Episode 2: Michael Marshall @MrMMarsh

Michael Marshall is the Project Director of the Good Thinking Society and the Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He regularly speaks with proponents of pseudoscience for the Be Reasonable podcast. His work has seen him organising international homeopathy protests, going undercover to expose psychics and quack medics, and co-founding the popular QED conference. He has written for the Guardian, The Times, the New Statesman and Gizmodo. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrMMarsh and you can consume episode 2 of Making Better in text form here.

Episode 2: Michael Marshall Transcript

Welcome to the Making Better podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.

Chris, Well, Francis. it’s episode 2 of Making Better.

Francis: Yes, indeed, and this has been a really fun trip so far. What do we have in the can, something like 8, 7, 6?

Chris: I think we have 8 episodes total recorded, this is the second one we’ve released.

Francis: Yeah, and such a diverse group of people so far. I’ve been having a lot of fun with that.

Chris Yeah, it’s been interesting. Every guest has been different in their own way, but there’s a certain common thread that we see, I think, running through all of them. I think, you know, we’re talking to an optimistic group of people, people who are already making better things happen in the world. And one of those guests is this week’s interview, Michael Marshall. I first met “Marsh” seven years ago at the QED conference in Manchester, England, of which he is one of the co-coordinators. Marsh is also one of the founders of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, and is a full time employee at the Good Thinking Society, an organization dedicated to promoting critical thinking and science in the UK. Marsh is probably most well known for his work with the Good Thinking Society as one of the leaders that got homeopathy banned from the NHS in England, saving the British taxpayers millions of dollars on bogus cures.

Francis: And if you’re like me, and you didn’t know anything really about the skeptics movement, this is a really cool interview.

Chris: Michael Marshall, welcome to Making Better!

Marsh: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Chris: I’ve known you for quite some time, and I know a bit about your work, but I don’t think our listeners do, so…you work full time for the Good Thinking Society, an organization I find fascinating, but can you tell us a bit about the organization and the work you do there?

Marsh: Yeah, it’s kind of a tricky thing to describe what it is that I do, really, so I’m..I think technically the UK’s only full-time, professional skeptical investigator. Which effectively means, because I work for this charity called Good Thinking Society and the charity’s there to promote science and to challenge pseudoscience. So I spend a reasonable amount of my time investigating where there are pseudoscientific claims, and sometimes that will be about people who say they’re talking to the dead or reading palms, and other times it’ll be about people who say they can cure this disease or offer this alternative treatment, and we look at whether the evidence for that actually works…so I spend some of my time actually going undercover to have these claims made to me directly in person. I spend some of my time looking to see how we can bring these claims, where they aren’t backed by evidence, to the attention of people like the press, regulators, sometimes even the police when they’re making particularly egregious and damaging claims. And the rest of the time I spend doing public lectures, essentially encouraging groups of strangers to doubt stuff is kind of a big part of what I do, describing the work that I’ve done, and whenever anybody …whenever I tell people about my full time job, that it involves telling people to doubt stuff, there’s always at least a few people in the audience who look at me as if to say, ‘that isn’t a real job’…and to those people I always point out that’s how good I am at making you doubt stuff, that you even doubt the validity of my chosen career….so that’s kind of what I do in my day job, and that sort of takes all sorts of different forms and, yeah, occasionally I’ll be lecturing here or writing for newspapers there, or being in a strange undercover environment where someone’s telling me stuff that isn’t true and I see what I can do about it.

Chris: The piece you’re most famous for, that you work on with the Good Thinking Society, and that you started, I think, before you even started working for Good Thinking, with the Merseyside Skeptics, an organization that you co-founded…is on homeopathy and getting it banned from the National Health System in England…

Marsh: Yeah, so this is an area that I’ve been looking at for about 10 years now, so I just kind of started, I was one of the co-founders of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, which is just a local community group, really, the reason that we put the group together was because if you’re someone of faith, you know that you can walk into any city in the world pretty much and there’ll be a building filled with people of your faith, people who kind of agree with you at least on some pretty core principles…and if you’re somebody who is a believer in psychic ability, you can go to spiritualist churches, or you can go to psychic meetings all round the world, and you meet people who already kind of agree with you a bit, but there wasn’t really an easy access community for people who didn’t believe in those things, ‘cuz it can be quite a tricky thing to gather around not believing in a thing, and so that’s where this kind of community group came from. But as well as having an idea, an ethos to try and build a critical thinking, a community of non-believers, as it were, we also wanted to look out and say, how do we affect the world around us if we find these kind of pseudo-sciences that can be quite damaging and dangerous and misleading? How do we try and push back against that, and what can we do to try and encourage critical thinking and to challenge ideas that don’t work and don’t stack up? And that’s where we really started settling on homeopathy, which at the time was starting to make headlines because we got the major pharmacy in the UK, Boots, who admitted that the reason they sold homeopathic remedies wasn’t because they believed that they worked—because the don’t work—but it was because, they said, their customers wanted to buy them. So, essentially, “we’ll sell you it, even though we know it’s nonsense but you’re willing to pay for it,” was of the position of the UK’s biggest pharmacy. And so we came up with this kind of campaign, which we might sort of chat about in a bit more detail in a moment perhaps, to question Boots’ position and also to say to the public, you might think that homeopathic remedies are herbal remedies, you might think they’re natural remedies, you might not know that they’re neither of those things. Homeopathic remedies are based on very unnatural principle, the idea that the more you dilute something, the stronger it gets—that’s a central tenet of homeopathy—but it kind of runs contrary to pretty much every experience you’ve had of diluting things, I imagine, in your life…but the majority of people didn’t realize that.

Chris: If I’m pouring a scotch and water, I use about a gallon of water and just a teaspoon of scotch, and it’s just way stronger…

Marsh: Yeah, that’s the real hard stuff at that point…but funnily enough, the thing we found was that the majority of people, if you looked at surveys of public opinion, if you looked at the way people talked about homeopathy, if you looked at how it was discussed in the media, the majority of people really did think that these remedies were natural remedies, or they were just another word for herbal remedies. So we wanted to make the point that homeopathy is a very specific idea, and we also noticed that homeopaths weren’t going out of their way to say to people, “hey, do you know our remedies are based on the idea that diluting stuff makes it stronger?”

Francis: Where did homeopathy come from?

Marsh: Yeah, well the origin of homeopathy is quite interesting, I think it was about …late 18th Century Germany, there was a chap called Samuel Hahnemann who, at the time, was doing experimentation to try and treat malaria. And he found that if you..quinine, I think, it was from a particular tree, I forget which tree it was now, but he found that if you administered this stuff to people who had malaria, their symptoms improved…and partly, that was because it actually turns out that quinine is a useful antimalarial, it’s got some properties that could then be used and synthesized and used in sort of antimalarial treatments after that. So you had him doing sort of these natural experimentation initially, and he come up with sort of further ideas that when you give someone quinine they take on symptoms that seem a bit like malaria, in terms of you get a fever and things like that, so he figured that it was the fact he was giving you a fever that was treating the fever that you have. So he thought, if you give somebody something that mirrors the symptoms they already have, the body would learn to fight the symptoms of the thing you’ve just given them, and that would teach the body to fight the symptoms of what ailment they already had. But, of course, this should lead into places where the homeopathic cure for insomnia is coffee…because coffee keeps you up, but your body can fight the coffee and go to sleep it can fight whatever else is causing insomnia and go to sleep. Obviously, that’s not going to work, because coffee will keep you up.

Francis: Is there a homeopathy remedy for gullibility?

Marsh: (laughs) There may well be, there may well be…so you have this kind of idea that, you give someone coffee and it’s meant to treat their insomnia, and obviously it’s not going to do that. So…Hahnemann had the idea of diluting it in order to take out the ill effects…the negative side effects, but just leave the “essence” of what it was, and that’s where this kind of serial dilution comes from. And the majority of people we found—not just in the UK, but in opinion polls conducted worldwide—didn’t realize that homeopathic pills were diluted to the point that there was none of the original substance left in them. And we figure this was a really important point, because, for a long time people who didn’t…who recognized that homeopathy didn’t work, they would say, well, homeopathy doesn’t work because of all these scientific studies over here, and the homeopaths would say, well actually we’ve got our own scientific studies…and if you’re an everyday person going about your life, you don’t have time to go looking for medical journals that you might not have access to, to figure out whether those studies are valid or not. So you just hear the studies on both sides…and so the science alone wasn’t going to convince people that homeopathy didn’t work, and that’s why we came up with this idea of saying, if we can get people to understand one central, very simple point, and that’s that a homeopathic pill has nothing at all in it, most people are gonna go, if this pill’s got nothing in it, it’s not gonna do anything for me. Most people would realize that, and that’s why we came up with this, the first kind of activist thing that I ever did with regard to alternative medicine, was the …

Chris: That would be your 10:23 campaign…

Marsh: Yeah, 10:23, which is the series of homeopathic “overdoses”…where we had people go into their local Boots pharmacy and buy some homeopathic tablets and then everybody, all together, would stand outside of their local pharmacy and they would take an “overdose” of these sugar pills to demonstrate that you don’t get any ill effects, you don’t get effect at all, because what you’re “overdosing” on is nothing but a sugar pill. So, yeah, in the first year—this was 2010—we had 300 people in 13 cities across the UK taking this homeopathic “overdose” at 10:23 in the morning, and it made national news as a result of that, and really kicked off or re-energized, in the public consciousness in many ways, a new kind of debate about what homeopathy actually is. And slightly, for a little while, changed the way homeopathy was described in the UK.

Chris: And for our listeners who don’t remember high school chemistry, can you tell us the significance of the term 10:23?

Marsh: Yeah, so cuz we identified, not just that the public opinion was that homeopathy was either natural or herbal, but we also identified that the press coverage would also mistakenly not tell you what homeopathy actually was, so when the media talked about homeopathy, they’d say it was either a natural medicine or they would say it’s an ultra-dilute medicine, a very dilute medicine, they would say there’s barely anything in it…but they wouldn’t say there’s nothing at all in it. And that was the key point that we wanted to get across. So we figured, how do we force the media, when they report on our publicity student—cuz it was a publicity stunt—how do we force them to tell the real science of homeopathy? And I came up with this idea of calling the campaign 10:23, because odd numbers stick in the mind, if you hear a number, you think it must have a significance, and that number does have a significance. And the idea is that, I talked about the dilution of homeopathy, how you take a substance and dilute it into lots and lots of water, until there’s nothing of it left. If you take your initial drop of coffee, and you start diluting it into water, you will reach a point where there is only water left in any random sample that you take. And that point is called the Avogadro constant, and it’s 6.02 times 10 to the power of 23 drops of water to one drop of coffee. When you buy the homeopathic remedies in your local pharmacy, or you go and see a homeopath and they’ll give you these homeopathic remedies, pretty much all, the vast majorities of the remedies that they give you are past this point of dilution. So this is the point that says, there is literally nothing at all in this, in this remedy. So we thought, if we call our campaign 10:23 after this chemical point, the Avogadro point, then if we do our “overdoses” at specifically 10:23 am, all coordinated across the UK and a year later right across the world, when the media talk about this strange serious of publicity stunts, called this strange number, they have to explain what that number is, they can’t just say “the 10:23 campaign did it at 10:23 in the morning”…and just not explain that number, you’d feel it’s not a satisfying way of telling that story, there’s a very clear gap there. So when the media covered this, and this was front page news on the BBC website for the entire day, it made pretty much every national newspaper, I believe, every single piece of coverage explained the campaign group 10:23, which takes its name from the chemical principle that shows there’s nothing in homeopathy, blah blah blah blah blah. So we were able to crowbar real science into the media discussion by understanding what the shape of a media story is, and where the gaps are, and how to sort of fill those gaps with…science, really.

Chris: And that brings up your background in public relations, before you became a full-time skeptic, you were a full-time public relations specialist.

Marsh: Well, sort of, sort of. I worked in a marketing company for a long time, so I’ve spent…alongside my career as a skeptic, which I’ve been involved in skeptical activism for 10 years and I’ve been a full-time skeptic with the Good Thinking Society for five years. Before that I’d worked for many, many years in a digital marketing company. And so I always had a bit of an interest in marketing anyway, and that sort of did certainly feed into the branding of 10:23 as a campaign and some of the decisions we made about how to communicate. I’ve always had a very great interest in understanding how to communicate the messages, especially complicated messages, as clearly, concisely, as accessibly as possible, really. And so that really led to me kind of examining how stories end up in the newspapers, and getting really involved in understanding how much of the story the newspapers are actually fed by commercial sources, which has been another string to the various kind of various strains of the [?] that I’ve acquired over the last decade.

