Interview with Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris examines the origins of the show and lessons learned.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for look back at 200 episodes to Skeptiko. During the interview Tsakiris discusses what he’s discovered about other skeptical podcasts:
Tim: There’s Skeptiko and you’re up against all of the skeptic shows: The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Skepticality, Skeptoid…
Alex Tsakiris: Not really, Tim. Those are like two different universes. I came into this from the outside and assumed that these two groups would fit together. If The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepticality and Skeptoid and all the rest of them are talking about parapsychology, although it be in a disparaging way, then naturally they’re going to want to dialogue with the same researchers I wanted to talk to. I was naïve enough to think that they actually did.
What I’ve found is that they don’t. What the Skeptics really want is to be left in their little island over there, in their little world, so they can talk about these things among themselves.
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Today we have a special episode of Skeptiko. I have with me and I’ll soon be turning the mike over to Tim #$%, who is a long-time friend of mine and a long-time friend of Skeptiko. A guy who has literally listened to, I think, every show that I’ve produced.
What makes this particularly interesting, other than I have this close personal relationship with Tim, is that Tim is a skeptic and he remains a skeptic. I love the fact that he’s stayed with the show, stayed with the material, has battled it out, and has remained a skeptic. So I think when Tim proposed the idea of doing an interview about Skeptiko, something I’ve been resistant to do, the more I thought about it the more I thought, ‘What more perfect person to conduct that interview than someone who’s deeply engaged in the show and remains opposed to a lot of the ideas. And that true spirit of sorting out the data and skepticism?’
I can now turn the mike over to Tim.
Tim: Thank you, Alex. And thank you very much, honestly, for agreeing to do this. You and I had a bit of a back-and-forth on whether or not you thought this was a good idea but I do want to do this, primarily in my mind as a celebration of the fact that you’ve reached this milestone of 200 shows. So if you’ll look back at Skeptiko, it started January 7, 2007 and you introduced it with how controversial science is debated.
So my idea for the next few minutes is to talk about the show. I’m hoping we can stay out of the topics of the show. We may bleed into that but I’m curious to get started with how the show got started. Take us back to 2007.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I started out as a listener. I’ve always been very interested in not only these topics but in general in the idea that I can learn. I can get better. I can improve by absorbing knowledge from other people. So I was a listener first, and I became quite interested in the whole idea of parapsychology and paranormal phenomena just at a very casual level, like anyone who watches a television program on the topic.
That led me to Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, who is guest #1 of Skeptiko. The conversation I had with Rupert was along the lines of, “Hey, this is interesting. Why isn’t anyone talking about this in a serious way, interviewing these researchers and analyzing what they have to say, versus what people who oppose them have to say?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “We ought to make that happen and I’m willing to fund this. Let’s hire somebody to go do this show.”
That was really how it started, is I was going to fund a show because I’m not a producer of any sort, and I’m not a radio guy or anything like that. Well, we went down that path and I asked Rupert for suggestions of who might be good for the show. That kind of played out and it’s like so many things you hear about, you know? There wasn’t anybody so I stepped in to do it.
After a couple shows, really, I was pretty well hooked on doing it and I was hooked on the fact that if I tried to subcontract this out it wouldn’t really fit what I was looking for. I wouldn’t get the questions that I want asked and answered. Those wouldn’t come on the table because everyone does bring a different perspective to these things. So that’s really how it all started.
Tim: Did you get very far down the path of looking for somebody else to host this show?
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. He threw out a couple of names. I followed them up. There actually is one guy who appeared very early on, in my interview with Michael Shermer, who we were considering for doing the show. I met him here; he came down to Del Mar. He wasn’t a good fit. So I don’t know if I exhausted all possible candidates but yeah, we went down that path.
Tim: What was Rupert’s reaction when you said, “I’m just going to do this myself?”
Alex Tsakiris: I think one of the other little secrets you learn when you get into this is I had this idea of some of these figures who I respect tremendously, their ideas are fantastic, their books are fantastic and their books are bestsellers and internationally known. But I think in my mind and a lot of people’s minds, you have this idea of this kind of infrastructure that lies behind them and that their tentacles reach out and all this, and it’s not really the case. A lot of times it’s a guy like Dr. Sheldrake, who has an academic career and has written a book and that’s it.
So in terms of me stepping forward and saying, “Hey, why don’t I do this show,” he was welcoming. He was like, “Great, fine. Let’s try it.” I think he saw it as not a lot to lose. He wasn’t putting a lot behind it and it was another chance to get his ideas out there, which is the other impetus of the show that really remained sound and true to this day.
There’s a lot of really important thinkers out there who don’t get airtime. I think that’s probably less true now than when I started because there’s been a growth on the Internet of shows like mine and shows in this general topic area that now cover these topics more thoroughly. I think that’s fantastic. I’d love to be obsolete at some point.
Tim: So six years you’ve been doing this, which is roughly 30 a year, basically one every other week. You’ve kept up a very consistent pace. What if you’d been told in January 2007 that you’d be doing this six years later? This is kind of like the question the Rolling Stones are getting now as they’re getting into their 50th year. Everybody is asking them if they knew they would be doing it 50 years later.
Alex Tsakiris: I think even the comparison, or the hint of the comparison, of me, and Skeptiko, with the Rolling Stones is something that I have to really…
Tim: That was deliberate on my part.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I have to really tread very carefully there. No, you know what I’ve said repeatedly to people? I’ve had to say it so I can remind myself of it and gain as much humility as I can, and that’s that this is my journey. This is my little trick. This Skeptiko show and the opportunity to provide this on the Internet and iTunes and thousands of people and all that, hey, man. That’s just a little trick. I get to call these people up and talk to them.
If I just called them up and talked to them, no one would talk to me, so the idea of a show and a regular schedule and a continuation of it or anything like that is just, for me, an outgrowth of this desire to talk to folks. That’s just a vehicle that allows me to keep talking to the people I want to talk about. So whether I was thinking about six years or whether I think about six years in the future, whatever, I’m just on this journey.
Tim: The whole arena of podcasting—you’re in the tens of thousands of downloads field there. You said Eben Alexander, on YouTube, was in the hundreds of thousands of views. I’m sure you’ve thought about monetization of it. Has that ever been anything you’ve pursued at all?
Alex Tsakiris: No. It’s interesting. Both you and I share a business background. We started our professional careers together and that’s how we first became friends. But I think we’ve also had that connection to the business world since then, as most people who start down that career path.
There are a lot of business rules or lessons that I’ve learned that I think inform my decisions on Skeptiko, and one of those is that this idea that “do what you love and the money will follow” is really a load of crap. I don’t think that’s true and I think the way that applies to podcasting is if I wanted to apply my time and my mental resources towards increasing capital, I wouldn’t do it by podcasting. Not to say that some people haven’t found a way to monetize it and stuff like that. 1) That’s not my goal and 2) I don’t think it’s a very good way to make money.
Maybe I should have started with the second point. It’s not my goal. It’s not what this thing’s about.
Tim: Do you get approached by advertisers?
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. You do, but is there really any money there? I don’t see it.
Tim: There’s your show and you’re up against all of the skeptic shows…
Alex Tsakiris: Not really.
Tim: There’s The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Skepticality, Skeptoid…
Alex Tsakiris: Not really, Tim. Those are like two different universes. One of the things that Skeptiko did, again because I came into this kind of cold from the outside, was I saw naturally that these two things fit together. If The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepticality and Skeptoid and all the rest of them are talking about parapsychology, although it be in a disparaging way, then naturally they’re going to want to dialogue with those researchers. I was naïve enough to think that they actually did.
What I’ve found is that they don’t. What they really want is to be left in their little island over there, in their little world, and talk about these things among themselves. I don’t know. There’s a certain prejudice that I’m revealing in saying that but I think that’s wrong-headed. How can you say you really want to engage in an intellectual free-thought, critical examination of these things without looking at the other side? It seems silly yet that is the landscape. They really don’t want to interact with anyone.
The same over here on the parapsychology community. I think for the most part, when I first got involved there was not a lot of interaction with the skeptics other than this kind of throwing stones over there and saying how stupid they are. I guess I’ve bridged that a little bit but then anyone who’s been around the show for a while, as you know, that becomes tedious, tiresome, and worn-out pretty soon, too. There’s not a lot of real interaction there with the hardcore skeptics and Atheists. They just have this party line kind of thing that’s hard to penetrate.
What is effective is going to the Level 2 people behind that, the mainstream researchers in the field who more or less echo a lot of those same skeptical, materialist, Atheist worldview things and pulling them into this kind of debate and dialogue I think is fruitful and will remain fruitful for as long as I want to do it. There’s no end of people that will engage in that dialogue, either knowingly or not knowingly, as we’ve found in Skeptiko. Some people don’t fully realize the dialogue they’re getting into when they get into it.
Tim: They assume you’re skeptical and then the conversation goes in a different direction. You’ve been on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and they’ve been on Skeptiko. It sounds like you don’t foresee that happening much in the future.
Alex Tsakiris: Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve pursued Steve Novella a half dozen times since then. He used to respond– although very slowly– to my requests. He doesn’t respond anymore, which has been the case over and over again with skeptics. They lose an argument and they run away. That sounds harsh but it really is the truth. There should be so much more engagement with these issues in a debate format.
Again, it really doesn’t wash, the skeptical position, at the end of the day. It doesn’t hold. I’m here; I will engage, debate, whatever you want to call it, anyone, anywhere, anytime. Anyone, that is, that has any audience or credentials or certain reputation in this field. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t do the same. I mean, if you think your ideas hold up you’ve got to say, “Hey, bring it on.”
Tim: I have gone through the 200 episodes and I have done my own completely unscientific categorization of all the show. I’ve also tried to count guests. It’s probably no surprise that Dr. Sheldrake has been on the show the most times. I have him down for seven times. Novella, I have on for four. Ben Radford for three times. Jeffrey Long three times. Then a bunch of onsies-twosies.
One thing that struck me when I was looking at that is that Dean Radin has only been on your second show, yet he’s never been on since although he is probably a name that you’ve probably quoted as often as Rupert Sheldrake in the course of recording these interviews. I guess there was an email exchange during the Global Consciousness Project exchange but I don’t think he was actually on the show again. Is there any reason you haven’t been able to get him back on the show?
Alex Tsakiris: Wow, you’ve really dug into this stuff. You’ve done your research. Even when you pulled that Global Consciousness Project reference, I was going to mention that and then you…
Tim: I am a fan of the show. Despite what you believe, I am a fan of the show. I’ve listened to all the shows.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s awesome. You know, I interviewed Dr. Radin another time, did a video interview of him. I have not published that. It’s a few years old. I’d love to get around to publishing it at some point. There really isn’t any other reason why he hasn’t been on the show. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dean Radin. I think he’s one of the real giants, if you will, in this field. I think his thinking is just always spot-on. When I visit his blog I’m always blown away. Sometimes I’m blown away by reading something and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then I look up and it’s 2009 or 2010, several years ago.
Tim: That sounds like a good topic for show 201 then. You should get him back on.
So my categorization of it, and these are very rough numbers, is about a quarter of the shows are related to NDEs. About 20% on psychic and paranormal activities and topics. And then 15% associated with skeptics, just interviews back-and-forth with skeptics and believer/nonbeliever kinds of discussions. About 10% on what I call religion, 10% on consciousness and so forth. And 10% on dogs. Is that how you would have characterized the split of the show? Does it surprise you that NDE is that prominent, almost one in four? Kind of 25% of the content of the show?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s interesting when you break it down statistically but then again maybe it’s not so interesting. I don’t know what I would really pull from those stats. Other than there’s been this kind of evolution in the show—if you listen to the show and go back and listen to it, the NDE thing, near-death experience science, really comes up because if you look at the general lay of the land and you say there’s two models that science is dealing with, two paradigms, one paradigm is that we’re all biological robots.
Alex Tsakiris: Scientific materialism. And you say there’s that and there’s something else. Then you dig into is that true? Are we biological robots? You start pulling that apart and looking at parapsychology and look at the data and look at the science and philosophy of science and all that. Eventually you come down to a lot of nit-picky statistical ‘is that really significant’ and kind of a Richard Wiseman “I accept the data but that begs the question do we need a better standard,” kind of thing.
NDE science, near-death experience encounters, seem to break through all that nonsense in a way that’s really challenging to that Atheistic, materialistic worldview because the medical profession really approaches these phenomena from a different standpoint. They say, “We had this guy on the table; he died. He came back and knew stuff he wasn’t supposed to be able to know.” Doctors are very pragmatic people for the most part. They’re interested in saving people’s lives.
So as that data has emerged and then as researchers have tried to compile that into some meaningful scientific form, I think it’s really created this very, very compelling body of evidence getting back to that biological robot question, are we biological robots? NDE science, of course, comes back with a resounding no. Whatever we are, we’re not biological robots. We have this consciousness. There is such a thing. And most importantly, it seems to survive our bodily death.
Tim: In my mind the episode that really launched the arch of the show into NDEs was episode #94, your interview with Jeffrey Long. But before that you had spent a fair amount of time on interviewing the skeptics. You had a lot of episodes on just psi. You had your own psi experiments that you ran. Then there were episodes on the dogs. Then you got into what was certainly entertaining for the listener, the whole smack-down with Ben Radford and the psychic detectives.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think you’ve pinpointed really a turning point in the show, at least in my mind. I had this idea starting out that it’s about the data. This is science, after all, and science is concerned with measurement and data and evidence. My thought was, “Hey, let’s just try and get our arms around the data. Let’s get good data and then any reasonable person will be able to sort that out and decide one way or another.”
I pretty quickly got an idea that maybe that wasn’t as simple as I thought and that there were other things going on. It was really in that series of interviews with Ben Radford that that became clear in a way that it wasn’t before.
Just to fill people in so this isn’t totally inside baseball, Ben and I did a follow-up series of interviews with these folks who were involved in this psychic detective case. I picked the case and then we interviewed the psychic medium who helped the police; we interviewed two police officers, a Captain Moore and Lt. Hughes in New Jersey, who investigated this case. I interviewed those folks and then Ben interviewed those folks. We got back on and did this, as you say, smack-down thing.
Tim: That was the title of the show. Smack-down.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. And you get to this point where this medium has given this rather amazing body of knowledge to the police and has told them without any prior knowledge, without any way of knowing any of these things, that there’s a killer who’s from New Jersey, a local area called The Hollow. The killer went down to Florida, committed a murder there, was imprisoned. He got out, came back, and then committed these crimes. So that’s part of what the psychic said. I’ll get to the point here in a minute.
The controversy between Ben and me came down to whether or not one of the detectives remembered that instead of saying that the killer went to Florida, he remembered the psychic saying that the killer went to the South.
Tim: Reinforcing the notion that the psychics throw wide nets out there and try and get hits with wide comments like that as opposed to something specific like Florida.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I mean, it’s preposterous, right? It’s completely crazy given all the other things that the psychic has gotten right and the fact that one of the detectives specifically remembers Florida and the other guy remembers the South. Actually, we even did a follow-up interview with this guy. I insisted that right then we get him on the phone. He says to me and he says to Ben, “Hey, I might have said the South in the general sense but I do remember Florida.”
So this should have been the end of it. But it’s not. Ben persists. He brings this up again and again and to this day I don’t know if he’s willing to concede that point. But the whole thinking with a guy who’s an otherwise likeable, intelligent guy, Ben Radford, and how he can remain completely married to these beliefs and to this interpretation of the data that just doesn’t fit with the commonsense understanding of it really sent me in a different direction.
I started saying, “You know what? It’s not about the data. It’s really about everything else. It’s about why we believe what we believe, how our belief systems develop, how our belief systems change. Until we figure that stuff out then all this stuff about the data is more or less a sideshow.” People will always be able to say it’s the South; it’s not Florida, if they want to.
Tim: When we spoke last week it was interesting. I asked you why you revisited because Episodes 151 and 153 were revisited on Skepticality or you jointly published the show. You said that Ben came back to you?
Alex Tsakiris: It was actually another podcaster, a guy by the name of Blake Smith who hosts a show called Monster Talk. He became interested in Skeptiko and this debate and was nice enough, really, to pull this back together and say, “Hey, let’s get some resolution on this.” Ben had gone his way and I’d thrown some pretty sharp barbs at him. I guess he wasn’t too interested in coming back. Blake talked him into coming back and I was like, “Sure. Like I said, I’m anytime, anywhere on this stuff.”
Tim: And that was evidence of that, Alex, because that was probably four on one, right? There was Blake and he’s got a co-host and there was Ben and they were all going after you on that thing. But it’s interesting that they would bring it up that much later. What was his interest in rehashing it?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, one of the things that’s interesting about the medium of podcasting is that these things live forever in time. One of the really fun things for me is getting emails from folks who say, “I just discovered the show on Episode on 140 and I’ve decided to go back and listen from the beginning.” I think, “Wow, that’s so great.”
I’ve done that so many times in exploring something and getting interested in it and then finding there’s this library that I can go back and listen to. So I think the time sequencing thing and the fact that Blake, for example, discovered this thing that had happened a year ago and yet felt it being immediate and present to what he wanted to deal with is, I think, part of the whole thing.
Tim: So those kinds of shows, I think you called #68 “The Smack-down,” were a very stark contrast between you and who you’re interviewing. There’s Radford. You had Brian Dunning on. Do you like doing those shows when you know that you’re going to be going head-to-head with somebody that fundamentally disagrees with you?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t like those but I don’t seem to dislike them in the way that other folks do. When I do those shows, the reaction is usually polarized. There are so many people—and this always surprises me—who are proponents, believers if you will, who are really offended. They just don’t like controversy. You can see they don’t like this kind of confrontational battling it out kind of thing. That always surprises me. I don’t know how you really get to the bottom of things that you care about deeply or that you have strong opinions about without having a little bit of friction.
The other thing I guess I’d say about that is while I don’t seek those shows out and I don’t think those need to be the main focus of Skeptiko, I do feel a need to revisit those topics every now and again because one of the conclusions that I came to that it’s not about the data, it’s about everything else, is I think there’s a question in the back of everyone’s minds which is, “How can this be?”
Here’s this guy or here’s this group of people who are saying fundamentally the scientific model that we have is flawed. The immediate question you have is, “How can that be? Wait a minute. I have this iPhone 5 here that is a testament to how great science is. So don’t tell me science is wrong. How can this be?” So I think we have to occasionally go back and revisit that and really look hard at what the other folks have to say. The folks who say, “No, you are a biological robot. Life does have no meaning and it’s all about machines.” I think we do have to go back and give them the floor every once in a while and hash that out with them.
Tim: I mentioned NDEs and NDE has been a pretty prevalent topic. As you describe, you think it’s a pretty important topic in what you’re pursuing with the show. There was a Jeffrey Long in Episode 94 and then you had a whole series and finally got Sam Parnia on #116. He is doing what’s called the AWARE Study, I believe. Is there any update on where that is?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know if we’ll be able to get Dr. Parnia back on. I certainly hope so, when the AWARE Study is published. As far as the updates, I think there’s a lot of people who are fascinated by that work. I don’t know currently what the status is but the last time I checked, they had really not published a lot of information. They’ve let out some little hints here and there about what might be coming, but it’s kind of in the future we’ll have this.
Of course, my take on the AWARE Study is that it’s kind of a sleight of hand, if you will, in that here’s a study that’s gained a tremendous amount of attention and focus within the NDE research community and it’s really a replication of a study that produced no results. The idea that you can have an image above the hospital bed of a patient that suffers cardiac arrest and that they’ll be able to leave their body and see that, there’s a lot of problems in that experiment as we explored in that show and that Dr. Parnia’s willing to admit are problems.
But moreover, when they ran the pilot study for that they didn’t get any positive results. So usually you’d take that as a sign of either there’s nothing there, which I think is not usually the kind of conclusion that you’d draw from a pilot study, or you’d say, “Gee, we need to rework this in a way where we can get some data that we can really wrap our arms around.”
As I also pointed out and point out again and again on the show is that in that same series of experiments, if you will, there was research done by Dr. Penny Sartori and Dr. Peter Fenwick where they did a simpler thing. They just went and talked to the people after they’d had cardiac arrest. They said, “Do you remember your resuscitation process? Do you remember the specifics of it?”
Then they compared the accuracy of that with the accuracy of patients who had suffered a cardiac arrest but didn’t have a near-death experience. They had very statistically significant results from that. And Jan Holden from the University of North Texas did a similar experiment, published the results, also had significant results.
So according to Dr. Parnia, he is going to include that kind of data and that kind of analysis in the AWARE Study but he leads with this idea of people are going to float outside of their bodies and see these pictures on the wall. Again, in the reality of selling science and communicating these ideas in ways that people can grab onto, that’s certainly an idea that’s captured the imagination of people across the board, believers to hard-core skeptics, as being a good way to run this experiment. Although I don’t think it’s a good way, but that’s the general sentiment.
Tim: The Jeffrey Long interview I thought was interesting is when I listened to it, my sense was wow, you’ve got the guy you’ve been searching for. That was a New York Times bestselling book, if I remember correctly. He was on national media, the Today Show. Do you think that he changed the broad public dialogue and the perception of NDEs and what it means for our existence? Do you think it really moved the needle?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know. You can look at it both ways. You can look at it in terms of all the things that you said, New York Times bestseller, national media, follow-on books, success, success, success. Or you can look at it and say, “But the persistence of the counter Atheistic idea that this is all just an illusion has also persisted and has also gone forward in the mainstream science media and has continued to get out there, too.” So it depends—is the glass half-empty or half-full?
Also, if you look at it from a historical perspective, there’s certainly been a lot of NDE books since Raymond Moody on that have gained a lot of this kind of attention and this kind of traction among the general population. Yet the persistence of the biological robot paradigm…
Tim: Eben Alexander seems to arguably have more success with his book. My wife mentioned that she heard him on NPR or something. So he’s running up against the same resistance, you believe?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s funny because there obviously isn’t the resistance, right? So he’s a New York Times bestseller, #1 on Amazon, Oprah, NPR, all the media outlets. You can’t sit back and say there’s resistance. But where there is resistance is within the scientific community in accepting this or putting any kind of serious resources behind looking at these questions.
There’s a lot of ways to do it. As we’ve explored on the show, it’s not like this is completely outside the realm of what science can investigate. Certainly outside the realm of what medicine can investigate. It’s not but yet it’s ignored, so before we celebrate the coming paradigm shift, I think we have to take a good look at even this brief little snippet of history and learn a lesson from that and be very cautious in our optimism that there’s going to be a lot of change.
Tim: Is the paradigm shift coming?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Then again, in a recent interview with Dr. Mario Beauregard, I asked him that question directly and I thought he had a very strong argument for the fact that there is this change. He’s a neuroscientist in Montreal and he says, “At my university, at my conferences, in the journals that I publish in, I definitely see a shift, a change, in the openness of these ideas in the last ten years.” So maybe I’m being too pessimistic.
Tim: Let’s talk about the forum. Talk to me about the role that the forum and the message boards play in Skeptiko today.
Alex Tsakiris: The forum was actually started by a Skeptiko listener. Jacob, who lives in Israel, contacted me—oh boy, I think it was a lot earlier than Episode 100. He was somebody who was really interested in the show and said, “Hey, it would be great if we had a forum for this. Why don’t I run this?” He has a website called www.mindenergy.net. He thought it fit in general with the topics that he liked to cover and he just stepped forward and asked to run a forum for Skeptiko. I was like, “Great.”
This is one of the things which has always been in the back of my mind about Skeptiko, the idea of a community project. Not just me but people who are interested in these topics often don’t have a lot of other outlets. I love to engage with those people and get them involved in the project that is Skeptiko. So it’s totally fitting to have somebody like Jacob step forward and run that for me. He’s been fantastic. I’m really grateful for his help because there is a fair amount of work in running that.
In the last year, Andy Paquette, who is someone who’s been on the show and has been a guest host on the show, and someone who has become a friend of mine through the show, offered to step forward and do moderation of the forum. So again, it’s the help and support of people who are involved and engaged in the process of Skeptiko who really make things better in a way. I think the forum moderation that Andy has done has made for an improved dialogue on the forum.
Tim: Were you playing that role previously?
Alex Tsakiris: Not very well. [Laughs]
Tim: So you do view that as an integral part. It makes it more than just a one-way communication. It’s an important thing to Skeptiko to have the forum.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it is. At the same time, I’ve never been involved in a forum before I was involved in Skeptiko. So I don’t really know—I’ve had to learn myself what that interaction is like and how you relate to people and how all that evolves. But for me it’s been a tremendous experience and I’ve learned so much from people who’ve engaged with me on the forum and either have ideas or you get into these long, sometimes lengthy back-and-forth. I’ve grown tremendously from the forum. Besides, I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for guests from the forum, as well.
Tim: That’s great. Is there any desire to take it further? To do a conference? What would be the next step in the Skeptiko community? Are there any thoughts along those lines?
Alex Tsakiris: Not so much by me. I like the fact that the technology allows me to break away for a couple of hours, do an interview, come back a couple of days later, edit it, come back a couple of days later, post it, and just be able to fill in gaps of time with doing this. I think that’s great. I’m a little bit reluctant to commit to the kind of all-out effort that a conference or conference-going might take. I wouldn’t rule it out completely but no, I don’t see that happening any time in the near future.
Tim: Let me throw three phrases that you’ve gotten a lot over the years on Skeptiko. Tell me which one of these is your least favorite.
- Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
- Susan Blackmoor explained NDEs are due to elevated oxygen levels.
Alex Tsakiris: My favorite is extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Far and away the winner because it really…
Tim: It is remarkable how almost every skeptic that was on the show at some point said that. After they started saying it, I was anticipating your response back. And you were often fairly measured with it but it was interesting how every one of them at some point would spout that at some level.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. It’s hard to not go down the party line thing, you know, that they’ve all been taught, these talking points, party line arguments, and they regurgitate them without a lot of thought. I think sometimes that’s the case. But I think it’s also true that at another level even though that’s a silly statement because, as we’ve talked about so many times, the whole idea of the enterprise of science is to remove us from our biases and prejudices and not introduce such subjective measures as extraordinary. Well, what’s extraordinary to you, Tim? What’s extraordinary to me? Those are obviously subjective and those are the things you want to get out of it. So the idea that when we introduce those back in is silly.
But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that all these things that people say that don’t make a lot of sense, there is an underlying truth that you do have to tease out of there. That’s that practically speaking, we do demand more evidence for information or phenomena or theories that lie beyond our day-to-day experience. So there is some truth to that, even if people don’t always say it in the right way or have the ability to back it up from a logical, critical thinking standpoint.
Tim: So you have had a lot of skeptics on the show. You go back to the beginning, you had Wiseman and Randy and just a whole host of them. Who’s your favorite of that group? Who did you walk away with the most respect for?
Alex Tsakiris: Oh, wow. Those are two different questions.
Tim: I guess they are different questions, aren’t they? So let’s take respect first and then which one did you like second.
