Talking Nerdy (And Ethically) with Cara Santa Maria

May 05, 2014

Our guest this week is Cara Santa Maria, contributor to Al Jazeera America’s science show TechKnow, and the host of the podcast Talk Nerdy. This neuroscientist, science educator, producer, writer, and television personality has brought her intelligence and insights to the Huffington Post as its former senior science editor, was the co-host and producer of TakePart Live on Pivot TV, and has appeared countless times on CNN, FOX, BBC, among many others.

Point of Inquiry’s Josh Zepps sat down with Santa Maria for a conversation about growing up Mormon in Texas (and the associated postmortem planetary inheritance), the scourge of false equivalency in modern journalism, and the appeal of “woo” from the metaphysical to the pseudoscientific. And just what are our prospects for scientific advancement, and who will benefit most? This is an episode full of fun and eye-opening insights.

This is point of inquiry for May 5th, 2014. 

On Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. The nonprofit committed to science, reason and secularism. Our guest this week is one of the most compelling media science communicators I know. If you haven’t heard of her, you will soon enough. Cara, Santa Maria used to be the senior science correspondent for the Huffington Post and became a co-host and producer on the nightly talk show. Take Pot live on Pivot TV. She’s been on CNN, Fox News, BBC, Sundance Travel Channel, Nat Geo Wild, a bazillion other places, too. She’s now a contributor on Al Jazeera America’s Science Show Tech. Now, Kyra, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thanks so much for having me. What is your podcast to begin with? That’s just a plug that. 

Yeah, let’s do it right at the top. I, I do a podcast called Talk Nerdy, which is kind of a take on the series I used to do for Huff Post call talk nerdy to me and very new only been doing it a couple of months. 

And you learn anything. Yeah. I was areason guess so much. Lovers of secularism, science and me. And after this half hour you can go and find it by looking forward to talk nerdy. Yeah. I hadn’t actually realized what I was reading the bio about you that you started out teaching. Right. You actually taught biology and psych. I do. Yeah. Hospital students, mostly young college students. 

So. Well, like during graduate school, as soon as I finished my undergrad, I taught both in the year after I took a year off in between each of my degrees. So did my undergrad, took a year off, did my masters, took a year off, started APHC and ultimately left. So the whole time after I did my undergrad, I was teaching. So that was about maybe five or six years of my life as kind of an adjunct professor. 

And. What did you make of that? Because I mean, so much of what we talk about on this show has to do with science, communication and the A bill. And we’re sort of young people are out in terms of their reasonableness and how they think about science and religion. Did you feel like you were part of a system that was rewarding flourishing young minds? Did you feel frustrated by the system? Did you have any take on it? 

Well, I did, because I really didn’t. And I did feel like I was part of a system that was rewarding flourishing minds because I was lucky enough to teach only at the college level. So I taught some high school students, but I never taught in high school. I taught high school students were gifted, talented, who had come to the university and take university level courses. And I only ever attended school and taught in schools that were public commuter colleges, which I really appreciate. I never worked, you know, in an Ivy League institution that wasn’t my my go. I never worked for a private university where kind of thought could be put into a vise depending on the interests of the people running the school. And even though I was in Texas at the beginning and then in New York, the really funny thing is so I taught psychology, biology in Texas and then ultimately at Queens College in New York. And I remember thinking, OK, I’m moving from biology in Texas to biology in New York, and I’m actually going to be teaching a different by I taught biology, psychology, anatomy and physiology and advanced animal physiology. And I moved to teaching a course that had a heavy evolution stuff in it in New York. And I was I was like, OK, this is going to be awesome. I’m out of Texas where even though I can teach evolution, a lot of the students are resistant. And I’m going to move to New York where it’s going to be easy peasy. I’m in Queens, at Queens College, in Flushing, and I start teaching about evolution. And I realized very quickly that I have a predominantly Orthodox Jewish classroom. 

And so and this is something I’ve never been exposed to in Texas. And Will I’ll tell you, they really were not interested in learning. So that was something where I expected it to be easier and it actually got a little bit tougher. 

That’s interesting. I never really associate Jews with being that anti evolution, but I guess they’re Orthodox, Orthodox Jews, Orthodox, they go that way. 

