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Skeptically Curious

Skeptically Curious

By Ryan Rutherford

In each episode I endeavour to know more and think better by interviewing knowledgeable guests about fascinating topics. I have an insatiable curiosity about many areas, including politics, economics, philosophy, history, literature, psychology, religion, and different branches of science such as neuroscience, biology, and physics. Regardless of subject matter, I hope to promote critical thinking, Enlightenment values, and the scientific method. Please join me on this journey as we engage and broaden our skeptical curiosity.
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Episode 2 - Communicating climate change, countering denialism, and the importance of scientific consensus (with John Cook)

Skeptically Curious

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Episode 16 - The Anthropocene with Dr. Will Steffen
Episode 16 - The Anthropocene with Dr. Will Steffen
If I were to hazard a guess, the odds are far more likely that someone has heard of climate change than they have of the Anthropocene. While its use has exploded since first being coined by Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Paul Crutzen, in 2000, particularly in academic circles, but also including some recent pop cultural and media references, I still maintain it probably ranks as the most profoundly important conceptual framework with which most people remain largely unfamiliar. The Anthropocene essentially means the “age of humans,” denoting that our species has become such a potent planetary force that it has radically, and in some cases irrevocably, altered the planet in a myriad of ways. This includes changes in land use, atmospheric composition, chemical cycles, most notably nitrogen and phosphorous, pollution, weather patterns, and, perhaps most tragically of all, biodiversity, as we are currently living through what has been dubbed the sixth great extinction. To better understand the Anthropocene, I decided to reach out to Dr. Will Steffen, one of the main researchers responsible for formulating the concept from its inception, and who has collaborated with other major scholars in this field, including Dr. Crutzen and Johan Rockström. After summarising some of his background, I asked my guest to clarify the primary conceptual features pertaining to the Anthropocene. Considering that the Anthropocene idea emerges to a significant extent from Earth System Science, I asked Dr. Steffen to explain more about this field. I then probed him for a so-called “bumper sticker definition” of the Anthropocene, after which I inquired about the main lines of evidence to support this classification. There is still some contention over when to date the start of the Anthropocene, which we discussed, before moving onto the “Great Acceleration,” the term for the massive expansion of economic activity across the globe after World War II. Some other topics we delved into include planetary boundaries, the notion of a “golden spike” indicating a clear demarcation between different geological ages, alternatives to the Anthropocene designation, which some scholars have argued is too broad considering not all people are impacting the world equally, and, perhaps most provocatively, whether humans are an irredeemable species considering how much destruction we have wrought on all aspects of the biosphere. On a more positive note, I asked Dr. Steffen about possible ways to address the vast impact of human activity on the planet. While this is one of my shortest interviews, it is also one of the most substantive and wide-ranging, as befits a topic of such expansive scope. After all, the Anthropocene is the ultimate interdisciplinary subject and, as the name suggests, implicates us all. Dr. Will Steffen’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Steffen ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5610815_The_Anthropocene_Are_Humans_Now_Overwhelming_the_Great_Forces_of_Nature ‘The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives’: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49799236_The_Anthropocene_conceptual_and_historical_perspectives Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
55:03
December 01, 2021
Episode 15 - AI Controllability, AGI, and Possible AI Futures with Roman Yampolskiy
Episode 15 - AI Controllability, AGI, and Possible AI Futures with Roman Yampolskiy
For this episode I was very pleased to be once again joined by Roman Yampolskiy. Dr. Yampolskiy is a professor in the department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and has authored dozens of peer-reviewed academic papers and some books. In this discussion, I first asked my guest about the recent AGI-21 conference organised by Ben Goertzel’s SingularityNET, held in San Francisco from the 15th to the 18th October, to which he remotely contributed. Roman summarised his presentation on AI Controllability, an incredibly important topic from an AI risk standpoint, but one that has not received nearly enough attention. The conference provided a neat segue into the topic comprising the bulk of our discussion, namely AGI, or artificial general intelligence. I threw plenty at my interviewee, primarily perspectives gleaned from some papers and books, as well as interviews, to which I was recently exposed. However, Roman parried most of my challenging salvos with impressive aplomb. I then shifted focus to some provocative possible future scenarios, both positive and negative, involving AI systems gaining greater intelligence and competency. Lastly, we ventured onto more personal terrain as I asked Roman about his family’s move to the United States, his interest in computers, intellectual influences, and what the secret is to his astonishing productivity. Roman Yampolskiy’s page at the University of Louisville: http://cecs.louisville.edu/ry/ List of Yampolskiy’s papers at Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Roman-Yampolskiy Yampolskiy’s ‘AI Risk Skepticism’ paper: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351368775_AI_Risk_Skepticism AGI Control Theory Presentation at AGI-21: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Palb2Ue_RjI ‘Human ≠ AGI’ paper: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2007/2007.07710.pdf ‘Personal Universes’ paper: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1901/1901.01851.pdf ‘Here’s Why We May Need to Rethink Artificial Neural Networks’ by Alberto Romero: https://towardsdatascience.com/heres-why-we-may-need-to-rethink-artificial-neural-networks-c7492f51b7bc ‘Evil Robots, Killer Computers, and Other Myths’ by Steve Shwartz: https://www.aiperspectives.com/evil-robots Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious  
01:06:14
November 10, 2021
Episode 14 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 2) - Free will, serial killers, and treating psychopathy
Episode 14 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 2) - Free will, serial killers, and treating psychopathy
