Friday, April 30, 2010

Interview with Michael Marshall of Skeptics with a K podcast

Skeptics with a K podcast

After a slow start, the UK is starting to turn out some really great skeptical podcasts. Trystan Swale's Righteous Indignation set the tempo: irreverence with a certain amount of reverence for the dignity of woo proponents. Initially a two person show with co-host Hayley Stevens, Righteous Indignation introduced a mysterious and mercurial co-host named Michael Marshall. No one seemed to be able to remember his name until Hayley pointed out on Conspiracy Skeptic they just call him Marsh. Like a swamp. That was easy enough. Marsh has broadened his reach and appeal with a couple other skeptical podcasts including a fully enjoyable round table kind of podcast called Skeptics with a K. That did it for me. I jumped on the first plane to brave deadly volcanic ash, flew to the UK, and met Marsh for high tea at London's famed Dorchester Hotel. We sat down (over several plates of cucumber sandwiches, bubble and squeak, and flaming tudors down a well) for a brief interview:

I like to describe Skeptics with a K as "skeptics in the pub for shut-ins". It's a kind of a virtual Skeptics in the Pub experience for listeners. Four guys talking informally about skeptical topics and no comment seems taboo. How would you describe Skeptics with a K?

I guess Skeptics with a K, primarily, is essentially the conversations Mike (Hall - MSS co-founder) and I were having anyway, but recorded and with Colin (Harris - MSS co-founder) involved. It's a fairly-shambolic, overly-enthusiastic and snarky mix of science, skepticism and sarcasm, really. Oh, and there's actually only 3 guys on the show - unless you meant my ego was the 4th...

Where is Merseyside exactly?

Short answer? It's alongside the Mersey. Obviously. But if you're pressing me for a bit more detail, we're talking Liverpool UK - home of the Beatles, the soccer team and a plethora of cheeky-chappy 80s comedians who have since fallen on hard times as the world of comedy has moved on around them.

Some biographical questions if it's not too personal: How old are you? What do you do for a living? What's your educational background?

Not too personal at all! I'm 26, and I've been working in the area of marketing and web design for the past few years, pretty much since I graduated with an English BA here in Liverpool. So yeah, I'm one of those cursed humanities graduates, then! But I think that's a good thing - for too long, people have worried about science-illiterate humanities graduates ruining science communication, but I think to really make the most of communications opportunities science needs to be a bit more humanities-savvy, and engage with people whose specialism is getting the message out there to people.

What's an O level? What's an A level? These have nothing to do with blood types, right? How come Adrian Mole is always stressed out about them?

I think both of those are OT levels - Adrian Mole was big into Scientology, I think he was OT 13 3/4 or so, which I believe meant he had the power of invisibility, time travel and excessive levels of teenage masturbation.

What's the significance of "Skeptics with a K"? Why not "Skeptics with a P"? Would right-thinking people spell skeptic any other possible way?

Alas, over here in good-'ole-Blighty people like to spell sceptic with a 'C'. They also like to confuse 'sceptic' with 'cynic', and label us as curmudgeonly old men with beards and doubts and doubtful beards. We decided early on to be the Merseyside SKeptics Society to try and get around that issue, and so we figured as we'd be forever telling people to spell the word with a K, we might as well make that the name of the show and kill two birds with one pithy podcast title.

Many readers of the Skeptical Review know you as Marsh (formerly "the other guy") from Righteous Indignation but on Skeptics with a K you have, like, some totally different other co-hosts. So many new names to learn. Could you briefly explain who they are exactly and some of their less inviting personal habits?

I do indeed have two entirely other co-hosts, who I'm sure the readers of Skeptical Review will learn to take to their hearts and bosoms and (possibly) beds. First of all we have Col, who's the quieter of my fellow co-hosts: he's the secretary and co-founder of the MSS, and he loves to surprise us with the most off-the-wall and unusual stories of the week. And then there's Mike, who's possibly the single biggest Dr Who nerd in history, having run one of the largest Dr Who conventions in the UK for years. He also loves to drop random bombshells on us, like the fact that he's credited on the 'Withnail and I' DVD.

One of the things I enjoy about doing a podcast is you get to interact with people a lot smarter than you. Any cool names you want to drop?

We're pretty insular on Skeptics with a K - we tried an interview once, but it wasn't really us, didn't really fit with the style of the show. That said, as organisers of Merseyside Skeptics in the Pub we've had some great guests in the past - the charming Simon Singh, Chris French (who's a genuinely top guy), and most recently we had a really cool guest - Dr Matthew Smith, from the UK TV show 'Most Haunted'. Matthew's actually a parapsychologist, but he's attempting to learn 'genuine' psychic powers, if they exist. When he came to the pub for us, we put him to the test in a mini-JREF challenge - great footage, and a great evening, but alas he was way below statistical significance in his readings.

