Episode 3: Anne Devereux-Mills 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 3 of the Making Better Podcast!

Francis: Awesome! I’m very exciting, because I woke up this morning, I read the headlines, and once again…the Trump administration was at war with the environment, and I felt like, god I gotta do something! We all have to do better, we all have to do more. This aggression will not stand, man! So, I’m really happy that we’re doing this and, you know, in our own little way sending out a positive ripple in the world.

Chris: Well, that’s been the central theme of Making Better since we started, every guest we’ve had, and I think we’ve had nine so far, is somebody who’s out there already making the world a better place.

Francis: Exactly…and that was a Big Lebowski reference, by the way. You know, we are the majority, the amount of people who actually want to have a good life and not destroy the earth and each other, is the vast majority. And I think it’s just a matter of time before all of that effort gets harnessed in a way that the power goes to the people again.

Chris: This episode’s guest is Ann Devereux-Mills. She’s a former advertising executive turned activist, and she’s also a four-time cancer survivor. Her primary organization is called Parlay House, which facilitates communication among women to help them with their careers and with their lives. She’s also the producer of a documentary that aired on PBS called “The Return” and she’s an activist on prison reform issues in California. We had a terrific conversation with Ann, and I hope you will all enjoy it as well.

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Francis: So, I would like to welcome Ann Devereux-Mills to the show today. Hello, Ann..

Ann: Hey there! Nice to be with you.

Francis: It’s great to have you here. Your life story and your work, I think, is a really great platform for discussing a lot of the issues that we’re concerned with here at Making Better. So if I could, if we could just begin with you giving our listeners a brief overview of your story—where you came from, your history as a CEO and in business, and then where you’ve come to today.

