a skeptic. He relates his friendship with the famous magician Doug Henning, and how Henning’s lack of skepticism about the paranormal may have led to his death. He discusses his long friendship with the great mentalist Dunninger, and how he may have had a double standard when it came to Dunninger’s mindreading claims as opposed to the paranormal claims of Uri Geller. He shares the story about how the influential magic store owner Al Flosso scolded Dunninger about his paranormal claims. And he draws distinctions between magicians who make fake paranormal claims and magicians who make fake psychological claims.

Evolution, Skepticism and Atheism

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, talks about the conflation of the right to believe whatever one wants regarding life’s origins and the decision about what should be taught in the science classroom. She explains scientific consensus, and how intelligent design creationism has failed to persuade the scientific community. She talks about where and how scientific consensus on evolution should be challenged, instead of in the middle school and high school science classrooms. She details some of the history of creation science and intelligent design in the United States. She talks about her decades as a leader in the skeptics movement and explores how her work in skepticism is continuous with her work at NCSE. She talks about the proper aims of the skeptics movement, and to what extent the work of skepticism should include skepticism of religion, and whether acceptance of evolution or a commitment to skepticism should require atheism. She explores whether theism is a legitimate scientific or skeptical topic. She addresses critics who have charged her with the strategic accommodation of religion in order to advance her goals regarding evolution education. She talks about how her atheism and secular humanism is informed by science, and how and why she keeps it separate from her “day job” advancing evolution education and her leadership role in the worldwide skeptics movement. And she endorses what she calls “born again skepticism,” which is a return to the roots of the skeptics movement that lie in challenging extraordinary claims as opposed to challenging or advancing metaphysical or economic ideologies.

(So-Called) Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Dr. Gorski defines complementary, alternative and integrative medicine and contrasts it with science-based medicine. He talks about whether its acceptance is growing. He debates to what extent massage therapy and aromatherapy are examples of CAM. He reveals whether he likes to refer to CAM as (S)CAM, and how helpful such an acronym is. He explores to what extent traditional medicine and herbal medicine are science-based, resulting in aspirin, digitalis, and various chemotherapy drugs, and why they should not properly be considered CAM. He describes the health freedom movement, and what social criticism fuels it. He talks about the ways that adopting CAM approaches harm patients, including leading to patents to forgo other, more effective treatments; paternalistic deception of the patient through knowing use of placebo. He explores the moral values that motivate skeptical activism. And he talks about why more medical doctors are not skeptic activists.

Why Investigate the Paranormal?

Joe Nickell explains why he investigates the paranormal, as opposed to merely pronouncing his skepticism of it. He talks about his training as a detective and why it was formative, along with his background in magic. He explains why field experience is so important to scientific paranormal investigation. He distinguishes between skepticism and debunking, and what results from each approach. He argues that the existence of the paranormal is not the only question to answer while conducting paranormal investigations. He explains why he continues investigating subjects he has already looked numerous times, such as ghosts, lake monsters and miracle claims, and why he spends time on the paranormal as opposed to other important topics. He talks about whether the supernatural claim that God exists should be a focus of the paranormal investigator. And he comments on the new trend of skeptical paranormal investigation groups starting up in cities throughout North America.

Skepticism and Religion

Paul Kurtz talks about how skepticism is continuous with the methods of science, and why skepticism and science should apply to religion. He explains why he rejects the traditional is/ought distinction in the philosophy of science, and why he rejects the NOMA theory. He posits that skepticism can be warranted in investigating claims of religion, including the claim that God exists. Regarding “untestable” religious claims, he suggests that if a supernatural or paranormal claim is untestable, it ought not be believed. He shares some reasons why he is generally skeptical of religion after looking into its various claims, including reasons resulting from historical criticism, psychology, and philosophy. He explains why he thinks a closed-minded atheist who rejects religion without investigation is similar to a religious believer who accepts religious claims on faith. He discusses the great skeptics Martin Gardner and Anthony Flew and their belief in God, and why they believed despite the lack of evidence. He discusses deism, and why skepticism is warranted in the face of no evidence either way. He describes pragmatic reasons one may avoid pronouncing skepticism of God. And he reveals why he often prefers other terms than “atheism” to describe his religious skepticism.

