Episodes

Rationally Speaking #178 - Tim Urban on "Trying to live well, as semi-rational animals"  

This episode features Tim Urban, author of popular longform illustrated blog Wait But Why. Julia and Tim explore one of their common interests: the tension between the rational and irrational aspects of human nature. Is there any value in the "irrational" parts of us (such as Tim's colorfully named "instant gratification monkey" and "social approval mammoth")? And can recognizing that tension help us live better -- or are we stuck struggling between our animal and rational selves?

Rationally Speaking #177 - Dylan Matthews on "The science and ethics of kidney donation"  

If you're a healthy adult, should you donate one of your kidneys to a stranger? This episode features journalist Dylan Matthews, who donated his kidney last year. He and Julia discuss the clever design of "donor chains," how we should evaluate the science about whether kidney donation is safe, and whether we have an ethical obligation to donate.

Rationally Speaking #176 - Jason Brennan on "Against democracy"  

Churchill famously called democracy "the worst system of government, except for all the others that have been tried." Could we do better? On this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia chats with professor Jason Brennan, author of the book "Against Democracy," about his case for why democracy is flawed -- philosophically, morally, and empirically.

Rationally Speaking #175 - Chris Blattman on "Do sweatshops reduce poverty?"  

This episode explores the economics and ethics of low-paying factories (which some might call "sweatshops") in Ethiopia. Do they make their workers better off, relative to those people's outside options? Professor Chris Blattman has run some well-designed randomized controlled trials exploring this question, and he discusses what surprised him and how he's updated his views from his research. Julia and Chris also discuss an innovative program to reduce crime in Liberia using cognitive behavioral therapy.

Rationally Speaking #174 - John Ioannidis on "What happened to Evidence-based medicine?"  

Over the last two decades, the Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) movement has transformed medical science, pushing doctors to rely less on intuition or "common wisdom" in choosing treatments, and more on evidence from studies. Sounds great -- but has EBM become a victim of its own success? This episode features John Ioannidis, Stanford professor of medicine, health and policy, and statistics, and author of the famous paper, "Why Most Published Research Findings are False." John and Julia discuss how EBM has been "hijacked," by whom, and what do do about it.

Rationally Speaking #173 - Brendan Nyhan on "What can we learn from the election?"  

Since Trump's surprising win in the 2016 presidential election, there's been a flurry of discussion about why things turned out this way. But which explanations are well-supported, and which are wrong (or simply rationalizations)? This episode features political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who talks with Julia about questions like: Were the polls and models wrong? If so, why? How surprised should we have been by Trump's win? And why didn't the markets react badly to it?

Rationally Speaking #172 - Brian Nosek on "Why science needs openness"  

There's a growing anxiety about the quality of scientific research, as a depressingly large fraction of articles fail to replicate. Could "openness" solve that problem? This episode features Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology and founder of the Center for Open Science. He and Julia discuss what openness means, some clever approaches to boosting openness, and whether openness could have any downsides (for example, in the cases of peer review or data sharing).

Rationally Speaking #171 - Scott Aaronson on "The ethics and strategy of vote trading"  

It can be pretty frustrating to live in a "safe" state during national elections, where the chance your vote will affect the overall results is practically zero. This episode, with professor Scott Aaronson, explores an unorthodox solution to the problem: "swapping" your vote with someone in a swing state who was going to vote for a third party candidate. Scott and Julia explore the game theory of vote swapping, and whether there are any ethical problems with it.

Rationally Speaking #170 - Will Wilkinson on "Social justice and political philosophy"  

How did "social justice" come to mean what it does today? This episode features a chat with Will Wilkinson, a writer, political philosopher, and vice president of policy for the Niskanen Institute. Will and Julia discuss the libertarian reaction to social justice, whether or not social justice is a zero-sum game, and how the Internet exacerbates conflicts over social justice.

Rationally Speaking #169 - Owen Cotton-Barratt on "Thinking About Humanity's Far Future"  

What can we do now to affect whether humanity is still around in 1000 years (and what life will be like then)? In this episode, Julia talks with Owen Cotton-Barratt, a mathematician at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. They cover questions like: Given our poor track record of forecasting, is there any point to speculating about the far future? And is it rational to prioritize current people over future people?

Rationally Speaking #168 - Don Moore on "Overconfidence"  

This episode features a chat with Don Moore, professor of management of organizations at the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and an expert in overconfidence. Don and Julia discuss the various forms of overconfidence, whether its upsides are big enough to outweigh its downsides, and what people mean when they insist "I think things are better than they really are."

