September 19, 2016

It all started with Gwyneth Paltrow.

In January 2015, the Hollywood star made a dubious claim about the benefits of women steam-cleaning their private parts. On the other side of the planet, Australian science journalist Wendy Zukerman thought this was one of many fads that wouldn’t stand up to a rigorous fact check.

When Kaitlin Sawrey, then part of the podcast unit at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, reached out to Zukerman, the latter pitched the idea for a podcast that would pit fads against facts: “Science Vs” was born. The podcast quickly amassed a large audience and earlier this year, both it and Zukerman moved to Gimlet Media in New York.

The transition from Australia to the United States was mostly seamless, presumably helped by the fact that a large share of “Science Vs’s” audience was already American. Still, the podcast now has a larger team and more resources to conduct reporting on the field.

Zukerman says that an unexpected difference — after all, her podcast was airing on a public broadcaster in Australia — has been greater touchiness about swearing in America. When an episode on organic farming had to dwell over a turkey’s anus, some were preoccupied about the host’s use of “arsehole”: should it be bleeped? And would its use mean the episode should be billed as explicit?

“Science Vs” is reminiscent of other nerdy-skeptical radio shows like the BBC’s “More or Less.” But it also very much fits into a pattern – truer of radio and TV than of written media — of using fact-checking to comedic effect.

If the doyen of this genre was Jon Stewart, he has had many acolytes. Post-Stewart, The Daily Show launched “What the Actual Fact;” “Adam Ruins Everything” on truTV has a premise similar to “Science Vs,” and many of John Oliver’s humorous monologues are at least in part fact checks.

Zukerman says watching Oliver taught her a lot about how to make facts more entertaining. “The Checkout,” an ABC consumer report show where she worked for a while, was also an inspiration.

The host’s upbeat tempo and irreverent choice of topics (case in point: the Sept. 1st episode on the G-spot) makes the podcast highly listenable, and indeed the show has been downloaded more than 2 million times since its launch. While its footnoted episodes also make it a treat for the skeptic, does it actually change anyone’s mind?

Some research has indicated that closely-held false beliefs (as ones on parenting, health or diets often are) tend to be harder to rectify, with the misinformed doubling down when corrected.

Zukerman says that “my sensibility is very much to present the science and invite the listener along for the ride,” rather than expect to change people’s minds. This sometimes means the listener is served generous dollops of sarcasm, not always the best way to change someone’s mind.

But, “I have a really great team” she adds, who have “helped me to learn that the best way to convert the believers is to bring them in with personal stories and show heart.”

The best example of this, Zukerman says, was an episode on attachment parenting. “Our reporter Heather Rogers made me understand why a parenting rule book would be comforting for new parents.” So the show interviewed a mother who was struggling to make attachment parenting work and made sure the debunking wasn’t an attack on parents.

“When we balance the facts and heart correctly that’s when we do our best work,” Zukerman reckons. “It’s unfair to target the people who have taken the ‘facts’ as facts because they trust people in authority.”

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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