There's a certain intimacy to podcasts. These people are, in a sense, in your head, talking to you. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that they mostly have no fucking clue you even exist. I'm talking to you, George Hrab. When Perry DeAngelis of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast died, for many listeners it hit them hard. It hit me hard. I can only describe it as the same kind of sadness I experienced losing a close aunt. And Perry never put $20 in a birthday card for me. Ever. What are your thoughts about the podcasting medium and interactions with listeners? Any good experiences? Any bad experiences?

I know exactly what you mean - I only became a listener of the SGU's after Perry had passed away, but having listened from the start I felt his loss just as hard, which is both sad and really cool at the same time: it's kinda like this is the real way to be 'alive' and influence new people and to be loved after death. I really love the intimacy of a podcast, and it never fails to amaze me that people actually listen to us. I don't think we've had any bad experiences really, maybe the general irreverence of the show puts any of the crazies off, or maybe we're all just thick-skinned like lizards. Although, just to be clear, we're not lizards (you can never be sure when David Icke is listening). So all of our experiences, for me, have been great - I love to get emails from listeners recommending I take a look at this website, or that we discuss this topic, or just generally letting us know they listen to the show.

How is your podcast produced? Do you do it over Skype? In Colin's kitchen?

Here, Mike is king - his uber-tech-nerdiness is vital to the running of the show. We actually record in his back bedroom - replete with dinosaur wallpaper from the family who lived there before him. Really, it's ridiculous - there's a full-size model of a Dalek in there right now. But it's actually really vital to the energy and the balance of the show that we're in the same room, I think - it's so much easier to get a good banter going, to feed off visual cues and signals, and generally to bounce off each other. Essentially, I turn up at his door every second Sunday, drink his tea, make a few off-colour jokes about race, and then leave him with the nightmare of editing. It's a system.

When you started Skeptics with a K, did you guys think "well, the world needs another skeptical podcast?"

I think, really, we started the show because we had such fun having exactly those conversations in the pub, and we just felt we had a rapport that would translate well to a podcast medium. It's bizarre, I only met Mike on day 1 of the MSS - we were total strangers who just found each other on Meetup, asking to set up a skeptic society - but we seemed to have an instant rapport, and it's spread from there. I think when we came to start the show, we did have a long think about the format - we're not science experts like the Novellas, we were never going to be able to out-research Brian Dunning, and we felt the market for interview shows had been covered more thoroughly and completely than we could pull off. What we saw a gap for, really, was in sillyness and banter. The main rule of the show is that the story tends to come secondary to any jokes we want to make. I think there's really only the Amateur Scientist podcast and the Geologic podcast that are doing that, and those tend to be pretty much one-man shows. We saw a niche, and then we just kinda threw ourselves into that niche in the most shambolic, rambling, under-produced way we could be arsed with.

What's your advice for people who want to start a skeptical podcast?

Definitely to know your strengths, and know your what show you're making. Not everyone can be the SGU, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. Beyond that, I think practice and planning is key - when you listen to a show, it's easy to see where someone's done the research to be able to talk about their topic. If you've just opened a web page and you're reading it on the spot, it really comes through to a listener; if you can't pronounce a name right, it stands out a mile. Beyond that, I'd say get comfortable on the mic, know your on-air personality and what kind of podcaster you are or want to be, and try not to sound too scripted. Oh, and be energetic! But yeah, other than that I've not much advice, really...!

What's the upside of being a podcaster?

Definitely the feedback - it's great to know you're appreciated for what you do. I had a listener who's about to start a podcast for the BBC ask me for advice - it's insane that people even know who I am, let alone listen to me!

What's the downside of being a podcaster?

The time involved can be pretty brutal! If you're going to do it, you have to do it right - and that means time to research, to plan, and to record. On top of that, it's amazing how closely people listen - a throwaway comment can lead to a flood of emails... which isn't ideal when you're prone to making ill-thought-out, semi-shocking comments for comic value, as I am!

You seem to be getting into the "golden rolodex" of UK journalists when it comes to skeptical topics, notably alt-med and homeopathy. What mainstream media have you done? How's that gone? Any successes?

It's been amazing, that's for sure - I think the thing that really seemed to get us into the public eye was definitely the 10:23 campaign. In January, we had over 300 people in the UK, and another 50 or more around the world, take to the streets to take a homeopathic overdose. Amazingly, it made it into the media across the world, including making front page of the BBC site and full page spreads in major newspapers. Off the back of that, we've been able to get ourselves (well, me!) onto national BBC radio, countless local stations, and NPR in Canada and America. The whole campaign was just so exciting - it was this little idea dreamt up by 4 or 5 of us in our pub back in September, run with elbow-grease and by working 30-hour-weeks in our spare time in the name of the cause. To see it embraced by the global skeptical community the way it has been (witness the #ten23 tag on Twitter), and to see it featured on TV and in newspapers across the world - it was just utterly surreal and phenomenally rewarding. And, hopefully, it's made a lot of people reconsider what they thought about homeopathy - if we can make even a dent on it, then it was all worth it.