Ann: Sure. Well, I grew up in Seattle before Seattle was the Seattle it is today, where the University of Washington was mostly it, but I was lucky enough to go to a little private school where people like Robert Fulghum, who wrote Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, was my English teacher and Bill Gates was a few years ahead of me, you know, doing the amazing things he was doing, it was just one of those kind of special times. And I left Seattle to go straight to Wellesley, where I had four amazing, unexpected years, because I’d been totally boy-crazy. So there I was in an all-female environment for four years, and really found myself on a whole different level that was terrific, and I graduated with a degree in political economy and it was 1984 and it was a recession, not like the 2008 recession but not a good time to get a job, and I got the one job I could get at the time, which was at an insurance broker called Marsh & McClennan. And got to my first day of work and my boss said, “you know, I hadn’t really thought about what you should be doing, why don’t you go home early and come back tomorrow and I’ll figure it out.” Now, many of us would like to be sent home early for a free afternoon by our boss, but this was the beginning of my corporate life and I was sort of distraught about it. But I decided, OK, I’m going to be a New Yorker, and I was really naive, really naive. So I just decided, OK, I’m going to walk up through Central Park, I’m going to walk up Madison Avenue, cross through Central Park and—I was living on the upper West side—and I got through to the middle of the park, and standing under a tree was a tall, handsome man and I had kind of never really talked to a tall, handsome man as an adult, and he had the Village Voice under his arm, and…it was raining and he asked for directions, and I heard one sentence and I immediately thought, Gay English Actor…and I was wrong, wrong and wrong. He was Irish, he was not an actor, he was straight and he was looking for a job and a date. And I was the safest person walking through Central Park and he asked me out for a drink, and luckily I had one friend in New York from Wellesley and she was working as a bartender, so I sort of knew that if he was a serial killer I would have someone who had seen me last…and of course, I ended up marrying him, and so it’s sort of a fun start of a story that didn’t turn out so well, ‘cuz we went our separate ways, but it was the beginning of my experimenting, doing things that were unfamiliar—marrying someone when I didn’t have a lot of relationship experience, and jumping into things pretty quickly. But my career as an insurance person didn’t last very long, because it was a really bad fit for a feminist in a very stodgy, old boys network, where I could do a whole program with you all talking about the sexual harassment of that time, and I won’t . But what I did do was learn how to understand what I do well, understand what I don’t like and don’t do well, and iterate my career until I got to a place that was a good alignment between my strengths and my interests. And that world was the world of advertising. And so I sort of evolved, first to corporate communications and liked that but didn’t like the small reach of just investors and shareholders and so when I got to the world of advertising, it was because Warner-Lambert, which no longer exists but it was a consumer package goods sister company of Parke-Davis, and I helped them get the ADA seal on Lysterine and do things way back in the day when we were starting to understand some of the health benefits of health care related products. And I just kind of got my groove, between the interesting and deep nature of science and the leadership and communications opportunities that sort of played to my natural tendencies. And so, I started the first direct-to-consumer advertising agency, along with some other leaders in the field pretty early in my career. And then I went on to found and build four different healthcare specialties for advertising agencies that you’ve heard of or seen modeled in Mad Men, like, you know, VBDO and TBWA and Chiat-Day and…you know, it was a fascinating career that I didn’t have any comparison to, so I didn’t really know that the pretty male exclusionary world that I was in didn’t have to be my story, but it was my story. And sort of getting out of the marriage that didn’t go well, it was a very abusive situation and not good, and I ended up being a single mom and running companies, and that was my life. My life was get up at 4:45 in the morning, drive into Manhattan, go to the gym, get to the office, run a company, get home and be a dedicated mom. And that’s very exhausting, mentally and physically, and what happened was, I had a series of cancers, and had some pretty major surgery when going through my divorce, and thought that would be the end of that. And then unfortunately a number of years later when I was in Uganda, where I’d helped start a school for kids who had very little access to anything, I got a call from my oncologist after just a usual follow-up, and he said “eh, sorry to tell you this, but your cancer has accelerated and we have to do some more major surgery. And so I just did what I’m used to doing, and I walked into my boss’s office and I said, “I know it’s…this is a tough economy (this is 2009) very tough time for businesses, and I know it’s not good for me to take two or three weeks off to have the surgery but I gotta do it, so I can live, but I’ll be back and I’ll run the company”…He said, “oh, I’m gonna have someone else run the company.” And in one week, I lost my job, my health and my youngest daughter was heading off to college, so my identity was just exploded, in one single week. So what do you do when…you know, I used to walk into the room and either, “Hi, I’m Ann, I’m the CEO” or “Hi, I’m Ann, I’m the mother of one of these two daughters”…what do you do when all those ways you defined yourself don’t exist anymore? It felt like a betrayal of someone that I’d built companies for and trusted, it felt like confusion because I’d always been a high performer and had multiple successful CEO roles, and the only thing that I had left that hadn’t been exploded that week was a relationship, long-distance relationship that I had with the man who is now my husband. But he was living in Santa Cruz and said “hey, why don’t you, after the surgery, why don’t you come and move out west?” and I’m kind of like, you know, I’m a city girl, I don’t think I can move to Santa Cruz, but if we can negotiate and move to San Francisco, why not? And I had to go through a lot of introspection, of what do I do now? Do I run a business in San Francisco?…but I had time, you know, I don’t think most of us as adults have the benefit of time to stop and think about, do I keep pushing hard against that door that’s straight ahead, or do I stop and look to the sides and around and recalibrate. And I decided to recalibrate, and when I did an assessment of my life to that time, I realized that when I was growing up I was one of three daughters, and when I was at Wellesley I was among 2,000 women, and when I was a mom, a single mom that was the house of hormones with my two daughters and me, and then I spent 20-some years sort of slugging it out in a very male world. And when I got sick, there were very few people who were there for me. And the people that were there for me were a few girlfriends, mostly not from business, and I realized that all the time in business it had been exceptionally transactional. and if I wasn’t in power, people didn’t need me anymore. And that made me long for authentic and meaningful relationships—for myself, I did not start out on a mission to build relationships for anybody but me, but I felt like I needed some intimacy, I needed a trusting environment and to have conversations about things that we weren’t talking about, like what it feels like to be a woman in a man’s world. This is way before MeToo was MeToo…but, you know, what it feels like to be afraid about your health, what it feels like to, you know, have female health challenges that no one talks about. You know, what it feels like to start a new relationship at the age of 50, what it feels like to no longer be the definition of who you were before. And so I just started asking friends of friends, since I didn’t know anyone except my boyfriend at the time in San Francisco, who do you know and do they want to come..and come over to my house and, you know, have a glass of champagne and talk about stuff? And so we did an experiment, and I think there are 12, 15 people in the room, and we had a marvelous time, and really got to talking about meaningful things early, early in the conversation, and at the end of the night, we sort of said, “hey, do you want to do that again?” And everyone sort of agreed and we said, well, why don’t you bring another woman who you think might enjoy this kind of conversation, that’s sort of around content, around some sort of speaker or panel or something. And the next thing I knew, there were 30 and then 50 and pretty soon 2,000 members in San Francisco who would gather (not all 2,000 at one time) in small groups at my home on a monthly basis, and really started to build an authentic conversation and a community of trust that’s way outside of our bubbles. And we’re 20 year olds, and we’re 80 year olds, and we’re working women and we’re women who’ve chosen to stay home or women who have retired or women whose careers haven’t started yet, and a broad range of interests, and….you know, it’s just turned into this sort of magical community that then has been replicated in New York, and now L.A., and London and, you know, I hope soon Washington DC. It was sort of a proof point that the loneliness and need for connection that I felt was actually a much more universal experience, probably even beyond women, but certainly with women that have become part of my extended network. So that was a very long answer to your life story question, but that’s where we are today, is 4,000 women in four cities, soon to be five, and hopefully many hundreds in the years to come.

Chris: I very much identify with having to make a major change in one’s life: before I went blind, I was, you know, this hotshot software engineer/contractor working for a lot of start-ups and venture capitalists on turnaround projects, making a real lot of money, and then the world found out I was blind, and my phone stopped ringing. And, you know, maybe there were still a handful of friends , you know, but as you discussed the transactional nature of relationships, I suddenly realized that almost all the relationships in my life were that way, they were people who wanted something from me rather than actually being friends.

Ann: Yep. It’s a sad state of our society…and I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, you know, does it go back to biblical references, whether it’s on the negative, an eye for an eye, or the sense of do unto others as you’d have them do unto you in sort of a transactional way, or is it about how we behave in the world. And I had a really interesting email exchange with a woman who I respect so highly, who’s been another senior woman multiple-time success, and she sort of said, I was talking about how challenging it is to roll out Parlay* House in cities where I don’t have someone who has the time and the means that I have to really build the content and post these on an ongoing basis, and we were talking about how much do you give of, you know, whether it’s the Parlay House list and community to someone who has something similar for a partnership; and it’s very hard to know what sorts of tradeoffs and exchanges that benefit both organizations, or both people, are meaningful and what are extractive. And I don’t have a clear answer to that.

Francis: I had a friend post something on Facebook today which was a question, “were you happier before or after social media?’ And I just thought that was kind of an interesting question to pose to people…and I love how Parlay House creates these connections, but it’s also, it seems to me, answering the limitations of the connectedness that we all have now through social media, which in some ways makes people and information so available, but at the same time there’s something lacking.

Ann: It’s so interesting you say that, Francis. One of my members in New York is an amazing young woman who has started an online movement called Half the Story, you can look at it, #HalftheStory, and she’s on a mission to encourage young people (she’s in her 20’s), to encourage young people to not just present their most beautiful, most perfect selves on social media but to really talk about things that we don’t talk about. And it’s a strong parallel to what we’re doing at Parlay House. You know, we’re sort of the opposite of social media in that we’re not forcing, but really setting the stage for conversations that are not the conversations that you have on social media. Like how do you rise to the top of a career while you’re battling mental illness or an eating disorder. We’ve talked about that. How do you take some pretty tough setbacks and turn it into strengths later on. We had a woman and her husband who had fallen into a cult and lived in a cult for 20 plus years, they had a child, they were an arranged marriage…they finally escaped the cult, how do you re-enter society after you’ve been living in another, false world? We usually talk about victories and ignore the struggles. And yet everyone struggles. I really made mistakes as a parent, I look back and think, what would I have done differently? I have these two phenomenal daughters, but they both worry when they are struggling, because I never talked about when I was struggling. I was so protecting them, ‘cuz they’d already been through a lot between the divorce and other stuff, I sort of felt like I needed to show them that you could be and do, you know, anything, and be superwoman. And all of a sudden, then, when they had normal people problems and struggles and fears and anxieties that everybody has, they somehow felt they shouldn’t have them, because their mother didn’t have them. And so I’m kind of on a, you know, trying to re-write that story in the second half of my life by talking openly about the things that are hard, and by setting the stage for us to talk about the truths of the human experience, which are so imperfect, and that’s just the nature of humanity.

Chris: I see that in the blindness community all the time, where organizations like the National Federal of the Blind, it’s the biggest membership organization in our space, seem to almost trivialize how hard it is to go through life on a day to day basis in a community with an 80% rate of unemployment, and, you know, they seem to suggest that, you know, blindness is just an inconvenience, and in fact it’s really, really hard, and I think they almost anti-motivate people when they show off, you know, somebody like Eric Weiihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Mount Everest. And I think a lot of people look at Eric, who is a very good guy, he’s a friend of mine, and say, you know, he climbed Mount Everest, you know, I have trouble getting to the Post Office or something, you know, I can’t do anything when we focus so much on the savants, so to speak.

Ann: Yeah, the outliers, sure. Sure, I think that’s true, and that’s why I’m sort of on a mission to create safe spaces to have the conversations that are the real ones. I mean, it’s great to have, we sometimes have superstars, women who have done things that very few women have ever done before, and I think we all get motivated by those stories of, sort of amazing achievement. But that can’t be the only conversation, because it just isn’t reality for most of us, even for those of us who want to be those outliers, those super-high achievers. We’re just not telling the story of their hardship, which I’m sure was there. I don’t know Eric’s story at all, but I’m sure that achievement was not a straight line of “I want to do it, and therefore it’s so.” I’m sure there were setbacks and challenges and risks and we’ve got to talk about those.

Francis: Can you give examples of how what has transpired at Parlay House has …tangible examples of how it’s changed people’s lives?

Ann: Sure. What it does is, it facilitates conversations, either at the event or after the event, that creates bonds that wouldn’t have been there. So we had a health-related topic, and two women were sitting on the coach who were strangers, next to each other, and they started talking about their personal health experiences and it turned out that both of them had ulcerative colitis, which is a painful and often embarrassing disease that affects your ability to have competent relationships, and sexual relationships. And they’d never talked to anyone else about this problem, and they happened to be sitting next to another woman in a safe space who had the same issue, and all of a sudden neither one felt alone. Now that’s a small example, it’s just two people, but it’s two people who all of a sudden didn’t feel alone in the world. And you know, we’ve had other examples, like we had a panel of these women who had followed their husband’s careers to Hong Kong, and they’d sort of put their own ambitions in the back burner because they were supporting the family, and they all sort of realized that they were letting go of themselves and their own goals and they formed a group that was called “the re-group” and they were holding each other accountable. This was not just a career oriented thing: one wanted to write a book, one … each wanted to do something different, but they met on an ongoing basis to hold each other accountable. Well, I didn’t know that in the audience that night were a number of women who, by anybody’s definition, would seem to be happy and successful and whatever, but they were feeling the same way, they were feeling stuck, and they were feeling like they need somebody to work with them, to sort of get on track to the next thing they wanted to do. And so another group that was very very similar was formed by women that I didn’t know and I didn’t know was happening, but happened because someone was willing to talk about that journey. So, there are so many examples. There are people who have gotten jobs, there have been people who have found an outlet for interests in philanthropy or supporting a cause, but most of the examples are the really personal one, where there’s all of a sudden an empathy, and I think empathy is kind of the most, most important component to everything that I’m trying to do is this ability to see and hear and not judge, but actually just see yourself in the position of another and hear and listen to what they need and somehow provide some of that as one new human to another.

Chris: I guess it must also help people feel less like the “other”…

Ann: Exactly. Exactly, and you know, when you look at our gatherings, you really see a diversity that, you know, the streets of San Francisco are generally not filled with people of color. And I see the difference, because I’m bi-coastal, I see the difference in New York where, at least visually, there’s a greater range of skin color on the streets than there is in the city of San Francisco. But in all of our gatherings, whether it’s San Francisco or New York, not only do we have age diversity, but we have, we have racial diversity, we have income diversity, we have diversity of sexual orientation…and it just feels so great to be…be finding connections that appreciate our differences. It’s not finding the similarities, because I think that’s…kind of bullshit, I think it’s recognizing that in our differences there are opportunities to learn, opportunities to feel yourself in someone else’s shoes, to think outside of your norm, to, you know, to just connect and stretch in ways that aren’t in our little bubbles. And I love that.

Francis: We were talking earlier about the transactional nature of business and you know, to a large extent, capitalism as it’s being practiced in this country today…and also talking about this idea of connection with people and the value of that. But, there are some people for whom these, like that transactional type of environment, it suits them, and it serves them very well. And I think partly one of the reasons why you see such a concentration of people who are more predatory and lack empathy in the higher stratas of business is because it’s sort of where their—at least in the system as it is right now, it’s where, it’s their comfort zone to some extent. So, given the heterogenous nature of our society, how do we say who have lots of empathy and want connection that’s meaningful and soulful between people in community, like, how do we have our needs met and they also have their needs met? Are they in conflict?

Ann: That’s a complex and interesting question. I mean, one of the experts that we’ve had speak to Parlay House a few times, and it’s always sold out, is a woman named Wendy Bahari who’s one of the national experts on narcissism. She talks about how to deal with the narcissists in your life. And, you know, we have a narcissist as our President right now, most of us have worked with narcissists in our career, and there’s a lot of data that shows that many of the most successful leaders have very significant elements of narcissism as part of their personalities. But, you know, we’re at a stage in society right now where we’re sort of looking at people as awful, or wonderful, as, you know, horrific or like a deity, and you know, I think that that’s a big mistake. And so there are people who are much more out for themselves and are willing to throw other people under the bus to achieve their own successes, and, you know, I don’t think we can control them, I think we can only control our own personal behaviors. But when you understand what is happening behind, in the emotional self, of those people who act in a narcissistic or self-absorbed way, a lot of times it’s actually driven by really significant insecurities that are being sort of masked and covered up by this aggressive, bullying, selfish behavior. And the more we can understand and empathize, even with those people whose behaviors seem more like terrorists than like humans, it helps understand where they’re coming from, it helps bridge the communication gap and helps us to not take those behaviors personally. I think we all have choice, of some…to some extent, but those of us who are able to make our own choices on how we want to live in the world, to try to find understanding for those who live very differently than us as much as possible, that’s sort of all we have control over. All we really have control over are ourselves and our …our decisions on how we live our lives. So I can’t reconcile that, but I can tell you, we’re not as black and white as it might seem when you cut it, cut it the way you just cut it.

Francis: Well, you know, with regards to our President, he is definitely, I think, making the paradigm for change that we have right now…seem much more like it needs to be evolved to…I think a lot of the old ways that we’ve relied on for change, like say marches and activism…it doesn’t seem like they really do much anymore…

Ann: Well, I guess that’s…I think that might be a little bit instrumentalist. I mean, I know that when Trump was elected and I was in Washington at the first Women’s March and I was there with my daughter who is of a whole different generation, I’ve always been someone who is a thoughtful and engaged member of society, or I’ve at least tried to be. But I was not an activist in the marching, protesting sort of way, and I think that there was an element of momentum that happened, that isn’t sort of end-result oriented but is part of this process of learning about our sense of power. And I think what you’re getting at, Francis, and I probably agree with you, is that the system is so broken that this two-party system, even our Constitution and how some of the things are being interpreted, related to gun control and other stuff, just doesn’t serve our society as well as our Founding Fathers intended. And to really move forward as a society, we might need to go to that really scary place that is after what was, and before we figured out what will be, and that’s a really hard thing to do. I mean I’ve done that as a human, as a personal…on my personal path, where I had to end my career in order to have the time to think about what else I valued. Can we do that as a society without it being too scary or chaotic? Or, you know, having the fear that an equally horrible next person will take over? I don’t know. But I agree with you that just going down the same path and making tiny jogs to the left or the right, in terms of political parties or policies, isn’t making the massive level change that we probably need to be a good society.

Francis: And massive level change is something that you in your own personal life know well…

Ann: Yeah. Some of that was forced on me, and when I realized that things were, the rug was pulled out from under me, I chose to take a really scary leap. I mean, it was so scary to not just do what I knew how to do, and just go back and run another company and have the same identity and, you know, build my self-image around this idea that I was a CEO because that gave me comfort. You know, to sort of start again and say, how do I define myself next, and how do I reconcile that I’m not the only bread earner in the family, that I’m contributing in a way that some, who are very income-oriented, or title-oriented, might not value. You know, I still find myself, when people say “what do you do?” I sometimes just subconsciously revert to, “well, I used to run advertising agencies, and now I…” you know, fill in the blank. Instead of just having the confidence to say, “I founded an organization that’s on a mission to empower women and to create safe spaces for the conversations that they can’t have other places. I mean, that sounds pretty good, when you…but it doesn’t feel as much of a success in the societal norms as I would want it to. I still fall back, sometimes, on what I used to do, and that’s a shame.

Francis: It’s also understandable, given how successful you were…that is pretty significant.

Ann: Yeah, but you know, when, when I’m at the end of my life, and I now know that could be any day, just because I’ve faced that reality, having been a CEO is not the most meaningful thing to me. I mean, I loved it, It’s in my wheelhouse, it’s where I feel very comfortable, but the level of pride that I feel about that is very different than—and not meaningful to me—as the level of pride I have with finding things that help people on a more empathetic level.

Francis: And perhaps even the sublime is relative…

Ann: Yeah. It is. he-he.

Chris: We were just talking about massive change that needs to happen in society, but taking on massive change all in one lump seems rather difficult. And I think I read this in some of your blog articles—making small, minor changes a little at a time and, you know sort of like the butterfly effect, seeing them spread?

Ann: Absolutely. And, you know, I write a monthly blog called One Small Thing. And it’s really a way of trying to say to all of us who feel overwhelmed by the amount of change that we feel needs to happen in society, to not be paralyzed by the size of the problem, but rather be empowered by the types of things I talked about that happen at Parlay House, by one conversation that might be meaningful, by one action that can start a cascade for someone else and someone else after them. And I just—I’m finishing up a research project that’s part of a book that I’m writing, where we tracked…you know, it’s hard to know what, I call it the “thing after the thing” is…so you do something without the expectation of return for someone else. It’s a stranger, or someone that you know that could use your help, and you assume that it was positively received and maybe even that something happened that they passed it on in some way after that, but you don’t know. So, we conducted this research study that we’re just getting the results in now, where we grouped people by whether they were an instigator of one of those actions that were meaningful to someone else, whether they were the recipient of something and what they did with it, or whether they witnessed it, was the third category, and what happens when people witness a meaningful action from one human to another. And the amazing thing was, that not only was there something that the recipient did for another person based on the recognition of how they benefitted from the kindness, but the witnesses also were motivated to behave in a very similar way. So that gave me a sense that this doesn’t even have to be a one to one to one cascade, but that there’s a multiplier effect when people understand their own power to help another in some way and then feel inspired to do it.

Chris: One thought that comes to mind is, I don’t know if you know the city of San Francisco has a law against restaurants giving free food to homeless people, and I know a terrific restaurant that I enjoy, and it’s actually kind of on the expensive side, but every night they take all the food that wasn’t served and one of their people bring it to a park and feed all the homeless people, it’s…some homeless people who recognize me walking down the street will whisper to me where the food will be that night.

Ann: That’s really awesome. I love that story. Yeah, that’s harmless anarchy, in my opinion. Maybe I don’t know all of the potential fears and risks, whether it’s tainted food or who knows what, what…

Chris: No, it has nothing to do with tainted food, it had to do with…it made homeless people hang out…and, you know, wait for the food, for the free food. It was a way to keep the homeless people away from the restaurants.

Ann: You know, a lot of these laws sort of, think, happen because you have a reactionary or strong person who’s pissed off about something, and they go over the top in creating legislation that makes things hard on humanity. My husband and I spent a number of years working on a Proposition in California that was in response to a very similar type of thing, it was the father of Polly Klaas who was unfortunately kidnapped from her home and killed by someone who was a formerly incarcerated person. And her dad was obviously, as we all would be, so distraught about what had happened that he was behind an initiative that resulted in California having one of the most tough 3-strikes laws in the country, and that meant if you had two prior felonies, and you were convicted of anything—and by anything, I mean, we have examples of stealing a piece of pizza, or a golf club from a store, or writing a bad check—these are not violent acts, these are, you know, small…you were sentenced to life in prison. And we have thousands of people in the California prison system who ended up with their lives taken away from them because of that law that was based on someone’s personal and traumatic experience, but resulted in a lack of fairness for everybody affected afterwards. And you know, we were fortunate enough to have our Proposition win with 70% of Californians supporting a much more fair third-strike policy that required that third strike be serious and violent before you take away someone’s entire life. And 3,000 people had their sentences re-assessed and have returned to the community with very low recidivism rates…it’s proof that we have to beware of reactionary laws that are disproportionate, and as a society if we can sort of base our actions on concepts of fairness or empathy rather than fear, I think we’re gonna make some progress. And again, that was a very small change to one law in one state, but the cascade that happened at that time was, it went from 3,000 Californians having their sentences retroactively re-evaluated to a new and fairer policy which meant people who were arrested subsequently did not face that same penalty, and rolled all the way to the White House, where Obama, before he left office, began pardoning people for minor third strike drug offenses across the country. And so that’s just an example of how—this was a lot work, but it was a very small Proposition related to one law in one state, and it ended up being a national phenomenon. And so that’s what gives me hope in this time where there doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of hope.

Chris: You made a documentary about someone released after the 3-strikes…

Ann: I did. Yeah.

Chris: I tried to find it, I couldn’t find it online, and…

Ann: It’s on Netflix, it’s called “The Return,” it was a PBS sponsored film and it was, we won an Emmy nomination for it, and it was an amazing story that uncovered the experience of not only the individuals, as they returned to society, but their families, and really uncovered, sort of, the next issue my husband and I are working on, which is related to mental illness as a huge problem in our society that’s contributing to our packed prisons and, you know, we have many, many, many people who don’t have access to mental health care in terms of diagnosis, in terms of treatment, in terms of care, and then they’re afraid or they’re confused and they break into an empty building because they don’t have a place to stay, or they act out because they don’t have access to medical care, and instead of helping them we throw them in prisons where their disease just gets worse. And so, that film not only was our way of telling the story about the importance of hiring and understanding the side of people who are re-entering society, but also helped us understand what to do next and what to focus on next in terms of helping restore mental health support. You know, Reagan, when he was President, understood that the mental health care system was relatively broken in our country, and so he did away with mental health institutions. And I don’t think it was completely ill-motivated, because they were pretty bad institutions, but what it means now is we’re starting from scratch and trying to find ways to support people who have not had the benefits of mental health care that we, who are more privileged, have.

Chris: I had a good friend released from jail here in Florida, he was junkie…and it was just a minor stealing thing, but his lawyer negotiated probation for him, and he was released from County jail with absolutely nothing waiting for him on the outside, and within four weeks he was back on the heroin, he overdosed and died in July.

Ann: Unfortunately, the situation of your friend is all too common, and we have, as part of our 3-strikes work, heard many stories of people being released from prison in paper suits, without the $200 they’re supposed to have to get them to wherever they’re going next, and many of them, because they don’t have a choice, return to either the abusive homes or the gangs or, you know, because they don’t have a plan and a program, there are terrible stories of people released in a wheelchair, at night, without any support, who sleep in alleys until they can figure out how to get to a place that can help them. One of the programs that my husband and I have been sponsoring is a program called Ride Home, where it’s run by people who are formerly incarcerated themselves, and they wait outside of the prisons, knowing that our Prop 36 folks are being released, and they help them create a plan to get to transitional housing that helps coach them on getting a job and developing a resume and giving them a safe space to transition back into society. But, you know, there aren’t enough of those Ride Home people all over the country to help other have that re-entry that can hopefully make them successful. And, you know, sadly your friend’s situation where, because he didn’t have any support and he didn’t have any money and, you know, where he went straight back to the drug addicted life that he had had before, is all too common. Again, what’s an easy thing that we can do to help create change, if that’s an issue that you care about, contributing towards a Ride Home program or offering an entry-level job to someone who is coming back into society is one of the greatest things that you can do that truly has meaning for someone else.

Chris: I find it interesting that the prison reform issue doesn’t seem to be a hardline left or right wing thing. I mean, we have Bernie Sanders working with Rand Paul in the United States Senate on sentencing reform, and you’d never think those two guys would work together on anything.

Ann: It’s so funny that you say that, because we noticed, when we were doing our fundraising for the Proposition, that we actually got…we tend to lean left in our political views, and we got as much or more support from Republicans as we did from Democrats, and in fact this was not a party-oriented initiative, it was a belief of people who value fairness over other measures that came together and supported and passed this. You know, when you pass with 70% of the vote, you’ve got to have a lot of people on both sides that believe in what you’re doing, and I love the fact that Bernie and Rand Paul are working together, or whatever those random divides are that we call Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, because it really, what they’re uniting on are shared values…and that’s what we should be doing as a nation, to be honest. You know, this party system is so kind of arbitrary, and it forces us to dig our heels in without thinking. And I think if we did a little more thinking and feeling and a little less rule-following, we might benefit.

Francis: I agree with you so much about that. Part of the impetus to create this podcast for me was to try to start staking out alternatives to those kind of nineteenth, twentieth century political…the vocabulary, and just the boxes it puts people in…because I think a lot of that has lost its usefulness to us now.

Ann: Right. Completely agree.

Francis: I think there’s also two really different orientations towards how we relate to each other. And one is sort of the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest…you know, it’s more of like, I guess what you would associate with a male kind of energy, which is predatory and…it’s about, if anything, thinning the herd. But then you also have another completely almost opposite approach, which is that we should be focussing on the weakest link, and that the health of the whole is something that is going to be increased by us helping each other, and those in most need. They’re very, very different approaches, I guess, to how the world functions, as a result.

Ann: Yeah, my reaction to that is, you’re right, and both are pretty polar in their approach. I’m not so sure that “thinning of the herd” or focussing exclusively on those with the most need is going to be the answer, and I think it’s just got to be brought down to a much more micro and individual level. I just think we, as a society, are talking so much in black and whites, in polarizing and sort of, if you’re not with me, you’re horrible, rather than, if you’re not with me, you might have something I can learn from that makes me more well rounded…I’m just feeling a little exasperated by the state of our thought processes, that “are you with me or are you against me” with nothing in the middle.

Francis: What I wanted to relate that to, as well, is you’re very active in…women’s movements, and you’re like a real trailblazer in terms of women in business, and I think right now what I’m starting to see, could be wrong, but are…people who are coming up and shaking things up, women, who almost seem like a new sort of archetype than we had before, because, say like in the days of Thatcher, for example. You had women who took offices of power, but a lot of their policies were indistinguishable from men, in any way. But I’m wondering if there is something uniquely feminine, to me, it would be something that was less like that survival-of-the-fittest kind of mindset, but something that we really actually need as a society right now, especially with regards to the state of the environment and our..

Ann: Yeah. You know, my gut reaction to that—and it’s probably not fair, because I know plenty of men who have this trait too—but I think there is the female desire to nurture, that comes from bearing children, and, you know, needing to support lives that are not sustainable on their own, that we sort of do when we have newborn babies that came out of our bodies…there is something about tending to and nurturing others that is more female, at least historically has been more female. I know many nurturing men as well, but, you know, I would say in my experience that quality is predominantly female quality. And you know, men needed to defend, and while they were off, you know, hunting and fighting off enemies, women were tending to families and tending to the land, and those genetics stay with us through the generations, and I think to be more nurturing as a society incorporates the empathy that I talked about earlier, and the awareness of, and value of, human life and what we need to survive. And that includes the earth being a healthy and sustainable place and, you know, it’s a whole cascade of what we need in order to not only live, but to be good humans. And so my new archetype is a weird combination of a stereotypic nurturing woman, but she’s now powerful and capable of not only nurturing in the home, but nurturing as a leader. And I tried, I don’t know what, I don’t know retrospectively what kind of leader I was, but I always intended to be a leader who empowered and nurtured and helped those that worked with me thrive. And, you know, I kind of think instead of trying to be masculine and gain power by behaving in the same way that our male successful predecessors have behaved, that there is an opportunity for all of us to take on some of those more loving qualities. And I know loving in a work sense, in a leadership sense, is kind of a weird idea. But if we make it acceptable to feel and care in addition to winning, I think it’s gonna create a better society.

Francis: I agree. Well my own personal evidence for it was, raising a son, I believed very strongly when I first had him that any kind of male-female sort of…I thought it was just modeling and what they were nurtured into being, and then what I discovered is that when he was like four, he was running around playing with trucks and stuff, and most of the girls were playing with dolls, and that wasn’t 100%, but it’s just one example of how, like at a really young age, he was very boyish.

Ann: Yep. And my sister did a very similar experiment. She had a son, she’s the only one of the three girls who has not had just daughters, and she had a son and wanted him to play with dolls and not have weapons and…he would turn anything into a weapon just by nature. And he’s the sweetest, nicest human. He’s not, you know, he’s not a violent kid or anything else, completely normal, now lovely man, but she tried to take away those gender stereotypes and he just, without even knowing, just created them in his own way himself.

Francis: It’s something you see universally in that age group. It was, it was very surprising to me. But, you know, there’s a way to work with it, I think, that…what I tried to do is figure out role models for my son, where he could feel like embracing that sort of warrior energy, but directing it in positive way. And honestly, it’s really hard to find good male role models in the media, because I guess the media doesn’t really benefit very much from these people who are living these quiet, heroic lives, there has to be like some huge conflict or something. So, I had a really hard time doing that, but what we came down to is that Mother Earth needs to be protected, and it’s your job to protect Mother Earth. So it became a way for him to sort of use his masculinity but at the service of the feminine. And I think that really stuck with him. It directs it in a way, I think, that’s necessary right now.

Ann: What’s he doing now, Francis?

Francis: He just got accepted to a high school that I’m really happy about, and he’s taking Kung Fu and Yoga, and I work very hard to keep him off of the video games…and that’s been a really big challenge. His generation is growing up with video games and YouTubers and all this stuff that we never had, and it’s…it’s new, it’s a little hard to navigate it as a parent.

Ann: It is.

Francis: Regarding the future, do you feel optimistic about the future, and if so why?

Ann: You know, I’m inherently an optimistic person, and so I’m not sure I could say I feel optimistic, there are things I worry about. I certainly worry about our environment and its ability to sustain us, given how we’re treating it, but I also feel that the pendulum historically in our nation and in our world has swung back towards center always. So for those of us who feel right now like the emphasis is on things that are not according to our values, and our leadership is not supporting what we feel is important and how we would want to behave as humans, I have to have a longer term view, and know that, you know, when I look through history in the times I wasn’t alive, or even earlier in my life when people were either running our country or massive acts of destruction or murder or violence made us fearful about what our society was, that there is some balance that’s in our system that will allow us to have more positive and better feeling times in the future. I just have to believe that in order to, in order to live and so…you know, I believe in good humans acting in small ways towards others to do what they can do personally, and I believe in our system in some form to get that pendulum back, back to a place where we all feel we can live with it a little more. And, you know, sadly I fear that it might take another five years before we see the pendulum swing back, but I hope to still be alive and making positive changes both in the meantime and when it comes back in to accelerate the ways that we can be a kinder society. So I’m working on it on a day to day basis, and I haven’t lost hope. I don’t think you can. We can’t throw up our arms, and we have to just keep doing whatever we can do, given the current circumstance. I’m on a mission to do that.

Francis: Yeah, I think a lot of us are, actually. You know who I think are, one of our big hopes is? My son’s generation…they’re growing up knowing that there’s an urgent need to change the way we’re interacting with the environment, and that sort of thing.

Chris: For the first time in decades, we’re starting to see young people organize among themselves. We have the Parkland kids, and now we have the climate kids who are skipping school every Friday to protest…I mean, I think we’re actually seeing energy among young people for the first time in what I think is a couple of decades.

