Point of Inquiry

Point of Inquiry

Canada

Launched in 2005, Point of Inquiry is the premier podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Point of Inquiry critically examines topics in science, religion, philosophy, and politics. Each episode takes on a specific issue and features lively discussion with leading scientists, researchers and writers. Point of Inquiry is produced at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y.

Episodes

Michael Berube: The Value and the Virtue of Raising a Child with Down Syndrome  

  Michael Berube is the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University where he teaches American literature, disabilities studies, and cultural studies. His newest book is Life as Jamie Knows it: An Exceptional Child Grows Up. The book follows Berube’s son Jamie as he grows into adulthood, eagerly navigating the world as a young adult with Down syndrome.   

Berube tackles the misconceptions about intellectual disability from the perspectives of both a scholar of disabilities and that of a father. He challenges the misconception that intellectual disability detracts from the value of a life, as exemplified by his son Jamie, who Berube describes as witty, inquisitive, and full of a love for life. Berube asserts that like most children, when given ample amounts of love and attention, kids with Down syndrome have the best fighting chance at meeting their full potential and living a successful, happy life. Berube calls upon bioethicists, politicians, philosophers, and all of us to rethink how we approach disability, and advocates for changes that will move us towards a more inclusive society.

Only as Bad as it’s Ever Been: PJ O’Rourke on American Values, Politics and Culture  

This week we’re dusting off a favorite Point of Inquiry episode from three years ago: Josh Zepps' conversation with P.J. O'Rourke – humorist, cultural commentator and bestselling author of sixteen books. Originally broadcast in December of 2013, this episode's subject matter is remarkably relevant for this current political and cultural moment, as we prepare for the presidency of a man whose campaign was based on the promise to return America to a golden age that really never existed.

The Normalization of Hate: David Neiwert on Trump and the Rise of the Alt-Right  

There’s no getting around the fact that the alt-right has come out of the shadows to fully embrace Trump as their candidate. From Steve Bannon to David Duke, controversial support did not wait long to rush to Trump's side. It’s clear that for many “make America great again” may just mean to make America white again. To help us get to the root of this unprecedented following Trump has produced, we welcome author and award-winning journalist and blogger, David Neiwert.

 

Neiwert is an expert on the radical right and a correspondent for the anti-hate group the Southern Poverty Law Center. He most recently coauthored an award-winning piece in Mother Jones titled, "How Trump Took Hate Groups Mainstream." Neiwert and coauthor Sarah Posner have thoroughly tracked Trump's social media engagement with the white nationalist movement from the start of his campaign. Neiwert suggests that while we can’t know for certain how many of these alt-right ideals are ones Trump personally adheres to, he undoubtedly shares alt-right rhetoric that has enticed a strength in the white nationalism movement we haven't seen in decades.

 

Sarah Posner also appeared on Point of Inquiry last year in Sarah Posner: Trump, Carson and the Religious Right in 2016.

 

Trump’s Victory and the Challenge to a Secular America, with Larry Decker  

The religiously unaffiliated, also known as the “nones,” are currently the largest “faith” demographic in the country. Yet evangelicals beat them two to one in turnout at the polls. We live in an increasingly secular nation based on secular principles, but in government, the secular worldview is badly underrepresented. President-elect Donald Trump spoke to many American’s economic struggles, but his is also a victory for the religious right that rallied strongly behind him. Much of Trump’s platform and policy agenda is incredibly unpopular with the American people, which is part of what is so perplexing about his victory. Yet despite being a relative minority within the population, evangelicals reliably vote, and secular Americans overwhelmingly do not.  

Here to talk about how we got here and the effort to fix this voting disparity is Larry Decker, Executive Director of Secular Coalition for America. Decker believes that much of America’s core secular values are in grave danger with a Trump presidency. He asserts that SCA and its contributing members (which includes the Center for Inquiry, which produces this program) are preparing to fight relentlessly to make secular American voices heard in order to defend the wall of separation between church and state.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible: Samuel Arbesman on Rapidly Accelerating Technology  

We live in a digital era in which science and technology have revealed new frontiers never before possible. In developing the complicated technologies that permeate our lives, is it possible that humans have failed to grasp the magnitude of the complexity they have created? This week’s guest is a complexity scientist, Samuel Arbesman, author of the new book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.