This episode of Skeptically Curious features the second interview with Dr. Kent Kiehl, one of the foremost contemporary experts on psychopathy, and author of The Psychopath Whisperer. This exceptional book recounts Dr. Kiehl’s illustrious career while also serving as a lucid guide to the latest research on psychopathy. The first interview focused primarily on that book, while this episode moves well beyond its ambit. I began by asking Dr. Kiehl whether it is rare to find psychopaths drawn from higher socio-economic echelons, as was the case with someone dubbed Brendan in his book. We then took a plunge into the ever-knotty thickets of the free will debate, a detour during which such names as Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, and Daniel Dennett were evoked. Probably the lion’s share of our discussion revolved around the inexhaustibly fascinating subject of serial killers, both real and imagined. I instigated this part of our conversation by asking my guest whether it is safe to assume that while not all psychopaths are serial killers, all serial killers should be classified as psychopaths. The answer is surprisingly not so straightforward. One of America's most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy, helped to stoke Dr. Kiehl’s interest in psychopathy as this infamous murderer was born a few blocks from his childhood home in Tacoma, Washington. Dr. Kiehl discussed other real-life killers including Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, incidentally also from Washington State, and BTK. I could not resist asking my strikingly credentialed interlocutor about the accuracy of some famed fictional figures, such as Hannibal Lector and Dexter Morgan. I even asked Dr. Kiehl to cast a verdict on the potential veracity of my own as-yet-unpublished foray into the realm of imaginary serial murderers. After hearing his answer, I probably have some serious re-writing to do. We then discussed some of the popular books on psychopathy published around the same time as The Psychopath Whisperer, including Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths and Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, which Dr. Kiehl described as basically a work of fiction, and a very irresponsible one at that. Instead, Dr. Kiehl urged listeners to rely on academics who have published in peer-reviewed journals for reliable information on psychopathy, including Adrian Raine, James Blair, Joe Newman, and, of course, Robert Hare. We ended on a more hopeful note by discussing possible treatment options for psychopathy. The most promising development in this regard is probably the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Centre in Madison, Wisconsin, which employs a decompression model to positively reinforce good behaviour. Dr. Kiehl writes about this in some detail in The Psychopath Whisperer and still enthusiastically praises its considerable success in comparison to other juvenile programmes. The impressive results suggest if troubled individuals are identified early in life and enough time and resources are spent to re-shape their behaviour, it is possible to prevent them from developing into clinically diagnosed psychopaths. Dr. Kiehl’s personal website: https://kentkiehl.com/ Dr. Kiehl’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_Kiehl The Psychopath Whisperer: https://www.amazon.com/The-Psychopath-Whisperer-Science-Conscience/dp/077043584X Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
02:09:12
November 03, 2021
Episode 13 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 1)
Episode 13 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 1)
Rarely does one have the opportunity to interview someone who, without any exaggeration, can be legitimately considered among a handful of leading figures in their respective field. This aptly describes Dr. Kent Kiehl’s celebrated career as a world leading psychopathy expert. Furthermore, as anyone reading his superb 2014 memoir-cum-primer, The Psychopath Whisperer, will learn, Dr. Kiehl’s career has intersected with some iconic luminaries, particularly in neuroscience and psychology, including Karl Friston, Michael Gazzaniga, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash, and the grandfather of modern psychopath research, Dr. Robert Hare, creator of the Psychopathy Checklist, which is still the unsurpassed gold standard of assessment. Dr. Kiehl completed his undergraduate degree at the University of California-Davis and earned a doctorate under Dr. Hare at the University of British Columbia. Putting his studies to practical use, for several years he worked in a maximum-security prison in Canada. Thereafter, he was affiliated with Yale and the Institute of Living, and for the last fifteen years has been a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico where he heads the Mind Research Network, a non-profit institute. During his work at the latter institution, Dr. Kiehl and his team have used a mobile fMRI to scan the brains of over 5000 inmates in five states. In the interview, after Dr. Kiehl summarised his storied career, he spent quite some time reflecting on the scientific method, which included relating this to his own work. I asked my guest to provide the so-called “dinner party” definition of psychopathy. He then clarified the distinction between psychosis and psychopathy, as well as sociopathy and psychopathy. As we discussed, and is elaborated upon in more detail in The Psychopath Whisperer, among the principle reasons for Dr. Kiehl’s esteemed stature are the landmark contributions he has made using two of the primary imaging tools in neuroscience, namely EEG and fMRI, which stand for electroencephalography and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, respectively, techniques he kindly first explained before moving onto describing his research findings. In short, after repeatedly identifying a correlation between high scores on the Psychopathy Checklist and the volume and structure of certain brain areas, Dr. Kiehl formulated what he has dubbed the Paralimbic Dysfunction Model of Psychopathy. Impressively, this is now among the most robust findings in the field. As uncomfortable as it may be for some to accept, psychopaths simply have different brains to those of us not so designated. The last major topic we discussed was whether, in light of these findings, psychopaths are born or made, which then segued into possible interventions to ameliorate these traits, or at any rate their most socially deleterious manifestations.  Dr. Kiehl’s personal website: https://kentkiehl.com/ Dr. Kiehl’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_Kiehl The Psychopath Whisperer: https://www.amazon.com/The-Psychopath-Whisperer-Science-Conscience/dp/077043584X Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:38:00
October 21, 2021
Episode 12 - Science-based medicine, science denial as a form of conspiracy theory, and countering vaccine misinformation with Dr. David Gorski
