As everyone who still believes that facts matter probably knows by now, one of the most important, if not the
most important, sites on the Internet is Snopes.com. It’s an indispensable resource for unvarnished, unbiased, apolitical, and irrefutable truth, “truth” being defined as that which is verifiably so. Every responsible organization that has dug into Snopes.com has reported that the site is unerringly accurate and free of bias.
As a straightforward fact-checker, Snopes.com is unbeatable. But for in-depth examination of more complex subjects, there is an equally critical online resource, and it’s called Skeptoid.com. Operated by Brian Dunning, the site’s primary objective is the promotion of critical, skeptical thinking. Skeptoid’s mission is often referred to as “debunking” but, as this implies a predisposition to produce adverse findings on its subjects, Dunning eschews that term. He is insistent on approaching each of his topics with a completely open mind and following the facts wherever they might lead.
The centerpieces of Skeptoid are its weekly podcasts. Running since 2006, there are now over 600 episodes, all of which are available on the site, in either streamable or transcription form, with complete source references for each. I’ve listened to every one of them, most during a 480-mile commute I made weekly over a period of about five years.
In each of these podcasts, the ever-affable Dunning calmly and expertly dissects each of his topics with methodological rigor, precision, and a great deal of wry humor, without ever ranting or allowing any political bias to creep in. Along the way, he manages to skewer not only deeply-held popular beliefs but deeply-loved public figures. Utterly unafraid to confront nonsense, stupidity and shameless guile head-on, he has taken on the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow (for selling to women products that are not only absurd but potentially harmful, like rocks to be inserted vaginally for all kinds of purported and demonstrably ridiculous health benefits), Bill Maher (for promulgating his unsubstantiated belief that Big Pharma wants to keep everyone sick by prescribing drugs), Jenny McCarthy (for her extremely harmful anti-vaccine activism) and, horror of all horrors, Oprah Winfrey, arguably the most influential woman in the world, who irresponsibly abuses her power by promoting quack diets, paranormalism, unproven alternative therapies and any number of other insufficiently vetted assertions.
Dunning has also poked holes in some things I thought were valid, like the language skills of apes. I was quite upset after listening to Episode #630 to learn that Koko the talking gorilla wasn’t all she was cracked up to be, not by a long shot. How could that be? I’ve seen the astonishing videos with my own eyes. But, coincidentally, right after listening to that episode I saw the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which I knew features a scene with Fred Rogers and Koko. I also knew that, in that scene, Koko signed that she loved Rogers. But, Dunning having put me wise to what was really going on, I was vigilant for trickery and clearly saw that Koko was simply aping (sorry) the sign made by her trainer, with no evidence whatsoever that she (Koko) had any idea what it meant. Thus am I forever disabused of that cherished canard, among others.
Dunning is so relentlessly rigorous that he invites criticism of his podcasts and devotes entire episodes to airing those critiques and owning up to mistakes he’s made. Recently, he tackled “number stations,” which are weird radio stations scattered around the world that broadcast nothing but an announcer reading off lists of seemingly random numbers. After (metaphorically) rolling his eyes at the notion that number stations might be sending coded messages to spies, he came back in a later episode to admit that — what do you know? — some of those stations really were sending coding messages to spies.
Skeptoid is occasionally accused of a right-leaning political bias, while Snopes.com faces analogous criticism for leaning left. It’s possible that those inclinations are real, but there’s a more likely rationale for those perceptions. If you’re a student and researcher of cultural mythology like I am, you will eventually arrive at the statistical reality that a majority of fake political evidence is spun by conservatives, while the majority of touch-feely, pseudo-spiritualish voodoo nonsense is more the purview of the left. Therefore, anyone who shoots holes in the foundations of widely-disseminated rumors involving liberal politicians is going to look like a lefty, while anyone who dismantles cherished beliefs in things like homeopathy and cleansing diets is going to get accused of being in the pockets of Big Pharma. (Anyone who thinks Brian Dunning is a political conservative should listen to episode #549, a proof of global warming so simple and compelling it’d “warm” the heart of the most arch-reactionary skeptic.)
Skeptoid accepts no funding from any entity that could sully its reputation or objectivity, and is therefore dependent on listener support. I’ve been making an automatic monthly donation for years, and if you care about bringing reason and sanity to a world rapidly going mad, I urge you to do the same. Listen to a few podcasts — they’re free — and if you agree with me that they represent an invaluable contribution to the fate of civilization, pony up a few bucks yourself.
You can also contribute to one of Dunning’s current projects, a crowdfunded documentary entitled “Science Friction,” about how scientists are misrepresented by media in order to support sensational theories.
If, like me, you’re troubled by the fact that there’s little an ordinary citizen can do to combat ignorance, fraud and willful misrepresentation, I promise that contributing to Skeptoid — and listening faithfully to its podcasts — will make both you and the world just a little bit better. The least you’ll gain is a greater ability and willingness to think critically and, as Dunning so often admonishes using the show’s catchphrase, Be skeptical!
Lee Gruenfeld is a managing partner of Cholawsky and Gruenfeld Advisory, as well as a principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was vice president of strategic initiatives for Support.com, senior vice president and general manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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