Point of Inquiry is the Center for Inquiry's flagship podcast, where the brightest minds of our time sound off on all the things you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table: science, religion, and politics.Guests have included Brian Greene, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, and Francis Collins.Point of Inquiry is produced at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y.
How humane are prisons in the U.S.? And what is their purpose – to punish or to rehabilitate? This is part one of a two-part series that dives into the prison system, what it looks like from the inside, how it destroys the lives of black and brown folks who have been overpoliced and tossed into the prison system for decades, and the work being done to counteract that system. After a field trip to a California state prison, Jim Underdown spoke to Steve Hill about his frank experiences as a prison security guard and what he thinks about the future of the prison system. Steve Hill is an atheist activist, Comedian politician, a former marine, and former prison security guard who worked in the California penal system as a prison guard for ten years.
Even though there’s growing awareness that race is a social construct — it defies biological definition — it’s really hard to let go of a concept that feels so real. There’s also a temptation for progressive, more or less decent human beings, who wouldn’t consider themselves racist, to define racism as something that happens on the far right, among Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and people sporting MAGA hats. Turns out that’s not the case. At all. One of the most pervasive issues when it comes to race is the science. What does the history of race science have to do with today’s science on human variation? Why do modern scientists need to grapple with the legacy of racial definition and oppression? How does the centuries-old mythology of race impact the practice of medicine well into the 21st century? On this episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy speaks with author Angela Saini about her book Superior: The Return of Race Science. The Telegraph advises “philosophically and historically uneducated scientists” along with those with “more murky motivations” to read this “brilliant and devastating” book. While you’re here, we’d like to give a shout-out to the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia. While Kavin was researching the episode, she realized that Superior didn’t have a page on Wikipedia. She alerted GSoW’s Rob Palmer and their team had a page up within 48 hours! The Scientific American blog post mentioned in the episode, “The Internet Is a Cesspool of Racist Pseudoscience,” can be found here.
Point of Inquiry co-host Kavin Senapathy has covered food and agriculture for years, and if she’s learned one thing, it’s that people’s views on farming are rife with misconceptions. The conversation around food is complex, and involves a slew of gray areas and mountains of data. Enter Dr. Sarah Taber. She’s the host of the Farm to Taber Podcast, a farm and food systems strategist, and one of Twitter’s most prolific and eye-opening agriculture myth-busters. Taber’s work has included food safety, regulatory compliance, crop care, and making work flows as efficient as possible in farms and facilities. On this episode, Kavin speaks with Dr. Taber on agriculture and the myth of the destruction of family farms. Part of this myth involves tackling whether big agribusiness destroyed these farms, and what sharecropping has to do with it. Topics also include how racism against various ethnicities displaced our country's farmworkers, what really separates family and corporate farming, and the current narrative around field automation.
This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes actor, comedian, and former Jehovah's Witness, Jerry Minor. Minor has been a cast member and writer on Saturday Night Live and appeared on HBO's Mr. Show and various other television and film spots throughout his career. He joins Jim Underdown to dive into his life during and after being a Jehovah’s Witness. They also get into how the Jehovah's Witness religion drove Minor to attempt suicide, the different Christianity sects and how Minor views them as cults, and how his past faith has shaped his career as a comedian and entertainer. Together with friend, Tony Ortega, Underdown and Minor host their own podcast, The Cult Awareness Podcast, where they explore the latest in cult news. Please share this episode either through a tweet, email, facebook, postcard, or letter with friends and family. Your support helps the show and we appreciate it.
How well do you think you can assess risk? The evidence is clear that humans are innately poor at assessing risk in our personal lives, in part due to how our brains are wired, and that can make it challenging to make informed decisions about everything from vaccines and medicines to diet and children’s safety. Errors in risk perception can be a problem when we worry more than the evidence says we need to, or less than the evidence says we should. On this week’s episode, Kavin Senapathy speaks with neuroscientist Alison Bernstein and biologist Iida Ruishalme, who teamed up to write a series of articles titled “Risk In Perspective.” The interview takes listeners through key concepts in risk and risk perception, including the difference between hazard and risk, and whether zero risk is ever really possible. How can putting risk into perspective inform regulatory actions? How does environmental justice tie into health and risk perception? How are marketers taking advantage of our inability to accurately assess risk? One thing is clear—you won’t want to risk missing out on this conversation. ison's piece on how "Safety" is defined in a regulatory setting. What was that great music you heard? "Wahre" by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0 “Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0 “Vittoro” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes comedian, monologist, and atheist, Julia Sweeney. Many may know Sweeney from her time on Saturday Night Live, her appearances on NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, and from her current roles on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Hulu's Shrill. Jim Underdown sat down with Sweeney at CFI West to discuss her time working on SNL, dealing with her catholic faith after the passing of her brother to cancer, how Carl Sagan, Michael Shermer, and CFI helped her become an atheist, her experiences navigating Hollywood as a non-believer, and her conflicting opinions surrounding the Me Too movement after her good friend, Al Franken was accused of misconduct. If you've never seen it before, Sweeney's, "Letting Go of God" talk is highly recommended for those who became atheists after living with a religious point of view. You can find Sweeney on twitter: @JIsbackintown.
Why do people love the taste of Umami but avoid monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is the purest form of Umami on Earth? In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy speaks with experts on MSG— which was first isolated by Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda— to explore this culinary and scientific disconnect. Tia Rains, PhD, is currently Senior Director of Public Relations at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition (Ajinomoto was founded in 1907 to manufacture and sell Ikeda’s MSG). She has over 20 years of experience in the fields of food and nutrition. Mary Lee Chin MS, RD, has been involved in dietetics for over 40 years. She consults with food industry and commodity groups; including Monsanto, Ajinomoto, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. In 1968, a letter was published in the New England Journal of Medicine about “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, and general weakness and palpitation” after eating food from Chinese restaurants. The letter spurred decades of research into the so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” What does the science say about MSG, what roles do marketing and branding play, and what do mice have to do with all of this? Links Mentioned in this Episode The Truth About MSG and Your Health - Written by Kavin Senapathy - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERVRjAYBOp0 Accent Flavor Enhancer - https://www.accentflavor.com/product/flavor-enhancer Does monosodium glutamate really cause headache? : a systematic review of human studies - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4870486/
The Center for Inquiry has filed a lawsuit against Walmart for deceiving its customers with marketing, labeling, and product placement that present homeopathic medicines as equivalent and effective alternatives to science-based medicines with tested active ingredients. The lawsuit argues that this is not only consumer fraud, but also endangers the health of the people who purchase homeopathic remedies thinking that they contain actual medicine. The suit against Walmarts comes just a few months after the Center for Inquiry filed a similar lawsuit against CVS for fraud over the sale of fake homeopathic drugs. In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy speaks with Nick Little, Center for Inquiry's legal director and general counsel, on the history of homeopathy and how it differs from other kinds of alternative medicines, and why CFI is bringing a suit against the nation's largest retailer. They also discuss the responsibility retailers have to provide truthful information to their consumers, and what exactly is in the homeopathic flu remedy Oscillococcinum. Continue below to find the links mentioned in this episode. Links Mentioned in this Episode McGill Homeopathy Study Fast Company profiling the Center for Inquiry's suit against Walmart NPR interview with Nick Little New music heard on this episode "Wahre" by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0 “Building the Sled” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
Science for the People began as a group in 1969 that grew out of the anti-war movement and lasted until 1989. SftP has been rebirthed for a new generation of SftP members to explore the history of radical science and to rebuild the movement for today. In this week's episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy speaks with two SftP members, biologist, Ben Allen and neuroscientist, Katherine Bryant. If science is a form of knowledge production and the knowledge being produced only focuses on a particular set of people, that knowledge can then tend to become skewed towards those groups and lead to reinforcing biases. This is only one of the topics explored on this week's episode as these two representatives from the radical science organization, Science for the People explore the problems with science, why there needs to be more inclusivity in the field, and why the people who support pseudoscientific beliefs like genetic determinism and climate denial are much more harmful to us all than flat earthers and those who believe in healing crystals. Learn more about Science for the People by visiting their website: scienceforthepeople.org If this work interests you and you'd like to read more you can purchase one of the books mentioned on the show, Science for the People: Documents from America's Movement of Radical Scientists or visit Science for the People's new magazine that's full of informative articles and news at magazine.scienceforthepeople.org You can find Science for the People on Twitter: @sftporg
On this week's episode of Point of Inquiry, Jim Underdown speaks with longtime friend, actor, writer, and comedian Matt Walsh. This episode may be different from what you're used to as we take a break from examining science, culture, and religion and instead give you the chance to get to know one of Point of Inquiry's new hosts. Underdown has been close friends with Matt Walsh for over 30 years. Many may know Walsh from his role as Mike McLintock on the show Veep, which recently aired its series finale. The two grew up in Chicago where they both performed improv comedy before Walsh went on to form the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City along with members Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, and Ian Roberts. Walsh has appeared in numerous films, television shows, and has toured the country performing. He also is involved with various charities and socially impactful causes like The Awesome Foundation and Defy Ventures, which aims to end mass incarceration and the recidivism rate. You can find Walsh on Twitter: @mrmattwalsh
On this week's episode of Point of Inquiry, Dr. Jenny Yip discusses OCD and anxiety and the widespread impact these can have on our lives as well as how they're exhibited in different people. Kavin Senapathy and Dr. Yip share their own experiences with OCD and anxiety disorders and Dr. Yip shares her insight into effective and ineffective treatments for OCD and anxiety. You can find out more about Dr. Yip's work by listening to her podcast, The Stress-Less Life. You can also follow her on Twitter: @DrJennyYip
This week’s episode of Point of Inquiry Jim Underdown speaks with Carol Tavris, social psychologist and author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Avrum Bluming, hematologist, medical oncologist, and emeritus clinical professor at USC about the common myth in the medical field surrounding the link between breast cancer and estrogen. The talk centers around their recent book, Estrogen Matters which examines the practice of administering estrogen to women suffering from symptoms of menopause and the push back they received due to a long-held misconception that estrogen leads to an increased chance of contracting breast cancer. Tavris and Bluming's work illustrates the important need for critical thinking, especially in the area of health where people's well-being is constantly at stake and how people will often times not accept information when it is in their best interest to do so.
