Monday, May 31, 2010

Interview with Blake Smith of the Monster Talk podcast

Blake Smith is everywhere these days. Some know him by his moniker Dr. Atlantis. Others know him by his actual real name, Blake (aka Blake Smith, aka Mr. Smith). And by he's everywhere I mean three of the five places I really actually pay attention to: the Monster Talk podcast (which he's a host/creator of), the Amateur Scientist podcast (where he does some occasional bits for Brian Thompson), and SGU's message board (where he claims to be 943 years old and macks the ladies wearing a dive belt and a lab coat). The other two places I pay attention to are, of course, Skeptical Review (kinda, like, the blog you're reading now) and I can't do much about making Blake into a leggy Korean woman, but I can bring him into the Skeptical Review fold by interviewing him.

I grabbed a red eye to Atlanta, GA (a city Brian Thompson, hipster king of Skepticism, waggishly calls "Hotlanta", ostensibly because of its muggy ass temperatures) on Friday and met Blake Smith for Saturday lunch at a Five Guys Famous burger shop just off of the Interstate 575 (Phillip Landrum Memorial Highway). Over too many cheeseburgers to recount, Cajun fries, and handfuls of bulk peanuts, we talked about his show and what I could do about perspiration.

Is your podcast a skeptical counter balance to the TV show Monster Quest? What was the impetus to do a podcast about monsters?

That's a common assumption. It wasn't just MonsterQuest that inspired me. I was tossing the idea around in my head for a while before finally deciding to execute. My original idea was to have a show called "The Doctor Atlantis Show" and to use it to respond to various poorly executed (from a rational perspective) television shows. But I have a propensity for snark and sarcasm that might not be the best way to approach those topics. So I finally decided that a science show about monsters would be better. I'm mostly inspired by CBC's Quirks and Quarks, which often interviews working scientists. That show and SETI's Are We Alone? are probably my two favorite radio-show/podcasts. That's not fair to "real" amateur podcasts as both of those shows are slickly produced, but they were my main inspiration. And the other show that really inspired me was Mysterious Universe. I figured if Ben Grundy could do something so well put together yet credulous that I could do something similar. Of course the audio quality of MonsterTalk is only recently starting to live up to those models. That was work on all three host's part, and not cheap. But the show's past few episodes really sound much better. So, hooray for decent microphones and closed windows!

You have two other co-hosts on Monster Talk. Who are they? Why does one of them sound kind of funny?

My two co-hosts are Dr. Karen Stollznow, a well known Australian skeptic and blogger and Ben Radford, a journalist and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I met both of them at Dragon*Con and struck up friendships that have lasted and flourished despite our all being in different time-zones. I think Ben probably sounds funny because he is from New Mexico. Many people assume that English is his first language, but actually he usually speaks in Esperanto and we're constantly having to remind him to revert back to English. That's what you meant, right?

Laying all modesty aside, why is your podcast so freaking awesome?

We get to talk with scientific experts about monsters - which is fun for us, often novel for the interviewees, and I get the questions I would want to ask answered. That other people also want to know the same answers or hear the same questions posed is just icing and rainbow sprinkles on the cake.

Why does your podcast only seem to come out once a month?

Because of a TARDIS accident I'm living on 1/4 time. For me the podcasts come out weekly.

But seriously, the answer is that I have a job, a ton of hobbies (including paranormal investigation), 3 kids and a wife and all of those other things tend to take precedent. Also, it's a beeyatch to coordinate 3 hosts across 3 time-zones plus an interviewee. Our real schedule is supposed to be bi-weekly, and that's what we shoot for. If I were single and childless I'd probably get the podcast out quicker - but I'd also be naked all the time.

You've mentioned you sometimes dialog with the producers of Monster Quest. Any luck in getting them to adjust the way they approach their show?

They wouldn't listen to my appeals and I had to cancel their show.

I learn more science on your podcast than SGU and Amateur Scientist combined. Why is that?

If I lived up to my own wishes, our show would effectively be NOVA with monsters. I don't think SGU or AmSci are really shooting for that level of pedantry. I want our show to elucidate, enervate and repudiate. I want to elucidate the science behind the lore of monsters. I want to enervate listeners to get excited by real science. And I want to repudiate false claims when we can identify them.

Some people have asked me if it is okay if they masticate while they listen to our show. Well I know I do, so why not them?

One thing I like about your podcast is you get some pretty hardcore scientists, not the professional skeptics doing the podcast circuit. Have you had any challenges trying to get some of these serious researcher types on your show?"

Yes. We had a dickens of a time getting Dr. David Martill on to talk about pterosaurs. I won't get into all the details but I did have to write a detailed letter explaining (or endeavoring to prove) that I'm not "some nutjob." Thankfully he came on and it was an absolutely fascinating discussion.

We've also had a hard time getting "believers" to come on the show. So far only Jimmy Chilcutt, the man who says there may be bigfoot fingerprints in some tracks, has come on. And even he won't say he believes, only that he thinks his evidence strongly implies there is a mystery ape in North America making tracks.

