George Hrab – Soundtrack to Skepticism

May 14, 2010

George Hrab is a composer, professional musician, singer, songwriter, podcaster, and skeptic.

George is the Host and Producer of the Geologic Podcast, a popular weekly show about music, comedy, science, and skepticism. The drummer in the band Philadelphia Funk Authority, he is a successful multi-instrumentalist musician who has performed on-stage with Elton John, and given a performance in the White House for Bill Clinton.

For the past fifteen years he has also been a solo artist, releasing his music independently. George’s songs tackle science, the paranormal and pseudoscience, from the Occasional Songs for the Periodic Table in which he sings to each element, to an ode to the coelacanth. George’s latest album Trebuchet includes the songs God is Not Great, Everything Alive will Die Someday, and Death From the Skies, featuring “Bad Astronomer” Dr. Phil Plait.

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Karen Stollznow speaks with George about the “intersection” of music and skepticism, and how music fits into critical thinking. With eclectic influences from Frank Zappa to Carl Sagan, George describes how he infuses skepticism into his own music.

A successful activist in the skeptical community, George not only speaks-out against a lack of critical thinking in society, but he also “sings-out” against this issue, promoting skepticism through song. This “nice guy of skepticism” discusses the image of the skeptical movement, and what we can do to popularize skepticism. He explains that he reaches people “through their funny bones and dance shoes” as an effective way to communicate skepticism to the public, and tells us how music and comedy can make converts to critical thinking.

George’s music brings a new audience to skepticism, and provides theme songs for skeptics.

In many ways, George’s music has become the soundtrack to skepticism.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 14th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and the grassroots. My guest this week is George Trump, composer, professional musician, singer songwriter, podcasters and skeptic. George is the host and producer of the geologic podcast, a popular weekly show about music, comedy, science and skepticism. George is the drummer in the band Philadelphia Funk Authority, a successful multi instrumentalist musician. He’s performed onstage with Elton John and given a performance for former president of the United States, Bill Clinton. For the past 15 years, he’s also been a solo artist, releasing his music independently. Many of his songs treat themes in skepticism, science, Athie ism and humanism. George is set to release his fifth album, Trebuchet, that includes the songs God Is Not Great, Everything Alive Will Die Someday and Death from the Skies, featuring bad astronomer Dr Phil Plait in many ways. George’s music has become the soundtrack to skepticism. George, welcome to Point of Inquiry. So nice to be here. Yeah. 

So this show is going to feel like one extended Ask George segment, I think. 

OK, cool. Without the barking. 

You’ve got some some very eclectic influences on your work. So not every artist can say that their influences are as diverse as Frank Zappa and Carl Sagan. But for you personally, which came first, the music or the skepticism? 

Well, I would say the music the music has sort of been so ubiquitous since I was a wee child. I had a very musical home. My dad was my first drum teacher when I was seven years old. He was the first guy that taught me how to play. So music has always kind of been there. But I think I think there’s a certain mindset that goes along with the production of music and art in terms of looking at things differently and trying to sort of see a bigger picture and think about things that Lisa was presented to me that way. The idea of being original, trying to do stuff that someone hasn’t done before. I think that provided the foundation for this kind of skeptical thought processes. But then, you know, watching Cosmos with my dad when I was, whatever, 10, 12 years old, that kind of came and went along the same time, too. So it’s been kind of a hand-in-hand progression. 

So you’ve really been able to fuze them both and to use a popular buzzword. I’d say that your work is at the intersection of skepticism in music. If there is one, to me, it’s certainly interdisciplinary the way that you do it. And some might think that skepticism is more the domain of science and research and education. So where does music fit into critical thinking? 

Yeah, it’s kind of the point for me is that the idea of critical thinking is a tool that you use all the time. 

And it’s not just when you’re trying to figure out if a claim is true or if you know some some particular scientific claim is true or if some fantastical claim is true. But the critical thinking is used when you’re determining, you know, which laundry detergent to buy or whether a commercial is true or not, or, you know, what apartment complex you should be living in day to day decisions are so, so much based on critical thinking and skeptical thinking and rational thinking. That for me to incorporate the thing that I’m halfway decent at, which is making music and entertaining people, it’s it’s, of course gonna be such a huge chunk of that because it’s such a huge chunk of my sort of being, you know, the same way that I think of myself as a musician. It’s the same way that I think of myself as a critical thinker. It’s sort of I don’t even think of myself as a critical thinker the way you don’t think of yourself as human. You don’t want to walk around thinking, gosh, it’s great to be, you know, not to be australopithecine. 

