Squaring the Skeptic with Celestia Ward (Part 1)
January 14, 2019
In May 2018, Susan Gerbic published an article about her trip to New Mexico to speak about the Guerrilla Skeptics project for New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local skeptics group. En route, she dropped by the Squaring the Strange podcast studios for a guest appearance. Susan’s article about her trip mentioned the podcast, but that was not the main topic; reading it left me with many questions. To learn more, I decided to interview one of the three people who make the podcast happen. Flipping my three-sided coin resulted in selecting cohost, content producer, and “SkeptiCrate sender-outer” Celestia Ward. Luckily—once I explained that I wasn’t just a random fan bugging her on Facebook but was a random CSI online columnist bugging her on Facebook—she happily consented to an interview.
When Squaring launched as a weekly podcast in April 2017, it had just a pair of cohosts: Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Celestia was primarily the behind-the-scenes content producer, who made only short, sporadic “appearances” with a fortune-cookie segment. Eventually she became a cohost, converting the arrangement to a triumvirate and transforming the character of the podcast.
Rob Palmer: So Celestia, thanks for doing this interview! First, can you give readers a summary of your background?
Celestia Ward: Well, I went to Johns Hopkins with the notion of going there for pre-med, but after a year and a half I went to the dark side—liberal arts—and ended up graduating with a writing degree and a minor in psychology. I went immediately to work for the University Press there and ended up going up the ladder in the manuscript editing department. Within five or six years I was one of the senior manuscript editors there, so I was an academic editor for the first ten years out of college. So, I was doing copyediting and I got to read all of this fascinating stuff. I got to correct PhDs, which I think a lot of skeptics end up doing for fun. Once I got to age thirty, I decided I didn’t want to end my life as a copy editor. Many of the people I was working with had done it for forty years. The only place I could move up to at that point was to my boss’s chair—a very stressful job that I didn’t want.
I had been doing caricatures on the side because I couldn’t give that up. I did it in college to earn a living but while I was a copy editor, I kept doing it on weekends and at nighttime—doing parties, etc. So, I got to the point where I decided to give it a shot as a full-time thing. I moved back to Las Vegas, where you could do something like caricatures and not starve. So, then I ended up switching things up where I did art full-time, and in my off hours I would do some editing. I’m still doing both, in one way or another.
Palmer: But how did all of this lead you to the skeptical movement? I don’t see the intersection.
Ward: Probably the earliest skeptical influence I had was Penn and Teller. When I met Teller in Vegas, he said, “Ah, leaving academia to join the circus! I know how that feels. Good luck!”
Palmer: But how did you get to talk to Teller? He doesn’t talk!
Ward: Privately, he does. He’s the salt of the earth. I love him. So yes, Penn and Teller led me to the skeptical movement. I was a big fan of their show Bullshit! They turned me on to James Randi. I became a big fan, and then I started getting into skeptical podcasts. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe was one of the first ones I listened to. I actually had a period in my life about nine or ten years ago when I got hit with a bacterial infection and had to be on all these antibiotics and have surgery. I ended up in the hospital for almost four weeks. And it was then that I started listening to every podcast under the sun. Daytime TV bores the crap out of me. I went through all the backlogs of The Skeptic Zone and the SGU and Skeptoid… I actually learned a lot about bacteria from listening to all these podcasts.
Palmer: I started listening to Squaring the Strange right from the podcast’s beginning, and it’s one of the podcasts in my weekly rotation that I try not to fall behind on. To start with, for my readers unfamiliar with it, can you give a description?
Ward: While we love doing skeptic outreach, we also have a love for the … well, the strange! So, cryptids, ghost stories, and folklore get rotated in. We like going cryptid or folklore at least once a month!
Palmer: Please outline the format of the podcast. How is it unique in the crowded skeptical podcast arena?
Ward: A lot of skeptical podcasts, including the ones I like, go right to current events. We have specifically tried to make a lot of our shows “evergreen” so that if you listen to it, say, next year, you’re still going to get a kick out of listening. We have recently gravitated toward an opening segment of what we call SWAYSO, which started with Ben and Pascual just asking each other “So, what are you skeptical of this week?” And a listener named Justin did the jingle for it as a one-year anniversary present.
