Podcasts haven’t really been my thing; during long commutes I've usually prefered to work, read a book or kill time reading all the listicles on Buzzfeed, but over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly hooked on science/skepticism podcasts as a way of filling my mind and time. They’ve become a way of treating my I-must-always-be-learning-stuff-or-I’m-wasting-my-life thing (which I’m sure isn’t healthy): because walking down the street with your head in a book is just silly and dangerous.
I’ve been amassing a pretty long list of science/scepticism-based podcasts and, without really meaning to, built up a pretty solid weekly routine of listening my way through them. There's enough here to fill a whole week and then some.
The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is my go-to weekly podcast and how I start my Mondays on the bus to work. I have no idea how they find the time to do what sift through all the content and put the show together, especially Steve Novella, who seems to have his fingers in all the pies, but I am glad that they do. Despite more than 400 episodes, it never gets boring or repetitive and is consistently and easily the best scepticism podcast going. My favourite segment is ‘Science or Fiction’, both because it’s great to play along, and because it’s good to hear the rest of the Skeptical Rogues falling into the traps that skeptics often deride the credulous for succumbing to (‘I haven’t heard it before so it can’t be true; ‘My gut feeling tells me that that’s nonsense’). If there's one podcast you listen to, make it this one.
They now have a membership scheme through which you can support the production (and help them rid themselves on reliance on advertising) and their science outreach side projects like Occ the Skeptical Caveman.
Merseyside Skeptics are responsible for three podcasts: Skeptics with a K, InKredulous and the monthly, Be Reasonable. Of the three, Skeptics with a K and Be Reasonable are the only ones I listen to regularly – that’s not to say I have got anything against InKredulous, but I just never got started with it.
Skeptics with a K can be a bit ranty and rambly (a couple of weeks back there was an extended, farcical (and admittedly very funny) story of a mouse being chased around the house), and it’s pretty liberal with the fucks (if that kind of thing offends you), but it’s great listening. It’s not as structured as the SGU podcast: it usually follows a ‘what have you guys been up to’, ‘what bullshit have the Daily Fail printed this week’ format, but Micheal Marshall and the gang are at the forefront of grassroots scepticism and campaigning in the UK and they always have something interesting to say. It was listening to Skeptics with a K a few weeks back and Micheal’s appeal for people to share their favourite podcasts that actually inspired me to write this blogpost.
Be reasonable features monthly hour(ish)-long interviews by Micheal Marshall and Hayley Stevens with those on ‘the other side’. What makes this podcast especially good is that it avoids the maddening tendendency for skeptics to be sneery at those with views outside the scientific mainstream. The amiable tone used by Micheal and Hayley means that the interviewees open up and talk quite frankly about what they believe and why. The breatharians, 40-days-for-life campaigners and Pterosaur hunters don’t get an easy ride –the questions are never soft– but the emphasis is on learning rather than disparaging or debunking. The interview with pro-lifer Andrew Burton is an excellent example of asking the right questions and watching the interviewee turn themselves into knots.
The Pod Delusion is a crowd-sourced collection of short talks 'about interesting things', edited together by the tireless James O’Malley and Liz Lutgendorff. As the remit is anything interesting, it’s not restricted to straight science and the stories covered are nearly always tied to what's going on in the world that week, which is what makes such a good podcast. Case in point, the latest episode covers two talks, one on the Australian election and the other on the creeping return of the English poor laws, and interviews with authors of books on macroeconomics and neurophilisophy.
I recorded a very short, impromptu segment for them years back about my love of the STEM ambassador scheme at the AHS Questival and keep meaning to do something again, but, to my significant shame, never get round to it. James is currently looking a job: if you're looking for someone with new media and IT skills and what appears to be limitless capacity for work and puns, he's your man.
