Sunday, September 20, 2009

The future of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe

Rebecca Watson, as noted in my last post, has announced that she is moving to Britain and going to spend time traveling to various parts of the globe. She has also made clear that she is not leaving the SGU or Skepchick. I have no reason to doubt her sincerity. However, between time zone difference, travel schedules, possible lack of internet access, and recovery from tropical diseases, it is not unreasonable to foresee Rebecca's appearance on the show decreasing. This new development in the personal life of one of the rouges sparks a question about the future of SGU. As far as I know the Skeptics Guide to the Universe is the most popular skeptical podcast in the WORLD! (cue dramatic music) Whether Rebecca's future on the show is in any doubt or not, it brings up concerns for the future of SGU. Given the popularity of SGU in the skeptical community (from basically a grass roots organization), it may now be the time to think about plans to keep SGU around long into the future without handcuffing the Rogues to their podcast microphones. It is the opportunity to position the show to continue past the current panel of rogues and even the guiding hand of Dr. Steven Novella.

The SGU is doing wonderfully, and putting out a quality show each Saturday in a nearly clockwork manner that is enlightening and entertaining. For the moment, everything is peachy. And yet I wonder what the show would need to do to maintain its current stride and influence in the skeptical community.

It is not hard to figure out why even the most successful podcast might disappear, especially an independent podcast that is not sponsored by an institution with a bankroll and handing out paychecks. If someone is producing a podcast and financing it in part or in whole out of pocket, while trying to hold a day job, life can get in the way. Also, people can just be mean to a person or small group of people posting podcasts out of interests or fun. A non-skeptical (I mean very non-skeptical) podcast "Mysterious Universe"* which seemed to be very popular went through a couple months of irregular posts, and then it just stopped. Logically Critical, a podcast dealing with logical thought experiments on a particular topic, basically stopped after two or three less than well received posts. I am speculating but I suspect the time and effort to do their respective podcasts just stopped being worth it in the face of some negative outpourings, and *poof* good-bye entertaining show.

Which brings me to the topic of this post, what would happen if SGU just disappeared? It may not stop because of negative reaction, but just good old-fashioned burnout. If it stopped, I know what would happen to me. I would be depressed, and probably drink as much as Rebecca Watson drinks for about a month or three and then move along with my life with a giant hole in my Saturday afternoon. It would be sad to see the SGU disappear, because the SGU has the opportunity to be more than the sum of all of the Rogues and their winning chemistry. It has the possibility to be (and possibly already is) a brand unto itself that could outlive the current panel of Rogues, and be a useful entity that could go on for years. The question is how does the SGU move in this direction without ruining a good thing.

I have no fear that they are ever going to run out of topics. Let’s face it, woo is like fossil fuels there is always going to be plenty of it around. Woo is a limitless resource, there is always going to be some topic to discuss if not homeopathy, then bigfoot, if not bigfoot, then some new form of creationism. What I do worry about is the Rogues burning out at a rather brutal schedule, and with the passing of Perry DeAngelis and a possible increase in Watson's absence, it tends to make me wonder if the show should seek out new talent. No. I am not saying they should do a casting call for a new young twenty-something skeptic, or look around for another gruff but likable skeptic who tells it like it is. However, at its essence, the SGU is a panel show. Panel shows on television typically have a group of regulars who meet to discuss the political/cultural issues of the day. They usually have a rotating stable of panelists who can fill in when one of the regulars is unavailable. It seems to me that the closest person in this regard to the show is Dr. Phil Plait. While he has shown himself to be a true friend to the show, he is a guest. Not only would a small cadre of revolving rogues help take some pressure from them continually having to man the oars, but new people means fresh perspective. As a handy example, Richard Wiseman was a splendid guest panelist on the second Perry DeAngelis memorial podcast. Dr. Wiseman's psychological insights and hands-on test anecdotes were quite interesting.

Another concern for the show's long term survival is the hosting duties. Dr. Novella does a crackerjack job, but he has done every single show as host except for one that I can recall off the top of my head when he was on vacation. Not to mention, all of the behind the scenes work such as researching the science or fiction segment and other news items, editing, etc. It's not that Dr. Novella is expendable to the show, but even Johnny Carson had a small group of guest hosts that enabled him to take enough breaks so that he didn't burn out during his thirty freaking years on air. (I imagine Dr. Novella with a pot of coffee brewing at 2am desperately trying to edit SGU, while working on an entry for Science Based Medicine, and helping a kid with math homework. Yes, all that and the guy does not even drink coffee in real life.) Oh yeah, he’s also a Neurologist. I am sure that eats into one’s schedule. I write a silly blog, which I post a couple times a week, and I have to look for the time to do it.

I am not saying completely re-vamp the show or the current panel of rogues, but what I am saying is that the SGU has done something rather impressive in that the Skeptics Guide to the Universe is possibly more than just Steve, Jay, Bob, Rebecca, and Evan; it is a brand unto itself that could go on and outlast the show's founders. In order to maintain "the brand" (I sound like Don Draper, good grief) it may be necessary to bring in new people without destroying the show's chemistry. I cannot say I have the list of people who might be able to fill this role, but I have a few thoughts on who might work. Steve Mirsky, Karl Mamer, Brian Dunning, Brian Thompson, Phil Plait, the skepchicks are a fertile pool of talent, for all I know Evan's neighbor or people connected with the NESS or Skepchick we've never heard of could make a good fit.

It might be that the Novella boys, Evan, and Rebecca have spent countless hours discussing the above, and they already have a plan to spring into action to keep the show going for years to come. They may not care, and when they grow weary of the podcast one, five, or ten years from now, it will evaporate with them. I would find that a pity, and a lost opportunity to keep the SGU as the premier voice of the skeptical movement. It would be a more fitting and enduring achievement when the rogues are enjoying a well deserved rest in the old age home, while being kept alive with nanobots, that the Skeptics Guide will still be on with Madison, David, Helmut, Terry, and your host Henry Miller.

--My wife Hermione contributed to this post.

*Edit-Mysterious Universe is back. I'll listen to it, and post on it later.

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