This week's episode of Point of Inquiry is our final episode recorded from CSICon 2018. We're closing this series of interviews with Professor Massimo Pigliucci who discusses his ideas on scientism and how it's used by people like Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Dawkins with host Kavin Senapathy. Also featured on this episode is Professor Susan Blackmore who discusses her out of body experiences and whose research has centered around consciousness, memes, and subjectivity. Prof. Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism. Susan Blackmore is a psychologist, lecturer, and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She is a TED lecturer, blogs for the Guardian, and often appears on radio and television. The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into 16 other languages; more recent books include Conversations on Consciousness (2005), Zen and the Art of Consciousness (2011), Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences (2017) and a textbook Consciousness: An Introduction (3rd Ed 2018). New music heard on this episode "Paper Feather" by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0 Sign up for the Point of Inquiry email newsletter and receive updates on brand new episodes and special POI updates.
On this week's episode of Point of Inquiry, we are thrilled to have friend of the Center for Inquiry, Susan Gerbic to talk about the recent New York Times featured story that detailed Gerbic and her team's work exposing celebrity psychics. Kavin Senapathy and Gerbic also explore why exposing fake psychics and mediums is important, the methodologies Gerbic and her team employ in these kinds of sting operations, how psychics performed hot reads before the days of the internet (and exactly what a hot read is), and the issues that arise from companies giving mediums and psychics platforms. Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer (CSICOP) and Skepticality Podcast. She is the winner of the CSI In the Trenches Award from 2012, James Randi Award for Skepticism in the Public Interest 2013. In 2018, Susan founded and manages About Time a non-profit organization focusing on scientific skepticism and activism.
Mark Boslough is a Caltech-trained physicist and CSI Fellow who spent 34 years at Sandia National Laboratories doing research on hypervelocity impacts, energetic materials, explosions, and global risk from asteroid impacts and climate change. He has participated in many science documentaries with field expeditions to airburst locations including the Libyan Desert of Egypt in 2006, Tunguska in 2008, Chelyabinsk in 2013, and the Nevada Test Site in 2017. Underdown sits down with Boslough to refute the ridiculous beliefs over climate change and what we can do now to counter the Earth's warming. They also spend time speaking about the impact asteroids have had on the Earth and clearing up definitions between asteroids and meteoroids, and comets. New music heard on this episode "Wahre" by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0 "SuzyB" by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0 Receive alerts on new episodes and special updates by signing up for the Point of Inquiry email newsletter.
We find ourselves in the information age among many who, although have the access to proper and accurate scientific information, choose not to believe it. What causes the parents of a newborn to avoid vaccines? Where do the misconceptions of genetics originate? Today on Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy talks with Carl Zimmer and Dr. Paul A Offit while at CSICon 2018 about their research into vaccinations, science denial, and how some groups in the US have tried to use genes and heredity to argue in favor of white supremacy. Carl Zimmer is an award-winning New York Times columnist and the author of 13 books about science. His newest book is She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity You can find Zimmer on twitter: twitter.com/carlzimmer Paul A. Offit, MD is the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as well as the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and a Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Offit has published more than 160 papers in medical and scientific journals in the areas of rotavirus-specific immune responses and vaccine safety. He is also the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, RotaTeq. You can find Offit on twitter: twitter.com/DrPaulOffit Receive alerts on new episodes and special updates by signing up for the Point of Inquiry email newsletter. New music heard on this episode "Wahre by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
The world of skeptical investigation is full of interesting personalities full of stories about their run-ins with ghost chasers, debunking charlatans, and dealing with "magic". Today on Point of Inquiry, Jim Underdown talks with Massimo Polidoro and Kenny Biddle while at CSICon 2018 about what they've been through as two of the top investigators in the skeptic movement. In this episode, Massimo speaks about the fascinating details around the life of genius, Leonardo da Vinci and about his new book, Leonardo. Jim and Massimo also speak about Massimo's training under James Randi to be a magician and about Sherlock Holme's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle and his fascination with the occult and spiritualism, specifically Conan Doyle's fascination with The Cottingley Fairies and Princess Mary's Gift Book. Jim and Kenny speak about Kenny's work with Skeptical Inquirer, The Independent Investigations Group, and Kenny's previous life as a ghost chaser. Massimo Polidoro is a writer and an internationally recognized “mystery detective.” He began his career as James Randi’s apprentice and is the cofounder and head of the Italian skeptics group CICAP. He is a TV personality in Italy, a research fellow for CSI, and a longtime columnist for its magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer. He is starting a new series, “Stranger Stories”, on his YouTube channel. You can find Massimo on twitter: twitter.com/massimopolidoro Kenny Biddle is a science enthusiast and skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. He’s been involved in photography for over twenty years. He applies his knowledge, experience, and critical thinking skills to analyzing alleged paranormal photographs and video to determine the most plausible causes. His work has been featured in several skeptical publications. Find him on twitter: twitter.com/kennybiddle42 New music heard on this episode "The Time To Run (Finale)" by Dexter Britain / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 "Wahre by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0
Dr. Jen Gunter is an OB/GYN, pain medicine physician, and Twitter's resident gynecologist. She blogs and also writes The Cycle, a column on the intersection sex, science, and society, for the New York Times. One day she hopes to ask Gwyneth Paltrow for the physics equation that explains how a jade egg can be recharged with lunar energy. Abby Hafer is an author, scientist, educator, and public speaker. Her scientific career includes a doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and teaching human anatomy and physiology at Curry College. She has recently broadened her scope to include crushing the gender binary using biology, and giving the same treatment to morality based on the supernatural. This week on Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapthy speaks to Jen Gunter and Abby Hafer (recorded during CSICon 2018). Jen chats about how she combats misinformation from Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop and the settlement the company had to pay for fraudulent health claims linked to their magical Jade Eggs. She also points us to theGoopJadeEgg best resources for accurate, evidence-based information on women’s reproductive health and birth control. American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists World Health Organization Planned Parenthood National Library of Medicine U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Kavin and Abby recount their experiences at California Freethought Day, talk about the Tetrahymena thermophila microbe, and and how the Pulse nightclub mass shooting and various bathroom bills around the US led to her CSICon 2018 gender binary talk, which you can watch here.
As science standards across the country improve to include middle school standards on evolution, more and more teachers are teaching evolution for the first time and the battle to teach sound science moves into the individual classrooms themselves. The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) is a program of the Center for Inquiry. TIES seeks to helps teachers teach evolution by providing them with the content and resources to do so effectively. In just three and a half years, TIES has grown from a powerful idea shared by Richard Dawkins and Bertha Vazquez to a network of over fifty teachers who have presented over 100 professional development workshops in over 40 states. TIES Director Bertha Vazquez has been teaching middle school science in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for 27 years. An educator with National Board Certification, she is the recipient of several national and local honors, including the 2014 Samsung’s $150,000 Solve For Tomorrow Contest and the $5,000 Charles C. Bartlett National Excellence in Environmental Award in 2009. Bertha sits down with one of Point of Inquiry's new hosts, Jim Underdown, to talk about her experiences with teaching science and evolution in the classroom, meeting Richard Dawkins, and her favorite TIES moment.
Adam Conover is the creator and host of Adam Ruins Everything, an informational comedy show that debunks common misconceptions and encourages critical thinking. The New York Times calls it “one of history’s most entertaining shows dedicated to the art of debunking” and refers to Adam as a “genial provocateur”. He is a founding member of the sketch group Olde English, who performed at HBO’s Comedy Fest in Aspen and was named “Best Sketch Group on the Web” by Cracked.com. As a standup comedian, he performs at colleges and theaters across the country. Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. His interdisciplinary research on topics like stem cells, genetics, research ethics, the public representations of science and health policy issues has allowed him to publish over 350 academic articles. He has won numerous academic and writing awards and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Trudeau Foundation and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. On this episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin speaks to Adam and Tim about their CSICon talks, Tim's new Netflix show A User's Guide to Cheating Death, and Adam's TruTV show Adam Ruins Everything and his interest in Gameboys.
In July of 2015, a spacecraft called New Horizons gave humankind its first close-up view of a small, misunderstood world called Pluto. It took almost 10 years for New Horizons to soar across more than 3 billion miles of space and give us our first meeting with Pluto and its family of moons. But that journey is just a small part of a much bigger and more harrowing story of how New Horizons came to be. It was a mission that was decades in the making, an endeavor that endured several near-death experiences, from its early planning stages all the way to the eve of its encounter with Pluto. Our guests are now telling this incredible story in the new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, having experienced this adventure first-hand and from two very different perspectives. Alan Stern is the principle investigator of the New Horizons mission, and his co-author, David Grinspoon, is an astrobiologist, author, and advisor to NASA who witnessed the New Horizons saga as it unfolded and helped to bring its story to life.
We are living in a land of confusion, as the band Genesis warned us back in 1986, but even they could not have predicted just how much more confusing things would get 31 years later. With a storm of misinformation engulfing almost every field of human endeavor, 2017 was ripe with confusion. And one of the most bewildering subjects is also one of the most personal: our health. With celebrity gurus pitching pseudoscientific nonsense, conflicting news stories about what will and won't kill you, and an entire culture of hyper-privilege teaching people to be suspicious of science, people are being made to be afraid of their food. And there's a lot of money to made off of that fear. To help us navigate these choppy waters, Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo is joined by two brilliant science communicators; Kavin Senapathy, a science and parenting columnist and co-author of The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House; and Yvette d'Entremont, better known as the SciBabe, whose writing has appeared in a variety of outlets such as The Outline, Gawker, and Cosmopolitan. The two of them will guide us through this land of confusion, and maybe, with their of smarts and humor, make this a place worth living in. Bonus for Point of Inquiry listeners: Get a special discount to purchase the new documentary Science Moms, featuring Kavin, when you use the promo code "CFI" (without quotes) at checkout.
