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The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: The Osmonds of evidence-based thinking

There’s lot of scientific debunking to be done out there. Psychics beware... The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is coming for you

Podcasts have changed the sort of recorded conversation we have access to. Radio requires a pacing and attitude to content, as well as a need to fit in a very specific time slot for listings magazines. This can lead to podcasts being woolly, unfocused and self-indulgent. Sometimes that self-indulgence can also lead to something rather wonderful. 

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is one of those podcasts where the chemistry and fascinations of the hosts comes together. It is a perfectly curated eavesdrop on science and scepticism. It is a family affair – Steven, Jay and Bob Novella are The Osmonds of evidence-based thinking, joined by Cara Santa Maria and Evan Bernstein. Steven Novella is a neurologist whose campaigning work has been particularly focused on the medical pseudoscience behind the anti-vaccination campaign and alternative medicine practitioners. 

The podcast will soon approach its 800th episode. Sadly, they are never short of stories and ideologies to debunk and discuss, though they are not purely attached to dealing with more negative human ideas – they explore the latest scientific ideas and anecdotes too. This year starts lightly with their annual psychic predictions round-up. Which psychic of 2019 most effectively distorted the laws of spacetime and burrowed forward in the block universe? 

Unsurprisingly, the team are not keen on psychics. In seeking a collective noun they settle on “a scam of psychics”. The predictions intended for last year vary from the pointlessly broad – “the stock market is going to go up and down” to entertainingly odd – “the way we approach farming will change radically”. One psychic offers a vegan alternative to the old soothsayer tradition of finding the future by interpreting the steaming offal of a freshly slaughtered beast. This psychic drops asparagus instead and, depending on how it lands, predicts the future with his spear of destiny. 

The general rule is things that are happening now will happen to a vaguely greater-to-lesser extent the year after. The trick for the psychic is to throw out enough predictions that, when just one of them hits, they can glory in their prescience. It doesn’t need to be too exact, but if it is dramatic enough the rest of your psychic career is sorted. If you got one right you’ve got a publishing deal and YouTube ad revenue for life.  

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Episode 757’s engram story is of particular interest as engram is a word that has drifted into pseudoscience – “I think of scientology and I think of bullshit” sums up the reaction. Engrams in scientology are unconscious memories of traumatic events, but the term is older than L Ron Hubbard’s ideology. One hundred years ago, Richard Semon pondered the idea of what our memories physically are. Are there fundamental units of memory and can old memories that are no longer apparent be stimulated back to life? As usual, mice are bearing the brunt of this work at the moment, going so far as having artificial memories placed in their brains. This leads to a discussion on ideas in science that lie dormant until the necessary technological leaps are made. 

There is no shortage of podcasts trying to rebalance the plethora of misinformation in our world with evidence-based thought. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is one of the best, but who knows what the future may hold for it. I will get my asparagus from the kitchen to find out.