Making Better Episode 20 Andreus Stefik

Andreas Stefik is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For the last decade, he has been creating technologies
that make it easier for people, including those with disabilities, to write computer software. He helped establish the first national educational infrastructure
for blind or visually impaired students to learn computer science and invented the first evidence-based programming language, Quorum.

The design of Quorum is created from data derived through methodologies similar to those used in the medical community. Stefik has been a principal investigator on 5 National Science Foundation funded
grants, many of which related to accessible graphics and computer science education. Finally, he was honored with the 2016 White House Champions of Change
award and the Expanding CS Opportunities award from and the Computer Science Teachers Association. Click here to follow Andreas Stefik on Twitter.

As always, Episode 20 of Making Better is fully transcribed, and you can click here to consume Episode 20 in text form.

Episode 20 Andreus Stefik Transcript

Making Better Episode 20

(music) 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: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hey, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris2: ..and I’m Chris Smart, the producer of Making Better. Due to a technical glitch, we lost our intro that we had recorded for this episode, so you’re going to have to listen to me a few seconds. Our guest this time is Andreas Steffik, professor and inventor of the Quorum programming language, which is 100% accessible to blind or visually impaired programmers. Quorum is also a very high-level language, excellent for teaching kids how to code, and Quorum is the first programming language developed using the scientific method. And without further ado, here is Episode 20.

Chris: Andrea Steffik, Welcome to Making Better podcast!

Andrea: Thanks for having me, guys!

Chris: You’re most well known for having invented a programming language called Quorum. Now, a lot of our listeners might not even know what a programming language is—I mean, they know how to use their iPhone, but they don’t know how it works—so if we could maybe even start with the absolute basic of what’s the difference between a programming language and a spoken or written language.

Andrea: Yeah, sure. So when people write computer software, oftentimes computers are really picky, right? They don’t necessarily understand natural language in the way that you might see on Star Trek or on science fiction shows, so oftentimes computer scientists have derived ways to tell the computer, effectively, what they want it to do. But here’s the catch: even though we knew pretty quickly after people like Alan Turing were inventing a lot of ideas mathematically about programming, even though we had some mathematical understanding of how to tell a computer what to do, we had almost no understanding of how to tell humans how to tell computers what to do. And so, for example, in a programming language like C++, if you want to tell the computer to do something ten times, literally just that. You might say a phrase like, “for (anti=0; i<10; i++){}” That’s a lot of weird verbiage and symbols to represent the concept of just doing something over and over again; but in fact, that’s kind of how it derives. Now the idea in a programming language is, it’s not just the human interaction, it’s actually also what happens when it gets sent down to, like, a chip. You take those sort of like weird words and symbols and stuff like that, and then it gets translated down to ones and zeros, and those ones and zeros are the thing that actually tell your iPhone or your Windows machine or Linux or Mac or whatever you have, what to do when you use Siri, or when you load up and app or a game or anything like that. So basically, it’s the translation between what a human wants it to do, and then what a machine wants it to do, and the whole tricky part about Quorum is we’re trying to gather evidence to figure out how to make it easier for those pesky humans that are in the process.

Chris: My life as a programmer started with, actually my very first language was PDPA Assembly language, and I’d go on to learn—you know, I did a lot of programming in C and probably about 25 different Assembly languages, I was a low-level, silicon-under-the-fingernails kind of hacker—and those languages are incredibly arcane. So, you used the scientific method to design your language, Quorum. Could you tell us something about that process? Because the languages I’m accustomed to were pretty much designed by electrical engineers.

Andrea: Yeah, that’s true. So, let me give you a little bit of context. You might assume, given that there’s a lot of [sobejrs?] that are paid in the United States, that this issue of how to make it easier for people would be really well studied. Let me sort of formalize this for the United States, at least. So if you take Bureau of Labor Statistics data and then you look at how many people are basically in the ballpark of computer scientists, like software engineers and there’s a couple other categories, it’s over 300 billion dollars a year that we pay software engineers to develop software. So, it’s a lot of money. Now here’s the thing—what that means is, is that if there’s anything wrong with programming languages for any one of them, that is causing productivity issues, confusion, lost hours—that means that, at scale, it can be very expensive to try and write software sort of like with one hand behind your back, if you will, if the languages are slowing you down. So here’s the thing: you might then think that because that’s so expensive, that companies would be interested, that academics would be interested. But in fact, there’s this wonderful study by this guy call Antihanikayanumho, who’s out of Finland, and a number of us in the academic literature were basically saying, hey, we can’t find the evidence. Where’s the data? You guys are all scientists, why don’t you have data on this issue? It’s a lot of money. And Anti** actually didn’t believe us, so in Finland he basically sat around, I swear, for about four years, paper by paper, reading them in the academic literature, like Programming Language communities, Software Engineering places like that, paper by paper, counting, is there evidence in this peer-reviewed, top conference paper, or is there no evidence in this paper? And so then he did that for the years between, like, 1950 and up until modern times, in his case he stopped in 2012 because that’s the nature of his finishing a PhD. And it turns out, for this more than $300 billion in wages that we spend, it turns out there’s only 22 experiments between 1950 and 2012. Now to put this in perspective, in fields like medicine, 22 would be adorable, right? So like between 1990 and 2001, there were something like 110,485 randomized controlled trials. The point is, we have this huge, huge problem related to wages that any tiny little increment of productivity lost is actually very expensive at scale, because engineers are expensive to hire. However, we have almost no evidence on what the impact is on people, so we don’t even know how much of this wage data is actually being wasted because we don’t have any data. So part of the Quorum project was first realizing that, and then the next part is figuring out how on earth do you actually study something as complex as how people invent things to try to lower that curve. And that’s a whole other topic that I imagine we’ll get into. That’s sort of the 10,000 foot view of the evidence and why it matters and stuff like that, and then the details are tricky, too, in a different way.

Chris: Well, how did you use the Scientific Method to design Quorum?

Andrea: Right. So when we first designed it, even though Antihani’s work hadn’t come out yet, we realized that there wasn’t much data. And the truth is, we didn’t really know what to do, but we were doing lots of observations of people—like, we conducted a lot of studies with blind children, and blind children had a special difficulty because in audio, these languages are often even more esoteric—you know, you have to state all the semicolons, screen-readers skip characters, there’s all sorts of complicated stuff. But in addition, because there was no studies, it really left us to ask, well how do we even run such studies? And of course, in computer science, if you go get a PhD in the field, you’re not trained in how to conduct empirical studies, that’s very rare. So what I did was, I thought well I better get help. So I spent several years just sitting around psychology departments trying to figure out what they do, to figure out how they investigate complex problems. And then eventually, although it took a few years to figure out the details, we started making scientific experiments that are related to the medical models. And so, this means especially a couple techniques: one is, we conduct surveys for things that we can’t easily manipulate—when we’e just trying to get subjective data. So this is useful for things like what keyword should I use to represent this idea, and I’ll give you a quick example of that. In C++, I mentioned that if you want to have something do something over and over again, you say “for (anti=0; i<10; i++)” and that means to do something ten times. But on quorum, after doing extensive surveys and then replicating them and doing all sorts of stuff, we ended up with much simpler phrases for many of these constructs. So in Quorum, the exact same code that does the same thing, is just as efficient, is: “repeat 10 times” right? Which is much simpler. And you literally just write then in the computer program, “repeat 10 times”, and it does the same thing as the previous code. Now then what we’ve done is we do that with every part of the language, or as many as we have time to conduct studies on, and then once the surveys are done, we then move to features using a procedure called randomized controlled trials, which is a really complicated topic, but basically involves pitting alternative features against each other and then whatever wins, goes in the language and whatever loses gets removed from the language over time in a deprecation process.

Chris: Part of what you did designing Quorum developed a control language called Rando, I think.

Andrea: Oh god, this is true.

Chris: What was it called?

Andrea: Random-o. Which—was actually not my idea, it was a colleague of mine named Bill White, who unfortunately passed away in the last year. But I wanted to call the thing “Ridicu-lo” but my friend told me you better watch it, in peer review they’re going to yell at you. He was like, well, it’s all random, why don’t you just call it “Random-o”? So.

Chris: And what did Random-o look like?

Andrea: So basically what we did, is we had conducted all these surveys of what words to use. But then, I had this idea that from the medical literature, ‘cause I was starting to read, that maybe what we want to do is we want to compare languages with a baseline, right? Like say, if I’m testing Python or Assembly or any other of these programming languages, I want sort of like a baseline to compare them all to, to figure out what characters and symbols might sense compared to a baseline. But the question is, what the heck is a baseline? So when you look at the history of medicine, that often became placebos, and placebos are a complicated topic, but often they involve taking like a sugar pill or something like that. But there’s no programming language “sugar pill,” that doesn’t compute, right? So that meant there was a couple of options: one is, there are programming languages that have been designed to be intentionally difficult for people—one of them is called “whitespace” and there’s another one called “brainfuck.” And these particular languages could be used as a baseline, but the problem is, they’re sort of designed to be confusing, and it felt kind of unfair. It wouldn’t be a fair comparison to have a baseline—it’s sort of like, instead of giving someone a sugar pill, it’s like poisoning them. Yeah, you’re going to do better than murdering your patients. So what we thought to do instead was, once we had designed Quorum, we then ripped out all the symbols, and with somebody in my lab—Suzanna Sebert was her name, at the time—she basically sat around effectively rolling electronic dice and she randomly chose symbols to represent the syntax of the programming language. For example, instead of “repeat,” it might be “\” it might be “#” it might be something else. And so, the language, when you look at it, of course, is absolutely absurd, literally randomly chosen. And so you might think that a language that is totally designed randomly would do very badly in studies, and that is of course true; however, it turns out some programming languages don’t do better than a random..

Chris: I think I saw you at a C-SUN presentation where you said the Random-o outperformed Pearl, which I can understand entirely, because Pearl is completely incomprehensible.

Andrea: Yeah, right. Well yeah. So in the first study that we ran, which was really small, we only had like eighteen people in that study, it was a tiny, tiny pilot study. And we had this hint in the data that Pearl might not be much better than random. But the problem is, people in my lab, we sort of thought, how could that be true? Even though Pearl I think has a reputation for being incomprehensible, it was intentionally designed by a human being to look like that. And so we were always really hesitant to just say they did a bad job, because that’s a subjective thing, but the reputation for it being hard to understand could be well-deserved, but we didn’t believe it. So we ran a replication study that was much larger, and compared, I think it was six languages—in this case I think it was Pearl, Python, Java, Quorum, Random-o and maybe one other, but I forget. In any case, the study that we ran the second time, the replication, with the Pearl result was effectively identical, on a new sample of people. We also found that Java actually did slightly worse than Pearl. To a lot of people, that sounds a little surprising, there’s a couple reasons. One, Java is actually required nationally for students in high school as part of the computer science A-standard through the College Board. So, the College Board literally chose a language that studies show does no better for human beings in terms of comprehension, than one where my lab sat around rolling dice and chose the symbols randomly—which is kind of terrible. But in addition, we sort of figured out why from that study, why it happens, or at least we suspect we have a pretty good hypothesis as to why. And the reason is, a lot of the individual symbols that were chosen in programming languages are actually common across many of them; so Pearl and Python are different, but they actually have many commonalities, like they both use the word “for” for looping constructs. They both have certain kinds of brace structures, I mean Python doesn’t but Java does. And it turns out a lot of the decisions that were made across the board related to C-style syntax, which is where a lot of these come from, actually made bad initial decisions and then a lot of programming languages effectively just copied them.

Chris: Kernigan and Ritchie just based the C programming language on mathematical logic—I mean, if you’ve taken a mathematical logic course, you kind of know C automatically.

Andrea: Yeah. So, very briefly, I was at a DARPA meeting and Brian Kernigan was there, and somebody asked him how he derived the symbols—and I swear to you, the study that we had written wasn’t out yet at the time, but I’d just finished it and we hadn’t submitted it for publication–“but Brian, but how did you figure out how to choose all the symbols and stuff?” He’s like, “well look, we didn’t know that C was going to become a standard, so we just kind of chose randomly.” And I swear to you, he said those actual words, but of course it was a DARPA meeting so, you know, it’s not like recorded or anything like that.

Chris: Now you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve developed Quorum. What is it, other than efficiency—is it easier to learn, is it…can I do more with fewer lines of code, what is it that makes Quorum special?

Andrea: The short answer is that, as the language progresses over time, it gets easier to use as we gather more data and make changes. So, I’ll give you an example of a change we’re making right now, because it will give you a sense of the process we do to make things easier. There’s this wonderful paper by Neil Brown in the UK, talking about the errors that programming languages give out. And the errors that languages give out are often really esoteric, they have like weird symbols like “__cdeco::55123” or something like that. I’m making up those exact symbols, but the idea is they’re often very esoteric, and they don’t give you common sense English explanations, like hey you missed a semi-colon, or this character looks wrong. They’re not really like that. And interestingly, there’s some evidence from a different scholar in Ireland, named Brett Becker, and his data shows pretty clear evidence—outside of our research group—that these errors can be made a lot simpler, and more crucially, that if do that it makes it easier to learn programming languages in the classroom. So if my team, we read Brett’s work and started talking to him to figure out what we do to make things easier. And it turns out that, when we investigate the errors that people get in Quorum—which we know because people use it online all the time, and so we can see the kinds of errors people have—it turns out that 70% of the errors that are in Quorum right now, today, that we need to fix this, are actually generated by a tool behind the scenes called Antler, this sort of parsing tool Terrance Parr in San Francisco developed. But it turns out that the specific regions of Antler that trigger these errors give pretty esoteric things, and it’s pretty obvious, looking at the data, that these are going to be difficult for people to use because of Brett’s data and because of Neil’s data. So basically, what I have a graduate student doing right now is doing all sorts of behind the scenes calculations about what triggers these errors, under what conditions and stuff like that for people, so then we’ll go back and then review them, do edit passes, go through peer review related to what these errors are, with the goal of, within a release or two, making it so people can solve these errors a little bit faster, which we’ll measure in our lab. So that’s an example sort of like an upcoming study, but a lot of Quorum is built with the same philosophy. Like, somebody will email us and say, hey, I wish you had this feature, and we’ll test it in the lab, and it will either work or it won’t, in terms of being easier. I’ll give you one brief example of that one. There’s a topic in programming languages called lamdas—a lamda is a totally esoteric, totally sort of in the business kind of way to have a function that doesn’t have a name. And it sounds like some fancy word for it, but I swear to you that’s really all it is. It’s a function, that doesn’t really have a name, and it computer science you can kind of pass these around in certain ways, they can be transferred and there’s all kinds of funny things you can do with this. Now interestingly, when the programming language C++ added them to the language, they wrote this long white paper about why they were important, and why they were adjusting the language and the purpose and all this kind of stuff. And so we were curious, like well maybe we should have lamdas in Quorum, and some of the people in my lab were arguing pretty vociferously for them because they liked them. But people’s likes don’t always match people’s productivity or things like that. So we conducted a test, and we compared exactly to the criterion that the people in the white paper on C++ claimed would be benefits, and then we tested it with a whole bunch of different kinds of people. Notably, we tackled freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors at a university, because we’re testing in college range in that case. But in addition, we also recruited from a group of people that are sort of like really aficionados of lamdas—like they eat and breathe these things, they’re part of a group called the lamda lounge, they get together and talk about lamdas—they like lamdas. And so you would think that a group like this would have significant bias, and as such it’s interesting to test with them, just to kind of see what happens. But when you really pull out the data, and you conduct the experiment, as it turns out, lamdas really don’t help, at least in the context of the study that we did. And therefore, when we went tot he next design phase of Quorum, lamdas didn’t get included, because the study showed that they really didn’t help that much. Does that make sense? Sometimes computer programming is really like really esoteric, so it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to translate into English, but I’m doing my best.

Francis: Back in the day, I guess it was 2016, when we had a President that actually could think, you were honored at the White House as a White House Champion of Change.

Andrea: Yes sir.

Francis: And that’s really impressive. So I’m wondering, what is it about your program that caught the White House’s eye and why would this program be honored (and you) as a Champion of Change?

Andrea: You never really know for sure, but I’ll tell you the story and then tell you what they told me—what they thought—and then you can kind of decide yourself. So, I was literally sitting on Dumbo with my daughter at Disney World, or something like that. And I got off, my phone was beeping and I was annoyed because I shouldn’t have even had my phone with me. But I got this email from the White House, and I was like, that doesn’t happen. I thought it was fake, so I effectively mailed them back (because it’s hard to spoof a mailback from an address that’s a dot-gov), and they’re like, no, this is real, blah-blah-blah, you should do this thing. And I’ve been nominated for this award by someone, and I didn’t know who, and I couldn’t figure out who, etc. etc. And that ends up being a long story that I won’t get into, but in any case, by that January, I’d found out that I’d won this thing, and I still didn’t really in my head have a good sense of why, exactly what it was for, why or stuff like that, but the White House basically started talking with us about the details of why individual people on the award and I didn’t know fully until I got there. But when started developing Quorum, there was really two things, I think, and that they expressed to me (the staffers and such) that caught their eye. Number one is, when we first started Quorum, there was almost no initiatives in the United States to include people with disabilities in programming. And this is a big deal, because people with disabilities make up, depending on the number you want to cite, between 13 and 15 percent of people broadly. So like, it’s a lot of folks, you don’t just want to not include them. But in addition, in K through 12, it’s actually required by law that any kid with a disability, no matter who you are, whether it’s blindness, deafness, doesn’t matter—you should be able to participate in whatever academic stuff is going on. So if that’s programming, that’s important, if it’s history, you shouldn’t be excluded, that seems unfair. When we first started Quorum, the very first year we were testing with like, people with disabilities, because I just thought that was really interesting, they had cool problems, it was really fun going and talking to a group of blind children and just learning what they care about, what they’re interested in and—it was just a lot of fun, and it ended up sparking this sort of like movement where now there’s schools all over the country, at schools for the blind, that are teaching programming. Now Quorum is used by way, way more people than just at schools for the blind. I care very deeply about that, and so everything we do we try to make just hyper-accessible, as much as we can. Nothing’s perfect, but we try. That’s number one, the second one was, when I talked to people and the staffers, they said, you know, this problem where there’s 300 or more billion dollars in wages and we aren’t gathering much evidence, that seems like a lot of money, that seems significant. So they had me write up a thing talking both about groups of disabilities and causing change in a K-12 community to get more people involved, but in addition change in an academic community to try to push other scholars to be gathering more and better evidence over time. I think it was those two things that caught their eyes, but you know, you never know for sure. It was a little humbling, to say the least. I was pretty surprised to get that award.

Francis: Well nowadays you have to be a flat earther or something to get recognized for your scientific achievements at the White House.

Andrea: No kidding. Have you seen that flat earth movie on Netflix? It’s just…

Francis: Not yet.

Andrea: I forget what it’s called, but it is really crazy how conspiracy theories have become sort of the norm—not just at the White House, although that’s true. But I think also like how algorithms on YouTube and other places sort of highlight these sort of crazy, crazy ideas, and it’s hard to tamp down. Climate change denialism is very well funded—that’s insane, but it is what it is. It’s weird that, like, we balance freedom of speech so much that we’re allowed to shout conspiracy theories from the rooftops—which sounds OK, but on the other hand, it’s kind of dangerous, because if those people control the White House, they also change policy which impacts all of us.

Chris: Getting back a bit to Quorum, how is it being used in the wild now? I mean, it’s been around for a few years, so people must be doing something with it.

Andrea: Yeah, quite a bit. So the strategy in the lab is sort of, it’s kind of a dumb name, but it is what it is—we call it push up, push down, and when we started we were targeting only—and no one else—a small number of schools for the blind. And that involved, in the very first year, about four or five kids, somewhere around there, so like, nobody, right? And that made sense, because Quorum was brand new, it barely worked—I mean, we had just started the thing—and that was sort of where I began. But, interestingly, it started to grow at first over the next couple of years in the blind community, and the number of users ballpark-doubled pretty much every year, for year-on-year, for many years. Nowadays, if you include only people online, I think it’s something like 81,000 users per year, is what it was for this last year. Now the question is, what do all these people do with it? And the answer is, I’m not totally sure, but we think it’s mostly schools, and that’s on purpose because it’s an evidence-based programming language, we want to be able to change it, and it’s really convenient to be able to change it in relation to the school cycle over the summer. So for example, we gather evidence over the school year, we do whatever we’re going to do, and then over the summer we’ll sort of flip a switch, change over all the curriculum, change over the language, and then people adapt during our trainings and stuff like that over the year for the new change. That’s so complicated, but generally speaking that’s gone really well, and it’s allowed us to sort of find a nice balance between being used in practice, and also maintaining an evidence base that can allow us to make adjustments slowly over time. So what is it used for? I think mostly K-12 computer science would be the most accurate answer. However, we have a lot of technologies that are useful even at the professional level, we’re just not targeting those groups yet because we kind of want to wait until a few more years, as the language develops, so that we can basically make adjustments over time. In other words, the closer it gets to professional practice and use by companies, they’re not going to want it to change very quickly, and so we kind of are trying to find that balance with the language. Let the user base grow, but try to grow it on the younger side first. That’s our push down, and then later push up.

Chris: And what specifically did you do to make it accessible to people with disabilities?

Andrea: When we started talking to blind children, I spent a lot of time just sitting there asking them, like “hey, you’re 14 you’ve never used a computer before, and like you don’t know much about screen readers either, but now you’re a programmer, and what do you want to do with it?” And so, totally unfair, unreasonable questions, but we were just trying to talk to kids and see—you know, if you’re a kid, you’re blind, and you want to do stuff, what kind of features do you want, what would help you? So that led us to a couple directions that we’re either still working on today, or that we do—and then also there’s a few papers that have come out in the last ten years that have shown pretty strong evidence about what features are helpful to people when they code. And so, I’ll give you a couple examples. First, I’ll do the code ones, because they’re pretty easy to understand. And if your listeners that aren’t blind, that haven’t used stuff, when you use a text editor, it turns out that like the way that you handle keyboard support is really important for people that are blind. There’s all sorts of special keys that let you navigate in certain ways, that let you get context information, and stuff like that. In programming, those special keys don’t really have the same meaning, and so—there’s a wonderful study by a woman named Katie Baker that showed pretty good evidence about how you could redesign that navigation so that it would make it easier for people to get around in a programming interface. And then that was followed up by this wonderful disertation by the guy named Amir Armali, who also works at Google but is, like, a rockstar, just absolutely fantastic person and academic. And he basically extended Katie’s stuff to show that you should modify these keys in another fancy way. And so one of the things that we do is, as other academics work in this space, we steal their ideas as much as possible to make sure that we’re sort of conforming to the evidence about what helps people with disabilities most, not just a blindness specific feature. But the short answer with that navigation is in our tools, one of which is called Quorum Studio, there’s a feature called “smart navigation,” which is effectively just Amir Armali’s dissertation work, but coordinated inside of that environment—it lets you bounce between functions in a certain way, and bounce between parts of the code in a very known, specified manner. So that’s one. That’s just navigation, there’s evidence it helps, but that’s just one feature. One of the other things that, when we talked to blind children, that they wanted to do is that kids consistently and repeatedly wanted to be able to design computer games. And when we asked them, we said, oh yeah, you want to make audio games? Because maybe a child is fully blind—and almost universally, these kids were like, no, I don’t want to make audio games, I want to make games that I can play with my friend, and my friend happens to be able to see. And so, that’s just a claim I heard over and over again when I talked to kids in the wild. And the problem is, I didn’t know how to make computer graphics accessible, not just to people that are blind but there’s a lot of complexity in making games accessible in general, for lots of people with different kinds of disabilities. But eventually we figured it out, and so we did some collaborative work with our lab and the University of Washington, especially this guy named Richard Labner, and we also eventually did some collaboration with Microsoft on some of their back end, so this stuff is pretty complex technologies. And we derived a methodology which you can do any kinds—and I mean any—kind of complex 2D or 3D graphics, fully blind-accessibly. And the idea is actually really simple; basically we have a graphics layer that can render or basically put on the screen any kind of 3D graphic—so this can be like a cube, this could be like a spinning, fire-breathing dragon, this could be and architectural plan, this could be engineering or CAD diagrams or anything like that. And inside of our applications, because of this sort of pseudo magical technology we have behind the scenes that took me like five years to figure out, when the screen reader gets it, it has no idea that there’s this complex sort of 2D and 3D graphic stuff going on behind the scenes, but it knows absolutely what those things are and allows screen reader users to interact with it at the sort of native operating system level, in the general sense, using any screen reader, at least on Windows, for right now. So, the application, at a laymen’s level, is basically you can make 3D games and have 3D game level editors and stuff like that, and you can do it even if you can’t se the screen.