 

Arbesman explains that the rate of technological expansion is growing too quickly for our intellects to keep up, and the dangers of not understanding the inner workings of our creations are already revealing themselves, whether it’s the New York Stock Exchange suspending trading without warning or Toyota cars accelerating uncontrollably to the surprise of their drivers. The complexity of the code behind much of what has become fundamental components of society are so far past the limits of human comprehension that oftentimes no one is even able to find the cause when these systems go awry. Arbesman lays out why it’s so difficult for even experts to keep up with technological progress and how we can make efforts to prevent our creations from destroying themselves…or us.

Halloween Special: Joe Nickell on the Paranormal's Origin Story  

Joe Nickell is perhaps the world's foremost investigator of the paranormal, as well as a magician and author, and he joins us for this special Halloween episode to discuss his recent feature article in Skeptical Inquirer, "Creators of The Paranormal."

According to Nickell, the term "paranormal" refers to things that lie beyond the normal range of human experience and scientific explanation. Nickell’s paranormal investigations have covered everything from spirits and psychic phenomena to less spectral phenomena such as UFOs and cryptozoology. Questions about the paranormal have haunted humans since ancient times, but much of our modern conceptions about the paranormal date back only as far as the 19th century. Nickell attributes the advent of modern day spiritualism and the proliferation of the paranormal to a handful of distinct individuals who, for better or worse, popularized paranormal beliefs that are still championed by believers to this day.

Cats and the Domestication of Humans, with Abigail Tucker  

The cat. King of the jungle, emperor of the internet, overlord of our homes? Cats are easily among the most adaptable mesopredator, able to survive and thrive everywhere from the deserts of Australia, to the Arctic tundra, to a cramped studio apartment. 

Abigail Tucker is a contributing writer for Smithsonian and author of the new book, Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World. Tucker explains just how wild the beasts that live among us really are. Known for their independence and convenience, cats need little house training, if any. Tucker asserts that while cats don’t require training, they may actually be the ones training us, monitoring our behaviors and teaching us how to keep them happy. So who, exactly, is domesticating whom?

Tucker delves paws-first into the feline mind, debunking cat myths and misconceptions, and shedding light on the role cats have played throughout history, as well as how we might be able to benefit from them in the future.

Trolling Unplugged: Benjamin Radford on the Creepy Clown Craze  

Halloween is almost here, and Target stores are pulling clown masks from their shelves. After the creepy clown craze made its way through Europe, the circus has finally arrived in the US with sightings in at least 40 states, 10 of which have now resulted in actual arrests. With more reports filed every day, the clown scare that’s taking the nation by storm shows no signs of breaking. Where are all these clowns coming from and why are these once-lovable jesters suddenly so terrifying?

 

Point of Inquiry welcomes writer, author and skeptic Benjamin Radford to discuss his new book, Bad Clowns. Radford’s research dives deep into the historical culture, pop culture, and counterculture of clowns in order to connect the dots to how we got here. Radford, deputy editor of the Center for Inquiry’s Skeptical Inquirer magazine, compares the clown phenomenon to the appeal some find in Internet trolling. Being a killer clown allows you to be seen without actually being seen; it’s the thrill of being a part of something big, a form performance art in which one’s identity is hidden from ridicule and consequence.  

 

Godless Infidels: Leigh Eric Schmidt on Atheism in the 19th Century  

Today the United States is the most secular and irreligious it has ever been. According to  Pew Research, the percentage of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or having no religion in particular is up to 23%, compared to the 16% it was in 2007. With a lack of religious affiliation becoming normalized, it’s hard to imagine what it was like for the nonreligious when God’s primacy was almost entirely unquestioned. 

 

Point of Inquiry welcomes Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the new book, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. Schmidt gives a detailed account of what it was like to be secular in a society where God was considered to be the sole source of all morality. While some worked to prove that God was not essential to being a moral, upstanding citizen, others were more concerned with reforming the way the church affected public life. Schmidt explains that in the 1850’s, “liberal” was used interchangeably with “atheist.” While some atheists felt it was important to blend in with the rest of God-abiding society, others felt their views on everything — from marriage reform and gender equality to civil rights and free speech — were in direct conflict with the church, and they challenged its claims to moral authority.

Doomsday Dread: The End of Civilization, with Phil Torres  

Phil Torres is an author, contributing writer for the Future of Life Institute, and an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. His writing has been featured in numerous publications such as Time, Motherboard, Salon, Huffington Post, and our very own Free Inquiry. His book is The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse.

 

Since the beginning of civilization, people have worried about its collapse. Pockets of people across the world have long warned that the end is near, and as it turns out, their warnings of apocalypse might be closer to the truth than we think. Torres joins Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps to discuss just how close we are to experiencing catastrophes that have the potential to fuel our demise. With everything from climate change and biodiversity loss to uncontrollable technologies and the greater accessibility of advanced weaponry, Torres predicts that the human race is going to have some major hurtles to overcome if we want to survive the coming century.