Chris: You often talk about Bad PR on your Skeptics with a K podcast, and you did a blog, 365 days of Bad PR, that I must admit to having never read…

Marsh: Yeah, so…

Chris: I’m the guy who listens to Be Reasonable all the way to the end, I’m the one hand raised when you asked that question at QED every year, so…

Marsh: Oh well, that’s good, ‘cause I can absolve you of never having engaged too much with my other blogs…no, I’m someone who likes to take on lots of projects, so it was actually…my interest is really piqued in this kind of subject, of how much of the news is kind of influenced by PR and commercial messaging. It was piqued by a book that I read by Neil Davis from the Guardian, and the book was Flat Earth News. (sorry, Nick Davis, not Neil Davis, Nick Davis) And it was a really fascinating book because Nick Davis is a very seasoned Guardian reporter, and this was kind of an insider’s view of what was going on in the news rooms, and explained how the commercial aspect of the media has really fallen away over the last, sort of, 30 years, and even more so the last, sort of, 10+ years of the internet…the internet’s kind of intrusion upon the media landscape, or participation in the media landscape. Because there is such a gap in funding of newspapers, because people don’t buy newspapers anymore, people expect newspapers to come to them immediately and for free…those twin evils of immediacy and completely without any expense involved…it takes the bottom out of it, it takes the funding out of journalism and really ends up starving journalists of the one resource they really need, which is time. A journalist sort of lives and dies, journalism lives and dies on the time you have to source a story and check a story and develop background facts and even to do the little bit of checking that tells you not to go ahead with this story ‘cuz it’s nonsense. So once you strangle that time out of journalism, and you still have a huge amount of demand, increased demand in fact, for content, there are people who are then going to step in and fill those content gaps. And that’s where newswire material and the idea of “churn-alism” which is to repackage content and copy you found elsewhere or was given to you elsewhere and you repackage it as a journalist as if you wrote it yourself, even though you haven’t contributed to it or haven’t particularly fact-checked it. And it’s also where the PR element of the media really has exploded over the last sort of 30 years, so that’s what I spend a long time tracking, on a blog that I sporadically upkeep on a project that I now sort of lecture at universities as part of their journalism and PR degrees on, is to track this story in the newspaper that might have an effect on the way that people understand the world…where did it come from? Well, we can show that it actually came from this press release, from this commercial organization, you can have this very specific marketing goal in putting forward this message. And so when we see these stories of research shows that men gossip more than women, or women gossip more than men, or whichever hook is a-la-mode at the time, when you look at the research behind those, and you look at the company involved in putting those out, you can spot the reason this company is putting this story out is that it supports their commercial message and it has a commercial incentive to them in this way, and you can see why it’s kind of trying to massage people into behaving a certain way…and then you question the validity of the data that they’re presenting is actually not great, and in many of these marketing research stories it’s not great, you can see this is just an advert for that company. So what I do on the PR blog, is I pick a story from the newspaper and point out who put the story there and specifically what message they’re trying to send with that story, what the sub-text of the story is. And once you kind of understand just how much of this stuff is out there, it really does make you, in my humble opinion, read newspapers a different way and engage with the media in a different way.

Francis: It seems to me that, especially in this country, there is a lot of interest in the idea of skepticism and the right, and particularly Trump, refer a lot to what he calls ..”fake news”….so, in a sense, it seems to me that the work that you’re doing is, it’s sort of being short-circuited in some bizarre way, by people who are just subverting the whole idea of…looking at the evidence objectively.

Marsh: Yeah, well I think it isn’t that they’re subverting the idea of looking at the evidence, it’s that they taking the terminology of something very, very specific and then misapplying it in order to rob it of any meaning or rob it of the initial meaning and context that it had. So if we look at “fake news” as a term, and this is kind of a thesis I’m sort of developing a little bit at the moment, but where the “fake news” term is most valuable is to look at stories that are wholly constructed, that have no basis in reality. And we saw a huge number of these during the US election, there were stories that the Pope had came out and offered an endorsement to Donald Trump, there were stories that there were Marines stranded in a country and Donald Trump personally signed off or paid for helicopters to go rescue these Marines…and these were stories that appear on sites that look like, they carry all the trappings of a media site…they’ve got all the, sort of, the signifiers that make it look like a media site, but actually there is no journalism involved, these are entirely made-up stories. And lots of these stories are actually, I think, initially made up first of all, just to get engagement, just to get people’s eyes on the page, because the page is covered in adverts and has affiliate links…and it’s really just trying to monetize eyes on the page…and when you have a landscape that’s set up to reward..people financially for the number of hits their website gets, which is a very reasonable sounding metric, and a reasonable sounding way to carry out online marketing and online advertising. But when that system exists, you almost inevitably set off an arms race between the people who are, amongst the people who are looking to get as many eyes as possible on their page, and don’t care what they have to do to get that. And I think that’s kind of where the origins of fake news came from, with these stories that sprung up not necessarily first of all with propagandist purposes, but with just sensationalist purposes. But I think going into several elections worldwide, one of them being the one in America, I think that ecosystem of almost Darwinian evolution of…you know, survival of the fittest in terms of who can put forward the most sensationalist headline and the most sensationalist form of clickbait headline: “12 Tips That Will Blow Your Mind! You’ll never guess number 7!” you know, that kind of ecosystem…when that was there, and then there were people who had a…bad actors with very specific political points to push, whether those points are true or not, so long as it points to a certain direction, I think that’s where “fake news” is a very helpful term to describe that system, where people are putting out sensationalist stories that are supportive of one candidate or lies of another candidate. And we saw this with, for example, the two stories that I cited, the Pope one and the Marines on a helicopter one….I believe both of those are…certainly the latter of those, was shared by Sean Hannity on his website, Sean Hannity obviously used them, Fox News, and you have kind of a very easy mechanism by which a story which had a sensationalist and maybe even propagandist point of view in terms of its initial writing, gets laundered into mainstream via the bridges along the way. So I think that’s where the term “fake news” is phenomenally valuable…but unfortunately, it’s such an easy term to co-opt, to say, well, anything that I don’t like I can just label it “fake news” in order to devalue it or to denigrate it, so Trump can stand in front of CNN and say the entire channel, the entire media company, media platform, is “fake news”….and there’s no real engagement with what he means by that, because what he means by that “I don’t like you.” But the term itself, and I think the tools that were behind the initial term and the scrutiny that the term initially represented are still very valuable. The tools themselves aren’t being co-opted by bad actors, but just the terms of them are.

Chris: At least in America, and I look back at, you know, relatively recent history, let’s go back to, like, the Ronald Reagan administration, we agreed on the facts…so acid rain was the big environmental issue of the time, and Ronald Reagan’s science advisor, you know, said, look, these are the facts, and Ronald Reagan had a climate…or acid rain denier as an Interior minister, he fired him, hired someone who was scientific and they invented the cap-and-trade program, which has been very successful. So they used a conservative, market-based solution to an environmental system and it was interesting, because both sides were at least able to agree on the facts, and the debate was over the policy.

Marsh: Yeah, I think that’s…that’s something that isn’t…that isn’t borne out in sort of, political discourse, conversational discourse…at the moment, and I think that’s a huge, huge issue with the way that people from either side of an aisle…interact, I completely agree…especially if somebody has a..an investment in muddying the waters and obscuring facts. And I think that’s where we kind of are, and it’s the line that’s been trotted out a million times, but I actually think it’s something many people don’t really grasp the full significance of, when Kellyanne Conway says, well, the President has “alternative facts”….I actually think she was saying something different toward a lot of people…will take from that…I don’t think she was saying, that what the President has, or what the administration has, is alternative-to-fact….as in constructs that are wholly invented. I think she was effectively saying, that, well, you have a…this statistic can tell you this, but I can pull up a different statistic that, if I use that in isolation, it will tell you another thing…you know, I don’t think she meant it quite as transparently as that, but I think that’s the phenomenon she was possibly referring to, or certainly a phenomenon that I’ve observed. So, you can find elements of fact…it’s not just when people outright deny the facts, I think there are facts that are true, but are narrow enough that the use of them actually constitutes a falsehood, because there’s a greater truth that is revealed if you…widen the scope, if that sort of makes sense.

Francis: I think, especially in the left-right politics in this country, there’s this undercurrent where the left will try to persuade with facts and data, and the right just want to win…and push through a policy or something like that, and will do anything, say anything, you know, just manipulation…so you have this one group who are trying to play fair, and another group who read books like Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power, and The Art of War, and all that…

Chris: Or The Art of the Deal…

Francis: Yeah. and what you have is this sort of, just like a broken dialogue where one half isn’t even really interested in the truth. And the other half is trying to come up with, like, the correct formulation of the data that will eventually persuade the other group.

Marsh: Yeah. So, I mean…first of all, I would say that I do consider skepticism a-political, I have my own political..political opinions, and while I would say that I believe them to be informed by skepticism, I wouldn’t want to say that you can only have certain opinions if you’re a skeptic, you’d only be from one political side…so if we go into the politics area, I just want to make that clear. But I do think the idea that one side of an argument can be engaging on the facts and on logic, and to their mind reason, while the other side isn’t engaging at that level but are actually engaging at something else, and I think that something else is a kind of value system, an identity, I think that certainly is a very valid point. And I think we see that in some of the discussions that you see in political discourse in America, some of the discussions you see in political discussions in…Britain over Brexit, things like that. But we see it a lot in the stuff that I deal with in terms of my skeptical day job, or the skeptical world in which I kind of …move. When we talk about people who, for example, are against vaccinations, or the people who believe that the world is flat, I see an awful lot of people engaging with people who hold those opinions, and engaging on the facts, without necessarily understanding that it wasn’t the facts that got people into that position, it was something else. And if you just try and engage, if you throw facts at someone for whom facts weren’t their motivator to get them into the intellectual space that they’re in, those facts will be deflected. And instead you need to…you do need to engage at a values level. So I think that there is an element amongst people, amongst groups that would consider themselves to be progressive, critical thinkers where we also have to understand that we need to engage at the value system that the people we’re talking to have. When it comes to anti-vaxxers, the values that they have are probably, I would say, mistrust of corporations, mistrust of big organizations, mistrust of government, and compassion for their child, protection of their child. Some of those are very admirable and understandable values, you know, I absolutely would understand why someone would…protect and worry about their children. I understand why people would question the motivations of big corporations, we see pharmaceutical companies that we absolutely should be questioning some of their decisions on…in that one example of anti-vaxxers, if you want to try and get anywhere in that conversation, if you go in and say “well actually, here’s the statistics around measles in…over the last hundred years,” that isn’t going to affect them. But I think if you were to be able to go in and say, look, I know that you’re trying to do what’s best for your child…and I understand why you would doubt corporations, because there were these big problems here…but, the flip side of that is, protecting your child also means protecting them from these issues here, and try to engage with the fact of a shared understanding of values. I think that’s perhaps a more productive way of having those conversations, and that’s something I try and do in various parts of the…the work that I do, really.

Chris: How do you find common ground with a flat-earther though?

Marsh: Well, (sigh) I think, first of all, there’s an easy common ground in that they are humans, and I’m also a human. So that’s a pretty easy common ground…and that sounds like a very trite thing, but it’s actually something that a lot of people miss when they’re talking to people they disagree with. You assume they are the sum of their arguments, and miss the fact that they are people holding those…those opinions. So I quite often will have conversations with people who believe the world is flat, and the first thing that I want to do is kind, try to understand them as a person, and I’m not necessarily going to reason them out of their belief in the flat earth, largely I think because a lot of the people who will hold a flat earth belief to the point where they are, in the case of the people I talk to, appearing on stage at conferences and hosting podcasts and doing videos about why the world flat, I think that becomes quite a core part of their identity and who they see themselves as…so certainly an hour-long conversation with me isn’t going to…isn’t going to shift something fundamental about who they believe themselves to be. So I just really want to try and understand them, and I think we do find common ground. In some ways. I think a lot of people, when it comes to flat earth belief, will say these people are anti-science, they are uneducated, this is a failure…Neil DeGrasse Tyson says this is a failure of science education. And I think that’s actually quite a harsh view. I’ve talked to lots of flat-earthers who do believe in the process of science, and are even trying to do the process of science, but don’t understand the sensitivity of the tools that they’re using, or the makeup of the experiments that they’re doing, and they don’t understand why their own personal observations in the experiments they carry out shouldn’t be given a huge amount more weight and significance than the consensus of thousands of people who’ve made their own observations using far more sensitive equipment. So I think even there, writing off the flat earth believer as someone who is unreachable, has absolutely no common ground, misses some fundamental…fundamentally why it’s an interesting thing to do to talk to people you disagree with.