Chris: Francis’ son has a great interest in playing video games, maybe he’d be interested in learning Quorum and making his own?

Andrea: Love it! That’d be great. I’d be happy to share anything. The 3D graphics features comes out in Quorum Studio 2.0, which will be in July* but we have—the beta is working now and we’ve been starting to do some webcasts and stuff on it. So I’d be happy to share those with you or your son, and we can put him in the beta, too, If he just wants to give it a shot.

Francis: Sounds great. He’s a real science nerd, and I think he would really enjoy coming up with a game that doesn’t involve killing people.

Andrea: Ha ha. Sorry, we only allow games to be created that kill people, that’s the rule, I’m sorry…

Francis: (chuckles) It’s a stretch, I know.. What the original inspiration for doing it, and was it intimidating to think that you could start your own language and people would avail themselves of it? Like, how do you go from having a language to having people know about it and use it, I guess is the second part of my question.

Andrea: And so the first part was, how did it get started, and the second was…

Francis: Yeah, what was the inspiration, originally? Because to undertake something that big, I imagine you had to have one of those moments where you were just really inspired.

Andrea: When I was an undergraduate, I spent a year on the East coast, and I worked with this composer whose name is Ben Johnston—he’s a composer that studied what’s called microtonal music, it’s kind of like on a piano, every key is a certain frequency, and as an undergrad, I was reading about this in a textbook, I didn’t understand it. So on a whim, I found out that this guy was retired, ‘cause I found out this guy was retired and living in North Carolina, so I literally just cold-called the guy and said, hey, I’m this random guy on the west coast, can I come study with you? And he said, sure. So, I then convinced, somehow (and I don’t know how, in retrospect) the university to give me college credit to go work with this guy. And so they gave me a full year of college credit to go do an independent study with this guy, in part because he was well known, he was not going to [inaud] etc. And then, by pure happenstance, I happen to get a bunch of scholarships like, the day before I left, I would not have been able to make it without them, to drive to North Carolina to go work with this guy on this kind of music—so why am I telling you this? Well, it turns out Ben derived this kind of music that, with a nasty notation system that was really hard to understand. And so I spent a lot of time when I was working with him to try to figure out how to make that easier for musicians, and this led to some led to some albums and stuff like that. I had to involve this like, complex linear algebra translation and all this weird math stuff, but at the end of the day, it had in my head this idea of, you can take a language, whether it be from music or something else, and then you can make that easier for people, and that matters because musicians can’t play it without it being easier. So, when I was in graduate school for computer science now, I had been interested in working with the blind because of my music background, and I just thought, I love doing sound related work. And literally, the first time I sat down with an actual blind student and had them try to use a screen reader for audio, and like they got a compiler error that was a minute long in their screen reader, it was glaringly obvious that the programming languages could be made much easier to use. So it was two things—it was sort of like, working with the musician, that has nothing to do with computer science and having them be a hard notation, and the second was, I sat down with a child that was blind, and they just struggled to use something like C++ or Python or whatever it was at the time, and it became very quickly obvious that if I changed all the words and symbols in the programming language, that it could be easier. I didn’t have any evidence of that at the time, it was just a hypothesis, but since then there’s plenty of data. It’s clear that that is an evidence-based position nowadays. I think that was the first half of your question.

Chris: What is your background, Steffik, how did you become a professor at UNLV and get into computer science and where’d you grow up?

Andrea: I grew up in Vancouver, Washington, which is right near Portland, Oregon. My degrees are in—I have Bachelor of Arts in Music, I did mostly composition while I was there, just sort of writing music, sort of having fun with it. I also have degrees in, Bachelors and Masters and PhD in computer science, and that really came from this sort of music experience: basically, to figure out all these notation problems, I had to do some math I wasn’t familiar with as a musician, and that ended up involving basically finishing a computer science degree to figure it out, and then I just kind of went on from there—the PhD sounded fun, so I went on from there. But for a professor, after graduate school, I really wanted to work with populations with disabilities, and I knew that I could do that in industry. You know, I had a job offer from a screenreader manufacturer pretty quickly after graduate school—

Chris: Which company was it?

Andrea: It was Freedom Scientific.

Chris: You said that that was 2008, so that was after I left, so it wasn’t me who offered you the job.

Andrea: I don’t remember exactly, it was a long time ago, but it sounds like it wasn’t. I mean, they were super kind, they were doing amazing work, but I kind of had this hunch that if I worked at a company, I would be basically making a product, and then that product might get better for people with disabilities. But I sort of had this hunch that if I was an academic, I could do something whacky to try to make a bigger difference for a larger community of people. I’m actually really glad I made that decision, because I feel like that’s come to pass more than I would have expected. So, maybe a little bit lucky, but..

Chris: What got you interested in working with people with disabilities?

Andrea: I have a music background in general, and so that got me really interested in sound applications. And I had a professor that I was working with at Washington State University, and he was interested in music related to coding, which personally I didn’t think would work—and I think the evidence bears that out—however, it seemed like it might be interesting to consider people that might use sound technologies. Who would they be? So I started looking around to figure out who would use a sound-based technology related to programming, like who would that benefit, potentially. And I started having conversations on mailing lists with people that were blind programmers, either in industry or in school, or that were learning, or that were very frustrated trying to figure out how to learn, and stuff like that. And so when I started looking into that, it seemed pretty obvious that there was almost nothing happening in academic scholarship, at companies, to try to make these tools easier for people, and that smelled like an opportunity, and I kind of jumped on it. Since that time, it’s kind of expanded to more disability groups, because why not help as many people as possible, but that was definitely the impetus of it.

Francis: One of the things that we like to talk about on this show is the idea of any reason you can come up with to be optimistic about the future. And I was wondering, I guess, if you are optimistic about the future, and if so, why.

Andrea: I have one that you might be interested in, Francis, just because of your comments about politics and the White House and stuff. So one of the things that we’ve been working on—I’ve been working on—is writing a book related to evidence and computer science, because there’s been this problem where, even in the academic peer-reviewed literature, there’s a death of evidence; meaning there’s a lot of scholars out there that are not using the scientific method and they’re getting published anyway. And that’s unfortunately a fact, there is strong evidence for the position that many scholars are publishing without evidence. However, it also turns out to be the case, that when you look at the history of evidence-gathering in other fields, as other fields change they tend to become stickier with their evidence. So, for example, for a microbiology person you might have a guess, but I’m not sure—do you know when you first, in drugs, had to actually start declaring what was in them, for a company? Any idea?

Francis: Oh wow. No idea, actually.

Chris: Was there a [inaud] in 1996?

Andrea: Oh no, it was early 1900s. Right?

Chris: OK

Andrea: And then when did you first have to test to see that your drugs were safe? Like, when did you, when did a company, by law, have to say, I need to test my drug first to make sure it doesn’t kill people? When did that happen…?

Francis: I imagine that’s a post-“better living through chemistry” affair, so I’m going to say ‘60s.

Andrea: That’s a really good guess, but it’s late ’20s. And then in the ‘60s, it turns out that’s when the laws changed so that you had to gather evidence to determine if a drug worked, at least better than placebo. Right? Which is not a great standard, but it’s better than it was before. And so why am I telling you this? Because it turns out, at each of those small increments, fields lagged the medical sciences started to get a little bit stickier with how they were damping down on pseudo-science and stuff like that. Now, they’re not perfect, we know that there’s anti-vax people today that are nuts and stuff like that, but in the medical communities, a significant portion of these studies that are done by actual scientists, that are published in peer-reviewed venues, follow standardized evidence standards, they follow very complex but also really important checks and balances in procedures to make sure that things work. One of these is called the consort evidence standard. And here’s why I’m hopeful: I’m hopeful because even though fields like computer science might have issues right now—and clearly we have issues politically with pseudo scientists being in charge of federal agencies, that’s a big problem—but I also feel like, we live in a democracy, we get to choose still, and historically it was actually much, much worse for a long time, and even though we have kind of a bad lull right now, a lot of these problems actually have been kind of slowly fixed over time to get rid of some of the nastiness that are there. So maybe in our time, I don’t know exactly what laws need to be changed, but it almost feels like we need some anti-propaganda laws. Maybe we need some laws protecting against megaphones for pseudo-science. And how to balance that with freedom of speech I’m not sure, but I feel like these changes will happen over the course of the next 20, 40, 50 years. And it might take a generation or two, but I’m hopeful that as that occurs, we should see significant changes in technology as the evidence standards improve [inaud]

Francis: You know, I think that regulation is something that we just have to live with in so many areas of life, and regulating accuracy in—it’s tricky, but it’s become something where it’s just too important to not figure out some way to approach it. You know, it’s kind of like we’re in a post-journalistic environment. You know, there was a time when journalism would kind of step in at a certain point and say no, that’s not true, here’s the evidence. And at least there could be a consensus, but now it doesn’t even seem like that’s happening so much.

Andrea Yeah, I think so too. And the nice thing is, too, when it comes to regulating this stuff, it doesn’t have to be any one solution; for example, right now, if you look at cable news channels there’s MSNBC, there’s FOX, and there’s CNN. It doesn’t have to be three, we can break them all up, break them into tiny little pieces, make sure that there isn’t one owner that gets a national news just for himself, and then make it so that, even if there’s one crazy person that has a thing, we don’t have to give them megaphone, right? And the FCC actually used to have laws like this—sorry, not laws but regulations, related to breaking up local groups. Maybe we need to do that. And then it wouldn’t even regulate accuracy, it would just say, well look, you can say whatever you want, you just don’t get a megaphone about it.

Francis: Excellent, yeah.

Andrea: And so, there’s lots of options.

Chris: Is there anything you’d especially, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s work, that you’d like to promote or plug or make sure our listeners leave knowing?

Andrea: Sure. I’ll plug Quorum Language, which is a programming language, it’s often great for schools, it’s highly accessible to people with disabilities but also it’s fun for making games and stuff like that. You can get it

Francis: Great

Chris: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for coming on Making Better.

Andrea: Thanks guys, I really appreciate the conversation.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts 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. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Making Better Episode 19: Lainey Feingold

Lainey Feingold is a disability rights lawyer who focuses on digital accessibility, an author, and an international speaker
and trainer. Lainey’s book, Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, is available in print and accessible digital formats.

In 2017 Lainey was selected as one of 13 “Legal Rebels” by the ABA Journal, the national flagship magazine of the American Bar Association.

In 2017 Lainey was also the individual recipient of the John W. Cooley Lawyer as Problem Solver Award, given annually to one individual and one organization by the Dispute Resolution Section of the American Bar Association. In both 2014 and 2000 Lainey was honored with a California Lawyer Attorney of the Year (CLAY) award. Lainey is a frequent and highly regarded speaker and trainer at conferences, webinars, law school classes, and other programs and events.

As always, this episode of Making Better is fully transcribed. Click here to read the full transcript.

Episode 19: Lainey Feingold Transcript

Making Better Episode

(music) 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: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hey, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: And this is Episode 19 of Making Better Podcast, featuring disability rights attorney Lainey Feingold!

Francis: And when thinking in terms of change, how to actually make that happen in this world, I don’t think anybody is better situated to make that happen than lawyers. I think we really, really need lawyers. We need the ACLU, we need people like our guest right now, because compared to the difference that marching in the street does, I think litigation, personally, does a lot more.

Chris: I’ve known Lainey for some time now, and have the greatest amount of respect for her. She’s one of the few people out there I admire entirely, and if you’re interested in digital accessibility, she can tell you the entire history, because she’s been there from the beginning.

Francis: Don’t get me wrong, I love a good lawyer joke—but I really think that the lawyers who are making a difference in our country right now and around the world are true heroes.

Chris: And with that, let’s get on with the episode!

Chris: Lainey Feingold, welcome to Making Better!

Lainey: Thanks for having me, glad to be here.

Francis: This is Francis DiDonato, and yes, welcome to our show.

Chris: You’re one of the top ADA attorneys, or at least in my opinion you’re the top ADA attorney. Can you tell us a bit of your background, and the journey that brought you from childhood to where you are now?

Lainey: Yes, but let me start just by saying that, you know my focus on the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, is digital accessibility only, so I just want to give a shout-out to so many lawyers, civil rights lawyers around the country who do ADA law in very many different sectors: the built environment, people with mental health issues, prisoners with disabilities, there’s so many ADA lawyers, so yes, this is my space and I’m so happy to be in it, but I have to say that to start.

I fell into doing disability rights work and digital accessibility work, kind of like the way life happens—serendipitously. I got out of law school in 1981, I wanted to be a union-side labor lawyer—that’s what my focus was during law school, we had a group called the women’s labor project. We weren’t the first generation of women to be representing labor unions, but I would say maybe first-and-a-half. It was a very male space at the time. I did that, and then I transitioned to traditional civil rights, and then I unexpectedly [aired?] from a job, and I was like, uh-oh, now what? And much to the greatness of how my career turned out, there was a temporary opening at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, DREDF in Berkeley, which is a national leading disability rights nonprofit, and I took a job there, was supposed to be four months, turned into four years. While I was there, the issues came into the office about blind people not being able to use ATMs, and that’s basically how my career in this space started. 

Chris: So in the digital accessibility space, there’s more than one approach to a lawsuit. You wrote a book call Structured Negotiations, and you can speak to that—which I think is the proper approach—but there are what I consider to be highly unethical attorneys, like Carlson Lynch and some of the other firms out there, who really do “shoot first, ask questions later”

Lainey: So you’re wondering what I think of that? Yeah, I’ve written on the ethics of the space. There is one category that I think is left out of your question, it’s collaboration, which I have been lucky enough to do as a lawyer because the blind individuals and organizations who have let me be their lawyer are collaborative people. You know, I did write the book called Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, and it tells the story of the work we’ve done over the last 25 years in digital accessibility with collaboration. Because I’m a lawyer, because I wrote the book, I tend to get the focus; but the truth is, if it weren’t for the people, if it weren’t for the people with disabilities who faced the barriers wanting to solve things with collaboration, the whole collaborative effort never would have started. And yes, in the past several years there have been lawyers come into the space who I don’t think have a goal of true inclusion and accessibility; but there’s also a third way, which are civil rights lawsuits for the right reasons, brought by ethical and highly-skilled disability rights lawyers. Those lawsuits have been very important to shaping the digital accessibility space. So, it’s not just, oh, there’s collaboration on one side, unethical lawsuits on the other—there’s also very highly ethical lawsuits.

Chris: My biggest disappointment with the Obama administration was that they never published the rules to the ADA Restoration Act, or to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. I mean, they had eight years to do the first of those, and six years to do the second; how does that affect your work as an attorney on these cases, when the federal government never actually published rules to associate with the laws they had passed?

Lainey: Yeah, the question of rules—not speaking to any specific law, but my biggest familiarity is with the lack of rules around web accessibility that the Obama administration—I thought they were going to pass them, there was testimony, we had hearings, we wrote, spilled a lot of ink or pixels or whatever you say now, on the whole issue of what would the regs look like if there were regs about web accessibility. They never came out—I think it made it harder, it makes it harder for lawyers, but I just want to say, I think it makes it harder for champions and advocates inside organizations, in companies, in government agencies, because a lot of big institutions, they like something to point to. They like to be able to say, OK, we’ll do this because it’s written here, and I think it would be easier for people inside to be able to say, oh here we have these regs, we have to do it. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is going to be 30 this July, having it’s 30th anniversary, since the beginning it has called for the inclusion of disabled people by having very strong nondiscrimination provisions and very strong provisions about what they call effective communication, and that’s really what digital accessibility is about. Without accessibility, disabled people are excluded, and so that’s why, in my presentations I often say, the web regulations are dead.

Chris: The Supreme Court recently refused to hear the appeal in the Domino’s Pizza case, and Domino’s Pizza was using the lack of rules as their defense. Do you think that trend is going to continue?

Lainey: I think that was a trend, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to take that case, I think, pretty much put an end to that argument, because what Domino’s was about was that the Ninth Circuit—the Federal Courts in the US are divided into eleven parts of the country, and those are called circuits, and one in California, where this case was, was part of the Ninth Circuit. In the Domino’s case, the Ninth Circuit said, yeah, this case can go forward even though there aren’t regulations. And the Supreme Court could have said, hey, we want to rethink this, but they didn’t. So, I think we’re going to see less of that argument going forward.

Chris: With these laws like the ADA Restoration Act and CVAA, passed overwhelmingly in the United States Senate, with 98, 99 votes with a couple of absences, so therefore they seem to have bipartisan support, but we don’t seem to be getting any support from the current administration.

Lainey: I think there’s no such thing, really, as “bipartisan support” any more, to tell you the truth. It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s another thing to get into the nitty gritty of it, but I think that ADA is strong enough, and we can see by this rise of lawsuits, to support digital accessibility, and the biggest threat is probably the judges that the President put forward and the Republicans approve in the Senate, that is a big threat to the judiciary and the kinds of rulings we could get down the road as these issues percolate up through the court system.

Francis: I’ve thought for many years now that we don’t have a robust journalism in this country any more, that holds our leaders to task, nor the fact-checkers or the people who give people a sense of what’s going on in the world. And I’m wondering if lawyers are filling that void through lawsuits right now.

Lainey: The void by the media?

Francis: Not insisting on accountability. It’s an issue of accountability that is kind of missing right now, with a media that doesn’t really cover the things that are going on that are illegal, or just wrong.

Lainey: I really don’t know how to answer that. The media has been covering the lawsuits, but basically what happened—this March, which is in two weeks, will be the 20th anniversary of the first web accessibility agreement in the United States. And that was an agreement that we negotiated in structured negotiation with Bank of America, and Bank of America has long been a champion in this space. And by “champion,” when I say champion about any company, I don’t mean they’re 100% perfect, I mean they have a structure in place, they recognize digital accessibility, and when something goes wrong, they can get it fixed. So that was 2000, that was 20 years ago, and that same year that we did that settlement, there had been a lawsuit that was filed—I forget if it was eBay or AOL, I believe it was AOL—for over 20 years, the law has been used to advance digital accessibility. The media was not very interested until we started seeing two things: one is the onslaught of lawsuits, but two, when there is a big lawsuit, like the Target case which was one of the first big lawsuits on web accessibility, that was 2008. And by that time, structured negotiation and collaboration had really worked with a lot of companies to improve accessibility, but when I do talks, I say, does anyone know that Bank of America is a champion and signed the first agreement in 2000? Well, no one knew that, but everybody knew that in 2008, there was a lawsuit against Target. So the media has played a role, and it’s good to have the attention on those lawsuits. The problem we have now—there’s attention, but is it the right kind of attention? And that’s something that I struggle with, this onslaught of lawsuits is bringing attention to the issue, which is good, however I believe it’s creating an atmosphere of fear and looking at accessibility through the lens of risk rather than inclusion, which I think is dangerous.

Chris: You ran into that with Anderson Cooper, when he interviewed you for 60 Minutes?

Lainey: Yes I did. We had an interview with Anderson Cooper before the election. It was for 60 Minutes and my colleague, Linda Dardarian and I, who had been my partner in so much of this work over the years, along with our clients and—he interviewed us, and he seemed so into collaboration. We talked to him about talking prescription labels that allow blind people to safely take medication, we talked about our work with Major League Baseball and how, as soon as Major League Baseball met the blind baseball fans, they were all gung-ho to do accessibility. They had really fancy film people who came back to Linda’s office and spent literally three hours filming the talking prescription label from Scriptalk, and then they didn’t run it. They chose to run a hit piece on the ADA, and it was very distressing. And I think when we come up to the 30th anniversary, the disability community—there’ll be a lot of positive articles, but I think there’s going to be a lot of blowback because of misuse by a very small handful of lawyers, but nonetheless a handful that gets attention.

Chris: I had written four articles of my blog, that can be found at, I describe as “ADA Trolling.” I got an awful lot of blowback on those articles, one lawsuit threat from somebody I actually named in the articles—it was just a threat, I wasn’t actually sued—and I got a lot of blind people who were raging at me for saying why take a moderate approach, we should be more aggressive, which to my mind says if you’re going after every small business, the first people they’re going to call are their Congressmen or the Chamber of Commerce, and they’re going to try to get ADA weakened.

Lainey: I think there’s room for a lot of strategies. And you know, one of the things that I talk about in my trainings—well, first of all, I always do what I did at the top of this show, which was to remind people how important lawsuits—I mean, look at the wonderful work that ADAPT does with direct action—many, many strategies that contribute to the forward arc of history—is long, but it bends toward justice. But I just think we have to be careful, because there is a reality of how people look at lawsuits, and I think they just have to be done carefully. All I can say is that collaboration has worked, other strategies have worked too. I would not tell someone, oh you must do a collaborative, structured negotiation approach, because it’s not the right approach in every situation, and it may not fit the personalities involved in the activism. So I think it’s really important to keep the broad view, but when collaboration works, it can be very powerful. I think there is a feeling that if you’re not fighting, you’re not trying hard enough, and if you’re too nice, you’re not loyal to your causes—and that just hasn’t been my experience. So, you know, that’s really all I can say. But I really don’t want to be the poster child for, oh, not trying to be very careful, oh, Lainey Feingold doesn’t do lawsuits and therefore she and her clients have gotten these results, and therefore a more aggressive strategy isn’t good; because no, sometimes the more aggressive strategy is good. The proof is in the pudding, like what are the results? One of the things I don’t like about what’s happening in the legal space now is that most of the small handful of lawyers, everything they do is settled confidentially, big press release at the top of it, you know, we’re having this multi-million dollar lawsuit—then you find out it’s settled, you have no idea what for and where’s the accountability? Where’s the transparency? What can the community expect from this particular website or technology?