Illumination you are. Exactly. Speaking of which, you were brought up Mormon, huh? Huh. Where did you grow up and what was that? What was that like? 

I grew up in a town called Plano, Texas. It’s a suburb of Dallas. You may remember it because in the 90s we were all over MTV because we had quite a rash of heroin overdoses and teen suicides. 

Somehow that didn’t make it to the Sydney. No, maybe not overnight, but maybe this show was a big deal here. Sure. Sure. So Plano is it’s a town outside of Dallas that has a really high median income. 

It’s kind of a WASPy town. 

Is it heavily Mormon or were you guys no exception? 

No, we weren’t really the exception. I think that the Mormon influence in the book, because we’re still in the Bible Belt, the Mormon influence is high in the Bible Belt. 

But I don’t go don’t do the crazy evangelicals think that Mormonism isn’t really an entity for sure. 

They think because we we they think we because my family’s still Mormon, have had these other books. Right. And it’s very important that there only be one book that this is somehow antithetical to, to the core dogma. But Mormons, OK, there there’s a lot of them in Utah, as we know. And there’s a lot of. Lake City, these are big establishment places where kind of it’s fed its way into the government. But in the Bible Belt in general, there are still a lot of Mormons. We had, I don’t know, maybe two Mormon churches in my town of 250000 people and maybe eight, 10 wards. So the Mormons don’t have mass the way that the Catholics do. You’re actually assigned based on where you live geographically. So. Too many people don’t show up at once. And so there’d be like 10 different Sunday services maybe in the town. Did you guys go every Sunday? Oh, God, yeah. Every Sunday for three hours. Every way out. Yes. It’s a three hour show. Yeah. It’s like about an hour in sacrament, maybe an hour and a half from, remember, correctly, and then another hour and a half in a youth group. Wednesday nights we had a youth group every Wednesday. Monday night is family home evening at home. And once you get to high school before school every morning from 6:00 a.m. until six five, you had seminary, which is Bible or Book of Mormon study. 

What is family home evening at home? Is that like a. Almost like a. 

Like a lemon inside. A little bit in a way, yes. It’s around. Has a nice meal. 

You have a nice meal and then you do activities lessons afterward. You probably play some songs. There’s all in any Mormon family. Someone can play piano. She can sit around and you sing, you know, hymns. It’s that’s one thing that’s it’s a little Stepford wifey about the Mormon church. So it’s kind of notice 3P. But at the same time, they do really focus on family values, whatever that may mean. And that is one thing I have to say that I appreciate is that growing up I had a very tight knit family. 

Yeah. When you say family values, they sort of doing focus on it in a way that isn’t just the punchline that we hear from evangelicals, as you know, using family values as a way of restricting abortion rights. And guys, we never talk about. Yeah. It’s more about the cohesiveness and importance of the nuclear family in your particular individual circles. 

Very much. It’s very much like, you know, we love your friends and your friends are great. They can come over and you can have sleepovers. But family comes first. You’re not going to miss your, you know, sisters recital in order to go see your friend do this thing because, you know, blood is thicker than water. Right. 

And I did notice that you said we when you were referring to the moment, the moment I hit, I guess this is one of the this is how the religion German guides it. So maybe that has partly something to do with the family tradition of Mormonism. 

You know, as well as your family, a Mormon, you essentially you feel some kind of you effect feel like it’s a bit of an affection, but it’s bittersweet because you’re also like they’re the most crazy of the crazies in this. I know, because I had to leave the church. And it was difficult to leave the church. I left in us 14. I was quite young and it really broke up my family and a lot of ways. I remember specifically and I’ve told the story many times, so if you listen to my podcast or you know me in the media, I apologize for being redundant. But when I was 14, I had been struggling for a while and it spoke to my father. I don’t think I believe I’m trying to come to grips with this. And he basically said, you know, I have a moral obligation to God to force you to go to church until you’re 18, as long as you live under my roof. My parents were divorced at this point and I only had partial custody of my father. How they reconcile that with their faith. You know, Mormons get divorced. They do. It’s they’re not like Catholics. They get divorced a lot, actually. It’s a whole thing because they have to get like temple divorce, you know, because they’re sealed for all eternity in the celestial kingdom, which is a whole confusing thing. And oh, that’s something else I’ll mention in a second. But, you know, he said this to me. I said, I’m 14. I’m of an age of consent. You really want to go to court and we’ll do this. And he was like, no, if you don’t want to be Mormon, then, you know, that’s your choice. He put it all on me and I didn’t see him for many years because of that. I didn’t live with him anymore. And it was tough. It’s a tough thing to do to somebody who’s trying to basically come out of the closet and say, you know, you choose God or your family or lack of God or your family. 