Star Talk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson. This is a podcast that I actually only got into after he appeared on an episode of Infinite Monkey Cage. The episodes are usually about deGrasse Tyson’s forte, space and astrophysics, but occasionally strays into other interesting territories like sex, with, randomly, Mel from Flight of the Conchords. The Cosmic Queries episodes are great as he tackles random questions from the public (‘Could we smash Jupiter into the Sun in order to supply it with hydrogen and stop it becoming a gas giant and annihilating us?’,‘No, or maybe yes, but if we could do that, it would probably be easier to just fly to another planet and start again.’). I find his sidekick, Chuck, a little irritating, and because it’s a radio show in podcast form there are lots of ad breaks and repetition after each break, but Neil deGrasse Tyson’s enthusiasm, and manner of speaking, which makes thermodynamics sound like the sexiest thing known to man, more than makes up for it. (I also love the themed pop songs that are played between segments.)
Two Norwegian podcasts listen to are Psykologlunsj and, more recently, the newly-launched Human Etisk Forbund's Gi Plass Til Tanken (Give yourself time to think) podcast. The Psykologlunsj podcast is a little rough around the edges but their coverage during the Norweigian election, as they took various parties and politicians to task on various, was great.
The HEF podcast is part of a wider campaign, launched during Humanist Week and incorporating Thinking Benches dotted around the country, which aims to encourage people to make time in the busy day to contemplate some of the bigger questions in life. The first episode of the podcast was an interview with evolutionary biologist Dag O. Hessen, who talked about, amongst many things, morality, empathy, and the importance of sleeping alone under the stars as a way of reminding yourself of the deep connection you have with the natural world and the universe as a whole. Others in the series cover death and old age and multiculturalism.
For shorter trips where you need to fill the time, I'd recommend the Philosophy Bites podcast with Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds. Every couple of weeks or so there’s a short (15-minute-ish) interview or discussion with a different philosopher/thinker which is never less than thought-provoking. The mid-August episode on how Plato and Aristotle grappled with weakness of will (something I have no shortage of), and what it meant for character, free will and rationality, was swilling around my head for days.
Some honourable mentions:
The Life Scientific, which features scientists talking to physicist and British Humanist Association president Jim Al-Khalili about their work, and equally interestingly, their personal lives. The last one I managed to catch was Oxford Neuroscientist Russell Foster talking about the science of circadian rhythms and the importance of ‘sleep hygiene’ for students. I have awful sleeping habits so this really taught me a thing or two, though I only very occasionally manage to put them into practice.
The Infinite Monkey Cage with Robin Ince and Brian Cox. The comedy/sci-comm super duo discuss science with a typically eclectic panel of guests, based around a loose theme. Seriously funny – mostly because of the chemistry (no pun intended) between Ince and Cox. Usually supplants the SGU podcast when a new series is out.
The only non-science/scepticism podcast I follow is the excellent Guardian Football Weekly with James Richardson. I’ve fallen out of love with football in recent years, having become disillusioned with the obscene amount of money swilling around (as occasional pod contributor Jonathan Wilson once put it "football is now the entertainment arm of the oil industry"; and the player merry-go-round, racism, and shoulder-biting doesn’t help either) but I really enjoy listening to the perfect blend of unfettered joy and sarcasm from James Richardson and the churlish Barry Glendenning. It was a strange feeling when I realised was looking forward to the restart of the podcast more than the actual matches at the beginning of this season.
Guardian Science Weekly. I started listening to this because I basically wanted Alok Jha’s job but continued listening because it’s a really great science podcast. The episodes aren’t exactly what you’d call regular but the interviews are always interesting, although I must admit that I find Jha’s interview technique is a little hit and miss at times.
I've been recommended other podcasts, including the Skeptic Zone from Australia and Neil Denny’s Little Atoms, but there just enough hours in the day to get through them all and still be a functioning human being that can actually spend time thinking about and digesting all the things I’ve listened to.
Incidentally, I use the Pocket Casts app on Android. There are a ton of podcasts apps out there but I’ve found this one to have all of the features I needed (like easy search functions, downloading whole series of episodes etc.) and to be the most intuitive.