The Real ESP–Building a Bridge for Skeptics

Susan Gerbic

I’ve been advocating for many years about the importance of getting out from behind your computer and attending skeptic conferences. Even if it is just a Skeptic’s in the Pub (SitP) event or a lecture … GO. This interview with the European Skeptics Podcast is an example of what can happen when you venture out and meet others who share the same passion and worldview.

András Pintér was involved in the formation of the Hungarian Skeptic Society. He has participated in many European skeptic conferences (his first was TAM London). He lectures and is often interviewed by Hungarian media on topics related to skepticism. He is a member of the GSoW Wikipedia editing team and currently lives in Brighton, England. His Twitter handle is @skepman.

Jelena Levin joined the GSoW project after hearing an interview I gave on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She grew up in Riga, Latvia, and now lives in England. She attended her first skeptic conference, QED, in 2014 and was hooked. Now she is a regular attendee of lectures and conferences nearby. You can find her on Twitter @JelenaLevin.

Pontus Böckman became involved in skepticism in 2010 and is now involved as the president of the local south branch of the national Swedish Skeptics Society (“Vetenskap och Folkbildning” or VoF). He lives in Malmö in the south of Sweden. He’s on Twitter @Bockmanp.

Gerbic: What motivated you all to create another podcast? What unique quality do you bring to the community?

Böckman: There are so many initiatives and wonderful skeptics all over Europe that go unnoticed, mainly due to language barriers and that their country may not be on everyone’s mind. We wanted to bring that to the world’s attention. Another thing is that a lot of CAM [complementary alternative medicine] and scams are truly international, and if we just get in contact across the borders we can combat them together and learn from each other.

Levin: András came up with this idea a long time ago. He had been looking for people to do the podcast with. At the last European Skeptics Congress in London in 2015, I, Pontus, and András were hanging out together, and he offered to do the podcast with us. I thought it was a great idea; I thought, even though there are a lot of podcasts out there not many concentrate specifically on Europe and what is going on here as well as on bringing different European skeptic organizations together. I think we all in different ways bring our own personality and cultural background and knowledge to the table (in the context of the podcast and the skeptic community at large).

Pintér: Well, we were at the 16th European Skeptics Congress in London, when we started chatting about how little we knew of what was going on in other countries in the realm of skepticism and that the only thing we had to bring us together was this bi-annual conference, plus the yearly QED events in Manchester. Then the idea of doing a podcast that focuses on skeptical activism across Europe came about. The next thing we knew, we had our first show out. It’s been nonstop ever since. What I consider a unique quality of our podcast is the truly European focus. Although there are those who do give room for some coverage of what’s going on here (praise be to Richard Saunders and The Skeptic Zone for being a great example), most of what we see is focused on the US, UK, and Australia, as a result of which the community is missing out on some brilliant activism in countries where people don’t speak English as a first language. We try our best to provide a better picture of what people do in Europe. Occasionally, we have guests from outside the continent, like you, Susan, but every interviewee’s work holds some relevance to European activism.

Gerbic: You have been very open about wanting feedback as you progressed in the growth of the show. I’m impressed how responsive you have been. On alternate weeks, you release an interview with a person from Europe or someone who has a project that affects Europe. And the next week you focus on news and topics from the world of skepticism focusing on Europe. Personally, I have learned a lot from your interviews about people and projects I’ve never heard of before. What have been your favorite interviews?

Böckman: We have had many great names from all around Europe on the show, like Simon Singh, Edzard Ernst, and Massimo Polidoro to name a few. And from outside Europe too. I must admit I was quite star struck when we had James Randi on over Skype. I also got to conduct a long interview with Jay Novella in person when he visited Sweden; that was amazing. That is a fantastic quality of the skeptics movement: everybody is so supportive and generous with their time, no matter how prominent they are. But perhaps it’s even more gratifying to interview lesser known people, the ones who work their butts off without much recognition. If we can help them to get noticed and perhaps in that way help them to do what they’re doing, that feels really good.

Levin: First of all, I think all our interviews are very interesting and engaging. I learn so much every time we interview someone. One of the interviews that stands out especially is with the Amazing Randi. I was star struck of course. Also knowing how much he does for the skeptic community and how busy he is, I was humbled by the opportunity to talk to him. It was a very inspirational interview. And the other interview was with Diana Barbosa: I loved her enthusiasm, great spirit, and amazing work she does in Portugal within the skeptics movement. I had an opportunity to get to know her better over the past year as I had the pleasure of meeting her in person and spending time with her at the two different skeptic conferences. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to talk to all these amazing people and get inspired by them.

Pintér: Yes, we do value feedback a lot as we don’t do this for our own amusement or to make sure we spend some time away from our families and friends, but to try and serve an audience and be useful as a source of information for our listeners and the international community of skeptics. That said, we have learned a lot from our interviews ourselves, but if you want to know which one my favorite was, I would say the one with James Randi for personal reasons (having considered him a hero for all my adult life). I do have concerns, though, that we overused his generosity with regards to his time, but we were like small children, I guess. That one was not about learning new stuff or finding out about some exciting project. The fact that we had the Amazing Randi on our show completely blew our minds. I’m pretty sure that is obvious when you listen to it. But apart from that interview, it would be difficult to point out one or even a few. I just love doing them because I admire these people for all the effort they make to try and educate people and make a difference in the world. Skeptics are my favorite kind of people. So, I do recommend you listen to all those interviews for the sake of getting to know these wonderful men and women and their brilliant projects. And let yourself be inspired by them. Because the more of us actually take on a task and do something, the further we get with our movement.

Gerbic: Pontus, you do a segment called “Really Wrong” about a person or group that excels in getting information wrong. How do you manage to choose only one single topic each week? I would think that there would be an overwhelming number of choices. I also think I remember you giving the “award” a couple times to someone who was “really right.”

Böckman: There is much to choose from, and another challenge is to research a story when it is in languages I do not know or just barely understand. Thankfully now we have built up such a network of local people that I can always find someone to contact for clarification and verification, because I don’t want to falsely ridicule or accuse someone. I want to make sure they deserve it.

But I also enjoy handing out a “Really Right” prize once in a while, not to be too negative. My favorite Really Right story so far is about the two young ladies in Ireland, Courtney Robinson and Lucy Simpson, who in public, and quite legally, circumvented the Irish abortion pill ban by ordering pills from the Republic of Ireland. They had them flown over the border into Northern Ireland by drone and then swallowed them in front of the press and the police. The police could not do anything about it because they exploited loopholes in the legislation; it was just hilarious. That’s a much more uplifting story than some quack swindling desperate cancer victims.

Gerbic: Jelena, one of your contributions is to talk about one person from the science community historically associated with the week you are recording. As a lover in history, this is one of my favorite segments. It feels like I’m getting the Jelena version of a Wikipedia page about someone I’ve probably not heard of before. What have you learned about this part of the project?

Levin: I love this part, as every time I research a person or an event it’s like a little adventure. Whenever I do my research and I find some famous person (like a scientist) who could be good for the segment I always look to see if there is anything in this person’s life that has a relationship to skepticism. And often there is a lot of interesting information to be discovered about people we know well; some facts are less known and can be very surprising. Like with one of my segments when I talked about Isaac Newton who, among other things, believed in God and even predicted the end of times. Who would have thought? Or that Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies and mediums. It is amazing how scientifically minded, logical people can compartmentalize different beliefs in their brains and live in a state of constant cognitive dissonance. But I guess we all do this to a certain extent, and it is just more proof that none of us is safe from biases, misconceptions, and false beliefs. We have to stay vigilant and try to change our opinions as evidence changes and follow the truth. Also, as part of preparing for this segment I have discovered a lot of great activists from Europe who I have never heard of but who had enormous influence on the skeptics movement.

Gerbic: András, I believe that this was your idea to form a European podcast? You were heavily influenced by several podcasts I believe. What is the best advice you can give to others thinking they might also want to start a podcast?

Pintér: Yes, I’m afraid I have to take the blame for coming up with this idea. And I have to say I’d had no idea what we were getting into. Now I know… It’s a huge commitment. You need the equipment, you need to dedicate a lot of time to research and record the shows, and then you have to be (more or less) consistent with the release dates of subsequent episodes. And then there’s the website, the Facebook page, the Twitter feed, and you still have to live your life and do your job that pays the bills. Oh, and after all that work is done, you still don’t know if there’s going to be people interested in your show. So, my advice? Well, first of all, know why you do it and don’t expect your podcast to be a hit. Especially if you do it for a relatively small community that already follows a myriad of shows. That modest attitude will help you get through the moments of doubt when you don’t see it as a success. Don’t get overwhelmed; allow yourself some time to produce the show the way you want it. And be ready to make sacrifices. Because there will surely be some. Also, if English is not your first language, do consider running a show for your own people. No matter how good your English is, it’ll still be a challenge to discuss topics and keep the show going smoothly while you’re looking for the right word to express yourself. Moreover, your contribution is probably much more important in your own country, where you might be the only one providing that kind of content. But the reason we (TheESP) had to do it in English is that we try to bring all those skeptics together, speaking different languages, representing lots of countries. And English is the common language we all speak at some level.

Gerbic: It’s been eye-opening to listen to your seventy-five-plus podcasts. I had no idea that there was this much activity happening with European skeptic groups. Here in the United States, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that organized skepticism is dying out, especially anything to do with activism. I’ve learned from your podcast (and the Skeptic Zone from Australia) that in some parts of the world some people are still active. I’m really interested in your thoughts about my statement?

Böckman: I’m not sure about the US, but I feel that skepticism in Europe is thriving and that activism is booming. Look at the Good Thinking Society, for instance, that delivers blow after blow against homeopathy and lately has gotten the UK Charities Commission to oversee the rules for charities that are used to promote quackery. And there are so many skeptical conferences this year in Bulgaria, Italy, Poland, the UK, and more. I wish I could go to them all!

Levin: I think sometimes people do get disengaged from the activism and retreat into their own lives for one reason or the other because sometimes it is an easier and more convenient thing to do than keep fighting and protesting and arguing, but I think that very often we find ourselves in somewhat of a bubble and one must step outside one’s bubble to see what is really going on in the world. I choose to remain positive about humanity and skepticism and the movement (although sometimes it is hard). There are still a lot of people out there doing a lot of good work. One particular person comes to mind, Britt Hermes (she was on our show once), an amazing activist, former naturopath, who is now fighting to debunk pseudoscience left, right, and center. I am sure America is full of these kinds of people. I am not 100% convinced that skeptics can be organized. I am sure you heard this phrase before: it can be like herding cats. But when we come together for an event like QED [a fantastic conference in Manchester “Question Explore Discover”], I can see that now and again likeminded people do come together to get inspired and learn from each other. And there are similar events all over the world. America has got its fair share of these events I am sure. Although you might argue that skeptic events are not quite the same as activism, attending one of these events is the reason why our podcast exists.

Pintér: Well, as American people usually don’t have much of an idea of what’s going on in Europe (apart from the UK), we don’t know much about the grassroots activism going on in the US either. We see what’s on display, which is pretty much the surface only, I guess. So, I wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on what I can see. With European skepticism, we are in a special situation. There are lots of relatively small countries and a few large ones all being ethnically different and yet living alongside one another, forming a special kind of alliance. Most of us are members of the EU, where European level legislation is happening and the directives emerging out of that can affect us all, examples of that being GMOs, homeopathy, or vaccination, to mention only a few. And although our focus is different from country to country, there are topics that are of common interest and need to be discussed with science in mind in order for all of us to move in the right direction. So, we need to make our voices heard. That requires coordination. And, weirdly, we have a common language of communication, English, that is only the second language for most of us. There are countries where that’s not a problem for 90% of the population, but there are still those where people would find following stuff in English too much of an effort. And of course, that has an effect on our reach and also makes it more difficult to coordinate our actions as European Skeptics. However, there are some positive signs lately that make me optimistic about future cooperation.

Gerbic: In my opinion, even with a great idea or mission behind a project, without the personality to keep it on track and people motivated the project fails. I seem to see this in the community so much lately. What keeps you three from burning out?

Böckman: Of course it can feel tough sometimes, but it is just so much fun doing the podcast and keeping in touch with other groups! And the three of us, mind you we didn’t know each other very well to begin with, but we have a great time recording the show. We put some of the funny banter in the outtakes to let people get a glimpse of that.

Levin: Andras :). And also the desire to learn and explore and make a difference and be challenged. Sometimes it feels like all this is for nothing, but now and again I see a comment on our latest episode or someone sends in a nice email and you just want to keep going. It is an adventure we are on together. But also, I think a big part of it is the fact that we are friends and I think (although I am only talking for myself) we like each other’s company and we like getting together once a week to chat with each other or to interview an interesting person.

Pintér: There are several things. The diversity of issues and the cultures they emerge in will keep you busy trying to find out as much as possible about them and trying to own the topics. Getting to know the most interesting people there are out there through the interviews is another thing. I just love this. These men and women inspire by example. But there is also the feedback that can be very uplifting, coming from the community that we try to serve. Of course we welcome criticism, but nothing compares to when people get in touch praising the show for being so unique in approach, expressing their amazement over how much activism is going on across the continent. That gives you a certain sense of accomplishment.

Gerbic: You keep up a European calendar with skeptic events all over Europe. That must be a challenge to keep updated. Tell me what you have learned about these groups and their activities.

Böckman: There are very good resources out there to find the events, and people often contact us and ask us to add events we have missed. I’m sure there are even more that goes under the radar, but even so on a typical week we have over a dozen events in the calendar, Skeptics in the Pub and other things. To me one main purpose of the calendar is to show how much is going on. You would not realistically decide to go from your local town in Denmark to Delft in the Netherlands because of a Skeptics in the Pub on a Tuesday evening. But it’s my belief that seeing how much is going on may encourage you to do something locally instead. And then we will put that in the calendar too, and that will inspire even more events. It is also a great resource to find other skeptics in other places just by looking for the organizers.

Pintér: It is indeed a challenge. You can’t comb through every website for those pieces of information every week hoping to find something. There are a couple of sources that we regularly check, but thankfully, there is a growing number of emails we get from listeners advising us of events they organize or know of. About what we’ve learned: first of all, some of them we had never heard of before we started this. Everyone knows Skeptics in the Pub is a big thing in the UK. But now we also know there is a huge event that happens regularly in Sofia, Bulgaria, there are lots of local groups of GWUP, the German skeptics, hosting regular pub talks. And we’ve also learned that in the last six years or so, there have been 600 events, big and small, across Spain hosted by either one of the large national organizations or local groups. How cool is that?

Gerbic: I know your theme song is from George Hrab and someone named Keisha. When I interviewed George he told me that Keisha won the chance to write this song with him at one of the conferences. It is so catchy I find myself humming it for a couple days after listening to your podcast.

Levin: I love the choice of this song for our podcast. I think Pontus found it one day and we were all like: Hell yeah! Could not have been more perfect. “I don’t know how you can believe…”

Böckman: Her name is Keisha J. Gray, and the song is called “Guess Which One,” although James Randi just called it “Song for Skeptics” when it premiered at TAM in 2009. George and Keisha’s performance from is available on YouTube. They later made a studio recording that Geo was kind enough to share with us, and they both were so generous to let us use it in the show. It’s a great song! It’s a pity it’s never been officially released.

Gerbic: Although you are a European podcast I assume that you have listeners from outside Europe. What are the demographics for your listeners? Anything surprise you?

Böckman: Actually, we have a big share of downloads outside Europe, like in the US and in Australia, which could be seen as surprising for a podcast with “European” in the title. I’m glad our content is appreciated outside Europe too. We always hoped it would be, and many of our topics are of course of global interest. It can also be noted that Russia is in sixth place, and it makes me feel good to know that people are also skeptical in the land of Putin!

Levin: A lot of the listeners are from America (like half of all the listeners), and a lot of them from the UK. I don’t find it surprising as we do broadcast in English. Also, I think podcast listening is not yet very widespread in all of the European countries but is very popular in the UK and America. So people are more aware of the concept of listening to podcasts there. We don’t have a detailed breakdown of our demographic; we can only go by IP address when people download the podcast, but this is the info we have so far. There was a surge in Russian listeners at some point, but this seems to have died down (Putin propaganda won and they not interested).

Pintér: Actually, about one quarter of our overall downloads are from the US, then approximately half of that from the UK and the rest is spread across a lot of other countries, among which the most downloads occur in Sweden, Australia, Germany, Russia, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Belgium, Hungary, and Switzerland.

Gerbic: I’m a giant “ra-ra” supporter of skeptic conferences. Pontus had been a Facebook friend of mine for some time and András and Jelena were GSoW editors though you hadn’t met each other yet. I spoke at QED in 2014 and András and Pontus independently walked up to me when I arrived to introduce themselves. I said let’s go sit down and talk, and we ended up at a McDonalds in Manchester. I remember saying “Lets solve all the world’s problems while sitting here at the table. Who wants to start?” A couple hours later we all met Jelena. That was an amazing conference. I say that the first steps toward activism are to attend a skeptic gathering. I have a feeling you all would agree?

Böckman: Nothing beats meeting people in person. Oftentimes seeing the speakers and panels is only half the experience, and it’s only when you find new friends among the other attendees that the rubber hits the road and things start to happen! The ESP got started that way and you never know what can happen when you meet others who share your interests and passions.

Levin: Abso-effin-lutely! As I said it in one of my earlier answers, that conference for me lead to my activism. It is so inspiring to see all these people on stage and off stage talking about their activism and what they do. Also, you get to meet the speakers and just chat with them like you would with a friend and ask them questions. And there is nothing that can replace this experience. I will never forget when I said to you, Susan, I want to meet Nate Phelps (he was one of the speakers at the 2014 QED). And you were like, “Lets go, I’ll introduce you.” It was so exciting. I love Nate. He is one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met and his talk at the QED conference was absolutely heartbreaking and inspiring and educational all at the same time. And I got to meet him, in person, and now I get to call him my friend. Unbelievable! And this is what a conference like that can do to you. So get out there and see people, hear talks, ask questions, hang out. Be curious, be interested, be inspired! Hmmm… that could be a slogan for QED. Although their name is already a slogan. Better save this one for myself for later. But even if you don’t get to meet the speakers there are so many fascinating people who attend the conference, who you can talk to and explore different options and challenge each other’s views. It’s great fun all around.

Pintér: Totally agree. The first step is always realizing that you’re not alone and there are others around you that you can share your frustrations, experiences, and wisdom with. Socializing with these people will make you comfortable and you’ll have a good network of contacts on your hands to start with when you want to take part. Then, there’s the step of organizing actual activism. That requires cooperation and planning. The rest is up to those being involved. Go and attend one or all of these conferences, people! You won’t regret it. And then, when you feel the urge to go and do something yourself, do not hesitate.

Gerbic: So, what’s next for the ESP?

Böckman: More conferences! All three of us will go to both the European Skeptics Congress in Poland in September and to QED in Manchester in October. We will do interviews all over the place and get to meet new and old friends. And record together in the same room again! That’s always special. If possible we may do a live recording in front of an audience! That would be a first for us.

Levin: More of the episodes. Keep going, keep having conversations, keep covering events and news from Europe, keep trying to bring skeptic organizations together and exchange experiences and learn from each other. We are very new at podcasting and we have so much to learn in terms of how to make it better. So we will keep doing what we do and improving.

Pintér: Oh, we have a lot of things on our minds. Plenty of interviews planned for starters. There are more topics and people we would like to have on the show than we can cope with at the moment. That said, we plan to start a YouTube channel and release the interviews as standalone material (once we can find time to do it). We are entertaining the idea of registering at QED 2017 with a live show on the podcast track of the conference, and doing a live episode online is also among our plans. We also are in contact with the European Council of Skeptical Organisations and we think we could cooperate along a couple of issues and act as a hub. After all, our motto is “building a bridge for skeptics.”

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.