Rationally Speaking #167 - Samuel Arbesman on "Why technology is becoming too complex"  

As the technology we rely on every day becomes increasingly sophisticated, it's getting to the point where it's too complicated to understand -- not just for individual users, but for any human at all. In this episode, Julia talks with complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman, about his new book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, why these unprecedented levels of complexity might be dangerous, and what we should do about it.

Rationally Speaking #166 - Eric Schwitzgebel on "Why you should expect the truth to be crazy"  

Some theories violate common sense so wildly that you want to just reject them out of hand. For example, "The United States is conscious," or "The most moral act would be to replace all living beings with an orgasmic blob." On the other hand, many theories in physics that sounded similarly crazy turned out to be very well-supported (think of quantum theory, or relativity). So what role should "common sense" play in evaluating new theories? This episode features a discussion with philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel on his theory of "Crazyism," that we should expect the truth to be at least a little bit crazy.

Rationally Speaking #165 - Robert Frank on "Success and Luck"  

If someone asks you, "What caused your success (in finance, your career, etc.)?" what probably comes to mind for you is a story about how you worked hard and made smart choices. Which is likely true -- but what you don't see are all the people who also worked hard and made smart choices, but didn't succeed because luck wasn't on their side. In this episode, Julia chats with professor of economics Robert Frank about his latest book, Success and Luck: The Myth of the Modern Meritocracy. They explore questions like: Why do we discount the role of luck in success? Has luck become more important in recent years? And would acknowledging luck's importance sap our motivation to try?

Rationally Speaking #164 - James Evans on "Using meta-knowledge to learn how science works"  

Has science gotten slower over the years? Does the proliferation of jargon make it harder for scientists to collaborate? What unstated assumptions -- "ghost theories" -- are shaping our research without us even realizing it? In this episode of Rationally Speaking Julia talks with sociologist of science James Evans, who investigates questions like these using some clever data mining.

Rationally Speaking #163 - Gregg Caruso on "Free Will and Moral Responsibility"  

If people don't have free will, then can we be held morally responsible for our actions? And what would happen to society if we were to collectively shed our belief in free will? In this episode Julia talks with philosopher Gregg Caruso, who advocates a position of "optimistic skepticism" on the topic. Skepticism because people don't have free will as a sense of moral responsibility, but optimistic because society would be better off if we accept that we do.

Rationally Speaking #162 - Sean Carroll on "Poetic Naturalism"  

Naturalism is the stance that everything that exists in the universe arises from "natural" causes, of the sort observable by science -- not supernatural ones. It's practically a foundational tenet of skepticism. But does it imply that there can be no meaning, or purpose, or morality in the universe? This episode features physicist Sean Carroll, author of the recent bestseller The Big Picture: on the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself. Sean and Julia talk about the new "ism" he introduces in the book, "poetic naturalism," and how it attempts to resolve the apparent conflict between science on the one hand, and things like morality, free will, consciousness, and meaning on the other.

Rationally Speaking #161 - Tom Griffiths and Brian Christian on "Algorithms to Live By"  

Julia chats with the authors of Algorithms to Live By, about how to apply key algorithms from computer science to our real life problems. For example, deciding which apartment to rent, planning your career, and prioritizing your projects. In the process, they discuss the assumptions that underlie those algorithms (and what to do about the fact that those assumptions are inevitably violated by the messy real world), and why procrastination might actually be the right algorithm for the wrong problem.

Rationally Speaking #160 - Live at NECSS -- Jacob Appel on "Tackling bioethical dilemmas"  

It's the annual live Rationally Speaking episode, taped at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in NYC! This year features returning guest Jacob Appel, a bioethicist (and lawyer, and psychiatrist). Jacob and Julia discuss various bioethical dilemmas, such as: How do you handle parents who want to withhold medical treatment from their child for religious reasons? Is it unethical for American doctors to test new medications in the third-world? And what kinds of principles does a bioethicist use to justify their decisions, beyond "that's just my personal opinion"?

Rationally Speaking #159 - Colin Allen on "Do fish feel pain?"  

In this episode Julia talks with philosopher of cognitive science Colin Allen about whether fish can feel pain. In the process they explore a cluster of related questions: Are fish conscious, and how could we tell? What's the difference between pain and suffering? And are there evolutionarily adaptive reasons why animals would have the subjective experience of pain, as opposed to just instinctive reflexes to avoid potentially harmful stimuli?

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