Exuberant Skepticism

Paul Kurtz discusses his new book Exuberant Skepticism. He details the origins of the contemporary skeptics movement, and whether or not it has developed according to plan. He contends that skeptical doubt is an antidote to foolish beliefs but explains why, for him, skepticism is not just doubt, but is more active, inquiring, and affirmative. He explains why the skeptics movement’s focus may be too narrow and trivial, and why skepticism should not be limited only to those questions which can be scientifically investigated: that skepticism should be extended beyond science and the paranormal to questions in ordinary life, politics, religion, ethics, business, personal affairs. He details why this sort of skepticism is vital to the life well-lived. He explains why Pearce’s principle of fallibilism is central to skeptical inquiry. And he describes why, for mostly pragmatic reasons, skeptical nonprofits have generally refrained from their critique of religion.

My Start in Magic and Skepticism

James Randi describes his start in magic, and early experiences he had that inspired him toward skepticism, including mentalism shows when audience members believed him to be psychic, and sought financial advice. He talks about early predictions of his death. He relates the profound effect that the undue credulity of his audiences early in his career had on him. He also recounts the episode when he was in his late teens and arrested for disrupting a church service in Toronto when the spiritual leader used magic tricks in the service to inspire belief among the congregants. And he talks about why he feels magicians should become more active in the skeptical movement.

Skepticism and Free Will

Tom Clark discusses his skepticism of the concept of free will, which he bases in the naturalistic view of the self resulting from research in the cognitive neurosciences and philosophy. He explores reasons why the skeptics community may be reticent to take on the issue. He explains contra-causal free will, and how it is different than freedom. He talks about the implications of adopting a thorough-going naturalism that advances free will skepticism, and what such a view means for our views of moral responsibility, crime and punishment, and our legal system, and also for the best strategies to advance the skeptical approach to fact claims. And he describes ways that the skeptics community may begin to address the issue of free will more directly.

How to Tell Science from Bunk

Massimo Pigliucci talks about whether people believe in science too much or believe in science too little. He describes to what extent areas on the frontiers of science, such as transhumanism and life-extension, merit open-mindedness. He explains why he is skeptical of artificial intelligence, and why the skeptics movement generally dismisses transhumanism and why he does not. He talks about the responsibilities of the skeptics movement regarding public education about global warming, and why so many high profile skeptics are skeptics or deniers of global warming, including Penn and Teller, Michael Shermer, James Randi. He explores how the libertarian skepticism of big government may fuel global warming denialism. He describes the perils of the pleasures of skepticism. He argues that to be a skeptic means two things: first, a commitment to furthering critical thinking among the general public, and second, a defense of science. And he reveals the criteria for distinguishing pseudoscience, fringe science, and consensus science, and why some pseudosciences, while theoretically unsound, may be have more empirical evidence for them than some widely-accepted theories of consensus science.

Nonsense on Stilts

Philosopher and skeptic Massimo Pigliucci discusses the “demarcation problem” in the philosophy of science, which is how to tell what is science and what is not science, and what is pseudoscience. He talks about Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, comparing Einstein’s theory of general relativity with Freudian psychoanalytic theory. He draws a distinction between theories that are “unscientific” and theories that are merely “false,” and talks about Newtonian mechanics in this regard. He explains in what way astrology is more scientific than String Theory. He explains to what extent people, including the skeptics community, should just “trust consensus science,” and when the public should get a “second opinion” when given bad news by scientists regarding public controversies such as human caused global warming. He argues that there are not actually two sides to some of these issues. He explains what it means to be a skeptic, and argues what responsibilities skeptics have regarding the promotion of consensus science. He explores why libertarianism may fuel global warming skepticism. And he details five questions to ask when evaluating someone’s expertise.

