17 episodes

In each episode I endeavour to know more and think better by interviewing knowledgeable guests about fascinating topics. I have an insatiable curiosity about many areas, including politics, economics, philosophy, history, literature, psychology, religion, and different branches of science such as neuroscience, biology, and physics. Regardless of subject matter, I hope to promote critical thinking, Enlightenment values, and the scientific method. Please join me on this journey as we engage and broaden our skeptical curiosity.

Skeptically Curious Ryan Rutherford

    • Science
    • 5.0 • 2 Ratings

In each episode I endeavour to know more and think better by interviewing knowledgeable guests about fascinating topics. I have an insatiable curiosity about many areas, including politics, economics, philosophy, history, literature, psychology, religion, and different branches of science such as neuroscience, biology, and physics. Regardless of subject matter, I hope to promote critical thinking, Enlightenment values, and the scientific method. Please join me on this journey as we engage and broaden our skeptical curiosity.

    Episode 16 - The Anthropocene with Dr. Will Steffen

    Episode 16 - The Anthropocene with Dr. Will Steffen

    If I were to hazard a guess, the odds are far more likely that someone has heard of climate change than they have of the Anthropocene. While its use has exploded since first being coined by Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Paul Crutzen, in 2000, particularly in academic circles, but also including some recent pop cultural and media references, I still maintain it probably ranks as the most profoundly important conceptual framework with which most people remain largely unfamiliar.

    The Anthropocene essentially means the “age of humans,” denoting that our species has become such a potent planetary force that it has radically, and in some cases irrevocably, altered the planet in a myriad of ways. This includes changes in land use, atmospheric composition, chemical cycles, most notably nitrogen and phosphorous, pollution, weather patterns, and, perhaps most tragically of all, biodiversity, as we are currently living through what has been dubbed the sixth great extinction.

    To better understand the Anthropocene, I decided to reach out to Dr. Will Steffen, one of the main researchers responsible for formulating the concept from its inception, and who has collaborated with other major scholars in this field, including Dr. Crutzen and Johan Rockström.

    After summarising some of his background, I asked my guest to clarify the primary conceptual features pertaining to the Anthropocene. Considering that the Anthropocene idea emerges to a significant extent from Earth System Science, I asked Dr. Steffen to explain more about this field. I then probed him for a so-called “bumper sticker definition” of the Anthropocene, after which I inquired about the main lines of evidence to support this classification. There is still some contention over when to date the start of the Anthropocene, which we discussed, before moving onto the “Great Acceleration,” the term for the massive expansion of economic activity across the globe after World War II.

    Some other topics we delved into include planetary boundaries, the notion of a “golden spike” indicating a clear demarcation between different geological ages, alternatives to the Anthropocene designation, which some scholars have argued is too broad considering not all people are impacting the world equally, and, perhaps most provocatively, whether humans are an irredeemable species considering how much destruction we have wrought on all aspects of the biosphere. On a more positive note, I asked Dr. Steffen about possible ways to address the vast impact of human activity on the planet.

    While this is one of my shortest interviews, it is also one of the most substantive and wide-ranging, as befits a topic of such expansive scope. After all, the Anthropocene is the ultimate interdisciplinary subject and, as the name suggests, implicates us all.

    Dr. Will Steffen’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Steffen

    ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5610815_The_Anthropocene_Are_Humans_Now_Overwhelming_the_Great_Forces_of_Nature

    ‘The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives’: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49799236_The_Anthropocene_conceptual_and_historical_perspectives

    Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1

    Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious

    • 55 min
    Episode 15 - AI Controllability, AGI, and Possible AI Futures with Roman Yampolskiy

    Episode 15 - AI Controllability, AGI, and Possible AI Futures with Roman Yampolskiy

    For this episode I was very pleased to be once again joined by Roman Yampolskiy. Dr. Yampolskiy is a professor in the department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and has authored dozens of peer-reviewed academic papers and some books.

    In this discussion, I first asked my guest about the recent AGI-21 conference organised by Ben Goertzel’s SingularityNET, held in San Francisco from the 15th to the 18th October, to which he remotely contributed. Roman summarised his presentation on AI Controllability, an incredibly important topic from an AI risk standpoint, but one that has not received nearly enough attention.

    The conference provided a neat segue into the topic comprising the bulk of our discussion, namely AGI, or artificial general intelligence. I threw plenty at my interviewee, primarily perspectives gleaned from some papers and books, as well as interviews, to which I was recently exposed. However, Roman parried most of my challenging salvos with impressive aplomb.