Episode 12 - Science-based medicine, science denial as a form of conspiracy theory, and countering vaccine misinformation with Dr. David Gorski
In this episode I was joined by Dr. David Gorski, managing editor and prolific writer at the thoroughly indispensable website, Science-Based Medicine. Dr. Gorski earned his MD at the University of Michigan and a PhD in cellular physiology at Case Western Reserve University. He is both a professor of surgery at Wayne State University as well as a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute where he specialises in breast cancer surgery. Near the beginning of our conversation, I asked Dr. Gorski for his view on the scientific method and how skepticism is one of its central characteristics. My guest explained how science-based medicine is related to, but still in important respects distinct from, evidence-based medicine, which is itself a fairly new approach dating back only a few decades. We discussed an excellent essay from earlier this year in which he argued that all examples of science denial are essentially a form of conspiracy thinking. While his argument is largely persuasive, I ventured to propose a yet deeper analytical layer involving the high degree of religiosity in American society, as compared to other developed nations, that serves as another crucial driver for the pervasive conspiratorial ideation so prevalent in the United States. We then spoke about the highly frustrating asymmetry between those trying to assiduously gather reliable information and rectify inaccuracies and those who effortlessly churn out misleading and false claims. Dr. Gorski mentioned Brandolini’s Law, which states that it takes an order of magnitude more to refute bullshit than it does to create bullshit, that perfectly summarise this dilemma, and one the Covid pandemic has brought into horribly stark relief. I asked him about his first forays into skepticism in the late 1990s when he grappled with Holocaust deniers, before moving onto discussing fallacious ideas about Covid-19, the anti-vaccine movement, the breakthrough new MRNA technology used in some Covid vaccines, the efficacy of vaccines developed against the virus, and the often unethical behaviour of pharmaceutical companies witnessed during this unprecedented global pandemic. We also spoke about how the Republican Party has become the party of choice for anti-vaxxers, some prominent figures in this movement, including Mike Adams of Natural News infamy and Joseph Mercola, what might motivate these players, and ways to counter the tidal wave of irrationality, idiocy, disinformation, and propaganda to which we are incessantly subjected, particularly on social media. In light of this seemingly inexorable multi-pronged tsunami of lunacy, I averred that we sadly appear to live in an age of Endarkment, rather than one of Enlightenment. Science-Based Medicine: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/ Dr Gorski’s essay, ‘All science denial is a form of conspiracy theory’: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/all-science-denial-is-a-form-of-conspiracy-theory/ Dr. Gorski’s Respectful Insolence blog: https://respectfulinsolence.com/ Dr. Gorski’s Twitter account: @gorskon Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:38:17
October 05, 2021
Episode 11 - AI Risk with Roman Yampolskiy
Episode 11 - AI Risk with Roman Yampolskiy
For this episode I was delighted to be joined by Dr. Roman Yampolskiy, a professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Louisville. Few scholars have devoted as much time to seriously exploring the myriad of threats potentially inhering in the development of highly intelligent artificial machinery than Dr. Yampolskiy, who established the field of AI Safety Engineering, also known simply as AI Safety. After the preliminary inquiry into his background, I asked Roman Yampolskiy to explain deep neural networks, or artificial neural networks as they are also known. One of the most important topics in AI research is what is referred to as the Alignment Problem, which my guest helped to clarify. We then moved onto his work on two other vitally significant issues in AI, namely understandability and explainability. I then asked him to provide a brief history of AI Safety, which as he revealed built on Yudkowsky’s ideas of Friendly AI. We discussed whether there is an increased interest in the risks attendant to AI among researchers, the perverse incentive that exists among those in this industry to downplay the risks of their work, and how to ensure greater transparency, which as you will hear is worryingly far more difficult than many might assume based on the inherently opaque nature of how deep neural networks perform their operations. I homed in on the issue of massive job losses that increasing AI capabilities could potentially engender, as well as the perception I have that many who discuss this topic downplay the socioeconomic context within which automation occurs. After I asked my guest to define artificial general intelligence, or AGI, and super intelligence, we spent considerable time discussing the possibility of machines achieving human-level mental capabilities. This part of the interview was the most contentious and touched on neuroscience, the nature of consciousness, mind-body dualism, the dubious analogy between brains and computers that has been all to pervasive in the AI field since its inception, as well as a fascinating paper by Yampolskiy proposing to detect qualia in artificial systems that perceive the same visual illusions as humans. In the final stretch of the interview, we discussed the impressive language-based system GPT3, whether AlphaZero is the first truly intelligent artificial system, as Gary Kasparov claims, the prospects of quantum computing to potentially achieve AGI, and, lastly, what he considers to be the greatest AI risk factor, which according to my guest is “purposeful malevolent design.” While this far-ranging interview, with many concepts raised and names dropped, sometimes veered into various weeds some might deem overly specialised and/or technical, I nevertheless think there is plenty to glean about a range of fascinating, not to mention pertinent, topics for those willing to stay the course. Roman Yampolskiy’s page at the University of Louisville: http://cecs.louisville.edu/ry/ Yampolskiy’s papers: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0_Rq68cAAAAJ&hl=en Roman’s book, Artificial Superintelligence: A Futuristic Approach: https://www.amazon.com/Artificial-Superintelligence-Futuristic-Roman-Yampolskiy/dp/1482234432 Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:22:22
September 24, 2021
Episode 10 - Enlightenment values with Professor A.C. Grayling
Episode 10 - Enlightenment values with Professor A.C. Grayling
