Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Seventh Rogue: Cara Santa Maria

Cara Santa Maria is the latest Rogue and only the seventh person to be anointed as a full-blooded member of the SGU in the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’s ten years of production.   Since Rebecca Watson left the show after a nine year stint, the show has had an obvious hole in their lineup.  Once Maria was named as Rogue during the SGU’s annual live show at The Amazing Meeting, I determined I would listen to a few episodes of the SGU before commenting.

The SGU homepage is a tad out of date . . .
When Maria was named her name rang a bell, but I was not terribly familiar with her work.   Among other things, she has her own Talk Nerdy podcast.  I listened to her January 2015 appearance as a guest on the SGU as well as a couple of episodes of her own podcast.  I listened to a TN episode where the guest was none other than Dr. Steven Novella, and the one that I picked at more or less random with Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog.  From this sampling, Maria struck me as a fairly polished interviewer.  She was able to have Novella get more political personally than I have heard him in the past.  Novella dished on his thoughts about the U.S. health care system.  Her interview with Mehta also was paced.  For someone like myself who is a world weary aged 43, the part of the interview where Mehta and Maria discussing the trials of not only being a freelance science communicator by trade, but an early 30-something who is too old to party but not so old to care struck me as funny.  While the interview was lively and casual, it never slipped into snark or annoying self pity that is too often the case.  All in all, I enjoyed both episodes.  

I will refrain from making a prediction on how Maria will fit in long term on the SGU, but I do think she was a good pick.  Yes, Maria is a woman, and she fits the slot left open from Watson’s departure. However, I think she avoids being the token woman because her polish and understanding of science appears rather impressive and she clearly has chops independent from her gender.  I think it was smart of the Rogues to pick someone who is younger than the 40 something age of the other Rogues, but not too young to stick out as a 20 something might.  

On Episode 525 of the SGU during the Science or Fiction segment, Maria had enough confidence to share she did not know what a jackal looked like.  This is a good sign for the future that she won’t try and ‘fake it.’  (I think I might of tried to fake it.) Also, during episode 526, she held her own during the interview with Jamy Ian Swiss.  Swiss was on to discuss the current state of organized skepticism, and some of the growing pains it has been going through in recent years.  Swiss has concerns with some of the newcomers to skepticism and how some of this group is causing mission drift.  Maria as a person in this 'suspect' group that concerns Swiss parried with Swiss and Dr. Novella in a direct but professional manner.  While I tend to have sympathy with Swiss's concerns, it was good to have Maria challenge him.  She is such a good fit that I do wonder if her addition to the show will do anything to shake things up a bit, or if the show will continue down the road of 'if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it'.

One concern I do have about Maria, and only time will tell how this plays out, is that Maria noted with her discussion with Swiss is that she came to Skepticism via atheism.  Novella and Swiss are both proponents that Skepticism and Religion/Atheism do not go hand in hand.  When Skepticism and Religion clash it should be when a testable religious claim is made such as the legitimacy of the Shroud of Turin* or the age of the Earth.  To be clear, I do not predict this will be an issue with Maria, but it is something to be mindful. 

All in all, I am optimistic that Maria will be a good long term fit with the show, and hopefully much of the offstage drama that swirled around Watson during her last three years on the show will not reoccur.  

On a somewhat related note, the Swiss/Novella/Maria discussion on the mission and current problems within Skepticism was highlighted earlier in the week during the Virtual Skeptics.  During the show, the panel discussed how science-oriented or anti-science-oriented is the popular website and Facebook meme machine 'I Fucking Love Science'.  There is a nice, civil back and forth regarding the pros and cons of the site.  The segment was Barbara Drescher's and I think it fair to say she thinks IFLS is fish wrapping, i.e., trash.  Others on the panel defend the idea of the site but lament how the site is run.  I remember hearing on The Token Skeptic IFLS's producer Elise Andrew being interviewed on her then new but wildly popular IFLS site on the show.  At the time I thought it was not a bad idea, but I do think as time has ground on it is a BuzzFeed style click generator.  IFLS does show there is a tension between outreach and public awareness of things sciency and maintaining standards.  It was the most interesting discussion I heard all week. 

Finally, all over Twitter, the wedding bells rang out for Tim Farley of the Virtual Skeptics, What's the Harm, and Skeptools was wed this weekend.  I don't know if he reads this blog, but we wish him and his bride well in their new lives together.   

*There is a good synopsis on the latest Reality Check podcast on why the Shroud of Turin is likely a late Medieval forgery.  

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