Editing Our Pasts: Dr. Julia Shaw on The Illusion of Memory  

Dr. Julia Shaw is a psychological scientist and senior researcher in the Department of Law and Social Science at London South Bank University. She teaches at the undergraduate and graduate level and her research on false memory has been published in several international academic journals. She returns to Point of Inquiry this week to discuss her new book, The Memory Illusion.

 

Our memories are a collection of perceptions of our past experiences, and they influence what we think we’re capable of in the future. Dr. Shaw argues that if we start to question the accuracy of our memories we’re then forced to question the foundation of who we think we are. She shows us that our memories aren’t as reliable as we think. Not only are we capable of co-opting other people’s memories as our own, but we can also be easily persuaded by the power of suggestion that we’ve committed acts that have never actually occurred. Even when it comes to our most confident recollections, the potential for memory error has proven to be profound, and Dr. Shaw believes understanding the science of memory can help us deal with our brains’ tendency to rewrite the past.

The People vs. the Planet: Barry Vann on the Consequences of Climate Change  

Since the beginning of humankind unpredictable forces of nature have been among our most dangerous threats: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornados, hurricanes, and other disasters that trigger our fight-or-flight survival instincts. Pollution invoked climate change is exacerbating natural disasters and spurring unprecedented human migration. So when so many people are clamoring for safety and running for the hills, what does that mean for those who are already atop them?

Author and geographer Barry Vann explains what awaits the future of our planet and its human populations in his new book Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet. In this fascinating yet sobering conversation with Josh Zepps, Vann elaborates on both the causes of migration as well as the outcomes of the population shifts to come. They discuss both the impact humans have had on our planet, and how our planet affects us in turn. Vann is optimistic that while society is prone to taking the path of least resistance, the conditions brought about by climate change will soon become so unbearable it will force us to make tough decisions that will be crucial for our survival. 

Terrible Food, Small Portions: Andrew Stark on Accepting Your Inevitable Demise  

Death is an unsettling thing to come to grips with. We know it is inevitable that it will one day happen to us. One of the first things most of us learn about death is that it happens to everyone, yet perhaps because no one ever comes back to tell the tale, there’s a lot about our impending doom that’s difficult to fully grasp. To help us take comfort in our inexorable demise, we welcome Andrew Stark, an author and political science professor at the University of Toronto. 

 

Having spent time as a policy advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada, he now offers himself as a life advisor – or rather, a death advisor – in his new book The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death. Stark gives us an overview of what the greatest minds of history have said about what it means to die. With a skeptical eye, he sorts through the various arguments for how we should feel about death, effectively shaking off the sugar coating of mortality in an effort to provide us with solace that stands the test of logic.

In the Weeds with Emily Willingham on Medical Cannabis  

Emily Willingham is a journalist, scientist, and award winning skeptical blogger, with much of her work centered on autism and debunking junk science controversies. Recently the autism community has shown a surge in support for medical cannabis, as anti-vaccination activists claim that cannabis may hold the key for a cure, and many people with autism claim it to be a useful for controlling their symptoms. Willingham and host Lindsay Beyerstein delve further into the topic to sort through the misconceptions that exist on both sides of the debate.

Willingham explains that the data is limited on the relationship between cannabis and autism, in part because of the strict research restrictions that have been placed on what the government classifies as a Schedule I substance, a drug with no medical value. Despite the abundance of data showing its benefits and safety in regard to pain relief and inducing appetite, Willingham points out that the stigma against cannabis has lead to restrictions that are even more severe than those that exist on many other pain killers and opioids.

 

Emily Willingham will also be speaking at the upcoming Women in Secularism conference, September 23-25 in Arlington, VA. For more information go to womeninsecularism.org

 

Faking Your Own Death: Elizabeth Greenwood on Death Fraud  

Elizabeth Greenwood teaches at Columbia University and like many other young professionals she has an insurmountable amount of student loan debt. With the overwhelming feeling that she would never escape her debt she desperately longed for a new start. There was no going back on what she had done to accumulate her debt, but perhaps she could skip ahead. She began to investigate what it would take to fake one’s own death in the 21st century.

 

Greenwood was shocked to ​find a robust infrastructure of death fraud all at her fingertips. Eager to know more about the strange subculture, she decided to go through with faking her own death and writes about it in her new book, Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World of Death Fraud. She meets some interesting characters along the way and realizes that a new start might not be as easy and appealing as it sounds. 