Palmer: What can you tell me about the origin of the podcast?
Ward: Ending up on the podcast was quite accidental. I was in Albuquerque for some other reason, and I was working with Ben [Radford] on a different project. So, I was meeting up with him while I was in Albuquerque, and he said “Hey, I’ve got a friend who wants to start a skeptical podcast. Would you like to sit in on the meeting?” I told him. “No, I would just be intruding.”But Ben said, “You listen to more podcasts than anyone I know.” So, I sat in and met Pascual. And three hours later, we had filled up a legal pad of paper and had eaten an entire large green chile pizza. We had all these ideas, and we had a name, and we had a plan, and we had segments, and we had topics!
Palmer: How did the three of you—from such diverse backgrounds—get together to do this?
Ward: Ben and I actually met at a caricature convention because he has an interest in caricatures. I had heard of his name, and I am quite sure that I’m the only one at that convention who had, so he was a little weirded-out that I recognized his name badge. And it was strange to have someone show up to a caricaturist convention who is not a professional caricaturist. So of course, I cornered him and we talked about skeptical stuff. And it turns out, we had a lot of friends in common already because I knew people in the movement. I had been going to TAMs, and of course listening to all the podcasts and immersing myself in the community that way. It was a treat to meet him. And then shortly after, we partnered to do a series of greeting cards called Creature Cards. And that ended up rolling into us doing this little folding puzzle called Fold & Find. Also, Ben wrote some very nice folklore descriptions for some Creature Cards about classic folkloric monsters.
I know that Ben had known Pascual for at least a couple of years prior. And I think they had worked on some video stuff together. In fact, they just finished working on an audiobook together: Ben’s latest on investigating ghosts. Pascual brings with him a background of being a traveling heavy-metal performance artist, as well as working as a producer and behind the scenes on TV stuff in Hollywood. He’s got a talent for knowing the markers when something has been staged, something the average person might not recognize. But Pascual knows all the nitty gritty behind it, like how you can get a man on the street to say a bunch of dumb stuff and make it look like it’s genuine. Pascual had never been on a skeptical podcast before, but he did have a podcast for a while. But I think this is his first foray into skeptical activism.
Palmer: Where did the podcast’s name come from?
Ward: Well, tooting my own horn … I sat there with the yellow pad of paper and I just wrote down all types of things. I came up with the name because I always liked the phrase “squaring the circle.” It calls to mind Greek philosophers searching for mysterious formulas. So, I figured we were going to be talking about strange things that we couldn’t always solve. So, I suggested “Squaring the Strange” and they both kind of liked it. We explored some other options, but wound up coming back to that one.
Palmer: When you started with Squaring, you were “just” the content producer. How did your transition to cohost happen? Were bribes involved? In either direction?
Ward: Initially, my job was to listen to the podcast and the final take and to assess what they could use more of … what to back away from or cut out … and to kind of shape the banter, reminding them of the things that would make the podcast more fun to listen to from the perspective of someone who listens to a ton of podcasts. I also kept the list of topics—and we have a long list of topics to last to the end of time. So, my job was primarily behind the scenes, and once or twice I showed up as a guest cohost, for instance talking about gambling superstitions because I live in Las Vegas and I see a lot of that. And so, I found myself participating more and more, and it became easier to do that with Skype. Then once we added the third voice, we heard a lot of good feedback from listeners.
Some friends said that they were glad to have a female voice break up the male-to-male banter, which a lot of skeptical podcasts have. On some podcasts I listen to—not just skeptical ones—you have a bunch of guys and it’s hard to tell who’s who. There’s one I like with four guys on it, but it’s hard to listen to because I can’t tell who’s talking.
Palmer: There seems to be lack of female hosts on skeptical podcasts. It seems like the entertainment industry has a lot—but not skeptical podcasts. I know about Cara Santa Maria of course who does her own podcast as well as being on the SGU. But who else is there?
Ward: Well, there’s Sharon Hill’s 15 Credibility Street. I drew their logo, by the way. That’s one of the things I’ve done for people: I’ve drawn a lot of logos. Oh, Sharon doesn’t really want to be known as a “skeptic” anymore, so I don’t even know if I should list her as having a skeptical podcast, but it’s a critical thinking podcast! Various people have some bones to pick with the movement, and while I fully admit that they have some points, I’m not ready to just throw away the baby with the bathwater.
