Point of Inquiry

Point of Inquiry


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.


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. 

Ali Rizvi: Islam and Identity for an Atheist Muslim  

  Religions have always gone through transitions over time. Not only do the faiths themselves evolve, but the role they play in day-to-day life adapts to fit the needs of a given culture. As the youngest Abrahamic religion on the market, all eyes are on Islam, as a debate rages as to whether there is any chance of reform or secularization within a religion that is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Muslim world.

Ali Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and author of the new book Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. Rizvi is one of many Muslims who assert that while they have lost their religion, they haven’t lost their Muslim identity. Rizvi considers Islam to be a religion with a set of ideas that are fair game to be criticized, but he also sees Muslims as distinct, as a culture of which Islam is not a mandatory component. After losing his faith while studying as a scientist and physician, Rizvi continued to participate and identify with many of the cultural aspects of being Muslim. He found that he wasn’t alone in his feelings, and predicts that today’s young Muslims will be the start of the transition toward secularism for Muslims around world.

Digitally Aware: David Levy on Mindfulness in an Information Overload  

It was only a couple of decades ago that the most complex handheld computing system fathomable was a TI-83 graphing calculator. Technology has usually served to make our lives easier, but in the post-digital boom, in which full-blown pocket size computers are the norm, our attention spans are shrinking along with our free time (and graphing is the least of our data worries). Technology can seem to have made certain aspects of life simultaneously easier and more difficult.

  Our guest this week is David Levy, a computer scientist and professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. He was a member of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Silicon Valley during the information revolution in which we began converting information from paper to digital. He has since focused the body of his work and research on information overload. His new book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, offers simple strategies and exercises to help develop digital control and mindfulness. Levy doesn’t claim to see the digital advancements of the world as being strictly an asset or detriment, but rather asserts that we need to begin to train our brains to process information differently to maintain control and balance over our increasingly fast-paced digital lives.

Surviving the Beauty Culture, with Autumn Whitefield-Mandrano  

Autumn Whitefield-Mandrano is the author of the acclaimed new book on feminism and beauty, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives. Her work can be found such outlets as Glamour, Jezebel, Salon, The Guardian, and her own blog, The Beheld: Beauty and What It Means. Her book takes a closer look at why beauty is so coveted in American society and how the pedestal of beauty affects women in particular.

  She and host Lindsay Beyerstein delve into perceptions of beauty from both scientific and sociological perspectives. While Autumn’s research supports the notion that many women see beauty as a healthy celebration of individuality, she’s also all too aware of the multi-billion-dollar industry that cynically peddles snake oil and empty promises to women who feel forced to maintain impossible beauty standards.

Invisible Asperger’s: Michelle Vines on Late-Life Diagnosis  

Michelle Vines grew up knowing she was different from other people. She always assumed she was just a bit odd and eccentric but never in a way that suggested she wasn’t neurotypical. She lived in Australia where she excelled in math and science and became a chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry. After finding her work environment deeply unsatisfying and her personal relationships increasingly frustrating, she was forced to sort through why she was struggling. When the possibility of Asperger’s syndrome was raised, it was both jarring and illuminating.  

In 2008 she put her chemical engineering career on hold and moved to the U.S. where at 30 years old she was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the University of Texas Health Science Center. The experience of living her entire life without fully understanding her own brain inspired her to write her memoir, Asperger’s on the Inside. Since being diagnosed, she has been a strong advocate and spokesperson for autism and Asperger’s, and hopes to help people on all ends of the neurological spectrum form a better understanding of what people with Asperger’s go through on a daily basis. 

Bloody Bangladesh: Michael De Dora on the Attacks on Secularists  

Secularist bloggers, writers and LGBT activists are being hacked to death in the streets of Bangladesh by militant Islamic groups. To help us get to the bottom of why there needs to be no end in sight to the violence is the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy Director, Michael De Dora. Starting in April of 2013 when secular activist Avijit Roy reached out to De Dora, the Center for Inquiry has worked closely with threatened individuals like Roy to move writers and bloggers in Bangladesh to safety. Roy was himself murdered in Dhaka in February of 2015, beginning the current wave of attacks.

De Dora, who is also CFI’s main representative to the United Nations, explains that many of these champions of free speech in Bangladesh have no other choice but to leave their home country, as the Bangladeshi government refuses to come to terms with the threat, and instead directs responsibility to the dead for their writings. While the current government in power is ostensibly secular and considered the more liberal of the two powerful political parties in Bangladesh, they have been reluctant to make a show of support of the victims, protect their citizens. De Dora suggests that it’s because many of the people being attacked are criticizing the government, and as a result the only action being taken is victim blaming. 

Note: Over the weekend, Bangladeshi authorities arrested thousands people said to be connected to extremist groups responsible for the attacks.

Jessica Valenti: The Measure of a Woman's Worth  

Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti is a pioneer of digital-age feminist writing, starting her blog Feministing in 2004, and becoming known as one of the leading voices in the discussion about gender equality. Valenti’s newest contribution to the movement is her new book, Sex Object: A Memoir.


Her witty and courageous book explores the cold, hard realities of growing up female in a male-dominated society, with a unique spin on a story many women are all too familiar with. Point of Inquiry’s Lindsay Beyerstein gets the inside scoop on what motivated Valenti to write the memoir and what she advises for the future of feminism and the fight for gender equality. They talk about many of the stories Valenti shares about her life, and discuss the personal impact of divulging one’s most vulnerable experiences in order to tell the difficult truths about many women’s everyday lives.

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