Smashing Pseudoscience with Skeptoid
Have you ever stared at the stars and saw a UFO whiz by? Caught a glimpse of a phantom out of the corner of your eye? Eaten at Veggie Grill to “cleanse” your system? Well, you’re kidding yourself. Brian Dunning, a former UC Irvine student and the man behind Skeptoid.com will prove it to you.
“Skeptoid” is a weekly podcast that examines an urban legend, myth or pseudoscientific theory, disabusing believers of their false notions in about 10 minutes. The show has been running for two years now, slowly amassing an audience and climbing to the higher tiers of iTunes’s rankings.
Dunning initially created the podcasts as a way to vent his frustrations “with peoples’ tendency to accept, without critique, whatever the mass media shovels onto them.” He intended “Skeptoid” to be a five or six episode series of rants; it gradually evolved into a career. The show has now run over 100 episodes, and has spawned a book and a television pilot.
The secret to “Skeptoid” is Dunning’s direct, rational approach to seemingly abnormal issues. For instance, a recent episode discussed a “face” on Mars. An old NASA photo that showed what looked like a human face on a “martian hill” spurred many to don tin hats and postulate about ancient Martian civilizations based solely on this one photograph. Books were written on the subject and, unsurprisingly, the diehards went so far as to claim some sort of NASA cover up.
The whole notion falls apart with only a little bit of critical thinking. The “nostrils” on the face are really indicator dots on spots of missing image data. Dunning also pointed out that recent high-resolution pictures of the same hill lack a face, and referred to a proven psychological phenomenon – pareidolia – that causes people to recognize facial patterns in objects (ink blot tests are based on this).
The podcast’s agency comes from not-so-common common sense and scientific analysis. According to Dunning, “My profession is to analyze the validity of claims. It’s not a specific scientific discipline that you can learn in school—though it certainly should be! But to be generally conversant in any science, you don’t necessarily have to know all the specifics; you can get by in every science if you understand the scientific method.”
Pseudoscience comes in many forms, which makes it pervasive and difficult to route from the collective consciousness. With the help of the media and committed charlatans, nonsense becomes common sense. Dunning says, “Promoters of pseudoscience range from good people with the best intentions and bad information, all the way to deliberate vultures like celebrity ‘psychic’ predators or people who sell quack remedies to people with serious illnesses.”
But where does the gullibility start? Dunning believes part of the problem is in education. He offers some of his material for teachers to use in the classroom. In that sense, “Skeptoid” has practical applications beyond entertainment: “Something that high schools can start to do is teach critical thinking skills in a better, more relevant way. Studying the ‘Socratic Dialogues’ is fine, but it hardly has the immediate relevance to daily life that makes a course interesting.”
Like the e-mails that circulate false claims, pseudoscience tends to create a chain of misrepresentations that are simply accepted. The power of repetition through media has a strong pull on the consumer. Most are not taught to question these messages, thus perpetuating false notions.
Brian recommends that teachers “challenge the students instead to really analyze the pseudoscientific claims that they’d otherwise be taking for granted every day. Is there really any basis for organic food to be healthier? Do the ‘boosters’ offered at Jamba Juice to supply antioxidants or ‘boost your immune system’ really have any plausible health benefits? Is there a better explanation for what Sylvia Browne does than ‘psychic powers’?”
Dunning is careful to note that politics play no role in “Skeptoid.” People of any political persuasion are equally capable of arriving at the same conclusions he does in the podcast. “Politics is largely opinion, and critical analysis is about separating facts from fiction—two unrelated subjects, so I believe that you can be a critical thinker no matter where you lie on the various political spectrums.” He has the same amount of criticism for both sides of the political spectrum, distancing himself from party-allegiance and advocacy.
Dunning says, “Many skeptics tend to be liberals, often as the default position to get as far away as possible from Christian fundamentalism’s anti-science. But I see at least as much pseudoscience practiced on the far left as I see on the far right. The far left is the home of alternative medicine, spiritual healing, New Age and xenophobia of business and technology. Personally, I don’t see how any given political party could truly represent an intelligent person. I don’t claim any party affiliation.”
“Skeptoid” has come a long way and consistently offers good episodes. The show recently broke new ground. Just a few weeks ago, Dunning wrapped filming on a television pilot for a show called “The Skeptologists,” based on his podcast. “The Skeptologists is a very exciting project. This is a speculative TV pilot that I am hosting and executive producing, along with Ryan Johnson (‘American Dragster’). It is like ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ meets Penn & Teller’s ‘Bullshit!’—the crack team of experts gets the signal, jumps into the Bat-mobile and races to the scene of the pseudoscience to show us what’s really going on,” Dunning says.
The team is still looking for a studio to air the show. The pilot will no doubt be snatched up, as Dunning has gathered together a bevy of all-star myth-busters: “We assembled quite probably the most impressive team of scientific experts ever on a TV show, who also happen to be some of the biggest names in critical thinking and new media: Dr. Michael Shermer, publisher of ‘Skeptic Magazine’ and author of ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’; Dr. Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society and host of ‘The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’; Dr. Phil Plait of ‘BadAstronomy.com’; Yau-Man Chan, the physicist from NBC’s ‘Survivor’; Dr. Kirsten Sanford of ‘This Week in Science’ and the ‘Food Science’ video podcast; and mentalist Mark Edward, who seems to be on TV every time you turn around. Spending a week shooting with these people was truly one of the high points of my life.”
Dunning’s rise to fame as the star of a prospective television series began right here at UCI. His father, Jim Dunning, was the Dean of Admissions from 1971 to 1993. Dunning, who was an undeclared undergraduate during the early ‘90s, also studied at UCLA. He learned the ropes of computer science before getting into podcasting. He says, “I was successful enough in the software industry to allow myself the freedom I have now to develop ‘Skeptoid.’ But ‘Skeptoid’ did not happen overnight. I spent a number of years trying to define my message, deciding where I wanted to fit in and even looking for media outlets before I discovered podcasting in 2006. And then it was probably a good 50 episodes before I felt like ‘Skeptoid’ had really developed and come into its own.”
There’s still more in store for “Skeptoid.” Look out for a 45-minute movie on the horizon called “Here Be Dragons.” “It tries to answer the basic questions and arm people with the basic tools for identifying the nonsense that the mainstream media deluges us with every day. It’s very much along the same lines as ‘Skeptoid,’ with a different format and a different distribution channel to try and reach new audiences,” Dunning says.
He currently lives in Orange County with his wife and two kids.
Check out the “Skeptoid” podcast at www.skeptoid.com.