In this milestone tenth episode of Skeptically Curious, I had the immense privilege and unique honour to speak with world-renowned philosopher, Professor A. C. Grayling, who has exerted a profound intellectual influence upon yours truly since I first began reading his work around 2007. The author of over thirty books, his astonishing oeuvre possesses the rarest combination of lavish depth and extraordinary breadth. Anything one is liable to read that issued forth from the man's pen cannot help but impress for its remarkable erudition, elegant prose, and profound acumen, qualities made the more awe-inspiring by being so unflaggingly consistent. As my focus for this episode was predominantly on the Enlightenment, I decided to centre our discussion on one of the coruscating jewels of Grayling’s rich output, Towards the Light of Liberty, which provides an account of the struggles in the West over the last five hundred years to expand freedom in a host of spheres. I began our conversation by asking Professor Grayling how growing up in Africa shaped his thinking, which prompted his sharing candid details concerning some devastating personal tragedies. I then asked him about the role of the philosopher, whether ancient or modern, before moving onto a discussion on key values associated with the Enlightenment project. He elaborated upon why to fully understand the Enlightenment we need to take a wider historical view, as he does in Towards the Light of Liberty, which surveys predominantly European history over the last half a millennium. I asked my guest to explain the relevance of the Reformation in the 16th century to subsequent developments. Other subjects we discussed included the importance of struggle in achieving Enlightenment ideals, the notion of Enlightenment as a process of continual renewal and ongoing striving for a better dispensation, which I summarised as becoming and not being, the serious problems with religious approaches to acquiring knowledge and developing ethical standards, and the importance of the scientific method to Enlightenment ideals and its supremacy in comparison to all other modes of understanding reality. My guest addressed a few oft-cited criticisms directed against the Enlightenment, including some major Western nations’ history of colonialism and imperialism and the ongoing hypocrisy in the way many supposedly Enlightened states conduct their foreign policy. He then fielded a question about whether attaining economic democracy across the globe to displace the current capitalist order represents a necessary continuation of the Enlightenment effort to promote human flourishing in all dimensions. In closing, Professor Grayling urged everyone to continue their self-education beyond the formal kind as he averred we should “stay awake, alert, and never give up learning.” A.C. Grayling’s official website: https://acgrayling.com/ A.C. Grayling's Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._C._Grayling Towards the Light of Liberty: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/towards-the-light-9780747592990 Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious  
01:36:55
September 03, 2021
Episode 9 - Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor
Episode 9 - Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor
I have been interested in Buddhism for some years now, and so to further feed my curiosity and broaden my knowledge on the subject I decided to turn to Stephen Batchelor, whose knowledge as both Buddhist practitioner and scholar is impressively extensive. Following his immersion in Buddhist teaching and training as a monk from the early 1970s, Stephen grew increasingly discontent with traditional Buddhism, in particular those aspects common to most religions, including a priestly class, dogmatism, and adherence to infallible holy texts. He has therefore devoted the last number of decades to promoting Secular Buddhism, incidentally the title of one of his many books. Some of Stephen’s other major publications include Buddhism Without Beliefs, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and, most recently, The Art of Solitude. My aim for this episode was two-fold: roughly the first half is devoted to exploring some basic tenets of Buddhism, while in the latter part we delved into Stephen’s approach to secularising the tradition. After he told me about how he initially became a Buddhist in India, my guest was asked to provide some biographical background on the Buddha. Here Stephen painted a vivid cultural and historical portrait of India during Gautama’s lifetime, which was a period of momentous transition. I asked him about the veracity of the famous account of what set the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment in motion, which while not historically accurate has the kind of timeless truth all great myths possess. He clarified the three marks of existence and then explained the five precepts. I asked Stephen to provide insight into the Middle Way, after which we discussed how the Buddhist conception of enlightenment, something of a mistranslation as he noted, differs from the European variety that emerged in the eighteenth century. I provocatively, if still good naturedly, challenged Stephen about why he even bothers to call himself a secular Buddhist and does not simply slough off all affiliations to a faith tradition. We then had an extended discussion on mindfulness meditation, including how rapidly its popularity has expanded throughout the world in recent times, the centrality of this practice to the Buddha’s teachings, and how its numerous physiological and psychological benefits point to the practical aspects of Buddhism that transcend any associations with, or even knowledge of, the religio-philosophical system whence it emerged. I hope, and am fairly convinced, Stephen’s insights, articulacy, and erudition will give everyone who listens at least a few nourishing morsels for deeper reflection. Stephen Batchelor’s website: https://stephenbatchelor.org/index.php/en/ Some of Stephen Batchelor’s books: Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997) / Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (2010) / Secular Buddhism (2017) / The Art of Solitude (2020) Bodhi College, which Stephen co-founded and where he teaches courses off and online: https://bodhi-college.org/ Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:04:23
August 06, 2021
Episode 8 - Reflective and Therapeutic Writing with Dr. Gillie Bolton
Episode 8 - Reflective and Therapeutic Writing with Dr. Gillie Bolton
