Rationally Speaking Podcast

A Science, Medicine and Society podcast featuring
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If the recent hoopla about the royal wedding wasn’t enough to remind you, we live in a culture of celebrity, one where famous people command our attention and often pontificate on things they know nothing about. Obvious examples include the nonsense spewed out by Prince Charles about alternative medicine, and the former model Jenny McCarthy and her dangerous notion that vaccines are harmful because they cause autism. But these, of course, are easy targets. What are we to make of Ray Kurzweil (he of Singularity fame), who recently co-authored a book with a homeopath? Or of otherwise savvy political commentator Bill Maher, who doesn’t trust vaccines or anything coming from “Western” medicine? And then there are highly respectable intellectuals, like Stephen Hawking, who write off entire fields of inquiry (philosophy, in his case), without apparently knowing much about them. So what is going on here? Why do so many people listen to Jenny McCarthy? And why do so many bright minds go public with ridiculous notions? Is there a pattern? Can we do something to defend ourselves and the public from the celebrity attack on reason?
In a recent article in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade reported that the American Anthropological Association had decided “to strip the word ‘science’ from a statement of its long-range plan.” Is this just a reflection of the long standing division between physical and cultural anthropology or is there more here? The revised statement says that “the purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects,” a wording that opens the possibility for cultural anthropologists to engage in public advocacy on behalf of cultures they are studying. So, what kind of discipline is anthropology, after all? And, more broadly, should scientists cross the line from research into public advocacy?
Philosophers are often accused of engaging in armchair speculation, as far removed from reality as possible. The quintessential example of this practice is the thought experiment, which many scientists sneer at precisely because it doesn’t require one to get one’s hands dirty. And yet scientists have often engaged in thought experiments, some of which have marked major advances in our understanding of the world. Just consider the famous example of Galileo’s thought experiment demonstrating (rather counter intuitively) that two objects of different weight must fall at the same speed. And, perhaps more famously, Einstein's light thought experiments, which lead him to the formulation of the theory of relativity. And then, there are the other kind, like philosopher David Chalmers' famous thought experiment about zombies and the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness. Chalmers comes up with an (admittedly ingenious) little story, and we are supposed to deduce from it the momentous conclusion that there is more than matter/energy to the universe? Still, there are plenty of good thought experiments in philosophy, beginning with the so-called trolley dilemmas meant to probe our moral intuitions.
The focus of this episode is Massimo's new book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. The book, broadly speaking, is about what philosopher Karl Popper famously called the demarcation problem: how do we tell the difference among science, non-science and pseudoscience? We explore the complex relationship among these, ranging from solid science like fundamental physics and evolutionary biology to definite pseudosciences like astrology and creationism. In the middle are the more interesting borderline areas that include the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, and even superstring theory, to name but a few. We also discuss other topics covered in the book, including the whole issue of expertise and Think Tanks, which plays such an important role especially in media presentations of issues such as evolution, climate change, HIV-AIDS, or the alleged connection between vaccines and autism. Julia and Massimo also address the ultimate question about pseudoscience: why do we care?
In this episode we tackle the never ending debate about free will, which David Hume famously defined as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” We do this with a couple of twists. We begin by examining the concept of free will from the standard philosophical perspective, then ask what — if anything — modern neuroscience can tell us about it, and come back to the interface between philosophy and science to explore how the two approaches may complement each other.
Cordelia Fine joins us from Melbourne, Australia to discuss her book: "Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences." Sex discrimination is supposedly a distant memory, yet popular books, magazines and even scientific articles increasingly defend inequalities by citing immutable biological differences between the male and female brain. That’s the reason, we’re told, that there are so few women in science and engineering and so few men in the laundry room — different brains are just better suited to different things. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology, Fine sets out to rebut these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, are helping to perpetuate the sexist status quo. Cordelia Fine studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, followed by an M.Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University. She was awarded a Ph.D in Psychology from University College London. She is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics at Macquarie University, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her previous book is "A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives."
