‘The Scope of Skepticism’

By skepticlawyer

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
PodBlack Books
ISBN: 5800084353864
RRP: US$15.00

[Disclosure: the reviewer received a copy courtesy the publisher; publicity shot courtesy the author.]


  1. Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Yes indeed we have all been aggravated by interviewers who ignore a stunning response, to move on to their Next Question, instead of following the new exciting element. I agree with you re The Chaser – I ignored them after my first taste, although when they became newsworthy by fooling US Security, that did fuel my own skepticism re all ‘policing’.

    On placebo effect I agree as well. Being in chronic pain with nothing medicine can do, and mindful of at least keeping my liver healthy, I do believe there is a Mind:Body connection in health. Stephen Fry is a joy wherever he appears, but my pleasure is tempered by feeling very sorry for him as he is a freak. I hope his ‘Peter’s Friends’ are always there for him when he needs them.

  2. Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Oh … the placebo effect /is/ used in traditional medicine, and rather skeptically.

    It is known that very big (suggesting lots of stuff), or very small (suggesting very powerful stuff), or whatever it is that makes it look very different from your average aspirin, makes it more effective. So … ibuprofen in a fancy type of capsule? More effective.

    Now … is this placebo effect used? Yes. Look at the color of pills – especially ones affecting the brain. Uppers? More likely to be red. Meant to calm you down – more likely to be green. Blue? Maybe for a calmative, possibly for a “settle down, aliens haven’t put a radio in your head”. The valproate for seizures I was on? Pinky purple? (“this is weird stuff, quite dangerous”).

    Mind you, there has been a tendency recently, perhaps because of the number of people taking pills, to make them more mundane, so the people at the next table in the caf don’t look at you, see the blue pill and go “ooooh … aha …. cranial radio transmitter at 10 oclock”.

    Is the placebo effect used in the opposite direction? Yes. Nocebo kills. “Pointing the bone” does kill … IFF the target has a traditional lifestyle and is told about the bone being pointed.

    Non-Oz types can see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurdaitcha#Bone_Pointing

    In Australia, the practice is still common enough that hospitals and nursing staff are trained to manage illness caused by “bad spirits” and bone pointing

    One can be as skeptical as Dawkins and say “the figures show this works, we /know/ it’s psychosomatic, but we’d be fools not to use it – doesn’t mean we give any credit whatsoever to the mechanism to woo fans give”

    Hmmm … thinking about satanic graffiti painted all over a catholic nursing home in a high-peasant low-educated area … death rates would probably go up psychosomatically … so … would any penalties for the vandals be higher? What if someone had an old rich credulous granny in the nursing home and the satanic graffiti was put on for the purposes of fast-tracking the intergenerational wealth transfer?

  3. Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Maybe we should also consider the fact that there’s a real place for the placebo effect in modern healthcare

    Recent studies on the placebo have raised this to a whole new level. Do not think the placebo is purely psychological, people get physically better. The studies on acupuncture gave very mysterious results. Modern medicine has been errant in ignoring the potential utility of the placebo. For eg, even when patients know they are receiving a placebo there can be benefits.

    One can be as skeptical as Dawkins

    Dawkins is a fundie evolutionist. Evolution does not have the explanatory power we would like. As for alternative medicine, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, there are some real merits in some areas of alternative medicine.

    In regard to chronic pain a fascinating study just this week found that it is clearly related to the initial emotional response. The bods could predict with 85% accuracy who would go onto to develop chronic pain. It had nothing to do with the injury site but rather the interplay between the nucleus accumbens and the pfc, in the brain. This raises good prospects for looking at ways to modify chronic pain. So you see, pain is not just about injury but can also be about our response to the initial injury.

  4. derrida derider
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I think this is too hard on interviewers.

    Yes, if you’re interviewing someone who just wants to tell you about their interesting life you should help them to do so, but when interviewing politicians, PR spivs, defence lawyers and even authors trying to flog a book you can’t forget that they are actively trying to give a partial and distorted view.

