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

Space Reporter Loren Grush: Hope and Hubris in Space Exploration  

The U.S. space program is both beloved and neglected. It brings us breathtaking pictures from distant worlds and drives the human species to push itself farther out into the cosmos. But at the same time, it is subject to terrestrial political concerns, and without the urgency of a Cold War-era “moonshot” to galvanize the public’s enthusiasm, U.S. space policy is at times directionless, and always underfunded.

To talk about the state of space exploration, Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo talks to Loren Grush, space reporter for The Verge, and previously of Popular Science. They discuss space policy in the Trump era, the challenges NASA faces to realize its ambitions, the grand promises of the private space industry, the prospects and perils for a human mission to Mars, the hostility women continue to face within the space community, and much more.

Oh, and we’ll also find out what it was that Mike Pence touched at the Kennedy Space Center that he was told not to touch.

Links:

Loren Grush’s work at The Verge
Loren’s Popular Science piece, “How You’ll Die on Mars”
Loren on Twitter: @lorengrush
Elizabeth Kolbert on Coming to Grips with a Warming Planet  

We want to believe that climate change can be stopped, that humanity can summon the political will to take decisive and meaningful action to avert disaster and save civilization. But the difficult reality is that even if we make our very best efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is coming. The real question now is how bad are we going to allow it to get?

There is perhaps no one better suited to discuss humanity’s unwitting impact on the planet than this episode’s guest, Elizabeth Kolbert. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and as a staff writer at The New Yorker she has chronicled the agonizing but undeniable realities of the ecological damage wrought by humans and the complicated politics of confronting — or ignoring — that damage.

Kolbert talks to Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo about how we as a society and as individuals think and talk about climate change and the inevitable environmental and political disruptions to come.

BONUS FEATURE: Point of Inquiry bids a fond farewell to Nora Hurley, the show’s producer since 2014, with a kind of “exit interview.” Nora and Paul discuss what’s next for her, as well as what working on (and listening to) Point of Inquiry has meant to them both.

Carl Pope on Trump, Paris, and the Climate: We’re Going to Be Okay  

On June 1, President Donald Trump declared that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, an international agreement meant to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. For those who accept the reality of the threat posed by climate change, the news has sparked a good deal of anger, outrage, and not a small amount of despair for the fate of our planet. 

  Despair not, says our guest, Carl Pope, the former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and the co-author of the optimistic new book Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet, co-written with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

  In a timely conversation with Point of Inquiry’s new host Paul Fidalgo (in his first episode as host!), Pope rejects doomsday attitudes about global warming, insisting that the window to stop climate change has not closed. He’ll tell us why he’s so optimistic, and what he thinks about the president’s decision to reject the Paris accord.

Show Update - Get Ready for Point of Inquiry: The Next Generation  

Don’t touch that podcast!

Yes, Lindsay Beyerstein and Josh Zepps have moved on to new endeavors, but a new chapter for Point of Inquiry is about to begin, with new hosts and a new format.

In this quick update the hosts-to-be will tell us a little bit about themselves and preview what they have planned for Point of Inquiry’s new direction.

So stay subscribed to Point of Inquiry in your podcast app of choice, and look for new episodes starting in June.

Is Anybody Listening? Jill Tarter on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence  

Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA where she also served as the former director of the Center for SETI Research. She was also a Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program and has conducted a number of observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since funding for NASA’s SETI program was cut in 1993, she has worked to secure private funding so that SETI may continue to explore. 

  In this conversation with Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps, Tarter discusses the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, how we go about looking for it, and why the search is so important to humanity. Zepps presses Tarter on the possible dangers of finding life outside our world, what it means to be alive in the first place, and the potential threats we face with artificial intelligence on our own planet. 

Special note from the Center for Inquiry: This is Josh Zepp’s final episode of Point of Inquiry. It has been a privilege having Josh cohost the program for more than three years. He is inquisitive, bold, witty, and never afraid to ask hard questions and hold guests accountable for their views. His conversations on Point of Inquiry exemplify the spirit of free inquiry we seek to advance at the Center for Inquiry. We of course wish him nothing but success, and look forward to opportunities to work with him in the future. You can hear Josh on his political podcast, WeThePeople LIVE. Thank you, Josh!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for news about what's next for Point of Inquiry!