In a continuation of episode 28, Massimo and Julia sit down for a Q&A session in front of a live audience at the Jefferson Market Library in New York City. The audience's questions include whether economics and evolutionary psychology are really science, what's the deal with the placebo effect, the influence of corporate money on scientific research, and how can some scientists publish legitimate research and still believe in pseudo-science. Also, vegetarianism: is it about science, ethics, or both?
What's so great about being human, anyway? The transhumanist movement -- epitomized by organizations like Humanity+ and blogs like Accelerating Future -- advocate the pursuit of technologies to fundamentally change the human condition, tinkering with our brain, bodies and genomes to make ourselves smarter, stronger, happier, and longer-lived. But many people worry that tampering with human nature could have dire consequences for individuals and society alike. In Our Posthuman Future, political theorist Francis Fukuyama sums up the position of the bioconservatives when he warns that new technologies may "in some way cause us to lose our humanity -- that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going," he writes. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia ask, first, are the goals of transhumanism realistic, and second, are they desirable?
Ever notice how some beliefs only seem to become stronger, even as they're repeatedly debunked? For example, the belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that Bush banned all stem cell research in the country. Brendan Nyhan tells about what he's learned from his research studies and his experience maintaining Spinsanity, a watchdog blog monitoring political misinformation. Is there any hope of clearing up false beliefs if denials simply make the problem worse? Brendan does offer hope, but it won't be easy. Brendan Nyhan is a a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan. He received a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Duke University in May 2009. In 2011, He will join the Department of Government at Dartmouth College as an assistant professor. His research focuses on political scandal and misperceptions. He also conducts research on social networks and applied statistical methods.
You’ve heard the claims: men are inclined to cheat on women because natural selection favors multiple offspring from multiple mates, especially if you don’t have to pay child support. Even rape has been suggested to be the result of natural selection in favor of “secondary mating strategies” when the primary ones fail. Welcome to evolutionary psychology, a discipline curiously situated at the interface between evolutionary science and pop psychology, where both wild and reasonable claims seem to clash against the wall of an incredible scarcity of pertinent data. The issue is not whether it makes sense to apply evolutionary principles to the study of human behavior. Of course it does, human beings are no exception to evolution. But the devil is in the details, and the details deal with the complexities and nuances of how exactly evolutionary biologists test adaptive hypotheses, as well as with the nature of historical science itself.
In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Caltech physicist Sean Carroll describes an "embarrassing" state of affairs in modern physics: that we still don't know how to interpret quantum mechanics, almost a century after its discovery. Sean explains why he thinks the "Many Worlds Interpretation" (MWI) is the most plausible one we've got, and Julia explores his thoughts on questions like: Can MWI be tested? Is it "simpler" than other interpretations, and why? And does MWI threaten to destroy our systems of ethics? Sean Michael Carroll is a research professor in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. He is a theoretical cosmologist specializing in dark energy and general relativity.
It’s very easy to make fun of not-so-educated people who reject evolution, but what happens when one of the most prominent contemporary philosophers, Jerry Fodor, writes a book about “What Darwin Got Wrong”? Similarly, we can dismiss extreme right wing politician like Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who thinks global warming is a worldwide conspiracy of crazy scientists bent on destroying the American way of life. But what happens when two icons of the skeptic movement, Penn & Teller, do a whole show in which they completely deny all the well established evidence of anthropogenic climate change. And of course it is easy to laugh at Jenny McCarthy, the kook who claims (with Oprah Winfrey’s support) that she “just knows” that vaccines cause autism. But, what happens when a politically savvy atheist like Bill Maher says that people who get flu shots are “idiots?"
"Accommodationist" is a word that began to appear in recent months during public debates over science and religion. The derogatory term has been applied to atheists and rationalists like Eugenie Scott, at the National Center for Science Education, and Chris Mooney, science writer at Discover Magazine, who maintain that science and faith are not necessarily incompatible. Although the debate is frequently framed as a practical one, about what the tactics of the secular movement should be, it is also a philosophical one, hinging on the question of the epistemic limits of science. In this episode, we examine the arguments being made by and against the so-called "accommodationists," and ask: Can science disprove religious and supernatural claims?
Atheists often take it as a given that the world would be better off without religion. But what does the evidence so far really say? In this episode, Massimo and Julia discuss a recent article in the Skeptical Inquirer presenting research that shows a moderate correlation between religiosity and prosocial traits like altruism. Should we doubt the research? And if not, are there other reasons to suspect that religion's net effect on the world is negative?