Scientific Paranormal Investigation

Ben Radford, one of the world’s only full-time paranormal investigators, contrasts his approach with that of TV paranormal investigators, such as the Ghost Hunters. He explains why his methods are scientific, and why their methods are motivated by exaggerating the mystery of paranormal experiences, and are therefore less scientific. He argues that paranormal belief is not trivial, and that it impacts our daily lives, and even public policy. He describes how he is open-minded as a scientific paranormal investigator, and why he examines what are believed to be the best paranormal cases. He talks about the psychology of paranormal belief, and how our pattern-seeking minds play a part in undue credulity. He explores how responsible the media is in fostering uncritical acceptance of paranormal claims. And he recounts seeming paranormal experiences he has experienced himself.

The Life of an Expert Skeptic, Part 2

In this second part of the discussion at the NSF for the occasion of his being awarded the 2010 Phillip J. Klass Award by the National Capital Area Skeptics, Ray Hyman explores the origins of CSICOP, and the role that both Israeli psychic Uri Geller and rock musician Alice Cooper had in bringing the founders of the organization together. He explains how the organization Sanity in Research, founded by James Randi, Martin Gardner and Ray Hyman in 1972, became CSICOP, in a sense. And he describes the influence that sociologist Marcello Truzzi had on the forming of the group, and what may have led to a split between Truzzi and CSICOP. He also criticizes Truzzi’s approach to parapsychology.

He explains why he finds parapsychology to be dull, and reveals whether or not he regrets the fifty years he has spent as its leading expert critic. He reveals why the approach of the skeptical movement over the last four decades may be mistaken, and argues that it should focus on education and outreach as opposed to an earnest exploration of the best parapsychological research. He also describes the futility of fighting against governmental research into psi, and details his involvement in such research over the years. And he explains why he feels that parapsychology research no longer merits attention from skeptics and scientists.

The Life of an Expert Skeptic, Part 1

In this interview recorded at the National Science Foundation for the National Capital Area Skeptic’s presentation of the Philip J. Klass award to him, Ray Hyman explores the intersection of skepticism, magic, and psychology throughout the course of his life. He talks about his experiences with spiritualist church services, including “question and answer” services purporting to demonstrate communication with the dead. He talks about his role as a skeptic of parapsychology even as he was a critic of the skeptical community, arguing that much of the earlier research in parapsychology was of a higher quality than skeptics believed. He explains why he thinks parapsychology is boring.

He talks about his survey of the Ganzfeld Experiments of extra sensory perception, and the controversies that resulted. He explains why focusing on the flaws of parapsychology research is the wrong approach, because it shifts the burden of proof away from replicability. He responds to the camp in parapsychology that argues science should change its rules to make it easier to find evidence of psi. And he explains why he thinks skeptics are abnormal, or “mutants.”

Also, in this week’s installment of the Honest Liar, Jamy Ian Swiss remembers when he and Ray Hyman joined a channeler on the radio. 

Satiristas

Paul Provenza, the celebrated comic and critic, talks about his book Satiristas, which focuses on rationalist issues through the lens of transgressive and subversive comedy. He explores the social criticism of the biggest names in comedy, and whether their intelligence should instead be focused on public service. He describes why his background in comedy allowed the celebrities featured in his book to be so open and transparent with him. He relates the impact the interviews had on him personally. He talks about the nihilism of some of the leading comedians and satirists in America today, and shares his personal views about the ultimate meaning of life in a godless, naturalistic universe.