You just think that what you think I might I am standing upright in here. 

You know, it’s such a ubiquitous part of every sort of moment of of my thinking and contemplating and wondering that it just infuses itself into all the work. And, you know, it is it is a specific niche. You know, there aren’t. It is are too many skeptical musicians that are out there. I mean, there are. But but to me, I kind of thought, oh, this is a this is so it’s such a part of what I do and how I think and how I function that I can really sort of mind this vein and out of corner the market, but at least set up shop. 

So activists in the skeptical community speak out against a lack of critical thinking in society. While you also sing out against it. Do you find that this is a particularly effective way to communicate skepticism to the public through song? 

Oh, absolutely. 

Most of European history and most most philosophy that I know I learned from Monty Python because growing up it just stuck with me. 

So, like, I, you know, you would see what you would. 

Hear references that these guys would make to whatever, you know, the philosophers playing soccer, like I didn’t know where those people were when I was 12. But it was funny and it was interesting in these names all of a sudden, like, you know, why would Confucius be the referees? OK. You go back and you realize, oh, that’s actually pretty funny. The Confucians are the referee at the philosopher soccer game, you know, like an eye that just stuck with me that all of those things remain with me because of the delivery system. So my delivery system tends to be humor and music. And I think you can really influence someone almost subconsciously that with a joke it’s much better than preaching. Preaching. Unfortunately, tends to turn people off regardless of the message. And if someone is just sort of saying this is what you need to do or this is wrong or this is wrong, as opposed to presenting it sort of in a clever way or an entertaining way, hopefully entertaining way to me. You know, to do a song again like Speak to You sort of raises an eyebrow or a song like God is not great or perform this. Someone that if I was to just say, you know, you’re religious thinking is really kind of weird and doesn’t make sense and explain it to me. That would turn people off. It’s almost like you sort of putting the medicine in the ice cream to a certain degree, but without playing it down too much. And I think ultimately my material can be appreciated on just a solely sort of visceral level of you might like the tune and you might want to pop around and dance. And I have plenty of people or fans that that just enjoy the music. And not so much the message. 

But of course, you’d like to say that you like to reach people through the dancing shoes and funny bones. 

Yeah, because that influence is just so much greater, because I know personally that the experiences that have influenced me the most have often been that way. 

You know, hearing a Frank Zappa commentary on conservative politics, whereas when I was younger, I was more conservative, you know. 

But hearing Frank kind of addressed something about the ridiculousness of Republican policy. Kind of would make me sort of take a take a second and go, wait a minute. What is he right? What is he saying? What is it? What does this mean? It forces me to self examine and then maybe have a bit of a eureka moment, like a subtle skepticism here. 

You know, just to sort of just to present in the same way that, you know, creationists have their wedge argument. I always talk about the same thing for us. That you can take someone. And if you can just you know, you’re not going to convince anyone who is a believer. But if someone is maybe on the fence or someone has some doubts, you can prop that door open a little bit wider with an idea. And what I’d like to do is present ideas, not preach ideas or preach conversion nery tactics. But just like, isn’t this weird? 

Well, this is why this is how I see it. 

Why do you think to raise questions with people. 

Yeah. Yeah, I think people connect with that or at least people that are potentially on the fence. 

I mean, I’ve had lots of people sort of write to me and say or approach me and just say, you know, I, I like this tune because I heard it somewhere that you did. And I started listening this and it got me wondering, like, yeah, that is kind of weird. Why does this mean this or why do people believe this or whatever? And that to me is it’s it’s priceless. 

It’s absolutely priceless when someone can have a bit of a revolutionary moment in and of themselves where it’s just I’m just a little little tiny, tiny spark, you know, that hopefully ignites sort of the fuel that’s in their brain that’s going to fuel the skepticism that they inherently have within them, which all humans do. 

And you root this on far. The theme song for the International Year of Astronomy is 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. That’s quite a mouthful. Yeah. And you also wrote the song Skeptic for the Science Communication Project, skeptic’s mixtape. And there are, as you’ve mentioned earlier, a couple of other artists who are doing something along the lines of what you’re doing, but not in exactly the same way. I mean, as Tim Minchin, his music style is more of a sort of poetry slam to me in some ways, and Greydon Square with his rap and hip hop. But it seems to me that you provide the soundtrack to skepticism. Would you say that you are the go to guy for music about skepticism? 

