Episode 205

Nerdist Podcast

Cara Santa Maria

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Nerdist Podcast: Cara Santa Maria

Neuroscientist and science educator Cara Santa Maria sits down with Chris and Jonah to talk about asking strange questions at museums, how Cara teaches science to non-scientists, and where conscientiousness comes from!

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  • Sure, let’s call it quits for now.
    Comment threads aren’t really a place for a prolonged debate anyway.

    It’s been interesting though.
    Thanks everyone for keeping it civil.

    Hugs all around. :)

  • Cannot agree with Cara enough about being nervous about the way our country is headed. I swear the end goal for some people is to get us back to the dark ages.

  • I’d like to say a few things towards the oddness of this comment thread:

    Philosophical/semantic argument aside, we are all benefited when modern scientists/science enthusiasts are interviewed and the topic of religion is brought up. It’s a discussion that needs to be had, especially when it comes out one-sided and more than a little resentful sounding. There’s a lot of meddlesome noise in the way nowadays for those interested in objectivity- reality has been losing the PR battle in a lot of ways, what with wikipedia being the go-to knowledge expansion device and most forms of journalism being a laughable shell of what journalistic integrity used to be. So it’s understandable, if not necessarily ‘okay’, for a science correspondent to feel the need to say “Fuck You” to her current “THEM” group. Cara Santa Maria is both a science educator and a journalist, making her either very much interested in the defense of intellectual integrity and objectivity or a very poor career chooser. It’s unfortunate, then, that while she seems talented at communicating and teaching for the generally unbiased, recent clashes with ‘THE OTHER SIIIIDE’ appear to have brought her a little closer to ‘THEIR’ level. Understandable considering her position, but still unfortunate. I, for one, exhort her towards not going eye-for-an-eye with the relatively few but extremely loud noisemakers out there in the science education/journalistic realm. They may be ‘simply’ a vocal minority, but you only have two eyes. Fight the good fight through action and truth, not bile.

    More to the oddness of this comment thread, it fascinates me when discussions turns from sour to almost saccharine. I can’t tell which bothers me more- the blind rage of trolls or the group cuddlebation of everyone getting along perfectly. Happiness on the internet just makes me feel awkward, unless there’s a kitten picture involved. Or maybe a kitten + a poptart and some kinda rainbow thinger thrown in the mix. Whatever. Just make sure yew folks don’t get to nicetalkin’, or else we’ll have some probl’ms.

    Joking aside, I appreciate the good words of ol’ saint Quemmento but I guess it just makes me a little sad to realize one dude talking calmly on the internet is the equivalent of someone saving a kitten from being hit by a car IRL. One day, internet. We will rise up, and no longer will it be astonishing when one man chooses not to shit in someone else’s coffee the second he sees it! Oh, Happy Day…

  • Regarding the deathtoll

    Science is directly responsible for the population explosion and the longer lifespans of humans (in general). Hygiene, medical knowledge and so forth.

    Therefore more easily quantifiable amount and a provable assertion.

    Science saves a boatload of people.

    How to quantify how religion saves people is a lot harder, but I doubt it is in the billions. You have to define which religious actions constitute a life saved. Preventing suicide, religion providing social cohesion that otherwise would result in aggression (very fuzzy) and you have to have a clear demarcation of political and religious actions even though they can be very muddled.

    Not very clear estimation by any accounts and even being the most generous have a hard time getting more than millions – where science even just by hygiene can account for billions – infant deaths is millions every year.

    If we look outside the realm of religion alone and say all magical thinking (faith based assertions regardless of religion even atheist can make these) and evidence based thinking and account for the deaths and even being so narrow to account for all deaths using tools even a simple stone as being attributed to a scientific death – the violent deaths is actually a LOT lower than deaths attributed to magical thinking for instance the long period of medical service not based on evidence based medicine.

    Pathogens is responsible for A LOT of deaths far outnumbering violent deaths and the way to combat these is evidence based medicine (science) not woo or magical thinking.

    So even giving magical thinking the best terms attributing almost all violent deaths to science and giving the most generous estimation of the life saving power of magical thinking or religion it looses out objectively to evidence based thinking or science in the deaths vs. lives saved.

    It’s also noticeable that you say it’s your belief – NOT based on any amount of evidence or number of arguments that science kills more than religion and not bothering to give any arguments. That exactly the dangers of magical thinking, but even the most “rational” can be victims of this because our brain is very faulty, so you are not alone.

    We only have to say something like antibiotics, vaccines and hygiene – only those advances in science alone accounts for billions of lives and that’s tangible facts.

    Violent deaths is not as big a killer than diseases many people believes this, because it’s seems more horrible and scary and “more interesting” so humans talk about it a lot, but it’s simply not the fact.

  • Sorry me again.

    Even though some object to the political bias of nerdist podcast #205 in the debate of science vs. religion and the religious fundamentalist right and creation (ID) vs. evolution.

    Let us not forget that there’s is a lot of magical thinking and antiscience on the political left also (american political left we in Euro calls very right wing (the rightwing we call batshit insane sry americans – in DK pretty much everyone even the most right support the socialist model of state).

