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

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.

 
Amanda Marcotte on the Trump Transition and the Reshaping of America  

There's no question that Trump and his incoming administration have plans to take the country in a very different direction on a plethora of issues. To help us sort through what to expect, we welcome writer and political journalist, Amanda Marcotte. Marcotte currently blogs at The Raw Story and is a political contributor for Slate, Salon, and The Guardian. 

With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Marcotte says we can expect drastic changes on a multitude of issues, and in areas such as immigration and climate change, Trump will not even require congressional approval. Labor rights, healthcare, and abortion rights, while vulnerable, will take more of an effort from Trump and Republican lawmakers to change. Marcotte urges progressives not to give up hope, as she lays out where Trump’s agenda can be most effectively resisted. 

Embargo for America: Andrew W. Cohen on Smuggling and the Rise of a Superpower  

From the early isolationist policies of George Washington to Thomas Jefferson’s universal embargo on foreign trade, 19th century America had no plans to become an imperial power. How then does a nation with no navy and a commitment to not having a standing army become a global superpower? 

Andrew W. Cohen is an author and U.S. history professor at Syracuse University. His new book is Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century. Cohen argues that looking at early 19th century American trade policies, and the effort to police smuggling goods and contraband, gives us some telling insight about the transformation of America into what it is today.

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.

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