Francis: You talk about helping people learn how to think, even…what are the characteristics of optimal thinking?

Marsh: Oh gosh, that’s a big question. I think one of the most important ones, and it’s one that’s often hugely overlooked, is to question your own beliefs and particularly the beliefs that you hold more strongly. This is something that we, as humans, are just not very well designed to do. I’m exactly the same, in that you’ll get into arguments online, and you’ll get a little heated at someone saying something that you think is silly, and when they make a point, the first thing you do is to say, well that can’t be right, and you google to find the first link you can find that proves them wrong, and you don’t necessarily even read it fully, you just know that this is the thing that came up when you said, when you looked for why that person was wrong…which is a very motivated way of…it’s motivated reasoning, it’s motivated behavior. Whereas a better way to do it is say, well, what is this person saying and how do I observe that and evaluate that as objectively as possible? And similarly, a belief system that you hold incredibly strongly is precisely the thing that you should be sense-checking regularly, because that is going to be your achilles heel, really, that’s going to be the one thing that you don’t question because it’s so obvious to you and so, sort of, [?] So I think that humility of your own belief structure is hugely important, to try and grow as much as possible a willingness to change your mind based on the evidence, even if what you’re changing your mind about is something that you feel very strongly about, you feel very emotionally tied to. These are really, really difficult things to do. It sounds like an easy thing, but it’s one of the most remarkably hard things to do, and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for someone who’s been through that journey of completely being on one side of a fence, looking at the evidence, and going, actually, that was all completely wrong. It’s takes a huge amount of intellectual fortitude, intellectual honesty, to do that.

Chris: What do you think is the best way for somebody who may not have a great science education to start learning more about critical thinking, without, you know, having to go back to university?

Marsh: Yeah..so I mean, you’re absolutely right that it’s an issue that people haven’t necessarily got the vocabulary and the expertise in reading scientific papers. I’m also terrible at reading scientific papers, I find that…the structure of them often impenetrably boring. You know, I’ve got an English background rather than a science background, so I can also understand that, also you have the issue that a lot of science journals just aren’t accessible to the public, so in a way we are reliant, to a degree, on people who are science communicators, to translate the reality of the research into approachable language, and that translation is always going to be flawed. So I think one of the things you can do is to try and seek out multiple, multiple opinions on a topic, and then try and figure out what the doubt about those opinions might be. So if you were to look at vaccination, for example, you could take a look at what the pro-vaccination side are saying, and try and find out how much of those statistics are true, and how many people who make their careers in medicine are pro- or anti- vaccination, and we see the consensus of the experts there. And if you look at the anti-vaccination arguments, and you try and really scrutinize not just whether these are true, but how you could falsify them…I think the falsifiability is very important, because what I think I see a lot…and I have a lot of conversations with people who are very passionate on one side of an argument, is that they specialize in looking at the other side’s argument and deconstructing it and going, well, this can’t be true, for these reasons….but then they’ll put forward an argument of their own which they clearly haven’t done that level of scrutiny on, it’s gonna be a very sort of superficial argument. And again, I think this is kind of an understandable human trait, arguments and points and facts and ideas that gel with how we already see the world are gonna pass into our minds much more easily than ones that don’t quite fit. So I think that’s the biggest thing, is being able to question the information that you agree with the most…and where it comes to a position where you’re not sure either way, to really have a look around at the consensus of experts.

Chris: When it came to recommending books, though, two came to mind immediately to me, one is Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, which I think is almost the primer for skepticism, and then…I really like Brian Dunning’s books, I think he sort of turned Skeptoid into a series of books which I think are really informative.

Marsh: Well, certainly, and I’ve never read his books but have heard a lot of the Skeptoid essays…and I think what Brian does very well is cover the basics of an issue in enough depth that you’ve really got a pretty comprehensive handle on things by then…so yeah, I think he’s a good example of that. I must admit, it’s quite tricky for me to recommend skeptical books, because I spend so much of my time immersed not in the literature and culture of the critical thinkers, but instead reading stuff from people who aren’t critical thinkers, that I’m probably a terrible person to ask about what a good skeptical library looks like. I’m sat in my office right now and looking across at the books that I keep in my office, that are sort of science and skepticism related, the vast majority of them are from people who disagree with me, because I enjoy so much immersing myself in the arguments and ideas of people that I disagree with, and try and understand where they’re coming from. So yeah, that’s possibly…I’m possibly the worst person to recommend what a good skeptical library ought to look like.

Francis: You, in a speech to the Australian Skeptics national convention, sounded very optimistic. I was wondering if you could explain why you have this optimism?

Marsh: I think I am optimistic. And I think part of that is because I really believe in people, first of all. It’s very easy, I think, to have a very negative view, a very apocalyptic view, of everything is getting worse and people don’t care and people don’t engage, and especially when you’re very much in the middle of a particular issue. And so we see that with, go back to homeopathy or go to vaccination, it’s very easy to see the people who disagree with the scientific point of view, the critical thinking point of view, the people promoting homeopathy, the people advising people not to get vaccinated. It’s easy to see that and say, oh, there’s so many people and they’re so strong and they’ve got all this kind of success, and to see that as like a 50-50, like there are them and there are us, there are believers and there are skeptics, and it’s kind of a pitched battle, and I don’t believe that to be the case. I think actually it’s much more likely that there’s a vast middle ground of people who…aren’t really that invested either way, and are very reachable. And so one of the reasons I was particularly positive, especially being in Australia, is seeing how great the work of even a small number of people, how great that work can be. So Australia, for example, used to have an organization, an anti-vaccine organization called the Australian Vaccination Network. And…sounds like a legitimate organization, they’d get play across the media, every time vaccines were mentioned the head of that organizations would be on the phone or on the TV about it. And it was really the work of, maybe, sort of five, six, seven people in a group called “Stop the AVN,” or slightly more than that, who started pushing back against that, and they’ve completely changed the way that the Australian media reports on vaccination. They no longer take an anti-vax view when talking about vaccines on the media, and they put forward a much more pro-vaccination, pro-science, pro-reason point of view on those issues, and that’s because of the work of…a relatively small group of activists. So I think it’s easy to look at things like the fake news of the internet, and the hellsphere that social media can occasionally be, and be quite apocalyptic, but I think the powers of those platforms, the powers of those tools to spread misinformation, are also tools and platforms that we can use to spread positive information. And it doesn’t take…the barriers, the gatekeepers, to spreading good information, are down and the gatekeepers aren’t there anymore, so it…you can actually get an awful long way, and I think there’s a lot of people who really care about things and doing things the right way. So, yeah, I think I am quite positive. I think most people, I think there are very few people trying to harm people and trying to spread intentional untruths, and there’s a lot of people who care about what’s real. And I think, I do think we’ll kind of get there in terms of how to get out of the bubble we’re in at the moment, which is where unreason seems to be prevailing in certain really important areas.

Francis: We lost a poet recently, named Mary Oliver, I don’t know if you’re familiar with her…but one of the things she once said is that, instructions for living a life are: Pay attention, Be astonished, and Tell about it. And I feel like with technology offering so much right now to people, the flip side of that is, yes, there are existential threats that have been created by advancements in technology, but the good side of it is just not getting out enough. And part of my interest in this podcast is to get that part out, to tell about what the good things are in this world, and give the facts, give the facts about how the technology could be used in a different way that would benefit a lot more people, that kind of thing.

Marsh: It’s kind of the…the human condition, to a degree, and certainly the condition of the stories we tell, and therefore the story that the media tells, is that the stories that are worrying or troubling or negative and depressing—those are the stories that are much easier to tell. You’ll that, you pick up the newspaper and you can get a, in any or of the last couple, you can get a false impression of how terrible things are going, the last couple haven’t been particularly great years internationally, for lots of different reasons, but it’s very easy to get negative stories, stories about how awful this is and how sensationally terrible this other thing is. It’s very easy to cover those stories, but it’s one of the things that’s kind, you always have to bear in mind as you…look at a story of some awful tragedy or terrible event, someone behaving awfully, is that the reason these stories are news is because they aren’t common. If really awful things were a thing that happened….you look at an awful murder, or something terrible like that…it’ll make the news because it’s such a gruesome and terrible thing, but if it was happening 50 times a day in every town, it wouldn’t be news any more, it would be life. So I think we have the stories we tell and the way we tell them, do skew towards negative for various reasons, and sort of bearing that in mind is a useful way of engaging with the media, really.

Francis: It’s a…issue of a profit-driven media…

Marsh: It sort of is, but I don’t think it’s necessarily even—profit-driven almost suggests that there’s an overt decision to be cynically sensationalist in order to make money, and I suspect it’s, the business decisions are, for most media outlets, sort of different to that. Because it’s so hard to get by, it’s so hard to cover your costs in the media these days, and finding the stories that are more in-depth and interesting is a much harder thing to do with limited resources, so I don’t like the idea of…writing off journalists as being, or newspapers as being all about the profit and not about the truth. I think the vast majority of people who go into the media, and who are acting in the media every day, are actually trying to do a very good job. Even the forces that are stopping them from doing a good job are probably also driven by people who are trying to do a good job, but their job just runs contrary to the goal of positive and independent…and powerful media. I think it’s a broken system rather than broken people using a working system, as it were.

Francis: Yeah, I agree with that. I have a son, and not long ago I posted in social media a question to my friends, which was: If you had to name a really good role model for a man, for a boy to look up to, who would you choose? And I was astonished at how difficult that question was. And one of the people that responded to that question said that, well, you know, the thing is that in the media, you know it’s really hard for them to assume anybody is going to be interested in the story of, like, a quiet college professor or a teacher who lives a really great…has a great career, and helps people, and was happy…it’s kind of, in some ways, just not that exciting information, so it doesn’t get out there.

Marsh: I think it’s more about, personally I think it’s more about the fact that the majority of people know what good is, and that’s why bad sells..? Because you know what the right thing to do in many situations would be, you know what would represent an honest life and a just life and you know, just and kind behavior, those things are kind of ingrained in us in a way that we are drawn to the cases where those norms are broken. Because they’re such norms in us—the reason gruesome, grotesque stuff catches people’s attention is because we know that’s wrong, and we know that’s wrong because we know what’s right. So I think it’s more perhaps about the fact that we already have a good sense of what’s right and what the good way to be is. Now that does mean finding positive role models can be tricky, because it’s very hard to tell stories about the unremarkable thing. But I do think we have got an in-built and innate sense of morality that we all, whether consciously or sub-consciously or unconsciously, follow.

Chris: But you and I…you and I, Marsh, have discussed the difference between the message and the messenger, and that maybe the notion of role models and leaders is an older concept, and we need to be thinking more small-scale and following communities rather than individuals?

Marsh: Yeah, I’d say so, and I’d think it’s…more about gestures and work and contribution than it is about personalities and leaders, I think. I’m always very wary of elevating people, even within a relatively small community, to elevating people beyond the point where they are questioned, or beyond the point where they are…where people will…evaluate them. You know, I think for me, I like the idea of saying, “this is great work.”

Chris: During QED, you were talking about the Buzzfeed article about Lawrence Kraus, and how many people came and said, “well, Michael Marshall said it’s true, so therefore it must be true”…but discounted all of the women who were accusing him.