To many, the thought of writing likely conjures at least some of the following associations: furiously taking down notes in a lecture hall; penning an essay; composing a poem; typing an email; bashing out a blog post; and/or dashing off a Tweet. But what if writing could provide a means to analytically probe the innermost mental recesses for deeper reflective engagement with all aspects of our lives? Beyond even this, what if writing could serve as a powerful therapeutic tool in helping us work through trauma? Dr. Gillie Bolton has been exploring the unique reflective and therapeutic possibilities proffered by writing for decades as a creative writing teacher and facilitator working with a range of professionals. Dr. Bolton is a major pioneer in this field, and a sixth edition of her widely used book, Reflective Practice, was recently published. I asked her first to talk about her background, which included earning a degree in social anthropology from Cambridge University and working as a creative writing teacher at a residential college, as well as decades of experience facilitating writing workshops. We went on to discuss the nature of reflective writing, the tradition of reflective practice of which this emerged, how anyone can benefit from cultivating a regular practice in this fashion, through-the-mirror writing, an idea drawn from one of her favourite books, Alice in Wonderland, and the many positive aspects of maintaining a journal. Furthermore, I asked Dr. Bolton to define therapeutic writing, whether there is a potential danger in someone being re-traumatised through undertaking such a process, about the difficulty of conducting quantitative scientific studies to determine the efficacy of reflective and therapeutic writing, and how we can cultivate greater reflectiveness within ourselves and society at large. Dr. Bolton made the profoundly insightful observation that we are human beings and not “human doings.” She also stressed that we should be kind to ourselves and be willing to ask “why” to enable us to open up greater possibilities of exploration, curiosity, and personal growth. Dr. Bolton is a very special person who exudes the kind of authentic warmth, empathy, kindness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit the world desperately needs so much more of. This was an extraordinary conversation and if listeners derive even a small fraction of what I did after talking to her then it will be well worth their time. Dr. Gillie Bolton’s website: https://www.gilliebolton.com Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:21:35
July 24, 2021
Episode 7 - The Irrational Ape with David Robert Grimes (Part 2)
Episode 7 - The Irrational Ape with David Robert Grimes (Part 2)
In this second interview with Dr. David Robert Grimes, author of the indispensably excellent book, The Irrational Ape, I began by asking him about the reductive fallacy, before moving onto a related essentialising bias known as the No True Scotsman fallacy. I then asked my guest about two woefully widespread mental shortcuts, namely the anecdotal fallacy and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, which literally means “after this therefore because of this,” but is often stated as correlation does not equal causation. Dr. Grimes also reminded listeners that the plural of anecdote is never data. We spent some time discussing various issues pertaining to statistics, including the difference between relative and absolute risk, the nature of statistical significance, the meaning of a P-value, and the so-called replication crisis in social science and in biomedical research. I then asked Dr. Grimes to explain sensitivity and specificity, two crucially important attributes pertinent to all tests for diseases. Understandably, these concepts have gained even greater relevance during the Covid pandemic. In The Irrational Ape, Dr. Grimes draws from a 2005 paper by John Ioannidis called ‘Why Most Published Research Findings are False’ to provide six guidelines to assess the validity of research findings, which we spent some time discussing. I also asked him about some ways to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. At the time we recorded the interview, Dr. Grimes was about to pen a piece for The Observer about the Wuhan Lab Leak theory, averring that the virus was engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which he argues is a conspiracy theory that violates the principle of Occam’s Razor. He helpfully explained what this is for those who might not know and is another handy weapon in one’s critical thinking armoury. Near the end of this once again insightful and enjoyable interview, my guest pointed out how liberating it can be to admit you do not know something. As he said, “don’t believe anything until the evidence is in,” which is a reminder of the kind of humility and intellectual honesty we should all try to cultivate. Official website: https://www.davidrobertgrimes.com/ Twitter account: http://www.twitter.com/drg1985 Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/david_robert_grimes/ Buy The Irrational Ape: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Irrational-Ape-Flawed-Critical-Thinking/dp/1471178250 https://www.waterstones.com/books/search/term/the+irrational+ape+david+robert+grimes Dr. Grimes’ article about the Wuhan Lab Leak Theory: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/13/newly-respectable-wuhan-lab-theory-remains-fanciful Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:08:32
July 12, 2021
Episode 6 - Expertly Explicating Evolution and Countering Creationist Canards with Dr. Ken Miller
Episode 6 - Expertly Explicating Evolution and Countering Creationist Canards with Dr. Ken Miller
Even though it has been 162 years since Charles Darwin published his ground-breaking treatise, On the Origin of Species, many misconceptions and outright falsehoods about the theory of evolution through natural selection continue to persist. I was therefore incredibly honoured to be joined in this episode by renowned biologist, Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, one of America’s foremost public defenders of evolution, to help clear up some of the confusion. For instance, I asked my guest to dispel the oft-repeated claim that evolution is “only a theory.” In his excellent book, Finding Darwin’s God, Dr. Miller contends that the theory of evolution should be understood as both history and mechanism, so I asked him to elaborate upon what he meant. We further discussed another common creationist misrepresentation, namely that evolution is simply a random process that could not possibly account for the appearance of design we see throughout the natural world. I asked Dr. Miller about the evidence for evolution, which as I claimed now consists of many mountains, and not merely a single Himalaya, as it were, and he homed in on upon three major areas, namely the extensive fossil record, genetics, and the ability to date the age of the earth using radioactivity. We also discussed transitional or intermediate fossils, how evolution is a vast branching process and not a teleological one culminating in humans as the apex of some scale of nature, the difference between micro and macro evolution, often misused by creationists, and why the second law of thermodynamics definitely does not invalidate the theory of evolution. I received a short anatomy lesson about the poorly designed nature of the human eye, which is interestingly still used by creationists, drawing selectively and disingenuously from a single paragraph in On the Origin of Species, as a supposed refutation of Darwinian evolution. The last area of scientific interest we delved into is the call by some for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to incorporate epigenetics, which is an exciting new area of evolutionary biology that is expanding upon and enhancing our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. At a few points in the discussion Dr. Miller references the relevance of evolution to the current global Covid-19 pandemic, reminding listeners that the term variants should be understood as evolution in action, while the remarkably rapid breakthroughs in developing vaccines are thanks in large measure to the flourishing field of modern genomics. Dr. Miller’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_R._Miller Kitzmiller V. Dover Area School District Trial Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District ‘Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial’ documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2xyrel-2vI Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