In the post-truth world, the mainstream media is beset on all sides. Peddlers of propaganda, misinformation, and conspiracy theories seek to strip the media of its authority by creating parallel realities and fomenting anger and mistrust. At the same time, poor editorial judgments and a toxic culture of sexism have landed countless self-inflected wounds. How can a reality-based press ever hope to fulfill its mission to seek the truth, hold power accountable, and leave the public more informed? There may be no one better positioned to answer these questions than Margaret Sullivan. She's the media columnist for The Washington Post, and previously spent three and half years at The New York Times as its Public Editor, and as the first woman to be chief editor of The Buffalo News. She joins host Paul Fidalgo to talk about the crises facing journalism today, and why the reality-based press now finds itself at an inflection point: Its flaws have been exposed, and yet it is also producing some of the best journalism in ages. Can the press still deliver us the truth, or is the truth a sad casualty of a media landscape gone haywire?
It’s a big cosmos out there. It wasn’t too long ago that we couldn’t be sure that any planets existed anywhere outside of our own solar system. But in just the past handful of years, we’ve learned that planets orbiting stars are the rule, not the exception, which suggests that there may be 200 billion planets just in our galaxy alone, and trillions upon trillions of planets throughout the known universe. Surely, many of the planets in the Milky Way must be home to life forms, and even technologically advanced civilizations. So where the heck are they? Why can’t we find them? Why won’t they talk to us? Would we even know it if they did? To talk about the prospects for life on other worlds, intelligent and otherwise, Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo talks to journalist Lee Billings. Lee is a reporter and editor for Scientific American covering space and physics, as well as the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars. Billings explains how this quest, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has become increasingly daunting even as our knowledge of the cosmos grows richer. It is a quest rife with pitfalls, paradoxes, and plain old speculation, and so far, it has proven fruitless. But despite our apparent solitude, we keep looking. We keep listening. And we keep reaching out. Do we have the patience and the will to continue searching and waiting for a sign that may never come?
The modern conception of secular humanism arose in large part as a response to the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust, and the evils of racism and bigotry. Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973, called for “the elimination of all discrimination based upon race, religion, sex, age, or national origin,” and envisioned a world in which all human beings were given equal dignity within a global community. It is now two weeks since newly emboldened white supremacists, including Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, marched on Charlottesville, attacked counter-protesters, and murdered Heather Heyer. President Trump has exacerbated the ensuing tension and fear by refusing to assign full responsibility to the white supremacists, and insisting that the blame be shared by some contingent of an alleged “alt-left.” It is time for humanism to respond once again. Our guest for this episode of Point of Inquiry is James Croft of the St. Louis Ethical Society, who encourages us to fully live out the values of humanism, not just as an academic philosophy but as an urgent call to act on behalf of others. “Be not restrained,” he advises, as he and host Paul Fidalgo discuss how humanists can lead the way in healing our national wounds, but that the process must begin by honestly acknowledging and addressing the injustices that have permeated American society from its very beginnings.
The U.S. space program is both beloved and neglected. It brings us breathtaking pictures from distant worlds and drives the human species to push itself farther out into the cosmos. But at the same time, it is subject to terrestrial political concerns, and without the urgency of a Cold War-era “moonshot” to galvanize the public’s enthusiasm, U.S. space policy is at times directionless, and always underfunded. To talk about the state of space exploration, Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo talks to Loren Grush, space reporter for The Verge, and previously of Popular Science. They discuss space policy in the Trump era, the challenges NASA faces to realize its ambitions, the grand promises of the private space industry, the prospects and perils for a human mission to Mars, the hostility women continue to face within the space community, and much more. Oh, and we’ll also find out what it was that Mike Pence touched at the Kennedy Space Center that he was told not to touch. Links: Loren Grush’s work at The Verge Loren’s Popular Science piece, “How You’ll Die on Mars” Loren on Twitter: @lorengrush
We want to believe that climate change can be stopped, that humanity can summon the political will to take decisive and meaningful action to avert disaster and save civilization. But the difficult reality is that even if we make our very best efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is coming. The real question now is how bad are we going to allow it to get? There is perhaps no one better suited to discuss humanity’s unwitting impact on the planet than this episode’s guest, Elizabeth Kolbert. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and as a staff writer at The New Yorker she has chronicled the agonizing but undeniable realities of the ecological damage wrought by humans and the complicated politics of confronting — or ignoring — that damage. Kolbert talks to Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo about how we as a society and as individuals think and talk about climate change and the inevitable environmental and political disruptions to come. BONUS FEATURE: Point of Inquiry bids a fond farewell to Nora Hurley, the show’s producer since 2014, with a kind of “exit interview.” Nora and Paul discuss what’s next for her, as well as what working on (and listening to) Point of Inquiry has meant to them both.
On June 1, President Donald Trump declared that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, an international agreement meant to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. For those who accept the reality of the threat posed by climate change, the news has sparked a good deal of anger, outrage, and not a small amount of despair for the fate of our planet. Despair not, says our guest, Carl Pope, the former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and the co-author of the optimistic new book Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet, co-written with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In a timely conversation with Point of Inquiry’s new host Paul Fidalgo (in his first episode as host!), Pope rejects doomsday attitudes about global warming, insisting that the window to stop climate change has not closed. He’ll tell us why he’s so optimistic, and what he thinks about the president’s decision to reject the Paris accord.
Don’t touch that podcast! Yes, Lindsay Beyerstein and Josh Zepps have moved on to new endeavors, but a new chapter for Point of Inquiry is about to begin, with new hosts and a new format. In this quick update the hosts-to-be will tell us a little bit about themselves and preview what they have planned for Point of Inquiry’s new direction. So stay subscribed to Point of Inquiry in your podcast app of choice, and look for new episodes starting in June.
Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA where she also served as the former director of the Center for SETI Research. She was also a Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program and has conducted a number of observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since funding for NASA’s SETI program was cut in 1993, she has worked to secure private funding so that SETI may continue to explore. In this conversation with Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps, Tarter discusses the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, how we go about looking for it, and why the search is so important to humanity. Zepps presses Tarter on the possible dangers of finding life outside our world, what it means to be alive in the first place, and the potential threats we face with artificial intelligence on our own planet. Special note from the Center for Inquiry: This is Josh Zepp’s final episode of Point of Inquiry. It has been a privilege having Josh cohost the program for more than three years. He is inquisitive, bold, witty, and never afraid to ask hard questions and hold guests accountable for their views. His conversations on Point of Inquiry exemplify the spirit of free inquiry we seek to advance at the Center for Inquiry. We of course wish him nothing but success, and look forward to opportunities to work with him in the future. You can hear Josh on his political podcast, WeThePeople LIVE. Thank you, Josh! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for news about what's next for Point of Inquiry!
How did a man living an ostensibly godless, hedonistic life become the champion of the very groups who one would expect to denounce his behavior? Being a real estate mogul and reality TV star, it’s no secret to anyone that President Trump has spent far more time in country clubs than churches. A man who’s had several wives, owned casinos and bars, and had multiple accusations of sexual assault leveled against him is hardly the pinnacle of virtue the religious right professes to yearn for. Trump’s aggressively nationalistic campaign rhetoric clearly appealed to the so-called “alt-right,” but he could not have won the election without simultaneously appealing to religious conservatives. So what happened? Today’s guest is investigative journalist Sarah Posner, whose expertise in reporting on religion and the conservative movement enable her to unravel the reasoning behind Trump’s success with evangelical Christians. Posner’s newest piece for The New Republic is "Amazing Disgrace,” which explores how “a thrice-married, biblically illiterate sexual predator” hijacked the religious right. While the alt-right and the cultural conservative movement have long been at odds, they shared common goals and prospects in the 2016 election, and that what unites them in terms of race and nationalism may be greater than even they would like to admit. Special note from the Center for Inquiry: This is Lindsay Beyerstein's final episode of Point of Inquiry. We are enormously proud of Lindsay's remarkable body of work with Point of Inquiry. She is smart, insightful, witty, and has always been a genuine pleasure to work with, having grown tremendously as an interviewer over her time with us. We wish her great success with her new endeavors, including her new podcast, The Breach. Thank you, Lindsay! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for news about what's next for Point of Inquiry!
While science was once the force that propelled humanity into an age of enlightenment, a pernicious fear of science and the unknown threatens to plunge society to into an age of darkness. So says Dr. Paul Offit, a groundbreaking immunologist, and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Offit’s new book, Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, comes at a time when the fundamental concepts of evidence, facts, and truth itself are being smothered by a miasma of misinformation. Dr. Offit joins Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps for a vital discussion about the prognosis for science under the Trump administration, the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement, the probability of future pandemics, and much more.
Often when we talk about privilege, we’re referring to the systemic advantages some groups of people have over others, by virtue of their race, gender, or orientation. Having social awareness of privilege like this is an important part of fostering a more equal and inclusive society. Why then do people who value inclusiveness feel insulted when their own privilege is pointed out? Writer and editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy joins us to discus her new book, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. Bovy explains that while “privilege” is meant to illustrate advantages placed on us by societal injustice, the word also has undertones suggesting economic wealth and a life free of hardship. She asserts that for this reason using the word provokes a lot of confusion and outrage. Bovy believes that because very few people’s lives are without hardship, being told they are privileged can be counterproductive.
People living at mountainous high altitudes account for only 10 percent of the world’s population, spread out over roughly 25 percent of the Earth’s surface, and yet they also are responsible for a huge portion of the world’s most violent and persistent conflicts. The reason for this correlation between altitude and violence isn’t entirely understood, but there are several factors contributing to the effect the geography of mountain living undoubtedly plays in conflict. Journalist and foreign correspondent Judith Matloff has spent her career covering conflict across the world. She has been a leading pioneer in safety training for journalist abroad and now teaches conflict reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Matloff first noticed this geographical trend of violence when her 10-year-old son asked her to point out all the places she’s covered conflict on a globe. The boy quickly pointed out a curious pattern; that they all took place in mountainous regions. Since then, Matloff has thoroughly investigated the trend of violence in high altitude areas, which has led to the publication of her book No Friends But the Mountains: Dispatches from the World’s Violent Highlands. In this eye opening discussion with Josh Zepps, Matloff explains the various reasons why these relatively small and isolated areas see so much trouble, and shares her thoughts on the growing dangers to journalists around the world.
