A Conversation with Skeptics’ Guide Rogue Jay Novella (Part 1)

Rob Palmer

Just as it was for many other skeptics I’ve met, finding The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast was my gateway to discovering the skeptical movement. Before stumbling upon this podcast, I was clueless that there even was such a thing. Finding the SGU directly resulted in me finding and joining the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW) project and becoming a skeptical activist myself.

Partly due to being a member of GSoW and partly due to attending CSICon in 2017 (which featured the entire SGU cast), I became at least somewhat known to all the rogues. Why am I mentioning this here? Well, a few months after the conference, I submitted a sound clip for the SGU’s weekly “Who’s That Noisy?” segment, and it got played. During the introduction of the clip, to my astonishment, Jay Novella gave me an unexpected shout-out, where he bestowed upon me the inexplicable description of “a well-known skeptic.” This became quite a joke with some friends: “What the hell! How are you well-known?” When I got asked to write for the CSI website several months later, it didn’t take me long to decide that this phrase just had to be my column’s name.

So, how could I not interview the man responsible for this? Jay generously talked with me for well over two hours, and we spoke about a wide range of topics covering over thirteen years of SGU history, so be warned: this will be a multi-part article.

Rob Palmer: Jay, thanks for Skyping with me today to do this interview. The first thing I just have to ask you is: Do you remember calling me a “well-known skeptic” back in January on “Who’s That Noisy?” I ran with that phrase, tongue-in-cheek, as my column name!Do you remember why you described me that way, without any sarcasm—at least that I could detect?

Jay Novella: I remember. Yeah, absolutely. I look at you and you’re an activist. You’re not just attending conferences; you’re doing really important work. I guess from my perspective, in that moment, I was thinking you’re making corrections to data on Wikipedia and creating articles for people that need to be on there. There’s like a line of fire in front of you that you’re whacking back with a sword, and I feel a kinship to anybody that’s on that line. Because I’m on that line; a mile to the right, I’m doing something else. But it’s the same line. So, I think in part, I said that to give you some gravitas, because if people didn’t know about you, I wanted them to think they should know about you.

I have a lot of respect for people who do the real work. There are a lot of people who want to get some type of notoriety, get some type of fame or whatever. And then there are people who just want to do the work. And we did the work for years. It wasn’t an overnight success at all. And I like people that are just doing the work regardless of all the noise in the background, and I really appreciate what you guys [the Guerrilla Skeptics] do. There are a lot of hard man-hours that go into it. And battles … you guys are in constant warfare.

Palmer: Well thanks, Jay! I’m a huge science enthusiast, and I actually discovered the SGU by searching for astronomy podcasts. Have you heard this same story from others?

Novella: Yes! A lot of people listen to our podcast because of the science, and they get pulled in. Then they find out about the skeptical movement. We have changed our editorial policy a little bit. We’re not focusing on skepticism as much as teaching people, because we already went through all that. You can go back to earlier episodes and hear us talk a lot more about skepticism. But like you and like many other people, they’re listening to us [to hear] about science news items, so we essentially deconstruct the news. We talk about what’s good in a news item or what’s bad. A lot of times, we’re reporting just interesting things. And if anything feels a little off, we’ll bring it up. Sometimes we’ll say “this news item sucks. The author didn’t do a good job and here’s why.” And I think people, especially new people, are a little less offended … you don’t want to come out [challenging their beliefs]. And we slip a lot of good scientific thinking into people’s minds that normally wouldn’t even be looking for it. And that’s part of the reason why I think the podcast works. And we have a good group of people who care about each other and enjoy each other. And that’s in the forefront. The thing that makes the SGU above the waterline, and a podcast that you can listen to every week, is that there’s friendship happening there. And I think that’s important.

Palmer: So, let’s talk about the very first Skeptics’ Guide book. As I understand it, you all helped Steve [Novella] with research and wrote rough drafts for him to complete. And also, you each wrote one entire chapter from your own perspectives. What can you tell me about all that? [Note: The book was released shortly after I interviewed Jay, and I am now reading it to do an official book review.]

Novella: We did an amazing amount of work, just figuring out what the chapters were going to be in the book. The process for us was, first, to nail down what we wanted the book to be about. Of course, we wanted to write the skeptics’ guide. We wanted it to be a guide that teaches people about critical thinking, and we wanted it to have something for everyone. We wanted it to be readable for someone who’s never read anything about critical thinking before. And we also wanted it to be something that people like you could read and still get a lot of great information. I think we’re stitching together a lot more in the book than we could do on the podcast, because the book could be a deep dive in a way that the podcast can’t be.

Each of us did research behind the scenes. We all wrote multiple chapters, and then Steve had to rewrite everything in his voice. So, we did all the research and came up with all the references. Then Steve went in and put everything into his voice, and then he “Steve-ized” everything.

Palmer: Okay, let’s hear about your own chapter.