He talks about the motivation of leading comedians, and whether or not they intend to impact society with their comedic art. He talks about comedians who preach ideology, and great comedic artists like Tim Minchin who advance a particular point of view in entertaining ways. He argues that the leading comedians in the United States are like the spiritual descendants of the revolutionary Founding Fathers. He talks about Jay Leno and why he avoids controversial social issues in his comedy. He explores how aware the famous social critic comedians interviewed in his book, such as George Carlin and Craig Ferguson, are of their role in society. He explores the impact of Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, and Penn Jillette on American public policy. He also explores to what extent being “preachy” harms laughs. And he explains why leading comedians may be different from the common man, and how they embrace their differences, seeing the world in productive and unique ways.

Also, in this week’s Honest Liar commentary, Jamy Ian Swiss is flattered to have received an invitation to be included in a prestigious directory.

Supernormal Stimuli

Deirdre Barrett talks about supernormal stimuli, which are exaggerated versions of natural stimuli to which there are existing instinctual responses. She discusses how our evolved instincts are overwhelmed by technological advances and other facets of modern society. She explores how pornography, unhealthy diets, and even the quest for nuclear energy as opposed to wind or solar energy are supernormal stimuli. And she explains how undue credulity in the supernatural and the paranormal may be a function of our natural instincts to believe becoming overrun by supernormal stimuli.

Also, in this week’s edition of the Honest Liar, we consider the similarities between a streetside scam artist and a billion dollar Ponzi schemer.

The Search For Cosmic Consciousness

Vic Stenger talks about the limits of science, and whether scientists should be critical of religion and the paranormal, or if such sorts of claims are out of the bounds of science, and therefore beyond criticism. He discusses the academic and spiritual career of Fritjof Capra, and his book The Tao of Physics and how it misused quantum physics to promote New Age mysticism. He explores the implications of Deepak Chopra’s work, which argues that quantum physics proves that “we make our own reality,” and discusses the movies The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? and how they get quantum physics wrong. He explains wave-particle duality, and the reductionistic Standard Model in particle physics, and why this contradicts the claims of the “quantum spiritualists.” And he talks about the future of New Age mysticism and quantum spirituality.

In this weeks Honest Liar commentary, Jamy Ian Swiss revisits what happened in last week’s episode to victims of the ancient con of the Three Card Monte.

The Case For Libel Reform

Simon Singh details recent news regarding the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote in the Guardian criticizing chiropractic. He talks about English libel laws, and explains why he says they are the worst in the Western world. He details how the recent appeals court decision in his case could have a positive effect on the scientific community.  He describes the difference between “honest opinion” and facts as they are viewed both in libel cases and in science. And he reveals how the skeptical community in Britain organized a coordinated campaign against chiropractic, leading to investigation of one in four chiropractors there.

In this week’s installment of the Honest Liar, Jamy Ian Swiss allows us to witness a street-side scam in the heart of Times Square.

Five Years of Skepticality

Derek and Swoopy discuss the growth of skeptical podcasting in the five years since they founded the influential podcast Skepticality. They talk about how hosting their show opened new opportunities for them.They explore the extent to which skeptical podcasts foster insularity within the skeptical movement, or succeed as outreach tools reaching new audiences for science and critical thinking, and the influence of such podcasts on the growth of local skeptics community groups. And they talk about the future of skepticism and skeptical digital outreach.

In this week’s installment of the Honest Liar, Jamy Ian Swiss poses the question: What’s the harm?

Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

Bruce M. Hood discusses why so many people believe in the supernatural despite the lack of evidence, explaining that it may have something to do with how our brains are wired. He draws a distinction between religious supernatural beliefs, which are culturally determined, and more universal secular supernatural beliefs such as mind-body dualism and causality. He explains how such magical thinking may be socially advantageous and how even skeptics engage in supersense thinking. He also warns against the unscrupulous individuals who take advantage of what is a natural disposition in the majority of people.

In this week’s Honest Liar segment, Jamy Ian Swiss explains what he learned at the 1964 World’s Fair.

