All posts by ikonokast

Evidence for Democracy – Katie Gibbs on Science Resisting

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

The new administration tried to silence federal scientists in ordering the official twitter accounts not to tweet. The administration of the 45th president sent out signals they were going to control the scientific message byscrubbing the government websites of mention of climate change. They nominated a secretary of education who has promoted schools which place a low priority on teaching evolution. In the last two episodes of Ikonokast we have talked about science and  as methods of inquiry that lead to better public policy decisions.

The executive and the legislative branch in the current government seem very much vested in not using what scientists have discovered while deciding policy. There have been very clear directives that they intend to ignore science in service to energy goals, education, industrial regulation and public health care.

Government Can’t Govern if They Don’t Know

Dr. Katie Gibbs
Dr. Katie Gibbs

Canadian scientists have experience with a government that placed economic needs in front of the realities that science was discovering. In response to censorship and political control of the Death of Evidence march in Ottawa led to the formation of a science advocacy group, Evidence for Democracy. For this episode, our guest is Dr. Katie Gibbs, a biologist and the executive director of Evidence for Democracy. This show is about the Canadian experience and what American scientists can do to keep science public in a hostile governmental environment.


The Experimental Lakes Area

The March for Science



Them’s Thinking Words – Dan Fincke Defends Philosophy

Dan Fincke

Have you noticed that the word “philosophy” is sometimes used in a derogatory way, especially when the conversation is about science? Like the tee-shirt that says, “Without engineers, science is just philosophy.”

Non scientists may not realize this but that which we would fairly call philosophy is usually part of science, even if it is sometimes called something else. Philosophy rests in the deepest levels of science, at the borders of science, in the zone between scientific thinking and public discourse, and yes, it can occasionally be found of by itself staring at an orange.

So, how do we situate science and philosophy in relation to each other, and what can philosophy do for us?

To address these epistemological questions, we spoke with Dan Fincke, who is a philosopher with many ties to and much experience in the skeptical, atheist, and broader science vis-a-vis science.

Dan teaches philosophy in an unconventional way, though closely resembling the way philosophy was taught in ancient times, sans toga but with an internet connection. The details on the classes and the processes, and even a no obligation trial are at

Dan recommends the following books for your further edification:

Values and Vaccine Refusal: Hard Questions in Ethics, Epistemology, and Health Care, By Mark Navin

Moral Psychology: Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, author and editor

Trump and Science: A conversation with Shawn Otto

Shawn Otto

On November 8th, 2016, the entire planet received a punch in the gut. A political worst nightmare happened. The most qualified person to ever run for the office of President of the United States, Hillary Clinton, was defeated by the least qualified person to ever run for President, Donald Trump.

Since that fateful night, we’ve had the opportunity to see if things would end up being as bad as many suspected, as the Trump transition team puts together its future cabinet. It turns out we were wrong. Things are looking like they will be even worse than worst case. For this, there is not even a word.

How Should We Respond to the Election of Trump?

This week we speak with Shawn Otto, author of

The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, about the implications of the presumed Donald Trump presidency, especially with respect to science policy. Given the way the Trump cabinet is forming up, this becomes an incredibly important conversation.

Shawn is also a co-founder of

You probably know that Shawn is an excellent writer, a promoter of science and science based policy, and a highly regarded political and social analyst. You might not know that Shawn is an experienced political operative as well, having run difficult but successful campaigns. Both of us (Haubrich and Laden) have experience working on campaigns, and we see Shawn as one of the regional go-to political gurus. During this podcast, we hear some of Shawn’s analysis of what happened in the recent national election in the US. Did Donald Trump win this election, or did Hillary Clinton lose it? And how did that happen? Is this the first Facebook-Twitter election?

In case you are interested in looking at some of the primary literature related to the rise of modern science, check out
Francis Bacon: The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).

Shawn’s earlier interview on Ikonokast is here.

