This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 28, 2007.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of. The radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guests, Professor Lawrence Krauss from Case Western Reserve University. Here’s a word about something I think most of our listeners would be interested in.
Hello. I’m very car executive director of the Center for Inquiry. As you watch the scores of U.S. presidential debates, did you ever wonder why there has been no debate devoted to what may be the most important social issue of our time?
Science and technology? Well, we did. And we want to help make one happen.
Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, increasing need for accurate scientific information and political decision making and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness. The Center for Inquiry has joined in a call for a public debate in which the US presidential candidates share their views on issues of the environment, medicine and health and science and technology policy. Please help make this a reality by getting involved.
Visit Science Debate 2008 dot org to support this effort today. Thank you.
I’m happy to have Lawrence Krauss on point of inquiry today, he’s Ambros, Swazi professor of physics, professor of astronomy and director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University. He’s the author of seven popular books, including the international bestseller The Physics of Star Trek and the award winning title Atom. His newest book is Hiding in the Mirror The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions From Plato to String Theory and Beyond. Professor Krauss is a regular radio commentator and essayist for newspapers such as The New York Times. He appears regularly on television. He’s one of North America’s few well-known scientists described by magazines such as Scientific American as a public intellectual and with activities including performing with the Cleveland Orchestra. Being a judge at the Sundance Film Festival and his Grammy nomination, he’s also crossed the chasm between science and pop culture.
He’s been particularly active, leading the effort to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools and to help define the proper limits of both science and religion, as well as defending scientific integrity in government. His essay in The New York Times couple years ago on evolution and Intelligent Design helped refine the Vatican’s position on the issue. Professor Lawrence Krauss, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
It’s great to be on. Thank you very much, Professor.
You’re not just this acclaimed physicist quietly doing your science at Case Western Reserve University. You’re this big public intellectual. You were recently here at the Center for Inquiry and you gave a talk that attracted the largest audience we’ve had in years. Well, it was very nice. So what I’m getting at is that you don’t just do your science, you know, kind of minding your own business. You’re bringing your scientific world view to bear on all these big culture war issues that people are, you know, all up in arms about. So to start off. Here’s the question. Should all scientists be more active in the public sphere like you are? Or maybe another way to put it is if all scientists did what you did, what could it actually hurt science because they’d be doing less science and kind of be out there as a public intellectual more?
Well, that’s a good it’s a good question. I certainly don’t think all scientists should be doing what I’m doing necessarily. I think when young people ask me who are, you know, young people who are interested in social issues, ask me how they can get involved and what they could do when I tell them they really have to do what feels comfortable with them. But for young scientists, the best thing they could do is spend time on their science as things evolve. They will have opportunities to reach out to a broader segment of the community, and they could take advantage of that. But they certainly are probably doing the best thing they can do for society if if they’re talented by doing good science.
You’re all for the scientists being an activist, but only at a certain stage.
Well, people have to do what feels comfortable over say what? What makes them feel comfortable. When I was a graduate student, know, I period got angry and I wrote letters to the editor and did things like that. And I think you have to do what makes you feel comfortable. But I really do think that that especially for young scientists trying to make an impact, that if they’re talented, that they’re doing scientism is really the most important thing. That’s probably the biggest contribution they can make. And of course, as they’re interested in things, things will come up. They can act locally. The other thing I tell people is that, you know, I’m fortunate enough to have a platform in some sense that can reach a broad audience. But but if you’re interested in social issues, you can act locally in your church. If you go to church or if you’re in schools, if your kids are in schools or whatever. And so you don’t have to. You can have a huge impact at that local level. But the other thing I was going to say is that I think it’s it’s important realize that it’s it’s not always easy to reach out to the public. And I think many scientists aren’t comfortable doing that. And if they’re not comfortable, it’s probably the last thing they should be doing.
They can actually hurt the cause by.
Well, I think they they yeah. I think they if they’re not if if they can’t communicate effectively to a popular audience and they feel uncomfortable doing it, then certainly they shouldn’t be doing it. And so I think it’s important that some scientists speak out on behalf of science. I feel sometimes privileged to be able to do that. I’m not sure whether it was a fairly a plan that I had in any way. It still revolved and and fortunately evolved that so that I have credibility as scientists, which which which helps. But I think that people certainly don’t feel comfortable doing it. Shouldn’t feel compelled to do it. Absolutely right.
And your credibility as a scientist has helped you avoid the the dismissal as just a popularizer. You have the bona as as a as a real scientists. You’re not just out there kind of hawking, you know, science to a purchasing public.