    I then shifted focus to some provocative possible future scenarios, both positive and negative, involving AI systems gaining greater intelligence and competency. Lastly, we ventured onto more personal terrain as I asked Roman about his family’s move to the United States, his interest in computers, intellectual influences, and what the secret is to his astonishing productivity.

    Roman Yampolskiy’s page at the University of Louisville: http://cecs.louisville.edu/ry/

    List of Yampolskiy’s papers at Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Roman-Yampolskiy

    Yampolskiy’s ‘AI Risk Skepticism’ paper: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351368775_AI_Risk_Skepticism

    AGI Control Theory Presentation at AGI-21: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Palb2Ue_RjI

    ‘Human ≠ AGI’ paper: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2007/2007.07710.pdf

    ‘Personal Universes’ paper: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1901/1901.01851.pdf

    ‘Here’s Why We May Need to Rethink Artificial Neural Networks’ by Alberto Romero: https://towardsdatascience.com/heres-why-we-may-need-to-rethink-artificial-neural-networks-c7492f51b7bc

    ‘Evil Robots, Killer Computers, and Other Myths’ by Steve Shwartz: https://www.aiperspectives.com/evil-robots

    Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1

    Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious
     

    • 1 hr 6 min
    Episode 14 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 2) - Free will, serial killers, and treating psychopathy

    Episode 14 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 2) - Free will, serial killers, and treating psychopathy

    This episode of Skeptically Curious features the second interview with Dr. Kent Kiehl, one of the foremost contemporary experts on psychopathy, and author of The Psychopath Whisperer. This exceptional book recounts Dr. Kiehl’s illustrious career while also serving as a lucid guide to the latest research on psychopathy. The first interview focused primarily on that book, while this episode moves well beyond its ambit.

    I began by asking Dr. Kiehl whether it is rare to find psychopaths drawn from higher socio-economic echelons, as was the case with someone dubbed Brendan in his book. We then took a plunge into the ever-knotty thickets of the free will debate, a detour during which such names as Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, and Daniel Dennett were evoked. Probably the lion’s share of our discussion revolved around the inexhaustibly fascinating subject of serial killers, both real and imagined. I instigated this part of our conversation by asking my guest whether it is safe to assume that while not all psychopaths are serial killers, all serial killers should be classified as psychopaths. The answer is surprisingly not so straightforward. One of America's most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy, helped to stoke Dr. Kiehl’s interest in psychopathy as this infamous murderer was born a few blocks from his childhood home in Tacoma, Washington. Dr. Kiehl discussed other real-life killers including Jeffrey Dahmer, the Green River Killer, incidentally also from Washington State, and BTK. I could not resist asking my strikingly credentialed interlocutor about the accuracy of some famed fictional figures, such as Hannibal Lector and Dexter Morgan. I even asked Dr. Kiehl to cast a verdict on the potential veracity of my own as-yet-unpublished foray into the realm of imaginary serial murderers. After hearing his answer, I probably have some serious re-writing to do.

    We then discussed some of the popular books on psychopathy published around the same time as The Psychopath Whisperer, including Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths and Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, which Dr. Kiehl described as basically a work of fiction, and a very irresponsible one at that. Instead, Dr. Kiehl urged listeners to rely on academics who have published in peer-reviewed journals for reliable information on psychopathy, including Adrian Raine, James Blair, Joe Newman, and, of course, Robert Hare.

    We ended on a more hopeful note by discussing possible treatment options for psychopathy. The most promising development in this regard is probably the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Centre in Madison, Wisconsin, which employs a decompression model to positively reinforce good behaviour. Dr. Kiehl writes about this in some detail in The Psychopath Whisperer and still enthusiastically praises its considerable success in comparison to other juvenile programmes. The impressive results suggest if troubled individuals are identified early in life and enough time and resources are spent to re-shape their behaviour, it is possible to prevent them from developing into clinically diagnosed psychopaths.