And how did that split occur, if you why at 14, did those doubts start entering your mind? And what was it that you were splitting away from? Was it the idea of there being a God who oversees us all, or was it specifically this community of Mormonism that you felt just didn’t have a handle on the truth? 

I think they’re really a inextricably linked. It’s a little bit hard to say it’s one or the other, I’m sure, just like anybody else. 

The first thing was, I fucking hate going to church and I hate how much this is taking over real Allen on a Sunday night that I think is actually 40 minutes. 

Not exactly. So I think it started with a why am I here? I don’t enjoy this. And then it turned into a way I really don’t enjoy this, meaning I don’t even think I buy into this. And I was always that kind of precocious kid who would ask the questions that would piss off the Sunday school teachers. And and ultimately they would push back and they’d say God works in mysterious ways. 

What was the only questions you remember just kind of, you know, in the Mormon Church is extra weird in that they have answers to a lot of those questions. Like Catholics, I can see they struggle because it’s like, how could God give birth to Jesus? But Jesus is the same thing. And then there’s this Holy Spirit and the Mormon religion. There are literally three different dudes like they don’t believe in the Holy Trinity. So you ask like you don’t have to ask those questions, but anything anytime there was something supernatural. I had a hard time with that. Whereas, like. There was like literally this snake, and he was like saying things or this idea too, of the Mormon faith, specifically the knee fights in the laminates, which were these Indian tribes that were socially like the lost tribes of Israel, which made no geographic sense to me. And so I would struggle with some of these things. And there was always an answer, but the answers become more and more preposterous. 

Like now I’ve got to nail that one about the lost tribes of Israel in North America, because they were lost. They were lost, right? Yeah. Know where Israel was exactly? They were in North America. 

They’re like, what is this, Israel with Israel? No, this isn’t it. This is North America. 

And there’s that whole thing about the lost tribes. Jesus is going to come back to Missouri, which, you know, people left Missouri. That’s absurd. I’m like, is it really that much more absurd? 

Not much more absurd than Bethlehem. Like, if he’d never been from Bethlehem in the first place, wasn’t from the Middle East, you’d be like, well, why Bethlehem? 

Yeah. And if you believe that he, like, died and came back three days later, why wouldn’t he be able to come back wherever the fuck you want? 

You know, I mean, it’s like if he’s a zombie, like give him zombie properties, it’s not that weird. So I you know, there were a lot of questions. I struggled with them. The biggest thing I remember is after I one of the reasons that it took me, as long as it did take me, is that when when two people in the Mormon faith get married and they have all these different sacraments and they get a temple recommend from the bishop, they they get married in sealed in the temple and nobody else can go. So this is like a holy thought. This is why if your Mormon friends ever have a wedding like you’re not invited to the real wedding, you can only go to the reception because it’s a private thing in the temple. And they have if you watch Big Love, it’s fucking weird. So my parents were sealed and then they got divorced and then my dad got remarried to another woman and they got sealed. Now, my mom was kind of had fallen away from the church. She wasn’t necessarily atheist like I was. 

But, you know, she only went for two hours and 45 minutes. 

She was like, I don’t really I don’t know. She was always like, I don’t know. I don’t go to church anymore. I don’t know. And she would, you know, but she still would say things like, I don’t want you to go to this party because I have a feeling and these have come true before. So I know she has some, like, spiritual stuff there, but I don’t think she was ever really all that religious and whatever. So. So according to Mormon law, my father and his wife are going to the celestial kingdom. I as my father’s daughter, I’m sealed to him for eternity. So there’s three levels of heaven, celestial terrestrial to Lesterville, Celestial Torres or whatever, and they’re going flesh, meaning they’re going to have their own planet. Terrestrial kingdom is like heaven on earth. 