President Trump’s travel ban aimed at select Muslim-majority countries (with exceptions for Christian minorities) was first framed this past January as an urgent action to protect the nation from the imminent danger of foreign terror attacks. With airports in disarray over the unprompted and unclear executive order, the directive was quickly taken to court, and it became clear that Trump’s dire warnings about national security threats were lacking one very important thing: evidence. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the ban was likely in violation of the Constitution. Trump’s administration quickly began fine-tuning the ban in order to appease the court with a new order, claiming to be equally predicated on imminent danger to the nation. Here to offer insight on what we can expect with the new ban’s rollout is Slate senior editor Dahila Lithwick. She specializes in writing about courts and law, regularly contributing to Slate’s political columns Supreme Court Dispatches and Jurisprudence. Her most recent article on this topic is “The Bogus Logic of Trump’s New Travel Ban.” In this episode of Point of Inquiry she gives us a thorough overview of the new and original travel bans, and considers the many possible outcomes as we wait on the courts to rule.
Fate. Purpose. Design. These are words that hang over many of our heads as we navigate the everyday chaos of life. Religion is often given exclusive purview over the discourse surrounding these concepts, but what if science was able to answer some of these same deep existential questions? We may not always like the answers that science has to give us. Laurence Krauss is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, professor, author, and science communicator, and an honorary member of the Center for Inquiry Board of Directors. His newest book is The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far, a look at the standard model of particle physics and its implications for our existence. It’s a follow up to his critically acclaimed book A Universe From Nothing, in which Krauss not only delves into how we’ve reached our current understanding of the universe, but also celebrates the wonders and beauty of the natural world and our accidental existence. The universe, says Krauss, is not fine-tuned for life, but rather life is fine tuned for the universe.
Americans have a stereotype of being somewhat lawsuit-happy. Any disagreements, no matter how small, wind up in court and we will sue the pants off our neighbors at the slightest scrape or bump. David M. Engel, author and law professor at University at Buffalo, objects. His newest book is The Myth of the Litigious Society: Why We Don’t Sue, where he explains that contrary to popular belief, most American injury victims never so much as contact a lawyer, let alone file a claim. Engel lays out the reasons that Americans rarely sue and why it is that we think we do anyway. He believes that understanding the realities of the American legal system is the first step toward answering questions about what we should do about injuries and restitution as a society to prevent and mitigate pain and suffering.
Every significant turn towards progress has had its trailblazers, and history can easily forget these pioneering individuals who have helped get us to where we are today. One of the most important figures at the height of the civil rights movement was activist and journalist Ethel Payne, who played a pivotal role as a trailblazer for both women’s rights and civil rights in general, rising to become the first black female commentator employed by a national television network. James McGrath Morris is an American biographer whose newest book is Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press. Morris follows Payne’s career as a journalist at the Chicago Defender, an important black newspaper known for covering stories the mainstream media didn’t cover. She was one of the best journalists of her time and one of very few black female journalists. Morris tells of Payne’s tenacity and her reputation for asking questions that no one else thought to ask, thereby arriving at the truth without having to persuade or editorialize.
Diabetes and obesity are on the rise in America in epidemic proportions, but we don’t respond to it with the urgency of an epidemic. Sugar industry lobbyists work hard to keep regulations at bay, and today sugar can be found in everything from baby formula to cigarettes. There is no customer too young or too old for the sugar industry, and the earlier in a person's life a dependency is developed, the better. Renowned journalist and author Gary Taubes doesn’t sugarcoat how bad our sugar problem really is in his new book The Case Against Sugar. Taubes exposes common misconceptions about sugar and brings to light the research that suggests just how helpless we may be to its deadly impact. While the harms are clear, the sugar lobby has successfully embedded it into the fabric of our culture — which is why Taubes believes that sugar is the tobacco of the new millennium.
The United States leads the world in science and innovation, but there’s no guarantee that this will always be the case. The Trump administration’s orders to halt federal science publication and public communication has American scientists racing against the clock to back up their data in fear of it being eradicated. Meanwhile, the scientists who come to America from all over the world face new roadblocks, as the travel ban from select Muslim-majority nations is reeking havoc on scientists who are not only kept from visiting loved ones, but are unable to leave the country for academic work in fear of being barred from reentry. In this eye opening discussion, Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps talks to Jen Golbeck, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland College Park. She speaks with first-hand experience about the blow American science is taking from the travel ban — not only in its immediate effects, but the long-term consequences these policies will undoubtedly have in putting America behind the rest of the world.
Ronnie Green is a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author whose latest book is Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina. His book follows the true story of an innocent family seeking help and security in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but was instead ambushed by New Orleans police officers’ gunfire. Further outrage comes not just from the massacre itself but that the officers and their supervisors at the New Orleans Police Department planted evidence in an attempt to cover up the murders. In a city overtaken my chaos and police officers overcome by fear, catastrophe ensued, leaving the surviving family to pick up the pieces left by the hurricane that ran through their lives. The victims’ family endured over a decade of legal battles before the officers at fault pleaded guilty to the charges. This story is a clear account of how the very people meant to protect and serve citizens can break the law, cover their tracks, and manipulate the legal system.
Ted Conover is an American journalist and author, known for fully immersing himself in the world of the subjects he covers. Conover writes about the people we understand the least by attempting to live their lives. Whether he’s riding freight trains with the homeless or navigating the ethical pitfalls of being a prison guard, he walks a mile in their shoes so we don’t have to. His newest book is Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, and in this week’s episode of Point of Inquiry, Conover discloses to host Lindsay Beyerstein what some of the most difficult moments of his immersion-journalism career have been, and reveals some of the tricks of the trade for getting close to your subjects without losing yourself in the process.
Daniel C. Dennett is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, perhaps best known in cognitive science for his multiple drafts (or "fame in the brain") model of human consciousness, and to the secular community for his 2006 book Breaking the Spell. Author and co-author of two-dozen books, he’s the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, where he taught our very own Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein. Beyerstein and Dennett catch up to discuss Dennett’s newest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. It’s a fresh look at Dennett’s earlier work on the subject of consciousness, taken in new directions as he seeks a “bottom-up view of creation.” Join Dennett and Beyerstein as they discuss the how’s and why’s of consciousness, not just from an evolutionary and neurological standpoint, but also through the lenses of computer science and human culture.
With great power, comes great responsibility, so we are told by Voltaire and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. It’s something we learn anew with each presidency, as the person who holds the office must decide how they will wield the power they’ve been given. For Richard Nixon, power was something to be used in the service of itself, to be maintained and defended at all costs. Soon to be our 45th president, Donald Trump comes to the office with some striking similarities to the 37th, complete with “enemies lists” and paranoid vendettas against foes real and imagined. To give us some historical perspective about the comparison between Trump and Nixon, we welcome historian, author, and journalist Rick Perlstein. Peristein is the bestselling author of Nixonland and Before the Storm, about the conservative movement sparked by Barry Goldwater. His newest book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and The Rise of Reagan. Perlstein recently published his latest critical analysis of Trump and Nixon in The New Republic, in an expose entitled "He’s Making a List."
Tom Flynn is Executive Director of Council for Secular Humanism (a program of the Center for Inquiry), as well as a novelist, journalist, and editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Outside of the freethought universe, however, Flynn may be best known as a professional Christmas opponent “the Anti-Claus,” and author of the book The Trouble with Christmas. For decades, Flynn has argued against atheists taking part in the celebration of Christmas, saying it makes hypocrites of nonbelievers and validates Christians’ claims over the season. Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein disagrees, and this week she and Flynn engage in a friendly debate over whether atheists should reject all trappings of the holiday, or claim its secular aspects for our own.
There's no question that Trump and his incoming administration have plans to take the country in a very different direction on a plethora of issues. To help us sort through what to expect, we welcome writer and political journalist, Amanda Marcotte. Marcotte currently blogs at The Raw Story and is a political contributor for Slate, Salon, and The Guardian. With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Marcotte says we can expect drastic changes on a multitude of issues, and in areas such as immigration and climate change, Trump will not even require congressional approval. Labor rights, healthcare, and abortion rights, while vulnerable, will take more of an effort from Trump and Republican lawmakers to change. Marcotte urges progressives not to give up hope, as she lays out where Trump’s agenda can be most effectively resisted.
From the early isolationist policies of George Washington to Thomas Jefferson’s universal embargo on foreign trade, 19th century America had no plans to become an imperial power. How then does a nation with no navy and a commitment to not having a standing army become a global superpower? Andrew W. Cohen is an author and U.S. history professor at Syracuse University. His new book is Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century. Cohen argues that looking at early 19th century American trade policies, and the effort to police smuggling goods and contraband, gives us some telling insight about the transformation of America into what it is today.
Michael Berube is the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University where he teaches American literature, disabilities studies, and cultural studies. His newest book is Life as Jamie Knows it: An Exceptional Child Grows Up. The book follows Berube’s son Jamie as he grows into adulthood, eagerly navigating the world as a young adult with Down syndrome. Berube tackles the misconceptions about intellectual disability from the perspectives of both a scholar of disabilities and that of a father. He challenges the misconception that intellectual disability detracts from the value of a life, as exemplified by his son Jamie, who Berube describes as witty, inquisitive, and full of a love for life. Berube asserts that like most children, when given ample amounts of love and attention, kids with Down syndrome have the best fighting chance at meeting their full potential and living a successful, happy life. Berube calls upon bioethicists, politicians, philosophers, and all of us to rethink how we approach disability, and advocates for changes that will move us towards a more inclusive society.