We hope you enjoy our conversation with Shawn Otto:

Climate Change and Hurricane Matthew, with Michael Mann

In this iteration of the Ikonokast Podcast we interview Pennsylvania State University Professor Michael Mann.

mann_treeringDr. Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Geosciences, and another joint appointment in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. He is director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center.

Michael Mann is most famous for his identification of the “Hockey Stick,” the phenomenon of abrupt and dramatic rise of the Earth’s surface temperatures owing to human greenhouse gas pollution. This has made him a target for attacks by science deniers and puppets of the petroleum industry who would prefer that we not notice climate change.

What you might not know is that Dr. Mann is also the leader of one of the teams of scientists that issue annual predictions of the severity and characteristics of the Atlantic Hurricane season. Even as Hurricane Matthew is churning through the Caribbean and the waters off the US Southeast, we discuss the ways in which human caused global warming increases risks from Atlantic hurricanes, as well as some of the unique features of this particular storm. We also check in to see how well Dr. Mann’s team did with their prediction this year!

ikonokast_interview_greg_laden_mike_haubrich_michael_mann_madhouse_effect_book_coverWe also cover the true and very interesting story behind Michael Mann’s discovery of the Hockey Stick. This is an Ikonokast exclusive. In case you’ve ever wondered how major scientific discoveries come about, this story is an excellent, previously untold (on a podcast) example.

Much of this episode focuses on work behind, and meaning within, Professor Mann’s latest book, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy with cartoonist Tom Toles. From the publisher:

Through satire, “The Madhouse Effect” portrays the intellectual pretzels into which denialists must twist logic to explain away the clear evidence that man-made activity has changed our climate. Toles’s cartoons collapse counter-scientific strategies into their biased components, helping readers see how to best strike at these fallacies. Mann’s expert skills at science communication aim to restore sanity to a debate that continues to rage against widely acknowledged scientific consensus. The synergy of these two commonsense crusaders enlivens the gloom and doom of so many climate-themed books–and may even convert a few of the faithful to the right side of science.

We also discuss Mann’s two other books, Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change, and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines
ikonokast_interview_mann_dire_predictionsMuch of our discussion covers the nature of climate change denial, and we talk about its decline as a factor in policy making and politics. Very few politicians today call climate change a hoax. (There are some, though.) This change has come about in part because of the tireless efforts of scientists like Dr. Mann who expend significant effort effectively communicating the causes and consequences of climate change to the general public and the press.

We also discuss the potential outcomes of the collapse of the Atlantic Conveyor current, the current rapid heating of the Earth’s surface, with record breaking year after record breaking year, and the likely heating to happen over the next several years.

Learn how to become an effective science communicator, which can include the use of humor, and what the key problems are that have to be overcome to address climate change, and much much more, in this information packed episode of our podcast.

Better Farming, Better Food, Better Fuel, with Emily Cassidy

Food. It is important, and it is connected to everything from farming to fuel production to climate change to the economy and everything else.

Emily Cassidy is one of our favorite people to talk to, because her expertise is deep and her thought process is nuanced and detailed. Each of us have either together or separately been fortunate to work with Emily on several different public science information projects including interviews like the one we have here, panels, etc.

Food Production and Biofuels Compete for Agricultural Resources

Emily is from Minnesota, and earned her BA and Masters degrees in Natural Resource Science from the University of Minnesota.

Emily’s Masters research involved developing a now widely recognized metric linking agricultural effort on the ground and population that can be supported by that effort.

Emily is co-author of the widely cited Nature paper “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” which looked at this problem:


Increasing population and consumption are placing unprecedented demands on agriculture and natural resources. Today, approximately a billion people are chronically malnourished while our agricultural systems are concurrently degrading land, water, biodiversity and climate on a global scale. To meet the world’s future food security and sustainability cneeds, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically. …

Emily_CassidyWe (our species) need to make decisions about what to grow (food vs. energy crops), what to eat (veggies vs. meat), and what methods and technologies to deploy (organic vs. industrial farming, GMOs, etc.). And, many people have strong opinions about these things. But, as usual, everyone is wrong to at least some degree for the simple reason that most people’s opinions are under-informed, lacking detail, wanting of data. Whenever we need to fill in some of those spaces in our knowledge, we call Emily.

