Thoughts on science podcasting: A dispatch from ScienceOnline 2012
January 20, 2012 2 Comments
I’m in Raleigh, NC this weekend for the sixth annual ScienceOnline un-conference, a gathering of 450 scientists, writers, bloggers, podcasters, educators, and others interested in the way the internet is changing the way we conduct, and communicate, science. My contribution was this morning — I moderated a discussion on science podcasting with Desiree Schell, the eloquent host of Skeptically Speaking. We made a nicely complementary team. Her podcast is live, whereas mine is pre-recorded; hers is solo; whereas mine is a dialogue with a co-host; hers focuses on the practical applications of science to people’s lives and pocketbooks (e.g., the common cold, the claims of the cosmetics industry, etc.), whereas mine is more abstract and philosophical. So our combined perspectives overlaid together created a kind of podcasting guide in 3D.
A few highlights:
What’s your niche? There are a lot of science and skepticism podcasts out there already, and Desiree and I both agreed that you need a well-defined “niche” in mind if you’re going to start your own. Maybe it’s a topic you think isn’t being covered enough, or it’s not being covered the way you think it should be, or maybe it’s a group you want to give a voice to. But there should be some reason your podcast exists other than the fact that you want to do a podcast.
For example, I consider Rationally Speaking’s niche to be in the philosophical implications of science. So instead of just covering topics like irrationality, or the science of love, we also try to hash out questions like, Why should we try to overcome irrationality? Does it actually make us happier, and what are the ethical implications of trying to make other people more rational? And if we understand the science of love, does that change our experience of love?
And then our other niche is the question of what constitutes good evidence for a claim: To what extent do fields like evolutionary psychology, string theory, and memetics make testable predictions, and if they don’t, can we have any confidence in their claims? Can we ever generalize from case studies? How do we know which experts to trust? A lot of skeptic podcasts and blogs highlight claims that are unambiguously pseudoscience, but I think Rationally Speaking specializes in the murkier cases.
The outline versus the map: Desiree and I talked a lot about how to make podcast interviews and conversations go smoothly. When I first started doing Rationally Speaking, I would come into our tapings with a mental outline of the topics I wanted to cover, arranged in a nice order that flowed well… and as it turns out, that’s fine for when you’re giving a lecture, solo, but it just doesn’t work when you throw other people into the mix. You don’t know what topics your guest is going to bring up that call for follow-up, and I never know what direction Massimo’s going to take the conversation in. And the problem with having an outline in your head is that once you diverge from that outline, you have no instructions for how to get back onto it.
So what I’ve settled on instead is more of a loose, web-like structure in my mind, where the topics aren’t in any set order, but for each topic, I’ve thought about how it connects to at least a couple of other topics. That way, wherever the conversation ends up, I have this map in my head of where I can go next.
Why a podcast at all? For that matter, you should really have a reason to do a podcast rather than write a blog. Podcasts have some significant downsides, compared to blogs. On the production end, they’re a hassle to record and edit, compared to writing a post, and they commit you to a specific length and schedule. On the consumption end, they’re inconvenient in that you can’t skim them at your own pace, you can’t skip down to another section, and you don’t get links or pictures to supplement the content.
But sometimes they really are better than a blog post. I think that’s especially true for treating controversial or multifaceted topics, the kind we look for in Rationally Speaking – hearing people debate a topic is far more engaging than reading one person’s point of view. Also, as Story Collider’s Ben Lillie pointed out during the conversation, listening to a science podcast creates an intimate connection to the scientist – when you’ve got headphones on and you’re hearing the scientist’s voice as if she’s right there with you, it takes barely any time to get a taste of her personality. And science could always use a little more humanizing.