You do a great bit on Skeptics with a K where you take apart those silly surveys newspapers run where supposedly 75% of men don't know if their wife has one or two breasts or 90% of women would rather make love to a rasher of bacon than their boyfriend. You discovered some interesting stuff when you look beyond the headlines. Yes?

This is actually one of the things I'm most interested in and fascinated by - these kind of surveys you see in newspapers that come up with shocking or unusual results, and then round about the fourth or fifth paragraph you see a company name, the sponsors of the survey. When you do a bit of digging, you find that these stories are pretty much word-for-word press releases issued by that particular company. In the example you mention, just before valentines day, we saw a story about how men no nothing at all about their girlfriend - not their clothes size, eye colour... or favourite perfume brand. That was a press release from a perfume company. And it made into pretty much every newspaper in the country - it wasn't a news story, it was a thinly-disguised advert! I've seen some great examples, they're everywhere - a headline about parents refusing to discipline their kids was an advert for the armed forces cadets, a story about people having messy beds was an advert for a home insurers, and recently there was front page tabloid news about the fact that women apparently think TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson has a large penis. Not that they *know* it, but that they *think* it. That was an advert for a no-strings-attached sex/dating site. This stuff is really everywhere, and it's kinda scary how little 'news' is actually real news, so much of it is just bad PR.

Ever attended a TAM (The Amazing Meeting) in Vegas or the one in London?

I went to the London TAM in October, with Mike - it was really cool to be there, to meet the speakers there, as well as fellow skeptics - it's just a really great atmosphere. Oddly enough, Mike and I ended up having some ridiculous conversation about sausages or spaniels or something like that, as we do, and we spotted someone hovering nearby us. When we paused to see what was up, the guy said, "Oh, sorry - I'm a listener, and this is like a private Skeptics With A K episode". That was definitely enough to inflate both of our egos for a little while! It was actually at TAM that we started sounding out people like Chris French, Richard Wiseman, Andy 'Quackometer' Lewis and a few of the local SitP organisers about 10:23 - get enough skeptics into one place, and cool things definitely happen.

One of my favorite segments on Skeptics with a K is one of your co-hosts pulls a story out of a children's book that claims to be filled with amazing true facts and then you have to guess whether or not the amazing fact actually meets the scrutiny of actual research and/or cursory fact checking. Sometimes they actually do pass muster. What's the name of the book and have you been surprised by any item from the book being actually true?

Ah, 'The Giant Book Of Fantastic Facts'! Yeah, that's one of my favourite parts of the show too, and you don't even get to see the self-satisfied expression on Mike's face when he reads one of the stories out - we should do a videocast for those moments alone! But some of the stories in there do turn out to be truer that you'd give them credit for - I think most surprising was the tale of a WWII fighter pilot who ejected at 18,000ft as his burning plane was going down, and didn't have a parachute... and he survived the drop. Turns out he hit pine trees, breaking his fall somewhat, before landing in a snowdrift. He ended up in the POW camp that 'The Great Escape' was based on. It's all documented, and we even managed to track down someone who knew the guy. I think that's the most bizarre story which actually turned out to be true. But other parts of the book are amazing - it credits relativity to 'Gilbert Einstein' and talks about a man who got of bed.... only for his feet to never touch the ground, and so he flew around all day a couple of feet off the ground. It's kinda scary what they'd have kids believe is true! Then again, I went to a Catholic school, so I know first hand the kind of stuff they can try and make kids believe...

Finally, do you think your RI co-host Hayley is thinking about me right now? What about now? To the best of your knowledge, does she set aside any period of her day to ponder me and the house we'll own together in the countryside and our daughter who we'll call Melissa? Please be shockingly honest in your answer.

As it happens, I have it on good authority that Hayley sets an alarm each day, at 12.17, where she spends a full minute day-dreaming about being Mrs Mamer. But I'm not so sure about the daughter called Melissa - Melissa Mamer? Are you looking for her to be a stripper or a super-hero's alter-ego? I'm not sure you've really thought that one fully through...

After high tea, Marsh challenged me to a game of rounders out on the legendary rounders fields of Sackville Mons (famous for being the site where Henry II signed the Treaty of Oxfarm which surrendered Lower Chesterswain to the Duke of Glenflidich). He beat me four tweeps to two after seven tuppets. He claimed he went easy on me, but I have my doubts.

- Karl

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