This week we’re dusting off a favorite Point of Inquiry episode from three years ago: Josh Zepps' conversation with P.J. O'Rourke – humorist, cultural commentator and bestselling author of sixteen books. Originally broadcast in December of 2013, this episode's subject matter is remarkably relevant for this current political and cultural moment, as we prepare for the presidency of a man whose campaign was based on the promise to return America to a golden age that really never existed. O’Rourke is an early proponent of "gonzo journalism" and is a self described libertarian, he’s served as editor-in-chief of National Lampoon, and has spent 20 years reporting for Rolling Stone and The Atlantic as the worlds only "trouble spot humorist" going to wars, riots, rebellions, and other "Holidays in Hell" in more than 40 countries. O'Rourke is the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute and a frequent panelist on National Public Radio's game show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! In this episode they discuss everything from abortion and privacy, to the party following the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the looting of the Baghdad Museum. They discuss American values both of individualism and the fundamental shared American mentality of dissatisfaction, and that things are never good enough. The same dissatisfaction that often has us yearning for the "good ol’ days" is also the American quality that propels us forward, hungry for a better life, and unwilling to settle.
There’s no getting around the fact that the alt-right has come out of the shadows to fully embrace Trump as their candidate. From Steve Bannon to David Duke, controversial support did not wait long to rush to Trump's side. It’s clear that for many “make America great again” may just mean to make America white again. To help us get to the root of this unprecedented following Trump has produced, we welcome author and award-winning journalist and blogger, David Neiwert. Neiwert is an expert on the radical right and a correspondent for the anti-hate group the Southern Poverty Law Center. He most recently coauthored an award-winning piece in Mother Jones titled, "How Trump Took Hate Groups Mainstream." Neiwert and coauthor Sarah Posner have thoroughly tracked Trump's social media engagement with the white nationalist movement from the start of his campaign. Neiwert suggests that while we can’t know for certain how many of these alt-right ideals are ones Trump personally adheres to, he undoubtedly shares alt-right rhetoric that has enticed a strength in the white nationalism movement we haven't seen in decades. Sarah Posner also appeared on Point of Inquiry last year in Sarah Posner: Trump, Carson and the Religious Right in 2016.
The religiously unaffiliated, also known as the “nones,” are currently the largest “faith” demographic in the country. Yet evangelicals beat them two to one in turnout at the polls. We live in an increasingly secular nation based on secular principles, but in government, the secular worldview is badly underrepresented. President-elect Donald Trump spoke to many American’s economic struggles, but his is also a victory for the religious right that rallied strongly behind him. Much of Trump’s platform and policy agenda is incredibly unpopular with the American people, which is part of what is so perplexing about his victory. Yet despite being a relative minority within the population, evangelicals reliably vote, and secular Americans overwhelmingly do not. Here to talk about how we got here and the effort to fix this voting disparity is Larry Decker, Executive Director of Secular Coalition for America. Decker believes that much of America’s core secular values are in grave danger with a Trump presidency. He asserts that SCA and its contributing members (which includes the Center for Inquiry, which produces this program) are preparing to fight relentlessly to make secular American voices heard in order to defend the wall of separation between church and state.
We live in a digital era in which science and technology have revealed new frontiers never before possible. In developing the complicated technologies that permeate our lives, is it possible that humans have failed to grasp the magnitude of the complexity they have created? This week’s guest is a complexity scientist, Samuel Arbesman, author of the new book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension. Arbesman explains that the rate of technological expansion is growing too quickly for our intellects to keep up, and the dangers of not understanding the inner workings of our creations are already revealing themselves, whether it’s the New York Stock Exchange suspending trading without warning or Toyota cars accelerating uncontrollably to the surprise of their drivers. The complexity of the code behind much of what has become fundamental components of society are so far past the limits of human comprehension that oftentimes no one is even able to find the cause when these systems go awry. Arbesman lays out why it’s so difficult for even experts to keep up with technological progress and how we can make efforts to prevent our creations from destroying themselves…or us.
Joe Nickell is perhaps the world's foremost investigator of the paranormal, as well as a magician and author, and he joins us for this special Halloween episode to discuss his recent feature article in Skeptical Inquirer, "Creators of The Paranormal." According to Nickell, the term "paranormal" refers to things that lie beyond the normal range of human experience and scientific explanation. Nickell’s paranormal investigations have covered everything from spirits and psychic phenomena to less spectral phenomena such as UFOs and cryptozoology. Questions about the paranormal have haunted humans since ancient times, but much of our modern conceptions about the paranormal date back only as far as the 19th century. Nickell attributes the advent of modern day spiritualism and the proliferation of the paranormal to a handful of distinct individuals who, for better or worse, popularized paranormal beliefs that are still championed by believers to this day.
The cat. King of the jungle, emperor of the internet, overlord of our homes? Cats are easily among the most adaptable mesopredator, able to survive and thrive everywhere from the deserts of Australia, to the Arctic tundra, to a cramped studio apartment. Abigail Tucker is a contributing writer for Smithsonian and author of the new book, Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World. Tucker explains just how wild the beasts that live among us really are. Known for their independence and convenience, cats need little house training, if any. Tucker asserts that while cats don’t require training, they may actually be the ones training us, monitoring our behaviors and teaching us how to keep them happy. So who, exactly, is domesticating whom? Tucker delves paws-first into the feline mind, debunking cat myths and misconceptions, and shedding light on the role cats have played throughout history, as well as how we might be able to benefit from them in the future.
Halloween is almost here, and Target stores are pulling clown masks from their shelves. After the creepy clown craze made its way through Europe, the circus has finally arrived in the US with sightings in at least 40 states, 10 of which have now resulted in actual arrests. With more reports filed every day, the clown scare that’s taking the nation by storm shows no signs of breaking. Where are all these clowns coming from and why are these once-lovable jesters suddenly so terrifying? Point of Inquiry welcomes writer, author and skeptic Benjamin Radford to discuss his new book, Bad Clowns. Radford’s research dives deep into the historical culture, pop culture, and counterculture of clowns in order to connect the dots to how we got here. Radford, deputy editor of the Center for Inquiry’s Skeptical Inquirer magazine, compares the clown phenomenon to the appeal some find in Internet trolling. Being a killer clown allows you to be seen without actually being seen; it’s the thrill of being a part of something big, a form performance art in which one’s identity is hidden from ridicule and consequence.
Today the United States is the most secular and irreligious it has ever been. According to Pew Research, the percentage of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or having no religion in particular is up to 23%, compared to the 16% it was in 2007. With a lack of religious affiliation becoming normalized, it’s hard to imagine what it was like for the nonreligious when God’s primacy was almost entirely unquestioned. Point of Inquiry welcomes Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Schmidt gives a detailed account of what it was like to be secular in a society where God was considered to be the sole source of all morality. While some worked to prove that God was not essential to being a moral, upstanding citizen, others were more concerned with reforming the way the church affected public life. Schmidt explains that in the 1850’s, “liberal” was used interchangeably with “atheist.” While some atheists felt it was important to blend in with the rest of God-abiding society, others felt their views on everything — from marriage reform and gender equality to civil rights and free speech — were in direct conflict with the church, and they challenged its claims to moral authority.
Phil Torres is an author, contributing writer for the Future of Life Institute, and an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. His writing has been featured in numerous publications such as Time, Motherboard, Salon, Huffington Post, and our very own Free Inquiry. His book is The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse. Since the beginning of civilization, people have worried about its collapse. Pockets of people across the world have long warned that the end is near, and as it turns out, their warnings of apocalypse might be closer to the truth than we think. Torres joins Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps to discuss just how close we are to experiencing catastrophes that have the potential to fuel our demise. With everything from climate change and biodiversity loss to uncontrollable technologies and the greater accessibility of advanced weaponry, Torres predicts that the human race is going to have some major hurdles to overcome if we want to survive the coming century.
Dr. Julia Shaw is a psychological scientist and senior researcher in the Department of Law and Social Science at London South Bank University. She teaches at the undergraduate and graduate level and her research on false memory has been published in several international academic journals. She returns to Point of Inquiry this week to discuss her new book, The Memory Illusion. Our memories are a collection of perceptions of our past experiences, and they influence what we think we’re capable of in the future. Dr. Shaw argues that if we start to question the accuracy of our memories we’re then forced to question the foundation of who we think we are. She shows us that our memories aren’t as reliable as we think. Not only are we capable of co-opting other people’s memories as our own, but we can also be easily persuaded by the power of suggestion that we’ve committed acts that have never actually occurred. Even when it comes to our most confident recollections, the potential for memory error has proven to be profound, and Dr. Shaw believes understanding the science of memory can help us deal with our brains’ tendency to rewrite the past.
Since the beginning of humankind unpredictable forces of nature have been among our most dangerous threats: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornados, hurricanes, and other disasters that trigger our fight-or-flight survival instincts. Pollution invoked climate change is exacerbating natural disasters and spurring unprecedented human migration. So when so many people are clamoring for safety and running for the hills, what does that mean for those who are already atop them? Author and geographer Barry Vann explains what awaits the future of our planet and its human populations in his new book Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet. In this fascinating yet sobering conversation with Josh Zepps, Vann elaborates on both the causes of migration as well as the outcomes of the population shifts to come. They discuss both the impact humans have had on our planet, and how our planet affects us in turn. Vann is optimistic that while society is prone to taking the path of least resistance, the conditions brought about by climate change will soon become so unbearable it will force us to make tough decisions that will be crucial for our survival.
Death is an unsettling thing to come to grips with. We know it is inevitable that it will one day happen to us. One of the first things most of us learn about death is that it happens to everyone, yet perhaps because no one ever comes back to tell the tale, there’s a lot about our impending doom that’s difficult to fully grasp. To help us take comfort in our inexorable demise, we welcome Andrew Stark, an author and political science professor at the University of Toronto. Having spent time as a policy advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada, he now offers himself as a life advisor – or rather, a death advisor – in his new book The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death. Stark gives us an overview of what the greatest minds of history have said about what it means to die. With a skeptical eye, he sorts through the various arguments for how we should feel about death, effectively shaking off the sugar coating of mortality in an effort to provide us with solace that stands the test of logic.