Sarah Posner: How Trump Got His Hands on the Religious Right  

How did a man living an ostensibly godless, hedonistic life become the champion of the very groups who one would expect to denounce his behavior? Being a real estate mogul and reality TV star, it’s no secret to anyone that President Trump has spent far more time in country clubs than churches. A man who’s had several wives, owned casinos and bars, and had multiple accusations of sexual assault leveled against him is hardly the pinnacle of virtue the religious right professes to yearn for. Trump’s aggressively nationalistic campaign rhetoric clearly appealed to the so-called “alt-right,” but he could not have won the election without simultaneously appealing to religious conservatives. So what happened? 

  Today’s guest is investigative journalist Sarah Posner, whose expertise in reporting on religion and the conservative movement enable her to unravel the reasoning behind Trump’s success with evangelical Christians. Posner’s newest piece for The New Republic is "Amazing Disgrace,” which explores how “a thrice-married, biblically illiterate sexual predator” hijacked the religious right. While the alt-right and the cultural conservative movement have long been at odds, they shared common goals and prospects in the 2016 election, and that what unites them in terms of race and nationalism may be greater than even they would like to admit.

Special note from the Center for Inquiry: This is Lindsay Beyerstein's final episode of Point of Inquiry. We are enormously proud of Lindsay's remarkable body of work with Point of Inquiry. She is smart, insightful, witty, and has always been a genuine pleasure to work with, having grown tremendously as an interviewer over her time with us. We wish her great success with her new endeavors, including her new podcast, The Breach. Thank you, Lindsay!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for news about what's next for Point of Inquiry!

 
Paul Offit: The Fate of Science in an Age of Darkness  

While science was once the force that propelled humanity into an age of enlightenment, a pernicious fear of science and the unknown threatens to plunge society to into an age of darkness. So says Dr. Paul Offit, a groundbreaking immunologist, and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Offit’s new book, Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, comes at a time when the fundamental concepts of evidence, facts, and truth itself are being smothered by a miasma of misinformation.

 

Dr. Offit joins Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps for a vital discussion about the prognosis for science under the Trump administration, the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement, the probability of future pandemics, and much more. 

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Check Your Privilege-Checking   

 

Often when we talk about privilege, we’re referring to the systemic advantages some groups of people have over others, by virtue of their race, gender, or orientation. Having social awareness of privilege like this is an important part of fostering a more equal and inclusive society. Why then do people who value inclusiveness feel insulted when their own privilege is pointed out? Writer and editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy joins us to discus her new book, The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. 

 

Bovy explains that while “privilege” is meant to illustrate advantages placed on us by societal injustice, the word also has undertones suggesting economic wealth and a life free of hardship. She asserts that for this reason using the word provokes a lot of confusion and outrage. Bovy believes that because very few people’s lives are without hardship, being told they are privileged can be counterproductive. 

 

Mile-High Violence: Judith Matloff on Mountain Conflict  

People living at mountainous high altitudes account for only 10 percent of the world’s population, spread out over roughly 25 percent of the Earth’s surface, and yet they also are responsible for a huge portion of the world’s most violent and persistent conflicts. The reason for this correlation between altitude and violence isn’t entirely understood, but there are several factors contributing to the effect the geography of mountain living undoubtedly plays in conflict. Journalist and foreign correspondent Judith Matloff has spent her career covering conflict across the world. She has been a leading pioneer in safety training for journalist abroad and now teaches conflict reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

 

Matloff first noticed this geographical trend of violence when her 10-year-old son asked her to point out all the places she’s covered conflict on a globe. The boy quickly pointed out a curious pattern; that they all took place in mountainous regions. Since then, Matloff has thoroughly investigated the trend of violence in high altitude areas, which has led to the publication of her book No Friends But the Mountains: Dispatches from the World’s Violent Highlands. In this eye opening discussion with Josh Zepps, Matloff explains the various reasons why these relatively small and isolated areas see so much trouble, and shares her thoughts on the growing dangers to journalists around the world.