I would love to be known for that. I don’t want to, you know, particularly anything from anyone else. But sure, I’ll take it. 

I think what you’re doing is very different. 

I think that’s what’s so cool, is that in the same way that you can have different sort of strains of critical thinking or subjects of critical thinking, you can do different styles of music that relate to it, just as there’s so many styles. But yeah, I’d love to be known as the go to guy, and I kind of have fallen into that on a certain level. 

Very good. And I was gonna ask you about your style of music. I’ve heard you describe your music as philosophy funk. So how would you classify your genre of skeptical music overall? And I’m wondering what styles of music are appropriate to skepticism. I mean, it’s obviously not gospel. And I know there’s no inherent style to skepticism. I’m wondering what kinds of music are really suited to. 

Skepticism, I think anything can be I think, you know, in the same way that I think any kind of musical message has its place. I mean, I have a song called Think for Yourself, which is almost the gospel kind of tune. That was sort of the point of it. It was a six, eight kind of bluesy gospel kind of song. 

But the message was the complete opposite of your normal kind of gospel thing where the point was, think for yourself. Every musician hates to self categorize. 

And for me, it’s my influences are Zappa Talking Heads, King Crimson Ecstasy, the police, Duran Duran. You know, it’s it’s sort of an amalgam plus, you know, being raised. The Ukrainian, you know, the kind of the Eastern European melodic stuff sort of creeps its way in there. And I have an appreciation for standard. Some of the some of the most sublime music for me personally is listening to, you know, standards from the 40s, the 30s and 40s being sung by, you know, by whoever by Frank Sinatra. 

So do you find that your fans are mostly skeptics or do they come from old backgrounds of beliefs? 

I think mostly mostly it’s sort of I don’t even know if they would self label the skeptics, but there are people that connect on some level with a message that somewhere in there. So I do have fans that are not, you know, that are religious, that are that, you know, everyone labels himself as a critical thinker. Obviously self labels a compliment in a sense. 

Yeah. You know, no one’s going to say no. I don’t think critically I’m Catholic. 

Do you think that you bring a new and different audience to skepticism and you think that you’ve made converts to critical thinking over time? 

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I think so, because it’s interesting that there are aspects of what I do. I mean, there are people that know me solely from the podcasts. There are people that know me solely from my music. There are people that know me solely as a drummer with the Philadelphia Funk Authority, which is a band that I play with, which is like my day job. I know weekends. I play drums. That’s that’s how I make a living. And there are people that know me solely from that that might hear, oh, he’s doing you know, the drummer guy is doing a performance. Oh, he plays guitar. Oh, well. Okay. And they’ll come over and they’ll sort of say, what is your music about. Like what’s going on? And I’ll say, well, it’s seen skepticism, good thinking. And they absolutely are interested and sort of fascinated by it. 

So there is crossover. 

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And that is my favorite where it’s almost like this sort of whispered thing sometimes, whereas you might have, you know, a funk fan will approach me and say, like, we’re totally on the same page, don’t tell anybody. 

But, you know, my you know, my wife goes to church and I understand. 

And it’s almost like this kind of confessional thing that sort of happens. And I can be like, oh, yeah, it was on my show. 

So I wanted to come back to your lyrics. And your lyrics are definitely not. She loves you. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And as much as I love the Beatles, but your songs were often humorous, are often very insightful and profound, and I hope that they listen to both. But do you find that your fans listen to your melodies or focus on your lyrics and you did touch upon this already? 

I think it depends. I think it depends on the person. I think there are some people that just connect viscerally. That’s a pretty melody and it sounds cool. Or this beat is cool and I can kind of dance or there are fans of the technical aspect. So there are some things that when that Frank Zappa influence really shines through. They’ll kind of listen and say, oh, that sounds hard to play. I like that. And then there are people that, you know, just connect on a skeptical level. And now there are people that connect on an emotional level. I’ve had some more songs that have been a little bit more emotionally open, reflecting on my experiences and there people that love those songs. One of the best responses I have gotten or the most kind of the largest and most consistent responses to a song called Small Comfort, which is about losing my pet on a boxer dog that died a couple years ago. And as an atheist, as someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife dealing with that loss. You know, the idea of I want there to be a puppy heaven that I can picture him running around chasing squirrels in, but that’s too easy. And in this in that moment of grief, you almost have to kind of be doubly critical and skeptical and realize that, no, I’m not going to soothe myself with a fantasy. I’d rather live with the reality of what we have to deal with and appreciate the time that I did have with this with this creature. People have responded to that song, you know, especially critical thinkers, people that don’t believe in an afterlife because it’s just the idea of loss. It’s the idea of how do we as skeptics deal with loss. That to me is, you know, when someone someone connects with that, it’s it’s unreal. And, you know, to make to make Jane Avella cry is always a good thing. 