    Forensic “gotcha” skills can be useful then – much more so than sycophancy skills. Though as in a good cross examination rudeness and intimidation are likely to be counterproductive.

  5. Kylie Sturgess
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I was very young when I watched Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister… and I’ll always remember Sir Humphrey Appleby’s advice to a cowed Bernard Woolley about how to respond to questions you don’t like:

    “If this question should ever arise again, this is how you deal with questions: if you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question – just make your own statement.
    If they ask the question again, you say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the real question is…” and then you make another statement of your own.

    Thanks for the review!

  6. Posted July 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Aaah, imagining Sir Humphrey interviewing himself … He once told Bernard how to put questions to get whatever answer you wanted (for or against conscription, I think) … So between asking questions to get the answers you want, or giving statements you want to the questions you don’t like, Sir Humphrey had it covered.

    Must admit, one of my favorite bits of an interview was Andrew Denton v Alan Bond

    Andrew Denton: It’d be a low act to lose all that money for people and be funnelling it away overseas. That would be a low act.


    (I always wondered if notes from the “4 corners” investigative team were part of Denton’s background research for the interview)

  7. Posted July 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I am hard on interviewers (which is why I admire good ones, and if you read her book, you will see that Sturgess is very, very far from sycophantic; there is no way she would have got the admissions she did from Morrow if she were).

    Rather, I am becoming rather piddled off with the growing inability to see the wood for the trees when it comes to acknowledging serious institutional problems. When it comes to interviews and the like, I think the media started this, and now the pollies and PR spivs have decided that two can play that game (‘I know, let’s hire Alistair Campbell!’), creating a really toxic symbiosis that is to the detriment of the broader body politic.

    There has been a great deal of outrage in Britain (and, so I am led to believe, in Australia) over proposed regulation of the media. FWIW, I think the various media bodies complaining are right, and regulation will have a deleterious effect on free speech. At the same time, however, there is absolutely no acknowledgement from media organisations that there are serious institutional problems, and that it is incumbent on media bodies to clean up their own mess. Regulation tends to kill even healthy businesses, and by any standard the traditional media is not healthy. Now the glib response (I know, I have engaged in it myself) is to say that the internet and social media will take over, and in the long term that is probably true. However, as Digg’s reversal of fortune this week shows, no-one in new media has sorted out a decent business model as yet; they’re all losing money hand over fist.

    When there is unwillingness to concede institutional failures, there follows very rapid erosion of public sympathy and respect. Look at what has happened to religion in the US, which is losing institutional ground at a speed that should make Dawkins gasp in wonder:


    I’m sure some US atheists and skeptics would like to claim that they have contributed to this effect, but I doubt that they’ve had anything to do with it at all, except tangentially (providing online forums for atheists and skeptics to congregate, for the most part). The ‘shitting in one’s own nest’ has been done by religious organisations all by themselves. This shitting has been followed by a determined effort to rake straw over the smelly stuff. It is like lawyers wittering on about how we defend people’s civil liberties when every other week a lawyer is caught fiddling the trust accounts. Ditto for banks and bankers. It just doesn’t wash, with anyone.

  8. kvd
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] you didn’t follow through with AB’s answer, which ended up with “And my family put some money up as well. But there was not one penny overseas that I had which was mine.”

    And then Denton calmly went on with his next scripted question – with absolutely no follow up whatsoever. One of the weakest pieces I’ve ever seen. Reminds me of the Keddies partners, selling their assets to wives et al for $1 or so, then declaring bankruptcy. But I forgot – AB’s been there, done that.

  9. kvd
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    except tangentially (providing online forums for atheists and skeptics to congregate)

    Having visions of those scatty people shuffling through the crowded marketplace, crying “Alms for the poor”. And also ‘I, Robot’ – the gathering together for comfort, or what?

    Who really cares? Endlessly discussing, endlessly re-“proving” that which 80% of the population doesn’t give a fig about. “I’m an atheist!” “Oh, right. Aren’t these tomatoes expensive?”

