Monday, August 16, 2010

Interview with Julia Galef of Rationally Speaking

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci is the Phil Plait of evolutionary biology. He's a "go to" skeptic. No matter which podcast you listen to he always has a different story to tell. And you always feel a bit better about being alive after listening to Massimo speak for 45 minutes.

But this isn't about Massimo. Not as such. Massimo cohosts a podcast with Julia Galef. Both are members of the New York City Skeptics. Their show is Rationally Speaking. It's a production of the NYC Skeptics and comes out roughly every other week. Rationally Speaking is a fairly new podcast but it has the right trajectory to make it one of the greats: two knowledgeable hosts, great repartee, and a nice mix of shows with guests and without guests. I find with podcasts that last beyond a dozen shows, they last mostly because you're really sucked into the personalities of the hosts and their interplay. Dogma Free America is a perfect example. Rich, Rob, Flynn, and Jamye could talk about golf and I would still listen to them every week. Guests tend to get in the way with your best headphone pals. Don't think for a second I don't have paper cut outs of Rich, Brian Thompson, and George Hrab arrayed around my dinning room table.

I met Julia at TAM8. When I say "met" I mean I fan boy'd her in the conference hallway after she moderated a panel. I think I just kept saying "lemonade, lemonade" to her, gave my camera to someone who appeared to have two usable hands, got a fan boy photo, and then ran off to absolutely die under a banquet room table. I think it went well considering.

News came down recently that Julia has been appointed to the NYC Skeptic's board. Sensing an opportunity to finish my witty dialog on lemonade, I jetted off to New York this weekend and arranged an interview with Julia at the Four Seasons' fabulous L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (which is French for The Atleier of Joel Robuchon). Okay technically I sent her a letter on some faked up White House stationary claiming I was President Obama and wanted to meet with her over lunch at the Four Seasons to congratulate her on her new responsibilities. But whatever it takes. Eh. These New York types are so busy!

Totally us at The Atleier of Joel Robuchon

Julia had the pan-fried Kobe beef with a mesclun salad and I had the foie gras and hangar steak sliders and got very little mustard on my shirt. So even though I didn't turn out to be Obama, I think the afternoon was lovely and got a great interview out of it.

How did you come to do a podcast with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci? Can I call him Massimo? Are you allowed to call him Massimo?

I first got to know Massimo in the course of interviewing him for an article I was writing for The Humanist Magazine. We kept on talking for hours after the interview, and ended up bonding over obscure Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy references and a shared irritation with continental philosophy. It happened that the New York City Skeptics had been wanting to start a podcast, so shortly thereafter, Massimo asked me if I'd like to co-host it with him. And yes, please call him Massimo! If you swell up his head by calling him "Dr." it will only make my life harder.

You manage to more than hold your own with Massimo. You engage Massimo in a natural two-way conversation and ask informed questions. You bring your own research to the table and you're not afraid to challenge Massimo with what you've found. You avoid what I call the "Dr. Who Companion Role". Dr. Who's companions are frequently used as devices for eliciting explication via their ignorance: "Ewwww Dr. what is it? It's so 'orrible!" "Tetley, watch out, it's an Energy Vorplon! It can only be killed by gold!" "Fibble winks, Doctor! Where ever can we get gold on the Planet of Bronze?" How much time goes into getting up to speed on a topic Massimo has probably already written three peer reviewed papers about?

Well, I defer quite willingly to Massimo's authority on all factual points where his expertise is relevant. That's only sensible. But while I do think it's justified to take factual claims on authority when you know less than someone else about a given topic, I think there's much less need to take a logical argument on authority. And a lot of what Massimo and I do is logical argumentation. So I can evaluate his arguments on their own merits, independently of his credentials. Incidentally, our upcoming episode #16 will be about this very question – when does it make sense to defer to expert authority? -- so you should tune in.

A few personal questions if you don't mind: Where were born? Where do you live now? How old are you? What did you study in school? What's your day job?

I'm twenty-seven, I grew up near Washington D.C., and I'm a journalist by day. In college I majored in statistics, which I think makes me a relative rarity among journalists, so I'm hoping I can help bring more clarity to the way statistics are represented in the media. Ultimately, the niche I'd like to occupy is that of writing about the method of science, rather than the findings per se. For example, we've now got the computing power to collect massive amounts of data and run thousands of analyses per second – which is great, but it's not without its pitfalls. How is it changing the way we generate and test theories? A related issue I'm interested in is: how should we deal with problems like publication bias, in which we end up with a skewed view of the truth because negative results never get published? These issues don't get a lot of visibility in the popular press, but I think they're incredibly important.

One reason I think your show works so well is Massimo represents the academic skeptic and you represent the growing body of lay skeptics: well read, an educated person's understanding of the stuff that makes our world work but no one would call you an expert, and an interest in learning how to apply critical thinking and the findings of science to life. But, hey, that's my take. Laying all modesty aside, why do you think you guys mesh so well?