Tweaking the Travel Ban: Dahlia Lithwick on Trump’s Revised Executive Order  

President Trump’s travel ban aimed at select Muslim-majority countries (with exceptions for Christian minorities) was first framed this past January as an urgent action to protect the nation from the imminent danger of foreign terror attacks. With airports in disarray over the unprompted and unclear executive order, the directive was quickly taken to court, and it became clear that Trump’s dire warnings about national security threats were lacking one very important thing: evidence.  

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the ban was likely in violation of the Constitution. Trump’s administration quickly began fine-tuning the ban in order to appease the court with a new order, claiming to be equally predicated on imminent danger to the nation. Here to offer insight on what we can expect with the new ban’s rollout is Slate senior editor Dahila Lithwick. She specializes in writing about courts and law, regularly contributing to Slate’s political columns Supreme Court Dispatches and Jurisprudence. Her most recent article on this topic is “The Bogus Logic of Trump’s New Travel Ban.” In this episode of Point of Inquiry she gives us a thorough overview of the new and original travel bans, and considers the many possible outcomes as we wait on the courts to rule.

Lawrence Krauss: Accidental Origins  

Fate. Purpose. Design. These are words that hang over many of our heads as we navigate the everyday chaos of life. Religion is often given exclusive purview over the discourse surrounding these concepts, but what if science was able to answer some of these same deep existential questions? We may not always like the answers that science has to give us.

 

Laurence Krauss is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, professor, author, and science communicator, and an honorary member of the Center for Inquiry Board of Directors. His newest book is The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far, a look at the standard model of particle physics and its implications for our existence. It’s a follow up to his critically acclaimed book A Universe From Nothing, in which Krauss not only delves into how we’ve reached our current understanding of the universe, but also celebrates the wonders and beauty of the natural world and our accidental existence. The universe, says Krauss, is not fine-tuned for life, but rather life is fine tuned for the universe.

The Pains of Justice: David M. Engel on Why Americans Don’t Sue  

Americans have a stereotype of being somewhat lawsuit-happy. Any disagreements, no matter how small, wind up in court and we will sue the pants off our neighbors at the slightest scrape or bump. David M. Engel, author and law professor at University at Buffalo, objects. 

His newest book is The Myth of the Litigious Society: Why We Don’t Sue, where he explains that contrary to popular belief, most American injury victims never so much as contact a lawyer, let alone file a claim. Engel lays out the reasons that Americans rarely sue and why it is that we think we do anyway. He believes that understanding the realities of the American legal system is the first step toward answering questions about what we should do about injuries and restitution as a society to prevent and mitigate pain and suffering.

James McGrath Morris on Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press  

Every significant turn towards progress has had its trailblazers, and history can easily forget these pioneering individuals who have helped get us to where we are today. One of the most important figures at the height of the civil rights movement was activist and journalist Ethel Payne, who played a pivotal role as a trailblazer for both women’s rights and civil rights in general, rising to become the first black female commentator employed by a national television network.   

James McGrath Morris is an American biographer whose newest book is Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press. Morris follows Payne’s career as a journalist at the Chicago Defender, an important black newspaper known for covering stories the mainstream media didn’t cover. She was one of the best journalists of her time and one of very few black female journalists. Morris tells of Payne’s tenacity and her reputation for asking questions that no one else thought to ask, thereby arriving at the truth without having to persuade or editorialize.

Gary Taubes: The Bittersweet Truth about the Dangers of Sugar  

Diabetes and obesity are on the rise in America in epidemic proportions, but we don’t respond to it with the urgency of an epidemic. Sugar industry lobbyists work hard to keep regulations at bay, and today sugar can be found in everything from baby formula to cigarettes. There is no customer too young or too old for the sugar industry, and the earlier in a person's life a dependency is developed, the better.

Renowned journalist and author Gary Taubes doesn’t sugarcoat how bad our sugar problem really is in his new book The Case Against Sugar. Taubes exposes common misconceptions about sugar and brings to light the research that suggests just how helpless we may be to its deadly impact. While the harms are clear, the sugar lobby has successfully embedded it into the fabric of our culture — which is why Taubes believes that sugar is the tobacco of the new millennium.

 

Science, Stopped at the Border: Jen Golbeck on Science in Trump’s America  

The United States leads the world in science and innovation, but there’s no guarantee that this will always be the case. The Trump administration’s orders to halt federal science publication and public communication has American scientists racing against the clock to back up their data in fear of it being eradicated. Meanwhile, the scientists who come to America from all over the world face new roadblocks, as the travel ban from select Muslim-majority nations is reeking havoc on scientists who are not only kept from visiting loved ones, but are unable to leave the country for academic work in fear of being barred from reentry.  