Novella: So, my personal chapter is about Loose Change. I watched it when it came out and it blew my mind. I thought “there’s way too many points of data here.” Even if just half of that … even if a quarter of what they said was true … For a couple of days, I was like, Is something going on? Now, to my credit, I didn’t run out and start a website and a Facebook group. And I mean, I talked to them, I said: “Guys, what do you think about Loose Change?” Of course, Perry [DeAngelis] was like “Oh, Jason!” (He liked to call me Jason for some reason.) And Steve was like: “Oh, boy! Really?” Steve took the time to deconstruct it with me, and I was learning from him as well, because he knew about Loose Change, but he didn’t have it all in his head yet. So, we kind of did it together … we deconstructed the whole thing. Even though Perry was laughing at me—and he deserved to—Steve handled it correctly and took me seriously and said, “Let’s figure it out together.” And I think that was a good humbling moment for me: “What is it like to be that other person?”

My chapter is essentially about the humility thing—which I talk about all the time: neuro-psychological humility. Steve coined that phrase, you know! It’s easy for the average person to get roped in with these things. Loose Change very quickly roped me in a little bit. Now, I did the thing that a lot of people don’t do: I did the research. And I also had access to great thinkers that I could discuss it with. But the point is new information is dangerous if you don’t know when you need skeptical red flags to go up. And we teach people those red flags. Now, I did have red flags … my red flag was “What is going on here? I need answers to these questions.” And when I found them, I found out how amazingly clever Loose Change was. It was after I debunked everything that was in it that I realized just how epically clever the whole thing was. It was like a Gish Gallop. It’s very easy to throw in all the information. It’s ten times harder to debunk it.

So, everybody has a chapter. It’s either their entry into critical thinking or something interesting that happened to them, and I happen to like that story because it is a good lesson for people. Like, “Hey man, even if you are a critical thinker, it doesn’t matter. You’re susceptible.”

Palmer: In the recent “Science or Fiction” segment where Steve took all the questions from material in the book, if I recall it properly, you all did miserably and were swept by Steve. Didn’t you all read the whole book?

Novella: So, I read the book many times. Well, first of all don’t forget, Steve subtly changes things, so he’s very smart about that … but there’s so much information in the book. I can’t retain all the information that was in the book. How much of it can I possibly remember? I don’t have a fantastic memory. I have emotional memory. I remember things that surround emotion very easily. I don’t have the idyllic kind of memory that Steve has. He remembers moments, and who said what, and in what order, and I remember who was happy or sad. It’s weird. So that’s my excuse. But we all talked about it afterward. And we were laughing! We were like, “it’s our own goddamn book!” You know what I mean? We edited the book; we all read it multiple times. It doesn’t matter. There’s too much information to know. And that’s part of the reason having the book is great, because it’s a good reference. You can quickly read a chapter if you’re going to talk about this or that with friends. It’s good for me too.

Palmer: Let’s go back to the very beginning, so to speak, and talk about the origins of The Skeptics’ Guide podcast. What are your recollections about that?

Novella: The NESS [New England Skeptical Society] was already doing monthly library conferences where maybe 30 to 80 people would show up, and we would give lectures and it was like a mini, mini conference. And as soon as we found out about podcasting, Steve had a vision. Steve just went “we need to do this.” It wasn’t clairvoyance, but I would definitely say it was Steve’s science intuition, or his skeptical intuition, that kicked in. We were all playing City of Heroes, I don’t remember—but it was every Tuesday or Wednesday night—we were having an amazing time. Then a friend of ours that was playing with us said we should start a political podcast. And we literally said, “What’s a podcast?” I never heard the word before.

That was because we loved talking politics behind the scenes, because we have different political views. Now I think we see things definitely a little bit more like-minded. But still, there are different views.

But then Steve was like, “Yup, I want to start a podcast, but it’s going to have nothing to do with politics. We’re going to start a skeptical podcast.” And then immediately we tried to come up with a name. Perry sent this awesome list of a bunch of different names and “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” was on there, and it just seemed like the perfect name.

And then Steve wrote the outline for the show that is basically very similar to the format that we have today. And before you know it, we were recording episode number one. We didn’t know anything about the gear. We didn’t know how to do post production. Evan [Bernstein] and I both have an audio background; I was in a band for twenty-one years, so I knew a lot about audio gear. I was also building the first websites and all that stuff. And then it just turned into the grind: we’re doing this and we’re doing it every week. And we made some good marketing decisions early on—that we were going to put out an episode each week no matter what happened. So, we got our sea legs over the first six months, and then after the first six months we were off to the races.

Palmer: Where did the show’s great tagline “Your escape to reality” come from?

Novella: I don’t remember who came up with that. But that was yet another thing that was heavily discussed, like should we even have one. We felt like we wanted to have that second line give a little bit more description about what the show is. We’ve had so many people over the years tell us “your show literally is an escape to reality.” I feel like we had a lot of luck. We luckily came up with some good names and the good tagline. There’s skill involved, but there was some luck because we hadn’t really produced a radio show before—we didn’t know what we were doing. But I think the real thing that makes the show work is our chemistry with each other—and that’s always been at the forefront.

My interview with Jay Novella will be continued in Part 2, coming soon.

Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer has had a diverse career in engineering, having worked as a spacecraft designer, an aerospace project engineer, a computer programmer, and a software systems engineer. Rob became a skeptical activist when he joined the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team in 2016, and began writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 2018. Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com Like Rob's Facebook page to get notified when his articles are published.