  10. Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Atheists in the US often experience direct personal attacks (sometimes even violent ones) and, more commonly, discrimination. The interview with Lyz Riddell from the Secular Students’ Alliance goes into the support her organisation provides to students (and, sometimes, academic staff) who are experiencing discrimination or harassment. It isn’t something we see much of in Australia or Britain, but is relatively common in the US, especially — as she points out — if one goes to university outside New York or California. Online forums (so one knows that one isn’t the only one) are an important part of that process.

  11. kvd
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Atheists in the US often experience direct personal attacks (sometimes even violent ones) and, more commonly, discrimination

    Jews, Blacks, women, disabled, homosexual, old people, illegals, Amish, homeless…

  12. Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Well, Bond /may/ have been technically correct if he meant “Dallhold” by “family” and “in australia”, but I know from time there, our offices within earshot when he shouted behind closed doors, that dallhold had wormholes coming in from everywhere, and disappearing not only overseas but probably to the andromeda galaxy.

    As to SL and others on organized religion – they’ll survive anything except universal decent education – how many centuries experience at pulling a few strands of straw successfully covering mountains of muck? It’s an infallible gift more dispersed than the apostolic succession.

  13. Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Not had your morning coffee yet, kvd?

  14. kvd
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] nope. Just finding it hard to assign/accept downtrodden/special status to those claiming ‘beliefs’ which are shared by a sizeable number of people just going about their otherwise mundane lives – having probably considered the question of religion, and possibly deciding there were more important things to get exercised about. Like this week’s price on carrots or petrol. Hitchens is a good example. I miss his wonderful way with words, but what a pointless quest he made us remember him for.

    [email protected] correct, and agree. The thing is with decent interviews (present company excepted of course) it is not sufficient simply to ask penetrating questions; it’s more the dogged follow through to get an actual to-the-point answer that I find admirable. On that point Denton failed with AB.

  15. Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Atheists in the US often experience direct personal attacks

    That’s true but Dawkins didn’t help when he start questioning the psychological integrity of those with religious beliefs. I find that ironic because his selfish gene motif had a religious bent to it. Genes contain information? Really? Nope.

    On balance though, given the increasing influence of the religious groups in US politics, it is not surprising that Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchener decided it was time to take action. My impression is that the under 30’s in the USA are well and truly sick and tired of the fundies taking over the carnival. The decline in institutionalised religion(that concept is almost an oxymoron) probably would have occurred without their input but taken longer to emerge. I think the GOP has a huge looming problem because it has tied itself to institutionalised religion and that is not going to do them any favours in the future.

  16. Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    A 2007 survey by the Pew organisation (pdf) of Americans surveyed found that 46% of people were less likely to vote for a homosexual President, but 63% were less likely to vote for an atheist one.

  17. Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    oh John H what a funny slip – HitchenER.

    kvd – I know I referenced him in relation to this topic, but I remember him for more than that. First as I am a longtime subscriber to VanityFair, which published him a lot, then as a purchasor of Hitch22 I am aware he never really progressed from that Uni Rabble phase we are supposed to outgrow … but he rabbled so beautifully I forgave him.

  18. JC
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I think the GOP has a huge looming problem because it has tied itself to institutionalised religion and that is not going to do them any favours in the future.

    Ya think? The GOP primary voters actually rejected a religious type for a Mormon North eastern former governor of a Liberal state. The third man standing, Newt Gingrich has no real identification of any religious faith.

    Me thinks far too many Australians glean their opinions about the US from comic books.

  19. JC
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    John A

    Here’s the list of GOP candidates for the primaries

    Tim Pawlenty

    Thaddeus McCotter (no really)

    Herman Cain

    Rick Santorum

    Gary Johnsnon

    Buddy Roemer

    Michell Bachmann

    Rick Perry

    John Huntsman

    Ron Paul

    Newt Gingrich

    The only 3 with identifiable religions are Santorum North Eastern Catholic and the two Mormons – John Huntsman and Mitt Romney.

    Huntsman was the current administration’s ambassador to China before he resigned to go into the primary and we all know Mitt.