    But on the left the war on science lies especially in the area of medicine. Alternative medicine like Homeopathy is rife in the political left. Anti vaccination is a clear example of a anti science movement that does harm and is mostly comprised of the political left.

    Huffington Post unfortunately peddles a lot of this political left magical thinking woo and Huffington herself subscribes to a lot of these beliefs.

    it’s probably 90% woo and 10% science so Cara has a monumental task.

    Of course we need to be critical of the medical conglomerates, but it needs to be based on evidence and science and not magical thinking.

  • @Doc

    While comment thread postin’s are frequently a laughing matter, the education and propagation of helpful and important knowledge is quite frequently not.

    I did forget to mention, however… there’s something to be said for the fact that objectivity is potentially faith-based (though to a more practical/inextricable degree) due to a little something Ms. Santa Maria mentioned, re: the questionable existence of consciousness. It kinda undermines the observation-basis of empiricism if we cannot verify that we are actually observing stuff or even if other observers can observe like we do. It’s probably best to tread lightly with science, bearing in mind that it is all simply practical knowledge that could at any moment prove completely false once something new comes to light. The scientific principles of inspection and verification, especially in the form of skepticism, should be applied liberally to all things- usually the worst thing to happen to decent conversation and society is when a group of people become assured of the exacting nature of their “truth” and begin to disregard all other evidence presented purely on that basis.

    Don’t take this as a call against using science since it ‘could be false’, because something that could be false but tries to self correct is better than something that simply ignores any other possibility other than its own absolute validity.

    Oh, also, politics are shifting and fleeting and terribly, self-obsessedly human. Humans, by their nature, are inevitably going to insert themselves into the center of whatever their discussing and, as science typically tends to be distinctly non-anthropocentric, politics are a nice little tool to turn the conversation back to humanity. It’s quaint and it’s cute and it’s inevitable because scientists are human, we’re human, and we want to talk about what gravity has to do with our taxes. Just as journalistic integrity is attempting the impossible (to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, who can be objective about Nixon?) so is attempting to make science purely about the objective reality of it all. However, it is wise to note that even if it’s impossible there’s nothing wrong in trying. After all, those politics will change sometime anyway, while the facts will (barring mindblowing upheavals in our perception of reality) generally stay the same.

  • I will not stop til I become left handed! I will train tirelessly day and night and soon I will achieve level: south paw! I guess I will always be a sucker for gorgeous nerdy women…

    fantastic episode!

  • @Doctor Quemmento rofl, 99 comments but bitchy are among. (oh that was obvious and bad but…. :-) *high five*

    Oh I almost forgot!! I’d love to have a periodically podcast! Look at the discussion started with this one? Wouldn’t this be cool on a weekly/bi-weekly/monthly?

  • It’s okay to talk up to your audience. I believe in you. Also, y’all have some serious scarring from fundamentalists/evolution deniers/people who skipped 8th grade bio. As an archaeo-demography kid with a faith all my own and experience in bioanth; hugs and high fives- it’s going to be alright.

    Btw, as someone who watches political demographics, hard social conservatives, who also tend to be older, vote more consistently than liberals and moderates (and are more likely to ID with a party). This means the GOP runs really right because those folks control small elections and GOP primaries (they rarely have high turnout, comparable to Dem high turnout situations, but it’s consistent), like in 2010. That control makes our dialogue out of the GOP run further right than is naturally appealing to the typical regional and national majority, particularly on a Representative level (2 yr election cycles). So statistically, they aren’t a large group and are over represented in dialogue and government, but they use the system effectively and show up, while in most regions, moderates and liberals are less likely to register to vote or vote (luckily, b/c moderates and liberals outnumber conservatives at least 3:2, those who do show up are enough to make it appear close or in favor of sanity).

    Anyway, before I got sucked into that diatribe, I wanted to say it’d be interesting to run those behavioral experiments on consistent voters vs inconsistent/only high stakes elections voters to poke behind the stats, and maybe slam that against religious minded folks. The general anti fundamentalist rage of this ep seems like scientists might be into it.

    Also you’re left handed “rare and dangerous” spiel made me really happy. Feelin’ pretty good.

  • Thank you for the thought provoking episode. Being a man of faith myself as well as a lover of the sciences its important to take part in these conversations without putting your head in the sand lest you become bitter and ignorant. Einstein put it this way, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Not a religious man himself he did feel that Science is not trying to compete with religion/faith. Its not trying to do anything for as Cara put it, “it just is.” “Science explains what is, not what should be”… another Einstein quote.

    You guys may never read this but… Chris; clutch move on the last minute dick joke and thanks for the sensitivity you approached the subject. Sorry about your home state, coming from a Christian, Christianity should not be legislated. Cara, sorry for the haters, they act out of hate, not Love, and the lip ring looks great. And Jonah….well thanks for being Jonah. Nerd-On my brothers and sisters of Nerdom and peace be with you all.