Marsh: Yeah, yeah that was a very disheartening..disheartening thing. So…but I think, again, that’s a symptom of the fact that our society still has some way to go towards ironing out the unconscious biases that we have when it comes to things like gender and race and sexuality and stuff like that. I think even a lot of…a lot people who have done a lot of thinking and have come around to getting rid of the conscious biases, aren’t able to recognize, or able to work on…haven’t finished working on, getting rid of the unconscious biases, and that can be quite a tricky thing when people will say, “well, I’m no sexist, ‘cuz I would never say anything bad about women directly”…yes, but it’s not about saying bad things about women directly, it’s about what your actions and assumptions are and the way that you talk about, the way you judge women in this kind of way compared to a man in the same situation, and those kinds of ways. So the idea that …the weight of the opinions and the weight of the reports from the many, many women who were named in that Buzzfeed article saying this happened to me, and I witnessed this and I was aware of this…the idea that those names, their opinions mattered less than the opinion of me–one of the few guys mentioned in the article who agreed with those witnesses–yeah, it just shows that there’s still this unconscious bias. But I think even if we look back 10, 15, 20 years, we’re seeing changes in that direction, too. It’s slow and it needs to go quicker and it needs to go a long way, but I’m still positive about the fact that I think people are moving in the right direction. And I think in many ways some of the subcultures you’ve seen grown up around rejecting some of the progress that’s been made, are in a way a reaction to the fact that progress has been made, that progress is making its way through society, slowly. And there are people who are will be made uncomfortable about the fact that their positions of unchallenged …acceptability are now shifting to a point where they will be called on, on even unconscious biases, and called on to try and address those biases. So I think even that is a sign that there is some positivity, even if that’s just me taking a silver lining to that cloud.

Francis: In a democracy, it’s really important people know how to think and have good information, and I’m wondering, have you envisioned any changes in how that could happen in our countries…is it a responsibility for people to educate themselves, and is it a responsibility for the media to at least have some outlets that are there to provide facts…like, real facts?

Marsh: Yeah, so it’s kind of tricky, because those are instinctually, you’d say those are good things, and those are things that should happen. But I think even scrutinizing those we come up with issues….so for example there are media organizations doing pretty good work in fact-checking some of the worst mistruths that are out there, it’s incredibly hard to fact-check in real time, so you have a lie getting around the world before the truth has to…has time to put its shoes on, as it were. But also, I think it’s missing the fact that some of the untruths that are…that are perpetrated by people, the incorrect facts, the lies that are being put out by people for their own political, personal or cultural gain, I think some of the reasons they take root with people aren’t because people are genuinely persuaded that one statistic has changed their mind or anything, I think it’s because it aligns and comports with what they already thought. So putting out an account of factual [?] isn’t always a very useful…it’s not the magic solution, because the people who believe a lie aren’t necessarily going to be the people who go seeking out evidence that what they believe was a lie. It’s great to be able to put out a fact-check, and say, Donald Trump was lying when he said these things, but unless you can get that to everyone who would still vote for Donald Trump right now, and convince them that they should care about this more than they care about the fact that he’s on their side when it comes to their…their views on…on trans rights or on their side when it comes to their views on tax, or on their side when it comes to their views on how many minorities should be allowed into America, then I don’t think you’ll reach those people. I think similarly to say that people should educate themselves, kind of …is an overly simplistic solution, because if you haven’t got a grounding in critical thinking, I don’t know where you go to realize you haven’t got grounding, and go to try and change that. The tool you’re using to evaluate your beliefs is the tool that also stores all those beliefs…and those beliefs impact on your evaluation, so it’s quite…it’s tricky in that regard. I had this kind of conversation with someone who was pointing out that there’s no barrier to social mobility in the UK, because people who are from a very working class background can get a loan and go to university…and they miss the fact that, where I come from—I was one of the few people I know who ever went to college—and, although there was no barrier to stop them, they didn’t know that people weren’t just led to believe that that was an option, it wasn’t part of the culture to just assume that that was an option. So, yes, the door was unlocked, but if you never realized that it’s a door in the first place…it doesn’t matter whether there’s a lock on it or not, and I think that’s also the truth when it comes to people educating themselves about what they don’t know. So I think where there are solutions, I think the solutions still have to understand what people’s values are and try and engage, first at that level of, of values so that they understand the purpose of trying to assess and challenge their own perceptions of facts and situations first, and then you soften the ground for facts to take hold, but unless you do that kind of softening first, by helping people understand what their missing, I think you might end up with some stony ground on which those seeds would fall.

Francis: It seems to me that, prior to internet and a long time ago even, there were…arbiters, and whether these arbiters were credible or not, you know, I can’t say for sure, but there were either sources, like say the Encyclopedia Britannica, I don’t know if you have that in your country…and there were certain news sources, maybe, that people felt were legit, and you know there was a way to kind of settle differences in opinion to some extent…where is that today, and how can we…do we need that, should we—is that something we should try to strengthen or create more in our society?

Marsh: Yeah, I…don’t know really, ‘cuz I’m not necessarily sure that..that it ever really existed. I think people have always been very siloed into their…their own chosen media, and I think what we’re seeing isn’t…isn’t necessarily a new sensation of extreme siloing, although I think we are seeing a bit of that. But I think what we’re seeing is that…there’s more transparency around what silos people are in. And I talk about this a little bit when it comes to looking at, say, the news media. If you go back to before the advent of the internet, people would read their own newspapers and not really deviate from that. So I grew up, my family would read the tabloid, the Sun, which is a very right-wing tabloid, and I think a lot of people who would read that the Guardian, which is a left-wing broadsheet newspaper, wouldn’t ever see what was being said in the Sun, and certainly growing up I never saw anything that was said in the Guardian. So you had your own siloed readership there. And then the internet came along, and all news went up online and everyone read everything for a short amount of time, it was brilliant that you broke those silos down, and then people started just bookmarking their own sites and only returning to the news sites that they already would read, or the news sites that kind of, politically or culturally or socially, agreed with them and you kind of re-siloed. And then social media came along, and everything was sort of…everybody was reading a bit of everything, and sharing that into everyone’s timelines, and you’d see it from all sorts of different places, and then people would then silo by choosing who they followed on social media, and we go back into our silos of …you’re more likely to follow on social media or be friends with on social media, the people who share similar world views and therefore would share similar media platforms and media organizations as their go-to places. So I think we’ve seen this kind of, concertina effect of an expansion of…what we read, and then a contraction as we become comfortable in…having filtered out the bits that…made us a bit annoyed or we disagreed or we thought was ridiculous because we disagreed with it. And I suspect that’s always been the case, it’s just…way more obvious now that we’re not reading everything, because…if I went to a newsstand 30 years ago, and picked up my newspaper, I’d have no idea what was even in those other newspapers, and I probably wouldn’t have that many people around me who would tell me what was in those newspapers…now we have social media kind of eco-system where the worst things from those newspapers do pass in front of us and we can see what’s being said on the other side of the divide, and that’s what makes this kind of, so outraged that the other side of the divide are saying these things. So I think it’s kind of…it’s almost ironic that we are less likely to be fully in our echo-chambers and silos than we were. And the fact that we see stuff that we disagree with, and it shows us that we’re in that echo-chamber, makes..it a new phenomenon, where previously we would never have heard what was happening in someone else’s echo-chamber, and we could quite happily assume that the bubble that we were in represented reality in the rest of the world. So yeah, I don’t quite know…know whether there was ever this sense of objective, unquestionable truth, even the Encyclopedia Britannica has been shown to be, I believe it’s been shown, to be littered with more errors than Wikipedia, across a representative sample. So, yeah, we didn’t have a better system to check it against at the time, so it stood.

Chris: Wikipedia’s interesting, because it really shows a positive effect that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have contributed to.

Marsh: Yeah, I think it’s a…it’s an absolutely remarkable tool. And the idea that…it is a tool that is, a tool that iterates based on what can be sourced or shown to be true, is a huge and useful thing. You can’t just put up a statement on there and accept…and have it accepted as fact. But even that, I think…I think Wikipedia is fantastic, but it just shows how we’re still not great at designing a system that doesn’t accidentally get some pretty serious flaws in it. And I was actually talking to somebody who had a problem, they had a Wikipedia page written about them, and included a fact about which university they went to, and why they…didn’t go to that university, why they didn’t finish their degree at that university…and the fact was completely wrong, and was taken from an interview the person gave, and said something as a joke, or it was a misinterpretation by the journalist…so they would try and remove that “fact” and it would re-appear because of the source…we can source this, it was in this newspaper, it must be true, and the person saying “I am the subject of this material, it isn’t true”—but because they couldn’t, paradoxically, point to anywhere official that proved what they said about their lives was true, the thing that was wrong about their life stood. So even there, we’re still figuring out how to iron out kinks in the system. And I suspect we’ll never fully iron out the kinks, we’ll just have choose which kinks upset us the least, and which kinks upset our ability to get as close as possible to…truth, as possible, really.

Chris: Isn’t that the ultimate goal of science, is just to make increasingly accurate approximations of truth?

Marsh: Yeah, absolutely, to see how we can get rid of the errors that are there without introducing grander errors…is the scientific…the scientific objective. And I think that’s what a lot of people fundamentally misunderstand about science, is they assume that science is a series of assertions and rules and statements handed down from elite intellectuals in ivory towers, and misunderstanding that any one of these things that are considered to near certainties could be overturned if we had evidence and examples and demonstrations that sufficiently overturned that weight. So it’s the opposite of that kind of decree from on high, in that everything is approximate, sort of pending further information. So that’s kind of a misunderstanding that people have about what science is and what it’s looking to achieve…

Francis: Getting back to the idea of an arbiter for a lot of people, the Bible is the ultimate arbiter…so, you know, how to reconcile the world with science, which is based on reproducibility, and the Bible, which is based on whatever the Bible is supposed to be based on, we’re working through this, I suppose, as part of our evolution.

Marsh: Yeah, I think so, and I think also the conversations around religion that way have to kind of come through this, and I think that it from both sides, I think it’s very easy for…I myself am an atheist, I grew up in the Catholic faith but not really being that persuaded a believer, and so stepping away from that wasn’t a huge thing for me. But one of the things I see with a lot of the people who I would agree with in terms of the likelihood of there being a God, is a complete dismissal of people that they would disagree with about, on that question. And I do, I guess this comes to a point or an idea that I come back to a lot of times, that it’s very easy to write off the people we disagree with and say, well, these people are Biblical literalists, and there is nothing that I have for them, nothing I can say that would engage them at all, so we should just leave them over there to their thing…and I’d far rather that we, that people like myself who are atheists, would see people who are believers in the Bible and try to engage on what it is in that book, or what it is in their religion, that they hold valuable. So if nothing else, I’m not trying to tell people their God doesn’t exist, but I would quite happily like to discuss with them whether their God really is right when they say that gay people are evil and transpeople are evil and all these other things that…extreme religious conservatives would hold as true. I don’t need to persuade people that God doesn’t exist to persuade people that people who are gay and LGBTQ are acceptable. And I think if we do go down that route of saying, well, unless you’re an atheist, you’re wrong….I think we leave all those people to…to follow the worst elements of a religious doctrine, of a religiously-derived doctrine. So yeah, even with that, of people who get their truth in the Bible, I’d still rather understand what truth they’re deriving from it, and what values and what needs in their life, from an emotional, intellectual and, kind of, social point of view that is met by those issues and see how we can work around those to get them on board with some of the more progressive values that I think are good for the world.

Chris: But you’re one of the few people I know with the temperament that doesn’t lose his temper when…I mean, I’m just thinking of this week’s Be Reasonable episode…how you didn’t lose your shit while I was like, screaming at my iPad.