Emily Willingham is a journalist, scientist, and award winning skeptical blogger, with much of her work centered on autism and debunking junk science controversies. Recently the autism community has shown a surge in support for medical cannabis, as anti-vaccination activists claim that cannabis may hold the key for a cure, and many people with autism claim it to be a useful for controlling their symptoms. Willingham and host Lindsay Beyerstein delve further into the topic to sort through the misconceptions that exist on both sides of the debate. Willingham explains that the data is limited on the relationship between cannabis and autism, in part because of the strict research restrictions that have been placed on what the government classifies as a Schedule I substance, a drug with no medical value. Despite the abundance of data showing its benefits and safety in regard to pain relief and inducing appetite, Willingham points out that the stigma against cannabis has lead to restrictions that are even more severe than those that exist on many other pain killers and opioids. Emily Willingham will also be speaking at the upcoming Women in Secularism conference, September 23-25 in Arlington, VA. For more information go to womeninsecularism.org.
Elizabeth Greenwood teaches at Columbia University and like many other young professionals she has an insurmountable amount of student loan debt. With the overwhelming feeling that she would never escape her debt she desperately longed for a new start. There was no going back on what she had done to accumulate her debt, but perhaps she could skip ahead. She began to investigate what it would take to fake one’s own death in the 21st century. Greenwood was shocked to find a robust infrastructure of death fraud all at her fingertips. Eager to know more about the strange subculture, she decided to go through with faking her own death and writes about it in her new book, Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World of Death Fraud. She meets some interesting characters along the way and realizes that a new start might not be as easy and appealing as it sounds.
Bronwen Dickey is a contributing editor at The Oxford American, and author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. Her writing can also be found in The New York Times, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Newsweek, Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other publications. For Dickey’s most recent piece, just published in Popular Mechanics, she embarks on the “Conspire-Sea Cruise,” giving us an inside look at what the world of a conspiracy theorist is like and what fuels the need to believe in vast, nefarious plots. Dickey says she was inspired to report on the conspiracy cruise after working on Pit Bull, where she discovered just how strong the desire can be to ignore evidence and seek out junk science that supports one’s existing beliefs. In conversation with host Lindsay Beyerstein, Dickey looks at the paranoia that propels people towards conspiracy and compares it to the tireless fear mongering pit bull breeds are subjected to. Dickey gives a detailed account of the history and science behind pit bulls and offers a hardheaded overview of what we know about them as a breed and the contrasting ways everyday Americans view them.
Those following the Olympics this year may have noticed Michael Phelps sporting circular bruises all over his body. That’s because Phelps, like many Olympic athletes, won’t go after their medals without going after their cups. The growing fad of cupping is an ancient practice in which cups are placed all over the body and skin is suctioned inside the cup, bursting blood vessels and creating circular bruises. The claim is that cupping releases toxins and heals muscle tissue, among a number of other alleged health benefits, none of which can be backed up by scientific evidence. Dr. David Gorski is a surgical oncologist, blogger, and advocate for evidence-based reasoning. He joins us today to discuss the latest Olympic pseudoscience fads and what it is about them that makes them pseudoscience. He gives his take on why alt-med practices like cupping are so appealing to people, and the best ways to go about persuading people out of them.
Iraqi-born writer Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is a blogger for the Huffington Post and a columnist for the Center for Inquiry’s own Free Inquiry magazine. Having grown up in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, he’s now a human rights activist and secularism advocate as well as founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement and Secular Post. For Faisal and progressive Muslims and secularists across the globe, social media is the primary means of not only seeking community and acceptance, but to opening dialogues about fraught issues such as dissent from Islam. But recently Facebook seems to be singling out many of these conversations and communities, and shutting them down. In a conversation with Josh Zepps, Faisal gives several examples of Muslims and Arabs having their posts and pages removed. Arab secularist groups, condemnations of the Taliban, and other challenges to Islam are being banned from the site, which is often justified by claims of racism, hate speech, and other alleged violations of “community standards.” Faisal argues that when Facebook censors Muslims and Arabs from being able to criticize extremism and terrorism within their own religion and culture it adds to the very stereotypes and fears surrounding Muslims that Facebook should want to prevent.
David Cay Johnston is an award winning investigative journalist and New York Times best-selling author, as well as one of few journalists who has deeply dug into the dirty laundry of Donald Trump, now the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In 1988 Johnston left the LA Times to report on casino gambling in Atlantic City, which resulted in uncovering a detailed history of corruption in Trump’s past dealings. The information he began to unearth compelled Johnston to follow Trump’s career closely for decades, eventually leading to the release of his newest book, The Making of Donald Trump. Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstien talks to Johnston about some of the key insights of his book, including the similarities between Trump and TV psychics, and Trump’s astounding ability to deflect any responsibility, and avoid any consequences for his actions.
Free speech on college campuses has become a topic of impassioned debate, as the lines between hate speech and harassment, or peaceful protest and public disturbance, are rather blurry and hotly contested. Particularly since the protest movements of the 1960s, college campuses have long been a kind of testing ground for different norms and boundaries of free expression. At the same time, some institutions of higher learning have speech codes which many feel are serving to silence debate and discussion among students in the name of protecting feelings. Our guest this week, Wendy Kaminer, is among those who believe that things like speech codes and trigger warnings have gotten out of control. Kaminer is a lawyer and writer who has dedicated much of her life’s work to defending free speech. She and host Lindsay Beyerstein engage in a spirited discussion about the grayest areas concerning speech and censorship on campus and in the culture at large. Kaminer will also be one of the many fantastic speakers at the fourth Women in Secularism conference, September 23-25 in Alexandria, Virgina.
Religions have always gone through transitions over time. Not only do the faiths themselves evolve, but the role they play in day-to-day life adapts to fit the needs of a given culture. As the youngest Abrahamic religion on the market, all eyes are on Islam, as a debate rages as to whether there is any chance of reform or secularization within a religion that is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Muslim world. Ali Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and author of the new book Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. Rizvi is one of many Muslims who assert that while they have lost their religion, they haven’t lost their Muslim identity. Rizvi considers Islam to be a religion with a set of ideas that are fair game to be criticized, but he also sees Muslims as distinct, as a culture of which Islam is not a mandatory component. After losing his faith while studying as a scientist and physician, Rizvi continued to participate and identify with many of the cultural aspects of being Muslim. He found that he wasn’t alone in his feelings, and predicts that today’s young Muslims will be the start of the transition toward secularism for Muslims around world.
It was only a couple of decades ago that the most complex handheld computing system fathomable was a TI-83 graphing calculator. Technology has usually served to make our lives easier, but in the post-digital boom, in which full-blown pocket size computers are the norm, our attention spans are shrinking along with our free time (and graphing is the least of our data worries). Technology can seem to have made certain aspects of life simultaneously easier and more difficult. Our guest this week is David Levy, a computer scientist and professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. He was a member of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Silicon Valley during the information revolution in which we began converting information from paper to digital. He has since focused the body of his work and research on information overload. His new book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, offers simple strategies and exercises to help develop digital control and mindfulness. Levy doesn’t claim to see the digital advancements of the world as being strictly an asset or detriment, but rather asserts that we need to begin to train our brains to process information differently to maintain control and balance over our increasingly fast-paced digital lives.
Autumn Whitefield-Mandrano is the author of the acclaimed new book on feminism and beauty, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. Her work can be found such outlets as Glamour, Jezebel, Salon, The Guardian, and her own blog, The Beheld: Beauty and What It Means. Her book takes a closer look at why beauty is so coveted in American society and how the pedestal of beauty affects women in particular. She and host Lindsay Beyerstein delve into perceptions of beauty from both scientific and sociological perspectives. While Autumn’s research supports the notion that many women see beauty as a healthy celebration of individuality, she’s also all too aware of the multi-billion-dollar industry that cynically peddles snake oil and empty promises to women who feel forced to maintain impossible beauty standards.
Michelle Vines grew up knowing she was different from other people. She always assumed she was just a bit odd and eccentric but never in a way that suggested she wasn’t neurotypical. She lived in Australia where she excelled in math and science and became a chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry. After finding her work environment deeply unsatisfying and her personal relationships increasingly frustrating, she was forced to sort through why she was struggling. When the possibility of Asperger’s syndrome was raised, it was both jarring and illuminating. In 2008 she put her chemical engineering career on hold and moved to the U.S. where at 30 years old she was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the University of Texas Health Science Center. The experience of living her entire life without fully understanding her own brain inspired her to write her memoir, Asperger’s on the Inside. Since being diagnosed, she has been a strong advocate and spokesperson for autism and Asperger’s, and hopes to help people on all ends of the neurological spectrum form a better understanding of what people with Asperger’s go through on a daily basis.
Secularist bloggers, writers and LGBT activists are being hacked to death in the streets of Bangladesh by militant Islamic groups. To help us get to the bottom of why there needs to be no end in sight to the violence is the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy Director, Michael De Dora. Starting in April of 2013 when secular activist Avijit Roy reached out to De Dora, the Center for Inquiry has worked closely with threatened individuals like Roy to move writers and bloggers in Bangladesh to safety. Roy was himself murdered in Dhaka in February of 2015, beginning the current wave of attacks. De Dora, who is also CFI’s main representative to the United Nations, explains that many of these champions of free speech in Bangladesh have no other choice but to leave their home country, as the Bangladeshi government refuses to come to terms with the threat, and instead directs responsibility to the dead for their writings. While the current government in power is ostensibly secular and considered the more liberal of the two powerful political parties in Bangladesh, they have been reluctant to make a show of support of the victims, protect their citizens. De Dora suggests that it’s because many of the people being attacked are criticizing the government, and as a result the only action being taken is victim blaming. Note: Over the weekend, Bangladeshi authorities arrested thousands people said to be connected to extremist groups responsible for the attacks.
Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti is a pioneer of digital-age feminist writing, starting her blog Feministing in 2004, and becoming known as one of the leading voices in the discussion about gender equality. Valenti’s newest contribution to the movement is her new book, Sex Object: A Memoir. Her witty and courageous book explores the cold, hard realities of growing up female in a male-dominated society, with a unique spin on a story many women are all too familiar with. Point of Inquiry’s Lindsay Beyerstein gets the inside scoop on what motivated Valenti to write the memoir and what she advises for the future of feminism and the fight for gender equality. They talk about many of the stories Valenti shares about her life, and discuss the personal impact of divulging one’s most vulnerable experiences in order to tell the difficult truths about many women’s everyday lives.