Is the celestial kingdom existent in this cosmos? It’s an actual physical plant, not a metaphor. Like you get your own plan to actually go to a planet. Do you own your own planet? Which if it like if we had those spaceships to be able to go there, you would actually be able to visit this real place. 

And it’s also it’s a it’s a little confusing because it’s a real physical location, but it’s also a level of heaven where God and Jesus like hang out with you. 

So you’re like basking in the glory of their light orbits in this dimension. 

But it’s in a galaxy somewhere. 

Yeah. You know, I mean, whatever. I’m sure they won’t go into detail. They can’t know. They don’t go into details. I’m sure they can get justice creative with the cosmology as like Lawrence Krauss. And it can start to get really confusing. So but I remember thinking, okay, so my mom is no longer going to the celestial kingdom, but my father and his wife are. My mom will now be in the terrestrial kingdom. Well, the way it works is you can always visit down, but you can’t visit. So I’m going for all of eternity to hang with my father and his wife. This woman I don’t even know in basking in the glory of God, I can go visit my mom periodically like downtown. She can’t come visit me. Yeah, like it’s a fucked up thing to teach a kid. 

It’s basically like if you know, you you’re buying a trip, you’re buying some flights to Europe and you can’t get the whole family in first class. So a few in first class ones up the back. And coach, you got you pop down. You have a drink. 

Yeah, but it’s like, why mom? Why is matriarch and coach? Because she didn’t believe because she was religious, she’s a bad Mormon. 

Does it matter who broke up with whom or it’s just always the man who gets to go to the celestial? 

No, it’s just if you get remarried in the church and you get resealed, that you need to go. 

She needs to find a soul for most men. 

Yeah. In that way, it’s so similar to those like Hels. What a heaven’s whatever gates and hell flames those horrible things where it’s like the cults that believe you’re going to jump into a passing come us. 

Oh, no. That’s like the hail bob people maybe. Oh, they are called Heaven’s Gate. Oh, you’re right. That was Heaven’s Gate. Okay. I’m thinking of the Methodist like a horrible hillhouse. Things like these shows that they put on. Oh, yes. And then they show like, oh, I’m a child molester, but I’ve accepted Jesus as my lord and personal savior. And then he goes to heaven. And then there’s like the school bus driver who’s like, I love all of the kids and they’re wonderful. But I’m just really struggling philosophically with the concept of, gee, I get a car wreck and then they go to hell. 

Yeah. What’s up with you? 

That’s a good entry point then into ethics where the word is now that you’ve chosen theism. Does it show me? It shows you. Although you can take the girl out of Mormonism, Mormonism out of the girl, apparently. 

We we Mormons, you know, what do you make now when you look at the ethics of your family and the ethics of religious people, since you obviously have a secular. I think that guides your life. The idea that you can be saved regardless of your actions in the world. Yeah. Simply by believing a set of beliefs and having faith in something that there’s no evidence for. 

Yeah. So I think that that’s another thing where being raised Mormon instilled something in me early because Mormon is a works based religion. It’s not really a faith based religion. So they don’t have that thing of like I accept you, Jesus, wash away all of my sins. They really talk about it almost like there’s some sort of an algorithm and you need to, like, lead a good and chaste life. So I was actually raised by very good people who ultimately, you know, their marriage didn’t work. They’re both now remarried and continue to be very good people. My father had myself and my biological sister. He married a woman who had two girls that were adopted from Korea, and they both together decided they wanted kids together. And so later in life, they adopted three boys, ranging between the ages of like 19 and 16. I think at the time, these three brothers who were in foster care, who probably would not have had a chance to go and live with the family, and really they probably just would have been booted out of the system at 18 and fending for themselves. And that’s one of those things that I look at. My dad is that I’ve struggled at the beginning because you have to write a recommendation as an adult child if your parents want to adopt. So all of their adult children write recommendations. And I was partially like raising a kid. Mormon is child abuse. But at the same time, I was like, these are people of means who can take care of kids who are basically rotting in the system. And I see the way that their lives have been touched by these kids and vice versa. And I love my brothers and they are definitely in a better place now than they were before. And like, what a cool thing to to adopt kids that in many ways were just kind of struggling and frustrated. So I do think that my folks are very moral and ethical people. Now, I do think that certain religions, specifically evangelical faiths, allow for a real, real lack of morality and then just kind of a poof made good again, which is the grossest formula, just the grossest formula, not to mention the indoctrination of kids with a set of ideas. 