    I’m not seeing an overly religious influence in the primaries.

  20. Posted July 13, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Come on JC, the influence of the fundies on the Right on politics is present. Look at the clinic Bachmann’s husband runs, Dubya was over the top on the religious front. The Tea Party is littered with religious influence. Sarah Palin is big on religion.


    Perry has no qualms about injecting religion into public life. This was clear Saturday when he helped to sponsor a day of prayer and fasting in Houston to ask God’s help for America,

    Dubya was in regular communication with an prominent evangelical leader who was later found to be involved in irreligious activites(drugs and homosexuality. It is recognised that Dubya being sweet with the evangelicals played an important role in getting Bush snr elected.

    Cain, a conservative who recently said African-Americans were “brainwashed” into voting Democratic, is an associate minister at an Atlanta megachurch that has been a stronghold of liberal activism and is led by a pastor who cites Malcolm X as one of his influences.

    Pawlenty is an evangelical Christian.

    • He was raised as a roman Catholic.

    • He converted to the Lutheran faith when he met his wife.

    • He and his wife are now members of the Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, MN, part of the Minnesota Baptist Conference.


    Just 3 eh?

  21. JC
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Honestly John H, the only people who seem interested in the GOP’s religious affiliations seem to be lefties.

    Bachmann was never a serious contender. Palin didn’t run and I’ve not heard of her talking about religion. Pawlenty was governor of a pretty middle of the road to Blue state, so religion to them was never an issue. I never once heard of his religious background until now.

    And to top it off these religious maniacs “primaried” in Mitt Romney, a freaking Mormon, whom the religious right is supposed to regard as a cult, as the GOP candidate.

    I’m seeing a lot of smoke here, but not much fire.

    As for Bush, you do realize he actually spoke less about religion and God than Clinton.

    Then look back at past presidents.

    Bush 1 Not big on religion. Never spoke about it much

    Reagan.. never went to church.

    Carter.. religious baptist pastor.

    Gerald Ford.. Dunno anything about his religious background

    Nixon.. who knows.

    The one with the most bizarre background as far as religion goes is Obama spending 20 years listen to Rev Wright utter absolute bile about whitey and the Jews.

    As I said, lots of smoke here John.

  22. Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Fair enough JC. I over reached.

  23. JC
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    No problems John. Just trying to work it out.

  24. kvd
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    Ann [email protected] – yes, I regretted making that bald comment about Hitchens as soon as I hit submit. You are correct that he was so much more than my simple assessment; sometimes when SL gets on a roll she reminds me of his incisiveness. Anyway, as one does, I clicked through to your blog and ended up reading about Flamingo Park, thence to the photo essay you linked by The Loupe. My error was worth it just for those two things, so thanks!

  25. Posted July 14, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Compared to Hitchens. *Faints*.

  26. Moz
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    And speaking of really poor interview technique, what just happened in the comment thread?

    My belated 2c is winding right back to the Chaser thing. For all that they were/are cruel, they were often pointing quite firmly at things that could use being pointed at. Yes, the security theater event, but also Clive the slightly too loud commuter and some of the citizens enforcement stuff were the low level niggles that deserve a dose of pointing and laughing. I got the feeling that much of their material came from stuff that annoyed them in daily life, filtered by “and annoys a lot of other people too”. (full disclosure: I’ve been paid to appear on the show).

    With interviews, as long as one person has something to say and can drive things along I’m usually ok with it. There’s a lot of skill in making a moronic talking head seem interesting when they’re the one asking the questions, it’s one of those “managing upward” skillsets that’s underappreciated.

    I’ve been “interviewed” a few times and what can be annoying as all heck when the interviewer is not prepared and after the two scripted statements they want to make they just sit there like a chicken going “but but but but”. Predictably the worst was Stan Zemanek, who had *three* points but no ability to respond to anything I actually said. But I did get ~25 minutes rather than 5 because apparently it was entertaining listening to me explain different ways that he was wrong (and he wouldn’t give up, he just kept coming back with “you’re wrong but I don’t know why”). Also, proud moment, I got to call him out on the ridiculous amount of money he gets paid. He shut that line of conversation down *very* fast.