58:29
July 07, 2021
Episode 5 - The Science of Sleep with Dr. Raphael Vallat
Episode 5 - The Science of Sleep with Dr. Raphael Vallat
According to William Shakespeare in Macbeth, sleep “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care.” As with so many other aspects of the human condition, The Bard articulated a profound truth with that line. To help unravel the myriad of facets appertaining to sleep revealed by the latest scientific research, I spoke to Dr. Raphael Vallat, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Matthew Walker’s lab, the Center for Human Sleep Science, at UC Berkley. Yes, that Matthew Walker, author of the best-selling, Why We Sleep, which significantly deepened my understanding of this inordinately necessary physiological process. After inquiring about his background and to reflect on the scientific method, I asked Dr. Vallat why we need to sleep at all. As he pointed out, even though no single dispositive answer to this question has yet been settled upon, it appears that sleep “impacts all the major physiological systems” and is “very important for learning and memory.” We spoke at some length about the stages of sleep, which are divided broadly, but not too imaginatively, into Non-REM and REM sleep. REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, sleep remains something of a mystery and is an active area of ongoing research. In fact, Dr. Vallat described it as “one of the greatest mysteries” and admitted that scientists are still not sure why we have it, although some clues have been uncovered. Unfortunately for those like me who enjoy the odd tipple at night, alcohol is severely disruptive to REM sleep. Other topics we discussed include how scientists know that we need between seven and nine hours of sleep, the nature of chronotypes, the exceedingly rare gene variant that enables those who possess it to sleep less than the average person, whether it is possible to sleep too much, and the function of dreams. The last major topic we discussed was how to achieve better sleep, which prompted Dr. Vallat to provide many helpful pointers. Links: Dr. Raphael Vallat’s personal website: https://raphaelvallat.com/ Dr. Vallat’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/RaphaelVallat Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Why-We-Sleep/Matthew-Walker/9781501144325 10 Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep from the National Sleep Foundation: https://www.thensf.org/sleep-tips/ The STOP-BANG questionnaire (a free screening tool for sleep apnea): http://www.stopbang.ca/osa/screening.php Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1 Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
01:15:49
June 30, 2021
Episode 4 - The Idiot Brain with Dean Burnett (Part 2)
Episode 4 - The Idiot Brain with Dean Burnett (Part 2)
Welcome to the second interview with neuroscientist Dean Burnett. It is not absolutely imperative that you listen to our first discussion before moving onto this one, as this episode can stand on its own, but I would suggest listening to both. Once again, we focus predominantly on his first book, The Idiot Brain, although on occasion we drift beyond its confines. I began by asking Burnett to explain the so-called Five Factor Model of Personality, which led on to a discussion about the serious flaws of most personality tests, in particular the hugely popular Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I raised the issue of the inherent difficulty of conducting social psychology research and asked my guest about which major findings in the field still hold up. As in the first interview episode of Skeptically Curious with David Robert Grimes, I asked Dean Burnett why he did not devote an entire chapter of The Idiot Brain to religion. He did, however, mention apophenia and pareidolia in that book, which we briefly discuss. We spent quite a bit of time delving into various facets of intelligence research, including the widespread bias among many in the public against IQ tests, and indeed intelligence more broadly, the general factor, or g factor of intelligence, the difference between fluid and crystallised intelligence, and whether it is possible to increase one’s fluid intelligence based on research cited in a book by Dan Hurley called ‘Smarter’ I read earlier this year. I also asked Burnett about the Flynn Effect, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and EQ, or emotional intelligence. Dean argued that the supposed division between EQ and IQ largely rests on a false dichotomy of someone either possessing intellect or emotional awareness, which is not necessarily the case, a point I thought was really important to emphasise. The two of us then spoke about the stigma that still surrounds mental health, particularly depression, although as Burnett noted, this has improved over the years. He drew an intriguing parallel between the discomfort often engendered by people with high intellects and those with, for example, depression, or other mental health ailments, as there is still something unsettlingly inaccessible, or even mysterious, about the brain’s complicated operations. I asked Burnett about the validity of the theory linking depression to inflammation and possible alternative treatments to the condition beyond anti-depressants. Lastly, I asked my guest to provide some insight into the ingredients for a happy brain, incidentally the title of his second book. Dean Burnett’s personal website: https://www.deanburnett.com/  Twitter: https://twitter.com/garwboy The Idiot Brain (2016): https://www.deanburnett.com/book/the-idiot-brain/ The Happy Brain (2018): https://www.deanburnett.com/book/the-happy-brain/ Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It (2019): https://www.deanburnett.com/book/why-your-parents-are-driving-you-up-the-wall-and-what-to-do-about-it/ Psycho-Logical (2021): https://www.deanburnett.com/book/psycho-logical-audiobook/ Dan Hurley’s ‘Smarter’ (2013): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18079605-smarter Stuart Ritchie’s ‘Intelligence: All that Matters’ (2015): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25356335-intelligence