Well, I hope so. Yeah, I think that’s important. And it’s certainly been important for me to feel that that I have credibility and and and and that’s what I in some sense, I tell that young scientist as well that as they make more of an impact in science, their their impact of what they say on other areas, what will increase as well. And so, you know, it goes hand-in-hand.
Professor, I want to talk more about communicating science to the public, but kind of his background, let’s talk about scientific literacy in the first place. Tell me how bad it really is.
It’s worse than you can imagine. You can’t underestimate how how how literate the scientifically literate the American public is. You know, there’ve been lots of surveys. And I I even spoke about some of them when I was when I was at your headquarters up in New York. The National Science Foundation does and several other organizations do an annual survey of scientific literacy. And it’s kind of amazing. And the one question that I think I quoted, which still amazes me, is when I was asked to view Orbit the Sun and take a year to do it, 50 percent of the American public get that wrong. And I’ve always gotten it wrong. And I think I don’t see any signs that scientific literacy is improving. In fact, I see signs of the opposite. People see more and more of a divorce between science and popular culture and science and politics. And it shouldn’t be because it’s vitally important for for many of the problems that we need to face in the next century. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve become kind of active lately, because I think it’s good science is going to be very important for us to resolve the major crises of 21st century.
I want to talk about why it’s so important people learn science. But first, let’s touch on where the failure in public understanding of science comes in. There are more avenues to learn science today than ever before. There are public spokespeople like yourself out there on the circuit more than at any time and in our nation’s history. And then we have failures at the public, understanding of science like the ones you just mentioned. What gives?
Well, there are lots of problems. There’s no doubt we do a rotten job teaching science in the public schools. And we don’t have many science teachers that are trained to teach science in middle school in this country. Over 80 percent of almost 90 percent of teachers teaching science and middle schools have never had any science education or basically beyond high school. Wow. And they don’t feel comfortable teaching science. And if they’re not feeling comfortable with students, don’t feel comfortable. That’s certainly a problem. I think the same time we had one of the big issues for me is that where we have these role models of people who we think of our in in politics, it’s clear that you could be quite successful without any scientific literacy and but also at an intellectual level. People seem to be proud to proclaim their scientific literacy as almost a badge of honor, their illiteracy, their illiteracy. Exactly. And I think that’s a that’s a huge problem that people can feel that they are somehow cultured if they if they indicate that they they don’t appreciate science or understand it. And it didn’t always used to be that way at the turn of the last century, to be an educated individual used to have to at least have some cocktail party knowledge of of least natural philosophy, as it might’ve been called. So anyway, I think that’s a that’s continued and gotten worse. And and then we see the fact that unfortunately, there’s been censorship of scientific information in substance with the profusion of 24 hour news stations and the Internet. But, of course, people have access to more information. But at the same time, effective public relations campaigns can be put to work that really confuse people or obfuscate key issues. Global warming is one. And so we see that that import information isn’t reaching the public. And if they can’t get the information that they can’t digest it.
You zero in on journalists as one of the big culprits when it comes to public scientific literacy.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that many journalists are not comfortable with science. And again, that’s reflected in their choice of topics that they cover. But also the degree in which they ask questions. I mean, it’s amazing to me that journalists are prepared often to ask incisive questions. Frankly, I’ve been disappointed over the last five years and in journalism in general, in terms of questioning our government officials, I don’t think they’ve asked probing questions in any great depth. But to the extent that they have when it comes to science issues, they tend to just sort of back off and feel extremely uncomfortable and often present size as if it’s politics, as if there’s two sides to every issue. And the great thing about science is, is often, well, often one sided, just wrong. And that’s what makes science productive. Many journalists are we appreciate that and continue to always look at a different side. And that’s been responsible for much of the public confusion about everything from evolution to global warming.
Let’s get back to where this cash is out for the individual. Why do non physicists, for instance, need to know physics? You work your nine to five job. You’re worried about paying the bills, living your life. This seems kind of, you know, maybe a lame question to ask. But I’m asked it by people out there who care about secularism and and the issue CFI is worried about. But but they don’t feel the need to go out and learn science like like you were teaching in your bestselling books.
Well, I don’t think everyone has to master physics, but what you should understand is citizen science is the basis of the modern world. You should understand something about the scientific method. Something about the basic bits of knowledge that we built up as a species about the world around us. We wouldn’t expect people to be elected as public officials if they didn’t know the Holocaust happened in the Second World War. They would be very effective in talking foreign policy or policy in the Middle East or whatever. And so it’s important to understand, for example, basic things like the fact that evolution is the basis of modern biology. But the most important thing is really to understand how the scientific process works, that science isn’t just a bunch of library books with knowledge stored in science, it’s a process.
