An Interview with CSICon Speaker Evan Bernstein
September 18, 2017
Susan Gerbic: Evan, so good to get a chance to catch up. Very excited to see that you will be at CSICon this year, we missed you last year. For the few people who don’t know who you are, can you give readers a bio?
Evan Bernstein: Thanks Susan ... My name is Evan Bernstein; I am the co-host of the award-winning podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU), which is enjoyed by 300,000 listeners each week around the globe. I am also the coauthor of our upcoming book by the same name as the podcast, which we expect to be available in the fall of 2018. I am also a member of the executive board for The New England Skeptical Society, which is our local skeptics organization.
Gerbic: So, lots to ask you. NECSS just ended and I hear it was a big success, despite there being a fire or something and the venue had to move everything to another location. Sounds stressful, but I hear you all pulled it off fine.
Bernstein: NECSS was a very successful conference, and yes, our venue did suffer a fire the week before we were ready to go, but everyone pulled together—most especially the venue managers themselves—to ensure that we had everything we needed.
Gerbic: One of my GSoW editors, Sharon Roney went to NECSS (it was her first ever skeptic’s conference). She said that you are the “funniest SGU member. He was cracking me up at the live NECSS show” and another of my editors, Stuart Jones, wanted me to ask you if you practice the one-liners at home; she said you are very “quick off the mark.” Is this true; are you looking for a second career doing stand-up?
Bernstein: I think I would freeze like a deer in headlights if I were to attempt a classic “stand-up” routine. My quips, one-liners, and sprinkles of sarcasm stem primarily from listening to talk radio programs for all my life, especially from morning ensemble shows, such as Imus in The Morning and The Howard Stern Show, to name two of the more recognizable shows in the industry. My dear friend and former cohost, the late Perry DeAngelis, was also a very big talk radio program listener, so we shared a very similar sense of humor which, after a while, just became part of our regular repartee. We took great delight in making each other laugh, and we had many years of practice at it.
Gerbic: You are a CPA and a nonmember of the Novella blood brotherhood. Do people outside of our world know about your involvement in skepticism? I suppose you tell people that you do a podcast with friends and talk about science topics; I imagine that the conversations would get weird if you explain more than that. How does skepticism inform your work?
Bernstein: I tend to not mix my day job with my activism, but when I am asked about it from the people I deal with through my accounting practice, I am honest with them. Those instances are few and far between, and I am definitely more comfortable keeping the two circles independent from each other for professional reasons. That’s not to say that there is no room for overlap. For example, I have talked on our podcast before about scammers who prey on innocent people pretending to be with the IRS or some other taxing agency. As far as my friends and family are concerned, they all know of my activism through the show. Some of them talk with me at length about it or about specific skeptical-related topics, and others avoid talking to me about it because it greatly differs from their own opinions and worldview.
Gerbic: If I remember correctly, Perry and Steve started the podcast and NESS, and you were a friend of one of the brothers. You all played table-top games together a lot; how did you get involved in the skepticism part of this?
Bernstein: Perry and I were friends since 1986, and through Perry, I met Steve (and Bob and Jay) in 1992 via a live action role playing game that Perry was running at the time. We all became fast friends. Perry and Steve founded the Connecticut Skeptical Society on January 1, 1996, and it was about a week later that they approached me to tell me about their new project. We talked for about thirty minutes; they explained the basics of skepticism to me, and like a lightbulb going off above my head, I was instantly captivated by this skeptical worldview. I wanted to be a part of this new and exciting life-changing opportunity, so I joined the society on the spot, and never turned back.
Gerbic: Here is something that I bet most people do not know. A few years ago, I wrote the Perry DeAngelis Wikipedia page. It was a lot of work finding citations to prove that he was noteworthy enough to have a page. At one point the page was almost deleted. One day I got a message from you that you had found an old newspaper clipping that talked about Perry. You sent me a screen shot of the article, and it was enough to secure the page. Thank you so much for doing that. I just took a quick look at the page view stats, and the page has been accessed 23,061 times so far. In the last seven days, 305 times.
Bernstein: Without Perry DeAngelis, the Connecticut Skeptical Society would not have existed. Hence, we would not have evolved into the larger New England Skeptical Society (NESS). And most certainly, it would not have provided us with those critical ten years of experience that would serve as the foundation of our launch of the SGU podcast in 2005. Suffice to say, the SGU owes its existence to Perry. Perry earned his Wikipedia page, and we have you, Susan, to thank for helping make sure that his page not only survived, but has thrived!
Gerbic: We are all in this together, and we need to support each other. Like me, you have been involved in this skeptic world for years and been on the front lines with the drama we experienced back in 2012–2014. That was pretty painful, but I feel like we are healing; we lost a lot of people due to the drama, but we have gained a lot more, that have no idea what I’m talking about, and I would like to keep it that way. I think you have a pretty optimistic view of things; how do you rate the health of our community these days?
Bernstein: Movements have ebbs and flows. They all have ups and downs. This is not unusual. I am, overall, an optimistic person and I see the skeptic community, as a whole, as having long legs and a bright future. The modern skeptical movement founded by the likes of James Randi, Paul Kurtz, Isaac Asimov (among others) in the mid 1970s was the Big Bang of skepticism, and today, we are the galaxies that have coalesced in its wake. Are there some collisions and dramatic events that unfolded along the way? Of course. But the movement is greater than the sum of its parts. Our critical function—trying to help people everywhere achieve a more rational worldview—is the glue that will always keep the community intact.
Gerbic: I know that podcasts like the SGU play a major part in bringing in new people. I hear it all the time when I get new recruits to the GSoW. I ask each one how they learned about my project and what influences them; podcasts are the most often mentioned, and of those mentioned, the SGU is always in the mix somewhere. Do you feel that responsibility?
Bernstein: I do. We all do (Steve, Bob, Jay, Cara, and myself). Audio podcasting is a powerful medium, and for those of us that have been long-time listeners of talk radio shows (I talked about that influence earlier), we understand just how influential and intimate talk radio shows can be. The most common feedback we receive is “I really enjoy the show because I feel like I know you all.” Exactly right, they do know us. Our show is many things to many people, but to every listener, the show is an exercise in intimacy between us and you, the listener. That is one of the fundamental components of our success.
Gerbic: So, I want to ask you about CSICon, what do you all have planned for us? Give us a tease.
Bernstein: All five of us will be in attendance, which is always special because we perform live together only two or three times a year. We normally are each at home, alone, recording at our own computers over Skype, so we take delight in being side by side with each other whenever possible. Our live show at CSICon will follow the format of a typical show, but we always try to incorporate something more “visual” for the live audience—maybe a short video skit to present, or a little “skeptical vaudeville” on the stage. We are discussing a costume theme for SGU (Halloween will be just around the corner) so you might see us dressing up as something fun, funny, or hopefully both. We are also trying to arrange for a special “private recording” of an SGU episode, which we always try to craft as a unique experience for those in attendance. Contact Steven Novella at the SGU for further details about the private recording email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerbic: Something that NECSS does not have is a zombie disco Halloween party. I’m trying to pull together a group of people that will perform Michael Jackson’s Thriller with me. Can I count you in? You looking into some sort of special zombie outfit or just the run of the mill generic zombie?
Bernstein: Zombies are always fun, and I’m a big Walking Dead fan to boot. What I can tell you is that if the SGU group costume turns out to have zombie qualities, then count me in on the dance!