Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Point of Inquiry

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with bigtime skeptics
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly

“In-KWAI-ree.” That’s how the hosts of Point of Inquiry [RSS] [iTunes] pronounce, sometimes with great deliberateness, the final word of their program’s title. Does this sound strange? Not terribly. Is it even not the standard pronunciation? Admittedly, I don’t know. But at certain moments, the word as uttered on this podcast sounds saturated with the sterile moisture of pedantry. Most of the time, I feel comforted to hear the speaker taking such pains. But other times — few times, but telling ones — I feel a flood of desire to shake him down for his lunch money.

The show belongs to the genre of podcasts on skepticism, one which took off with surprising force early in the medium’s emergence. Its name, despite my complicated feelings about how announcers say it, strikes me as a paragon of dignity compared with those its swarm of brethren have taken up: Skepticality, Skeptiko, Skeptoid, Skepchick. Truth to tell, had Point of Inquiry’s sponsoring organization the Center for Inquiry called it, say, Skeptacular or Stupid SkepTricks, you probably wouldn’t be reading a Podthought about it. But by today, skepticism shows have multiplied to the extent that no pun, no matter how goofy, can set a show apart.

Point of Inquiry’s form also exhibits an uncommon poise. Many skepticism podcasts divide themselves into a distracting array of segments, compulsively gin up uncomfortable confrontations with suspiciously dopey adversaries, or loose slightly-too-large casts of panelists into a frenzy over the delusion of the week like bored jungle cats upon a limping wildebeest. This one has evolved into straightforward interviews with luminaries who have carved out careers staring down particular skeptical bugaboos: Brendan Nyhan on political spin in the media [MP3], Michael Shermer on evidence-free beliefs [MP3], Steven Pinker on traditional notions of human nature [MP3], Jonathan Kay on 9/11 “Truthers” [MP3], the late Christopher Hitchens on God [MP3]. Somebody behind these scenes wields wide-ranging connections, slick booking skills, or both; no skeptical podcast I know gets consistently heavier hitters on the phone.

Few passive pursuits feel as satisfying to me as absorbing the authoritative tones of these famously rigorous thinkers on the page or through the earbud. I fall into the habit of considering it a sort of cognitive sanitation, of mental housecleaning that might blow a cobweb or two of nonsense out of my consciousness. I soon grow convinced that nobody could ever reasonably object to my engagement in this. These skeptics have all devoted their lives to perceiving the truth, thinking about the truth, and snatching the truth from the clutches of liars. And truth equals good, doesn’t? If we don’t operate from the axiom that truth equals good, what do we have in this world?

And yet, for all the sensations of pleasure and ever-swelling moral rightness I draw from the skeptical conversation, sooner or later I get overwhelmed by a kind of defeat. This all starts to feel like masturbation, especially in its ultimate effects on my actual world. I suppose the mental stimulation from listening to somebody smart argue against psychics or religion or conspiracy theories is nothing to scoff at, but I wasn’t particularly concerned with psychics or religion or conspiracy theories before, and I’m not going to do anything different today because I’ve heard what I’ve heard. Truth for truth’s sake seems like a noble enough thing to seek, but take it too far and, paradoxically, you start to look nuts; one day you just want to hear spoon-bending debunked, and the next you’re going to library-basement meetings in your sweatpants.

But if you can bear these dangers in mind, you’ll find few classier sources of skeptical listening material than Point of Inquiry. Its hosts get right to the heart of these issues with public intellectuals you’d be embarrassed not to know about, and its archives go back years and years. Just make sure you have another hobby, too. Dance the tango or butcher your own beef or join a roller derby league. Don’t turn into a weenie.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes], which is now Kickstarting its first season.]