Podcasting science and critical thinking with The Pseudo Scientists

For decades and decades after wireless broadcasts were made available to the newly-listening public, the radio landscape was a relatively sparse affair. Only companies or government organisations could afford to pay for frequency space, giant transmitter towers and the necessary audio equipment required to put a show to air. Community radio stations began to appear as costs decreased slightly over time, but they relied on a constant stream of support from donors and subscribers, with the ongoing financial burden too great for the vast majority of individuals to afford. Truly independent broadcasting was impossible.

That is – until the Internet arrived.

Spurred on by falling broadband and home audio equipment costs, the podcasting boom of the mid 2000s basically revolutionised audio broadcasting over the space of a few years. Sure, radio still exists – and there are some truly amazing programs out there – but it really can’t compete with the ease of access and insane degree of choice afforded by its web-fuelled, DIY cousin. Rising to prominence with comedian Ricky Gervais’s The Ricky Gervais Show in early 2006 (which quickly became the most downloaded and well-known podcast in the world – at least at the time), podcasting soon became a household name.

Today, there seems to be little getting in the way of this new media form. Think of a topic right now: there’s a near-certain likelihood there’s a podcast about it. From gardening to beer-tasting to the Canadian sport of curling to British, American, Italian and Australian politics to fine art to philosophy to… well, you name it. And yes – there are plenty of podcasts about science, which I’m very aware of because, well, I have my own podcast about science.

Yep, The Pseudo Scientists is a podcast I started in December of 2008, nearly four years ago. Inspired by shows such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the UniverseThe Science Show and Skeptically Speaking, I set out with a group of relative strangers (we would eventually be known as The Young Australian Skeptics) to put our voices out there, as young people interested in science and thinking critically using logic and the scientific method. Every two weeks we would meet at one of our houses to sit down and discuss recent scientific discoveries and anything related to science, like religion, politics, education and the media. On most episodes there would be a guest, be it a scientist, a well-known member of the online “skeptical” community or a comedian with an interest in science, and things were going really well. We had a solid listenership and a good handle on where we wanted the show to go in the future. Onwards and upwards.

But unfortunately, in late 2009, we hit a wall. Exams were coming up, and as most of the people on the show were students (myself included – and I was in Year 12, so these exams were a big deal), we decided to take a break from recording, just after our milestone 20th episode.

This break in proper episodes lasted one year and ten days.

Essentially, we’d learnt the hard way that without a leader – however symbolic – a group undertaking can become nearly impossible to coordinate. Putting a podcast together takes a good deal of planning: we needed to all be available to record, we needed to find things to talk about, we needed to find and interview guests for each episode… It was hard to get the podcasting train moving again once it had rolled to a comfortable halt.

So I decided to step up to the metaphorical plate and slip on a metaphorical iron gauntlet, which with I used to metaphorically threaten everyone into action. And by “threaten”, I meant “incessantly annoy with motivational emails and texts”. But however it must have irked them, my fellow science communicators slowly pulled themselves up back into the podcasting world. Well, most of them – a couple had moved on, including one who had become a full-time research scientist, and another who had become a science teacher. Who needs to do a podcast when you’re living science and science communication every day? So we picked up some new recruits, including “Communicating Science and Technology” alumnus Belinda Nicholson, a Masters student in Astronomy here at Melbourne Uni, who has proved to be a great addition to the team, especially for science stories on physics.

The Pseudo Scientists is now, in 2012, a changed beast: we’ve said goodbye to a few more people since 2010, mostly due to interstate and international relocations (including one person, Richard, who went to Texas to complete a PhD in pure mathematics), but we’ve gained some awesome new ones too, like Tom Lang, a graduate of ANU’s Science Circus program and professional science communicator, and Rachael Skerritt, a high school student taking History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne. We aim to educate our audience about fascinating science, bust myths about pseudoscience, dodgy medical treatments and conspiracy theories, and promote the use of critical reasoning and the mental toolkit of skepticism, all while spouting pop culture references, acting like idiots and generally messing around.

So, what’s a typical episode now like? Well, on our latest episode, Episode 61, Tom brings up 3D printers and how they might be able to be used to make guns, I talk about the Framing Science workshop that was held in the midsemester break, and Rachael brings our attention to research that has shown that stem cells survive the death of the body and can be transplanted into other people for therapeutic purposes! Plus, we touch on time travel logic in blockbuster films and the marketing and packaging of vitamin supplements. And that’s all without a guest panelist or interview!

Further plans for the show include highlighting the achievements of young scientists and skeptical activists working hard in Australia and around the world – because more people need to be aware of their achievements and awesome work. And with luck – and my iron fist – we’ll continue to podcast science communication well into the future.

You can subscribe to The Pseudo Scientists on iTunes or via RSS through your favourite podcasting software.