I'd say the reason Massimo and I make a great match is that we have just enough, but not too much, overlap with each other. We have plenty of common ground in terms of our interests and attitudes, but at the same time, enough non-trivial disagreements – for example, over ethics, and the scope of philosophy – to make for interesting conversations.

You're a member of the New York City Skeptics. I remember when the organization was created a few years ago, I thought "you mean no one started a skeptics organization in New York decades ago?" You'd think after opening a subway system and a sufficient number of pizzerias selling pizza by the slice, a skeptical organization would be third on the list of things any great city needs. But in that short amount of time the NYC skeptics have been in existence they've done some cool things, your podcast for starters. You also have awesome lecture series with A-list names like Richard Wiseman and Carl Zimmer. What do you attribute to the rapid success of the NYC skeptics to?

I think a lot of people felt the same way as you did, Karl -- there seemed to be a lot of pent-up demand for an organization devoted specifically to science and reason, not just secularism. In terms of our success, I have to give a lot of credit to our president, Michael Feldman. He's a fantastic organizer, and the kind of person who really makes sure things get done. We've also got a dedicated team of volunteers, the Gotham Skeptic blog, and of course our annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), which sold out two years in a row and drew people from all over the U.S. and several other countries.

Where do the NYC skeptics meet? Do you guys have a stately brownstone with wrought iron gates, antique cannons, and lion statues out front?

Actually, all the NYC Skeptics meetings I've been to so far have been in much more mundane places, like someone's apartment. But they just recently appointed me to the board of directors, so maybe now I'll finally get to see the real top-secret lair. Want my guess? It'll be at the bottom of a spiral staircase, the entrance to which will be revealed by pressing the right book on our president's bookshelf. (So far I've tried "Pale Blue Dot" and "Unweaving the Rainbow," but no dice.)

You're a really sharp dresser. At TAM8 (The Amazing Meeting 8) I first thought you were Michael Shermer's fund manager. I work in software so it's almost a clothing optional environment. I love suits and ties and try to fill my social calendar with things like the symphony, the ballet, and restaurants in the Financial District as an excuse to dress like a grown up. But I always feel uncomfy, like a duck trapped in a sleeping bag. It's a difficult way to go through life, let me tell you. You, on the other hand, just seem to take the classic looks and make them yours.

Why thank you! The thing about dressing well is that it seems to make people much more receptive when you want to make a controversial or counter-intuitive point. And I do have plenty of those I want to make. As much as I wish it were the case that people would be convinced solely on the strength of your arguments, in reality, a nice respectable suit seems to go a long way.

Any advice for skeptics looking to step up their sartorial game? If a famous skeptic came to you and said "Julia, I'm tired of being slovenly and I've just inherited $50 million dollars so you have unlimited funds to re-do my wardrobe," which skeptic (male or female) would you like to re-make? How would you re-make him or her?

Gee, I feel utterly unqualified to tell other skeptics how they should dress! But... okay, if you insist, I'll admit that sometimes when I'm watching James Randi, I do feel this weird compulsion to dress him up in a top hat and monocle. Also: George Hrab could totally rock a zoot suit.

Was this your first TAM? What's your take on TAM?

Yes, this was my first TAM, and I had a blast. I was impressed at how fast the three days flew by, which I think is partly thanks to the way the organizers expertly mixed up speeches, panels, workshops, entertainment, and social events. It was also great to keep running into people and exclaiming, "Oh hey, we're Facebook friends!" or "Oh hey, you're the one who wrote that article I loved!" The only thing I personally would do, if I were Queen of TAM, is that I'd set up even more opportunities for debate. My favorite issues to ponder are the ones where the right answer isn't obvious and thoughtful people disagree.

You don't have many guests on your podcast but you've had a few. If I can ask you to play favorites, who was your favorite guest?

Well, when we taped the episode with Neil deGrasse Tyson, he treated me to an engrossing post-show monologue on his philosophy of fountain pens. I have yet to discover a topic, no matter how obscure or random, about which that man doesn't have a million and one fascinating things to say.

Any guest you really want to get on the show?

My first choice would be David Hume, although that could prove logistically challenging on account of him having died several centuries ago. He's one of my favorite thinkers, one of the people whom I read and sigh, "Oh, I wish I could hang out with you! We'd be the bestest friends." And I know Massimo feels the same way. Plus, if we had him on our show Massimo and I could finally settle, once and for all, a question we've been squabbling over for months: "So Dave, what did you mean when you said it's not possible to derive an ought from an is?"

A New York Slice, a New York bagel, or a real taco from a guy with a cart up in Washington Heights. Which one would you go for right now?

Can I say (d) none of the above? My favorite now-ubiquitous New York street snack is a banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich: it's a freshly baked baguette stuffed with the perfect harmony of flavors and textures: fresh cilantro, the sweet crunch of carrots and cucumber, and the zing of chili sauce.

-- Karl

(Note, photos of Julia at TAM are by Brian Engler and the other is by Bruce Press.)

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