Chris: In some of the very early web accessibility related cases, NFB v. Amazon and NFB v. AOL, the consent decrees at the end of the day did not require accessibility. Amazon has taken up the accessibility cause since, and I think Peter Corn is doing a great job there, but Amazon’s website is still nowhere near compliant with the guidelines…

Lainey: I don’t want to speak to particular results of particular lawsuits, but I do want to say that National Federation of the Blind has done an amazing job on digital accessibility both in lawsuits and a lot of behind the scenes things that we don’t see, where their lawyers who are fantastic, top-shelf digital accessibility civil rights lawyers, the firm Brown, Goldstein and Levy, and the partnership between NFB and Brown, Goldstein and Levy, has saved a lot of cases from going in the wrong direction. I’m not talking about cases they file, which are important—I mean, they’re doing very important cases right now on voting accessibility, they’re doing one of my favorite cases (I don’t want to say favorite, but), an important case on self-check (there was a lawsuit filed against WalMart because their self-check devices weren’t accessible, and instead of helping the customer, the staff person stole money from the customer). So in this era, we need all hands on deck, and honestly the NFB has, is doing currently some very important work in this space, and helping out in cases in a backseat way that’s very, very important to many of the successful outcomes that we see.

Chris: Changing gears to something broader, is disability is somewhat unique among other minorities. I like to say that first, we are the only minority you can join in an instant, and second, we’re the only minority that you will join if you live long enough. How does the uniqueness of disability fit into civil rights in general? We’re the only minority who’s discriminated against by every other minority.

Lainey: Yeah. Well, one thing I don’t believe—what do they call it, the oppression olympics—I don’t like comparing one type of exclusion or discrimination as different, or bigger, or more important or more troubling. So, I just want to say that—one of the things we say in digital accessibility is, if only people would design for their future selves. And that goes to your point that anyone can join in an instant, and if we’re lucky enough we’ll all join, because we’ll get to live to an old age where our eyesight will fail, our mobility will weaken, our hearing will weaken. So yeah, it creates the opportunity, especially in digital, to do just what I said—design for their future selves. But I think we also, in disability rights, face a fear that people have with the association of being sick or being disabled, with being dead. And you know, the disability community, there’s so many great writers right now writing about disability as point of pride and being disabled as an identity, and I always encourage companies I work with to try and tune in to the disability community and meet people, to just shift that attitude away from I don’t want to deal with it. So yeah, I think it raises opportunities and challenges. We can all become part of the community at any time.

Chris: Lainey, can you speak to your book, Structured Negotiations?

Lainey: Yeah, thank you for asking. Structured Negotiation came about in the mid-1990s, when I was at [] as I said, and blind people around the country were starting to raise issue: we have the ADA, it was passed in 1990, but I still can’t get $20 out of an ATM machine because the machine is not accessible. And they came to [] and they came to Linda Dardarian’s firm in Oakland, and they said, can we use the law to fix this? And for various reasons I describe in my book, we decided to write letters to the banks instead of filing a lawsuit, even though they would have been good lawsuits. We wrote letters to Bank of America, Wells Fargo and CitiBank, and it took four years, four or five years, because there were no talking ATMs at the time; but we never had to do a lawsuit, and it was just a great experience because the blind people who were part of that effort were so skilled, technologically. Of course, they had come and said “we want to use ATMs independently” and the banks got to meet those people—people like Gerry Coons, Roger Peterson, Cathy Martinez and others—and it just worked, because blind people could give input. We talked about everything from what color—now it seems, OK, ATMs are all the same, but what color should the cancel key be? And what should the talking instruction say? And toward the end of that, a couple of the more technologically skilled people—in particular Roger Peterson and Gerry Coons—are like, well you know, Lainey, great job, talking ATMs, but there is this new thing called online banking and we’d better make sure that’s accessible. And that was my first foray into the web, and thanks to the farsightedness of the blind advocates that worked on the first cases, we talked to the organizations, we said “this online banking thing has to be accessible.” The WCAG, the web content accessibility guidelines, had just, WCAG 1.0 had just gotten adopted—I think it was 1998 (just had the 20th anniversary). So that’s how we got that first Bank of America agreement that we talked about earlier. And when that whole process was over we were like, wow, that was a lot better than doing a lawsuit! That allowed the clients, who typically in lawsuits don’t have a very active role—I mean, sometimes they do, but typically they don’t—it allowed everyone to share their concerns in a safe space, so to speak. We could really hear—there were concerns from the banks that were legitimate, and safety and cost, but instead of fighting about it and waiting for a judge to tell us what to do, we were able to work it all out. And so, we’re like, that’s a good thing, we should call it something, and we called it Structured Negotiation, and I wanted to write a book about it because I felt it was something that people could learn, both activists and lawyers, just like you learn to be conflictual and aggressive. There are strategies to be collaborative, and that’s really what my book is about.

Chris: My background in accessibility has primarily been workplace accommodations, and I see an awful lot of change in focus away from the workplace, where blind people now have about an 80% rate of unemployment, to—I don’t want to say frivolous, but you know, things like let’s make Facebook accessible and other things that have nothing to do with jobs or education or being able to build a foundation for a good life. Where do the priorities lie?

Lainey: That’s a good question, and something I grappled with when I was first approached by *Rhein Charlston and other Red Sox fans who were blind, who could not access the Major League Baseball website. Until that time, I had mostly been focused on financial issues, working with banks on accessible banking information. We had done accessible pedestrian signals with the city of San Francisco in structured negotiation—I wrote about that in my book, which was a real safety issue, the ability to cross the street safely. We did some work with other health care institutions—accessibility matters for “important issues” like finance and healthcare, which of course it does, but I tell you the truth, I think if you ask people what is your favorite case that Lainey ever did, they would say, “Major League Baseball!” And the number of people who are impacted by—I mean, I’m not a sports fan myself, but I learned through that case that people like to listen to their hometown games, and people don’t live in their hometowns, and therefore they really rely on the web. So I learned from that not to be judgmental about what’s important and what isn’t, and to understand that people with disabilities have the right to participate in all aspects of society, all of which are digital in the 21st Century. As to employment, I think that’s been one of the biggest failings of the ADA, are the dismal employment rates, and I do think there’s starting to be more of effort. I have been doing some work with an organization called Disability IN, that is a business-to-business nonprofit that focuses on inclusion and diversity, and I just love this organization because they’re really working on the details with these big companies, about what it takes to hire people with disabilities, have the processes in place to make sure people get hired, throughout the employment cycle: get hired, work, be promoted, can be retired. And while the focus of that has sort of long been in the HR department, now everyone understands that without accessible technology in the workplace, we are not going to have a diverse workforce. And Disability IN has an accessibility committee that I work with that really understands that, Microsoft’s been doing some great work on that. Is it perfect? No, but I think there’s a growing recognition and—and here’s where the lawsuits come in—there are starting to be lawsuits on the employment side of things, and I think that is gonna also help really push the needle. I agree with you that employment has been left behind and is critical, but I’m not so quick to say that I know this is important, this isn’t important.

Chris: Going to a broader question, why is diversity itself important?

Lainey: I’ll speak to that in a second, but you also mentioned education. That’s another place where the law has played a role in moving things forward. I have not done a structured negotiation with higher ed or K-19 institutions, but again, the National Federation of the Blind and Brown, Goldstein and Levy and Tim Elder, who’s another disability rights lawyer who does really important ethical work, have done great work in the educational space and there’s a couple of really good settlements that really lay out what it means to have an accessible education environment. Just in the last month, there have been settlements with Harvard and MIT on what it really means to have a good program on captioning for deaf students. So there is a lot of work being done in the education space—not so much work, I think the gains have been further along in education than in employment.

Chris: In California, our mutual friend Lucy Greco has been talking a lot lately about all of the online educational materials that—well, she works at Berkeley, that the UC system had online—they’re just taking down because they don’t want to go through the expense of making it accessible, so it’s not just going to be inaccessible to people with disabilities, it’s going to be inaccessible to everybody.

Lainey: Well, I really get sad when people say, You know, I’m just gonna close a business, I’m just going to take down the videos, I’m just not going to provide that—because we want inclusion, we don’t want this—talk about backlash, public backlash. We don’t want disability rights to be seen as, oh, this is so expensive we’re going to take away what people have who aren’t disabled. So when that happens, as it happened at UC Berkeley, it’s distressing. And it doesn’t need to, because the ADA was originally designed, and still designed, to recognize that, you know, if something is too expensive, under the law and based on the size of the institution, the ADA is not designed to put anyone into bankruptcy nor does it. I mean, it’s too bad it happened at an institution with someone so great as Lucy Greco in the web department (of course she had nothing to do with that). But Lucy is a good example of the employment side, and back to your question about diversity—when you have disabled people (Lucy is blind) in jobs, especially in policy jobs, but really in any job, it will make the organization as well as the products that that organization produces, more accessible. I mean, I did a presentation once with Microsoft, and I just love what they said—if you have a deaf person working in the cubicle next to you, it’s a lot less likely that you’re going to put out a video without captioning. Or if you have a blind person, it’s a lot less likely the video player won’t have controls that are accessible. So, it’s not only important to the people getting the jobs who need employment, but to the outcome of whatever the organization is doing, I believe will be more creative. There’s a lot of studies on diverse teams make for more innovation and creativity, all sorts of diversity, including disability.

Francis: This past week there was a Democratic debate in Nevada, and someone asked Bloomberg if he thought he deserved having his $50 billion, and his response was basically, “yeah, I worked really hard for that.” I mention that because I’m a PhD, I worked my butt off because I wanted to cure diseases, and just about everyone I know works really, really hard, so the notion that for some reason this one man’s workload was 50 billion times more than the bottom 125 million Americans, struck me as absurd. There’s a larger issue there, which is that our society seems to have lost its appreciation for how interconnected we are, and how diversity is just a fact of life. We live in this mosaic, and what makes us function is the fact that we do have such diversity to a large degree. And I was thinking, just as an issue, it’s kind of really critical right now because I think we’ve lost sight of how important it is to honor those of us who maybe aren’t capable or even interested in making what’s considered financial success their goal, but play an integral part is what’s keeping society going.

Lainey: Well, first of all, when Bloomberg said that I almost threw my shoe at the television. I was like, are you kidding me? Of all the bad things he said, that also stood out in my mind. My husband just had to have, he’s fine now, but he had to have spinal surgery for something, and every medical professional who helped him, he was in this very expansive mode and he would say, “thank you for not becoming an investment banker! Thank you for becoming an anesthesiologist!” or “I’m so glad you chose to use your skillset to do this, or do that, instead of just make money.” So yeah, we have a lot of problems in our society right now that are too big for the scope of this conversation, but it is true that I’ve heard many disabled people use the term, you know, disability is just part of the spectrum of the human experience, or the continuum of the human experience. And I know my life is certainly enriched and better that I—I remember when I was first exposed to disabled people. Even though I’m in Berkeley, California, which is the birthplace of the modern independent living movement, and even though I have, as a person who considers herself progressive and on the left and I was a civil rights lawyer working in a firm doing race and gender cases and I was a union labor lawyer, until I went to [dredef] I just had no idea. I had no exposure—of course I knew people had disabilities, but I didn’t know there was a community, I didn’t know there was a culture. I just didn’t know, and I think even though this is 25 years later, I think people still don’t know. You know, with social media and things like the disability visibility project that Alice Wong runs, and a lot of the louder, more active voices on Twitter, really help people understand that disability is part of the human experience, which as you say, is what diversity is all about.

Francis: I like the promoting idea of neurodiversity, especially in the Asbergers community, and how there’s what I guess they consider neurotypical, which is the maybe like most people fit into that particular form of brain-wiring, but the thing is, you can succeed and live a really really happy life without having those particular challenges that are suited for neurotypical people. And you know, I think this idea of comparing everyone against the idea of idealized human functioning is just a very short-sighted, I guess easy thing to fall into.

Lainey: Well, there’s some great autistic speakers that I’ve heard at accessibility conferences, among them Jamie Knight, who works for the BBC in London and Ashley McKay* who is in Australia. And I’ve heard them both say independently, you know, if you’ve met an autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. And in design now, companies like Microsoft or Adobe, who are really focused on inclusive design, I think they call it “design for one, build for all.” It’s like, just recognizing that all of us are unique and that disability can be an innovator and you know, like disabled people, we’re not looking to be cured, we’re looking to be included. And that’s the privilege, really, that those of us in digital accessibility have, advocating for building or writing or podcasting, whatever role we’re playing, is to just broaden up what people think of when they think of technology and digital.

Francis: I’m wondering if non-adversarial approaches to resolving disputes is something that could potentially backfire? The closest I’ve come to being in a situation where I viewed that was a divorce, and you know, we decided the most spiritual way of divorcing was to get this guru dude, his name was Hari something or other, and he brought us together and he tried to explain what could go wrong if, you know, we didn’t come together. And he told us all of these dirty tricks that people use and how it just wreaks hell in their lives. Unfortunately that became sort of like the checklist of my spouse in how to proceed, and we ended up in court, and the whole thing sort of backfired. It does make me wonder sometimes if non-adversarial approaches sometimes possibly get a backfire, or if it’s just more appropriate sometimes than others?

Lainey: The reason we did not call structured negotiation “collaborative law,” is because collaborative law is a process that developed in the family law space. And I don’t know—you said “guru,” I don’t know who you used or what their training was, but there’s a whole world of collaborative lawyers who have conferences and training and, because I wrote this book, I’ve gotten to know those lawyers who do things very similar to structured negotiation in different fields, like there’s business lawyers who want to be collaborative. I believe there is a role for adversary, but first of all everything can backfire, things don’t always go as planned, that’s what life’s about. But I think there’s an imperative for collaboration, and I think—I had a chance to speak in Basque country, Spain last year to collaborative lawyers who didn’t know anything about accessibility, and I came to do a training on structured negotiation, and as we were working on developing the training, I said, well, do you want me to put in some stuff about accessibility, and these guys were so open and they were so interested. So we ended up sort of doing a half-accessibility, half using collaboration to advance accessibility. I think collaboration is particularly well suited for accessibility, because including disabled people in every aspect of accessibility is key to success, and I think that includes advocacy too. And so with structured negotiation, we’re able to have meetings, you know, like we work with a pharmacy in Texas, and they hadn’t really known any blind pharmacy patients. I mean, their individual pharmacist did, but the top people in the corporation didn’t, and structured negotiation—and—I tell these stories in my book—allowed people to be in the room together, and share stories, and that makes the need for accessibility—yes, it’s a civil right, it’s a law, it’s a requirement, it’s good coding practice and design and everything else—but it’s also about people, and it’s also about stories. And if you can come up with an advocacy strategy that lets people talk to each other, it advances the cause.

Chris: How do you think we might be able to get the story of accessibility out to more people? I often get emails just from random business owners saying they got a letter saying they were about to be sued—they have no idea what to do, and they’d never even heard of accessibility.

Lainey: Yes, it’s very unfortunate when people’s first exposure is being the receiver of a letter like that. I think there’s a lot of ways in, and the web accessibility initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium has a really great website with so many free training and business case and accessibility statement information, so much. I refer people there, I encourage people to go to conferences. I also encourage people to find—in San Francisco, we have the San Francisco Lighthouse and there’s, in Massachusetts there’s Perkins and the Carroll Center. Find your local community, and just sit down and see if you can learn something, or start a relationship. On my website, which is, I have a resource section, and there’s a category in there about usability testing, which lists nonprofits that can help companies get some direct experience with disabled people and how their technology is used. And a couple of those resources are online themselves, so like Knowbility, who runs a really wonderful conference called AccessU, which I know you are aware of—they also run an online portal where they have a database that people with disabilities who can test technology and give feedback, and organizations can participate in that. So, once you get past the fear and panic of getting a lawyer letter, there’s a lot of resources out there that can help people do the right thing.

Chris: Just as a quick shout-out, the Lighthouse of San Francisco is my favorite of all of the blindness agencies in America. I think Brian Bashin does an amazing job, and I think Erin Lauridsen, their technology director, is absolutely amazing.

Lainey: I would second that. They really do a great job, and Erin’s been just an amazing addition to that team. I often speak about fear—we know fear is a bad motivator in most aspects of life, you know, family, religion, neighbors. You don’t want to, like you can’t move forward if the whole thing is fear, and I don’t like how accessibility gets put in the fear category because of these lawsuits. But if you get one, or you hear about one, you just have a responsibility to get past the fear and connect with people with disabilities to make things accessible.

Francis: For me, one of the main emphases for beginning this was, I had a sense that there was this huge potential, largely unmet, for making the world a better place right now, with regards technology, with regards to harnessing the goodwill of so many people who are just decent, hardworking, want to make the world a better place. And I kind of feel a sense of optimism that we just had this huge wellspring, this huge resource that is somewhat untapped right now, for what can make the world a better place. And I was wondering if you might share my optimism for the future, and why.

Lainey: I do write about optimism in my book, and I think optimism as a trait is an important trait. I don’t think that structured negotiation would have succeeded without optimism, because we have this aggressive court system that, it would be so easy if you weren’t trusting of collaboration and optimistic it would produce results, you’d just throw in the towel and say I’m going to go file a lawsuit. And Helen Keller says nothing happens without hope and optimism. So I’m a big believer in optimism—I think it is a hard time in the world right now to be optimistic, the racism that has been exposed in the current administration, that’s always been there but now has free reign, is very frightening. I’ll be a lot more optimistic when a Democrat wins in November in the US, politically. I don’t usually opine about things like that, but you’re asking me about optimism—I’m optimistic about the younger generation stepping up and reading the riot act to the world about climate crisis and climate change. I do think—and one of the reasons I like working with disability and I think the larger corporations in the United States are really starting to get accessibility. I think that the work Microsoft is doing and, like we said, no company is perfect—but there’s, under the micro scale of digital accessibility, not talking about climate crisis internationally—yes, the tone has changed. I think hearing large corporations, Accenture, they’re also doing a great job, Adobe is doing some great work—just hearing them talk, it’s not everything, it’s not every product, but I think there is a shift. So, I’m optimistic about that. But we can’t sit back, we all have our role to advancing inclusion, and we can’t stop doing it. But am I optimistic? I guess yes, I guess I’m still an optimistic person, although I do think there’s some pretty serious hurdles in our path.

Francis: The world really* needs lawyers right now, especially in the environmental world, civil rights—lawyers are just such an essential part of what can protect people, protect the earth and make the world a better place. Given that we do have such a heterogenous sort of population of people in society who are…you have on the one hand—I don’t want to simplify too much—the people who are trying to be really honest and work together and make things happen in a way that’s good for everyone, then you have others that are totally predatory and will come into a negotiation that’s supposed to be non-confrontational, that’s supposed to be more non-adversarial, and just be manipulating the whole time and trying to win. So—I don’t think I simplified it well.

Lainey: Well, I think I know what you’re getting at, or what I’m hearing—is bringing up two things for me. One, I know sometimes I sound like Pollyanna-ish, but there are a lot of lawyers who are trained to be certain way. But in structured negotiation, because from the very start we try to be transparent and kind of down to earth and explain, this is the problem you have, we would like to solve it with you. And we do that in emails and letters and phone conversations—people behave differently in this process than they do in adversarial processes. I have had friends who are traditional lawyers say, oh, do you ever deal with this person, he’s so difficult, and blah blah blah, and I’ll say, that hasn’t been my experience with him. And I think many lawyers I’ve talked to who have represented some of the biggest companies in this country that I’ve negotiated with have told me privately that this has been the best experience of their legal career. So I think systems can force people into certain behaviors, and when you give them an opportunity to behave differently, I’ve seen people do it. On the other hand, so no one thinks I’m like a total unrealistic person, there are lawyers who are in it for the wrong reasons, and whose behavior is something that I think hurts, not just the legal profession, but digital accessibility, and I used to feel responsible to convert all those people. And especially new people who are filing cases who originally I thought, oh great, the more lawyers the merrier who want to do accessibility. And I would try to talk to some of these people that we talked to, that we talked about at the top of the hour. And you know, those lawyers brought me to tears more than lawyers on the other side of the bargaining table. Now I realize, you know what, I can only do what I can do, and I can’t change lawyers who want to use the ADA for the wrong reasons. I can see my role as trying to make people realize that most lawyers, 99.9% of disabled people, are using it for the right reasons, and you know I have a slide in some of my talks, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact that there are unethical lawyers, or lawyers who don’t believe in collaboration, who don’t have any mindfulness, who are just like aggressive bulls in a china shop—don’t let that make us forget that the ADA is about inclusion and this diversity of human experience that we’ve been talking about. So I try not to let it upset me, and I try to let my optimism stay solid.

Chris: Well, with that, we might as well reach the end of this interview, and I’ll ask you the same question we ask everybody, and that’s—is there anything specific that you’d like to promote or plug or pimp or—it doesn’t have to be your work, it can be somebody else you think is doing something remarkable?

Lainey: Well, there’s a lot of people doing a lot of remarkable stuff. I guess I’ll give a shout-out to Haben Girma, I don’t know if your audience knows her—she has a book called Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, and Haben is a great representative of this work and these issues, and I have been lucky enough to do some book events with her and I see the audiences line up, and I think the best thing about what Haben does is how she answers people who say to her, “oh you’re so inspiring.” And she never lets it go to her head, she says, “what have I inspired you to do? Name me two things that you’ll do to improve inclusion of disabled people, based on your inspiration.” And I love that, you know. I love the concreteness of it. It made me two things: you’re inspired, tell me two things that you’re going to do when you go back to work on Monday that will result in more inclusion in the world or, as you say on this podcast, making the world a better place. So that will be my shout-out.

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

Lainey: Thanks for having me, I really enjoyed talking to you.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts 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. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Making Better Episode 18: Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast and the author of seven books on scientific skepticism.

Skeptoid is one of the longest running and consistently most popular independent podcasts, having surpassed 100 million downloads in January 2017.

Dunning is the writer and presenter of the documentary films Here Be Dragons and Principles of Curiosity. He has appeared on numerous radio shows and television documentaries, and also hosts the science video series inFact with Brian Dunning

A computer scientist by trade, Brian uses new media to showcase the rewards of science and critical thinking. He is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and lives in central Oregon.

As always, this episode of Making Better is fully transcribed, and you can

Episode 18: Brian Dunning transcript

Making Better Episode 18

(music) 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: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader

Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato

Chris: And this is Episode 18 of Making Better Podcast, featuring noted skeptic Brian Dunning!

Francis: Yeah, and I have to admit, I was a little bit skeptical, at first…nyuck nyuck nyuck

Chris: Brian was a fascinating guest, and we talked about all sorts of topics from the world of scientific skepticism and critical thinking. We cover some COVID-19 conspiracies, we even talk about UFOs and Bigfoot. Let’s get on to the interview.

Chris: Brian Dunning, welcome to Making Better!