    Dr. Kiehl’s personal website: https://kentkiehl.com/

    Dr. Kiehl’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_Kiehl

    The Psychopath Whisperer: https://www.amazon.com/The-Psychopath-Whisperer-Science-Conscience/dp/077043584X

    Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1

    Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious

    • 2 hr 9 min
    Episode 13 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 1)

    Episode 13 - The Psychopath Whisperer with Dr. Kent Kiehl (Part 1)

    Rarely does one have the opportunity to interview someone who, without any exaggeration, can be legitimately considered among a handful of leading figures in their respective field. This aptly describes Dr. Kent Kiehl’s celebrated career as a world leading psychopathy expert. Furthermore, as anyone reading his superb 2014 memoir-cum-primer, The Psychopath Whisperer, will learn, Dr. Kiehl’s career has intersected with some iconic luminaries, particularly in neuroscience and psychology, including Karl Friston, Michael Gazzaniga, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash, and the grandfather of modern psychopath research, Dr. Robert Hare, creator of the Psychopathy Checklist, which is still the unsurpassed gold standard of assessment. Dr. Kiehl completed his undergraduate degree at the University of California-Davis and earned a doctorate under Dr. Hare at the University of British Columbia. Putting his studies to practical use, for several years he worked in a maximum-security prison in Canada. Thereafter, he was affiliated with Yale and the Institute of Living, and for the last fifteen years has been a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico where he heads the Mind Research Network, a non-profit institute. During his work at the latter institution, Dr. Kiehl and his team have used a mobile fMRI to scan the brains of over 5000 inmates in five states.

    In the interview, after Dr. Kiehl summarised his storied career, he spent quite some time reflecting on the scientific method, which included relating this to his own work. I asked my guest to provide the so-called “dinner party” definition of psychopathy. He then clarified the distinction between psychosis and psychopathy, as well as sociopathy and psychopathy. As we discussed, and is elaborated upon in more detail in The Psychopath Whisperer, among the principle reasons for Dr. Kiehl’s esteemed stature are the landmark contributions he has made using two of the primary imaging tools in neuroscience, namely EEG and fMRI, which stand for electroencephalography and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, respectively, techniques he kindly first explained before moving onto describing his research findings. In short, after repeatedly identifying a correlation between high scores on the Psychopathy Checklist and the volume and structure of certain brain areas, Dr. Kiehl formulated what he has dubbed the Paralimbic Dysfunction Model of Psychopathy. Impressively, this is now among the most robust findings in the field.

    As uncomfortable as it may be for some to accept, psychopaths simply have different brains to those of us not so designated. The last major topic we discussed was whether, in light of these findings, psychopaths are born or made, which then segued into possible interventions to ameliorate these traits, or at any rate their most socially deleterious manifestations. 

    Dr. Kiehl’s personal website: https://kentkiehl.com/

    Dr. Kiehl’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_Kiehl

    The Psychopath Whisperer: https://www.amazon.com/The-Psychopath-Whisperer-Science-Conscience/dp/077043584X

    Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1

    Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious

    • 1 hr 38 min
    Episode 12 - Science-based medicine, science denial as a form of conspiracy theory, and countering vaccine misinformation with Dr. David Gorski

    Episode 12 - Science-based medicine, science denial as a form of conspiracy theory, and countering vaccine misinformation with Dr. David Gorski

    In this episode I was joined by Dr. David Gorski, managing editor and prolific writer at the thoroughly indispensable website, Science-Based Medicine. Dr. Gorski earned his MD at the University of Michigan and a PhD in cellular physiology at Case Western Reserve University. He is both a professor of surgery at Wayne State University as well as a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute where he specialises in breast cancer surgery.

    Near the beginning of our conversation, I asked Dr. Gorski for his view on the scientific method and how skepticism is one of its central characteristics. My guest explained how science-based medicine is related to, but still in important respects distinct from, evidence-based medicine, which is itself a fairly new approach dating back only a few decades. We discussed an excellent essay from earlier this year in which he argued that all examples of science denial are essentially a form of conspiracy thinking. While his argument is largely persuasive, I ventured to propose a yet deeper analytical layer involving the high degree of religiosity in American society, as compared to other developed nations, that serves as another crucial driver for the pervasive conspiratorial ideation so prevalent in the United States.

    We then spoke about the highly frustrating asymmetry between those trying to assiduously gather reliable information and rectify inaccuracies and those who effortlessly churn out misleading and false claims. Dr. Gorski mentioned Brandolini’s Law, which states that it takes an order of magnitude more to refute b******t than it does to create b******t, that perfectly summarise this dilemma, and one the Covid pandemic has brought into horribly stark relief. I asked him about his first forays into skepticism in the late 1990s when he grappled with Holocaust deniers, before moving onto discussing fallacious ideas about Covid-19, the anti-vaccine movement, the breakthrough new MRNA technology used in some Covid vaccines, the efficacy of vaccines developed against the virus, and the often unethical behaviour of pharmaceutical companies witnessed during this unprecedented global pandemic. We also spoke about how the Republican Party has become the party of choice for anti-vaxxers, some prominent figures in this movement, including Mike Adams of Natural News infamy and Joseph Mercola, what might motivate these players, and ways to counter the tidal wave of irrationality, idiocy, disinformation, and propaganda to which we are incessantly subjected, particularly on social media. In light of this seemingly inexorable multi-pronged tsunami of lunacy, I averred that we sadly appear to live in an age of Endarkment, rather than one of Enlightenment.