Alex Tsakiris: I guess the one that I respected the most was Dr. Robert Price, the noted Atheist and now host of Point of Inquiry, which is a very interesting Atheist materialistic podcast that really does a nice job in what they do. I’ve interviewed several of their hosts, including D.J. Grothe, who is someone else I enjoyed talking to and spoke with a couple times. I have a certain respect for both of those guys even though as you’ll hear in the interviews I can’t really buy into their worldview.
As far as favorites, the one that jumps to mind is Dr. Victor Stenger, who was just on Episode 191. What I really liked about that is I think for anyone who’s halfway fair-minded, the guy just completely blows it on his understanding of near-death experience research. It just couldn’t be more clear that someone is just out to lunch and yet is highly respected among the Atheist skeptical community. Anyone could have exposed this guy, so it was just kind of fun and I think Skeptiko-worthy to point out some of the errors in his critical thinking.
Tim: What is Skeptiko all about, Alex? You describe it as your journey. It looks like it began, certainly from my read, as an exploration of the skeptical argument and then perhaps exposing that. You describe it as your journey. What do you mean by that? Is it something that you just pick up on a day-to-day basis and you see what new topic in this area interests you and you just start pursuing that? Or is there an overall art that you’re trying to derive from Skeptiko?
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I think there’s a couple of different questions in there but I understand where you’re going, I think. I guess I’d say to me, at a very deep personal level, I always wondered why everyone wasn’t interested in these topics. I always wondered why these weren’t the first and foremost questions on everyone’s minds.
I mean, most of us spend so much time on ridiculously silly things about the weather or sports or news or all the rest of that, when the big questions are who are we really? What happens to us after we die? How are we related to not only each other but the universe? These are the big, big, big questions. I guess I always had a sense of hey, am I not getting the newsletter here? Does everyone else know the answers to these, because why isn’t this foremost on everyone’s minds? Then you get into life and you want to make a living, you want to have a family and all that. We all understand that. And you say, “Hey, I can’t deal with all those things right now.” They don’t seem to be pressing as much as the mortgage payment and the car payment is. So I put them to the side.
But to me they always seemed to be the questions that I wanted to come back to so that really is the driving force of Skeptiko, along with the idea that I had all along because of my business experience. That is that I can learn; I can get better; I can improve. I was someone who, despite having the right academic background and education background, was failing pretty miserably at business before I went on a massive learning campaign in terms of how to make myself better and how to improve in that.
So I took that self-improvement idea and self-improvement success that led to business success and said, “Hey, I can bootstrap myself into knowing the answers to these big, big questions.” That’s really been the driving force of Skeptiko, I guess.
Tim: When you started—and I tried to find this. I don’t know if I found the definitive episode—it was somewhere in the 40s, I believe, where early on in Skeptiko you were talking about psi topics and you’d have skeptics on and so forth. But it was in the 40s that you actually started to use the word “believer.” You said, “I am a believer.” Do you remember saying that and putting that out there in Skeptiko?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t specifically remember that. That isn’t such an important title to me other than one of the topics that I think has been a recurring theme of the show is how we communicate about these topics in the court of public opinion, if you will. A lot of people will have a knee-jerk reaction when I mention God or when I mention believer or when I mention any of these things. When I’m pressed, like in the forum, I’m quick to acknowledge that I don’t know what God means. I don’t have any specific idea of a guy in a beard or anything like that. But I’m using a shorthand reference to shoehorn us into the public debate.
The big debate is science versus religion. Whether we like it or not, that’s what’s out there; that’s what’s socially relevant in terms of the discussion. So in that sense, okay, I’m a believer. If you want to divide the world into skeptics and believers, I’ll gladly take the side of believer. I don’t think that term means anything to me other than it means if we’re going to engage in this dialogue and there has to be sides, this is the side I’ll take for purposes of this discussion.
Tim: Are you saying that you’re taking that side because that’s where you’re biased? Or are you taking that side because you know you’re not a skeptic?
Alex Tsakiris: I know I’m not a skeptic in terms of the way that the skeptical proposition is offered currently. I think scientific materialism is a failure. It’s a failed proposition. It was a good proposition. I think the evidence is overwhelmingly suggestive that that just doesn’t hold up. And I think with it Atheism falls down the drain, as well. So I think those propositions are falsified so yeah, that would push me to whatever other category you want to call it. I’m going to be closer to that other side.
Tim: One quote that stays with me is from Steve Volk, the author of Fringe-ology. He said in that interview when you were discussing the book, “You see answers. I see questions.” Do you remember that quote? Can you reflect on that?