Brian: Thank you for having me, lot of fun to be here.

Francis: Yes, and from upstate New York, I’d to welcome you as well.

Chris: So you’re host of the Skeptoid podcast, which is one of the most popular in the Skeptics movement, and right now we’re going through a major pandemic and there are a lot of conspiracy theories swirling all over the place about it. Would you like to speak to some of those?

Brian: Oh my gosh. It’s been one of the busiest weeks in my whole history. I’m getting emails and calls all day long from radio stations or video news shows, wanting to talk about the conspiracy theories, so I know a lot of people are having a slow few weeks, not at all for me. I did three of them yesterday, it was just brutal. In fact, because of all of these conspiracy theories popping up, everyone was saying, “hey, you should do a podcast episode about these conspiracy theories.” But with Skeptoid I don’t do current events, and I don’t do new, fringe-y ideas or things that haven’t yet proven to have long legs. One of the charters of Skeptoid is that all the episodes are evergreen—you can pick one up in five years and it’s going to be just as relevant today. So, I’m not really going to do an episode on this week’s COVID-19 conspiracy theory. Of course I can talk about that on the radio shows all they want, because I had to do something talking about it, there was just so much demand. I did an episode talking about the phenomenon of why we are having conspiracy theories and how we always have, every time there’s been a pandemic in the history of mankind. There’s been conspiracy theories and there’s been people using the pandemic as a political weapon, and so comparing and contrasting what’s happening now to a couple of prominent ones in the past. It’s both relevant today, and it’ll still be good in five years from now. Trying to keep up with the conspiracy theories as they’ve been appearing has been nearly impossible.

Chris: I heard yesterday that a bunch of people in Liverpool burned down [a 5G] tower.

Brian: Yeah, I heard they’ve been doing that in the UK and I think I heard they were doing it in Canada, and I also heard that so far there’s been no reports of that in the US. What’s silly is that the term “5G tower” doesn’t really mean anything. Yes, some 5G antennas are going to be mounted on existing towers, but they’re not going to be building any new towers for 5G. The range of a 5G antenna is so much shorter that, really, these are just going to be put on buildings and places like that.

Francis: Do they weigh the 5G technology against a duck before they did that, or…?

Brian: One of the points that I make every time I’m doing one of these is talking about how, if you’re worried that radio signals are going cause diseases or cancer or whatever it is you think, then 5G is the one that you should be least worried about, because as it’s the highest frequency of all the different cell phone technologies, it penetrates the least into tissue or anything else. If you’re worried about penetration into human tissue of these radio signals, 5G is the one that’s by far the safest.

Chris: What are some of the 5G conspiracies you’ve heard—and we know it’s non-ionizing radiation so it’s not going to penetrate the skin, so–I guess if you’re afraid of 5G, you should be wearing sunscreen at night.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a good point. The 5G one is really the newest of them, because first of all, when the coronavirus came out—I always expect people are going to go for billionaires first, and that was exactly what happened. People said, oh, Bill Gates was behind the coronavirus, Bill Gates is one of the illuminati and for some reason they want to commit global genocide and reduce the world’s population. So somebody looked into, you know, the Gates Foundation is one of the biggest donors to medical research in the world, if not the biggest. And someone looked into all of their past grants and they found that one of their grants went to a company—I don’t remember where it was—but this same company, on another grant that had nothing to do with the Gates Foundation, had done some research on developing a vaccine for an avian coronavirus, five, six years ago, something like that. And so based on those two tenuous connections, that this was a disease that had nothing to do with COVID-19 and this was a grant that had nothing to do with Bill Gates, they figured that Bill Gates is funding the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the first one that I saw; I guess the second one that I saw was, which for a long time was the biggest, was that this was a bioweapon that was either deliberately or accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the province of Wuhan, which was of course where the first cases were reported. So that’s an actual disease research institute, and they’re very similar to the US’s Plum Island Research Institute, which is no longer located on Plum Island—they’re basically just worried about protecting their agriculture, and so they are always doing research to protect against things like mad cow disease, things that can affect their crops. So it’s a very innocent institute, but someone decided, well, just because it exists, therefore if a disease from that same area came out then it’s putting two and two together and therefore, the Wuhan Institute of Virology must have created COVID-19. No evidence or rationale behind it at all, it’s just connecting two things that seemed to be vaguely related. Anytime anyone can find two things that are vaguely connected, even if that connection is not a real one, you know, just two things that happen at the same time, in the same place, in the same genre—well, suddenly there’s a global conspiracy. That’s just one of the failings of the way our brains work; we’re always looking for patterns, we’re always looking for meaning behind meaningless currents of events.

Francis: My PhD is in microbiology, so I get a lot of questions about whether COVID is a disease that is originally sort of a, some biowarfare kind of a thing, and you know, obviously there’s no evidence of that based on anything. If you wanted to weaponize a virus, this is definitely not what you’d come up with.

Brian: You take something like anthrax, that actually has been used as a bioweapon, that’s got a kill ratio of, I think, 60% or better, and COVID-19 is, what, 2%, something like that. It would be the world’s worst bioweapon ever.

Francis: Have you heard any, like, really outlandish COVID conspiracies?

Brian: Well, you can’t really get more outlandish than the 5G. You know, everything is so goofy and incredibly scientifically illiterate about every part of that. We know what causes COVID-19, it’s a virus. We have genome of that virus. We have its descent from other coronaviruses that it evolved from–there’s so much that we know about COVID-19, and 5G cell phones don’t play any role in that, not even remotely! And we also know everything about 5G and about radio and how it can’t possibly have any remote connection to any kind of a disease or harm to living tissue. So why and how people put these things together? I mean, really the only thing you can look at is, well, they both kind of happen generally around the same year or so, so therefore one caused the other…I mean, I can think of a lot of things that happened in the same year that don’t have anything to do with each other. You can’t get much closer to that than this.

Chris: Why is it that you think people subscribe to conspiracy theories? More so now than 20 years ago?

Brian: Well, first of all I believe the data does not support that people believe them now more than they did either 20 years ago or at any time in the past. I think if you look at the survey data of conspiracy ideation over all the time that it’s been researched, one thing we find that it does not have any preferences for any particular demographics—we don’t even find a correlation between education and conspiracy ideation. It really is truly something that affects all people equally, or at least all demographics equally, and everyone is somewhere along that spectrum. I think they always have been, I think they always will be. Certainly some particular conspiracy theories appeal to some demographics more than others, but there’s no demographic that’s immune from them. And over time, we’re to see different conspiracy theories come and go from popularity. Flat Earth—nobody had thought of that more than five years ago. But why people believe, why they always have, why they always will—there’s a number of different reasons for this that are the most often cited. One of them is just they’re attractive because they are really oversimplified and easy to grasp explanation for a complicated issue. People don’t understand geopolitics, but it’s easy to understand, oh, there’s a global new world order cabal that controls everything. Boom, got it, understand everything now. Makes it easy to wrap your arms around a complicated question, so it’s attractive from that perspective. Of course I’m sure you guys have talked in the past about how it’s, one of the leading theories is that it’s an evolved defense mechanism. Having a certain amount of native paranoia is a protective measure, especially, you go back to the days when proto-humans were—classic example is you hear a rustle in the grass, the guys who are a little bit more paranoid and suspect there might be some malignant agent in the grass, like a saber-tooth cat, he runs and jumps up in a tree, and he doesn’t get eaten. The other guys who are less paranoid, they say oh, I’m not going to worry about that too much, and occasionally one of them gets eaten. So over time it’s the people who are a little bit more paranoid are the ones who survive better in the gene pool. That may not be the case today, where we don’t necessarily need those skills to survive in the same literal sense, but that’s really a leading theory of why it’s baked into our brains at such a basic level.

Chris: Other than doing things like Skeptoid, how can we educate the populace to be better critical thinkers?

Brian: One of the most common questions I get is, people say oh my mom, my friend, my co-worker, whatever, is a 9-11 conspiracy theorist, or they have whatever strange belief it is that they have. They’ll ask me, do you have an episode that I can play for that person that will cure them of that? And I always say, well, yeah I do, but don’t play them that episode. Play them a different episode, something that you’re both already in agreement on, something that your friend is going to appreciate, not something that he’s going to see as an attack and shut you down and not listen to anything else you have to say. You never want to open by directly challenging someone’s sacred cow. You don’t want to go after their most cherished beliefs, that’s a bad way to open any conversation. But finding common ground is always a great way to open any conversation. I can suggest a hundred Skeptoid episodes that you and your friend are both going to enjoy listening to, and your friend is going to go, ha, that was really cool, I want to learn more. Do you have any other episodes like that? And when you can get people to appreciate the value of skeptical analysis and critical thinking, and get them to really begin to realize the benefits of it in their daily life, i.e. ability to make better decisions, not getting sucked into multi-level marketing schemes, etc. etc., you’ll find that those people will eventually want more and they’ll come around on their own to questioning this strange belief that you originally opened the conversation with. So, find common ground and don’t go for the jugular right off, that’s my summary.

Chris: We’ve had Michael Marshall on the show, and he does the podcast “Be Reasonable,” where he goes out of his way to interview people with really bizarre beliefs. He does it in such a gentle way that you can actually get a feeling for understanding what the people have to way.

Brian: Yeah, I love Marsh. He’s a great guy.

Francis: I have a couple classic conspiracy theories I’d like to throw at you—for example, the Rothschilds family. Did you research that whole thing and come up with your own analysis of it, or was it one of those things where you didn’t even feel like you really needed to..?

Brian: Yeah, I did an episode on the Rothschilds conspiracy theories obviously. There has never been an episode where I don’t feel I need to do any research. You know, it’s a weekly show, and it’s only about a twelve, thirteen minute show, and that twelve/thirteen minutes takes me legitimately the entire week to research. Skeptoid is exhaustively researched, and you’ll find complete references and bibliographic references and further reading suggestions at the bottom of every page on the website. So I never just talk about an episode just with my personal thoughts or off the cuff or anything like that. There was a lot to unpack when it’s something like the Rothschilds. Well, first of all, what is the specific claim? It’s difficult, in that case, because there are so many. The Rothschilds are one of those people—it’s like the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch—conspiracy theorists are simply going to throw that name out there and connect it to anything and everything. Oh, something evil happened in the world that I don’t like? Therefore, George Soros was behind it, or the Rothschilds were behind it, or the Koch Brothers, whatever it is. So it was difficult to find specific claims that you could address in that. I just kind of had to take them all on board and say, OK, basically this is a wealthy Jewish family that was involved in a lot of major world events over this period of about a hundred years or so. And even though they no longer exist in any meaningful way as an entity, people still believe that they are controlling world events. You know, the Rothschilds family is so diluted now and their assets are so diluted, any one who owns a bank account, you or I, we own about as much Rothschild entity as anyone in the Rothschilds family does. Anyone who has an interest-bearing checking account has shares, and those banks have shares in companies, everything is just sort of owned communally now. You can no longer say that any one entity controls anything. If you do say that, then you really need to go back to school at a 101 level and learn something about world economies. That was really kind of the thrust of the Rothschilds episode, is just kind of making those points rather than trying to pick and choose particular claims against them—there’s just too many.

Chris: How much do you think that anti-semitism contributes to conspiracy theories today?

Brian: Anti-Semitism is probably the ugliest part of my job, ‘cause it comes up every frickin’ day. Every frickin’ day I come into something that’s motivated by really ugly anti-semitism. I wouldn’t say that it causes conspiracy theories, it’s just that Jews tend to be the targets of so many, because they’re easy. In fact, the episode that I mentioned that came out this week on pandemics, one of the pandemics that I looked at was the Black Death in the 1300s. Well, who was the conspiracy theory about that? Who was causing the Black Death?—it was Jews, Jews are always the easiest target, they always have been. They’re a marginalized community, they have not had their own country throughout most of recorded history, they’re just kind of the ultimate outcast class. And so, they’re an easy place for people to point blame. In the case of the Black Death, it was claimed that Jews were seen poisoning the wells, therefore the Black plague is caused by whatever the Jews were poisoning the wells with. Now the interesting thing about that is, when you look at this and you try and analyze it from the perspective of, ok, why did people come to that conclusion, you learn some interesting stuff. And in that case—and I had never heard this before, so this was fascinating for me to learn—because of centuries of anti-Semitism and because the Jews did not have their own state, they lived in isolated communities. They were often, especially following the Crusades, a lot of them had been driven out of Europe, so the ones that remained in Europe lived in these isolated communities, often physically a little bit separate from the main cities. Sometimes they were even literally walled. And because of Jewish cultural practices, they tended to wash their hands and wash their bodies more often than other people. And because of this, to some degree, there was probably better sanitation inside many of these Jewish communities than there was outside of them, and so Jewish people tended to not get the plague as soon as other people did—and again, this is a generalization, but it would be likely to have happened enough times that people finally came to the conclusion, oh look, the Jews are immune from this! And here’s a story of someone who says he saw a Jew throwing something into a well, therefore, there’s your conspiracy theory right there. So that whole aspect of the culture happening to equal better sanitation and happening to confer some protection against the plague was a fascinating aspect of the story.

Francis: You think though that the Bible stories kind of contribute to it a little?

Brian: This is my person interpretation on that, and I know some of my colleagues don’t agree with me, and others do: I think all of anti-Semitism ultimately comes down to the Bible story, where Jews betrayed Jesus to the Romans. And I think that’s kind of the ultimate root, if you have to pick one ultimate root of anti-Semitism, I’d say that’s it.

Francis: Is there any time that you’ve come across these things and—were convinced that actually there must be something going on here, in terms of some sort of like, covert power grab or some sort of covert attempt to maintain control over a society or an industry or something.

Brian: That’s the basic idea behind the “illuminati” or whatever you want to call it, that there’s a secret cabal operating behind the scenes to whom all the world’s nations have voluntarily turned over their sovereignty. Why would anyone do that? If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re sitting on top of the world owning Russia, and some guy comes in and says, “hi, I’m from the local freemason chapter, I’m going to hand you your orders for everything that you’re going to do this year,” why would you do any of that? It just simply doesn’t make any sense, that any entity would want to hand over its sovereignty to some shadow cabal. Nobody knows who these people are, not even the people who they’re directly manipulating, what is the evidence of their existence.

Chris: Why don’t we do a lightning round—I’ll just toss out a topic, and you can talk for a couple of minutes on it. Why don’t we start with Homeopathy?

Brian: Alright! Homeopathy, yeah, probably one of the least plausible of all alternative medical modalities. You know, so many people, if you asked them “what is homeopathy”—I was on a backpacking trip with some friends a few years ago, for example, and they start handing out homeopathy pills. “Here, you need this, this will help you with your altitude sickness, this will help you with your headache,” whatever it is. And I asked them, so what are they? “Oh, it’s just an herbal supplement, no side effects, it’s just a very mild herbal dose”—and of course it’s not. People simply don’t understand, the number of people who know what it actually is a very small part of the market of people who actually buy into it. Because when you look at the box, it’s going to say “extract of milkweed” or whatever it’s supposed to be a homeopathic dilution of, and of course it’s not. If it’s homeopathic milkweed, that means by definition there is no milkweed molecules in there at all—that’s the big disconnect. My favorite way to illustrate that is that if you take a single atom or a single molecule of milkweed and dilute it in a swimming pool that is the size of a sphere the size of the earth’s orbit, that is a typical homeopathic dilution. It’s not a molecule in a swimming pool or in the ocean, it’s in a sphere of water the size of the earth’s orbit. That’s a staggering, staggering number that is mathematically accurate and I think begins to bring it into perspective for some people.

Chris: What about some of the other skeptical topics that may not be alt-med, like Bigfoot or borthman?

Brian: There really is no skeptical topic that should be too silly to talk about, and Bigfoot, of course, is the classic example. I mean, there are people who derisively refer to some subset of skeptics as “Bigfoot skeptics,” because you’re talking about things that are silly, that are not relevant, that don’t have any place in the life of intelligent adults—and yes, that’s true. However, they are absolutely relevant, because it’s the exact same thought processes that lead someone to believe in Bigfoot that leads someone to believe in the flat earth, or in a multi-level marketing scheme, or whatever it is that actually does affect our lives. And when you say that it’s a terrible, terrible thing that Dr. Oz is selling these worthless supplements, but it’s a harmless thing that grandma thinks her dog is psychic, it’s actually the exact same broken thought processes that lead someone to believe in both of those two things. So it is very useful to talk about the silly subjects like Bigfoot, because 1) they’re fun, 2) it’s the same subject, it’s gonna help you correct your thinking, and it’s a fun way to do it. I really love the silly subjects like, any cryptozoology, any famous ghost stories, any famous UFO stories. And there are so many, and the concepts that come up in all of these episodes are the same ones. You really can’t hammer them home enough times and as far to really begin to appreciate the value of skeptical criticism.

Chris: Often my favorite Skeptoid episodes are those that cover topics I’ve never heard of, like some ghost story from someplace or something like that. Which are your favorites of those?

Brian: I tend to have the most fun researching the historical mysteries. The episode that comes out next week is on the holy grail, and again, 700 episodes and it finally takes me this long to get around to the holy grail, which you’d think would be one of the basics. I still haven’t done the, what’s it called, the cloth that covered Jesus’ face?

Chris: The Shroud of Turin.

Brian: The Shroud of Turin! Thank you. I still haven’t done an episode on that. But I really enjoy the historical research. I buy a ton of books, I buy books almost every week or I check them out of libraries, and I just get on my knees and thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for that lets me check out books online that I wouldn’t be able to drive three hours to a library to get in time. I thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy learning so much about these odd little corners of history. If I can indulge with my favorite, absolute favorite example of this, was one of my early episodes on Borley Rectory. It’s one of these many houses, claims to be the most haunted house in the world, and as is the case with most of these houses claiming that title, it was conferred upon them by someone who was hoping to make money off of it. And in this case, Borley Rectory was sort of the brainchild of this Barnum & Bailey type character named Harry Price, who went and he lived with the people who lived in the house with the family for a period of time. He hired psychics to come in and do investigations that he could then write chapters about. The whole thing was planning to write this book, from the beginning. The one story that I had read about from Borley Rectory as a child, and that always fascinated me my whole life, was the idea of automatic writing, which was described as writing that appeared on the walls while people were watching. And there are even photographs of this writing, it was kind of this spidery handwriting that said “Maryanne get help,” and Maryanne was the name of one of the daughters in the house. The fact that all accounts said that this writing appeared on the walls while people were watching, that freaked me out. I’m going, well, there’s no explanation for that. I mean, there’s got to be one, but it’s got to be a ghost or something weird happening there. And it wasn’t until I finally did the Skeptoid episode on it, 45, however many years later, that I learned what happened. And it was a couple of people who do seances, who Harry Price hired to come to the house, sit down, and do a seance and to do their seance they used a, basically a Ouiji Board, it’s the thing you put your hands on called a planchette, and it would just move around; but instead of having a board with letters on it, they had a pencil that stuck through the middle of the planchette and would write on paper as it’s moving around on the table top. So to do this, they needed a big roll of paper that they could unroll on the tabletop, and what roll of paper was handy but wallpaper—these big rolls of wallpaper. They turned them upside down so that the blank side was facing up, and they put the planchette on and the seance people did their thing, moving the planchette around with their hands, and guess what, it happened to write out the words “Maryanne, get help” and there were plenty of people in the room watching. Now, when you hear it told like that, it doesn’t sound very mysterious at all; you know, it’s well-established that people can easily move those around deliberately, or they happen automatically with the ideomotor effect—in this case I’m sure it was done deliberately because these people were writing out some handwriting—and over the course of Harry Price writing about this and it appearing in a newspaper article and then later appearing in these books, at some point somebody heard that it was being written on the wallpaper, and they assumed that that meant wallpaper that was on the wall. It’s an assumption that we’d all make if you hear “writing appeared on the wallpaper.” So it goes from this very easily explainable case of the seance people simply writing it out with their hands to “automatic writing” appearing on the wall while people were watching, and it’s just simply a loss of translation in the telling and re-tellings of this. And as far as I was able to determine—I was the first person to kind of make that connection, and explain the automatic writing, which was a very exciting moment in the early days of Skeptoid—I think that best exemplifies why I so much enjoy doing these historical mysteries. It’s ‘cause occasionally you do find these wonderful little tidbits like that.

Chris: Why don’t we move on to UFO’s?

Brian: Alright. So, another question I get all the time, and this is a question that people usually ask early, derisively or aggressively, OK Mr. Skeptic, that kind of a thing; “do you believe in aliens?” And I said, yeah, in fact I side with almost all astronomers and exobiologists and cosmologists, almost all of us are in universal agreement that it’s an absolute certainty that somewhere out there is life, and probably a huge amount of life, throughout the universe. I think most people think of that. However, that is a very, very, very different question than “are flying saucers visiting the earth.” Because one is an absolute certainty, and the other one, as far as we understand physics, a virtual impossibility. The distances involved are simply not possible, and the energy levels required to go back and forth to transport people back and forth in some sort of a spaceship—especially when you consider the time element. I like to think of a Christmas tree, and if you imagine a Christmas tree with all of its little lights turning on, the blinking lights, and a light blinks on here, and it blinks on here, and it blinks on there—very, very rarely do you have two lights impossibly close to each other that blink on at exactly the same time. That’s a good analogy for two civilizations happening to exist at the same time so close together that it might conceivably be possible for one to travel to the other. Interstellar travel happening at exactly the same moment on a universal timescale would be incredibly rare. And we know just from our own observations that we probably don’t have any civilizations close enough to us that we would be able to travel there and back within any reasonable timeframe of how long we expect human civilization might last, whether that’s ten thousand years, a hundred thousand years, a million years, you simply wouldn’t be able to do it. So that’s the basic answer to the question of why earth does not appear to have been visited by any aliens, because there is no evidence that we have, not even any slightly compelling evidence that we have, and I think that’s the reason. So it is possible to both believe in aliens and to dismiss the idea of alien flying saucers visiting the earth.

Chris: Aside from the fact that i believe that everything that Terry Pratchett wrote is true, I don’t actually believe in a flat earth. The flat earth story seemed to have just popped up out of nowhere, and became real popular really fast. I actually know a friend whose brother is a flat earther. Can you speak of the flat earth stories and where you think they came from?