We've tried to get BFRO creator Matt Moneymaker to come on, but thus far he has not felt the need to do so. Loren Coleman has not come on yet, though since he says we're "a stalking horse" for CSICOP he may feel a conflict of interest? I have no idea. We'd let him plug his cryptomuseum.

How did getting under the auspices of Skeptic magazine come about?

Well, it was my first time in the big city and a stranger gave me a free drink. Then I woke up a few episodes later being hosted by Skeptic! See? I'm just a silly person. I have to edit out so much crap like that from my show (which I want to keep PBS fresh).

Daniel Loxton contacted me and asked if I'd consider following in Skepticality's footsteps and when he explained that they'd pay the hosting fees and do the website for me, I threw on the robe, drank the blood, made the oaths and signed the paper with my sigil!

A few personal questions if that's okay. How old are you? Where do you live? Are you married? What do you do when you're not doing a podcast?

I'm 40. I live in the liberal and hedonistic poet community of Kennesaw, GA. Pretty much the Haight-Ashbury of North Georgia. Except instead of poetry we have guns, and instead of trendy coffee shops filled with hemp-wearing liberals, we have Baptist churches.

As I said above, I'm married with 3 kids. Which is legal. But try and be married TO 3 kids and they'll haul your Mormon butt off to jail.

What Athens, GA was to alt rock bands in the 1980s, Atlanta, GA seems to be an incubator for skepticism. Any truth to that notion of mine or is it just one of those things where journalists take two data points and then proclaim a new trend?

If you take one data point you can draw a line through it in any direction. If you take two data points you can draw circles around them and make boobs. That's science.

There's a lot of skeptics in the south, but only the power of podcasting and blogs and social media has made them all come together like some giant rational bukake. This is something that DJ Grothe writes about a lot. (Social Media, not bukake.) My guess is that two trends have joined to make this highly-distributed mecca of materialism: 1) A lot of rationalists moved into the ATL during the 1996 Olympics and subsequent tech boom. And 2) The aforementioned social media explosion allowed these disparate people to meet when they probably never would have otherwise. We're lucky to have members in the Atlanta Skeptics who are willing to do a little hard work to organize meetings and put together events - yet we have no officers, no due, no formal registry of membership --- it's pretty much an open community for people who value reality.

I thought the sound quality on my Conspiracy Skeptic podcast was pure crap, so I'm glad to find a podcast that comes along and really lowers the bar for people like me who want to put out a podcast using $5 microphones. What kind of technical challenges have you been struggling with? Anything make you want to throw up your hands and walk away?

First, I was having problems with Skype. Then with my recording software PrettyMay. Then I changed recording software to Pamela. (Why is all skype recording software named after girls?) Then I bought an awesome Blue Yeti mic, Karen got a gig as host of Point of Inquiry (and sound gear!) and Ben got a good mic. And except for the continuing anal rape of Skype itself, we're doing pretty good these days!

What's the origin of your nom de skepticism, Dr. Atlantis?

Here's the brief version. After a lengthy discussion with an astronomer at Dragon*Con back in 1999 I strongly considered doing a dark-side book & website dealing with the lost technology of Atlantis. I planned to write under the Nom de Bullshit of Doctor Atlantis - but decided that I'm really too honest to do that. But the name amused me. The irony of using a silly name like Dr. Atlantis and yet producing hard-science and resolving paranormal questions with logic and reason was too much for me to walk away from.

Who is your favorite Indigo Girls girl? Amy Ray or Emily Saliers?

Nancy Ann Tappe

During an excellent interview on the Skeptically Speaking radio show, you guys mentioned Bigfoot hunters have excellent baloney detectors when it comes to Bigfoot claims. And I think you noted the author of the blog Cryptomundo seems to walk a fine line between skepticism and credulity. Could you expand a bit on that?

When a new creature hits the news - like the recent dead mink in Canada or the Montauk Monster, the best place to get to the bottom of it is probably on boards with a high concentration of serious cryptozoological researchers. Yes, the final identification almost always comes from science, but who do you think takes the samples to scientists for analysis? Or the photos - whatever the evidence is... It certainly doesn't seem to be the news people. ANY reporter could have solved those cases the same way cryptozoology enthusiasts might. They could have interviewed biologists, considered the locations where the animals were found, etc... But there is a kind of "news" story that has become quite pervasive. It is the "SOMEONE ALLEGES MONSTER - TAKE A LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE." That is shitty journalism. People at the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) message boards, Cryptomundo, and many other sites will bat about possible explanations, crowd-source, and if possible find a solution. Yes, sometimes one person's blurry lake photo is another's Nessie - but a lot of times the Cryptozoology fans can be efficient solvers.

They all tend to borrow liberally from one another, but usually the truth will out if it can be discerned from the evidence provided.

Do you have a subway in Atlanta? Do you take it? I used to live in Seattle and I was always told in the 1970s Seattle people turned down a Federal government offer to build them a subway so the Federal government then went to the second city on their list, which was Atlanta, and that's where you got your subway, from the skinflints in Seattle who were too cheap to pay for a measly 10% of something as highly useful as an efficient subway system.