Alex Tsakiris: I do, and I’m so glad you brought it up because I think that would bring this to a very personal level between you and me. I think you would be more of the Steve Volk kind of mindset and probably even further even on the skeptical side. I wouldn’t. I’m glad you brought it up because I think it’s a really important point, at least for me, and that’s that I don’t think the middle holds here. I don’t think the Oh, I’m Agnostic; I just have questions about this, I don’t think it holds.
The reason it doesn’t hold is because you have to make a decision every day in the way that you live your life. We live in a materialistic world, a materialistic economy, a materialistic society. That is the predominant worldview that’s placed upon you. If you do nothing you are thereby embracing materialism.
So you can’t say, “I’m removed from this discussion.” You’re in the middle of it. You’re the fish; you’re in the water; the water’s all around you. So you can’t say you’re Agnostic. Your life is your choice. I’ve had numerous conversations with Steve, who has become a friend of mine through the show and is just a really terrific guy who I really enjoy talking with, along these lines. The middle doesn’t hold. There really isn’t a middle ground. Life forces us to choose one way or another.
Tim: So you say that but on a recent episode—I believe it was with somebody on the topic of UFOs—there was a discussion about the truth. You said something along the lines of there is no The Truth and that’s a reality you’ve come to. It’s about the journey. So you seem to be indicating that it is more about an ongoing exploration for you as opposed to having come down for one side or the other on the believer or skeptic continuum.
Alex Tsakiris: Well again, it’s hard. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about this biological robot, scientific materialism that I bash repeatedly is because it’s so strongly ingrained and enmeshed in our culture and yet it doesn’t hold up. That just kind of galls me from a critical thinking standpoint. How can something so wrong have such traction? So I’m always bashing it.
On the other hand, especially lately, I’ve come to appreciate how hard and difficult it is to get beyond that. And how reassuring it is to fall back on the notion of materialism. I mean, everything gets really, really fuzzy when you go into this post-scientific materialism realm. By that I mean what is reality? If consciousness is fundamental? This debate of biological robots is that you’re just a machine. The counter theory is that in some way we don’t understand this thing of consciousness, this me, this ghost inside the machine is fundamental. Matter isn’t fundamental; consciousness is fundamental. That’s one hypothesis.
Well, what does that really mean? It means that all these ideas of measurement, all these ideas of reality, if you will, now have to be put on hold. So we can no longer in that world talk about reality or talk about our experience or talk about things like time. It all falls apart. So in that sense, what I’ve said before—and I think it holds—is that I’m going to play this little game with you called consensus reality and we’re going to pretend that this desk that I’m tapping on is real, is solid, even though we know it’s 99.99999% nothing. It appears solid to me. You can see it; I can see it.
We’re going to call this reality. And in that same way we’re going to call all these things that we debate about reality. And we’re going to call skeptics on this and that. But at the same time, while we’re doing that we have to acknowledge that that might all be just a game, if you will. There may be a bigger, larger truth out there that we’re not really dealing with when we talk about things in that way. That’s pretty abstract but I think you can see where I’m going and why it’s necessary to talk out of both sides of your mouth when you talk about skeptics versus believers or scientism or even scientific evidence.
Tim: So that does get out there. Is that the direction that you’re going to take the show? To continue the synchronicity kinds of topics and some things that you’ve been exploring recently on the show. Reality is not really reality kinds of topics. Is that where your current interests are lying?
Alex Tsakiris: Not too much because there really isn’t a lot to go there. As soon as you jump into that other realm then what is there to talk about?
There are a couple of areas I want to pursue further. They really have a tendency to polarize people or maybe more accurately to really put people off. One of the nice things about doing a show like this and not caring too much about growing your audience as much as you can or appealing to a certain crowd is that you don’t have to worry if people are put off by these topics.
One topic is UFOs and the ET hypothesis. I think it’s central. Central. I’ve explored it a little bit in terms of how that might relate to consciousness, what those reports mean, but I think wrestling that to the ground and figuring out as best you can what the reality of that is is central to answering these big picture questions.
Tim: What is the ET hypothesis?
Alex Tsakiris: Whether they’re extraterrestrial beings or not is the ET hypothesis.
Tim: Well, the show has introduced me to many terms. I’ve tried to write them all down. NDE, synchronicity, singularity, precognition, precognitive dreams, remote viewing, neural plasticity.
I look forward to hearing about the ET hypothesis. Thank you, Alex, for agreeing to be a guest on your own show. It’s been a pleasure listening to the last 200 shows and please keep the shows coming.
Alex Tsakiris: Tim, thanks so much for doing this. I’m really glad we did it and I hope people find value in it. Thanks again.