And science is based on questioning the world and questioning yourself. And the results come out the arbiter of what’s truth and what isn’t. Its experiment. Basic facets of science, I think, that are important for people to appreciate so that they have perspective that allows them to assess the things they read in the papers and decide if it’s nonsense or not. If they’re going to act responsibly in a modern democracy, they have to have some basic knowledge base of which they can digest information and make decisions and decisions in the voting booth. And so those are the kind of levels of scientific literacy I’m talking about, not understanding how to calculate how fast something flies down, an inclined plane or something like that.
So. Learning a basic level of science, or at least the process, the methods of science, it’s like intellectual self-defense, you’re saying?
Yeah, exactly. I think intellectual self-defense is a good way of putting it. It’s a way to ensure that the decisions you make are reasonable ones and it carries well beyond the public in general. I think it’s very important for for for politicians.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Hiding in the Mirror. The Quest for alternate realities from Plato to string theory through our Web site. Point of inquiry dork. Professor Krauss, let’s tie the discussion we were just having to democracy the rights of individuals in a democracy, in our open democratic society. Isn’t everything supposed to be open to debate? It seems kind of like you. Are you arrogant, unelected, elitist? Scientists are telling others what they should be believing about this subject or that that particular idea is plumb nonsense. You just said in science. Some things, you know, there aren’t two sides to every issue. Well, there isn’t that outside the bounds of the democracy.
Well, no. The point is, I absolutely believe everything in principle is open debate in a democracy when there’s a rational reason for debate. The interesting thing about science is that it is nonsense and partizan determined by some kabal of individuals with HD or shouldn’t be. Are there no scientific authorities who are whose views are not subject to question? Anyone can question anyone. Nobel Prize winner or whatever their results, their scientific experts, people who know things but no other human has a level of authority that’s unquestionable. What what is a question of nature and nature provides the answers and what determines the difference. Nonsense and sense is nature. So if you have an idea and you tested in nature, tells you that it doesn’t correspond to reality, then it’s nonsense.
Since the earth isn’t flat, you go round it. End of story. We don’t have to have debates in classrooms. We don’t have to have debates and in the political arena about whether the earth is flat or not. Thankfully, we’ve actually learned something and we can throw the ideas that just don’t work. And so the key the key point here is it’s not it shouldn’t be some group of scientists or anyone else who determines what is nonsense on the basis of some subset of credentials. It should be nature. And what I want to do is empower people to, in some sense, have the basic tools to determine whether something is nonsense or not, whether wins. When you read something, a paper, it disagrees with the fundamental things that we know to be true about nature. If it does, then you can dispense with it. So my hope is, in fact that democracy only functions if we if the electorate can make informed decisions and it only functions well. It’s certainly always functions, but it functions best if the electric can make informed decisions and those informed decisions should be based on some rudimentary scientific literacy. So I believe the statements I make are not, in fact anti-democratic, but they’re pro democratic.
In your talk here and in your many OP Ed’s and in your public appearances, you talk about issues like global warming, stem cell research, even missile defense, creationism and ideas being taught in the schools. I’ve even heard gay rights framed in a way that is all. All these issues confronting us enter democracy in many more issues besides them are kind of framed as science versus anti science. Science has a view on all these kinds of issues and and there are forces within reason that have another view.
I appreciate you saying that. I think that the idea is that science is based on reason and logic and experiment. And and I really do in some sense think that being an enemy of science and therefore being an enemy of reason and that’s not a good thing.
Cookham, most of the conclusions on these matters. Like I just mentioned, most of these conclusions coming from the scientific community end up agreeing with the liberals, with the secularists, with the Democrats even. Is that because scientists are kind of on a whole biased in that direction?
Well, people have claimed that I don’t buy it. I think that that we a fistfight isn’t universal. I just wrote the op ed, which may or may not appear criticizing the Democratic Congress, for example, for the new budget that disappeared, the omnibus budget, which cut all increases in the physical sciences that had been requested as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, which came out of a report from the National Academy of Sciences called Rising Above the Gathering Storm. And that’s essential, I think, for for for United States to progress economically. And yet, in order to cut 20 billion dollars, what they did was basically cut out the part of energy off of the science. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation. And that’s going to destroy a lot of fundamental university research in science that’s essential for the health and economic well-being. Our country, the next generation.
And so I think it’s inappropriate to frame this sciences as as a Democratic versus Republican issue. It is true the current administration has in many ways been, one could say, the enemy of science and art. And it is true that for some reason or other science by certain fundamentalist religious groups is viewed as a target. So that side has clearly come out against those groups. But they’re not coming out against those groups in many cases because of some basic antagonism towards religion. They’re coming out against it because of those religious groups from misguided by their lack of understanding of science and think science is a threat. And I think science is a mall because it doesn’t mention God explicitly. And that, of course, is not true.