In this eye opening discussion, Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps talks to Jen Golbeck, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland College Park. She speaks with first-hand experience about the blow American science is taking from the travel ban — not only in its immediate effects, but the long-term consequences these policies will undoubtedly have in putting America behind the rest of the world.

Murder, Chaos, and Cover-Ups After Hurricane Katrina, with Ronnie Greene  

Ronnie Green is a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author whose latest book is Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina. His book follows the true story of an innocent family seeking help and security in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but was instead ambushed by New Orleans police officers’ gunfire. Further outrage comes not just from the massacre itself but that the officers and their supervisors at the New Orleans Police Department planted evidence in an attempt to cover up the murders. 

  In a city overtaken my chaos and police officers overcome by fear, catastrophe ensued, leaving the surviving family to pick up the pieces left by the hurricane that ran through their lives. The victims’ family endured over a decade of legal battles before the officers at fault pleaded guilty to the charges. This story is a clear account of how the very people meant to protect and serve citizens can break the law, cover their tracks, and manipulate the legal system.

Extended Mileage in Someone Else’s Shoes: Ted Conover on Immersive Journalism  

Ted Conover is an American journalist and author, known for fully immersing himself in the world of the subjects he covers. Conover writes about the people we understand the least by attempting to live their lives. Whether he’s riding freight trains with the homeless or navigating the ethical pitfalls of being a prison guard, he walks a mile in their shoes so we don’t have to.

His newest book is Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, and in this week’s episode of Point of Inquiry, Conover discloses to host Lindsay Beyerstein what some of the most difficult moments of his immersion-journalism career have been, and reveals some of the tricks of the trade for getting close to your subjects without losing yourself in the process.

Daniel Dennett: The Magic of Consciousness…Without the Magic  

Daniel C. Dennett is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, perhaps best known in cognitive science for his multiple drafts (or "fame in the brain") model of human consciousness, and to the secular community for his 2006 book Breaking the Spell. Author and co-author of two-dozen books, he’s the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, where he taught our very own Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein.

Beyerstein and Dennett catch up to discuss Dennett’s newest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. It’s a fresh look at Dennett’s earlier work on the subject of consciousness, taken in new directions as he seeks a “bottom-up view of creation.” Join Dennett and Beyerstein as they discuss the how’s and why’s of consciousness, not just from an evolutionary and neurological standpoint, but also through the lenses of computer science and human culture. 

Enemies List Redux: Rick Perlstein on the Parallels between Trump and Nixon  

With great power, comes great responsibility, so we are told by Voltaire and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. It’s something we learn anew with each presidency, as the person who holds the office must decide how they will wield the power they’ve been given. For Richard Nixon, power was something to be used in the service of itself, to be maintained and defended at all costs.

Soon to be our 45th president, Donald Trump comes to the office with some striking similarities to the 37th, complete with “enemies lists” and paranoid vendettas against foes real and imagined. To give us some historical perspective about the comparison between Trump and Nixon, we welcome historian, author, and journalist Rick Perlstein.

Peristein is the bestselling author of Nixonland and Before the Storm, about the conservative movement sparked by Barry Goldwater. His newest book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and The Rise of Reagan. Perlstein recently published his latest critical analysis of Trump and Nixon in The New Republic, in an expose entitled "He’s Making a List."

Should Atheists Celebrate Christmas? Tom Flynn Debates Lindsay Beyerstein  

Tom Flynn is Executive Director of Council for Secular Humanism (a program of the Center for Inquiry), as well as a novelist, journalist, and editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Outside of the freethought universe, however, Flynn may be best known as a professional Christmas opponent “the Anti-Claus,” and author of the book The Trouble with Christmas.

For decades, Flynn has argued against atheists taking part in the celebration of Christmas, saying it makes hypocrites of nonbelievers and validates Christians’ claims over the season. Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein disagrees, and this week she and Flynn engage in a friendly debate over whether atheists should reject all trappings of the holiday, or claim its secular aspects for our own.

 
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