Getting to the Pit of the Bull: Bronwen Dickey on Canines and Conspiracies  

Browen Dickey is a contributing editor at The Oxford American, and author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. Her writing can also be found in The New York Times, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Newsweek, Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other publications. For Dickey’s most recent piece, just published in Popular Mechanics, she embarks on the “Conspire-Sea Cruise,” giving us an inside look at what the world of a conspiracy theorist is like and what fuels the need to believe in vast, nefarious plots.

Dickey says she was inspired to report on the conspiracy cruise after working on Pit Bull, where she discovered just how strong the desire can be to ignore evidence and seek out junk science that supports one’s existing beliefs. In conversation with host Lindsay Beyerstein, Dickey looks at the paranoia that propels people towards conspiracy and compares it to the tireless fear mongering pit bull breeds are subjected to. Dickey gives a detailed account of the history and science behind pit bulls and offers a hardheaded overview of what we know about them as a breed and the contrasting ways everyday Americans view them.

Competitive Cupping: David Gorski on Pseudoscience at the Olympics  

Those following the Olympics this year may have noticed Michael Phelps sporting circular bruises all over his body. That’s because Phelps, like many Olympic athletes, won’t go after their medals without going after their cups. The growing fad of cupping is an ancient practice in which cups are placed all over the body and skin is suctioned inside the cup, bursting blood vessels and creating circular bruises. The claim is that cupping releases toxins and heals muscle tissue, among a number of other alleged health benefits, none of which can be backed up by scientific evidence. 

 

Dr. David Gorski is a surgical oncologist, blogger, and advocate for evidence-based reasoning. He joins us today to discuss the latest Olympic pseudoscience fads and what it is about them that makes them pseudoscience. He gives his take on why alt-med practices like cupping are so appealing to people, and the best ways to go about persuading people out of them.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Facebook and Social Media Silencing  

  Iraqi-born writer Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is a blogger for the Huffington Post and a columnist for the Center for Inquiry’s own Free Inquiry magazine. Having grown up in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, he’s now a human rights activist and secularism advocate as well as founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement and Secular Post.   

For Faisal and progressive Muslims and secularists across the globe, social media is the primary means of not only seeking community and acceptance, but to opening dialogues about fraught issues such as dissent from Islam. But recently Facebook seems to be singling out many of these conversations and communities, and shutting them down. In a conversation with Josh Zepps, Faisal gives several examples of Muslims and Arabs having their posts and pages removed. Arab secularist groups, condemnations of the Taliban, and other challenges to Islam are being banned from the site, which is often justified by claims of racism, hate speech, and other alleged violations of “community standards.” Faisal argues that when Facebook censors Muslims and Arabs from being able to criticize extremism and terrorism within their own religion and culture it adds to the very stereotypes and fears surrounding Muslims that Facebook should want to prevent.

Donald Trump's Dirty Laundry, with David Cay Johnston  
 

David Cay Johnston is an award winning investigative journalist and New York Times best-selling author, as well as one of few journalists who has deeply dug into the dirty laundry of Donald Trump, now the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In 1988 Johnston left the LA Times to report on casino gambling in Atlantic City, which resulted in uncovering a detailed history of corruption in Trump’s past dealings. The information he began to unearth compelled Johnston to follow Trump’s career closely for decades, eventually leading to the release of his newest book, The Making of Donald Trump.

Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstien talks to Johnston about some of the key insights of his book, including the similarities between Trump and TV psychics, and Trump’s astounding ability to deflect any responsibility, and avoid any consequences for his actions. 

Wendy Kaminer: Dangerous Spaces for Free Speech  

Free speech on college campuses has become a topic of impassioned debate, as the lines between hate speech and harassment, or peaceful protest and public disturbance, are rather blurry and hotly contested. Particularly since the protest movements of the 1960s, college campuses have long been a kind of testing ground for different norms and boundaries of free expression. At the same time, some institutions of higher learning have speech codes which many feel are serving to silence debate and discussion among students in the name of protecting feelings.

  Our guest this week, Wendy Kaminer, is among those who believe that things like speech codes and trigger warnings have gotten out of control. Kaminer is a lawyer and writer who has dedicated much of her life’s work to defending free speech. She and host Lindsay Beyerstein engage in a spirited discussion about the grayest areas concerning speech and censorship on campus and in the culture at large.

Kaminer will also be one of the many fantastic speakers at the fourth Women in Secularism conference, September 23-25 in Alexandria, Virgina. 

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