This episode features Jessica Flanigan, professor of normative and applied ethics, making the case that patients should have the right to take pharmaceutical drugs without needing to get a prescription from a doctor. Jessica and Julia discuss a series of related questions, such as: Should there be exceptions made for drugs that have negative repercussions on society as a whole? And what is the morally relevant difference between a doctor imposing treatment on someone without consent, and the government withholding treatment from someone without consent?
The global poverty rate has fallen significantly over the last few decades. But there's a heated debate, between people like psychologist Steven Pinker and anthropologist Jason Hickel, over how to view that fact. Is it a triumph for capitalism? Should we celebrate it, or lament the fact that rich countries aren't doing more to close the poverty gap faster? Vox journalist Dylan Matthews explains the disagreement. He and Julia discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side's argument.
It's common wisdom that spending a lot of time on your smartphone, or checking social media like Facebook and Twitter, takes a psychological toll. It makes us depressed, insecure, anxious, and isolated -- or so people say. But is there any research to back that up? Julia discusses the evidence with professor Andy Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Can we pull the world's poor out of poverty by giving them access to financial services? This episode features a conversation with economist David Roodman, formerly a fellow at the Center for Global Development and senior advisor to the Gates Foundation, currently senior advisor to the Open Philanthropy Project, and the author of Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance. Roodman casts a critical eye on the hype about microfinance as a panacea for global poverty. He and Julia explore why it's hard to design a good study, even a randomized one; three different conceptions of "development,"; and why Goodman doesn't think we should give up on microfinance altogether.
Creative geniuses are always a little bit cuckoo, right? At least, that's the impression you'd get from TV, movies, and plenty of common wisdom. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia are joined by psychologist Judith Schlesinger, author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, who explains why she thinks the "mad genius" archetype is simply the result of folklore, misunderstanding, and bad research.
In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Massimo turn their attention to connoisseurship -- or snobbery, depending on your point of view! Fine wines, bottled water, high-end audio equipment -- what all these have in common are passionate customers who are discriminating enough to pay top dollar for subtle differences between options. Or are they? This episode explores the evidence on whether connoisseurs can really tell the difference between, for example, the $7 wine and the $700 one -- or whether it's a distinction without a difference.
Just like love, motherhood, and apple pie, no one could be against fairness. No one, that is, except philosopher Stephen Asma, the author of "Against Fairness." Massimo and Julia sit down with Stephen in this episode of Rationally Speaking, to talk about what he thinks is wrong with the concept of fairness -- and about certain traditional values he thinks are more important.
The next time you're kicking yourself for some stupid mistake, remember: Even history's genuises screw up! Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio joins this episode of Rationally Speaking to talk about his latest book, "Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe." Learn about why Darwin's theory of natural selection "shouldn't" have worked, why Einstein was confused about the role of aesthetics in physics, why Hoyle stubbornly refused to change his mind about a "steady state" universe -- and why those mistakes are central to scientific progress.
For all the sniping that goes on between science and philosophy it's easy to forget that both fields are part of "scientia," the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Massimo discuss the latter's new "Scientia Salon" online journal, how the boundaries blur between math, science and philosophy, and how the Internet can change scientific research.
This episode features special guest Zach Weinersmith, author of "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal," a popular webcomic about philosophy and science. Zach clarifies his position in the ongoing "philosophy vs. science" fight, poses a question to Julia and Massimo about the ethics of offensive jokes, and discusses BAHFest, his "Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses" conference lampooning evolutionary psychology and his movie "Starpocalype." Somehow along the way, the three take a detour into discussing an unusual sexual act.
What's your IQ? Are you an ENTJ, or maybe an ISFP? What's your Openness score, your Conscientiousness score, your Neuroticism score? And just how seriously should you take all those test scores, anyway? In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia discuss the science -- and lack thereof -- of intelligence and personality testing.
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Podcast Details

Jan 21st, 2010
Latest Episode
Nov 30th, 2019
Release Period
No. of Episodes
Avg. Episode Length
About 1 hour

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