A Conversation with Skeptics’ Guide Rogue Jay Novella (Part 2)
November 12, 2018
In part 1 of this article, which can be read here, stalwart skeptic Jay Novella and I discussed The Skeptics’ Guide book and the origins of the podcast that spawned the book. Part 2 continues our wide-ranging conversation.
Rob Palmer: I was one of those people who, after discovering the podcast in more recent times, went back and listened to the entire catalog from the very beginning. I listened to about ten years’ worth in about a year. That made me feel like I knew all of you personally, and the unexpected death of Perry DeAngelis in 2007 hit me hard. I even sent a condolence letter to you all—many, many years too late. What is your most memorable recollection of Perry and his contribution to the skeptical movement and to the podcast?
Jay Novella: We still get letters about Perry. Losing Perry was devastating for us because this isn’t just someone that I do a show with. Perry’s been a friend of mine for a very long time and he was also Steve’s best friend. He had such a unique personality. He was totally brazen and irreverent, and it was mixed with such incredible humor—ironic humor—and intensity. And Perry could sell anything. His false conviction when he would joke about something was amazing; there was something precious about his honesty. I gotta tell you: he was so funny. When you know someone intimately, and you see the real person, and you get to know them on such a deep level… No one will ever replace that spot in my life. I feel very lucky that I had him as a friend. It’s still kind of hard because all the time we go to conferences and we snag a great interview or something really fun happens or whatever. Somebody always says, “Man, I wish Perry were here.” It’s still there; it still haunts us. And there are other people who we’ve lost as well … and we try to honor them at NECSS, people that have been involved with the skeptical movement that we knew. Any one of us can go tomorrow, but the movement must go on.
Palmer: On behalf of Perry, I need to ask you: monkeys or birds?
Novella: I’ve always been riding the fence on this one because Perry came up with this just to [pick on] Steve [because he’s a birder]. Alright, so let me give you the very quick breakdown: there have been finds where very large raptors have literally pierced the skull of monkeys and picked them up and ate them!
Palmer: I read about that, and I think they weren’t sure that the monkeys weren’t already dead. That damage may have been done by scavenger birds eating dead monkeys.
Novella: Possible, possible! But still the talons went through a skull. So that’s on that side. But on the other side: the monkeys have the mammalian brain, and intelligence, and tools, and so eventually monkeys win. Because we’re the monkeys! There’s my answer.
Palmer: So tell me about the decision to not “replace” Perry. Especially because later, when Rebecca Watson left, you replaced her with Cara Santa Maria.
Novella: You can’t replace Perry; we just decided to leave that slot unfilled. We really just thought it was better if we didn’t add another person. The number five is a good number. It’s not too many people—more than most podcasts, but it works. And sometimes when we have more people on the show it gets a little complicated. So, I think we should not go above five permanent hosts.
Palmer: One thing missing from the old days are the “5x5” podcasts. What happened there? Is that gone for good?
Novella: Well, they ran their course. Our job for that [short-form] podcast was to produce a single-topic, short as we could make it, treatment on something that we felt that people would want to use for education purposes. So it was intended for the classroom, and we gave people the rights to just use it any way they wanted to. We went through a lot of topics, and we felt if we kept going, we were just going to try to fill the air that doesn’t need to be filled. It was a lot of work to do, and there’s no reason to bring back the single topic podcast in that format. There has been zero talk of bringing it back. If we were to do a single topic thing again, what Steve and I are planning on is doing a talking-head type of video podcast, where we would put it on YouTube. And Steve would just hit one topic with visuals. We could whip one of those out a week, we think.
Palmer: SGU segments have come and gone… Any past favorites you’d like to bring back? Or maybe new ones to add?
Novella: I would always be interested in new ones. Cara started “What’s the Word?” and I think that people have been getting some enjoyment out of that. I really enjoy it because nine times out of ten I’ve kind of heard the word before, but I didn’t have the clarity of what it meant. I’ll give you a little behind the scenes thing: her original segment idea was called “Un-F’ing the Planet.” And we loved it, but I think Cara decided against it after she pitched it. It was going to be a lot of work. Here’s an obvious example: global warming. We F’d-up the planet. How do we un-F-up the planet? But the amount of research we felt that it would take wasn’t worth doing because the podcast by itself is a lot of work. We wanted Cara to be able to have a segment that wasn’t going to drown her with days of research.
Palmer: And maybe it would have been too depressing of a segment?
Novella: And that’s the other thing too! Steve actually brought that up… it was a dark segment. But that was one of many ideas. It just happens to be the one that I remember. I can’t remember any other segments that haven’t been done in a while. Do you have any examples?
[Using the Wikipedia article for the SGU, I read Jay the items in the Defunct Segments list. “Swindler’s List” was among them.]
Novella: Yeah, “Swindler’s List” was mine. I would talk about Scientology, or I would talk about the guy that came up with that bomb detector thing [based on dowsing and which got people killed]. So, I liked “Swindler’s List” a lot. But when you start producing a segment, you get a sense of how much time it takes, and [ask] is it worth it? Largely, I was using news items as the flick of the marble to talk about something: “Look: Scientology’s in the news again. Let me do a ‘Swindler’s List’ on Scientology.” So, I didn’t feel like it was novel enough to make it a regular, recurring thing.
Palmer: The segment list in Wikipedia also mentions “Skeptical Puzzle.”
Novella: Evan [Bernstein]did the “Skeptical Puzzle.” That was fun, and people really liked it. He would present a verbal puzzle and ask people to come up with the answer. Listeners put their time in trying to figure it out. This segment kind of faded as well because Evan got to the point where he did so many puzzles that he was having a hard time finding new material. We’ll never get through all the quotes that exist, but puzzles just start to kind of repeat.
Palmer: It seems like you absolutely love “Who’s That Noisy? ”Why does that resonate so much with you?
Novella: I ask people to send into “Who’s That Noisy?” every week because it is actually very hard to find [material]. Crowdsourcing “Noisy” has been the best thing I came up with. I love it. I remember when Steve asked me and Evan to switch [Evan was originally doing “Who’s That Noisy?”]. But I didn’t want to switch because I liked the quotes, but I made “Who’s That Noisy?” mine. Evan made the quotes his, meaning it just kind of becomes derivative of your personality. But when I took ownership of “Noisy” and I started to get the feel for it—like what is a good Noisy and what’s provocative about it—I found that I’m kind of, well, I don’t think this is the right term, but I’m an audiophile for interesting sounds. I love it. I’ve said this on the show many times: you could fry bacon, record it, play it to someone, and tell them that it’s rain falling. And to their mind, it’s rain falling.
Palmer: Jeff Gehlbach from the Guerrilla Skeptics team wanted me to ask you to expound on audio pareidolia if it came up— and there it is!
Novella: That’s it. And I think one of the reasons why I love it is there’s a few different classifications that the noises fall into, and that’s my favorite one! I love the audio pareidolia. I love when you think: “I’ve heard that before.” It rings a bell. And even though you’re wrong, it’s bacon frying and it’s not rain… You know how your brain compares everything that you hear against the library of sounds stored in your head? This blows my mind. When we talk, your brain is sifting through lots of different words and phrases and things to figure out what the other person is saying. And then it decides unconsciously, this is what they’re saying. And then you get that feeling of “I understand what they’re saying.”
But there are times when you don’t really know what the person is saying. They might mispronounce a word a little bit and it sounds a little bit like another word. But for the most part, we completely, unconsciously, fully understand what people are saying to us. And that is as close to magic as something can be. I mean, that is this massive super-deluxe computer doing massive amounts of processing, so our experience is seamless. “Who’s That Noisy?” has made me become aware of a lot of this processing that’s going on. I think about it, and I pick noises sometimes because they are similar to other things.
Palmer: Can you tell me about the reaction to my snow-crunching Noisy [episode #653]? It had widely varying reactions. You said you loved it, but the other rogues chastised you for playing it.
Novella: Yeah. But that’s interesting, too. Because, like that Noisy, some can be super irritating [to some people]. So, I get emails every week. “Oh, I wish you didn’t play that. It reminded me of blah, blah.” I get that too. But I mean, sometimes “Who’s That Noisy?” is hysterical. Every year, one or two noises come across my plate that I fall in love with. Like the La-La dog. Evan, Cara, and I all loved the La-La dog. They put music to it, and I laugh just thinking about it. “Who’s That Noisy?” has an intellectual side for me, and it has a five-year-old side for me… I really do love that segment a lot.
Palmer: And speaking of a five-year-old, the name came from Steve’s daughter, right?
Novella: Yes. I’m pretty sure it was Autumn, his younger daughter. When she heard something, she turned her head and said, “Who’s that noisy?” And I think Evan was over at Steve’s house when that happened. They were like, “that’s what we’re going to call the segment!” It’s great. It’s cute. I think when you’re a frequent listener of the show, you’re buying into our shared verbiage.
Palmer: As a sci-fi fan myself, and a huge Star Trek fan from way back, I have to ask you about your science fiction review show. Tell my readers who may be unfamiliar with the show, what it is.
Novella: We started a different show called Alpha Quadrant 6. It’s owned by SGU productions, but it’s not the SGU. It is a science fiction review show, and it’s about our absolute love for science fiction. It’s very Star Trek heavy but we talk about anything related to science fiction. Mostly we have deep discussions on what we’re passionate about in science fiction. We like talking about the little details and nuances that make science fiction great. It’s about recapturing childhood feelings and about us having a lot more fun.
Palmer: How different is this than doing the SGU?
Novella: We prepare quite a bit for the AQ6 show, but this takes a considerably less amount of preparation than an SGU recording does. It exists in a totally different space in my mind. It’s more spontaneous. We watch an episode of Star Trek: Discovery… and then immediately review it on a live stream. You get an immediate response to each episode. I didn’t have to sit there and do three hours of research. It really was something that we wanted to do for a long time. Now that we have a completely functioning streaming studio, we had no more excuses to not do it. We love doing the SGU, but we really wanted to scratch an itch that wasn’t being scratched. I always knew this show was going to happen, one way or the other. Whether it started five years ago, or five years from now, we were going to eventually do this.
Palmer: Where did the AQ6 name come from?
Novella: We kicked around a lot of names, and we all liked Alpha Quadrant. But we felt like it needed something; it needed a third beat. So, we decided that because Discovery was the sixth Star Trek production, we would call the show Alpha Quadrant 6. [Note for Trek pedants out there: that’s not counting the animated series.] AQ6 just has a ring to it. And I also like “SGU.” So, it is “AQ6.” I like things that have a three-beat feel to them.
Palmer: Are you happy with the viewership?
Novella: We have a few thousand people who are watching… I’m okay with it. But I’m going to grow the brand, just like I have been growing the SGU. We’re going to keep doing it. I think the show started off much more polished than the SGU did just because we’re starting with a mountain of experience. I love live streaming every week. I look forward to it. Every frickin’ week I look forward to it. So, we’re going to start with Star Trek: Discovery again when season two comes out.
Palmer: Do the science inaccuracies in Trek bother any of you?
Novella: I’m a fan. When you’re a fan, some things go out the window. Like my critical thinking goes a little out the window because I just love the brand. Just like Star Wars. I really hate to say it, but it is fanboyish, because, we could be hypercritical and mad, but I also love every second of it. We’re science enthusiasts. We are dissecting the hard science aspect of everything we review. Most of the time we know the history of these shows, so when a brand goes against its own universe by making a weird plot decision… we get a little prickly about it because, well, why do I know the universe better than the people who are getting paid to write inside that universe? So, yeah, we talk about the good and the bad, but it’s all fun! We love being mad. The bottom line is we love science fiction. It was our gateway to science. We were into science fiction before we were into science!
The interview with Jay will be continued in part 3 of this article, coming soon.