In the literature about religious conversion, embracing a new faith is usually explained as being a profound and magical experience. A flash of light, a near death experience, an emotional new beginning; these are all common themes in religious conversion stories. But what about the less flashy stories of people who change their religious affiliation simply for reasons of practicality? Point of Inquiry welcomes back bestselling, award-winning author Susan Jacoby to discus her new book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, an exploration of the cultural, political and secular forces driving religious conversion in the western world. Jacoby argues that while spiritual revelation may be a motivator for some, the majority of religious conversions are far more often due to the secular components of an individual’s life. Susan Jacoby was honored with a Center for Inquiry Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, and formerly served as the program director of CFI’s New York City branch.
Maia Szalavitz is an author and award-winning journalist specializing in science, public policy, and addiction treatment. Most famous of her several books was her 2006 exposé, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled–Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. Her latest book is Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. As a recovering addict herself, Szalavitz knows about the stigma of addiction first hand. She spent much of her teen and young adult life addicted to drugs like heroin and cocaine, but now with over 20 years of sobriety under her belt she’s dedicated a large portion of her career to investigating and reporting addiction treatment. Szalavitz’s research suggests that addiction is actually an emotional learning disorder, which, if true, could revolutionize not only the way we treat addiction but also the way we perceive addiction treatment.
This week, Josh Zepps sits down with commentator and writer Shadi Hamid. He’s a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, a contributing writer to The Atlantic, and his new book is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. There is a heated debate about whether there is something intrinsically unique about the religion of Islam that has lead to destructive groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS, or whether their existence has nothing to do with religion and are merely the product of politics. Many insist that Islam is not unlike any other religion in its infancy and that with time it will go through a natural course of reform. Hamid suggests that Islam is indeed distinct from other religions, but that those distinctions aren’t in and of themselves good or bad. Hamid urges us to look at the root of these conflicts, because Islam’s unique doctrine and origin will likely mean that its path to reform will look very different from the path of enlightenment values that other religions have embraced before it.
Dr. Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist and writer, returning to Point of Inquiry to discuss her new book, Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting. Known from her popular blog as The Skeptical OB, she has appeared in several publications and news outlets over the years educating the public about the facts of birthing healthy babies, and more importantly correcting the misinformation surrounding birth and mothering, such as breast feeding, nipple confusion, attachment theory, and “birth warriors.” Her book takes a closer look at the factual misconceptions surrounding childbirth, as well as the history behind these unscientific ideas. Dr Tuteur and host Lindsay Beyerstein discuss the history of natural parenting and how it affects mothers today, particularly the ways myths about childbirth can make life miserable for mothers, and how the natural childbirth industry can profit from their worries.
Dr. Ned Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist, a
New York Times bestselling author,
and among the world’s leading experts in the field of attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He’s written numerous books
about ADHD and modern distraction, including Driven to
Distraction, Delivered from Distraction: Getting
the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit
Disorder, Worry: Controlling it and
Using it Wisely, and others. Dr. Hallowell
points out that those with ADHD possess what he calls a “race car
brain,” capable of brilliance and great creativity, but without an
understanding of how to control and train minds with ADHD, it can
result in chaos and havoc.
Dr. Hallowell offers insight on the spectrum of ADHD, and the
misuse of the diagnosis. In the age of digital distraction, a great
many of us struggle to focus on tasks and goals. While his advice
primarily focuses on helping people with ADHD to regain control of
their minds and their lives, much of what he recommends can be
helpful to chaotic, distracted, minds of all kinds.
For a very long time marriage was considered a foundation of
American life. Adulthood and marriage came hand in hand, and
shortly after marriage children were the next logical step.
Breaking that mold wasn’t a socially acceptable or financially
viable option for women. Today, however, marriage rates show us a
very different picture of what is considered the norm. To lend some
insight into these changing conventions, Point of
Inquiry welcomes Rebecca Traister, an author and
award-winning journalist who is the writer-at-large for
New York Magazine and a
contributing editor at Elle. Her new
book is All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the
Rise of an Independent Nation.
In 1960, the majority of American women were married by age 29.
Today only 20 percent of American women are married by then. For
over a century the median age of first marriages for women in
America had remained between 20 and 22, but in recent years it has
jumped dramatically to age 27. Overall, fewer American women
are married than ever before and Traister has investigated what’s
behind this dramatic change, and what it means for a new generation
of single women in America.
Medical doctors can hold our lives in their hands. But with great power comes great responsibility, and doctors owe it to their patients to provide accurate information and treatments based on science and evidence. This is the standard we expect and take for granted; yet one doctor, Stanislaw Burzynski, has been skirting medical ethics and scientific protocols for decades with his controversial and unproven cancer treatments, which he claims without evidence, can destroy cancer cells. The Center for Inquiry, which produces this podcast, has worked to expose Burzynski’s treatments and for the FDA to reinstate restrictions on his dubious medical trials.
This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes science journalist Tamar Wilner to discuss the most recent progress in the Burzynski case, and what it’s like to pursue the hard truth within such a murky and emotionally fraught situation. Wilner is a frequent contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and a consultant for the Fact Checking Project at the American Press Institute; she’s written numerous articles on controversial science issues including her recent Newsweek feature, “Cancer ‘Visionary’ Stanislaw Burzynski Stands Trial for Unprecedented Medical Malfeasance.” She’s also been featured at Skeptical Inquirer with a piece entitled “Five Things I Learned Writing about Stanislaw Burzynski.”
A further explanation of Burzynski’s treatments, the lack of science behind them, and his run-ins with medical authorities can be found in a feature by Dr. David Gorski in the March-April 2014 issue of Skeptical Inquirer
This week we welcome back journalist Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Hari is a vocal advocate for ending the drug war, and he joins us this week in advance of the UN General Assembly’s special session on drugs, being held April 18 to 21. This special session was not supposed to be held until 2019, but in September of 2012, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala expressed the need to hold an international conference on drug policy reform sooner than scheduled. The provision was sponsored by Mexico and co-sponsored by 95 other countries that are struggling with the violence and chaos surrounding current global drug policy.
Hari believes that this meeting represents a major shift in the conversation surrounding the drug war. As more and more countries are putting pressure on the United States to enact effective and humane drug policy options, Hari anticipates that these UN drug summits will become less about policy review and more about having a sane global discussion about the way we regulate and criminalize drugs.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was recently seen on championing the importance of the atheist vote to American conservatives on the late night comedy show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Silverman attempted to persuade Republican believers and non-believers alike that that there was a dire need to keep God out of politics by promoting his cause at one of the most important conservative gatherings in politics: CPAC.
The author of Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, Silverman is a loud-and proud-activist for atheism and is passionate about making sure the non-religious are included in the conservative conversation. In a spirited conversation with host Josh Zepps, Silverman argues that the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders heralds the end of religion’s grip on politics, and that if the Republican Party does not learn to appeal to atheist voters, they will inevitably be left behind.
Many of us picture our dying moments as being surrounded by loved ones, uttering last words of gratitude and advice before we slip off into a peaceful departure. Yet the reality is that dying is often a long, painful, and constantly fluctuating process. Our guest this week, Ann Neumann, writes a monthly column at The Revealer where she examines the intersection between religion and medicine, and she is the author of the new book, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America.
Neumann was inspired to write the book after the struggle of caring for her father while he was dying. The experience she had was nothing like anything she had ever seen before in American culture. To better understand what she had gone through, she began volunteering at hospices and studying various perspectives on life and death. She explored everything from academic lectures to pro-life groups, giving her a wide understanding of the differences between the cultural interpretation and medical reality of death.
John Allen Paulos is an award winning mathematician and best selling author. A professor in mathematics at Temple University, he has written for The Guardian, CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and his monthly column for ABCNews.com, “Who’s Counting?” His new book is called A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours.
Paulos uses basic mathematic principles to lend a fresh perspective to everyday life, and the results can be fascinating. He sheds light on everything from the mathematical science behind romantic crushes to the astronomical consequences of the butterfly effect. Some of the harsher mathematical realities can be troubling, like the inevitable probability of becoming more jaded as we age. But Paulos’s mathematical message also has plenty to take solace in, like knowing that dimensional geography suggests that every single one of us is far more peculiar than we may be willing to admit. That’s right, you are not the only weirdo you know; in reality we’re all a bunch of weirdos.
Today’s guest is former white supremacist Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate. A leader within what he called a “racial holy war," Michaelis later realized his hate was misplaced, the product of fear, anger, and an overall misunderstanding of concepts such as forgiveness and personal responsibility. Today he is a Buddhist and anti-violence activist with Serve 2 Unite, an organization that works with student leaders to create compassionate, nonviolent leadership in their communities.
In a frank discussion with Josh Zepps, Michaelis reflects on his mistakes, and how he came to let go of his hate and anger. He notes the similarities he perceives between the language and emotion of the white power movement he left, and that of the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump, whose rallies are now plagued by racially charged clashes and violence. Michaelis joins us today to offer some insight on this worldview of rage, and how we can work toward alternatives to hate and violence.
What is it about human behavior that allows con artists to pull off elaborate scams in which they fool thousands? Moreover what is about those thousands of people — many of them intelligent and sophisticated — that make them so vulnerable them to being scammed? New Yorker contributor Maria Konnikova joins us today to talk about her new book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time.
Konnikova analyses the tactics that con artists use to appeal to our sensibilities, gain our trust, and lower our defenses, and she explores what motivates these fraudsters to do what they do. Some cons are so complicated that they can actually be more difficult than accomplishing the same thing when playing by the rules. Konnikova posits that a combination of entitlement and power spurs con artists to jump through hoops most of us could never imagine.
We know more and more about how repressive attitudes about blasphemy and religious criticism in parts of the Islamic world can become explosive, as with the Charlie Hebdo attacks or the murder of secularist bloggers in Bangladesh. But these extreme instances don’t tell the whole story.