Brian: Yeah. So that’s a really, really, really fascinating story, a lot more interesting than people realize, because flat earth has had two completely different iterations. The original Flat Earth Society that, you know, we all heard about when we were kids—hey, there’s people who actually think there’s a flat earth, and we laughed about it, and they had like a newsletter or something—so that was a real thing, and that happened in the, I believe in the late 1800s, is the first time anywhere in the history of earth, so far as we know, that some group of people believed the earth was flat. There’s no instances in ancient civilizations where there’s any evidence that people thought the earth was flat, at least educated people. And it arose from the culture of Biblical literalists, people who interpreted certain Bible passages as meaning the earth was flat, therefore the earth was flat, therefore it was up to them to prove that the earth was flat in order to prove the literal truth of the Bible. And so that’s where the original Flat Earth Society came from, and by the 1970s, this was down to really just two people, an elderly couple living in a trailer out in the California desert, sending out this mimeographed newsletter—I think it was down to 20 or 30 subscribers at its low point, and literally their house burned down and they both died soon thereafter, and that was the end of it. That closed the chapter of the original Flat Earth Society. And then in 2015—that really, really recently—is when, we can track this down to case zero, is when some guy wrote a self-published book on entitled The Flat Earth Conspiracy, and at the same time he made a Youtube video called “The Flat Earth Conspiracy.” This was actually in November 2014, is when this was, and based on that alone, all of the other Youtube videos promoting a flat earth cited him as the original work, he was actually case zero, the germination of modern flat earth belief. And unlike the old flat earthers, this had nothing to do with the Bible or Christianity or anything like that, it was all about conspiracy mongering and alternative science, very much in line with other conspiracy theories today. It’s those ivory-tower elite scientists are corrupt, therefore they’re lying, therefore anything you heard in your science class is wrong, therefore any alternative theory is right, therefore the earth is flat. I mean, that’s literally the logic behind it. So we’ve got these two totally different cultures of flat earth belief, and I think it’s just a wonderful story of how different they are, and how they both have totally unrelated stories.

Francis: I don’t understand anti-science bias. I could easily understand bad science bias, like if you think that there’s something about a scientist who’s just not being rigorous enough or something, but how could people have a problem with science? You know, this is like a really, really big deal right now, because when you think about global warming, when you think about a President who is out there talking about hydroxychloraquine being a drug to cure COVID, it’s just almost like there’s this chaos right now, where there’s no authority that says this is the fact, and this is not a fact, and this is scientifically proven and this is a conspiracy or, you know what I mean?

Brian: Yeah.

Francis: I just don’t know how we got to this place.

Brian: Again, I don’t think this is something that’s new. I mean, science literacy is not something that most people are interested in. I mean if you stop the average person on the street and ask them any kind of a basic science question, it’s not that they don’t know—they probably heard it in school—but they simply don’t care. It’s not of interest to them, it’s not part of their daily life. So science literacy is not something that a lot of people are big on, it’s not one of their interests. And nevertheless, so many people, all of us to some degree, we’ve got this baked-in conspiracy ideation, our tendency to embrace conspiracy theories, to embrace oversimplified explanations for complicated subjects. So when you roll those two things together, you can see that coming up with an alternate science, accepting some alternate explanation for things—it’s not so much that you don’t understand the science, because you don’t care about the science. The reason you embrace it is because it sort of strokes your ideological desire to have a superior insight, to know more than the other people, to know more than those elite, ivory-tower scientists. This is basically what characterizes []. When you hear them talk about it, you’re not going to hear them use science terminology, you’re going to hear them use terminology that criticizes the status quo. They’re gonna talk about oh, the science cabal, and they talk about science as a religion and only they are brave enough to reject the “dogma” that scientists embrace. They talk about it in these terms, they don’t talk about it in science terms. So, that characterizes Flat Earth, it characterizes alternative medicine, it characterizes Nicola Tesla—everyone, so many people on Youtube idolize Nicola Tesla, they say, oh, he invented free energy! You could do anything, he had magic Jesus powers, Tesla could do everything and anything and everything and he’s been suppressed by the government; that’s an easy explanation to understand for why we don’t have free energy, why these problems are actually difficult. It’s so much easier to embrace a conspiracy theory that says the evil government suppresses it, and yes it is as easy as you think it should be. It’s just our tendency toward conspiratorial thinking and anecdotal thinking. It’s an easy way to check all of those boxes.

Francis: Sometimes I wonder how much religion has to do with it, too, because you know when you have so much credibility given to religions, people who interpret religion as fact, as opposed to maybe like a really awesome spiritual metaphor or something that can guide people in their lives; that automatically creates such a anti-science foundation to the way we think.

Brian: It’s another iteration of that some idea. It’s a very simple explanation that explains all of these complicated things, and it’s something that so many people have been raised to believe. It’s the culture and the society of what they’ve been immersed in since they were born, it’s really hard to question those things. You know, that’s something that characterizes all of us. The greater predictor of whether you’re a liberal or a conservative is what were your parents, and where did you grow up? It’s not like you came to these conclusions yourself based on rational analysis of things, it’s simply that’s what was drilled into you.

Chris: We’re running up against our time limit, so Brian, is there anything you would like to promote or plug or pimp or…other than Skeptoid itself?

Brian: Yeah, I mean, obviously Skeptoid. Come to or find Skeptoid wherever you listen to your podcasts, and check out my latest book, Conspiracies Declassified. It’s available on Amazon or any bookstore, wherever you get your books. Conspiracies Declassified, it’s fifty of our greatest conspiracy theories, deconstructed and explained, check it out.

Chris: Well thanks so much for coming on Making Better.

Brian: Thank you, we had a lot of fun!

Francis: And I think it’s kind of refreshing we didn’t touch on 9-11. [laughter]. Thank you very much.

Brian: OK gents, thank you!

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts 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. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Making Better Episode 17: Lisa Willis

Dr. Lisa Willis holds a PHD in immunology, is the present assistant professor of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. She focuses on helping women achieve their goals in STEM fields: Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics, and she describes something that she calls “the glass obstacle course” which is a lot more complicated than a glass ceiling, and she provides a number of good examples as to the things a woman needs to navigate in academia. Read her full bio here, follow Dr. Willis on Twitter, and as always, read a full transcript of episode 17.

Episode 17: Lisa Willis Transcript

(music) 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: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader.

Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato.

Chris: And this is Episode 17 of Making Better Podcast, featuring Professor Lisa Willis from the University of Alberta.

Francis: It’s a pleasure for me to have Lisa Willis on, because, like myself, she also has a PhD in Immunology.

Chris: Lisa Willis focuses on helping women achieve their goals in STEM fields: Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics, and she describes something that she calls “the glass obstacle course” which is a lot more complicated than a glass ceiling, and she provides a number of good examples as to the things a woman needs to navigate in academia.

Francis: It’s really important that academia opens up to demographics that it seems to have really hindered, historically.

Chris: Ok, with that, let’s get on with the episode.

Chris: Dr. Lisa Willis, welcome to Making Better!

Lisa: Thank you for having me.

Francis: Yes, thank you very much for coming on, very excited to have you today.

Chris: We first became aware of you on the CBC podcast, “Quirks and Quarks.” How did you come to become a spokesperson for women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, also known as STEM?

Lisa: Well, I am a female, in STEM, and I have come up—did my undergrad degree at UVIC, my graduate degree at the University of Guelph, and then my post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto; and so I have lived this Canadian experience of being a woman in STEM. I always saw things happen, and I wasn’t really sure why they were happening, or what they meant. So, for example, when I was a student one of the faculty members told some very sexist jokes in class, in front of 300 immunology students—and that kind of bothered me, but it was the status quo, nobody wanted to say anything about it. And then when I was a PhD student, I saw a lot of things happen that really should not have happened, and that bothered me too, and there’s always this sort of idea that women are somehow not as good at science, or not quite as deserving of awards. And I always had questions, you know, why is it that the longer I am in science, the harder it is to get ahead, the more obstacles I seem to face—is it me? Or is there something else going on? And one of the issues is that the places that I was working and doing my schooling were predominantly men, so when I did my PhD at Guelph, my department had only 12% female faculty members, even though the student population was almost 50%. So that’s an issue, I wasn’t seeing role models, I wasn’t seeing people that I could talk to about these experiences. And eventually, I just got fed up with having these questions and these doubts about whether I belonged in science, and I happened to see someone give a talk—Dr Imogene Coe from Ryerson University—give a talk on women in science, and she talked about how there were systemic biases, and there was research about this. That just lit a fire under me, so I went to the literature—I’m a scientist, all of my information, all what I deal with on a daily basis, is literature and what other people have found with nice studies. So I went to the literature, and spent probably about two weeks searching through every single paper I could find, not just on women in science, but also on racialized people in science, on people with disabilities, on LGBTQ individuals, indigenous peoples, and what I found was shocking to me. I had always thought, growing up, that sexism wasn’t a thing anymore, and now there was really, really good data that shows that simply having a woman’s name at the top of a CV, even if the CV is identical to the man’s, just having that name be female means that the people, professors, reading that CV or that resume, think that woman is less competent and less hireable. And that’s just not OK to me. So I saw the data, it really transformed how I thought about my place in science but I also recognized that there was a gap in the education about equity, diversity and inclusion, about women in science. Most of the training was focused on telling people that there was an issue, but from an anecdotal point of view: people tell lots of stories about issues, they try to appeal to the morality, that it’s morally wrong to discriminate against women, and what I saw was that with researchers, that wasn’t coming through, the message was not making it through to researchers because they’re used to being analytical. If you spent 30 years training your brain to think a certain way about the world, to be analytical and to question everything, well then the information about EDI has to be presented to you in that way, so that you can understand it. And no one was doing that, and so that’s when I started Inclusive STEM: it’s talks and workshops, seminars, that are designed to teach scientists, at every level, about equity, diversity and inclusion using what the data says.

Chris: I was Vice President of Engineering at a company here in Florida that makes software and hardware for people with vision impairment. When I took that job, I had a team of just eight people in software engineering, and all of them were white men, a couple of them were blind. When I left that company six years later, I had fifty people on my staff and twenty-three were women, which I did have to go well out of my way to try to come up with gender equity on the team, because 90% of my applicants were men. But when you were discussing on Quirks and Quarks the notion of the “glass obstacle course,” a lot of those were issues I was aware of and went out of my way to try to avoid. So if you could speak to some of those particular issues that women face…

Lisa: Yeah. So, the thing is, this is a cultural problem. This is not something that white men are doing to women, this is something that every single one of us does, it’s a cultural bias that men are better. We see it in our TV, in our movies, in our books, in our casual conversation. What happens, because we have this systemic belief that men are better than women, every single one of us perpetuates that at every single interaction in every single day. So there is not one glaring place where women are discriminated against, it happens everywhere. So in university, women are graded more harshly on their assignments than men are. They are less likely to get scholarships and fellowships and grant money, they are less likely to be invited to speak at meetings, they are less likely to get awards, and the problem is that speaking at meetings and getting funding and getting awards: these are our scientific currency. And if you are slightly less likely to get an invitation to speak at a meeting, or a grant, then you’re also less likely to get that award, which means you’re also less likely to get invited to speak at a meeting. It actually snowballs, a lot of tiny things that snowball into this giant issue, the longer you’re in them, the worse the issue gets.

Francis: Where do you think this comes from? In my own personal life, I can’t imagine why other men would in any way look at women differently in science, more favorably or not favorably. Why do you think this even happens?

Lisa: I think it stems from a history of a power imbalance between men and women. So if you look at the majority of people in power in Canada and the US, those are Europeans that came over, right? Europeans with power who came over, and if you look at a lot of the European power structures, if you just look at the UK, women had very little power. They had to have a dowry so that their fathers could pay men to marry them, essentially. They had no choice, they were considered property. In other places around the world, women are still considered property. So I think that this comes from an historical culture that now we’re trying to change, because we recognize that it shortchanges people. We are losing out on human capital, we are losing out when people cannot come to work and perform their best. We are losing out when we say that we don’t want to hear someone’s opinion simply because they’re a woman, or they’re a person of color.

Francis: You mentioned Inclusive STEM—is that the same as I-STEM?

Lisa: No. Inclusive STEM is my own little title for my program of talks and workshops. I go all over Canada talking to scientists. I’ve given lots of talks in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC. I haven’t been out to the Maritimes yet, but I would love to. I also haven’t been up north yet, but again, I would love to. And I really try to tailor my talk to the audience that I am talking to. One of the really important things when you’re talking to anyone, when you’re trying to change someone’s mind about something, is making sure that you’re not shouting something from the mountaintop while they’re down in the valley below, because that shouting goes right over their heads, it doesn’t work to change their minds. And so I’m trying to meet people where they are, to get them to change their minds, really change their actions, about women, racialized people, people with disability and indigenous people, and LGBTQ as well. I tailor it to who I’m talking to, I have seminars that I give to high school students, everyone from high school students all the way to faculty at universities who make decisions and write grants. And I talk about the scientific benefit of working with diverse teams, I talk about the numbers in Canada and how, for women, the percentage of women in STEM fields hasn’t changed in 20 years—most people find that shocking. We might think that we’re getting better, but the numbers don’t actually support that. I talk about the data demonstrating bias in STEM, in the last 10 years. The amount of data that has been generated that demonstrates bias in very clear ways is just extraordinary. And then I talk about what do we actually do, every single one of us, on a daily basis; what do we do to change the culture, to make it so that people can actually come to work and be their authentic selves, and contribute to an amazing team.

Chris: What are your thoughts on the Harvard University implicit bias test?

Lisa: I think it’s a great starting point for getting people aware of their biases. Every single human being has bias, it’s normal, it’s cultural, it doesn’t make you a bad person. But acting on those biases is the problem—we’ve got two ways of thinking about it, there’s the intentional biases, there are people who actually think that they are better than you because they are male, or because they are white or whatever; and then we have something called unintentional or unintended bias, implicit bias, Harvard implicit bias test. And these are biases that we don’t know we have, and every single human being has them. They cause you to respond to situations, to respond to people, in ways that are discriminatory. It’s so important to note that the end result is still discrimination, regardless of whether or not you intended it to be. And so the Harvard Implicit Bias Test is a great way for people to start paying attention to what their biases are, and it’s only when you pay attention to what your biases are that you can actually start to change your behavior. You can have an interaction with a person and say, “am I feeling this way about this person because of their skin color, or am I feeling this way about this person because I genuinely actually don’t like what they’re saying?” And once you start to think about that in your daily interactions, you can start to modify your behavior, and that’s what we really want. We need to change the culture.

Francis: What are some of the implicit biases that came up in the Harvard study? What are the most common ones?

Lisa: There’s lots about women. There’s a really fun one, just if you want to have a little bit of fun with Canada-US biases; there are all kinds of racial biases, there’s ageism, sexism, all of the -isms that you’ve heard of. I imagine that sexism and racism are the most insidious, the most common of those biases and the most insidious, because most people don’t actually think that they are biased.

Chris: I am going to have to argue that able-ism is worse than those.

Lisa: Oh, yes, my apologies. I would agree, absolutely agree.

Chris: I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, that was an opinion piece, though, that said that the Harvard test doesn’t scale well and it has trouble reproducing results, which is common among almost any psychological study.

Lisa: Yeah, well, so the way that the test works, is that you’re given a set of associations: pictures, essentially, and you’re asked to associate a picture with a word, or a word with a word, and you have to do it as quickly as possible without getting it wrong. So that’s how the test works, it doesn’t actually ask you what is your bias. But if you are faster at associating men with, a picture of a man, with a word that represents power or strength, then you are associating the picture of a woman with that word, then that is how the test discovers your bias. And so you can sort of get good at getting in the zone sometimes, and you can go really fast, but you can also slow down and fudge the test. I mean, it’s an easy test to fudge. And it’s certainly probably not something that would hold up in a court of law, for example, but anyone who is going there and trying to start understanding their biases and how they might be interacting with people, I think it’s really good for that.

Francis: It sounds like a really great way to start measuring something like that.

Lisa: I think so. You have to start somewhere.

Chris: Another article I read, preparing to talk to you, was in the Atlantic, and it interesting—and this might speak to European culture in general—but it said that in the Scandinavian countries, where gender equity is considered the best in the world, there also seems to be problems with women in STEM that they don’t, that women there tend to trend toward the more traditional fields that women might be seen in, education and nursing and other sorts of things, while men tend to trend towards STEM subjects. I wonder what you might think about the Scandinavian situation?

Lisa: I have seen that data, and I’m not 100% sure what the rationale for that is. That culture definitely supports women; so for example, women have really nice (and I think men too, but that could depend), parental leave policy…

Chris: Yes, it’s for men and women…

Lisa: Yeah. So there are some things that they’re doing really, really well, that I think we could sort of model our own society on, but I don’t know if anyone has looked at their biases, right? Because you can have a really good parental leave policy, but then also expect that the woman would take that policy more than the man. So I don’t know about how the rest of that culture operates, because I haven’t looked into it, so I can’t really address your question. But I think it’s a very interesting thing that we should be looking at.

Francis: I’d like to play a devil’s advocate for a minute and suggest that there could be a biological difference between men and women that could account for some of it—what I’d like to mention is that, when I grew up, I guess because of being in New York and the type of people that I grew up around, I had a very strong belief that differences between men and women were pretty much, not necessarily imposed, but they were culturally imposed maybe, and that there really wasn’t any difference between boys, girls, men and women, and it was all just sort of like role-playing that we learned, learned behavior. Then, I had a child who was a boy, and what I witnessed was that when you take a bunch of 5 year olds and put them together, you know, the boys, most of them, not all, most of them like to play a certain way and the girls like to play a certain way. And you kind of see this continuing throughout childhood. And it was at that point I realized that, you know, there was just like nothing I did to make my son amazed at trains and fire trucks and wanted to play war stuff, but he just did it. It was like something in him that behavior was instinctual or something. So, I personally think that there is some kind of like biological mediator or, in the majority of men and women, there’s something that trends them in a certain direction. I don’t know necessarily if you agree with that or not, or if you do, whether that could have something to do with why people—when they’re still pretty young and figuring out what they want to do with their lives, some go into STEM and some go into other directions.

Lisa: So, there are definitely some differences between men and women at a biochemical level. There are a couple of different body parts, there is more testosterone, on average, in men than in women, and conversely there is more estrogen and progesterone in women than in men, and our immune systems function a little bit differently. There’s some really fascinating science that’s happening with the immune system and with pain receptors. But our brains don’t function differently. It was long thought that there were genetic differences that gave rise to the male brain and the female brain, and that research has been pretty much universally debunked. When you look at children, if you look at national toy catalogs—so, I don’t know if in the US you have Toys R Us, but in Canada we’ve got Toys R Us, and Canadian Tire—they sell children’s toys. And if you look at their catalog, from about zero to two years of age, those toys are gender-neutral, they are mostly sort of blues and yellows and greens in color, they’re rattles and stuff like that, whatever. But as soon as you get older than two years of age, the toys split into girls’ toys and boys’ toys. And if you look at the catalog, you can go online and you can look at these catalogs, the toys that are marketed to girls are all about passive things, they are about physical appearance, like braiding hair. The girls that are in these images, they look a certain way, there’s lots of pink, there’s lots of princess stuff; and the boys’ toys are very blue, but they’re also, the toys are full of muscles, they’re really, really overdeveloped muscles, there are guns—boys that are shooting guns, and there’s a lot of violence in these ads that are marketed to kids that are three. And so as young as three, we are socializing our children into what they should like and shouldn’t like. You should like toys, or you shouldn’t like toys. And as soon as you get into a situation where your child is interacting with lots of other children, whether that’s primary school or whatever, then you see a massive shift. So boys who used to like playing with dolls, or liked painting their toenails or wearing skirts, all of a sudden there’s now huge social pressure to not do any of those things, and five-year-olds can be utterly brutal to one another when it comes to these gender norms. And so I think what we’re seeing, even at these very young ages, is less about biology and more about society. I mean, it starts before the baby is even born, whether the parents decide to paint the nursery bright blue or bright pink; whether the parents decide to clothe their baby in gender-neutral clothing or in things that are very gendered; whether or not they allow their boys to grow out their hair, which is typically a very female thing to do—this starts way before we even think it starts. And it has echoes throughout your entire life, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing a lot of young people experiencing this gender dysphoria, not knowing if they want to be more masculine or more feminine, or whether they prefer to use the pronoun “they” because they don’t want to be either of those things—we’re having a bit of a crisis, and it’s affecting our children right up until they graduate high school, they’re having these issues. So I don’t know of any really good evidence that points at biological differences for these socialized phenomena. I think it’s far more the social phenomena than it is the biological.

Chris: I’ve done a lot of work in India over the years, and there’s tremendous problems with sexism there, but at least in my field—software engineering—it’s about 50% female, which is entirely different than the US and Canada, where software engineering is dominated extraordinarily by white and Asian men. So I don’t understand why, how things are different in India, if it was actually biological. And I can’t speak to the rest of the STEM fields, either, though, I can only speak to software engineering, it’s the only one I know the data on.

Lisa: I think there’s some really good points in that. There are a lot of theories where, if you look at one dataset you can pull out things, maybe this is why men are better or whatever, but when you start to accumulate the data and try to reproduce those studies and look at other cultures, you start to see that maybe these theories don’t hold up so much, and that’s a really good example of one of those. I mean, even if you look in the US, the first software engineers were women, they weren’t men.

Chris: That’s true. And they were in the Navy.

Lisa: Yeah. There were lots in the Army, there were a lot at NASA.

Chris: They were called “calculators” at NASA.

Francis: There seems to be a huge difference, though, at least among whites and male vs. female—I guess it’s true, there’s something like, according to Scientific American in 2010, 51% in STEM were white males and 18% were white females; and then similar among Asians, where 13% were Asian male and 5% were Asian female. So pronounced.

Lisa: There was always that stereotype that Asians were good at math. I don’t know if you grew up with those stereotypes, but I certainly grew up with those stereotypes.

Chris: I had a good friend, she and I were at a bar in Las Vegas, and she’s an Asian woman, and we were talking about bias and things like that, and she says, “everyone assumes I’d know math, or Kung Fu.” She says, she was a model, paid to have her picture taken, and was not very good at math in any way, shape or form, but she said everyone always just assumed she could do math.

Lisa: So historically, there was a good reason for that—I mean, there were lots of cultural reasons, but the number system in Chinese is far simpler than it is in English, and the numbers themselves are shorter words. And I don’t know if this study has held up, someone who’s actually an expert in this area should talk about this instead of me—there was a study that was done that looked at how many words in a row you could remember, and it’s not the number of words in the row, it’s the timing it takes you to get through those words. The human brain seems to be wired so that you’ve got, I think it was like six seconds, but I can’t be certain, but it was like six seconds. Whatever number of things you can get through in sex seconds, that what you can remember later on when you’re challenged on it. And you can, just by the size of the words, you can get through more numbers when you’re speaking Chinese than you can when you’re speaking English. And so, the simpler number system, combined with the ability to remember larger numbers, combined with the societal factors that valued people who got really good grades so that they could maybe come over to North America and have a better life or make more money or whatever the reasons for coming over to North America were, certainly really provided the foundation for why North Americans thought that people of Asian descent had better math abilities. But that only works if your first language is Chinese. If you learn the number system in English, then that completely falls apart, and now that we have so many third and fourth-generation North American people of Asian descent, that stereotype doesn’t work anymore. But we cling to them for some reason—socially, we like to cling to these stereotypes.

Francis: I was thinking of maybe switching gears—right now, the percentage of grads that get funded is the lowest ever, and what I’ve seen and experienced is that the stress level of being a scientist—which was already really, really high when I started, a couple of decades ago—it’s just gotten worse. And I think a lot of people are wishing they never got into science to begin with, at this moment. I wondering if the general atmosphere of being a researcher, being a scientist right now is one that is chasing people away. I asked a friend who happened to be African-American, and he was in the MD PhD, why there are so few black men in research—and I think that number is bound to be something like 2% of researchers in America…

Lisa: Is it really that low? I would have thought it was much higher than that.