01:07:54
June 23, 2021
Episode 3 - The Idiot Brain with Dean Burnett (Part 1)
Episode 3 - The Idiot Brain with Dean Burnett (Part 1)
In this first of a two-part series of interviews with neuroscientist Dean Burnett, we primarily discussed topics covered in his impressively informative and delightfully entertaining freshman effort, The Idiot Brain (2016). It is the sort of popular science book that I would happily recommend even to those who don’t usually read non-fiction. As I again found upon re-reading the book for this interview, The Idiot Brain is in parts laugh-out loud hilarious. The book is also an excellent primer on many major findings in psychology and neuroscience. Even for those who might consider themselves well-versed in this area will almost certainly learn something new. If not, then at the very least the tour through our brain’s many quirks that Burnett offers is more entertaining than anything you are likely to have read previously. My guest began our conversation by explaining how his background growing up in a Welsh village, which was literally located in a dead end, influenced his career choice. Burnett then told me more about his side gig as a comedian and teased out the connections between neuroscience and comedy, two areas that rarely go together. After being prompted to do so, he gave his take on the scientific method, interestingly stressing the null hypothesis as a key element. I asked him how he had the temerity to write a book on the idiocy of the supposedly magnificent organ that is the human brain. I then inquired about whether the brain should be seen as devoted primarily to monitoring the body’s many physiological systems, as renowned neuroscientist Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett argues. We also discussed whether the metaphor of a reptile brain makes sense, the differences between the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system, which includes the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and clarified a few neuroanatomical issues pertaining to the number of neurons and glial cells in the brain, as well as the labels for the four lobes, or cortices. The two of us spent quite some time delving into the senses, in particular various facets of vision, but also made note of how smell is probably the oldest evolved sense, its relationship to taste, and the connection between hearing and touch. Lastly, we spoke about memory, an area rife with foibles and misunderstandings, particularly around amnesia. The last important point to note is that I seem to have an unfortunate tendency to say “fantastic” far too often, so apologies for the adjectival repetitiveness. Dean Burnett’s personal website: https://www.deanburnett.com/ Brain Yapping blog: https://cosmicshambles.com/words/blogs/deanburnett Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/DeanBurnettAuthor/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/garwboy The Idiot Brain (2016): https://www.deanburnett.com/book/the-idiot-brain/ Psycho-Logical (2021): https://www.deanburnett.com/book/psycho-logical-audiobook/
01:22:45
June 17, 2021
Episode 2 - Communicating climate change, countering denialism, and the importance of scientific consensus (with John Cook)
Episode 2 - Communicating climate change, countering denialism, and the importance of scientific consensus (with John Cook)
In this episode, I spoke to John Cook who, for almost a decade and a half, has tirelessly tried to raise awareness of the seriousness of climate change, to highlight the consensus view among climate scientists, and to combat climate change denialism. In 2007 he founded the website, Skeptical Science, which is an invaluable resource for all those interested in a readily accessible summary of the evidence for anthropogenic global warming and rebuttals to all the major, and even minor, talking points promoted by those who persist in denying the evidence for human-mediated climate change. He first earned a degree in physics and later a PhD in cognitive psychology and has previously held academic posts as a researcher in climate change communication at the University of Queensland and George Mason University, among other institutions. When I spoke to him, he was about to take up a new position at Monash University in his native Australia. John is perhaps best known for a paper he co-authored in 2013 showing that 97% of climate scientists agree humans are behind the global warming trend measured since the late 1700s. Naturally, due to its prominence in his career, we discussed this paper and some of the reactions to it, but explored many other topics as well. These included his opinion on the defining features of the scientific method, a brief summary of how we know that humans are behind the climate change trend currently observed globally, tactics adopted by those who deny climate change, leading to a discussion of the FLICC model that he conceptualised highlighting the chief methods employed by denialists, Cook’s contention that science denial is essentially consensus denial, whether we are inevitably doomed to a future resembling a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style hellscape, his opinion about whether the climate crisis is inextricably bound up with the economic imperatives of capitalism, the claim increasingly made by scientists that reducing meat consumption is a way to curb climate change, and whether we should think seriously about limiting population growth. In addition, I asked him about whether humans are even psychologically equipped to face up to an unprecedented threat such as climate change, which is widely, although unevenly, distributed across the world and demands taking into account long time scales and future generations. Despite the doom and gloom aspects of this topic, which as you can probably tell I did not shy away from in the slightest, John remains optimistic and urged everyone to try to do what they can to make a positive difference. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with someone who communicates his insights clearly and carefully, and displays a refreshing humility in admitting when he is not fully knowledgeable about a topic. He embodies the kind of intellectual honesty and fundamental decency we need more of in this world. Skeptical Science: https://skepticalscience.com The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism: https://skepticalscience.com/The-Scientific-Guide-to-Global-Warming-Skepticism.html Cranky Uncle game and book: https://crankyuncle.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnfocook
01:12:24
June 10, 2021
Episode 1 - The Irrational Ape with David Robert Grimes (Part 1)
Episode 1 - The Irrational Ape with David Robert Grimes (Part 1)