This week our guest is Jessica Davey-Quantick, who spent several years in Qatar as a reporter and editor for Qatar Happening and Time Out Doha. She experienced first hand the often laughable degrees of arbitrary censorship and cultural oppression, and simultaneously the liberty with which certain members of society could behave as they pleased. She discovered a world that both reinforced and contradicted commonly held beliefs about the restrictiveness of the culture of Islam in the Gulf States, and wrote about her experiences in a recent article at Vox.
She and host Josh Zepps discuss the problems with how we discuss cultures outside our own, the ways religion is intertwined with repressive norms, and how we might hold a mirror up to our own practices.
Most of us have no problem operating under the notion that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. But what do we make of people who do go well beyond that, while asking for nothing in return? Why are often perplexed by those who are willing to put their health and well being on the line for complete strangers? Today’s guest is Larissa MacFarquhar, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the new book Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.
MacFarquhar argues that we have a history of labeling people who help excessively as having some sort of physiological disconnect, a mental health condition that causes them to give more than what seems reasonable to the rest of society. She finds this resistance to do-gooders troubling, and that our defensive need to justify their behavior may say more about our own philosophical shortcomings than it does about the altruists among us.
Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, speaker, and sex education activist, challenging misconceptions about what it means to have consenting, satisfying sex. She’s the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety, and she joins us on this special Valentine’s Day episode to bring some freethought to love and sex.
In addition to having written extensively on the topic of healthy sexuality and the myriad hang-ups and myths surrounding sex and pleasure, she’s also in the process of producing a new multimedia project, including a podcast about female sexual power and freedom.
The freethought movement has seen two of its most respected and influential institutions combine into what has been called a “supergroup” for secularism. The Center for Inquiry, the organization that proudly produces this program, announced in January that it would merge with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, and that Robyn Blumner, the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s president and CEO, would take over from Ronald A. Lindsay as CEO of CFI.
Both Robyn Blumner and Ron Lindsay appear together as our guests this week, here to discuss with host Josh Zepps the reasoning behind the merger, and how the complementary strengths of the newly-joined organizations can make a larger impact on behalf of their shared mission: fostering a secular society based on reason, science, free inquiry, and humanist values.
We learn more about Blumner’s background as both an executive and a journalist, as well as what the Richard Dawkins Foundation (now a division of CFI) brings to the table. We also get a look back at Lindsay’s tenure at CFI, and how he has helped to build the Center for Inquiry into a lasting institution.
In ancient Greece, did everyone unquestioningly believe in the gods of Olympus? Was there no one in classical Athens to write the equivalent of “The Zeus Delusion”? According to our guest this week, the Greeks’ religious beliefs were as varied and nuanced as they are today. Tim Whitmarsh is a classicist and professor of Greek Culture at University of Cambridge. In his newest book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, he explores the skeptical aspects of ancient history that are often left out of common retellings.
Like so many other cultures, ancient Greece went through its own periods of enlightenment and reform, times when religion and irreligion, and superstition and rationalism, coexisted. Whitmarsh argues that we moderns shouldn’t be so quick to tie the ancient Greeks to their mythology, because along with the myths and gods there is a rich history of secularism, critical thinking and even atheism.
The “nones” are on the rise in the U.S. with 33 million Americans identifying as having no religious affiliation. Atheists shouldn’t get too excited, though, because 68% of the unaffiliated indicate that they do believe in some sort of god. What kind of god do the nones believe in? This week’s guest, Rabbi Mark Wildes, wants it to be the God of Abraham.
Rabbi Mark Wildes is the founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, a program for young Jewish professionals in their 20s and 30s with little or no background in Judaism interested in connecting with the community. With the unaffiliated being concentrated heavily in the young adult demographic, and with 1 in 5 American Jews identifying as nones, Rabbi Wildes believes there very well may be something about Judaism that could draw in millennials, those who are looking for a certain kind of moral guidance that includes both purpose and reason.
This week Point of Inquiry welcomes Dr. David Grimes, a board certified physician in obstetrics and gynecology and author of the new book Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation. Dr. Grimes talks with host Lindsay Beyerstein about the enormous good that’s been done as a result of the legalization of abortion, and the horrors that women used to face — and face anew — as access to abortion services is chipped away.
A powerful movement is relentlessly fighting to turn back the clock to the pre-Roe v. Wade era, when abortions were just as common as they are today, but far more dangerous and life-threatening. States across the country have seen the introduction and passage of “TRAP laws” (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that harshly restrict access to abortion, birth control, and even cancer screenings, all under the pretense of protecting patients’ health.
Throughout history, humans have looked to religion to explain why the world is the way it is. Thanks to the development of science, we now have more concrete ways of understanding the world, ways that do not rely on faith. Despite our progress, however, in 2016 faith and religion are still considered to be prime ways of knowing for billions of people. Our guest this week suggests that these feelings of faith may be harder to shake than those of us who are already secular might think; in fact they may be evolutionarily hardwired into us.
Point of Inquiry returns from its hiatus to welcome neuroscientist and computational biologist John C. Wathey to discuss the ideas in his new book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing. Wathey asserts that the intuitive feeling of God’s presence is the primary anchor of religious faith. It’s a consistent phenomenon across every religion and culture for people to “feel God” in their lives. Wathey argues that this is likely a result of an evolutionary adaptation that manifests as early as infancy.
During the perennial War on Christmas, certain Christians often feel the need to remind the rest pf us what the holiday season is really about. It’s Jesus Christ’s birthday and we’re all invited to the party… if by “party” you mean sitting reverently in pews at Christmas mass. Something as little as changing the seasonal decorations on a cardboard coffee cup is enough to put some Christians on edge, as some felt the new red and green Starbucks cups insufficiently acknowledged the role of Christ. Andrea Williams of the U.K.’s Christian Concern wrote, “This is a denial of historical reality and the great Christian heritage behind the American Dream that has so benefitted Starbucks.” But perhaps it's folks like Williams who are the ones guilty of historical denial.
Here to talk about the real historical origins of Christmas is writer and philosophy professor David Kyle Johnson, author of the new book, The Myths that Stole Christmas. Johnson explains how “the reason for the season” is just the season itself. He discusses how Christmas went from being a secular holiday to a religious one, how Jesus was inserted into it, the origins of Santa Claus, and all the other myths in between that still hold sway in our modern-day seasonal celebrations.
After the Paris attacks, tensions are running higher than they have in many years over the threat posed by Islamism, how we should talk about it, and how policy should respond to it. One of our most difficult cultural challenges is distinguishing the acts of violent Islamists from public attitudes towards Muslims in general, and specifically how heated and often ugly rhetoric impacts how we confront the massive refugee crisis.
To discuss this thorny and emotionally charged issue, Josh Zepps talks with Michael Brooks, contributor for the award-winning daily political talk show, The Majority Report. It is a lively discussion of a highly polarized issue, revealing just how complicated and nuanced Islam’s role in these crises truly is.
You don’t have to be paranoid to recognize that privacy isn’t what it used to be. The government can get access to our phone calls and emails, video surveillance is becoming a norm in public places, and nearly everyone has the ability to record at will, discreetly from their cellphones. It’s no wonder that paranoia is becoming a common phenomenon. But at what point does a healthy suspicion become delusional denial?
Today’s guest is clinical psychologist David Laporte, a professor of psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and author of the new book, Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional. Laporte considers paranoia a defining affliction of the modern age, as the paranoid mindset becomes ever more legitimized by the media and political figures. Research suggests that one need not be schizophrenic to suffer from a paranoia disorder, as many people may fall within a spectrum of varying gravities of paranoia, much of which is just beginning to be understood in clinical psychology.
It used to be that autism was considered to be the result of poor parenting, but starting in the 1930s, it was understood to be a hereditary condition, and the behaviors often associated with autism turn out to be present, to one degree or another, in most of us. Though attitudes about autism have changed over the decades, the stigma attached to it lingers on.
To discuss our evolving understanding of autism, Point of Inquiry welcomes award-winning science journalist Steve Silberman, author of the new book Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Silberman uncovers the lost history of autism, and shows how we arrived at the concept of the autism spectrum. Steve argues that many of us have autistic traits, and that some of which, such as social awkwardness and highly focused passions, have actually helped to shape the world in which we live, especially the digital realm we all now depend upon.
Is smoking pot a fundamental human right? On Wednesday, November 4th Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that four individuals involved in a private cannabis club have the constitutional right to grow, sell, and smoke cannabis based on “the right to the free development of one’s personality.” The ruling was limited to the specific individuals who brought the suit, but it introduces a host of questions about what might happen if the trend toward broader marijuana legalization continues in Mexico.
Here to talk about the current political climate as it relates to drugs in Mexico is journalist and intelligence analyst Sylvia Longmire. Longmire specializes in Mexico’s drug war, and provides valuable insight not only into this latest development, but also the particular quirks of the Mexican legal system, and the potential repercussions of Mexican drug legalization on cartels, the illegal drug trade, and drug policies in the U.S.
Most people know Harry Houdini as the world famous magician and illusionist, but in addition to his life as a performer, Houdini was also known to have a deep fascination with the afterlife. So much so he spent the later part of his career investigating spiritualists and mediums. With the help of his undercover assistant Rose Mackenberg, he was able to investigate spiritual claims and assess if they were in fact actual paranormal occurrences or mere illusions, much like the ones he preformed as a magician.
In this special Halloween extra, Point of Inquiry’s producer Nora Hurley chats with Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator. Together, they conduct the Center for Inquiry’s Annual Houdini Séance. While summoning the dead, Nickell explains precisely how Houdini worked closely with his assistant Rose to expose fraudulent mediums and spiritualists, who were using illusions and trickery to profit off the grief of innocent people.
Having poor luck contacting Houdini in previous years, Joe and Nora have decided to try something different this year by opening up the séance to Rose as well. She was a vital component of Houdini’s investigations and did much of the difficult legwork in exposing spiritual frauds. Perhaps they’ll have better luck getting in touch with the afterlife by reaching out to her along with Houdini.