Chris: It’s about 13% in the States.

Francis: Yeah, I would have as well. Black females account for 6.5% overall, but like in science it’s 2%. Basically what he told me is that if you can get to the point where you can get a PhD, a lot of the African-American men that he knew thought, I should just get an MD, my overall quality of life will be better, ultimately. And honestly, I can’t argue with that logic.

Lisa: I absolutely hear what you’re saying. This job, being a faculty member, leading a lab, is the most stressful job I could imagine, for so many reasons—funding levels are low, competition is high. I take my work home with me every night, I am 100% a workaholic. So is my partner, who is also a scientist. So It is not a life for everyone, and I think that the harder that it gets, we are pushing people away, essentially, but we are pushing disproportionately women and racialized persons and non-able-bodied persons and indigenous persons away, because it’s already so hard, they have an even harder time because of the bias that they would have to face. And so their road to success is longer and harder than other people’s, which is already long and hard. And so I think that’s a major problem. We also are not set up as a scientific society to accommodate people who have different needs; so if you just look at parents, for example, a woman who has just given birth needs to breastfeed or pump, and there’s nowhere at a university where a woman could go to have a little bit of privacy so that she could do this in comfort, if that’s what she wanted to do. We could easily have a parent room in the department where people who have just come back to work can go for an hour over the lunch period to play with or spend quality time with a new baby, male or female—you know, caregiver could bring a baby in for an hour and they could sit and have little family time. This is a really easy change that we could make that would allow people to come back to work after a child is born; we don’t make these changes, even though they are easy. We don’t want to change our system to allow people who are different to be able to succeed on their own terms, and that I think is a major problem. We are failing in that regard.

Chris: So how did you personally navigate the “glass obstacle course” to get to the point of being faculty at a prestigious university?

Lisa: There are lots of things that you can do. You have to be tenacious and willing to work hard. Male or female, white or racialized, it is hard work to get where you need to go. Having a really great support system is crucial—it’s really hard, it’s just so much harder to do it, when you don’t have someone at your back cheering you on—and that goes for any field that you go into. And you have to be a little bit strategic about who you decide to work with, because they are the people who are going to help your career along. You need people who are gong to write you excellent reference letters, you need people who are going to give you opportunities to go and talk at a meeting, for example. And so, one of the things that I think is perfectly OK to do is to ask in an interview, what are your thoughts on equity, diversity and inclusion? And if your potential professor has never even thought about these things, or thinks it’s not a problem, then as a woman or a person of color, or whatever group you belong to, you don’t want to work for that person, because your journey is gong to be harder. You need to work for someone who is going to help you do what it is that you need to do. That’s what I did, I worked for some absolutely amazing people who were incredibly supportive, and that combined with my partner’s support, my own drive and a lot of luck, I was able to get to the University of Alberta. One of the things that I think is important to consider, and I’m happy to have people debate me on this, is—so there are people who are at the forefront of equity, diversity and inclusion thought, and these are the people who come up with words like “micro-aggression”—not just words, but the theory behind them and the meaning—micro-aggression, intersectionality, all of those kind of things. And so there it’s sort of at the forefront of EDI thought. And then there’s the rest of the human population, and when I talk to the human population about my science and my expertise, I don’t talk about the names of molecules and stuff like that, I talk to them in a way that they can understand. I talk about how I am trying to understand how bacteria sense and respond to the environment, because that is something that everyone can understand. I think it’s really important talk about EDI, to acknowledge that you can be an ally, you can be a good EDI person, without necessarily diving into the details. You don’t have to get pronouns right every time, you don’t have to be comfortable using the word “intersectionality” in daily speech. I think asking people to do that is asking them to meet you where you are, instead of meeting them where they are. And so I would really like to see people start making steps, every single person start making steps, start making little changes in their lives that gets them on the path. And those little changes will snowball into bigger changes, and that’s how we’re going to change the culture. I think demanding that someone use one of these newer terms, regardless of how great that term is and how important that term is to a marginalized group of people—because it starts to explain their experience, that’s really important—but I don’t think we should be asking them to be that savvy on this topic.

Chris: I’ve stopped attending intersectionality conferences because they always forget the accessibility for the people with disabilities.

Lisa: Oh god, yeah.

Chris: In many cases I’ve written to them months in advance, asking and even offering to help, and they just refuse..

Lisa: Yeah. I know that there are conferences now that are asking about food allergies, they ask in advance about accessibility issues and how they can help, and I think that that’s incredibly important. That’s the way that everyone should be moving, and it is ironic, and I’m so sorry you experienced this, that a group of people who are supposed to be experts on this were not inclusive. That’s just not OK.

Francis: One of the things that I’ve seen in science a lot is that, although we are supposed to be evidence-based, sort of on the cutting edge in a lot of objective—a lot of them are not necessarily very mature people, like on a social level. In academia especially you’ll see that, I think, because they don’t have the normal constraints that industry might have on what it takes to just get along in a group and function optimally. Maybe there’s some element of that as well.

Lisa: There’s definitely some of that, and my sister laughs at me all the time because I am not emotionally intelligent. I am incredibly smart and analytical and logical, and I have a really hard time managing emotions, and they’re two sides of a coin. It’s a spectrum. Some people are good at both, I guess, but when you train for so long to be a scientist, you train to be really analytical, and there’s also a power thing that happens; so once you become a professor, you have a lot of power over the trainees that work with you. That can be a problem. More educated, so you frequently know more than the other people in the room about topics, and that also goes to scientists heads a little bit. They start to think that maybe their experts outside of their area of expertise—there’s a whole thing that happens. But you’re absolutely right. I would say half of the people that I work with are not the most emotionally intelligent individuals, yes.

Francis: Maybe it would nice to discuss your work a little, in laymen’s terms.

Lisa: Yeah. We have two areas of expertise, or rather two areas of study. The first one is trying to understand how bacteria sense and respond to the environment and environmental changes. So, bacteria are literally everywhere, and we’re really interested in the ones that are on your skin and are part of what’s called your microbiome. So, all of the bacteria that live inside and on you, and they are just vitally important for humans to be healthy. And what we’re trying to do is to understand how they respond to a change in nutrients, or how they respond to a predator, because bacteria can actually be predators of one another. Viruses can show up, fungi can show up, it’s a very complex, dynamic environment and we’re trying to understand how bacteria sense that, with the hope of being able to modify it. So bacteria are incredibly important in IBD—Inflammatory Bowel Disease—in mental health, in immunity, in all kinds of things. So that’s one of the areas that we’re studying. The other area is the human immune system, and we are really interested in ways that the human immune system is different in men and women. Women obviously have a unique set of challenges, biologically, when it comes to reproduction, and the immune system plays a critical role in that. One of the major things is that you have to essentially turn the immune system down so that it doesn’t actually attack the growing baby, and so women have this particularly highly regulated immune system around pregnancy, and that changes how they get other diseases. So for example, women are ten times more likely to get autoimmune disease than men. And so we’re interested in trying to understand these differences so that we can figure out how this gives rise to disease.

Francis: The microbiome topic is really hot right now, and there’s a lot of areas, I guess, that it’s thought to be a key factor in. You mentioned depression, was it? Psychological?

Lisa: Mental health.

Francis: Mental health, can you explain that?

Lisa: Yeah. So, your gut microbiome, especially, is linked to your mental health. If you think about your nervous system, one of the largest nerves in the body wraps around your gut, the vagus nerve. And that has all sorts of communication with your brain—there’s some pretty good evidence that the composition and function of your gut bacteria can actually influence depression and other mental health disorders, and so by changing your microbiome, you might be able to change how it is that your thought processes work. It’s a fascinating area of study, and I think one that’s really, really important for us to be looking at, because I think mental health is one of the most important societal issues that we have right now.

Francis: Very much so. We had as a guest M.E. Thomas, who wrote a book about her life as a sociopath…

Lisa: Oh, cool!

Francis: ..and she’s a sociopath but she’s also extremely high functioning, does well as a professor, and is part of a community of people who are investigating what neuro-diversity really means in culture right now. What we’re doing is, we’re sort of understanding diversity in a different way, in how people’s minds function differently, and this one-size-fits-all concept for what it means to be a functioning human is really, never really made sense and it certainly doesn’t make sense now, with what we know.

Lisa: Yep. I think we should stop using the word “normal,” it doesn’t exist.

Francis: Yeah. They use “neurotypical.” That’s a little better. But yeah, I think “normal” is a pretty loaded word at this moment. A huge part of what’s gong to ultimately make this world a better place is acceptance and even celebration of diversity. Why not? You know, I live in New York City, and New York City is proof that diversity is something that can totally work. You know, because we have people from everywhere that come here, and we all get off on the fact that there is this diversity and [inaud]. That’s why people come here, because it’s not this cookie-cutter city where you only have one thing going on, and one culture. I mean, it just adds to the vibrancy, to the sort of like the ecology of it all. Diversity is good, it helps the world become a much more interesting and even sustainable place.

Lisa: I completely agree. I lived in Toronto and it was the same way, a melting pot of all different kinds of people. I wonder if some people don’t like that opening up of possibilities—for some people, knowing exactly what their prescribed path is and how they’re going to get there is a very comforting thing, and I wonder if that opening up of possibilities scares them.

Francis: Well, it’s scary until you experience it, and then you realize that those fears were unfounded, and that maybe you’re like limiting yourself with those. In science we use the term “elegance” that’s something that I’ve always loved in science, that concept of elegance in science, where you can have a result that, it’s just so simple and clear and pure, it’s something that you experience as beauty. That’s something I was wondering if you had any comments on, like, how you experience beauty in science or in the work you do to forward diversity.

Lisa: I experience beauty in science all the time. I absolutely love it, there is nothing else that I would rather do than science. It’s amazing. I don’t really see diversity so much in the science itself, but in my team, seeing people realize that things were possible that they didn’t know were possible, or working together cohesively to come up with that beauty in science, I think that is beautiful, and something that I really try to cultivate within my team. I am excited about the possibilities for the future, and what I would actually love to do would be to challenge you and your listeners to make some changes. Choose one thing that would advance Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, just one thing, and to try that out and see what they can do to try to change the culture. That’s what I would like to do.

Francis: So can I infer by that that you’re optimistic about the future?

Lisa: I am optimistic about the future. This is very much a social conversation, there are things that governments are doing to try to improve this, there are things that individuals are doing to try to improve this; if you look at the movie industry, they’re making incredible strides. We’ve got female directed, female led movies that are doing just outstandingly well at the box office. That’s been a real grass-roots, women deciding that they’re going to make things, and we can’t sit around and wait for the culture to change, we can’t sit around and wait for the people in power to empower us, we need to take that power for ourselves. And I’m incredibly hopeful for the future.

Francis: Do you have any books or anything you’d like to promote?

Lisa: I don’t. I am writing a couple of articles on what exactly scientists can do to change the culture, steps that they can take; hopefully that will be out in the next few months, but I don’t have anything at the moment.

Chris: Well, thanks so much for coming on the Making Better podcast.

Lisa: Thank you very much for having me.

Francis: Yeah, thank you, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

Lisa: Yeah, you too.

(music) We’d love to know what you think of our podcast. Please visit us online at and if you feel like supporting us, leave us a review or rating in Apple Podcasts 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. You can also interact with us on Facebook, just log into your Facebook account and search for “Making Better”


Making Better Episode 16: Liz Lutgendorf

Sina Bahram from episode one joins us to talk to Liz Lutgendorff, who describes herself as “always busy, a geek, punk, historian (Ph.D. in the history of secularism), Cyclist, Londoner, and a Trustee @ConwayHall. She hosts a podcast called Science Fiction Double Feature, where she interviews an author about their science fiction novel, followed by interviewing an expert about some aspect of the book, be it science, history, or anything else really. She also blogs at blogendorff. Liz can also be found on Twitter as @sillypunk.

As always, a complete transcript of this episode.

Episode 16: Liz Lucendorf Transcript

Making Better Episode 16, Liz Lutgendorff

(music) 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: This is Episode 16 of Making Better Podcast, featuring science fiction enthusiast and podcast host Liz Lutgendorff, with special guest co-host Sina Barahm.

Francis: And this should be a welcome change, because honestly, the science that we have right now, I wish was fiction.

Chris: I agree, it does seem like a rather science-fiction-type world out there if you look at the news or anything else.

Francis: Unless you’re looking at Trump, and then, I wouldn’t even tarnish the word “science” in any context of that man, fiction or otherwise.

Chris: And with that, let’s get on with the episode…

Chris: Liz Luckendorf, welcome to to Making Better!

Liz: Thank you for having me.

Chris: Liz, you do a podcast called “Science Fiction Double Feature,” which is about both Science Fiction and science. Can you tell us a little about it?

Liz: Way back in the day, my partner and I did a podcast called “The Pod Delusion,” and a few years ago, I just kind of missed doing podcasts. And at the time, I was reading a lot of science fiction, I’m like, well, let’s do kind of a, Pod Delusion-esque thing where I interview an author about their novel, and how interesting and fun it is, usually. And then a second person, about some aspect of that novel in real life. So if the novel focused on artificial intelligence, I’d talk to someone about artificial intelligence; if it talked about magic, I’d interview someone about the history of magic. So, it’s kind of a double feature because you have the author and the second guest.

Chris: Who are some of the authors you’ve had on?

Liz: Some of my favorites have been Anne Leckie, who wrote the Ancillary Justice books, and she’s one of my favorite sci-fi authors so I was thrilled to have her; but also Malka Older, who wrote the series called the Centenal Cycle, which is kind of futuristic democracy, I think is the way to put it, rather than actual science fiction. Carrie Patel, who did, about kind of a city underground; Christiana Ellis is the last one. I really quite enjoyed the novel, it started out as a serialized fiction, so she’d post every day, but the novel itself has been like all of those together, and it mashes both science fiction and fantasy. So one of the core elements is nanobots that get amplified by a magical amulet, which I quite enjoyed.

Chris; Which authors would you love to have on, whom you haven’t had yet?

Liz: Oh, man, all of them! So, I’m about to start a book called Gideon the Ninth, by Tasmin Muir. Everyone has mentioned this novel this year, I just have constant pre-reviews in my Twitter feed, and so I would love to have her. So I’m going to read it next, but then hopefully I’ll like it and maybe she’ll do an interview.

Chris: Terrific. Sina, why don’t you talk about some of the ones you like, and maybe we can spur a conversation.

Sina: I’m always fascinated by the differences in predictions that are true about, for example, books that came out during the 50s and 60s, you know, we were all gonna have pocket nukes and kind of the old golden-age of all of that and the predictions around that, but then when you look at the computer predictions, I mean, it’s so different, because it was pre-transistor. And so, I’ve always been fascinated by this, this sort of significant segmentation, if you will, between some of the fiction from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and then 80s and 90s, and then of course another shift with respect to the web and the internet, right? So, post-Gibson and moving into this idea that everything is going to be networked and really rapid access. For example, I’ve been going through Next Generation episode by episode recently, just something fun with dinner kind of thing, and it always bugs me so much that Data goes “Stand by, Captain, accessing…” and it’s just like, you’re retrieving like 2 kilobytes of information—we can do that on our watches now, and yet that was considered super-advanced because he was “accessing” you know, all of this knowledge. But yet, we have Wikipedia at our fingertips now, so I’m really just fascinated by that dichotomy.

Chris: I recently re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and the fact that the computers were all these giant vacuum-tube farms jumped out at me, because I think the transistor was invented two years after he published that book.

Sina: I don’t know why that reminded me of something, but that reminded me of a question for Liz: which is, Liz, you read the Diamond Age, Stevenson’s novel?

Liz: Yes.

Sina: I have a question for you. So this is something that always bugged me—I enjoyed the book, I like it, he gets better at writing endings as his career proceeds, which is lovely to see, but this is the question that I have: the thing that always irks me about that is, the plot revolves around this idea, so I understand why it’s there, but all of this advanced technology exists yet they haven’t figured out text-to-speech, something that us are very familiar with and use on a daily basis to access technology. And that’s always just irked me about that novel. I was wondering if there’s things like that about novels that, even though you might love them, sort of jump out at you as, oh my goodness, this one plot point…

Liz: I’m struggling to think of some now, ‘cause like I’ve mostly—my current reading habits are basically, I would like to read people who are currently writing, so they will keep writing me more novels—I’m very selfish, kind of like I will give you money rather than your estate money, because your estate is probably not going to give me any more books! Oh, there was a book I read not that long ago, and I can’t remember the title but I absolutely loved it, and it was interesting, because all of the communication in it was like old Usenet groups, and the aliens have hive minds, and they’re like these kind of weird dog-things and I absolutely loved that book, but the way that they kind of news-worked, with all these usenet groups, and it was just like such an artifact of the time. And that didn’t annoy me as much, ‘cause maybe kind of cross-stellar communication network. The thing that got me, now that I think about—again, I book I love—is Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book, and a central plot point of that is that the Dean of the History Department, because they have time travel, and the History Department at Oxford gets to regulate time travel, which again, I just love, I don’t care if it’s a terrible kind of weird conceit—but they can’t get in touch with him, because they don’t have mobile phones. This is like, 20 years in the future from now, and so that kind of thing, where there’s this key point of technology missing, and the key plot point of something happening or not happening is because the Dean is fishing in Scotland and there’s no possible way to contact him—like Scotland is so far and remote that that wouldn’t be possible.

Chris: That’s always been a problem I’ve had with The Walking Dead—I was like, you have guns, you have all this other stuff, how come you don’t have walkie-talkies? They don’t exist anywhere in The Walking Dead.

Liz: That’s very true. I only read the comics of The Walking Dead, though, I didn’t actually watch the television series because the comics were brutal enough!

Chris: I watched the first couple of seasons of the TV show, and that was it. I sort of lost interest. Francis, you’re a big Star Trek fan, do you want to speak to some of your life as a Star Trek guy?

Francis: I guess I grew up with Star Trek, and it informed me with all its moral lessons. It kind of replaced, in some ways, religion for me and gave me myths that I could sort of live by; but what I liked about it, too, is that it had that dichotomy between, say, logic and emotion and that kind of thing, and I guess they carried that on with Data, to some extent. You know, I always thought that was a really fun way to, ..a lens to view the world through. I guess one of the things that was interesting to me, too, was we had M.E.Thomas who wrote the book about being a sociopath, and if you don’t have any emotions, what governs your morality? And I guess with the Spock example, somehow he was like an extremely moral person, but it was completely not based on emotion. I thought was interesting…

Sina: ..or religion.

Francis: Yeah. Although I guess they did have their religion, they did that meditation and that sort of thing. But that’s pretty advanced stuff for our society back then, because you really couldn’t question religion too much publicly back then and get away with it, but Star Trek found a way to address a lot of these big questions.

Liz: What I quite like about Star Trek, which I feel lis missing a lot in some of the sci-fi now, or speculative fiction, is like the hopefulness of the future—there is a current trend in a lot of the books that are recommended to me, of just absolute kind of dire, post-apocalyptic wastelands. I don’t besmirch the kind of genre that they go into, I’m just not a particular fan of it, and I find it just kind of wearying on a kind of, just, consumptive level. Like, I like fiction and science fiction because it’s interesting and hopeful and has nice ideas, and offers like this vision of the future that you can kind of aspire to; and the post-apocalyptic stuff is just like, well, everything’s gonna be horrible, and the level of horribleness varies between post-apocalyptic endings. And some are really good, I do like some post-apocalyptic stuff; there is a series, the book is called Archivist Wasp* and it’s like a post-apocalyptic future, but there’s still hope in that future. And so when you think back to Star Trek, it’s just like, oh, we’ve got this amazing Federation, we’ve got impetuses to explore, and sure there’s wars and stuff, but ultimately it’s got this really great core message, which I feel is lost sometimes in the doom-laden post-apocalyptic stuff.

Sina: I am so glad you said that, because I feel very similarly about, like, dystopic sci-fi. There’s nothing wrong with being dystopic or examining and exploring, you know, post-apocalyptic, but I find some of it to just be—you know, it’s very predictable, it’s like, well, yes, our society is definitely hinged on a few key things like constant power and access to resources and such being there, and when those go away obviously you could explore some things within the human condition. But I don’t find it as difficult, right? And again, I’m not trying to besmirch that genre, like you said, but I think trying to solve the problems in, for example, post-scarcity, like Ian M Banks with the culture series, is just so much more, I feel so much more joy when I read those books, and yet I feel like they’re still struggling with really complex situations, but able to just explore it in a way that feels better to me.

Liz: Yeah. I have this tagline at the end of my podcast, which is like, remember the science fiction we read today is basically the science fiction of the future. And I think it’s that sort of thing, if all we read is kind of post-apocalyptic stuff, or like everything’s terrible—as much as I like William Gibson, you know, these very highly stratified societies based on wealth and access—oh my god! like that’s so disheartening, whereas if you read something like Becky Chambers, which is hopeful and is like, expansive and like they solve problems and complex ethical issues, but they’re done in a way that you’re left with, like, “we can work our way through these problems” rather than “all is lost.”

Chris: A few years ago I read a book called Station Eleven, it was by a Canadian woman, I can’t recall her name—

Liz: Emily St. John Mandel. Really good, I know. It’s really good as well.

Chris: I thought that was, you know, the Walking Dead without the walking dead. It was just such a great book, with this post-apocalyptic but very, very hopeful message, that you know, good humans will continue to exist and continue doing good things.

Liz: And that’s the kind of post-apocalyptic stuff I can deal with, like even if the world ends there’s still hope, whereas some of it just goes down these, like, really dark—like there is no hope, kind of way out of it, and that’s the stuff that’s always recommended to me. And I’m so—I can’t, I can’t face it!

Chris: The only problem I had with Station Eleven is she hasn’t written a sequel.

Liz: It’s true.

Chris: It ends with them, like, seeing other people off in the distance, so like it ends right where the next book should start, but there’s no next book.

Liz: When I looked for that book, ‘cause I was in Toronto, I think, we were in Canada—basically I always look for, what’s the top ten by women, and I found that. And it was in the “literary” section in Chapters, and I was so annoyed that it wasn’t in the sci-fe section. Maybe that’s why, maybe it just didn’t find an audience ‘cause it was in the wrong section.

Sina: Speaking of female authors, who are, would you say, your top four or five female authors?