You know, when kids are too young to know the difference between fact and fantasy, to teach kids and to ensure that they cloistered in a school system, yet let alone a home school environment where where you are, you’re teaching them that long before they can have any understanding of science or history or a philosophy you are teaching them. The way the world is, is that that will burn in hell forever and that their flesh will be torn off their bodies. 

So horrible burning hell, and that there are people who are literally lesser than there are other people out there who are fundamentally worse humans because they didn’t have the opportunity to be raised in the same household with the same values as you who so luckily were born into that. 

Yeah, a little Jewish kid down the street is going to spend eternity in hell. You say, yeah, but he’s my friend. I know. 

It’s just the which is why a lot of these really fundamental is religion. Say, no, he’s not your friend. And we don’t we don’t even associate with those people. We’d live in a community where everybody around us is the same. We go to school where everybody or we homeschool to protect you from that. You don’t get to watch television. I mean, the Mormon Church has that to some extent. I remember growing up you couldn’t watch, like, movies that were rated more than PG 13 for that very reason. I don’t think there’s so much to insulate you from other ideas, but it was kind of like for some reason, thank fuck was immoral. And that religion, which I’ve never really understood. 

No. I mean, a lot of I was amazed I went to what was a Captain America yesterday. There’s an incredible level of violence. And yet it’s p.g. Yeah. Because I guess, you know, very, you know, a booby and nobody says fuck. Exactly. It is quite weird. Did you break with the church have anything to do with being exposed to people who weren’t Mormon? I mean, sometimes that’s a catalyst, either a traveling or just knowing people who are outside of that sphere of influence and going, well, hang on, there are a whole lot of sets of beliefs in the world. This isn’t the only one. 

Yeah. I mean, most of my friends weren’t Mormon. I didn’t really spend that much time with people in the church. Most my friends were Christian, though, because I did grow up in the Dallas Fort Worth area where everybody is Christian. And up until that point, I hadn’t really done much traveling except in Texas to visit family most. My family was actually Catholic outside of my nuclear family. What did you make of them? They were like lazy Catholics, so they just seemed like normal people to me. It was weird, though, when my grandpa died and I was older by this point, so I was already an atheist. But that Catholic funeral was weird, like the deep. You only really see the deep kind of Catholic tradition at things like weddings and funerals. But I remember it was deeply sad and it was deeply uncomfortable, like my grandmother. Obviously, she was having a hard day and it was like, go pay your respects, but it is an open casket. And I was like, it’s weird. I don’t want to do it. 

It felt like, OK, Grandma, I’m sorry. I look at the corpse. It’s like very strange. 

But yeah, I mean, I wasn’t really exposed to that. And, you know, a lot of people ask me too, like, did the science come first? And it didn’t. I lost my faith. If you want to call it that, long before I found science. 

So for me, I think that I am somebody who naturally and something of an evidence based thinker or I think we all are. To be honest. But I just didn’t ignore that aspect of myself. I couldn’t I couldn’t get those two things to sit right. I couldn’t get the religion and the idea that my eyes were just open and I was constantly questioning and the answers didn’t make sense. They didn’t seem to fit with with logic and reason. They ultimately for me, I grew out of religion. I just grew out when I was much younger than a lot of other people. Why do you think people don’t? 

Why do you think the people who. Who never do. Don’t. And the people who do, too? 

I think that a lot of people who are just kind of fair-weather religious don’t grow out of it because they’re not interested in rocking the boat. I think it’s the same way a lot of people have big, intense weddings as they do it for their family. They don’t do it for themselves. And so I know plenty of people who are like Chris Gine and it’s like, well, what about it keeps you there? I just it’s fine. I don’t think about it much, you know, which to me is crazy. I know people that are Christian scientists and not Christian scientists like the religion Christians. Right. It’s like us to a scientist or Christian. 

