Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We Are What We Eat

And I consume a lot of podcasts...

My tastes are varied; I listen to astronomy and science presentations, and to current political events in lectures from the RSA, the LSE, and Gresham College (all UK productions, though I am no Anglophile).  I also listen to religious topics; more on that in a moment.  But most often find myself listening to skeptical podcasts: For Good ReasonPoint of Inquiry, Quackcast, Righteous IndignationSkeptics With a K, Skepticality, Skeptoid, The Skeptic ZoneThe Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, and Token Skeptic.

Skepticism is an interesting term and an unconventional hobby.  Most skeptics are not practicing scientists, though many good ones are medical doctors.  Most skeptics are not educators, but many engage in public outreach intended to popularize critical thinking and science literacy.  Many, if not most skeptics are atheists, but not all aim their critical thinking toward religious topics.  There a some skeptics who have hijacked the title to support their denialism of anthropogenic global warming or the efficacy of vaccinations.  There are some who regard skeptics as cynics or reflexive debunkers or both.

I listen to a variety of topics from a variety of perspectives because to do otherwise is to invite confirmation bias, tunnel vision, and stagnation.  I still listen to On Being, but the rebranding seems to have taken even more of the edge off the extremely even-handed work done by Krista Tippett when the show was called Speaking of Faith.  I listen to Reasonable Faith and Unbelievable religion podcasts precisely because I disagree with the hosts on most all issues.  If all I listened to was Reasonable Doubts and Chariots of Iron I might find reinforcement for my worldview, but I want to be careful not to climb into an echo chamber and then lock the door from inside.  We all know people who have done that, but how many of us are aware that we run the same risk ourselves?

Recently I added two podcasts to my listening queue.  MonsterTalk (an official podcast of Skeptic magazine, as is Skepticality) takes a skeptical view of cryptozoology (Nessie, sasquatch, the chupacabra, that sort of thing).  It features, among others, Karen Stollznow, who is also one of the hosts at Point of Inquiry.

The other new podcast is especially challenging.  Skeptiko is hosted by Alex Tsakiris.  His proposed agenda:

"Figure stuff out. Dig into the research data. Explore the possibility that the existing materialistic paradigm might be overturned (and may already be at a tipping point). Talk to really smart people on both sides of the issues. Treat all guests with respect."

Mr. Tsakaris is deeply interested in phenomena such as NDE, OBE, ESP, PSI, PK, and other parapsychology topics.  He regards himself as a skeptic of the "existing materialistic paradigm" but most of the time he comes off as a poster child for confirmation bias.  Interestingly, Tsakaris is no fan of organized religion or evangelical Christianity, but regards parapsychological phenomena as proof of the existence of the soul and evidence that the mind survives death.  He is prone to describe anecdotes and case studies of untestable and unverifiable phenomena as data and evidence.

So why do I listen?  Certainly to keep my wits sharp, to make sure my baloney detector is working, and to keep my argumentum armamentarium well stocked.  But also to make certain that I do not become set in my ways of thought, that I remain open to new ideas, and the lenses, filters, and blinders of my worldview do not interfere with perceiving my slice of reality as accurately as possible.