[Note: Shortly after this interview, production of 15 Credibility Street ended. You can read Sharon’s blog post, “Please Don’t Call Me a Skeptic” here, as well as my CSI online opinion piece, “I’m Keeping My Skeptic’s Card!” here.]
Ward: I have heard people complain about “sausage fests.” I’ve heard podcasts called that. I did not want to be just the token female. But some of the things that I was doing as content producer, I realized I can do a lot more easily in real time, with a lot less frustration. If I’m there in the room I can do in real time what I would like to have done in post-production, like purposely ask a “dumb question” to get something answered. Something that makes Ben come down from intellectual mode and explain something. A friend of mine who’s been in podcasts for a dozen years says one of the problems he has with skeptical podcasts is “there’s too much smart.” He says you need to break it up with a little bit of stupid. So, I can ask those questions. Otherwise, people are going to glaze over. And when I say “stupid,” I’m not talking about bringing the Food Babe on. I’m talking about little things like a dumb pun, or a joke, or some good-natured ribbing. If I wanted to listen to just one person going over facts and figures, I’d get a dry audio book or something. But if I’m listening to a podcast, I want a conversation. There are many flavors of podcasts. And there’s actually a Facebook page that helps people decide what to listen to based on what they already like. It’s called “Podcasts We Listen To.”
Palmer: And besides taking on cohost responsibilities, you maintained all your other podcast tasks, right? Including personally packaging the SkeptiCrates? How is the work broken up now?
Ward: I do still keep up the Google doc and get the guys to look at it to pick topics. I keep the meeting notes for what we’re going to talk about in the next episode. Ben brings a lot of the research muscle, as he’s got the investigation experience. Pascual has been the audio guy doing the editing work, and a lot of the music we use is directly from Pascual—although our opening is by a pretty popular band from the 80s called Shriekback. Ben had the opportunity to get a custom composed piece of music from them, and so we use a bit of that for the opening. Recently Pascual has had a bunch of things to attend to involving a job change and family issues. So, I’ve gone ahead and, thanks to tutorials and some help from Pascual, I’ve been getting up-to-snuff on audio editing. The past month or so I’ve kind of taken over some of Pascual’s work, just on a temporary basis.
Palmer: So, then it seems since you took over cohost responsibilities, now you’re actually doing more, not less, of the other work!
Ward: It’s kind of just circumstantial. Ben works a tremendous number of hours anyway and does the show nights and weekends, so he’s not really game to learn a whole new platform of software to edit audio. I have a little bit of video editing experience already, so it wasn’t really hard for me to adapt to the programs that Pascual is using. So, I was able to pick up on it quickly enough, and hopefully it will all work out because I’m hitting a “baby deadline” soon. I don’t see myself being able to put in this much time once that happens.
Palmer: So, Pascual’s time because of family and job circumstances is more limited than it used to be, and yours is certainly going to be more limited really soon. So, what’s going to happen to the podcast?
Ward: Pascual is working toward a point where hopefully he won’t have to put in as much time at his new job, and we’ll be able to go back to business as usual before all this happened. If not, we’ve talked about contingency plans such as going bi-weekly, but we’ll see what happens.
This interview will be continued in part 2 of this article, to be published shortly. As we did the interview, Celestia was just weeks from the arrival of her baby, who has since arrived happy and healthy. In September 2018, Squaring the Strange did move to a biweekly format, but Celestia says they have not ruled out bringing back the weekly schedule, provided everyone’s work life allows it.
Prior to the inception of Squaring the Strange, Ben Radford interviewed Celestia for Skeptical Inquirer and covered the intersection of her art with skepticism. For a deep dive into that topic, see Ben’s article here. Also, visit Celestia’s website here, her caricature blog here, and the Squaring the Strange homepage here.
Acknowledgements: For suggesting several of the questions I put to Celestia, a special thank you goes to my Guerrilla Skeptics teammate Paula Serrano. And, when you interview a copy editor for an article, how can you not use her skills to improve the article itself? Thank you Celestia for your unexpected but appreciated input, including teaching me the proper use of an m-dash!