Friday, January 22, 2010

EconTalk Podcast

There are a lot of excellent science and skepticism podcasts out there but there are precious few podcasts devoted to economics/business that rise above fodder for SEO marketing, "make millions on the stock market!", and pop business psychology.

Some of the most skeptical thinking we do on a daily basis involves our money so it's a little odd there's not more of it in the skeptical realm. I, for one, really enjoyed Randi's campaign from a few years ago to take on makers of $1,000 stereo cables.

Part of the problem is economics isn't a hard science. It's tightly bound up with politics and a whole range of philosophical questions regarding what role the state should play in our financial affairs. The skeptical movement has done a great job staying apolitical. Skeptics who bring too much political economic thinking into their skepticism tend to suffer a lot of criticism. Brian Dunning and Penn Jillette, for example, are massively awesome skeptics. But at times they show their libertarian allegiances and get called on the carpet for it by fellow skeptics. I'm not suggesting Dunning and Jillette's politics clouds their judgment, it's just skeptics tend to have a very itchy finger on the flame button if they think a hint of politics is getting intertwined with skepticism.

Another reason economics and skepticism rarely go together is economics is very unfamiliar territory for most of us. For my Conspiracy Skeptic podcast I did a two part series on conspiracy claims about the Fed, banks, and money. You think Scientology is hard to get your mind around with all its odd jargon like "clear", "body thetan", "grease up the emo", "fair game", "MEST", and "jump the couch"? Try delving into the world of finance and economics. Oish. It takes a long while to ramp up before you can even start to piece together what these people do. Most skeptics come to skepticism from a love of science. Science has had a long history of great communicators of science to the general public. So when you're trying to understand claims about UFOs, faces on Mars, Bigfoot, most skeptics already have a grounding in concepts like the speed of light, archeology, and evolution. But where is a skeptic to turn to get a grounding in economics and evaluate claims that money is a form of debt meant to keep us in the thrall of European bankers?

EconTalk, gentle reader. EconTalk. Hosted by economics professor Russ Roberts of George Mason University (Go Mighty Brick Men! May you crush the Liberty University Fighting Homo Habilis in the Semolina Bowl!), EconTalk is a roughly one hour podcast that delves into a wide range of economic topics.

Each episode features a topic and a guest. Many guests are working economist but Roberts throws a lot of tangentially related guests into the mix. For example, he did a show about pirate economics (both historical and the scurvy curs currently working off the coast of North East Africa). On another great show Roberts brought on a car salesman he just bought a car from and picked the salesman's brain as to how price negotiations go. Grab a look at a list of my favorite shows I posted on The Long Run Blog.

What makes EconTalk an excellent podcast for skeptics who want to get up to speed on economic issues is Roberts is cognizant many, if not most, of his listeners are newbs to the world of economics and he rarely lets jargon slips by. He has no problem interrupting a learned guest to clue the listener in on a jargon term or economic concept. As well, Roberts displays a great deal of skepticism regarding his own economic beliefs and the belief economists use empirical methods to arrive at answers. He frequently notes he always asks other economists to name a time when the data has changed their mind. Those in medicine, astronomy, and physics, for example, frequently change their mind about major beliefs based on the hard data.

Another great aspect of EconTalk is it is a great example of how academics debate. If you're used to flame wars on message boards, it's very refreshing to hear Roberts challenge a guest on a point or have a guest challenge Roberts on a point and the matter is discussed calmly and rationally.

Name: EconTalk
Release: Weekly. On Monday without fail.

-- Karl


  1. Karl,
    Great review of EconTalk! We definitely need more communicators like Russ Roberts that can give us a solid grounding in economic thinking.


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