So when your science is confronting religion, it’s not ideology. It’s evidence based.
It should be. If it if it’s ideology, then it’s not science. So, you know, I as an individual can have religious viewpoints and I do. But when I express metaphysical ideas or religious ideas or philosophical ideas, I’m speaking as an individual, but not as a scientist. They’re informed by my science. But I don’t claim that the science allows me to make statements about about metaphysical issues.
On the on this question of science and politics. Tell me about this science debate that you and others. The Center for Inquiry included have been calling for. Do you think it’s actually a possibility?
When we started this, I thought a little while I was pretty skeptical that it would come about. I wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal and which I suppose actually appeared in The Wall Street Journal and it got some attention. But since since that time, the the there’s been a lot of interest. And just last week, I was excited that that two Congress people, a Republican and a Democrat, the only two congresspeople with PTSD in science. Verdell is a Republican from Michigan. And Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, agreed to sign on as co-chairs of our steering committee. And we’ve now got presidents of many of the major universities in the country, from Duke to Princeton to Caltech. And I have Stanford. And this seems to be a growing interest. And I think it actually might happen.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you could purchase Lawrence Krauss, his book, The Physics of Star Trek, through our website Point of Inquiry, Dawg. Whether you’re into Star Trek, you maybe. I think it’s the greatest propaganda for secular humanism on TV or you’re into physics. You’ll love this book. Professor Krauss, I want to switch gears in our remaining time and talk more directly about religion and science. We just touched on it. Let me ask you flat out, do you think they’re compatible?
Religion and science. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The evidence, again, I’m trying to kind of an evidence based person and my evidence is that they are.
Well, those scientists are also religious. So in some sense, they must be compatible. I don’t believe they’re schizophrenic, those individuals.
So they’re compatible in the individual. But are they compatible as world views?
Well, in many cases, no. I mean, the courts that I often use and you’ve heard views before us or my my colleague, Steven Weinberg, who said that science doesn’t make it impossible, believe in God. It just makes it possible to not believe in God, because without science, everything is a miracle. And so I think that’s the point. I think science makes it perfectly possible to imagine a world without God. And it from perfect perspective, it seems to me like to be quite irrational possibility and not an unattractive one. A rational one. Yeah. Yeah. But the point is that because science is based on things he can falsify. The question is, can science ever completely falsify the notion of God? It could certainly demonstrate that there’s no evidence of supernatural phenomena in our world and that it certainly has been the case.
You’re right. But as they’ll tell us, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Absolutely. And so I think at some level, what I’ve what I’ve argued, and I think it’s true since I’ve argued it is that science could provide positive evidence for the existence of God.
If I looked up tomorrow night and this guy were clear and suddenly the stars had been rearranged to say, I am here, well, that would be pretty interesting evidence, something going on.
So you could imagine positive evidence. Point is, there hasn’t been. But but you can imagine piles of evidence, but negative evidence is not. I don’t think can ever be definitive. And I think I think religious belief at some level is a personal a personal thing, which it seems to me that we’re hardwired in many ways to believe things that are not completely rational. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a reality for us. Love is a good example. And so I think that I’m not I’m more dubious after the years that we’ll ever get rid of religion or that, you know, that that should be a focus of people’s attention. What what is important to realize is that there are times when religion is incompatible with science. If people obviously take things literally and they disagree with the results of nature, this is a six thousand years old. It’s not a it’s not a matter for debate. It’s not a matter of religious conviction. It just isn’t 6000 years old. And so it’s important that science, as I say, inform people about how the world really is and they integrate those realities into whatever their personal beliefs are.
On some level. You seem to be suggesting, though, that personal religious belief is outside the purview of science, that science, that the methods of science can’t touch those issues.
Well, I think I mean, again, it can do. It can touch it by informing us about it. We may, in fact, learn about the psychology of religion. We may learn. We may learn about how religion evolves in human societies in a neurophysiological way. It still won’t tell us that there is no God. But so it’s not completely outside the purview, but it can’t.
But I think that’s I think science and some scientists waste their time. We should come back. No nonsense. And so there’s a lot of no nonsense in religion, no fundamentalist religion. And I think we need to combat that. But to combat things that are for which really the sciences isn’t telling us. The answer, I think, is using science inappropriately and demeans science as well as as well as too many religions. I think there are many, many, many other more important battles to fight and more. And in fact, is another friend of mine, a well-known linguist, Noam Chomsky, has argued. If it’s not people’s belief that disturb him so much as what they do and how they act on their own, their beliefs.