We do - it is called MARTA. I like to take it when I can - but living in the 'burbs, it doesn't come up much. And my home county, which would have benefitted from being connected to MARTA voted it down because they're racists -er, I mean because they thought it would "bring crime" to Cobb. As if, when one rides the trains, it is full of people with stolen TVs and bloody baseball bats. I assume Cobb gets its civics from watching The Warriors over and over. We did have a problem with Mime Gangs, but the police have effectively silenced them in recent years.

Archeologist Ken Feder has always been one of my favorite SGU guests and he was like the Smoke Monster unleashed on your show. Any plans to have him back on again?

Yes, I really want to get him at Dragon*Con to do an Ancient Astronauts ep - but it's been difficult to coordinate. We love Kenny and want him back.

Do you enjoy crayfish boils in Georgia as well? Do you call them crayfish or crawfish or even crawdads?

We say crawdads. Or I do. I like to catch them, but never found them worth cooking. Frankly I find them fascinating. One night I went to the movies and when I got out the parking lot was full of them - they were just walking around in the lot. A girl screamed thinking it was a giant bug she was seeing - and in a way it was. I did a blog entry on it with photos - but can't find it right now. They were big. I did not have sex with them though. Why? Did someone say I did? Because I didn't.

You had a Bigfoot expert on by the name of Jimmy Chilcutt. He was an old school crime scene investigator who seems to have no dog in the fight regarding Bigfoot but seems to have concluded the foot casts evidence before him made it hard to dismiss some casts as fakes. The whole idea of peer review was unfamiliar to him but otherwise he talked with the measured language of a scientist. I noticed he never stated more than the evidence before him. He was never willing to make claims or even speculate beyond his area of knowledge. He floored me when you guys asked him why there are only three casts with dermal ridges and without thinking he noted "I didn't say there were only three. I've only examined three". You seemed to try to prompt him into publishing his findings in a more formal fashion. Any follow up with Mr. Chilcutt? What's your take on him?

I did follow up with Mr. Chilcutt on the question of his original research which dealt with racial-typing via fingerprints. He hypothesized that human fingerprints couldn't be used that way because we're too interbred. Based on some correspondence with an ethnologist and other scientists I think a better hypothesis is that he couldn't do this because race is a social construct and not a real identifying trait from a genetic perspective. I passed this research on to him, but have not heard back from him.

One thing I was most fascinated to learn is there's big support for cyptids by young earth creationists. Could you explain why creationists seem to be jumping into the field of cryptozoology?

I'm still researching that and wouldn't want to comment on it until I've done more work - but it is a fascinating and misguided approach to reality they have.

I was arguing once with a creationist who believes dinosaurs were on Noah's ark and survived into the middle ages. He claimed they died off due to over hunting. I suggested if this were true you'd think we'd find some trophy kills in the tombs of kings: bones, teeth, scales, etc. People would be sending them to other kings as tribute and we'd have records of kings bragging about the tribute lesser kings have
sent and so on. Any creationists contacted Monster Talk? Any creationists earmarked as a future guest?

Not yet - but...I have one earmarked if I can schedule an interview with him. Just not sure if MonsterTalk is the right venue or if I should package it up for AmSci to use. I find them fascinating - though my extended family is mostly of that viewpoint so I have to be careful to avoid nepotism in my guest booking.

One of the biggest arguments against most monster claims is any creature needs a large breeding population. Bigger the monster and more confined its territory, it's less likely these creatures would just be seen as fleeting, fast moving shadows. Ever think you had a cryptozoologist pinned to the wall and have him come up with a bone head counter argument?

I've never debated a creationist with anything except the Socratic method. It seems like the correct approach to me. Getting them to question their own premise is the key to getting them to explore the reason-based world.

I've worked with (and lived with) enough people who use scripture as the basis for their world view that I know many consider the lack of evidence to be a better way to view the world because it forces one to rely on faith. People like that are not likely to change their views when confronted with science because science is secular and outside of their trust circle. They often have so poor an understanding of logic, reason and what constitutes evidence that they're impossible to debate. There is an old saying round here that could be modified to say: "Never debate a creationist. Because you'll find it illogical, and the creationist will like it." That's not to literally say you should never debate a creationist - it's just a futile, futile thing to do. What I've seen is that (in public debates) the creationists think they've won because they got out their message. The "debate" rules tend to go to the natural selectionists because of how debates tend to favor those who use evidence and reality. But in the end both sides will think they've won.

Personal debates are another matter. It's up to each person to decide if it is worthwhile engaging a creationist and how to do it - but I really think Socratic method is the way to go.

It's frustrating - like how a neurosurgeon must feel when people come up and claim that phrenology is teh awesum science. I see vast amounts of evidence that natural selection is the best explanation for speciation over the long history of earth. And creationists think everything came from Noah's big-ass boat...

Anything else cool in the pipeline you can talk about?

I'm excited about the Cthulhu episode. I'm very excited about putting together a live MonsterTalk at Dragon*Con. But that's all I have to say about that...

-- Karl

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