Here we speak with Emily about the science of agriculture, the impacts of agriculture on the environment, the virtues of the vegetarian and vegan diets, biofuel vs food, how that whole GMO thing is doing, and more.

Emily is a Research Analyst at Environmental Working Group in Washington DC.

Earth’s Deadliest Creatures – With Christie Wilcox

This week we interview Dr. Christie Wilcox, author of soon to be released Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry.

You know Christie Wilcox from her excellent writing at Science Sushi, and elsewhere. Christie is an expert on things that make you hurt by biting, stinging, or otherwise injecting horrid venomous compounds into your body. Or the body of some other animal. Or that use venom to avoid being eaten by something.

There are myriad venomous creatures. Some use venom to kill or immobilize their prey, others use venom as a form of protection. Some use venom in ways that do neither, but still play a vital role in the animal’s ecology.

A Popular Strategy for Survival

Christie Wilcox
Christie Wilcox
Using venom is a strategy that has emerged many times in evolution, and venomous behavior drives evolution in other species with which they interact. Indeed, the evolutionary story of venomous adaptations is an excellent area in which to explore co-evolution and evolution in general.

Venomous animals are also the source of mystery and misunderstanding. For example, we speak with Christie about misconceptions about Komodo Dragons and why malaria carrying mosquitos are actually venomous. We also learn how the various venoms work in the body.

We discuss how venomous snakes may have shaped early human evolution (The “Snake Detection Theory,”) the modern practice of self envenomation (so that your pet snake does not eventually kill you), and the use of snake venoms as a recreational drug (not recommended).

And then there is the nearly unbelievable story of the Jeweled Wasp, one of the most macabre stories in all of biology.

Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry will be out in August and is available now for preorder. You can get a print copy, and it is available for the Kindle as well using this link: Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry.

Curiosity About Mars with Emily Lakdawalla

NASA has been using remote automated vehicles to explore the surface of Mars since 2004. Run by remote control programs beamed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the rovers capture photographs, scoop and analyze soil samples and even snap selfies. Curiosity landed in 2012 and is a very successful mission for NASA.

How Do We Satisfy our Curiosity about Mars?  We Explore it, of course!

Emily Lakdawalla
Emily Lakdwalla is Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for the Planetary Society

Emily Lakdawalla is a Senior Editor working for the Planetary Society, communicating to her audience worldwide the events and doings of missions throught the solar system. We talked to Emily largely about the Rover Curiosity as it progresses through the Martian Landscape. How do the controllers on the Earth tell the robot where to go, what to do and how to avoid hazards? Considering that the Rover Spirit was doing great until it got stuck in soft soil and the engineers were not able to free it, hazard avoidance is a key to the mission.

As the scientists look evidence of past (microbial) life, they are amazed at the feats the engineers perform so far away while the engineers are fascinated by the data that the scientists retrieve. According to Emily, the cooperation between engineers and scientists is more important than the tension over goals and

Wishing you were here.
So, why do robots take selfies? You’ll have to write your own punchline.


We talked about the process of taking selfies at the rover’s various stops. Why are selfies important? How did they first get the idea to do so? Is it a waste of time and transmission bandwidth? Emily explains the process and the justification.

NASA is conducting several missions in the Solar System. While most people are familiar with New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto in 2015, there is also the mission in our asteroid belt to another dwarf planet, Ceres. Ceres is much closer to home and after exploring and mapping Vesta, the Dawn mission is the first to orbit one object and then fly to another and set a new orbit. There are amazing feats that unmanned explorers are capable of completing.

