Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Nature blogs. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
James O’Malley is not a scientist! He has a MA in international relations from King’s College, London, but has inexplicably got in with the science crowd. He tries his best. The Pod Delusion’s deputy editor, Liz Lutgendorff, also contributed to this article. She’s also not a scientist but rather currently researching her PhD on the history of the UK secular movement.
Way back in 2009, I started a vaguely science-themed podcast. A few weeks later, I found out that far from this being an original idea, there are hundreds of them. But nearly three years later, The Pod Delusion is still going – thanks to our pool of over one hundred contributors and my girlfriend’s stunning tolerance for spending our evenings pointing microphones at people cleverer than I am.
To get the plug out of the way, The Pod Delusion is a weekly news-magazine podcast about ‘interesting things’ – from politics, to science, to culture, all from a skeptical-rationalist, pro-science point of view. In other words, it has a remit so vague it can be whatever it needs to be, depending on what we want to talk about on any given week – but crucially, the programme is pretentiously underwritten by enlightenment values of evidence, peer review and so on. We don’t just focus on science – I see it as a Sunday newspaper supplement that provides features of interest to people with this mindset. In essence, the conversation we like to have is more “we all agree that climate change is a problem, what should we do about it?”, rather than the tedious argument you see in much of the rest of the media of “is climate change happening?”.
What putting together The Pod Delusion has taught me though is that podcasts are a great way for scientists to reach out beyond the academics and engage a wider public.
A good example of this is the recent controversy over genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted. Anti-GM protesters were threatening to tear up a publicly funded GM research experiment. We went with a leading science outreach organization, Sense about Science, and recorded the conversation between the scientists at Rothamsted which explained what they were doing and how.
Crucially, this podcast wasn’t just heard by scientists, but by people who are enthusiasts, whatever their occupation – and everyone got angry together, and through this we promoted Sense About Science’s petition and their work to oppose the destruction of the experiment, to people already mentally predisposed to be sympathetic to the ‘pro-science’ side. What I think The Pod Delusion has done is reach out to people who share a set of values – who will get angry together about a fairly disparate set of topics. In the last few weeks alone I’ve covered GM, abortion, mediareform, internetcensorshipand creationism – all topics that must be approached rationally, and infuriate us when they’re handled by the irrational.
While we obviously reach out to contact many of the people we interview, we have nonetheless had some enthusiastic and engaging scientists on the show. From Mark Brandon talking about the BBC series Frozen Planet, on which he was academic advisor, to Ed Stone, project scientist on the Voyager project, to the sociological phenomenon of ‘Bronies’ (Google it, if you dare) – we give academics a platform from which they can talk to the wider public.
The tone of the show might be quite different to most science formats. We know that science is Serious Business, but we want to be funny. The show is known for its interviews, pro-science and pro-evidence pieces and for its critical editorials but more importantly, it’s known for its terrible puns and satirical take on what is happening in the wide world. As people like Robin Ince and the Festival of the Spoken Nerd team have taught us over the last few years – humour is an excellent way of helping what can occasionally be a rather dry pill go down.
I would perhaps even dare suggest that The Pod Delusion has had a small role in helping bring coherent organisation to the pro-science, rationalist community. Networking at various events (including sharing a pint with people at Skeptics in the Pub) we have made links with organisations and individuals, all campaigning for the same causes. We are helping to shape the important conversations in our community but in a way that is inclusive (we always want new contributors) but not close minded – we often feature back to back reports with opposite view points on the same issue. We want to be a forum for debate as much as a news source – echoing the idea that science is not always settled. Whenever faced with new facts, we should be equally willing to change our mind and debate. More importantly, it is a forum not just for scientists but science enthusiasts who have an equally important job in spreading the joy of science and the importance of science and technology in our lives.
As the show has grown, we’ve realised we can’t make everyone happy. It’s strange moving from a place where only a few hundred people may listen, to 15,000 people a week. We’ve had a few times which have ruffled feathers and been called names on the internet (who hasn’t at this point!) but consistently we get the impression that people like what we are doing. I think we’re going to keep doing this until we reach a point where the forces of irrationalism give up. So, er, we might be here for a while.