    How to suck eggs: The skill, BTW, is to make it seem as though you’re dragging the interviewer along, because the audience for the most part identifies with the interviewer and if you attack them the audience will most likely disconnect. It’s harder than it sounds when you’re faced with a moron spouting the sort of bigotry that kills people. I had to focus really hard on not saying “and then people who hear you say that go out and kill my friends”. Instead it’s all “the problem with using your cellphone when driving is not that you have something in your hand, it’s that you’re thinking about the conversation” and coming up with many different ways to say the same thing. I had two other points, but the variety of facts and approaches was apparently what made it run so far over time.

    Being able to take some random tangent that the interviewer throws in and run with it is major. Having “the nice lady from the ABC” ask about makeup (no, mere humans can’t drive safely while applying it) and being able to run off into the things that go wrong and an anecdote about a particularly nasty crash in Perth (makeup-driver killed someone and also lost a goodly chunk of her face) meant, again, extra time to get my point across to her audience.

  27. Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    No idea, Moz, but sometimes the blog takes it upon itself to display in ‘mobile view’. Only Jacques, I suspect, knows why this happens. I find I have to keep reloading the page until it finds its brain again, because while it’s in ‘mobile view’, I don’t even know how to log in, and the comments disappear.

    Also, this thread hasn’t been up to our usual standard. Many of our threads are stellar, but for some reason this one didn’t really gel. Put it down to Fridayitis, I suppose.

    On Nixon: the man, believe it or not, was raised a Quaker. Yes, you read that right.

  28. Moz
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I agree, the research is key. On both sides. Knowing my shit helps me relax, but I also draw a line and say “it’s ok not to know” because some of the tangents are so far out that you might as well not do the interview if that’s the subject (I’ve been asked whether Australia should continue subsidising foreign car manufacturers… don’t care, want to talk about driver behavior).

    And framing, don’t get me started on framing. “I have a right to drive” is the big one for me. At the risk of telling a lawyer about the law and getting it wrong…. actually you don’t. You need at least two permits, one for the vehicle and another for the operator. Either can be denied or revoked. You can, however, walk or ride a bicycle on (almost all) public land as of right. You want absolute rights? Shift your lazy arse out of the car and walk. Ahem. I have always wanted to say something like that but it would be unhelpful.

    Heh, also “derailing for dummies” techniques come up a lot.

    I read a couple of author blogs and it’s interesting when they talk about what they do to prepare for book tours. Not the “spare phone charger” stuff, but the bizarre range of things they learn about so that when interviews get weird they don’t look like ignorant dorks (science fiction authors have to know more science than any reasonable person, as well as all the tiny background details of their books that every author must know).

  29. Posted July 14, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    One thing I really hate in interviews is people expecting you to remember numbers off the top of your head.

  30. Moz
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Remember that 78% of all statistics quoted in interviews are made up on the spot 🙂

    I do a lot of “more than” “about” and “something like”. Because a lot of the numbers are arguable[1], which is why engineers and scientists often come across badly in the bought media. Speed of light? “it depends, mostly on the medium but also on temperature and other things”. Oh, what, you wanted a 3 second sound bite with a simple, exact answer?

    The gotcha thing is overdone. Too often it’s “Ha! Politician is human!”. Sometimes it really is meaningful, like The Situation and his “don’t believe me unless it’s in writing” response. I think the media should have taken him at his word and refused to cover anything he did after that except for written material.

    [1] hedging, there may exist numbers that are not arguable.

  31. Posted July 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    More pet hates: interviewers (and others) who opine on books they haven’t read (or, worse, haven’t read fully). Interviewers (and others) who attempt to divine an author’s politics or tastes from the politics or tastes of their characters. Both behaviours are absolutely inexcusable, evidence of both appalling manners and cultural illiteracy.

