Interview with Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko poscast and Open Source Science project
Alex Tsakiris is a high-tech entrepreneur turned Podcaster based in Del Mar, California. After short stints as a research associate at the University of Arizona, and a member of the Texas Instruments Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Alex founded Mind Path Technologies (now a part of InFocus Corporation). Earlier this year he turned his attention to science Podcasting with the launch of Skeptiko.com and OpenSourceScience.net.
You host the skeptiko podcast about controversial issues of science, such as parapsychology research. I must say it’s one of the best podcasts I’ve heard and certainly a leading one on the subject. Could you elaborate on the idea behind the skeptiko podcast and how you came to opening it?
Well, thanks for those kind words, Jacob. I guess Skeptiko grew out of my love for learning while listening. I’ve been a books-on-tape junkie for years and used to download radio shows before podcasting took off. Knowledge really is power. When I turned my interest to science and parapsychology I often felt like there were questions that just weren’t getting asked and answered. So, I started Skeptiko to get some answers.
What’s your background regarding parapsychology? What caused your interest in this subject?
I’m a complete lay-person when it comes to parapsychology and science in general, but I’ve tried to use that to my advantage. I come at these topics with a fresh perspective… as someone whose fascinated with this stuff, and has dug into research material widely available on the net. The democratization of science is a very cool thing.
What was your position, when it came to psi research on topics, such as telepathy, consciousness survival, psychokinesis, before you started the podcast?
I was skeptical… of both sides. I had read some books and papers on psi and was impressed, but I had also explored the skeptical side of the debate and found their arguments persuasive. I found the whole thing rather frustrating, here were these very smart scientists with completely opposing viewpoints.
Have the interviews changed your position in any way?
Yes, and it happened rather quickly. On the second episode of Skeptiko I was fortunate to land an interview with Dr. Dean Radin. I had read his books and listened to a couple of interviews with him, but I had also heard from his critics. In particular, I had heard an interview with Dr. Ray Hyman, a very well known skeptic, who had some very specific, and very damning, criticisms of his work.
I went into the interview inclined to side with Ray Hyman because he sounded so sure of himself, like he had really dug into this stuff and found the fatal flaw. Well, I played Ray Hyman clips to Dean Radin during the interview and he countered them very convincingly. He pointed out how his published research directly contradicted Ray Hyman criticism. I tried to follow-up with Ray Hyman, but he would never respond. I finally was able to interview Dr. Steven Novella from Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He had done the original interview with Ray Hyman, but had no explanation for Hyman’s claims. The experience opened my eyes to what some parapsychology researchers face.
You seem to have a position supporting past research of various psi phenomena in your interviews with the skeptics. But sometimes listening to various skeptics their arguments sound very convincing to me. Can they change your mind? Don’t you think you might become a skeptic yourself, like Susan Blackmore, for example, who after being a serious parapsychology researcher ended up being a skeptic, after she found no evidence that supported claims of parapsychology?
Well, it’s funny, I went into this not wanting to take sides… not wanting to be pigeonholed with a label like “skeptic” or “believer”, but you quickly find the field is so polarized that you get labeled whether you like it or not. As far as getting persuaded to one side or the other—I hope so. I mean, I’m completely committed to following the best data, the best research, wherever it leads.
Could you elaborate on the open source science project? How did you come up with the idea? Who are the sponsors?
OpenSourceScience.net grew out of this interest to “follow the data”, and get to the bottom of some of these controversies. As I looked into the work of some of the leading parapsychology researchers I realized some of the best research is ignored. One of the persistent, and sometimes valid, criticism of this work is lack of replication. Another problem is most folks haven’t had the means to engage the research and really dig into the questions. I saw this as a problem crying out for an open source solution. OpenSourceScience.net helps researchers replicate some of these controversial psi experiments in a way that lets everyone see all the steps in the research project. Plus, we’ve reached out the skeptical community in order to create the kind of collaborative research everyone agrees is really needed.
We’re going to fund 3-8 experiment replications within the next year. Grant money of up to $5,000 per replication is available to researchers who assist us. As you know, there isn’t nearly enough research money in this field, so we’re hoping to help encourage more researchers to pursue these experiments.
The first experiment that you ask people to participate in on the OpenSourceScience.net is a remake of the controversial experiment first conducted by Rupert Sheldrake and which brought him much publicity. Its results were also disputed by Professor Richard Wiseman. The experiment revolves around the question whether dogs can anticipate the return of their owners. Can you elaborate on what you expect from the participants? What feedback have you got? Do people actively take part?
That’s right. This is another one of those experiments that has shown some very promising preliminary results, but hasn’t had enough follow-up to persuade some skeptics. The story of the controversy between Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and Dr. Richard Wiseman is fascinating. It’s all described on the OpenSourceScience.net.
As far as participation, there are several ways to get involved. Right now, we’re searching for dogs that exhibit this behavior. That is, dogs that anticipate their owners coming home by going to the window or door long before they could possibly hear or see them coming. So, if anyone has a dog that does this, or can help us find superdogs like this, we’d definitely like to hear from you. Beyond that, anyone who has an interest in these experiments is welcome to join us and offer your input on how they should done.
What are your plans for the future of the Skeptiko podcast and of the open source science project?
Well, Skeptiko is all about interviews, and we have some really good ones coming up in the next few weeks including Dr. Raymond Moody.
Where do you get your knowledge? To people interested in these subjects, what sources of information would you suggest?
The web is a fantastic research tool, and I continue to listen to podcasts and other interviews all the time.
Any closing words.
Thanks for inviting me on, and good luck with your own psi experiments. I’ve participated in all of them, even though I don’t seem to show any psychic talent. I think I might still be too much of a computer guy for that.
Thanks, Alex, for your interview and good luck with your projects.