Liz: Only four or five? Oh, god! And I’ll cover all the speculative fiction, because I like to kind of mix them between. But I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is Mexican-Canadian, and so all of her novels are novels, but they cover different thing, so; the first one, Signal to Noise, was kind of magical realism in Mexico City, the second one was Certain Dark Things, which was about vampires, but more like Mexican vampires, so not like…she mentions kind of like our traditional western-European vampires, but the main characters were not of that variety of vampire. And the last one, which I absolutely adored, was Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is 1920s Mexico and like a kind of re-animated mind-god. Brilliant, so good! So her, for sure; as I mentioned, Malka Older, I love the Centenal series, it just explores so many interesting things about, kind of, electronic voting, about information society, about democracy, so very good. Probably V.E. Schwab, who writes more fantasy, but her Darker Shades of Magic series was really, really good; she writes for all ages, so she does sort of middle-school kind of YA and adult fiction. She also did a series called the Villains, which basically explores some villains, which is also interesting. I have recently been reading a lot of—oh, I can’t pronounce her first name, I’m gonna massacre it, but Aliette de Bodard—she has a fantasy series as well, but I’ve mostly read her short science fiction, which is—if there is a Vietnamese empire in space, and it follows different aspects of that, and some of it—and the best story I can mention is The Tea Master and Detective, which I describe as like Sherlock Holmes and Watson, if Sherlock was a Vietnamese aristocrat and Watson was a spaceship with PTSD. It’s so beautiful and vivid, there’s about four short stories, I think, or four novellas, and all of them, they just like explore a different aspect of this universe, and they’re just beautiful and elegant and interesting and explore such interesting kind of sci-fi and ethical concepts.

Sina: Have you read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga?

Liz: Yes.

Sina: I am absolutely in love with her as an author, because she I think has the ability to write in any genre, whether it’s a whodunit, whether it’s a space opera, whether it’s a police procedural on a planet or—just all of these other things, and nails it every time in my opinion, but then I love the way that she doesn’t fetishize the technology—which I admit to really enjoying, but you know I can get that from other authors. With her, the technology has like a really significant purpose for existing: for example, her incubators, which just completely turns around all of the societal implications of women carrying children. I thought that was just fascinating, not to mention I think she’s one of the only authors I respect that has a main character with significant disabilities, and does that superb amounts of justice.

Liz: I haven’t read as many of the Miles books, but I agree.

Chris: What about Margaret Atwood?

Liz: I think it’s a Canadian thing, that you’re forced to read Margaret Atwood as a child and then you just grow up hating Margaret Atwood. So I had to read so much in high school, and as a result I just dislike everything she writes, including The Handmaid’s Tale, and I don’t think I’d pick up Testaments either. I’m sure everything everyone writes about them is great, but I just can’t stand Margaret Atwood…

Francis: Can you elaborate on that, like why?

Liz: I don’t know, it’s just…I find it really hammer-over-the -head kind of torturous in that, like she’s going to make a point, she’s gonna make it a hundred times and she’s going to batter you over the head with it. I just can’t…I just can’t! I remember reading her in high school and thinking like, oooh, like I got the point on, like, page 10, can we move on? I just can’t deal with it. I like Margaret Laurence, who also writes kind of like, she’s a short story author, also from Canada, and like her stories are equally kind of hard to deal with, but just much prefer her to Margaret Atwood. Sorry Margaret Atwood fans!

Sina: I completely agree with you. I found the same to be true about things like, you know, The Fountainhead or whatever, where—you know, make your point, but if you’re going to beat me about the head with it a thousand times, like I got it the first time, maybe the second time, but completely agree.

Liz: Gilead is a terrible place!

That’s right…

Liz: There’s the patriarchy—and….

Francis: Perhaps we could dial back. You had mentioned about how some science fiction is very dystopian, and some of it is a little more positive…I was wondering if there were any sort of utopian visions for the future that you’ve read in books that seem plausible to you that you’d like to share.

Liz: I’m going to say Becky Chambers again, just because I love her and I think she doesn’t shy away from the problems that you could see in the future, but you still have humanity being helpful and like, working through problems. So, I’m thinking mostly about her second novel, which is A Closed and Common Orbit. You have AIs, but they are in ships, basically, but one gets downloaded illegally into a body kit, so she looks like a human—or it looks like a human, but I always think of “she”—it’s basically, how do you then navigate that, being actually illegal but having your own personality and all the people who are around who help her and things like that. And I just love it, it’s so hopeful, but it’s just like, the core of it, is this person is illegal by the nature of her existing and things like that. And there’s still crappy bits in the universe, but like people still overcome them, and I think that’s realistic. I don’t think utopias are necessarily realistic, but still being able to confront hard things and changing things and being hopeful about the change you can bring are really positive things to hope for. Oh man, I need to think of others…gonna have a look at things I’ve read—this is really hard off the top of my head.

Sina: In my group of friends, a lot of folks liked the first book in that series more. I—and it sounds like you did as well—really enjoyed the second one, I thought that exploration was really fun.

Liz: If you like Becky Chambers—she came out recently, really recently I think, with a novellas called To Be Taught If Fortunate, and it’s this group of explorers, basically if you think of our future now possible trajectory of catastrophic climate change, kind of diminishing rights and things like that. Basically the space program ends because they can’t afford it any more, but then there’s this big groundswell of citizen-sponsored space travel, and so they send these groups of astronauts off to explore distant planets, and they have some sort of cryo-sleep, but on their way to the stars, they adapt their bodies, they go into a torpor and they adapt their bodies to have some acclimatization to the planet. So in some times they end up with more muscle mass because it’s higher gravity, and things like that. And again, it’s not so much about the planets they find, but it’s the beauty of exploration and like the pursuits of knowledge and these sort of things, and like persisting even though the people listening may be gone and things like that. And it’s so wonderful, it’s just absolutely wonderful in terms of hopefulness and like all the great things you want to feel about science in the future.

Sina: It is definitely on my to-read list, thank you.

Liz: What else have I read about the future?

Sina: I mentioned the culture earlier—how much of Ian M Banks (sp) have you read, and what do you think of his envisioning of a post-scarcity society?

Liz: I’ve read very little. I never really read much Ian Banks, Ian M Banks. Two years ago, I was in the middle of my PhD, and I just like realized that I wasn’t reading any fiction at all, and like I really missed fiction, I needed a break from history. And so I just latched onto a list, and I read my way through it, and some of it I absolutely loathed, and some of it I really liked. But by the end of it I realized it was almost all men. And so I basically then had a year of being like, alright, I’m just gonna not read any men, or not any white men, because the list was mostly white men—apologies to all white men, no offense, but you’ve written a lot of books. And then for a year I only read women and nonwhite men, and then I basically just made it my mission to only read them. So, unfortunately, I only encountered Banks at the very end of that list, so I only read the one book that was on that list, which apparently is not the best book to read.

Sina: Right.

Liz: So I haven’t read any others. I feel like I should, I feel like I should make an exception—but we’ll see.

Chris: You were reading through the list of what the hundred greatest science fiction books of all time or something like that—which of those were your favorites?

Liz: So, I only read the ones I hadn’t read before—so I had already read loads of Asimov and some others on there. So I had read The Doomsday Book off that list, by Connie Willis, which again I absolutely love. I didn’t mind, like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, I didn’t like a lot of the classics of sci-fi, because they tended to either be a bit racist or a bit sexist. And like, there’s the debate about whether or not you should read them, and all this sort of stuff, but they may have been the best for their time, but they’re certainly not the best now, I think is my opinion on it.

Sina: Your kindness of using “a bit” instead “overflowing with” is uh, very generous.

Liz: the worst one, I will tell you the worst one—oh God, there’s three worst ones! Oh, I’ll go with the one I think is the worst, which is A Spell For Chameleon. It was like a lesson in misogyny, you know, the kind of main lesson was “don’t trust pretty women,” or just don’t trust women in general! You can only trust ugly women, because they’ll have going for them; it was just terrible on levels I cannot describe. It made me so [inaud]. A couple others did as well.

Sina: Heinlein…I mean, it was just, essentially, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen level of just, wow, this is so like the worst part of the 50s and 60s in literature form. I remember in one book, this woman is coming home from work, she’s late getting home, basically, to summarize the plot, and basically her response to her husband is, “I was raped on the way home, we had to wait for the trial and the execution,” and it was just this odd sense of, like, “rape is bad” but that’s about the most moral it gets. Right? Because everything else is just completely objectification, and so it’s just fascinating, and I have some trouble reading those books now. I think it would have been different reading them at the time—but even then, there were, especially for example in the feminist movement and such, my understanding is in the 60s and 70s there were still folks talking about these issues in response to science fiction, it’s just those voices weren’t really amplified a lot back then.

Liz: Yeah, the thing that annoys me, and I must have had like a particularly bad run at one point, where kind of rape or sexual assault just became like a plot point for the main white male character to…do something, and there was absolutely no impact, like the women’s feelings didn’t matter or didn’t matter because they were dead, or…there was no deeper meaning to it, or deeper explanation of like, you know, this is really bad and this would be quite traumatic for anyone involved or related to it. And now it’s just like, oh my god, like it was just so insensitive, on like such a huge scale that—and again, I just had this run of them, and now every time I read it in a book I’m like, well that’s really lazy writing and you should have done something more interesting with your plot.
Oh, I just found it—A Fire Upon the Deep! Oh, I loved it. So good.

Sina: [inaud] Verner Vinge?

Liz: Yes! It was just so good!

Sina: I thought that’s what you were alluding to but you made it sound like it was a more modern novel, so I was like, I wasn’t sure about, hesitating that as a guess—it’s the first book I ever read by him.

Chris: I had dinner with Verner Vinge and Greg Vanderheiden once.

Sina: Oh really?

Chris: Yeah.

Sina: What I find fascinating about stuff like A Fire Upon The Deep and things like that is, that today we are building those robotic systems and software systems that behave like these things that were explored in speculative fiction 30 years ago—you know, swarms and the idea of like peer-to-peer communication and all of the stuff we just take for granted today, they were explored as concepts, pretty well in a way, in terms of not only the good sides but what could go wrong, decades ago and I just wish more architects of our society and technology today would read more speculative fictions preceding when they invent something.

Liz: I also really quite like the idea of advanced technology discovered through basically archeology, so you have these kind of vastly superior alien races and all of these kind of pesky lower humans and the like, going like we’re going to go trip across all this super-advanced technology, and hopefully not destroy the universe by accident, which is what they almost do, and it’s just such a wonderful concept, right? Of course, like if there were these super-advanced civilizations, and they had technology that persisted, why wouldn’t we, right? Like, we are that kind of species, we’re like let’s go press all the buttons and see what happens! Contact, which I had never read before, also very much enjoyed. There is like a really, I call it really trashy vampire novel called Sunshine, not the one that the film’s based off of, not science fiction at all, but like the characters in it were so adorable that I loved them.

Sina: Who’s that by?

Liz: Robin McKinley. I disliked quite a few of the navels, but I think that, aside from like taking every kind of best list with a massive pinch of salt, is that you’re only ever going to like about 30% on whatever list that you come across. So if you don’t think you like it, you probably won’t like it, and t hat’s fine, don’t read it.

Sina: Let me toss a name at you—Octavia Butler. Thoughts?

Liz: Yeah, I haven’t read many Octavia Butler books, and again this probably comes from my reading history, like all the way up until, actually, quite recently. Again, I just read the kind of classic sci-fi, most of them white and male, so I didn’t come across Octavia Butler, and I should read more now, but again, she died, so she’s not going to write me any more books—but I recently read one, and it was great but harrowing. But essentially, it’s like these humans are brought onto an alien ship, and it’s basically, if you think about assimilation from a cultural point of view, it’s how it feels to have to, like, culturally assimilate as, like, another person. So if you think if you’re black and you’re having to assimilate into like a white culture, is the closest analogy. It’s the kind of trade-offs and all the sort of things you have to make, and it’s harrowing! It’s really distressing!

Sina: Lilith’s Brood?

Liz: It’s not Lilith’s Brood,, let me find it…I’ve read it quite recently, as I felt really bad for not reading any Octavia Butler,..

Sina: Because she and Ursula Kela-Guinn* were some of my earlier exposures to female authors, to women authors in sci-fi and fantasy.

Liz: The Dispossessed, I read that as part of a list and again was super, super good, I loved that. The other one I felt a bit weird..but I can’t remember what it’s called…Dawn! Very good but harrowing, so I recommend it. So I should totally read Kindred and all thse other ones, but I haven’t. And I haven’t read like the, was it the Broken Earth series, either, even though [inaud], so I should definitely do that. Because I have no excuse there, because she’s still writing books.

Sina: Now, fair disclosure, this is obviously going to be heavily white male-dominated, but there are a few women authors, actually several of the ones we discussed, on their—I like the list Wikipedia has of joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula. That’s a reasonable filter in a way, although it’s definitely symptomatic of of its time. So again, heavily white male dominated, but you’ll get some male authors from other parts of the world, and you will definitely get some female authors in there, Lois McMaster Bujold is on there, Connie Willis is on there, I think both LeGuinn and Bulter are on there, if I’m not mistaken. So, I’ve enjoiyed that list, because it’s only a few, every few years that aligns, it seems, since the 60s. So it’s a nice collection of 30 or 40 books.

Liz: Nice. I’ll have a look.

Sina: It has that for both novels and novellas and short stories and such. I haven’t worked through short stories—I always feel weird—it sounds like you read a lot more shorts and novellas, so what are your feelings on that, because to me—I’m always scared to read a novella or a short story, because I’m afraid I’m gonna like the universe a lot, and then it’s over. And so, that’s always just a sense of, I don’t know, trepidation before reading one.

Liz: I’ve only recently started reading novellas, and what kicked it off was Martha Wells Murderbot Diaries, I don’t know if you’ve come across those…

Sina: Yep

Liz: I love Murderbot, like I always say, I would love to be murder [inaud], but I think Murderbot would be uncomfortable with that—such a good character, and so I read the first one and then rapidly consumed the others. Although, there’s going to be a full-length Murderbot, so I’m like, “Yaay!” And because of that, I picked up Aliette Bodard’s book, and because I knew Becky Chambers, I picked up that one, and then Cho, who wrote Sorceror to the Crown, which is a full-length novel she did. I’ve been doing the “read harder” challenge this year as well, because I’m an idiot and I just want to read everything all the time, and she wrote a book called The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, which qualified as my romance pick for the read harder list, and it was just delightful and funny. So, I have kind of gently made my way into novellas.

Chris: I get the audio version of Analog and Asimov’s every other month, and really enjoy that, because I find that sometimes the effect that Sina said, you know, I want more from this author—often six months later you get more in the same universe, just another short story. And if I don’t like the story, I know it’s going to end in ten minutes.

Liz: One of my favorite authors, though, is Ted Chang, and he mostly does novellas and short stories. And they’re absolutely wonderful—there’s, I think it’s a novella-like story in it, which is basically—I love the ethical implications of it, because it feels so tangible to now in that there’s these kind of limited AI creations made in the virtual world, but then part of the problem is basically platform obsolescence. So they all exist on this platform, that platform then gets bought out but they’re not supported, and there’s this hard core group of people who have nurtured these creations for so long, for like decades, and so they’re like real people, they kind of have their own emergent personalities. There’s this huge ethical thing where you’re like, oh my god! They’re just desperately trying to make sure that they persevere, and it’s just such a wonderful story and it feels so timely, it feels like we’re on the cusp of like, creating these slightly emergent personalities and like, would we just shut them up? if the platform became obsolete, like the Facebook of these creations, and then that got bought out and then wasn’t supported—Oh my god! The pain! Like they’re actual, kind of emergent beings that you would just turn off.

Sina: This totally sounds like a Black Mirror episode. That’s a very Black Mirror-esque plot. I’ll have to check that out.

Liz: It’s a bit more hopeful than Black Mirror.

Sina: Yes, that [inaud] corrected.

Liz: But I think anything is more chipper than Black Mirror.

Chris: I enjoy Black Mirror, but it leads me to the question, and we were discussing how much speculative fiction or science fiction these days is dystopic, do you think that’s informed by just modern culture being somewhat dystopic? I mean, we have Trump in America, you have Brexit in England, you have social credit in China—I mean, all over the world we seem to be getting bombarded with bad, dystopic news.

Liz: Yeah, I think it’s some of the time—I mean, you look, probably, a bit like a sci-fi historian would be able to tell you what other, previous things existed. Like I’m pretty sure when nanobots were huge, it was all grey goo and things like that, so I imagine it’s of the time and it’s hard to see the hope in the current system, but I think, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about the hope. I think more than ever, we should write about the hope.

Sina: Hear, hear.

Francis: How about if we discuss a little bit, examples of how societies were run with regards to, say, work, in any of these novels. Because it seems like technology’s making it much easier to get what society needs with fewer work hours, but that hasn’t translated into a general good. And I’m wondering if any sci-fi writers have grappled with that one.

Liz: I haven’t read anything like Ian M Banks, where there is definitely this alternative future. Like, it’s always kind of varieties of capitalism, I think. Where there’s the kind of like more dystopic end, where people are exploited in terms of modifying their bodies to do a job, or whatever, or just simple like the extension of digital technology wearer ones like a [crowgramer?] and variations of that, it’s mostly that, it’s mostly still capitalism.

Francis: Is it just so hard to make a well-functioning society seem interesting from, like a dramatic point of view, or is it just hard to envision?

Liz: I imagine when you’re in a system it’s hard to imagine outside of it, or maybe hard to make something like communism or that be more believable, because we’ve had such epic failures of the Soviet Union or because they seem more totalitarian and you don’t want that kind of vibe. It’s hard to say. I think the thing that you also find are these kind of space-opera empire things, which I mostly just like accept for some of them. I think it would be really sad if we ended up with a space empire, and I kind of love Star Wars. So in some ways I’m very hypocritical of this trope. But it would be really sad if we all went to space and there was a giant empire.

Francis: Star Trek, as a theme throughout all the different shows, they went to pretty great lengths to try to show what an advanced society would look like. Some of it was little bit cringe-y, maybe, but I think that’s part of the territory, perhaps. I’m just surprised there’s not more of it.

Liz: Same. I agree. The book I’m reading now, which is called Velocity Weapon, it doesn’t really articulate a different model of how the economy would work or anything like that, but there’s definitely a sense of, like, basic needs are taken care of, but there’s still the stratification of people who have wealth and power and those who don’t. So I think some of the futures are like, there is a base level of sustenance and things, but it’s not enough, there’s still the stratification and so that’s where some of the tension comes from. But yeah, I want a story like that. Maybe they think just Star Trek has done it so they don’t want to do it, or Ian M Banks has done it, but I’m sure there’s going to be, or there already is, a story that has a much more interesting way that humanity is organized.

Sina: Stross plays with some of the evolutions of economics a little bit, like in things like Acelerando, for example. But I think until you go to post-scarcity, which we just find so much less of than dystopic, let’s tear all the things down, it’s not as heavily explored; and part of it might be because it’s honestly, it tends to solve some of these fundamental problems. So perhaps constructing a plot is viewed as more difficult? I don’t know, that could be completely wrong on my part, but it seems like it’s very easy, you know, when there’s an impending asteroid or nuclear event or something, to then immediately have story threads that just spin all over the place out of that. Whereas, if you have a lot of things resolved, then the tension that would lead to a plot might be more difficult to find.

Chris: If automation really does cause 70 or 80 percent or however many people to be without work, you know, I mean Karl Marx predicted that everyone in the post-scarcity world—you know, and he predicted the automation thing, this was a late essay from him, I think it was 1869—where he discusses, you know, everyone’s going to be doing intellectual pursuits and art and music, and people, society will advance more rapidly. And even in the 50s, Buckminster Fuller wrote that if technology is used appropriately, within 20 years every man women and child in America will be living like a millionaire, and within 30 years everyone on the planet will be. And clearly those things haven’t happened.

Liz: Yeah. (laughs.)

Sina: Good talk (more laughs). It’s true though. Well, they have, right? I’ll push back on that a little bit. I would say they have, they just happened for 1% of 1% of 1% of people, right? So they have happened, it’s just that concentration of resources and access to them—he just got the error* bars wrong.

Liz: The way that certain countries operate now is fundamentally different to a hundred years ago, so a hundred years ago in the UK is so different now, and there is still massive stratification, but manufacturing is not a thing we really do anymore in the UK, at all. There are pockets of it, but if you’re gong to say our economy runs on manufacturing, that’s not going to be true, right? So it’s going to be service economy, which is very different, and it’s going to be things like digital data technology, all these sort of things, marketing, all these sort of not-manual, maybe not entirely intellectual, but certainly involves more brainpower than it does brawn, in some cases, service industry maybe not. But it has fundamentally changed, it’s just that we’re now seeing, maybe not developing the way we thought we would in that there’s like zero hours contracts and this kind of gig economy which doesn’t provide enough money. So it’s really futuristic, right? Like, oh my god, I can order food on my app, I can then order a cab on my app, I can go through the airport security with an app, so there is like loads of weird inroads into these futures, but there just not very evenly distributed. And if you then go to another country which does the majority of manufacturing, like that also looks weirdly dystopian because of how bad those countries are regulated and how bad they are for human rights. So, we kind of have like a mish mash of these futures? Depending on what country you’re in, you’re experiencing a different future.

Francis: Well, Bernie has this new slogan—“Us not me,” something like that. And I think that, you know, when society uses technology in a way that is sort of geared towards the capitalist idea of everyone for themself, a lot of potential gets wasted. The real quality of life, I think, for the majority couldn’t help but be pushed down. It’s not what it’s geared to cater to.

Liz: One of the people who I had in my PhD was, in history, was a Labor kind of theorist and journalist called J.A. Hobson. And like other secularists (cause my PhD was in history of secularism), he really disliked charity, because he felt that basically it was used by those who should have already given more wealth through taxes to basically say, “oh, look how good, look how charitable, look how wonderful I am for donating all this money”—and I think a lot of people are making the argument now that kind of large amounts of philanthropy is basically that same thing, right? Like you have Jeff Bezos, you have Buffet, you have Gates, and they have vast sums of money and they’re like, “oh, look how good we are, we’re doing a space program, and we’re solving malaria in Africa” and things like that. But how much more would we have solved if the kind of taxation system could more distribute that, in more directed ways. And like maybe we wouldn’t have SpaceX and things like that, fine. But maybe NASA would be better funded, who knows. And I always kind of look at that kind of historical perspective, because it’s just like, we still have the same problems that we did in the 19th Century, in the 20th Century, early 20th Century. We kind of moved forward and backwards. Like, everyone’s making the argument, I think, in the States right now that like, Oh my god, we’d increase the tax rate and wouldn’t even reach the taxation rates under the New Deal or the 1940s and 50s in America, which also everyone looks at as the golden age of America. And it’s like, maybe we should just tax everyone again! I think we probably have already had the tools to solve some of these problems, or at least make them less worse, but politics goes back and forth, and it’s just how can you motivate enough people to say, that’s the world we want. It feels like the US is now finally having those conversations that loads of people who already have health care systems had in the 30s. So,..

Sina: There’s also an interesting aspect of large amounts of wealth being used for, basically, for whitewashing—so you see this with the Sacklers, for example, and giving to museums and universities and things of this nature, and Laurence Lessig recently, in response to a lot of the stuff that’s going on with the MIT Media Lab and taking Epstein’s money, etc., wrote a really, I thought, very well thought-out, honest, really raw Medium post, and he goes through the different kinds of funding and you could ethically treat them. And one of assertions that he makes that I completely agree with is that, if your funding is coming from an entity which is in any way questionable, it is your responsibility to take that funding anonymously, so that you’re not contributing your universities’ brand, or museum’s ethical position to helping someone else whitewash things that they’ve done over the decade.