We also talked about the future of solar system exploration and floated some ideas, but they are likely a bit too expensive. However, Mars 2020 is very promising for gathering soil samples.

This was another fun and informative interview on ikonokast and Greg and Mike encourage you to check out these links. Read about the Planetary Society, and support their goal to continue to push for more exploration of our solar system.

It’s our goal, too!

Emily Lakdwalla’s Planetary Society Blog is information central for the planetary missions and the planetary evangelizing work she does.

Additional materials related to this show:

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control which we talk about during the show.

Nancy Atkinson’s new book Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos

A great book for Kids about Discovering Mars Discovering Mars: The Amazing Story of the Red Planet by Berger, Melvin (1992) Paperback

Alfred McEwen’s This Is Mars

On the Biosphere Experiment: The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2

Andy Weir’s “Crowdsource Edited” novel The Martian – the basis for the movie: The Martian

Genetics and Food Security: Talking GMOs with Anastasia Bodnar

The population growth of humans on planet earth is accelerating. Very few people are taking the idea of Zero Population Growth as an imperative. Food insecurity is a serious problem for fifteen per cent of the global population. This means that 850 million people or more are chronically undernourished. Achieving a sustainable level of food security is a matter of increasing food production, attacking the economic conditions that are barriers, and will require improvements in food distribution. This second episode will review the role of production in working towards global food security. Our guest for this episode is Dr. Anastasia Bodnar.

Are GMOs good or bad?

When it comes to a complex issue like GMOs, we are not likely to have a simple answer to such a simple question.

Anastasia Bodnar at the White House
Dr. Anastasia Bodnar presenting, at the Whtie House in Washington, DC

The role of genetic engineering, GMOs, is hotly debated as a social and ethical issue. There are many people who are dubious as to both the need for and the safety of genetically modified organisms as they are developed for various reasons to enhance agricultural production. There are researchers working on tailoring crops towards drought resistance, adding carotene to poor children’s diets in the form of Golden Rice, resistance of plants to pests, enabling the specific use of herbicides, and for many other purposes. Dr. Bodnar has been working with genetically modified plants, mostly with corn, but she has also been studying the social debate over the use and potential dangers, if any, of GMO’s.

As a science advocacy podcast, Ikonokast will be talking to Anastasia about these issues and others related to food production. She is Policy Director of Biofortified, Inc; which is an 501(c)3 that fosters conversations about issues in food and agriculture. Anastasia refers to herself as just a crazy scientist who likes to talk about science.

Which, come to think of it, is perfect for the purpose of the Ikonokast Podcast.



For additional enlightenment, we encourage you to check out the following links:


Biofortified is an organization for outreach on the issues of agricultural technology.

Genetic Maize.  This is Anastasia Bodnar, PhD’s site, mentioned in the podcast.

Norman Borlaug; A billion lives saved.

Everything you need to know about CRISPR, the new tool that edits DNA; in Gizmodo.


Why Science?

Shawn Lawrence Otto
Shawn Lawrence Otto

This is the initial podcast of IkonoKast.  Our first guest is a writer who has done a great deal of work to support and encourage the advocacy of science for public policy.  Shawn Lawrence Otto is a screenwriter and novelist  His book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America details the manner in which politicians have been attempting to ignore or diminish the role that science should play in the public discourse on policy.  He is a co-founder of ScienceDebate, which is the growing effort to engage candidates for the presidency of the United States in a debate for them to talk about science, specifically.

To introduce the show, Greg and Mike discuss science and what we want to achieve with the podcast.  What is science?  Why is it important?  How do interested parties who are not scientists discover which science is worth following and discard the pseudoscience when the media seem to report so poorly on topical issues of science?

Listen to the podcast, and please feel free to submit your feedback.

Shawn Otto adapted the screenplay for House Of Sand And Fog and recently published his first novel Sins of Our Fathers. Purchasing these products through the links helps to support Ikonokast.