Well, I can see that resonating with a lot of skeptics. It’s a it’s a difficult thing to confront for anyone, but particularly for skeptics who might not have any sort of system for. Dealing with this. But I did want to ask you about Tugg grief and death with your new song, Everything Alive Will Die Someday. It really reminds me a lot of George Harrison’s song. All Things Must Pass. But, of course, yours is more of a blunt treatment of the inevitability of death. But in your music overall, do you think that some listeners could confuse your philosophical undertones with a sense of spirituality? 

I think if anything and confuse it for negativity, they’re much, much sooner. Likely to think that I’m being negative. You know, you look at the album titles. A cousin of mine saw, you know, the first song as God is not great. And then everything. A label dies some day and they’re kind of like, oh, that’s a real happy album, you know? Whereas to me, that just is interesting to have those first two songs be the be the things that are listed. So I think I don’t think I would be confused. I don’t think so. I’ve never I’ve never been called out on that. Maybe people are afraid to bring that up or something. 

But I think I think it’s pretty clear once you start dissecting what the lyrics are saying, that, you know, there is no there is no other thing. It’s what we have is what we have. And there is no magical stuff. And that that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a really good thing. So I think people might infuse a negative connotation on it or mistake a negative connotation as opposed to what I’m saying, which is the complete opposite of like, hey, everything’s gonna be gone. 

Isn’t that great? Like that soul leveling. Like we’re all in the same boat. 

No matter what, you know, we’re all destined for the same thing. To me, that just seems like this positive thing. I read Phil Plate’s book, Death from the Skies, and he talks about how at the end of the universe, everything just kind of stops and just sort of cooled down and cooled down and slows down and cooled down and slows down and just stops. 

And I read that I thought that was just so beautiful of like this watch kind of stopping. And it’s the idea of that’s it. You know, that’s it. It reaches its it’s done, you know. 

And that’s fine. You know, whereas someone else might think of it as cold or dark, whatever. To me, it’s this there’s a certain beauty in that in that inevitability and that understanding that we are we’re all on the same team and hoping that regardless, we’re all on the same team. 

You know, and not just this planet, but every atom. 

Eventually it’s all going to stop and like, OK, what do we do in the meantime? That’s the issue. 

You really capture that very well in your song. And of course, you feature to fill place on your album. On this album. 

Yes. The rock star himself. Yeah, he’s very kind. 

Another title that I stole, that song is called Death from the Skies. And I approached him and I begged him and he was very, very generous with his time. So he recorded a nice vocal. 

Well, he does a little bit of rapping, doesn’t he? And then towards the end, there is some singing, a little bit of singing, just a little hint. 

He wasn’t. I don’t know if he intended us to use that, but we used it and now it’s great. 

And he’s it sounds good again. He’s reading the odds of dying by certain kind of astronomical phenomena. 

You know, like what are the odds of being hit by a meteor or what are the odds of dying in a black hole? 

And it’s you know, it’s I just it’s such nerd vonna for me, that kind of information. It’s being delivered by the bad astronomer himself. It’s just great. 

It is great. And so having just said that, your lyrics are very profound. I mentioned to a friend that I was interviewing you and that you’re the one who drops his trousers at gigs and his friends and all that guy. So that’s you? 

Yes. My profound lyrics and my. And my ass. Yeah. 


So your lyrics and your podcast and your other projects are really fun. They’re comical. They’re very witty. How do you think that humor can promote skepticism? 

You remember a joke. You remember a humorous instance. You all of the all of the things that I sort of remember and retain. Again, it’s that Monty Python influence, whether it’s Monty Python or Stan Freberg. Stan Freberg was an American comic in the 50s, you know, even before Python was way ahead of his time. And he’s a huge influence on me, very hip, almost kind of a be bop comedian in a certain way, would do sketches and multiple voices and things like that. You know, I love the idea of really smart people doing really silly things. 