  32. Posted July 14, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    A Quaker? There’s a nugget I didn’t know.

    As you can imagine, LE, we’re not eager to publicise THAT one…

  33. Posted July 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    No idea, Moz, but sometimes the blog takes it upon itself to display in ‘mobile view’. Only Jacques, I suspect, knows why this happens.

    We have a plugin which switches on an iphone-y theme when it detects a mobile browser.

    But “detect” is such a loaded word. Reliably guessing the exact browser that has come a-knocking is surprisingly fraught with pitfalls. There are thousands of twisty combinations, all alike.

    (This is all a fancy way of shifting the blame onto the plugin authors btw)

  34. Posted July 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink


    One thing I really hate in interviews is people expecting you to remember numbers off the top of your head.

    This happened to me when I ran for Parliament in 2007. I did a phone interview early one morning, unaware that the previous night Howard had botched the headline RBA rate.

    It’s one of those gawdawful two-blokes-and-a-bimbo morning shows, so they led in with that question first.

    I said I had no idea, I didn’t have a mortgage. Did they also want to know the price of a loaf of bread or a litre of milk?

    I don’t remember the rest of the interview.

    The only half-decent interview I got was on ABC radio. I think that I got maybe 80 votes out of it. Otherwise running as a microparty candidate I might as well have not existed.

  35. Moz
    Posted July 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Jacques, at least you got interviewed. A microparty I’m involved with in the current byelection struggles to get into the list of candidates, It seems there are just too many for the poor media hacks. Next time we’re going with a candidate called Aaron Aardvark of the AAlternative Aanarchists, just so we are at the top of the list.

  36. Mel
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    “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 …. ”

    I thinks it’s fairly obvious Viv Smythe doesn’t possess the disinterest and intellectual honesty that are necessary components of a truly skeptical frame of mind. How the hell did she get in this book? Remember, Smythe of Hoydensville is one of the rumour merchants who falsely and maliciously smeared the Duke Lacrosse lads in relation to the Crystal Mangum rape hoax. Not only did she do this on her own blog, but she did it on a range of other blogs as well, as a quick google search will show.

    Sadly, the Duke Lacrosse hatchet job is only one element of a consistent a pattern. And, as with all the other examples, Smythe has failed to apologise and issue a retraction.

    Tigtog is a hardline ideologue and no more a skeptic than any of the narratives that emanate from between my hairy white male privileged butt cheeks.

  37. Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Sturgess is a radio interviewer; her book covers lots of people, including some that don’t interest me. And she is skilled enough to get people to drop themselves right in it, too.

    FWIW, I do think there are serious incompatibilities with certain schools of feminism and skepticism, although the Duke Lacrosse case is not an example of that: rather, it’s borne of a failure to understand a legal principle, not a scientific one.

    The legal principle in question is the presumption of innocence, and to be fair most of society doesn’t understand the presumption of innocence most of the time. Anyone who has worked in criminal justice has had the awful experience of trials where the only people who believe in the presumption of innocence are the judge, counsel at the bar and the jury (fortunately, all available research indicates that people who have served on a jury in a major criminal trial are less punitive than the general population).

    While I agree with the civilian system in its administration of sexual assault laws (enquiries cannot be made about the complainant’s sexual history, and there is no mens rea, so the complainant does not have to twice prove a negative), I think a great deal of angst could be avoided if we copied the French and made the whole process anonymous until trial. It has got that way that in the US, the pre-trial disclosure of the accused’s identity — for many crimes, not just sexual assault — is making it difficult to empanel a jury (the US voir dire when it comes to jury selection is much more comprehensive than it is in Australia or the UK).

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Skepticlawyer » The year in review on December 30, 2012 at 1:01 am

    […] we do book reviews, so here’s my review of Kylie Sturgess’s excellent The Scope of Skepticism, while Lorenzo takes on the Gold Bugs out there in Austrian Economics land and DeusExMacintosh […]

  2. […] book received lots of good reviews and at least two of them, Skepticlawyer and Shane Brady, mentioned the interview with Joey. How is that for raising awareness … in the […]

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