A Skeptic Comes Out at 81

James Randi comes out as gay. He discusses his life as a closeted gay man, and why he is now at age 81 coming out, and why he hasn’t been publicly open about his sexuality sooner. He describes the possible impact his coming out may have on his tireless work advancing skepticism and critical thinking. He discusses his atheism, and whether it, or his sexual orientation, influences the mission of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He talks about gay rights issues such as marriage equality.  He discusses his detractors and what they might make of the news of his homosexuality. And he explores the relevance of gay rights to the skeptical movement.

The Poetry of Skepticism

Jennifer Michael Hecht discusses art, poetry and literature as an entree into skepticism and critical thinking. As an historian of science, she contrasts the poetic stance with the scientific worldview. She talks about temporal biases within science, and urges scientific humility, as opposed to scientism. She criticizes some forms of skepticism within the humanities that consider science to be just one mythic narrative among many others. And she explores how poetry and ritual may enrich the skeptical life.

God’s Brain

Lionel Tiger, Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, talks about how religion takes place in brains, and not just in churches, temples and mosques. He explains how the brain created religion, and how religion feeds the brain. He relates his own experiences of religion, as a skeptic. He contrasts his approach to the scientific study of religion with that of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. He describes how feelings of connection resulting from religion are a function of neurochemistry, and how churches are “serotonin factories.” He talks about why interest in human sexuality is so often intertwined with religious pursuits. And he explores why secular institutions may fail to inspire commitment as compared to religion.

Also in this episode, the Honest Liar, Jamy Ian Swiss, talks about sports and the element of deception.

Science-Based Medicine

Harriet Hall, MD, The SkepDoc, discusses her column in O, The Oprah Magazine that focuses on debunking medical myths. She contrasts science-based medicine and “complementary and alternative medicine,” and tells why she objects to the latter term. She details why homeopathy elicits more moral outrage from her than other kinds of CAM remedies. Other topics she addresses include acupuncture, chiropractic, radical life extension, pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, the difference between fringe-science and pseudoscience, and also the risks of science-based medicine.

Also in this episode, The Honest Liar, Jamy Ian Swiss, talks about his hobby: collecting pseudosciences.

Mistakes Were Made

Carol Tavris describes dissonance theory and how self-justification and self-deception often keep people from changing their minds even in the light of compelling contrary evidence, because the evidence is often dissonant with one’s self-image. She details the implications of dissonance theory for the persistence of psychic charlatans and other peddlers of the paranormal, and how it may explain how someone like Sylvia Brown can live with herself, and also how it may explain how believers remain so gullible about such unsupportable claims. She describes confirmation bias as a component of dissonance theory. She talks about how dissonance theory applies to the skeptic movement, both in terms of suggesting the best strategies for engaging the credulous, and in terms of fostering skepticism about one’s own skeptical views. And she argues that skepticism should be affirmative rather than destructive in its approach, and focused on both critical thinking and creative thinking alike.

Also in this episode, The Honest Liar, Jamy Ian Swiss, talks about who psychics really see when they look in the mirror.

Framing Charles Darwin

Richard Dawkins talks about Darwin Day and communicating with the public about Darwinism, and which should be the highest priority: evolution education or widespread skepticism about the supernatural, including theism. He denies that he is strident. He explores concerns over immorality that may fuel opposition to Darwinsim. He explains how creationists are like Holocaust deniers. He describes the benefits of accepting the theory of evolution. And he details lines of evidence for evolution, such as those coming from molecular biology.

Evolution for Kids

Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, talks about his children’s book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be. He explores why books about evolution for children are so rare. He explains how children can become filled with “spiritual” awe by learning about evolution. And he talks about how he challenged creationism and addressed the religion vs. science controversy in the book.

The Importance of the JREF

James Randi discusses his health and cancer treatment pseudoscience. He talks about JREF’s future, including expansion of the Million Dollar Challenge, a renewed focus on the skeptic grassroots, and international expansion of The Amaz!ng Meetings. He also reacts to the arrest of bomb dowsing huckster James McCormick on fraud charges, stressing the real-world implications of the skeptical outlook.