It’s like a musician who has a tremendous amount of technical facility playing just a very straight ahead thing. And in sort of infusing that very straight ahead, very straightforward thing with all of his or her knowledge and skill, but playing some very simple or like, you know, like an E. Cummings poem, like, you know, the facility behind his mind or the or the the resources that are available to use are just massive. And yet his poetry can be very simple and very just direct. I love that. So it’s sort of all the same package and just. In my personal experience, I just remember how huge an influence humor is on me. You look at something like Life of Brian, which I keep harping on Monty Python, but it’s just examples to good. I mean, it’s the message of life of Brian is delivered in such a great way about thinking for yourself through humor. 

You know, the whole sequence with the Latin conjugation, you know, I can conjugate the words because I remember that sequence where Ramona and DOMAs, you know, it’s just if I were to sit down and try to think about Latin conjugation just wouldn’t happen and wouldn’t stick. 

So hopefully makes it accessible, doesn’t it? That’s the thing. 

That’s the thing. Accessible. And just memorize the ball on a certain level and you get across your point so much better. As Mark Twain then as, you know, a preacher or something. 

I think so. In some ways you think skepticism under the cloak of music and comedy makes it more palatable for people? 

Oh, no question. No question. I mean, my career is proof of that. 

I’ve spoken with other prominent skeptics about where we’re going wrong with our image as skeptics and in our marketing of skepticism. But to me, you’re very successful at promoting skepticism on a grassroots level. And you’re also known as the nice guy of skepticism. 

So what advice really you have? Yes. Oh, yeah. Cool indeed. 

So what advice do you have for how we can successfully disseminate, use and popularize skepticism? 

I think it’s being true to what you want to say. But I also think there needs to be a certain infusion of entertainment value and not to lessen the impact of what someone can say. And when you look at a speech, you know, the keynote speech at 10 six was by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Road Space Center in New York. And it was fantastic. It was humorous. It was, you know, self mocking. It was tons of information that had a point. It was done really well. And then it stuck with me. Now, whatever. Three years later, I still remember the points that he made. Conversely, you know, Dr. Tyson is one of the most successful kind of scientific people in the media today because he realizes that there is a certain brevity and performance aspect of delivering information that has to be thought about. I think if anything, that we’re guilty of sometimes is thinking that the message is enough. And unfortunately, if you want to communicate to younger people, to people that are maybe on the fence, what you’re saying is tremendously important. Unfortunately, and this is totally unfair and it stinks. But how you say it is just as or more important. So I think that’s something that we could within the community focus on or. 

And people are I mean, the thing you often hear at Tamme from first time attendees, the amazing meeting in Vegas is, you know, how interesting everything was. You know where you think. OK. You say to a non skeptic, I’m going to a skeptical convention or, you know, a science based convention. And you think it’s just gonna be this dry kind of presentation of information. And it’s not. I think the surprise often comes in like, wow, that was funny. And that has to be funny. But I think there has to be thought put into is this being presented in the best way it can? Is it sort of distilled? Is the message being distilled in a way that is going to make it not even palatable? But just that it can be taken in and at least sort of mulled over? So I think that’s something that people need to be more aware of. 

So the Beatles had jelly beans thrown at them onstage and Jim Morrison had joints thrown at him and Tom Jones said women’s underpants thrown at him. So what do your fans throw at you? 

I was thinking tomatoes or don’t? 

No, I have not. I have not had things. If I could pick something, maybe flat screen TV is nice, you know, 40 inch flat. 

Thank you. Gonna throw that at me. That Nicole like Bill. Years of laughter. Gently and just. Yeah. I’m a fan of Skittles. 

Okay. Now you’re in trouble. We pelted with them. Yeah. Yeah. 

Finally, I just wanted to clarify something. I was the inspiration for your song Brains Body. Both right. Well, absolutely, yeah. 

You have figured to clear that up and now I’ve got this on record. So, George, thank you so much for joining me. It was a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you. This is great. 

Die some day, that’s all. 

The great acquainting factor. Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. You’re listening to a song called Everything Alive Will Die Someday from George’s new album, Trebuchets. This is his Web site, Geologic Records Dot Net. For more information to participate in the online conversation about this show, please join our discussion forum. At point of inquiry DOT. All fees expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback. That’s point of inquiry dot org. 

On that final day and slept in by relaxing. Just enjoy the. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. On the almost Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow