Science has had a tough time in the popular media. On TV for instance, every “Cosmos,” “Mythbusters” or “Planet Earth” has about a dozen Fox specials about alien abductions, ghost hunting shows or talk show hosts promoting psychics to cancel them out. It’s difficult to present science in both an entertaining and accurate fashion, and it’s even harder to stay on the air as audiences’ attention spans get shorter and shorter.
Enter the new media — specifically the Internet — and in this particular case, podcasts. “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe,” or SGU to its fans, advocates skepticism — the notion of not accepting claims at face value — as one of the cornerstones of science. The show is just five self-proclaimed science rogues discussing recent science news items, but the stars of the show and their rapport keep things entertaining on a week-to-week basis, enough so that it consistently ranks among the most downloaded science podcasts on iTunes. But the stars of the show aren’t above gimmicks, and starting tonight they’re going to put on a 24-hour episode of the SGU accessible from their website.
“The original worry that I had was going to be content,” said Jay Novella, one of the hosts. “But we didn’t really have a problem coming up with a lot of content. We all could just talk and talk and talk and really there’s no end to it.”
Instead of sticking to prerecorded material on what is typically an audio-only show, the 24-hour episode will be broadcast live across the Internet in full streaming video. Novella talked like a child in a candy store, excited by all the possibilities.
“We have general ideas ... like we’re building a lair. It’s a skeptical-slash-hero lair, so what’s going to be in it? We’re having fun with it,” Novella said.
There’s no question that the stars of the SGU are either nerds, dorks or geeks (depending on your preferred nomenclature), with the rogues occasionally finding themselves distracted from the science to talk about “Star Trek” or “Lord of the Rings” or in a recent episode, Gary Coleman’s appearance on the Buck Rogers TV show. However, rather than becoming off-putting, the geekiness gives the show personality.
The idea for a 24-hour show originated with Steve Novella, the de-facto leader of the show, who leads the discussion each week in addition to balancing his day job as an academic neurologist at Yale.
“In an average eight-hour work day or 12 hours where Steve’s being productive, he gets as much done as it takes me a week to do,” Jay Novella said.
The other rogues Bob Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson, are just a few people who are gung ho about skepticism, which Jay Novella describes as “organized critical thinking.”
“I’m a skeptical activist. That’s it. I’m driven by my desire. This isn’t about fame and money because if it were, I would be a joke. We do what we do because we want to educate people,” Jay Novella said.
Talking to Jay Novella, however, it seems like more than that. To him, science isn’t a sterile and lifeless topic to memorize and get tested on. Instead, it’s a way of looking at the world and seeing things that weren’t there before. It provides the same wonder to him as religion might to somebody else.
“Watching all the science take place, and seeing all the hopeful discoveries that disappear or sometimes turn into something. That process, we get to enjoy just by reading the news every day. That’s awesome,” Jay Novella said.
Promoting skepticism in a world of psuedoscience and misleading news reports is no easy task, particularly in the world of traditional media, but the Internet has allowed for many grassroots movements to gain a better following, most fueled only by passion.
And passion clearly is the key motivator for Jay Novella. As he pauses for a second while talking about science and technology and the amazing things that the future will bring, he breaks whatever thought he was in the middle of to let out a burst of pure emotion.
“Man, what a time to be alive!”
Printed on Friday, September 23, 2011 as: "Skeptics attempt to overturn psuedoscience with podcast."