    Science-Based Medicine: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/

    Dr Gorski’s essay, ‘All science denial is a form of conspiracy theory’: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/all-science-denial-is-a-form-of-conspiracy-theory/

    Dr. Gorski’s Respectful Insolence blog: https://respectfulinsolence.com/

    Dr. Gorski’s Twitter account: @gorskon

    Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1

    Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious

    • 1 hr 38 min
    Episode 11 - AI Risk with Roman Yampolskiy

    Episode 11 - AI Risk with Roman Yampolskiy

    For this episode I was delighted to be joined by Dr. Roman Yampolskiy, a professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Louisville. Few scholars have devoted as much time to seriously exploring the myriad of threats potentially inhering in the development of highly intelligent artificial machinery than Dr. Yampolskiy, who established the field of AI Safety Engineering, also known simply as AI Safety. After the preliminary inquiry into his background, I asked Roman Yampolskiy to explain deep neural networks, or artificial neural networks as they are also known. One of the most important topics in AI research is what is referred to as the Alignment Problem, which my guest helped to clarify. We then moved onto his work on two other vitally significant issues in AI, namely understandability and explainability. I then asked him to provide a brief history of AI Safety, which as he revealed built on Yudkowsky’s ideas of Friendly AI. We discussed whether there is an increased interest in the risks attendant to AI among researchers, the perverse incentive that exists among those in this industry to downplay the risks of their work, and how to ensure greater transparency, which as you will hear is worryingly far more difficult than many might assume based on the inherently opaque nature of how deep neural networks perform their operations. I homed in on the issue of massive job losses that increasing AI capabilities could potentially engender, as well as the perception I have that many who discuss this topic downplay the socioeconomic context within which automation occurs. After I asked my guest to define artificial general intelligence, or AGI, and super intelligence, we spent considerable time discussing the possibility of machines achieving human-level mental capabilities. This part of the interview was the most contentious and touched on neuroscience, the nature of consciousness, mind-body dualism, the dubious analogy between brains and computers that has been all to pervasive in the AI field since its inception, as well as a fascinating paper by Yampolskiy proposing to detect qualia in artificial systems that perceive the same visual illusions as humans. In the final stretch of the interview, we discussed the impressive language-based system GPT3, whether AlphaZero is the first truly intelligent artificial system, as Gary Kasparov claims, the prospects of quantum computing to potentially achieve AGI, and, lastly, what he considers to be the greatest AI risk factor, which according to my guest is “purposeful malevolent design.” While this far-ranging interview, with many concepts raised and names dropped, sometimes veered into various weeds some might deem overly specialised and/or technical, I nevertheless think there is plenty to glean about a range of fascinating, not to mention pertinent, topics for those willing to stay the course.

    Roman Yampolskiy’s page at the University of Louisville: http://cecs.louisville.edu/ry/

    Yampolskiy’s papers: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0_Rq68cAAAAJ&hl=en

    Roman’s book, Artificial Superintelligence: A Futuristic Approach: https://www.amazon.com/Artificial-Superintelligence-Futuristic-Roman-Yampolskiy/dp/1482234432

    Twitter account for Skeptically Curious: https://twitter.com/SkepticallyCur1

    Patreon page for Skeptically Curious: https://www.patreon.com/skepticallycurious

    • 1 hr 22 min

Customer Reviews

5.0 out of 5
2 Ratings

2 Ratings

Kwoog ,

A perfect example of the Long-Form podcast w

Skeptically Curious is the rare example of how to do a long-form podcast well.
Not only are the guests brilliant, but Ryan Rutherford is a highly adept interviewer who, unlike most podcasters, asks the questions I want asked, whether I’d thought of them or not.

If you’re interested in becoming more knowledgeable about some of the most interesting and stimulating topics conceivable, please give this a listen.

chétjie ,

Know more and think better

Excellent, thought provoking discussions with expert guests. Thoroughly enjoyable!