Ann: Yeah, and I see my kids, who are little bit older than Francis’s, not being willing to take jobs unless there are good for society components in the actual companies. And, you know, I didn’t grow up in a time where we gave that thought. Corporate social responsibility was emerging, you know, fifteen years ago, and everybody thought, wow, that’s an amazing idea, a company can do well and also do good, and now the next generation is saying, well, we’re not going to work for you unless you do both. That’s awesome.

Francis: It is. I think our kids’ generation are gonna see people that came before them sort as, like, these crazy kids who just trash the place, and it’s time to clean up. And they’ll have, I’m sure when technology is really applied to the service of, say, cleaning the oceans, and cleaning the air, and…what we’re capable of doing is gonna be stunning. And it’s just a matter of will, and it’s a matter of, I guess, somehow creating the choice for people in the way that they recognize that, in a very clear, finite way.

Ann: Yep.

Chris: I had a young friend write to me this morning, he just turned down a job well over $200,000 a year—this kid’s only 23 years old—because he did not want to work on artificial intelligence drones that are used to kill people, and he accepted a job paying about half of what he was offered, where he could work for a company that does accounting software or something..benign.

Ann: Well, it’s very enlightened of a young person, you know, to be led by values rather than by money, that’s fabulous. He probably can live with himself and feel good, that’s awesome.

Chris: Well, we always end just with the same basic question: Do you have anything you’d like to plug, or…promote or…whether it’s something you’re working on, or something somebody else is working on, or just something you’d like to put out there that people might be interested in?

Ann: Sure. I would say if you want the monthly reminder of small ways that you can personally make a difference in the world, go on my website anndevereuxmills.com and sign up for One Small Thing, which is that monthly newsletter/blog. But I think, assuming that you don’t need that reminder and you just have a way to live your life each day where, at the end of the day, you sort of say, “was I the person that I would like to have been” and if so, great, ‘cuz I helped someone or I did something that feels additive to society, and if I didn’t, it’s OK, I thought about it and tomorrow’s another day to do that. So I’d encourage you to live the small life, because if we all do that, we’re gonna end up creating big and meaningful positive changes at a time when it feels like the world needs it most.

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

Ann: Well, thank you for making it better.


We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at MakingBetterPod.com, and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to us, or send us a donation. You can find the form for that on our website. Follow us on Twitter @MakingBetterPod. Chris Smart deals with the audio in [sample 2 decks 4], Susan Hofstader deals with any visual images and transcribes our interviews; last but not least, Amanda Rush and Jackie McBride keep our server and website running well.

Ann: Chris, you have a phenomenal voice. I’m sure people have told you that before, but this is a good vehicle for you, cuz your voice is very soothing….

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 One: Sina Bahram

Sina Bahram is an accessibility consultant, researcher, speaker, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Prime Access Consulting (PAC), an inclusive design firm whose clients include technology startups, research labs, Fortune-500 companies, and both private and nationally-funded museums. Sina has a strong background in computer science, holding undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field. As a recognized expert in accessibility, Sina enjoys collaborating with both colleagues in the field and individuals of diverse professions to devise innovative and user-centered solutions to difficult real-world problems. In 2012, Sina was recognized as a White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama for his work enabling users with disabilities to succeed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. In 2015, the international accessibility community recognized Sina as an Emerging Leader in Digital Accessibility at the annual Knowbility Community Heroes of Accessibility Awards. In 2017, Sina served as the invited co-chair of the 2017 Museums and the Web conference.

Welcome to Making Better, an exciting new podcast that presents great minds discussing an optimistic vision of the future. In every episode we explore a different view of the world presented by individuals who are actively working to make the world a better place with a focus on optimizing human potential in a highly diverse population.

Episode 1 of Making Better, featuring inclusive design specialist Sina Bahram, will go live in March, 2019 and we have a number of other interesting interviews already recorded and ready to release on our monthly schedule.

Making Better Guests

In addition to Sina Bahram, we are proud to have interviewed Micheal Marshall of the UK's Good Thinking Society; ME Thomas, author of Confessions Of A Sociopath and two MacArthur Genius Fellows, Jim Fruchterman and Richard M. Stallman. We have a queue of other interesting and notable guests so stay tuned to this site for more announcements.

The Hosts

Making Better is hosted by molecular biologist Dr. Francis Di Donato and disability rights activist Chris Hofstader. The pair first met when they were active members of the New York City punk rock scene in which both performed in hardcore bands. In the years since, Francis received his PhD from Temple Medical School and Chris, now totally blind, pursued a career making technology used by people with disabilities to access information on computers.

Making Better was conceived in a series of conversations between Francis and Chris and it brings their combined experience, wisdom and unique vision to its interviews.

How You Can Help

Making Better is created by a team of four people. In addition to Francis and Chris, we have producer Chris Smart and web site person Amanda Rush. For all of us, Making Better is a labor of love but there are very definitely expenses involved in bringing the show to its listeners. We ask that you please consider sending us a financial gift by using the form on the home page of this web site. The minimum contribution we can accept is $10 and, at this time, we can only take one time contributions as we haven't built a system for accepting micropayments yet.

When Making Better has raised $1000, we will change our release schedule from monthly to bi-weekly, doubling the amount of content for our listeners. Please do consider sending us a gift so you and those less able to afford such will be able to hear the thoughts of the terrific guests and hosts on this exciting new podcast.

Thanks for reading!