I got when I was working on my masters, I was in a lab with a woman who’s finishing her PGD in neurobiology, in an electrophysiology lab, and she was a Seventh Day Adventist, which is like that’s like Old Ted. Their Old Testament Christians are like Jewish Christians, but pretty Orthodox, like wouldn’t eat shellfish and didn’t wear like nail polish and just very hardcore about certain things with a hardcore creationist, yet somehow managed to get through her P.H. deep in neurobiology. And I guess the thing is, you get taught in these bubbles that like the world is going to try to tempt you. The scientific community is going to try and teach you these things and just hold true to the. That was the thing in the Mormon faith was I’m hold to the rod. This was like a Bible verse that hold to the rod the iron rod, like always just never stray. If you just hold onto that, other things are going to influence you. But but if you keep that core dogma, you’ll always be OK. And somehow they managed to get through it. I don’t really understand. 

And it’s interesting is that when you say something like, you know, not eating shellfish, it’s it’s interesting what people mean when they say that they’re religious. Do they? Presumably, this intelligent scientist does not actually believe that the creator of the universe has a vested interest in the here and now as to whether or not she eats an oyster. It’s more. I mean, I hope not. Presumably you did. She did. I think she totally did. I mean, you think it’s any more so? I mean, I have to give people like this that bit some level of the benefit, the doubt and think it’s kind of like a tradition. It’s like a superstition. It’s like you don’t walk under a ladder. It’s like if you see a black cat, then, you know, it’s it’s just a vague sense of kind of the tradition and the superstition that I was raised. I think there’s a lot of fear and fight. 

I have a great I have a great friend named Jason Goldman. He was on a recent podcast and he writes for Scientific American and BBC Future. And he is a Jewish atheist through and through. We talked about what that means. And he was very adamant that there are certain traditions that he enjoys the tradition. And, yes, he you know, on Passover, he doesn’t eat bread for as long as he can handle it and then eats bread again. And he knows that there’s no. Just reason for it, he knows that there’s no God and that even if there were a God, that God wouldn’t give a shit about him eating leavened bread. But it’s for it’s out of a sense of respect for his ancestors and all of that. 

This person who I’m referring to, the Seventh Day Adventists, specifically believed that dinosaurs were put in the ground to trick us like she was such a creationist, yet was so exposed to scientific evidence that she had to take the Ken Ham approach where she had to come up with an answer to everything because most people were creationists. They don’t fucking understand the Katie boundary. They’ve never heard about these. Only when you get into like Ken Ham level crazy where you’ve got people who are actively trying to open the Cambrian explosion explains, you know, Jesus or God touching the Earth and creating all sorts of new form. I mean, that’s like that’s like high octane. 

I mean, it’s it’s almost. 

I mean, I almost have an admiration for that level of self-deceit, you know, because I’m thinking about it engaging, at least on average, just, oh, I’m a Christian because I was raised Christian, I guess. 

No, they’re legitimately like like token esq in that they’re creating whole worlds with deep languages and explanations. And I mean, that takes a lot of effort to keep your story straight at that point. A lot. 

Do you see parallels in the non-religious but superstitious community with that? I mean, when you think about homeopathy, when you think about I mean, even just Wholefoods, walk down any aisle and you’ll see things that are like this is, you know, is this a homeopathic remedy for colds or something? This is like, you know, particular the Ignacia and all of this visit at Whole Foods. Now they have a at an organic bread slicing machine and a non organic bread slicing machine so that you don’t have to have your organic bread tainted by the molecules of non organic bread in the present. 

Because if there’s gonna be like an allergy is a molecule of preservative that’s like this, like don’t mix milk and meat. So it just naturally is interesting. Yeah. 

I mean, yeah, that’s I do people I had a friend who worked at Whole Foods or her sister did when we were growing up, and she would say that there were people who made her hand key every SKU number because they didn’t want the radiation from the scanner like in there. Yeah. I was like, oh my God, you poor thing. 

So are we just substituting I mean, to the extent that we are less religious so we substituting religious superstition for other superstitions, or do you think it’s getting better either yes or no? 