Marsh: Yeah, so, I mean this comes up lots, I’ve got this show that I do, Be Reasonable, where I talk to people that I completely disagree with about an issue…and rather than be aggressive or antagonistic or have this kind of big slanging match that lots of people would recognize as the kind of conversation they might have had before, I try and have a polite and good natured and…try and check their ideas and try to be…pretty intellectually rigorous without losing the thread of the conversation. And partly the reason I think that I do that show, is because those are conversations that a lot of people aren’t having, and it might be because they feel they aren’t able to have those, either because of the people around them who hold beliefs that are so far outside of the mainstream of people that you…you might work with, you might be friends with, you might have in your family, and you don’t want to start picking at those threads because they’re too raw beneath them. Or people feel, kind of have those conversations because they don’t think they’d be able to stay calm in the face of someone saying something that they find either incorrect or morally objectionable or those types of things. But for me, I think the value is in being able to hear those arguments without losing your civility in that moment, and I totally understand why some people would see, you don’t need to be civil if someone is doubting your personhood as a…in terms of your value as someone of a race different to theirs, that being civil to them isn’t something you would be inclined to do, and I appreciate that. But I think with my show, it’s there to be the place where these…some discussions will happen in a civil manner, so we can understand what are people who hold these ideas saying? Because a point that I’ve made out to people is that, when I talk to someone who is anti-semitic, or when I talk to someone who is selling alternative remedies to cancer patients, that will almost certainly result in some of their [daft?s] Those conversations, the only time that person is having that conversation is not just with me, it’s not just that they only ever have that conversation with me, they’re talking to lots of other people who don’t know that the person’s wrong, who don’t know necessarily to challenge them or check what they’re saying. And so we can allow those conversations to happen in the darkness and never know about them, or we can, in very certain situations and very certain circumstances, in pretty specifically crafted platforms, have those conversations and understand what rhetoric is convincing people that white supremacy is a valid idea that should still exist in the 21st century. So that’s kind of why I keep my cool and try and have objective conversations with people who hold objectionable views or incorrect views, in a way that doesn’t shut down the conversation, because I’m there to understand what do these people say to people in order to justify their views, and how do we hear what’s wrong with those arguments?

Francis: You could also see…as different views, which if they don’t hurt anyone, if they don’t infringe on someone else’s rights to be who they want to be and live the life they want, I say live and let live, you know? And I think one of the problems with the left is, we’ll hear a lot of the right, ultra-right-wing rhetoric, and automatically assume that they want to take over the world and force everyone to think like them…perhaps they’d be happy to just live in some little encampment in Idaho, really far away from where I live, and that’s fine (laugh). You know, I think, you know, there’s so many differences, there’s opinions that are just gonna persist, that what you’re doing sounds great, because what you say basically is that, ‘I’m gonna hear you out.’ And maybe initially that’s all that we can really do.

Marsh: Yeah, I think you’re right to a degree. I certainly am saying I want to hear them out. And I absolutely wouldn’t be saying that if I, for example, did a show where I speak to lots of people whose views I completely agree with, and then the next show would speak to someone whose views I completely disagree with, where people who tune in might not know which side of this…they’re on. What I wouldn’t want to do is just say, you know, this eminent scientist, who’s got some really fascinating research on physics, is at the same level of…conversation and….given the same level of platform as someone who, for example, as I spoke to this week, is, would describe themselves as a “race realist” who believes that white people…that other races are not as intelligent or capable as people who are caucasian. I absolutely wouldn’t want to equate the…those two conversations, with someone that I respect. The reason that I have a platform specifically for people I disagree with is I think it affords me a level of safety, or affords the conversation a level of safety, that I don’t have to worry that the people listening to me might be persuaded that, actually this guy’s got some pretty interesting views about race. People who listen to the show will know that I disagree with this person, and the only reason that they’re on the show is because I think they are completely wrong. And accepting that these people are wrong, let’s hear how this person who wrong about what they’re saying, justifies what they’re saying. Now I think one of the real issues, one of the reasons that I think I…am not inclined to say, we should just let everyone have their own opinions, is because, I think, for many of the people who, when talking to me—someone they know they disagree with—they’ll put forward one side of a conversation. And they’ll put forward certain arguments, certain rhetorics, that are there to represent their side as best as possible. But when they’re talking to someone that they agree with, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if they say very different things. And if those things aren’t, hey, we just want to all get…do…have our own lives and not really worry about [?] too much, I absolutely would be surprised if they went much further than that into places where they are incited, at the very least the infringement of other people’s civil liberties and at worst, probably incitement of actual violence. So, I do think it’s important to have the conversation with people you disagree with, to understand what they use to recruit people and what they use to persuade people. But I think we also shouldn’t just assume then that, well, this is just opinion and you’re welcome to have an opinion on these issues, because it’s harmless. I do think opinions that are obviously false harm someone, somewhere down the line. Even when it’s something like the flat earth, which the idea that the world is flat isn’t going to kill anyone, but I went along to a flat earth conference and saw speakers there who didn’t just think the world was flat, but also thought it was run by “Zionists” and their Protocols of the Elders of Zion prove that it’s actually the jewish people who are intentionally in charge of the world and intentionally causing all these disasters, and did you know they killed JFK? and did you know they did 9-11? and did you know they’re behind vaccines and you shouldn’t vaccinate your children, and did you know they’ve cured cancer, so don’t take chemotherapy…if we were to silo people off and say, you can go over there and have a belief that is contrary to the evidence and completely runs in the face of logic, but you just go over there and we just…will forget about you, I think you cut those people off to a place where they don’t end up in places that are good for them, either psychologically, intellectually or…in the long term, necessary physically. So I think it is still incumbent upon society to try and reach people who are holding ideas that are so far out of the mainstream and so far against logic and reason…I don’t think, yeah, cutting them off is a necessarily good solution to that.

Chris: Lastly, Marsh, is there anything you’d like to plug? I mean, you have two other podcasts, and I know you have an event coming up this July in Liverpool…

Marsh: So I do a lot of stuff, so the place to see the work that I …think is kind of, the important stuff I do, is Good Thinking Society, that’s the charity that I work for, where we’re doing things like challenging government’s provision of alternative medicine and things like that. So you can find that at GoodThinkingSociety.org …You can find the podcasts that I do, so Be Reasonable, the interview show where I talk to people I disagree with and try and keep things civil but interesting, and Skeptics with a K, which is a bit more of a light-hearted look at skeptical…well, we’re skeptical of news stories and pore through the evidence behind certain stories in a light-hearted way, you can find either of those on iTunes or general podcast providers. And it’s actually ten years that I’ve been involved in skepticism, and ten years since we founded the Merseyside Skeptic Society, so this July, for any UK listeners or anyone who happens to find themselves in the UK in July, we’re having a one day, one-off celebration of skepticism, where we’re gonna have a load of speakers and entertainment and I’m going to be emceeing it and talking about stories for the first 10 years of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. And you can find out more about that at MerseysideSkeptics.org.uk as well.

Chris: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on Making Better, Marsh.

Francis: Thank you very much.

Marsh: Well thank you so much for having me, I’ve really enjoyed it.


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[Bell End]

Chris Since you were an English major, therefore you must know this: I would like to spell, define, use in the sentence, and give us the etymology of the word “bell-end”

Marsh Oh, bell-end. I can do that, I can do that. It’s a…fantastic insult that I didn’t realize was not an insult that was used in America, I think it’s actually used in Australia as well, although I could be wrong about that. But a bell-end is the tip of a penis, the head of the penis above where the foreskin is—which might be why it’s not used in America because neither is the foreskin in a large part of America—but yeah, so the bell-end is the end of the penis. It’s just a lovely insult, ‘cuz it’s so evocative and ridiculous and has a lovely term to it, so to say someone is a “bell-end,” is a bit like saying, oh, they’re being a dick but not a dick in an aggressive way, more like a…an annoyance or a fool, or a bit goofy. So yeah, someone’s a bit of a bell-end, is a British insult, and it’s an insult that, when we use it on Skeptics with a K, which one of the podcasts that I do, and which is a bit more light-hearted than most of the stuff that I do, we didn’t realize it wasn’t a widely-used insult until one of our listeners used it in conversation not realizing what it was, and then had an English person there, they were like, “you can’t just say that”—they used it in a formal conversation, a formal setting, I think, and were told “why are you calling people the end of a penis?” Because people assumed that a bell-end was either end of bell curve.

Chris Susan thought it was the handle of a hand-bell that’s kind of shaped like a dick…

Marsh Ah, ok, I forgot that they did that…yeah, so some people did go with that, yeah. I know some people came up with that it was…that you’ve got a bell curve, and bell-end is someone who’s so far off the bell curve that they are not in a normal distribution, they are an extreme. So they used this in very sort of light-hearted and kind of, sort of slightly more academic kind of way, and British people in the audience were like, “did he just call you a bell-end?” (laughs)

Francis I never heard that one before…(laugh)


Episode 1: Interview With Sina Bahram Transcript

Welcome to Episode One of Making Better.

The Making Better podcast aims to create a solid framework for optimism by interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers. Our guests will include scientists, musicians, philosophers, activists, skeptics, writers, artists and any other sort with ideas for the future. Now, let’s meet the hosts of Making Better, Dr. Francis DiDonato and Chris Hofstader.

Chris: Well, Francis, this is episode one of Making Better.

Francis: Yes, I’m really psyched, it’s great to collaborate with you again. I think the last time we collaborated was in front of CBGBs maybe in the 80s?

Chris: I think the last collaboration we did was a fanzine we started out of your apartment..uh on the Bowery just south of CBGBs. I think that was 1981, ’82..so

Francis: My, how time flies..

Chris: Yeah, it sure does, and it means that we’re old now

Francis: Older and wiser, perhaps?

Chris: Perhaps.
(chuckles)

Francis: I was thinking that, these past 35 years, it’s almost like Ronald Reagan pushed society and society has just been falling down for like 35 years, but like now, because you know, we’ve sort of reached the end point with this guy that we have now in as President, it’s like this new sense of possibility again, like we could not be reactive and actually start looking ahead at what’s possible in the future.

Chris: Well, we’re seeing so many ..new activism starting up, everything from the Women's March to the Parkland kids and ..there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic and a lot of people out there doing all kinds of interesting things to get society back to its normal pace.

Francis: Right. You know, I ve spent the last 35 years working in science, getting my PhD, and just being very heavily invested in that, and you have moved on to your…maybe you can describe what you’ve been doing..

Chris: Well, I did..most of my career, after 1983 was in software engineering, and then for the last 10 years I’ve been a full time activist in the disability rights space.

Francis: Yeah, so the things that were possible when we were hanging out originally at those hardcore matinees with your band, and my band, and..there’s new possibilities now, new opportunities technologically, and people have learned a lot about ideologies as well, so that you know I think that the excitement I’m having with this program is ..we’re almost on a fact-finding mission, what is possible, like what is this new world that we have the possibility of creating now?

Chris: This month’s guest is inclusive design specialist Sina Bahram. I’ve known Sina since he was about 16 years old, when he lied to me about his age and told me he was 19, which was easy to believe because he was already most of the way through his undergraduate degree at Nc state. Sina has gone on to form a company called Prime Access Consulting, and focuses most of his work on making museums accessible to all kinds of people, whether they have a disability or not. Our conversation with Sina discussed his work we talked a bit about museums, and we went as far as discussing even the nature of beauty. and a number of other topics, and we think you’re really going to enjoy our conversation with Sina.

Chris: Sina Bahram, welcome to Making Better!

Sina: Thank you for having me.

Francis: Yes, welcome

Chris: Sina, you’re most well known for being a universal design specialist. And when you look up “universal design” on wikipedia, it’s less than obvious what it’s describing. So, can you tell us in a manner that our listeners might understand, what you do and what universal design, inclusive design, and those kinds of things are?

Sina: Yeah, sure. I guess a few definitions of terms might be in order. So, you look up “universal design” on wikipedia and you see some things about the Center for Universal Design at [?]..State and you see Ronald L. Mace’s name tossed around, etc. any of (?) this broad spectrum of ideas, designs for ..used in the design of services and products and other offerings, etc. it enumerates these different kinds of things but doesn’t really tell you, what this is all about. And what it refers to is a methodology that incorporates thinking about all of the possible ways your users might be able or unable to interact with your offering due to, let’s say, disability, due to a difference in language, ..in my company, Prime Access Consulting, we like to use the phrase “the entire vector of human difference.” This is not only ability but it can refer to age and gender and orientation and so on and so forth. And these things matter because when we think about making a product, whether it’s an iPhone, whether it’s an apple corer in the kitchen, whether it’s a piece of software, we need to consider all of the possible users so we can make these things accessible and usable to the widest possible audience. So, in a nutshell, that’s what universal design, inclusive design, these things are. Now, there’s some nuanced differences between things like universal design and inclusive design, I tend to prefer “inclusive design” just because inclusive design, to me, well it has the word “inclusion” at its heart and that really is at the heart of my practice. So I tend to go around talking about inclusive design, but you’re absolutely right to point out that the Wikipedia page, for example, is on “universal design.” Some textbooks that exist in this space, they’re on universal design. That’s the more formal name over the years, but a lot of folks have been gravitating towards this idea of inclusive design. It also just feels a little less..totalitarian in a way, universal design, I’ve seen a lot of developers, especially, with a very pedantic mindset, be turned off by that phrase because they feel like they need to boil the ocean, right, they need to do all of the things, all correctly, all of the time, in one go. And that’s not the idea, the idea here is that you fail forward, you iterate and you make things progressively enhanced and more accessible to people in future iterations. You learn from your mistakes and you fail forward. That’s the impetus I bring to inclusive design work.

Chris: Now, you mentioned the name of your company is Prime Access Consulting..why don’t you tell us a little about the business that you run and how it’s been growing and then we’ll go on to my favorites of your clients.

Sina: Sure. So, Prime Access Consulting, or PAC for short, is an inclusive design firm, we’re headquartered out of RTP, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, we’ve had a strong concentration on folks in the GLAM sector, so this is Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, for several years now. And the work that we …

Chris: So by “GLAM” you’re not referring to David Bowie, are you?

Sina: I am not. Sadly, although the MCA Chicago did have a David Bowie exhibit that benefitted from our work, and actually incorporated visual descriptions as part of the [coyote] project that we did with them. Essentially, what we do is we work with museums and folks in this sector on the entirety of their offerings. Right, so this could be a website accessibility project, looking at things like WICAG, the web content accessibility guidelines, an accessibility especially around persons who use assistive technologies like screenreader and screen magnifiers and things of this nature, but it can also refer to policies. It can refer to building out accessibility roadmaps, it can refer to working with boards of trustees, all the way down to the intern that just got hired last week. And understanding that this commitment to inclusion, this commitment to making our offerings, whatever they may be, content, digital, etc. available to the widest possible audience, that’s the responsibility of every single person in the organization. It’s not just one person’s job or one person’s role, or some system you can buy that will fix all of your problems. And so, we try to weave this idea of inclusion into the entirety of our clients’ practices. and so we do that through a variety of ways. We do that through working with their developers, we do that through testing and evaluation and audits and that sort of methodology, and we also do that occasionally when we are really lucky to get called in at the very beginning, and by the very beginning I’m referring to something that’s being built and the shovel hasn’t even hit the dirt yet. We’re talking early days, and we then have the opportunity in those cases, like we did with Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to lay down a groundwork where we can prevent inaccessibility and lack of inclusion from even cropping up in the first place. There’s always going to be little things, don’t get me wrong, but we’re laying the groundwork that the baseline expectation is that everything starts accessible and inclusive.

Francis: As a graduate student, my advisor was a big proponent and advocate of basic science. And a lot of the things that have turned into drug therapies, that [] thing, or even the tools to get to that, were done through basic science. And I bring that up because it makes me think that, in doing universal design, you can probably come up with technologies or other things maybe that have unexpected application and much broader scale. You see that?

Sina: Absolutely. Every day. Literally every day, in our work we see that. So, there’s the obvious examples of things like a curb cut. So a curb cut is that sloped piece of pavement or sidewalk that allows, for example, a wheelchair user not to have to hop the curb to cross the street—but that’s not the majority of people who use curb cuts. If you look at the numbers, the majority of folks who benefit from curb cuts are..parents with strollers, people with grocery carts, at the air, roller skaters and skateboarders and bicyclists, etc., and that’s just one example, right? And if you think about curb cuts, you think about the history of curb cuts, they used to be smooth. And then the problem was identified that, especially if you combine a smooth curb cut with not a lot of elevation difference, so there’s not a very steep slope, with the advent of silent or mostly silent cars by way of electri cars, you’ve got a recipe for not-such-a safe-crossing for, let’s say, someone who’s blind, that may not know they’ve crossed into a street from the sidewalk. So, we didn’t, as a society, go, “oh well, curb cuts were great, guess we’re not gonna do that anymore!” Right? That wasn’t our reaction, our reaction was, ok, there’s a problem here, and the progressive enhancement, the fail forward, was “let’s put bumps on it”…let’s put dots on it, it’s colloquially referred to as “foot braille”…(there are no messages, I’ve checked, municipalities are missing an amazing Easter egg potential there, I feel) But essentially, the idea there is that we gradually, you know, put these sloped bumps on it, it’s feeble with your foot, if you’re a guide dog user, feel-able with a cane if you’re a cane traveller, etc., doesn’t interfere with a bicycle, and it makes it better, right? So that’s one example of just broadening and it being used by others, but if you think about the advent of just technologies and in general, necessity is the mother of all invention, so the expression goes, and there’s a lot of necessity that comes out of work, especially when you’re thinking about users with differing abilities. So a lot of this work involves inventing solutions along the way…I think what puts our work aside a little bit is that I have a very strong commitment—I’m glad you mentioned basic science—to evidence-based, objective measures, right? It’s not just what I think is a good idea—I think I have lots of good ideas—but they’re not worth anything if you can’t evaluate them and prove that they are effective. And so, evaluation and evidence-based techniques are at the heart of what we do when we try to broaden those things that you’re talking about to wider audiences or spin them off as a technology, etc.

Francis: Can you give an example of that?

Sina: Sure, so let’s talk about visual description. So if you think about visual description, it’s the act of describing what you see, presumably for an audience that cannot see that thing. Right? And usually even additionally, presumably, because they are blind. Now most of these constraints don’t have to exist, you could be describing it to someone over the phone, they could be a sighted individual, but just not physically there with you. So then we could maybe broaden this to say, an eyes-free audience, right? And then you can broaden it even more to say, wait a minute, why are we concentrating on people who can’t see this thing? If you actually look at the work that involves, and we’ve done some of this work, we provide a visual description of a painting to someone in a contemporary art gallery. All of a sudden they go from “wow I feel really dumb in here I don’t know why that thing on the wall is really expensive, or is really valuable to society, or really has a message to say”…they go from that kind of feeling to “Oh, I get it, that little blue sliver in the background was the reflection of the sail of the ship..ok, I totally understand that”…and so it turns it into a prolonged looking exercise or an exercise in really guided looking…and this is, obviously, for a sighted individual. So it returns agency back to visitors of these institutions. you know, it’s really easy to talk about all the good things museums do, because there’s a lot of them, and they’ve been doing it for millennia, but, the idea here is that if you think about how people feel in the gallery, these feelings of exclusions are not just because of differences of ability, they can be about differences of background knowledge. If you’re not an art expert, reading a visual description, yes, that might be critical for a blind user, is still super helpful to you as a sighted viewer of that artwork. So that would be one example of broadening.

Chris: Since we’re back to art, I know one of the projects you did was the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and Andy is somebody I think is both a hero of mine and Francis as well, so if you could speak a bit about that project, ‘cause it’s kind of personal and I think Andy has taken snapshots of both of us at different times…

Sina: (laugh) With the Andy Warhol Museum, one of the things we did was tactile reproduction. So this was, [Edith Whitewall] out of Pittsburgh came up with this really cool technique, to basically laser into I think a sort of [CNC] type of process, into a material called acetol (sp) and acetol is this geometrically inert material, supposedly you can put it in gasoline for over a year and it will not change shape, which, you know, immediately makes you think, OK, this is a good candidate to be felt by the general public. You know, a bunch of people are going to be touching it. So, that’s the material we went with, and then he basically wrote a mapping algorithm to go from color to elevation. And so you have things that are, for example, brighter, that are raised, and darker, that are lower elevation, and as you’re touching something, you then can get a sense of what the painting or line drawing or screen print may represent. But here’s the thing, if I give you these tactile reproductions, just throw one at you, right…you sit down at a table, you’ve got both arms out, right, these are reasonably big, sometimes they’re a foot, two foot, three foot in diagonal. You’re not going to immediately go, “Oh, OK, I get it, this is a reclining nude” or “this is a sports car from a three-quarter sort of profile” being seen…you’re not going to necessarily immediately intuit that, because of how tactile graphics work. And so what we did with Andy Warhol as part of this project is, we provided them two things. We provided them visual descriptions of the artworks, so that you have a general sense of what is being seen, and for all of the benefits I alluded to earlier, but then we also provided guided tactile description. So guided tactile descriptions are the act of assuming someone is touching the tactile reproduction as you are describing it to them, and not only are you describing the visual things that are going on, you’re describing what they feel like. So as you take your right hand and start on the letter “c” this spells out the manufacturer’s brand name, C-a-m-p-b-e-l-l-‘-s. You’ll notice a drop shadow to the right of the “C” and in this font, the “e” looks like a backwards “3,” you know, something like this. Right, so you can start explaining as someone is touching, you know, something iconic like Campbell’s, and this allows you to get much more detail and a much more immersive, rich experience. But, there’s also an awesome side effect—the side effect is, and I saw this happen, this happened in front of me. I was there doing some testing, we were at an evening event there at the museum…this girl, I think she was eight, ten years old, something like that, couldn’t have been older than ten years old, and she’s asking her mom, she’s like “Mommy, why are there dots on it?” because we had braille labels to the right of these things, to explain the work and so on and so forth, and she’s like why are there bumps there, why are there dots? And so mom and daughter had a three, four minute discussion about “that’s braille, someone who’s blind can read it, etc.”…and again, they were not talking about Andy’s works at all, whatsoever, not for that three or four minutes. But that side effect, the museum could not have been more delighted about that, right, that happened in their space, they facilitated that conversation. So you get this awareness building as a side effect of this inclusive work as well.

Francis: I guess a question I also have, that seems kind of simplistic, but I think is important, is ..why inclusion?

Sina: Yeah, no, I think it’s a fair question. Those kinds of questions, I feel, need to be answered through the lens through which you interpret the world, right? So if you want to take a utilitarian approach to the world, or a moral objectivism approach to the world, or you know there’s various philosophies of how we should treat fellow humans and so on and so forth. If you want to be pragmatic about it, we’re all getting older, right? As we do, we are very easily able to enter and sometimes leave the group of persons with disabilities. and this has nothing to do with socioeconomic status, or anything along these lines. And so if you want to take a completely selfish approach to this, this is something that could help you, maybe not now, but in the future, and you’ll be dependent on this.

Chris: In my talks on disability, one of the things I always say, that makes disability different from every other minority, is that a) disability is the only minority that intersects with every other minority, and it’s the only minority that you will ultimately join if you live long enough.

Sina: If you live long enough, I totally agree with that. And the thing is, there’s other reasons, there’s benefits. When we talk about business, we talk about ROI based arguments—Return on Investment—right, and there’s a lot of that. You know Toyota has a lot of inclusive design and universal design initiatives. They’re not necessarily—you know, I don’t want to impugn their moral objectives, but I don’t feel they’re doing it for only moral reasons, they have a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. The reason they’re doing it is, they can sell more cars to more people for longer, end of discussion, full stop. That’s an ROI argument, and it’s a very easy one, because now there’s evidence and data about it, it’s not just what people think will happen or say is a good idea. When we talk about institutions like museums, we don’t talk about ROI in terms of return on investment, we talk about ROI in terms of return on institutional objectives. So by making your stuff more inclusive, you are increasing your visitorship, you are increasing your engagement time, you are increasing your ability to contribute positively to the community. Whatever their institutional objectives are, these practices, they assist that as well.

Francis: What about from an economic standpoint? Are there economic incentives for this kind of thing?

Sina: There are, I mean, again, with respect to the return on investment argument, you can sell more products to more people for longer, so that’s definitely an immediate economic incentive from a purely capitalistic perspective. Depending on the kind of work you are doing, there’s non-dilutive (sp?) granting that’s available, granting that if you’re a small company, doesn’t require you to give up equity but is just a funding source, you know, think of Mellon Foundation and the Knight Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates, all of these charitable and philanthropic organizations. So there’s economic support from that perspective. There’s also the flip side, which is that there are legal and regulatory requirements to doing these things, whether it’s video accessibility and we’re talking about captioning an audio description, or media companies, or we’re talking about website accessibility, there are a lot of rules on the books now in a variety of different countries, to enforce these things. And so there’s economic incentives and there are a lot of disincentives not to do this, I feel that, in pretty much every layer of the stack that you want to look at.

Chris: One of the incentives, Francis, is certainly to avoid getting sued. And Sina, maybe you want to speak a little bit to the legal frameworks between the ADA, ADA Restoration Act, and IDEA.

Sina: Sure, ..look, I’m not an attorney, nor am I cute enough to play one on TV, so I want to preface all of this…you have legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA for short, it’s going on 28, 29 years now, the 30th anniversary is coming up in 2020 I believe, and the way that courts, especially within the United States of course, have established what it even means for a place to be a public place of accommodation, and subject to things like the ADA and to be accessible, is that websites are falling into this categorization. So what you start seeing is, you don’t see a lot of cases go all the way to settle…excuse me, go all the way to a decision, they mostly get settled out of court. Sometimes they get settled even pre-lawsuit phase, through things like mediation and so forth, but there’s a really, you know, important I think understanding to have here that, if you’re selling something, especially, to the public online, and you are a public website, a public company, etc., there’s virtually no defense you have having an inaccessible website. And so oftentimes, what you’re noticing over the past, oh, 15 to 18 years, is that the caselaw has just overwhelmingly been in favor of any type of plaintiff that brings a complaint on these grounds. Now, there’s something really important to talk about here when we talk about legal frameworks and accessibility and so forth. So, we can agree that a lot of us…on this conversation and most of the time in accessibility conversations, want companies to do the right thing and we’re able to help them achieve those goals etc., the first reaction is not to suit up. These legal frameworks do exist though, when there is no other source of recourse. However, what is happening a lot these days is that you’ll see these drive-by lawsuits, where folks will sue a company or a series of companies, they’ll grab a random person off the street that identifies as having some disability, and then usually it’s a blind person, and then sue under those grounds, and this is the law firm just using this as a purely money-grab scenario. And that does not make for a healthy accessibility environment, because it really makes it so that nobody takes accessibility seriously, they see it for what it is, which is a hundred-fifty, hundred-sixty thousand dollar money grab by a law firm per case, and they’re not actually making the web more accessible. Now it’s important also to give a shout-out here to Lanie Feingold, who is—I would say the country’s, but I would probably argue—the world’s expert in structured negotiation. So she actually goes in, and she’s an attorney by training and by practice, and she goes in and works with both parties to arrive at a solution so that this does not need to turn into a lawsuit.

Chris: In Lanie’s entire career as a disability attorney, only one of her cases, the lawsuit against JetBlue, is the only one that ever made it to a courtroom.

Francis: What was that one about?

Chris: JetBlue absolutely refused to negotiate, so they ended up in court. But it was about the JetBlue website, blind people couldn’t make their own plane reservations.

Sina: Fun fact about air travel, the reason that, at least to my understanding, that the in-flight entertainment systems and such are not subject to accessibility requirements, is because DOT (Department of Transportation) carved out those things as an exception, as an exemption, and what they got in return was all of the meet-and-assist and other facilities that exist to assist disabled travelers and travelers with disabilities in the airport, but as a result, basic ADA does not apply on board an aircraft, in the sense that your screen that could trivially be made accessible, absolutely trivially, is not.

Francis: I was wondering what you’ve seen on the horizon that is particularly exciting in …new technologies, new directions, …where do you see us being in, say, even 10 years from now?

Sina: Well, I’ll rig that up into two different questions. So what have I seen recently that’s pretty exciting? There’s some really great stuff happening in the AR space especially (Augmented Reality) where you are taking the video and audio feed in from a..traditionally a mobile device…and then layering some things on top of that. And in the space there’s some really cool stuff happening, for example, with an app that you can run on your phone—this is still in prototype phase, so I’m going to talk about it in the general sense—you wear it as a lanyard around your neck, and you turn around in the gallery, and as you’re looking around the gallery you are being told what the painting is, the visual description of it, and even immersed in an audio experience of that world. So imagine that when you’re looking at the painting of the Statue of Liberty, you’re hearing the wind and everything go by, because that’s the, kind of the angle of the shot, and then you maybe pan over to a farm scene, and you hear that sort of immersive 3D audio space. And so these are some things that are really interesting because it takes the ability to blend things like AR and VR (Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality) with these needs to make these environments more inclusive. And instead of treating it as a problem and sort of saying, “that’s hard, we can’t make VR accessible, we can’t make AR accessible,” it’s actually flipping that proposition on its head and saying, we can use AR to make the physical world more accessible. So that’s pretty exciting to me, and there’s a lot of projects along those kinds of lines that are using technology, not only to make our digital world accessible, but to make the physical world accessible. This is everything from scanning applications that read what’s on the end of a camera, whether it’s currency or text or objects or faces, to audio recognition to assist communication for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, you name it, right? With respect to looking 10 years forward, I think…you know, there is a lot going on right now. I mean, there’s a lot of things I’m really fascinated to see how it’s going to play out. We are finally at a point where we’re making some significant progress in AI, and in machine learning. I don’t think we’re going to have strong AI by 2029, but I do think we’re going to have expert systems that are, maybe, finally, worth at least their label, and can be expert [at doing stuff]. I’ve always found that …that label to be a little frustrating, because most “expert systems” that I have interacted with have…been anything but. And so you’re going to see more of that, you’re going to see more conversational agents, right, things like your Alexa and Siri and so on and so forth. You’re going to see more integration between these things.

Francis: I was wondering if you might touch on any advancements in AI that you’ve come across recently..that are particularly exciting to you…

Sina: I think that, there are a couple of areas that are being worked on right now that are really interesting. One area refers to basically transfer of knowledge between different neural network based approaches. Right, so you have a system that can translate language, great. awesome. And you have another system that can understand what it sees, computer vision, OK? That’s delightful, great. Now, these two things need to talk to one another, but not only do they need to talk to one another…you can always take the output of one and make it the input of the other, in fact that’s how, for example, Facebook’s image recognition stuff and how a lot of other things work, right. This is based on some work out of MSR and Microsoft presearch and several others do this, where you take…um, Margaret Mitchell’s work, and so you take the output of a computer vision system, you feed it into a natural language processing, a natural language generation system, and then that’s how you can get the computer to describe what it sees. That kind of linking, that’s doable. But I’m talking about is, if you have awareness of the world, and a model built up, of understanding of concepts and an internal formalism, if you will..those, in our brains, are hybridized across language, and vision and olfactory and all this other stuff…and so, that’s the kind of stuff that I’m interested in, in AI and machine learning right now, these system that don’t just do one thing well. It’s great that you can play chess and beat any living being. I’m really happy for you. But what I’m really interested in is that I can introduce a new game to you, you know, dear computer system, that you’ve never seen before, tell you the rules, and we can immediately play and start having fun. I can do that with most humans, and most basic card games, in no time flat. But I can’t do that with a computer system, necessarily…we’re getting better about that kind of transfer [base]. Now that’s one area. The other area looks at things like, capsule nets and other ways of representing knowledge. Right now, the way neural networks work for the most part is, they operate off of this insight that we can choose to go one of two ways. We can either see a ton, and I mean a billions of rows of data, and then use a little bit of calculation per observation to arrive at a model, or, we can see very little data, and use a ton of calculation to arrive at a model. Now, the system that most people are familiar with that your phones, your computers, your TVs, everything, your Alexas, they all use the former, right, they are based on billions and billions, trillions of rows sometimes, and then they do a little bit of calculation and they arrive at a neural network as an understanding of the world. But if you think of us, as people, that’s not how we work. We don’t make a billion observations, there’s very few things I think any human has made a billion observations about…if anything. But a baby can start acquiring words in no time flat! Right? So these kinds of concepts of one shot learning…and, if I right now in this conversation said, “Chris—red means 3, and Francis, blue means 4” and then I asked you guys, “what’s red plus green {blue?}, you guys shout out “seven”—that’s great, that’s awesome, we were able to learn a couple of things and then perform operations in a different domain, and we did that…I mean, I did it for you, hypothetically…but we did that in no time flat, as people. Computers have a hard time with that. That’s a trivial example, but you can extend that to things like a robot assisting you. So you want to show the robot how you want to laundry folded. As opposed to relying on laundry-folding algorithm version 4.7.1…and that’s where I think some interesting work is being done as well.

Francis: I was wondering if you could provide a laymen’s description of quantum computing…?

Sina: Sure. I’ll take a crack at it.. Quantum computing is based on some of the observations we as a society, we as a species have made about how the universe operates, at a quantum level. So, without getting into the specifics of quantum mechanics, a subject that I don’t even feel qualified to give a lecture on…

Chris: Richard Feynman himself said, as soon as you think you understand quantum mechanics, you know you don’t ..know anything about quantum mechanics.

Sina: Having dabbled a little bit, I cannot agree more with that claim, right. At the heart of it, this comes down to an interesting way the world works…the universe operates. At least to our current understanding. And that is that, if you are talking at the quantum scale, at very small, very tiny, tiny microscales, then an electron, for example, does not have a fixed orbit around an atom. It has a probability that you can say, of where it may be at any give time. And the reason for this is that there is an inverse relationship between the momentum of that ..electron and its position, and between momentum and position we can extrapolate to velocity, which is oftentimes what’s used. And we know we can either really precisely tell you how it’s traveling, you know, or we can really precisely tell you exactly where it is. But as you pinpoint one, you lose accuracy about the other, allright? And then, you also start realizing that in quantum mechanics, there’s a concept called entanglement. So entanglement relies on this idea that, if you take two particles…don’t worry about what they are, and let’s just give them a..property, allright? We take two photons, and one of the properties we like to talk about in quantum chromodynamics, for example, is the spin. So imagine that something can have a spin of “up” or a spin of “down” for just the purposes of this discussion. If we take two photons and entangle them with one another, then if we modify the spin of one photon to be up,”the other one is guaranteed to be down…this starts leading to really interesting things you can do. Like, for example, entangling a lot more than just two particles together. So, fast forwarding a lot and doing a lot of hand-waving, quantum computing relies on these fundamentals to allow us to perform calculations in a square root of the time it would take us otherwise. So in other words, if you had to perform a million calculations to do something, on a quantum computer you could do that with a thousand calculations, right? And that’s because these “cubits” as they are called, are entangled with one another, and you can then perform certain manipulations to arrive at a solution, depending on how you phrase your problem. And it’s very complicated, it’s not about adding ones and zeros together or anything along these lines. But what it buys you is some drastic quadratic speed-ups of things like factoring prime numbers, like searching a database, and like modeling quantum effects. So if you think of a modern computer system, think of a chemistry-based system. It has to know all of these rules for every single particle, and the more you can model, the more precise your model is going to be. Well, in a classic computer system, you’re going to quickly exhaust, you know, billions, trillions, quadrillions of calculations in a very small amount of time, just to model just a few drops of a liquid, you know? And so, with a quantum computer, you’re able to do this and with the accuracy of those quantum effects, actually being modeled correctly. And so now you can start applying this to…well, there’s a couple of implications. Number one, a lot of basic assumptions of cryptography go out the window, because factoring prime numbers becomes a lot faster, right? Now there are quantum proof algorithms that we have today, we can look at things like [electric] curve cryptography and [polwart] secrecy and that domain, etc. There’s also applications where you look at drug discovery, or you look at, OK, I want a material that…this is rather topical…I want a material like steel, but I want it to be see-through…and I also, you know, want it to have certain properties, like being able to carry an electric charge on top of it. Well, right now we have to kind of experiment and noodle around and bump into things and use a few first principles in the lab–I’m grossly oversimplifying here–to arrive at some of those things. But if you have the ability to search the space of materials, and start doing parameter sweeps, you could start discovering these types of solutions in a computer system without even needing to prototype it first. That’s the kind of advances quantum computing brings.

Francis: The purpose of the show is to identify..where’s that gap between where we are right now, and what is possible for us…right at this moment. And I was hoping that maybe you could provide a couple of concrete examples of what changes we’re not manifesting, what technology we’re not taking advantage of, that could make the world a much better place right now.

Sina: I think that a lot of what contributes to that gap that you’re alluding to…is not necessarily an absence of technology or engineering or something from the sciences, right—there’s some of that, of course, you know, we don’t have a systemic cure for cancer right now, we don’t have an amazing battery solution, you know, if we could increase energy density by 10X you would ..the world would change. The world would literally just…change. Because energy is really what limits us in terms of ability, your phone could be a million times more powerful…an energy problem, right? and a heat problem, in terms of what you do when you have that amount of energy and you’re generating heat, you have to get rid of that heat. So these are the kinds of fundamental advances that prevent us from jumping that to some of the things we see from sci-fi, right? So your phone can act as a pocket projector and also act as a system that could power anything from an airplane all the way down to, you know, your phone call, your video chat, etc.,…there’s not a lot of practical limitations there, there’s some engineering problems that wouldn’t be resolved, but the fundamental things have to do with energy density, in terms of batteries and the ability to handle heat, right, waste heat. But, I think that a lot of the reason for not crossing this gap has to do with policy, it has to do with the absence of different teams being able to work with one another in seamless ways. It has to do with the lack of efficiency when we try, as humans, to do virtually anything at scale.

Francis: I have a question that goes back to art, and making museums accessible. I think that, for me, as someone who is, I’m a scientist, I’m also a musician, I think a lot about the idea of beauty and I think about beauty and science in the context of elegance and …beauty is a really, really important part of being human. I would like to hear maybe a little about what your views are on the importance of beauty and how what you’re doing is helping people with disabilities to experience …

Sina: Well, one minor nitpick would be that I hope what we’re doing is helping everyone experience it better, not only persons with disabilities. But definitely an emphasis there. I think…beauty is a difficult one to me, because it seems highly subjective, right? Our concepts of beauty in the western world are very different than those in other parts of the world, and over time, these definitions have changed as well. There’s also different interpretation frameworks for beauty, you know, aesthetics vs. simply contribution to the whole vs. simplicity and elegance as you alluded to earlier. So…there’s a lot to unpack in that one word, and I think it’s highly overused…or, I shouldn’t say it’s overused, it’s over-loaded, right? It’s highly over-loaded term. But what I can say is that, what I find beautiful is, essentially looking at experiences, and allowing for and facilitating shared experiences to happen with the same level of enjoyment across the different parties. So if you think of a blind person being at an aquarium, where their sighted friend is looking at the fish and going “wow, oh my gosh that one looks so cool, it’s got these orange stripes on it and it’s swimming really fast but only in the front, really close to the glass..” right? Well, can we translate that, right? Can we use computer vision and an audio landscape to bring that to life, simultaneous with the visual observation? And the metric for this that I use is, do you both go “wow” or “ooo” at the same time? If you do, we did our job right. Win, we succeeded, high five. But, that’s easier said than done. There’s a lot to be unpacked there, we’re talking about cross-domain expressions of beauty through various modalities and being piped into, in your case, vision, and my case, an aural representation, two very different people with different backgrounds, right? There’s so many variables to unpack there. But at least we’re trying to reach parity with the experiential nature of some of these environments, like in the case of museums, as you asked about. So that’s one, I think, aspect of beauty. The other one is, when we talk about a visual description, a lot of people start gravitating toward this unnecessary requirement that they put on themselves, and it is that my description must be objective, right? First of all, I reject this notion. There’s no such thing as an objective description, not one written by a human being, right? I completely reject that, on first principles, definitionally, I feel that that is not true. Moving on past that assertion, I think that we need to start acknowledging principles like, multiplicity of voices, right? So a 26 year old man of color out of Baltimore is going to have a very different visual description of a Carry James Marshall painting than a 45-year old white lady working in the museum, right? And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but we should be able to allow for the surfacing of multiple interpretations and multiple objective, you know, pseudo-objective descriptions of these things, and simply embrace that. And so I think that, maybe increasing diversity might be one tactic toward the strategy of beauty, if I can put it into that framework, but I don’t know that I even internally have a definition of beauty that I find consistent enough to then say, how are we maximizing it, necessarily, in our work.

Chris: When I think of memories of various artworks, my favorites are people like Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper, but I also think of some Abstract Expressionist works, you know, Jackson Pollock and DeKooning and people like that, how do you possibly even start to describe…I mean…

Sina: Yep, no, it comes up..so, with abstract, I would argue that a description is merely the first step. And that you really need to look at multi-modal, multiple modalities, of expression there. You need to look at tactile, you need to look at sonification, which the use of non-speech-based audio, you need to look at, again, different descriptions or guided tactile descriptions, olfactory, for example, etc. And so there are these mappings that can occur, cross-sensory mapping, and that can then start bringing something like an abstract Jackson Pollock piece to life. And I think it’s very important to discuss sequencing, right? You set the scene for someone, you’re like, OK, you’re about to feel this thing, it represents a bunch of paint just being splattered everywhere, just go in with that mindset. It’s not an accurate definition, the curator will have my head for telling you that..it’s fine. Just think about that for a second.

Chris: I think of trying to look at a Jackson Pollock painting with something like a sensory substitution piece of software, like seeing with sound, and that piece of software specifically always starts at the right and pans right to left, yet visually when I see a Jackson Pollock painting, I always would start from the center and work my way out, probably in concentric circles.

Sina: Absolutely, but that’s why I would argue we would hopefully not be using a general purpose tool to interpret this, but it would be one that was specifically, you know, it would be bespoke, specific to this building. Because otherwise, I think, you can’t get there. Now eventually you can start establishing models and different frameworks for saying, in this type of abstract painting in this type of abstract painting, versus that type of sculpture versus that type of line drawing, we should use these other modalities, and these are the mappings, and that becomes then a very interesting machine learning problem, to pick the right output modalities and also to allow the user to customize that. But, I would say, for now those need to be …I shouldn’t even say almost..those need to be treated on a one-off basis.

Chris: That makes sense, certainly. I mean, because they were also painted on a one-off basis…

Sina: Exactly. Exactly.

Francis: One of the things that I think is a failing of the economic systems that we’ve had in the 20th century that, to a large degree, persist now, is that there has been this top-down, sort of implementation of possibilities for people professionally, economically…in a way that eliminates people …to figure out for themselves what it is that they really want to be doing to contribute to society, at least in an optimal way. And I was thinking that part of what we would need for that to change, is a sense that the very same thing that would allow me to have the resources and the freedom to go after what it is that I’m passionate about in life, is the same thing that will enable other people to do that. So I’m wondering if that is, sort of like another reason for inclusion, because the idea is that if we keep thinking about organizing this world in a way that optimal for the maximum amount of people based on this sort of cookie-cutter idea of how people should be, and what should make them happy, we’re gonna make it impossible for a lot of people on the other side of that bell-shaped curve to contribute and to live satisfying life and to give the world the gifts that they are capable of giving…

Sina: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, I think that right now, the determining characteristics of what people do, sometimes can hopefully pleasantly align with what they like doing, but it’s about making money to be able to afford food, and shelter, and supporting the family, you know, xyz, these kinds of real-world concerns. So the issue then becomes, allright, you’re now starting to enter a world, we’re a little ways away from it, but it is happening, where automation is going to make that less and less and less needed…at least for certain categories of job, categories of labor and skill. So then, you’re going to have a lot of people who don’t…well, at leat…two things, number one, they don’t need to work to continue making the planet operate…you now, most economists I think say, like, with full automation, less than 10 percent of people have to work, right? So …talk about 8 billion people or whatever it is, 800 million have to work around the world, what do you do with the other 7. 2 billion people? And this is where I think it speaks to your point of, well, what kind of interests do they have and how can they contribute to society and what’s the impetus to do that, and do we all just stay home and exist in a VR environment for 8 hours a day, you know, what’s that future look like? And you know, I think that humans are usually pretty good, as a whole, not necessarily in small chunks, but as a whole, for seeking challenges. So, you’re going to start seeing more stuff with, the moon, or Mars, or solving some of these other problems, or building cities under the surface of the ocean…things of this nature. And I have a feeling…

Chris: With climate change, Miami will be under the surface of the ocean…

Sina: There you go, yeah, exactly. (laugh) A really practical example. Yeah, I mean..I just feel like that’s the kind of stuff that is going to exist, but the impetus for “I must do this in order to eat tonight” is gonna become less and less and less. And so, then it becomes a really, really big problem, it’s a complicated problem with a lot of moving parts involving economics and politics and socioeconomics and just all sorts of things. So…

Chris: How do we avoid then, some sort of Ready Player One type dystopia?

Sina: I think that having challenges is a really good motivator, right? So, I mean, I’m all about using space as a mechanism to solve the problems here on earth, right? I think you do need to start encouraging people to become colonists on Mars. It’s not for everybody, but …you’re going to find, out of 8 billion people, 80 of them that are willing to go out there and have a really crappy life for a couple of years, right? But we’re going to learn a lot from that. And you know, you’re going to find the next wave that’s like, they at least got the water and the air thing figured out, I think I’ll go, I know they don’t really have the food thing figured out yet, but….

Chris: Lawrence Kraus would say, we’d sent graduate students, because they’re slaves anyway…

Sina: Exactly, right? I mean (laugh) that would be…there you go. But I mean…that…I think is part of it, the other part of it is that I think we’re going to have different challenges. You’re not going to need to drive a truck anymore. The robot does that for you…but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to be part of the project that is going to start turning all of those highways…you know, let’s say we figure out another form of transportation…you’ll have all these highways around, what are you going to use those for after a while, right? If cars aren’t going on them, if we have hovercraft or something, then what are they going to be used for? Right? Could we turn those into solar…existing solar installations, where you don’t have to do anything, right? There’s all sorts of weird ideas and interesting things that I don’t think we know about yet, …that can provide an outlet so that we don’t turn into a Ready Player One type dystopia, but I’m not so convinced that we won’t turn into a Ready Player One type dystopia if we keep making the types of political decisions and lack of concern about climate change and other pressing needs that we seem to be doing.

Francis: I thought of a metaphor maybe also for what I was getting at…you know, in the twentieth century mindset we have this, like bending machine kind of mindset, whereas with automation, AI and all that, even to some degree now with 3D printing and what you can do maybe in that direction, it’s more like we should be adopting—and I hate to use Star Trek a lot, but—you know, like a more Replicator kind of mindset.

Sina: Yeah, I think you are going to start moving towards a world in which things don’t need to be built ahead of time to be available to you. So that would be how I would phrase that. You’re already seeing that to a certain extent, just through things like convenience of, you know, like these coffee pods that you can put in a machine, hit a button and you get a cup of coffee. Well, you didn’t have to grind the beans, you didn’t have to …use a French press to extract that perfectly at below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you didn’t have to do those things, you just hit a button…and you have a pretty decent cup of coffee that comes out…it’s not great cup of coffee, I’m a little bit of a coffee snob, but…it’s totally servicable, and that’s only gonna start getting better, so I do think that is definitely true, where we’re going to start moving towards a something does not need to have been made for it to be made in a short amount of time, or at least assembled or in some way available to you. But, I also again would go back to most of those things require energy. Most of those things require access to cheap and renewable power, and so we’ve got to solve this energy problem. I would actually go so far as to revise my answer from earlier, if you really want to know the thing that I think would make the most fundamental impact on the world, with respect to addressing your gap question, it would be solving energy density and the availability to free and renewable energy. I think that would have the highest impact.

Chris: So I’m gonna go downstairs as soon as we’re done with this podcast and start making my own cold fusion machine….

(laugh)

Sina: Good luck with that, the literature is a little torn on the possibilities there, so let me know what you come up with.

Francis: When you’re testing it, turn off the air conditioner….

(laugh)

Chris: Well, with that I’ll ask you our..closing question we ask everybody, and you already mentioned Prime Access Consulting, your company, but is there anything else you’d like to plus, of your own work or somebody else’s work, or ..anything that you’d like to just pitch to our listeners?

Sina: Well, I would encourage you to just think about whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s at a nonprofit, at a for-profit organization, in your personal life, and think about in which ways you may be inadvertently and unintentionally excluding a group of people, whether it’s because of ability or different backgrounds, etc. and what are some ways that you could make small changes to make that better. Maybe you’re running a restaurant and you can just print out a few versions of your menu in 22 point fonts…a really easy ask, it costs you a few cents of paper and ink, and you can keep them behind the desk…it’s a really simple thing. It’s not gonna solve all your problems, but it’s a step in the right direction. And I think that if, frankly, if every one of your listeners did one or two or three things like that, we’d be moving that needle towards a better world.

Chris: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Sina, for coming on Making Better.

Sina: Thanks for having me.


Closing: We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us on the web at MakingBetterPod.com or follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. Leave us feedback, or, if you really like what we’re doing, send us a donation. Initially, we plan on releasing episodes on a monthly basis, but once we’ve raised $1,000 to cover some of our costs and to encourage us to keep going, we plan on releasing episodes every second week. Just to let you know what’s coming up, future episodes already in production include interviews with: Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptics Society; M.E. Thomas, author of Confessions of a Sociopath; and Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation. See you next month!