Enter the Skeptic Zone: An Interview with CSICon Speaker, Richard Saunders

Susan Gerbic

Richard Saunders is twice president of the Australian Skeptics, founder of the popular Sydney Skeptics in the Pub event, actor, and also a professional origamist. He can be heard on his weekly podcast, The Skeptic Zone.

Susan Gerbic: Richard, it’s so great to talk to you today. I’ve just received the fabulous news that you will be joining us for CSICon this October. I have been an active listener of your podcast The Skeptic Zone for many years and have been privileged to have been interviewed on the show also. You are a big supporter of others in our community, giving airtime to local groups and projects across the world, sometimes in languages other than English. We’ve crossed paths in this tiny world of ours many times, and I’m so happy to be able to count you among my friends. So, gush gush, I’m such a fan. To the very few people who don’t know who you are, can you please give readers a brief bio?

Richard Saunders: You are very kind indeed, but I am also very happy to know you like the Skeptic Zone Podcast. My reporters do such good work in bringing the world interesting skeptical reports each week. As for me, I’m just a guy from Australia who loved hearing about mysteries way back in the 1970s and went looking for answers. Over the years I picked up many skills that have come in handy such as audio and video editing and performing and public speaking, so I use them to aid the outreach of science.

Gerbic: You have been doing this skepticism thing for many years; TV, radio, podcasts, videos, and activism galore. Are you still surprised at anything?

Saunders: Not sure anything in the paranormal has ever really surprised me apart from the early days when I was surprised people would really believe in something I thought was ridiculous. But now that I know how people from all walks of life will believe in just about anything, it no longer amazes me…. Well, maybe sometimes. But at least I understand this is the case.

Gerbic: We have seen so much change in the skeptic community over the years with the invention of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Younger people in our community seem to think that drama among us is a new creation. Where do you think social media fit in the popularization of pseudoscience? On one had it makes it easier to spread; on the other hand it makes it easier to counteract.

Saunders: Social media is a boom for pseudoscience but also for science. Is it like an arms race? We are at core supporting science and the method of science when it comes to investigation and inquiry of ideas that challenge current thinking of the laws of nature, and that’s what I hope is reflected in our social media.

Gerbic: Let’s talk for a moment about one of my favorite projects you have done, the Vaccination Chronicles. I think it was brilliant and because people have forgotten how bad it was before vaccines, it is a very needed educational aid. Please tell readers what this video was all about and I would love to hear what feedback you have received from it.

Saunders: This is the 30-minute documentary, free to view online (unlike VaXXed), aimed at telling young parents of today about the real horrors faced by parents of only a couple of generations ago, when many saw their babies die from what we call now “vaccine preventable diseases.” Real people with real stories. Lots of positive feedback, but the lack of livid blogs about it and the lack of threats from the anti-vaxxers may mean it went under their radar. Hard to say.

Gerbic: You will be at CSICon, interacting with your fans and making new ones. I suppose you are going to bring some Australian candy. In my opinion, you can leave the Musk Sticks at home. What else do you have in store for us at the conference?

Saunders: At the moment, I am due to appear on a panel to discuss general science and outreach. I am able and ready to also take part in whatever activities CSI sees fit. With the con still some time away, you never know what I’ll end up doing. Rest assured I’ll bring lots of Musk Sticks and origami paper! I’ll also be reporting on the con for the Skeptic Zone and interviewing guest speakers and attendees alike.

Gerbic: I had a blast hanging out with you at the NZ Skeptic conference in December 2016. I’ve never had anyone explain the rules of cricket to me in a way I actually understood. You just came back from NECSS and will be at the Australian Conference in Sydney right after CSICon. I think you enjoy skeptic conferences almost as much as I do. What do you say when people say we are just preaching to the choir?

Saunders: I have a reputation for being at lots of international conventions, but that is over many years so I don’t get about as much as people think. In 2016 for example the only skeptical con I went to was in New Zealand. It can be said that at cons we do preach to the choir… so is someone going to call the police? So what? We also “teach to the choir.” The other 51 weeks of the year we are out there investigating, bringing bad science to the attention of authorities, sponsoring things like young scientists here in Australia, reporting to the world via podcasts, and so on.

Gerbic: Let’s say someone reaches out to you and tells you that they are wanting to become more active in scientific skepticism but don’t know where to start. What advice would you give them?

Saunders: Before you jump in, read, read, read. Start with James Randi’s Flim-Flam then watch, watch, watch the many videos free on YouTube. Again, I recommend James Randi with “Secrets of the Psychics,” “James Randi in Australia,” and “James Randi: Psychic Investigator.” This is just the tip of the iceberg and I would also recommend Richard Dawkins’s “The Enemies of Reason.” But if you are already at the point where you know what is what when it comes to the skeptical approach, then contacting your local skeptical group is the thing to do. They are the ones who hopefully can not only offer you information and ways to be active but also social opportunities like Skeptics in the Pub.

Gerbic: I want to mention that you and your podcast, The Skeptic Zone, have been so supportive to the GSoW project. I have been interviewed many times on the show and you have run promos and interviewed several of my other editors, Sharon Roney at NECSS (she called me a tough task manager I think). I’m looking over my editor list right now. I always ask them where did they learn of GSoW first, and I see ten names that give the Zone the credit, and only two of them are Australians. I just looked at the Wikipedia page views six of them created and they have generated 556,186 views. Think about all the people, because of your support, they have educated outside our choir. Thank you!

At the NZ conference, we were asked on the activism panel what people can do with 20 minutes a week to “change the world.” I liked your answers. Can you give readers here some ideas?

Saunders: It’s an oldie but a goodie, but you can always write to your government representative. 

Gerbic: And please give us an update on what is happening with the Skeptic Zone kitties.

Saunders: Part of the thinking of the Skeptic Zone is to make listeners feel they too are a part of the show. Talking about the kittens (now cats) Hen and Maud, gives the show a certain feel. And it’s true they do jump up on the desk, knock over the mic, sit on the computer, and make trouble. It’s fun to let people know.

Gerbic: CSICon has the unique element of a Halloween party on Saturday night. This year the theme is a zombie disco. I’m trying to organize a group of zombies to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Are you in?  I visited Australia in October 2015 and it wasn’t a thing there at all; it’s a unique opportunity for you to live as an American for a night. You have a costume idea?

Saunders: I’ll join in. Hmm. How about a giant jar of Vegemite?

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.