I think that there’s nuance here a little bit that we don’t often look into. I think that for them, for many examples, there are individuals who need to to hold onto something. They need to believe in something, and they need to be in a group of people who know best. They need to be in a group of people who understand that if I make these decisions, I will somehow be ahead, whether it’s in health or in eternal salvation. There are other people who have a harder time differentiating between solid science and pseudoscience, because there is there are large industries out there who make it their mission to ensure that people will have a hard time differentiating. And the problem is that there is sometimes legitimate science to not homoeopathy, for example, but to, let’s say, a claim that highly processed foods have lost some nutritive value or to a claim that eating highly processed foods is actually one of the culprits that’s leading to this epidemic in this country of being simultaneously malnourished and obese. Right. This is a problem. And we all know that if we actually just eat food that grows in the ground like healthy food. I’m not talking about organic food. I’m just talking about actual food. Not like processed fat. 

Michael Pollan. Mark Bittman. Exactly. I thought. 

And so. So, so. And that’s like a totally legitimate way to live your life. And I think that there’s a lot of reason and evidence in living your life that way. And the problem is that gets kind of that gets co-opted by these woo peddlers who are trying to sell shark cartilage to cure your cancer. And there’s also a group of people who are who are desperate. And I think that oftentimes that’s the saddest part of the equation, is that desperate people are most easily preyed upon. And if you’re very, very, very sick and traditional Western medicine isn’t working for you. I understand why you would attempt other Eastern cures. And sometimes there are things like that. So it’s a it’s a touchy thing. Like is massage healthy? Is psychotherapy healthy? Like, I take an antidepressant every day, but I also go to therapy once a week. And it’s incredibly important. I can say anecdotally that psychotherapy has made a huge improvement in my mental health. But studies kind of some show that it’s helpful, some show that it’s not. But it’s also a difficult thing to to scientifically address. Like these kind of behavioral studies have so many variables in them. So it’s one thing if somebody is taking their chemo and then they’re also going in for acupuncture. It’s another thing if somebody’s saying, no, I don’t want to take my chemo, I’d rather take coral. Right. Calcium. 

And I think that’s the difference. And it’s not. I mean, you say that it’s partly because there are industries who have a vested interest in peddling this stuff. I think I’d like to get your thoughts also about the way that the media reports on it, because I think the media does a great disservice to these kinds of conversations. You know, you used to work at a Huff Post. I work in a Huff Post Live. And we sort of fight valiantly within that institution to to spread the most lucid science that we can. It’s a big hodgepodge of opinions in there. And we all know the Jenny McCarthy story and anti vaccines and zone, which which we have always done our best to to try to disprove. Yeah, you and I are speaking personally, but I do think that there can be a sense in the media that to be fair, one has to give voice to all voices to evenhanded. One has to kind of carve a midpoint between any two competing claims rather than what journalism is supposed to be. And what I think it sort of used to be, which is the world is awash with a whole bunch of potential facts. It’s our job to sort through them and figure out what the facts actually are and then present those to an audience, rather than simply allowing any two people with loud voices on and letting the audience decide when they don’t when they’re not equipped with the information to know how to decide. 

Yeah. But there’s also I think there’s so this false equivalency thing is a huge problem. And yes, I think that there’s a resurgence of it of for entertainment sake. Having people on different sides of the aisle sitting there and arguing about their positions. But I might push back a little when you say that what journalism used to be was a more kind of straight shot, because I do think that traditional journalism was very it was devoid of expertize. A lot of times, if you look at traditional journalism, it was I don’t know anything about this topic. So I’m going to go in and I’m going to investigate. I’m going to look at all of the available evidence and I’m going to try to come to the conclusion that’s in the best interest of the public at large in order to protect them, inform them what have you. The problem now is that journalism requires, I think, specialization. So I worked as a science journalist. And for example, I’ll tell you a story about when I was at Huff Post, I had a wonderful editor who came from the health pages of CBS. He’s still at the Huffington Post. And I think he’s doing a great job with the science page there decides, which has pushed back against Will a lot. They still make mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, but they push back against a lot. I was shown an image. I was sent to a picture from New Scientist, and I apologize if you heard this on another podcast, because I recently spoke about this of a monkey in a device that was articulating fingers, robotic fingers, and he would get a juice reward every time it was one of those brain brain hooked up to a machine brain interface. 

