Very good interviewers are few and far between: most interviewers manage to alienate someone. For my part, I find Jeremy Paxman’s self-aggrandisement as irritating as Chris Moyles’s faux idiocy — and that’s just as a watcher and listener.
I’ve also lost count of the number of interviews I’ve gone through where the interviewer wants to make the interview all about him or herself, which tends to make me awfully taciturn in response. I think I dislike that sort of interviewer as much as the ‘gotcha’ sort, the type who wants to trap a politician or writer or sportsperson or scientist into saying something silly (or something that can be edited so that it sounds silly). If media people are worried about our ‘soundbite culture’ or the fact that everyone from Julia Gillard and David Cameron down treats them with contempt, then perhaps they ought to reconsider their silicone-based housing.
So, when I do come across a good interviewer — someone capable of drawing out interview subjects without seeking to ensnare them or engage in cheap point-scoring, and who doesn’t make the interview all about her — then I think that person is to be treasured. Such an interviewer is Token Skeptic’s Kylie Sturgess (left), who really should be on BBC Radio 4. That she isn’t — she runs a popular podcast instead — is unfortunate, but not the end of the world, because you can listen to her podcast.
But she should be, and will be picked up in due course, I think.
Sturgess has just published a book of some of her favourite interviews from the Token Skeptic podcast (you can buy it from that link). By her own admission the selection process has been severe, and there are certainly some impressive skeptical luminaries featured: Stephen Fry, The Chaser’s Julian Morrow, Tim Minchin and — for US and Canadian readers — Lyz Liddell from the Secular Student Alliance and Junior Skeptic editor Daniel Loxton. Fry in particular is very witty (with that wonderful ability to speak in complete sentences that has been observed of intellectual heavyweights from Hypatia to Oscar Wilde), while Sturgess’s interviewing skill elicits the following from Julian Morrow:
Being a comedian, in one sense, the kind of low-brow, cheap-shot comedians that we are, is it’s essentially a negative pursuit. It’s about knocking down, well, hopefully those people in positions of authority, but sometimes just innocent victims as well. We can’t pretend otherwise at The Chaser. And so, I suppose, to some extent, that’s similar to skepticism in terms of trying to pierce the, well, falsehoods and pretensions, claims that are more extravagant that they can possibly, realistically be. But I suppose that’s not the end of the game, either. There is a place for the more positive side of things. It’s just that at The Chaser, we’re chronically incapable of it, so we don’t attempt it.
[Actually, no, Julian, that's not what skepticism is about, it's what your style of comedy is about: you're very funny, but there's a mean streak in there that has always made me uncomfortable. Props to Sturgess for putting her finger on it so expertly.]
The book is probably worth buying for the Morrow, Fry and Minchin interviews alone, especially when Sturgess extracts a beautiful description of a Chaser stunt that very nearly went horribly wrong. That said, some of the lesser known figures make excellent and insightful observations, and one segment is actually very moving.
Of the former, the comments from disabled skeptic Joey Haban on just why chronically ill people get sucked in by altmed are very revealing. In short, you likely would too, if you were in constant pain and your doctor had just told you that there is nothing he can do. This willingness to plump for pseudoscience has nothing to do with the chronically ill person’s education level or basic intelligence, and everything to do with the fact that he has already, say, given himself liver damage thanks to long-term paracetamol use.
Similarly, the comments from Bristol University Professor of Psychiatry Bruce M Hood that homeopathy works as a placebo, a harmless placebo in ways that antibiotics don’t:
Maybe we should also consider the fact that there’s a real place for the placebo effect in modern healthcare. [...] Indeed, from practices in the UK and in America, it’s quite clear that half the GPs, the practitioners, are prescribing placebos. Now they’re not inert. Typically they’re antibiotics or vitamins. Now, this is a typical patient and they’re expecting something; you have to give them some sort of intervention, and I made the point that there is a danger of giving out antibiotics, so maybe giving out homeopathy is a convenient way of giving out an inert substance that is not going to harm them and is probably going to make them feel better. So that kind of gets into the ethics of giving treatments that actually don’t have any effect or are certainly not targeted to any complaint that the patient might have.
Hood was excoriated for his observations in some quarters, even accused of ‘supporting homeopathy’, but his point was actually subtler and more disturbing: the placebo effect is real, and many people do get better as a result of it. Wishing this basic fact away harms both medical science and skepticism.
The interview that moved me was that with young Wiltshire skeptic Hayley Stevens. Stevens covers ground very much within the purview of traditional skepticism: she is a ‘ghost hunter’ and founder of the splendid Project Barnum website, which exposes psychic scammers across the UK. What I didn’t know — until Sturgess’s interview — was that Stevens once thought ghosts (and many other paranormal phenomena) were real, and only came to skepticism gradually. Blessed with an open mind and natural curiosity, she stopped doing many of the things she’d once done — everything from table tipping to séances – in part because she came to view them as unethical. As part of this slow process, she also lost most of her friends and had people round her up at conferences (and elsewhere, no doubt) to take a piece out of her for changing her mind.
The book’s title is The Scope of Skepticism, and by any standard my selection from it is unrepresentative of this scope, for which I apologise. Inevitably, a reviewer will prefer some subjects over others, and some people over others as well. Although, in saying that, I admit that Sturgess’s interview confirmed my view of Julian Morrow, who has never been one of my favourite people. In focussing on his interview I’ve (unfortunately) left out other people I like — Edinburgh University’s Dr Caroline Watt, for example.
For those interested in a particularly Australian (as well as an Australian blogging) angle, I should point out that tigtog from Hoyden About Town is one of the interview subjects, while Sturgess includes a short piece of her own on the 2010 Global Atheist Convention (held in Melbourne). Much of this essay focusses on the extent to which atheism and skepticism overlap: in short, they do, but not in ways one necessarily expects. Perhaps, too, the overlap is greater in the developing world — it was Bangladeshi skeptic and atheist Taslima Nasrin who pointed out that selling Deepak Chopra’s pseudoscience from the bookstand in the Convention foyer probably wasn’t such a smart move.
Sturgess is a skilled and good-humoured interviewer, and has selected a wonderfully diverse range of interview subjects for this book. The Scope of Skepticism comes highly recommended.
The Scope of Skepticism
[Disclosure: the reviewer received a copy courtesy the publisher; publicity shot courtesy the author.]