For this first uploaded interview, I was exceedingly pleased to be joined by David Robert Grimes, author of The Irrational Ape. Not only is the book brilliantly written, deftly argued, and infused with a wry wit, it is punctuated throughout with a welter of memorable anecdotes and narratives to embroider and vividly illustrate the many logical fallacies and irrationalities Grimes so cogently explicates. The Irrational Ape explores, among other subjects, the basics of how to make a sound argument, the many distortions and illogical leaps inherent to conspiracy thinking, the use and misuse of statistics, and the role of the media, both institutional and social, in exacerbating many of our worst irrational attributes. In this conversation, the first of a two-part series, we began by discussing Dr. Grimes' background before I asked him about the ingredients of a sound argument, involving as it does not only a logically valid structure, but also true premises. I then inquired about the formal fallacies dubbed denying the antecedent, also known as the inverse error, and affirming the consequent, also referred to as the converse error, in particular how the latter is related to conspiracy thinking. We spent some time delving into the nature of conspiratorial ideation and I asked him about his paper, ‘On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs,’ in which he set out to mathematically determine the likelihood that a grand conspiracy involving hundreds of thousands of people could possibly remain secret for decades. I asked Dr. Grimes why, in a book titled The Irrational Ape, he did not devote a chapter expressly to religion. Such a question, and the discussion that ensued, will no doubt upset and offend many people, but please note this podcast is not a safe space, particularly not for unsound notions with such a destructive and irrational pedigree. We then moved on to discuss some informal fallacies, including the argument from authority and the ad hominem, both of which are not always as straightforward as they appear at first blush, as both of us agreed. In closing, I asked my guest to make a pitch for skepticism as it relates to the scientific method. He provided an inspiringly eloquent articulation of the life affirming grandeur revealed by the scientific worldview as it peers into nature’s deepest reality. As Dr. Grimes reminds us, this reality entails the astounding fact that we are all of us star dust. There is, in short, both majesty and poetry in science, which remains unrivalled in its capacity to uncover the universe’s inner workings and reveal our truest selves. Official website: https://www.davidrobertgrimes.com/ Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Robert_Grimes Twitter account: http://www.twitter.com/drg1985 Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/david_robert_grimes/ Academic paper, ‘On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs’: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0147905 Buy The Irrational Ape: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Irrational-Ape-Flawed-Critical-Thinking/dp/1471178250 https://www.waterstones.com/books/search/term/the+irrational+ape+david+robert+grimes
01:26:45
June 07, 2021
Welcome to Skeptically Curious!
Welcome to Skeptically Curious!
Hello, my name is Ryan Rutherford and welcome to this short introduction for a new podcast, Skeptically Curious. So why this particular name? Let’s first start with the adjective, curious. Like many people, I have an insatiable curiosity about many subjects, and in my case, this includes politics, philosophy, history, literature, psychology, religion, economics, and different branches of science such as neuroscience, evolutionary biology, climate science, and physics. The main reason for deciding to launch this new podcast venture is because I would love to further indulge my curiosity and, in the process, hopefully continue to inform and educate myself, as well as any potential listeners. Now for the adverb. The term skeptic is often bandied about, but as with the way theory has a different meaning when employed by scientists than it does in everyday usage, I have a rather more specific definition in mind. The skepticism I hope to bring to bear in my interviews and to promote through this podcast is the kind associated with the scientific method. In fact, skepticism is crucial to assessing the validity of claims and being guided by empiricism. The word scepticism is derived from a Greek term, skeptomai, which means to “consider carefully.” Paul Kurtz, the secular humanist and philosopher, described a sceptic as someone “who is willing to question any claim to truth, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic and adequacy in evidence. The use of scepticism is thus an essential part of objective scientific inquiry and the search for reliable knowledge.” Here my interest in science should become clearer in that I consider the scientific method to be the supreme epistemological framework ever devised by human beings to apprehend the natural world, a point I will make repeatedly in the episodes that follow. There is simply no other game in town, as it were, to reliably discover the nature of reality. This is an ever-ongoing process, however, because even though the scientific revolution has expanded our knowledge further than ever before, much yet remains to be deciphered in the grand book of nature. Other elements integral to scientifically-informed skepticism include critical thinking, rationality, and logic, all essential tools necessary to think more clearly and understand more fully. The last major theme worth noting and related to the kind of skepticism I just hinted at, is that of universality. This is a cornerstone value of the Enlightenment project that emerged in Europe in the 18th century, but which is still unfolding into the present, and probably always will so long as any society has room for improvement. The universal values associated with the Enlightenment, and which still carry immense relevance, include democracy, secularism, free speech, individual liberty, legal equality of the sexes, freedom of the press, and, crucially, the scientific method. If anyone can make a coherent argument about why any culture or country anywhere would not be better applying Enlightenment principles, enshrined perhaps most vividly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights first promulgated in 1948, I would love to hear it. Furthermore, there is a link between universalism and science, as renowned sociologist Robert Merton identified this aspect as one of the essential characteristics of the scientific method in ‘The Normative Structure of Science.’ The others were communalism, disinterestedness, and organised skepticism. Taken together, I can think of few better values to strive towards than those. Lastly, if this podcast were to have a tagline, which many seem to have, it would be my hope for everyone listening, including yours truly, to “know more and think better.” So please join me on this new journey as we engage and broaden our skeptical curiosity.
06:55
June 04, 2021