Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Reality Check Podcast

There's a debate in skepticism as to why so many skeptics are male. One hypothesis is men are more confrontational. They're more comfortable with the idea of being alone, friendless, dateless, but right. Women tend to value everyone getting along over being right. The Skepchicks (Rebecca Watson being the best known of their crew) do a lot to fight that stereotype, of course. Or if it's a true stereotype (there's an oxymoron) they're working hard to convince their fellow sisters (is that an oxymoron as well?) that sometimes everyone getting along can be detrimental. For example, not speaking up when one mother pipes up with fears about vaccines and parrots Jenny McCarthy's debunked canards can mean your own children are in danger when herd immunity drops.

A lesser known debate but related is why are there so few visible Canadian skeptics? We're bigger than Australia by population (and nearly twice as handsome) but we don't have anyone like Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics. There's a perception that Canadians are a reasonable, rational people. Of course, every weekend I walk by the Eaton Center in Toronto and see the 9/11 Truthers have now now morphed into a vaccine denial organization1 (and I predict HIV denialism is right around the corner for the Canadian 9/11 Truthers). If "rational Canadian" is a true stereotype then there are some hard-to-ignore outliers. My own pop psychology take is, like the "why are there so few women in skepticism" debate, Canadians tend to be a "keep your head down" society. We tend to value everyone getting along over the lone individual being right. America was founded by people like Paul Revere waking everyone up in the night. Canada was founded by French and Scots who, when they weren't drinking, spent an extra hundred years talking with the British into cutting the cord.

In Toronto -- the largest, greatest, richest, most awesomest city in Canada (if not the whole world and universe) -- podcast wise you've got ummm well ummm me. Doing a sometimes once a month mumble fest about conspiracies2.

Fortunately, we can look even farther north to Canada's capital city Ottawa (colder, smaller, duller than Toronto, which is Canada's Gondor in most respects) for some real vigorous skeptical representation in the podcast world. The Ottawa Skeptics do a Skeptics' Guide to the Universe like podcast called The Reality Check. It's hosted by Jonathan Abrams, Darren McKee, Adam Gardner, and Elan Dubrofsky. Former co-hosts include Xander Miller and Catherine LeBel.

The Ottawa Skeptics have only been around for a couple years but they've done some great investigative work, like bringing to public attention an Ontario school board which is throwing away limited public funds on tubs of dirt claimed to be "EMF Balancers". And there's this detailed and well reasoned investigation into the efficacy of a product called Cold FX, Canada's version of Airborne.

The podcast itself follows the standard hour long panel discussion format. The theme music is composed by Ottawa Skeptic fellow Pat Roach and his wife. Lately they've been starting the podcast with skeptical parodies of well known songs. For example their latest podcast opens with a parody of Kenny Rogers' "Gambler" but the lyrics have been changed to skeptical references. It's quite professional and the episodes leading up to Christmas had a lot of seasonal songs turned on their end. I sure hope the Ottawa Skeptics release a tape (CD? iTunes store? SD card? what's the tech the kids are into these days for their skiffle music?) with full songs. It would make a great fund raiser. I betcha a CD of this stuff would fly off a table at TAM. Hint. Hint.

At the top of the show the Reality Check crew (my R Misc bin is really filling up with skeptical podcast these days, in addition to Reality Check, I have Reasonable Doubts and Righteous Indignation in my iTunes queue) usually discuss some current items making the rounds in science and skepticism. They then jump to a number of regular segments, the best being "Myth of the Week". Each week one of the RC hosts picks a science myth or urban legend that's well entrenched in society and the host examines the evidence for it. For example, a couple weeks back they examined the myth that Twinkies have an improbably long shelf life.

They occasionally surprise their listeners by throwing into the mix science myths that aren't actually myths. Sometimes one can develop such an eye/ear for myths and urban legends that you too easily dismiss all folk knowledge. The RC bunch help pull you back from the ledge of cynicism by reminding you some things that sound like legends are true. For example, there's the "myth" that flamingos are pink based on their diet. The sea life they tend to eat gives them their feather pigment. Turns out that's true. (I noticed last summer at the Toronto zoo some grey colored flamingos and explained to my niece the color comes from their diet. So I was quiet worried when they introduced this as the topic of Myth of the Week.)

Abrams and company also delve into skeptical topics both current and historical in a Skepticism 101 fashion. It's a great way to get up to speed. Topics are always well researched.

Unlike most podcasts that are done over the magic of Skype, I believe Reality Check is recorded with all hosts present in the same room and around a table. In addition to good sound quality, the face-to-face production has the advantage that hosts can read each other's body language and understand when they can talk in turn. It's the rare Skype-recorded podcast that could juggle so many hosts and not have everyone talking over each other. The chat is always lively, spontaneous, and sometimes strays into some good natured wet towel slapping humor.

Name: The Reality Check
Release: Weekly, usually on a Monday
URL: http://www.ottawaskeptics.org/the-reality-check

-- Karl


1 Yes it really does say "woo" above their umbrella to the left.

2 I'm being a bit of a wag. Justin Trottier and his Toronto Centre for Inquiry do some good work here in Hogtown.


  1. Visible Canadian skeptics? *cough Daniel Loxton cough and the late Barry Beyerstein cough and James Randi was born in Canada cough*... ;)

  2. *cough, you've just inspired next week's ep for Token Skeptic on 'why more women not skeptics' cough....* :p


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