Liz: There’s a really interesting article, I think in the Financial Times today as well, that said something like 30%, the kind of majority stake of external investment in companies—when a US company would invest in Ireland, for example—is actually just corporations moving around money. They’re not even contributing to increasing productivity or increasing jobs or anything, it’s literally just moving money from one bank account to another. Thirty percent of the foreign direct investment, which is like a huge thing! It’s meaningless! So at that point you just like, are these instruments that we’ve developed even useful for this kind of measurement of actually investing in a country? I think like the EU’s doing quite a lot of work in trying to—everyone talks about tax avoidance and tax havens and things like that—I feel like it’s moving slowly, but maybe just not fast enough.

Sina: I tend to be very socially liberal, and things of this nature, so I completely am aligned with what you’re saying with regards to taxation, but then I’ve also had experience with these systems and just the level of corruption and sheer incompetence, like absolute terrifying incompetence, that tends to be rewarded within these systems, is what makes me very hesitant for the thing that other parts of my philosophy tell me is absolutely the right thing to do, per the examples you cited, like the New Deal and so on and so forth.

Chris: Liz mentioned NASA might be more well-funded, but does that mean that NASA would just be spending more money on the useless Orion rocket that it’s trying to build now for profoundly more money than using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy?

Liz: It’s quite interesting—I just finished reading, not that long ago, a book called Why Nations Fail, and it’s super interesting. Part of their argument—and you have to see it through the lens of like, they clearly are on board with the kind of capitalist system, but the whole thing is about capitalism and the market-driven sort of stuff forces innovation. And I think that’s quite interesting as an argument, and you kind of see it with SpaceX and NASA, but maybe that’s just because NASA’s always strapped for cash, and maybe they would be more innovative if they could. And because they’re not allowed to fail, at all, I think that’s part of the problem is that, if you’re just constantly forced to be 100% foolproof, you’re always going to be very, very risk-averse. And SpaceX is allowed to not be as risk-averse, and maybe it’s not so much the institution but how the institution has to function.

Chris: Howard Bloom is the guest on our next podcast release, which will come out later this week [note: released in September 2019] and, it’s gonna sound crazy, he’s been on Coast to Coast AM 300 times, but he’s their token liberal and real science communicator—they bring him on when they need an alternative point of view—and he was pointing out that if you actually look at the federal budget, it was all the US Congress adding money to NASA’s budget but requiring that it be spent with certain companies, like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing and the traditional military-industrial complex. It seems to be huge handouts to private companies, as opposed to SpaceX, who’s working driven by investors and whatnot.

Liz: That’s quite interesting. You look at these institutions and actually, if you look into the details, and maybe it not be the institutions but the proscriptions placed upon them.

Sina: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: Yeah, it’s NASA’s scientists would come up with something smarter, but they’re really not allowed to by the Congress.

Liz: Oh, Congress!

Francis: I think it would be a good idea to have a separate fund, if you were going to have a progressive tax on corporations and people, to insure that it doesn’t just go to the military or to paying off the debt, that sort of thing, but more specifically to reinvigorate the economy and give resources to people who are aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors, that sort of thing, and create opportunity that way. The idea of just taxing the rich and giving it to Lockheed Martin doesn’t really appeal to me.

Sina: I think you may have mentioned this book earlier—it was envisioning, you mentioned like a future democracy —that’s what made me think of it—and they have this idea of micro-democracy.

Liz: Yeah, Infomocracy, by Malka Older.

Sina: That’s the one, yes.

Chris: I read that one, based on Sina’s suggestion, so…

Sina: I really enjoyed the concepts. I thought it got a little odd, you know, just with the plot and everything was, I had a few gripes, but nothing, just personal opinion based stuff. But what was interesting to me was the—I don’t know how practical this is, but the extreme variance along the edges. So you can have something that is what we would today call white nationalist, you know, whatever, right in like a little square, and then literally meters away from that, have something completely different, and meters away from that, and that to me was really fascinating in a way that—I don’t know, I haven’t necessarily seen explored elsewhere?

Liz: I think that’s why I loved it as well. I also just love the kind of like—I like information, which was like, I think the author describes as like a cross between Google and Wikipedia, alright, like they can instantly or near-instantly verify anything that’s said, so they are the kind of repository of “the truth” almost. It’s such a good idea, and she explores it more, almost a second novel in that series is more interesting, because it looks at some of the places in the margins that are still kind of fighting against …

Sina: ..where corruption can still happen, for example.

Liz: Yeah, exactly. Again, I just really loved it, because I had never encountered such an interesting concept. You have lots of interesting ideas in science and like physics and space flight and all these sort of things, but actually to tinker with democracy, as a science fiction concept—like how great is that! And I love that you had all, everyone had to agree to it, so you had all these pockets; but also that you could have, in Mexico, you could have one centenal, but the other twenty centenals of the same party could be in Europe, or somewhere else. So, it was almost like you could have these pockets of liberalism or democracy or …white nationalism…and it could form together as a club, and then have your own sense of government, but it was just really interesting. I don’t know what else to say other than I love that book, and everyone should read it.

Sina: I’ve had this theory, I’d love to get your thoughts on it: there’s something called, I believe it’s the Overview Effect, which is when astronauts go into space and see the earth as one thing, it tends to eliminate a lot of biases around things such as, a different country is meaningless from up here, you know, it’s like we’re all one, and man is that a really small pale blue dot, to quote Carl Sagan, right? And what’s interesting to me about sci-fi, the reason I bring that up is, that elimination of geography mattering—sci-fi seems to achieve that for me, or does and has and did; and I’m wondering if that’s true for you, or if you see that sort of effect, like without the luxury and the being able to up and see the planet spinning before you, you still get that sort of mentality of, some of these artificial and arbitrary barriers just don’t matter.

Liz: Yeah, I think so. And especially, like one of my favorite things growing up was the Foundation series, again, which is like kind of massive and expansive and interesting. Still with its problems, but that kind of far-reaching effects of humanity, I guess. And also the positronic man, where you’re talking about what makes a person an person. I remember reading that quite young and being like, “whooaaa” like that’s amazing, and you can kind of, you see that now with some of the other AI books, but it was definitely one of the original ones that did that. So reading those kind of things, and encountering aliens and you encounter all these concepts which in real life come up as prejudice and all these sort of things. But you always see them from the better side of it, of like overcoming prejudice, and that being what the hero wants to accomplish. I think it really does, depending on the novels you’re reading—if you’re reading, like, horror, maybe not, but for me I totally agree that is definitely, I think that has had an impact on me.

Chris: Have you ever seen a website, going back to Infomocracy, called

Liz: I think I’ve heard of it, but no, I haven’t been to it.

Chris: They are activists who are trying to work in the US—they have no traction, so they’re not very famous—but they want to go to the Constitutional minimum number of people Congressman, which would give us approximately 30,000 Congressmen in the US, basing it on the theory that, if you only have 450 some-odd Congressmen, it’s easy to bribe 450 people, but how do you bribe 30,000 people who all live in somebody’s neighborhood, so if you’re that geographically small, everyone’s going to know their Congressman, and just be able to go over their house and tell them off if they want to.

Liz: I guess it would make it a less prestigious thing, as well. There’s at least 30,000 CEOs, do you care who a CEO is? Probably not. And so maybe it makes it more democratic in the sense that, it’s not a job you might want to have for a long time, and so you see more churn. Maybe just term limits, like the president has term limits, why doesn’t Congress and the Senate have term limits? Like, that seems to be a problem in itself, the fact that you can just become vested in your own office and…

Chris: My opinion on term limits has always been that the ballot box is the term limit, and then the voters can kick you out. And I would rather leave it to the voters. I mean, I was happy to have Ted Kennedy as my Senator for as many years as I lived in Massachusetts.

Liz: Unless your district is completely gerrymandered, and it would be..

Sina: Right. So, I live in North Carolina, even as a blind person I can tell you how messed up the map looks. Like, it is so bananas, and obviously the Supreme Court has ruled on this and they’re re-drawing the maps now, but it’s just, yeah—unless, if you’re a person of color and living in a neighborhood where all of you have been put in one district because it’s been determined that we’re gonna just call that district, we’re gonna lose that one, but then we pick up these other ten predominantly white districts that we know is gonna vote for us. You know, so, it’s a massive problem. Like, voting is not fair in this country, full stop. I used to believe that it was, and then data after data has convinced me it’s absolutely untrue.

Chris: I was just going to say, the term “gerrymandering” however, was named for a former governor of Massachusetts, Gov. Gerry, who literally, when he re-drew the Congressional map after a census, had a salamander-shaped district that ran all the way from Cape Cod to almost the center of the state, that was really narrow and had arms and legs.

Liz: But the interesting thing about democratic conventions. So we have—relatively, I’ll stress, relatively stable democracies in the UK and the USA—but technically, the institutions of that democracy haven’t seen a huge amount of change in the 150 years. They’ve both seen a lot before that, especially, like, the UK’s political system evolved quite a bit in the 18th and 19th century. But now we feel like, this is how you do democracy, and maybe that’s not entirely correct anymore. Maybe there needs to be more participation, maybe there needs to be more Senators, more Congressmen—it’s really hard to innovate once you have that system, and maybe we need to look at things like, …unfortunately, you know, countries that have experienced a lot of turmoil and tend to redraft their constitutions…you look at Thailand, right? They’ve had quite a few in recent years, military coups, but they then have the opportunity, if they manage to then swing back towards democratic norms, to draft a modern constitution. And that’s quite interesting, because maybe that’s not a bad thing, maybe redrafting your constitution isn’t bad. It would reflect the whims of the time, they needs to be consensus, and that would be really hard, but if we had a re-draw modern constitution for the United States, would the right to bear arms be in it? Probably not, because why would you? And there’s things like that, so I think you can look at it as, lots of people say, oh people are becoming lazy, people don’t pay attention to politics, and maybe what we need is less democracy not more democracy, we need more technocracy, or whatever. But I think it’s just like, we just need to innovate like we do with everything else we do, right? Maybe we just need to innovate, examine, democracy and how people are interacting—user research, talking about user-centered-design. Where are the democratic deficits, and where can we self-correct them?

Sina: One thing that comes to mind, I was reading this paper recently on virtual democratic agents, and so, the idea being that we have such a lossy-system rightnow, and basically the only entities that benefit are the ones we’ve been discussing, big business, etc., so whether it’s 430 or some odd Congressmen, you’ve got 100 Senators, etc., there’s a limited number of people; and what happens is, they are representative of a lot of other people. There’s no way this one person is going to be remotely equitably representative of even, frankly, 20 other people, much less 20,000 or in some cases, millions, right? And so the idea is, can you come up with agents that are reprsentatives of all of us, so we all have bot, if you will; it is granted the right to vote on issues, on all issues. And over time, as you grow up, as you mature, as you change your beliefs etc., you inform the bot of issues, and you inform the bot of your philosophies, and then these agents vote on your behalf. Because, you don’t have time to look at an appropriations bill on parks funding, but you might care about the parks, so you would want to set a set of criteria that would say, yeah, this is something I want to vote on. Whereas something else might be something that you don’t, and obviously for anything contentious, something that can’t have an automated decision made about it, that’s the one that the bot emails you about, or texts you about and says, listen, a vote’s going to go down in 7 minutes, you got an opinion on this? Or with more time, etc. So, I was really attracted by the idea of just eliminating these lossy humans, maybe we keep them around for coming up with the legislation and such, but removing, decoupling the impetus they have from creating the legislation and passing the legislation, almost separating those two.

Liz: That’s super interesting. That would make a great sci-fi story. I find politics really interesting, well, I find governance really interesting, less politics. And especially, you look at all the different institutions that exist across the world, like from multi-lateral institutions, and we have such a variety of them, and yet everyone seems unsatisfied with them in some way, which they’ll, the phrase that like, democracy’s the worst option except for all the rest—there’s still value in the systems we have, it’s just like, I think we’ve just stopped self-correcting, and why have we stopped self-correcting? Or at least, maybe it’s just our perception as people who are politically aware, and of an age where we have seen the past and don’t think it’s as good as now, maybe it’s all fine and it’s just our present-ism which is the problem. Or—I was talking to someone I know in Finland, and some other parts of Europe have, like, a far-right party who has a lot of power, or a lot of percentage in the parliament, but actually all the other weight against this larger, and so they probably won’t have political impact. And they have people who say, the kind of far right nationalists are going to last ten years, because it’s a demographic shift and things like that, and so maybe we’re just in one of these periods, you know, progress isn’t a straight line, it goes back and forth, and we’re just currently in a slight recession and then it will all race ahead again in ten years when everyone accepts climate change is a thing, and everyone accepts love is love, and everyone can marry whoever they want, and all these sort of things, and it’s just this kind of crunchy period of like, getting through this backlog of people who haven’t updated their bots! At all, in the last 50 years, they’re still operating on this assumption that is very outdated.

Chris: So, do you believe that the arc of history, as Martin Luther King suggested, does bend towards justice?

Liz: I think so. My PhD looked at a certain period in time, and it looks at the history of secularism. And 150 years ago, you couldn’t be an open atheist in Parliament, right? Charles Broadlaw*, who was the first open atheist—OK, slightly less than 150 years, maybe a 140—he was elected in the 1880s as an open atheist, small “r” republican. So the first thing he has to do as an MP is swear an oath to God that he’ll uphold the Queen, right? It’s a bit difficult. And so he faced tremendous opposition getting into Parliament. And then eventually he passed a law which harmonized all the kind of affirming and swearing practices in the UK, and then it wasn’t problem for the people who came after him. And progressively, over time, over the last 150 years, being an atheist isn’t being a problem any more, it’s actually fine. Growing acceptance, just like being gay, LGBTQ+, all of the things, has much faster become more of an accepted thing across more and more parts of the world. You have to look at everything objectively, and I think when you’re in a period of just, like, “oh my God, the Amazon’s on fire, oh my God everything’s terrible, oh my God Trump,” all these things, you’re necessarily going to dwell on the things that are bad because you’re already in that mentality. But there are still things, maybe not like Steven Pinker-eseque, like, everything is totally great and better than it has ever been, because I think that has its flaws as well—

Chris: Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now felt like I was being beaten over the head with ideas with which I already agreed.

Liz: I know! you have to look at statistics, and you have to look at all of the other things that are progressing, and you can identify the things that aren’t progressing as you’d like. There is, it feels like, worldwide, a stall in human rights and democracy, so it’s not huge, but it is slightly regressive, so you get more authoritarian governments and things like that. As well, like, poverty is reducing, disease is reducing, there’s generally more toleration for human rights in a greater variety of places. Doesn’t mean we have to be complacent, but I think we also have to recognize that, like, not everything is bad, we’re not heading towards a complete dystopia. And going back to the book I read, Why Nations Fail, the really interesting argument they had was that not everything is linear but contingent; so you’ll have events where one thing can happen, and one thing—well, multiple things can happen but it takes one path over another. And I think instead of looking at things as straight lines of inevitable utopian future, inevitable capitalist dystopia of like a William Gibson variety, or whatever, all of these things are contingent, and it’s going to take a huge amount of decisions over time for one future to occur over another. And they might go back and forth, they might swing one way and swing another way, and it’s more like, how do we make those important contingents swing the right way rather than the bad way? We don’t have to be angry all the time about everything, but focus attention on the important things maybe. I don’t know! I really like the argument, and it oddly made me more hopeful..(laughs)

Francis: One of the things that was coming to my mind when we were just talking is how, with capitalism and power in general, there’s very little problem with thinking globally, and organizing things globally, and I think when you see in science fiction a lot of the time, the future is usually one where there’s some sort of process resulted in a world government that is fair and works a lot of the time; but what it seems to me in the left and in progressive movements is that, it’s always very local—and they even say, think globally, act locally, that sort of thing—but it’s really hard to compete with capitalism and these other forces that are working on a global scale, and we’re all trying to figure out things in our own individual countries and…I was wondering if that might be something that changes whether we have, within the left, internationally, say like a set of goals or a set of principles that inform parties internationally.

Liz: I have no idea.

Francis: You know, I’m wondering, in science fiction, how often that is the case, that there is sort of an evolution that leads to the world functioning as one whole, and the government being a force of good and benign, and how did they get there?

Chris: I’ve seen that in science fiction, where the reason the human race ends up all organized as a species rather than a bunch of separate nations fighting amongst each other, is the result of an alien invasion or the threat thereof.

Sina: Some annihilation event, yeah, that’s what I was thinking. I think it would be horrible, but I almost want somebody to scam, like a message from some aliens saying we’re going to attack in ten years, because it would lead to some temporary unity that, even after the scam is exposed, might have enough [histories?] to hang on.

Chris: Hire some Russian hackers and get it done on Facebook!

Sina: Like, that’s the fake news campaign I could probably get behind!

Liz: There’s like three branches of that—there’s one, there is this like existential threat, either alien or increasingly, kind of, like we’re killing the planet and it’s an environmental push; and then two, it’s just this kind of gradual seep, right? We decide we need more resources, so we go and mine the asteroids, and we kind of spread out into the local system and then someone just always discovered faster-than-light travel or something, or wormholes, blah-blah-blah-blah. And so you get this kind of gradual thing, or this like massive leap in technology or everyone banding together. I said a third one—I think the third one’s just dystopia, that we just generally collapse. I don’t know, like it’s, someone’s either going to luck out on one, or it’s going to be completely different, right? We’re just going to either continue as a species, or we’re just not. And I don’t know what one would be. It would be lovely if it was more utopia-driven rather than, like, we need to scavenge asteroids to keep our planet alive, but, at this moment we’re probably betting on the asteroids keeping the planet alive.

Sina: For sure.

Chris: Well then, informed by science fiction, what do you, all three of you, think the future might be?

Sina: Liz, do you want to go first?

Liz: I’m still thinking…

Chris: Francis, do you have an idea on what the future might look like?

Francis: There could be a crystallization of a generation that comes along and then just decides, hey, we could just create our own rules. And somehow, technology gets to a point where its potential is explained to people in a way that facilitates a much grander vision than we have right now, which is kind of like everyone for themself. It could be one of these things that just unfolds, really fast and in a really big way, and becomes like a source of excitement and, I feel like, because capitalism is sort of strangleholding the potential for technology to be used for the benefit of all, that when it finally does become something that’s used for the benefit of all, the quality of life and the creative outpouring—I think it just become immense, and the standard of living could go up hugely in a very short period of time. I think that’s inevitable, because it’s just a choice, ultimately, it’s a choice that’s not been given to people, or even had them be made aware of for the most part. I mean, you have people like Buckminster Fuller, but for some reason there’s no traction there. And when that does happen and the collective goodwill and the collective creativity is connected with the technological potential that we have today, it’s just gonna be amazing. I hope I live to see at least its beginnings.

Liz: I kind of still have hope in politics, or the ability for collective action, like through countries and things to change. I think the recent example that I will pick on will be the New Zealand government; they’re a small country, they can kind of experiment with these things easier than something like the US or maybe the UK. Where they had like—was it the wellness budget? Basically, instead of focusing the outcomes of their national budget being on, like, GDP and growth and the kind of traditional economic markers, they were focusing on well-being of their populace, and so they had to re-think how do you base your entire economy, and measure it and implement programs, that focus rather on the outcome of increasing GDP on the increasing happiness and wellness of their country? And that’s really interesting, right? LIke that’s the kind of first of its kind, and with all the kind of markers of traditional capitalism being kind of undermined by capitalism itself. So like we said with the foreign direct investment basically being a sham, or like, you know, all these offshore banks and that sort of thing happening, if you start changing the parameters of what you’re focusing on as a country, then maybe that’s enough to twist the dial? To be like, allright, we’re going to focus on outcomes. So once you’ve looked at health and education and all these things, then maybe you start to find the investment for more kind of things like space flight and advancing technology. So maybe all it needs is that slight focus shift of an actual government to say, we want an outcome that’s not based on finances. And then there’s also, we have this, not just a demographic shift in the US that might benefit the Democrats, but an overall decline in population, which most of, I think, I’ve read several things which are like, at the point in time where you don’t have more people, and you actually have a declining population, that’s gonna have really weird effects on a traditional economy, right? Like, you can’t be focused on growth unless you can manifoldly increase the amount of productivity one person can have, and maybe that’s when automation takes off and things like that. But then, the pressures won’t be on employment, the pressures will be on, like, how do we actually make stuff? If there’s not enough people to make stuff and things like that. So I’m wondering if just the kind of sheer forces of economics and the shifting of how people are thinking about government, will ultimately shape the world in unintended ways or unforeseen ways that even sci-fi hasn’t speculated, because sci-fi has existed in economies of constant growth and GDP output economies and things like that. So, who knows?

Sina: I think it’s going to be really messy in the short term, but I’m still long-term optimistic. I feel like that’s an intrinsic character trait that, through biology, nurture, education, etc., I hope I never lose. And so I am very pessimistic about certain short-term things, whether it’s political, whether it is access to water, is something that’s very concerning in terms of just the percentage of the world population that will have access to clean and potable drinking water in the next decade and so forth, but zooming out and kind of looking more, longer term, I love, I really love Liz’s kind of puzzle-piece putting together of automation with declining population, that really resonated to me. And I think that things like that should hopefully lead to some emergent effects, to speak to some of Francis’ points. So, for example, when you have ubiquitous access, not only to information—which is sort of what the web has started us down the path of, and things like infomocracy explore a little bit more, but also the access to synthesize and to use that information through things like 3-D printing and personal manufacturing, then maybe technology can start to be used to reduce our reliance on systems which are perpetuating all of these things that, in this conversation, we’ve kind of all agreed are bad, or not productive for society. So that’s why I’m long-term optimistic, because I’m hoping that through my belief in just humans, as individuals, instead of humans in groups, that by increasing access to manufacturing, to personal knowledge synthesis and creation and review etc., that we would enable that generation that Francis is talking about to actually exist. But change periods are really messy and hard. Once you zoom after it, that you can see so many of the benefits, so, maybe I’m not necessarily relishing some of those change periods, but they need to happen, because the outcome is worth it.

Chris: OK. Well with that, we’ll ask Liz the same question we ask every guest we have, and that’s is there anything you’d like to promote or tell us about that you’d like our listeners to take a look at?

Liz: Just check out my podcast, that’d be lovely. But I think the thing that I really enjoyed about changing my reading habits was just how much new and interesting science fiction it brought to me. So I would recommend everyone to do a reading challenge—not like a hard one, but say read ten books. If you look at your book collection, you realize you’re mostly reading male authors, then just like read ten books by someone who you wouldn’t read, so either like a non-white author or a woman author or someone from another country or translated book or something like that, because what I have found is that it has made science fiction that much more richer. So I would recommend that, just challenge yourself to read differently, even five books, it would be great and I hope you enjoy the result.

Chris: Great! Well, with that, thank you Liz so much for coming on.

Liz: Thank you! It was really fun.

Chris: Thanks Sina, for helping us out with this episode

Sina: Always a pleasure.

Francis: Yeah, thank you both.

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