This. And so he sent me this right about this. And I said, I love it. Okay, great. This is cool. He’s actually articulating fingers. It’s more than just a bionic arm. And he’s like, no, no, no, no, no. Look at the animal. He’s being tortured. And I was like, oh, fuck. Because I worked in a science lab for years. I did animal research. I have very strong opinions. I’m very pro animal research. Primates are are touchy, definitely great apes. I have a problem with. So there’s, you know, across the board, people have their cut offs. And I remember finally writing the piece and sending it to him and him saying very specifically after he read my first draft, I can’t publish this. This is an advocacy piece. And I pushed back and I said, I’m a fucking science journalist. I advocate for science. And that’s where I think the problem comes in. Is that a lot of traditional journalism outlets don’t understand that if you are a science journalism. Implicit in your job is to advocate for scientific literacy, because we live in a culture that is devoid of that. And so it’s tough because at the one hand, I do want to provide a very fair and balanced approach when I talk about GMO. For example, I am pro GM in the broadest sense of the term. I’m really pro the technology and I’m pro all of the wonderful things that can come out of it when it comes to feeding impoverished nations. But I am concerned about the ecological ramifications of certain GM crops. And I’m definitely concerned about the way that big agro business is using GM and profit tearing off of it and putting like poor farmers out of business. So so there is nuance to that conversation. But, yes, I advocate for science because I think that we live in a country where people actually literally don’t trust the scientific method, which is problematic across the board. It’s problematic. 

How how optimistic are you? Last question about the future of this country and scientific literacy, Larry. 

Yeah, it’s a tough question. I think that we’re going to see it’s going to be feast and famine. I think so. We have these big booms. We had a big boom in the 60s during the space age where lot of little kids got excited about becoming astronauts and you saw it trickle down across society. And you actually saw a lot of investment in industry. And I think that that happened because of that of that race, because of the Cold War. And then ultimately landing on the moon, we’ve really fizzled a lot. The last time we put a man on the moon was in the early 70s. That’s not a good thing. But now we’ve moved into unmanned missions. If we can successfully, for example, send an orbiter or even a lander to Europa and get samples back that show that there’s early forms of life developing in this alien ocean, maybe that’ll change things. 

Well, maybe. I mean, maybe SpaceX isn’t the only game in town. Maybe maybe SpaceX comes to mind because it was the last instance of a huge, inspiring scientific push that brought us all together. But I we cure Parkinson’s in our lifetime. Well, maybe technology, maybe some. Maybe, you know, the moment you have the first person who’s living 200 years because all of their organs were replicated in assembling genetic modification, aspiring. 

It’s inspiring, but it’s also scary. And I’m just gonna I’m gonna sound a little bit like a negative Nancy here. But I’m afraid of the big social rift that biotechnology ultimately, like if we’re talking about actual like futurism, things living well past the lifespan that we have. We’re living in a world where there are people literally dying of waterborne diseases, where there are people dying because they don’t have proper sanitation and they’re getting poop diseases like they’re eating. 

Is that the technical term? 

Yeah, poop disease, diseases, diseases that we eradicated in this country, or at least we thought we did like 200 years ago. 

Scientist in me wants to call it diseases that are transmitted through the fecal oral root poop disease. 

Yeah. Yeah. So. So the fact that we we are I feel very strongly only as strong as the weakest among us. We’re only as advanced as the least advanced among us until we get to a place as a global society that people aren’t dying. I mean, of malaria on a regular basis. Or that HIV isn’t being spread like wildfire because people are being taught that condoms cause AIDS, then, yeah, it’s cool that like one rich guy might live to 200 hundred. But like, I’m not that interested in in that kind of a future quite yet. I’m much more interested in a future with, I think, equality of health and well-being. I’m interested in a future where we make better decisions about population control and where we are educated to the extent that we don’t want to have 13 children each and that we can live in harmony with the globe. I think in some ways to technological advancements, we think about goal oriented behavior and we’ve got to start thinking about what the actual goal is. And the goal, I think, needs. We need to see a shift. We need to see a shift towards a moral humanist ethics that says we need to live in harmony with our planet. And we need to live in harmony with all of the global societies that we share this planet with. And until we can kind of get to that place, I’m excited about biotechnology. I’m excited about biomedical sciences, space sciences. But I’m more excited about what’s going to trickle down from them to be able to help everybody who who we live with. 

I should qualify that. I’m only excited by the idea of one rich guy living to 200. I am that rich guy. Exactly. 

My 13 children will also have 200 on that inspiring egalitarian note cards on the way. Thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.