Well, look, there are competing strategies for selling science to the public. And let’s talk about Richard Dawkins. That’s that’s that’s the elephant in the room. You’ve publicly debated Professor Dawkins and others on the point we were just talking about. And I want to explore your views. You say that it isn’t enough just to say the facts of science, but that we need to package it in a way that makes it more palatable to the consuming public and that if you zero in on religion and try to make science do something, it can’t do, that it kind of undermines the whole project.
One should not be trying to do anything here by subterfuge. The point is that what are we really interested in? I’m a teacher. Among other things, I mention teaching people. And if I mr. People have to reach them where they’re at. And I. By attacking them at the very beginning. They closed their minds off. And so I think there can be problems with that. At the same time, it is really vitally important for people like Richard to speak out on such issues. And while people and raise people’s consciousness about certain things, for example, the fact that in our society, especially American society, that not believing in God is somehow viewed as being an evil thing.
And it’s really important that people like Richard point out that there’s nothing evil at all about not believing in God and that they would sort of confront people and provoke them by pointing out these facts. So I think that I think it’s important that certain people be vocal in making it quite clear that there’s nothing wrong with being an atheist.
But in terms of a social justice agenda, not necessarily that he is legitimate to, you know, make these arguments as a scientist go.
Well, yeah. Well, I guess I guess one could say that. But at the same time, he’s pointing out he’s pointing out real dangers. I mean, the fact that Mitt Romney could could say that without religion, there can be no freedom. What is it that’s terrifying? What a terrifying statement. I don’t think he meant it. Maybe. I think he was trying to appeal to some fundamentalist base. But if that’s that’s goes against everything, I think that not only scientists, what should one believe it, but, in fact, the basis of our modern democracy, you know, as some members of the humanist community decry Richard Dawkins and wring their hands.
But he’s a dream come true. You know, 10 years ago, no one could have planned to have such a an impact in the body politic. Still, you’ve taken issue with Dawkins about his methods.
I’ve taken that. Well, Richard, I’ve debated because I think it’s important that I mean, which is an important message in any end. And to reach people, you have to be at the you have to ask yourself the question of what am I really trying to do it by just angry and I want to speak out or am I trying to have an impact? And I think sometimes some of the things that Richard does are counterproductive. And when they are, I, I tell him and and when I speak out about it and he’s been very open and at least listening, I’m not sure he always acts on what I say. But I think it’s it’s important that that many of the themes he make be made and be understood. And there’s a huge difference. And I’ve learned this as a writer, a writer, as well as a lecture. What you say and what people here are two different things. And so you have to make sure that what you’re saying is taken away, that people hear something as close to possible as what you intended. And that’s not always such an easy thing to do.
Jim Underdown don’t make it easy for people to misunderstand. I want to finish up by talking about the implications of this world view that you espouse in your bestselling books and your lectures, your media appearances. CFI is especially interested in what follows from the scientific world view, not just everybody learning science, but what does science, that outlook say about society’s basic beliefs, whether we’re talking about religion or maybe belief in alternative medicine or paranormal claims like ghosts and aliens and talking to deceased loved ones, that sort of stuff. So here’s the question. Do you think that in order to cast the widest net as possible for science education, should we keep the conclusions that that are coming from science? Should we keep those to ourselves? Because they’re you know, they’re kind of dire implications. If you follow science, where it leads won’t necessarily undermine society’s fundamental assumptions about religion in the paranormal.
Well, look, no, I you I think you have to follow truth, whoever leads. And I and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I think that only when we when we are in close touch with reality can we can we make good decisions. And I think that that the last thing, not only should scientists not we don’t have any rights to protect any in any one, any way more or less, nor the knowledge is not. And it’s a it’s a it’s a human knowledge. And we are funded, in fact, by the public. And so I think we have an obligation to disseminate the results of our research. But I happen to believe and again, maybe because I’m an educator, that if people are educated that they’ll make better decisions. And and and one should not censor information because one feels one that has some idea about where it will lead.
So even if your scientific worldview will undermine someone else’s beliefs about religion and the paranormal, so be it, you know. Yes. Yes.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I think. I often say we’re not we we should not quite a way to offend religious sensibilities except when they’re wrong. And similarly for the paranormal. All we can do is informed about how the way the world works based on the results of experiment. And if that if that undermines people’s beliefs, then it means that they should reassess their beliefs. And that’s not I mean, people religious people have said that for ages, including, you know, Moses. My monitors said that nine centuries ago.
Mm hmm. Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Professor Lawrence Krauss. Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
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