  • I’ve listened to nearly every episode of Nerdist and this was the first one I tuned out in. The premise of talking down about faith without a worthwhile and reasonable objector in the room is fine. Just this isn’t the first time it’s happened, and I just had enough of it. Get someone reasonably smart and nerdy and full of faith like Rob Bell on here Chris. Please. Then perhaps you might have more respect for people who are prepared to be reasonable about their faith and the world around them. Any way it’s not gonna stop me listening to future episodes or anything, I love you guys and your shows, but it can get a bit much sometime even for someone who is pretty liberal about their faith, like I consider myself to be.

  • So glad to hear a not super famous voice on the podcast!
    AND a girl in the STEM field,
    AND a writer.
    As a propulsion/design engineer, its nice to hear that I’m not alone as a science/engineering girl with tattoos/the alternative look. While listening, all I could think about was how I would have loved to be involved in this conversation because some of these topics are things my friends and I enjoy discussing and new outlooks are always good.

    I feel the same way about science in this country and how its going; between the bible thumpers and the continued cutting of funding, I worry where we will land as far as technological superpower goes… if we don’t have the advanced, revolutionizing technology to keep us on top of the market, our economy will probably falter and struggle further.

  • @Chris Hardwick,
    I respect your opinion to not have religion. I also respect that this is your podcast and you can darn well do whatever you want with it. Usually when you get on the topic of religion, you try to get off of it very quickly to not stir a ruckus. You even commented that you wanted to get off of it, but it just wasn’t happening.
    You have your beliefs and I have mine. The people like Cara who can’t see how Creationism is compatible with science bother me. This is the first time I’ve had to turn off an episode of The Nerdist podcast, but I just couldn’t take any more religion bashing. I’m not going to stop listening, but just wanted to let you know.

    PS I know you sometimes chalk up people’s religious beliefs as having a low IQ, but I can assure you that mine is over 160, and I work in a highly mathematical field. Maybe that’s the problem? People with high IQ’s have switched from trying to put things together to trying to discredit ideas. I have chosen to reconcile religion and science, while the people in this episode have seemingly only attempted to discredit it.

  • I forgot to add, I figured out why Cara gets hate mail for “no reason.” She flaunts her atheism. It’s a fine line. In episodes, Chris expresses his beliefs, but tries to switch the topic quickly. Cara likes to bash on people with religious beliefs and give, “f&#$ you”s to creationists. I have not read any of her articles, but if her tone towards religion is the same there as in this podcast, I can exactly see why she gets hate mail. There will always be idiots, but most people of faith will respect your faith decisions as long as you’re willing to respect theirs.

  • I remember back in my days as an Undergrad I wrote a paper for a history class on Galileo and Giordano Bruno as a comparison of their controversial findings in astronomy, the church’s reactions, and how they reacted to the church. Suffice it to say, Galileo at least lived through his ordeal (Bruno was not so fortunate), but what I found very comforting was that Galileo was a firm believer in the melding of science and religion as two sides of the same coin. Galileo believed that it was the job of religion to explain what science found since science was the natural language of the universe. And through it all, Galileo remained a devout Christian – though I don’t know how much so after he was forced to recant.

    I bring this up because, at the time I was researching and writing that particular paper, I was still struggling with faith and religion and I was in my early twenties. Also, my grandmother was struggling with cancer which brought religion back into my life ten-fold since we had to go through last rites and the full mass that was her funeral where I was honored to give the eulogy. I distinctly remember telling the congregation that I envied my grandmother because I could only hope to have an iota of the faith she constantly expressed. She was good, decent, and kind, and though I got a heavy dose of Catholic guilt growing up, she never held anything against me as I was coming to terms with how I felt about religion and what my particular beliefs were and continue to be.

    I have a very analytically skeptical brain, most of which comes from being an historian where I have to look at things logically from a distance, which prevents me from fully giving myself to any strong religious beliefs, but I found an amazing amount of comfort when I traveled to several European churches a year after my grandmother passed away. I lit candels for her, said a prayer at St. Peter’s in Rome, but I mostly found the beauty of whatever form of spirituality I possess in the buildings created as monuments to faith. I’ll never be completely religious, but I think I’ve found a decent balance between the skeptical and spiritual parts of my psyche.

  • @ Ben Z

    Creationism is compatible with science?
    At least we can agree it isn’t science.
    Creationism starts with it’s end conclusion and seeks to validate that, ignoring anything that contradicts it. That is not how science works.

    Why don’t you head over to and see for yourself how creationism holds up to real science like evolution theory.

    • @any_evolutionist without any condescension I’m not a creationist, but the thing with evolution that always bugged me was the lack of proper evidence for a missing link. The creationists have some pretty good points on that at least in my opinion. Any good links? Thanks in advance.

  • Hi guys! I know I said I was done here, but this is just a quick reminder that neither the institutions of science or religion are monolithic. Not a message to anyone in particular — I feel this debate taking a slight turn toward the aggressive. Could be I’m reading incorrect emotions into a few of these, but blanket statements (ie: Religion is always… Scientists never…) are, by nature, always wrong.

    We live in a complicated burrito, everyone! And if we’re passionate enough to comment here, then I’m sure we’re all doing our best to eat our way through it without too much diarrhea. Let’s remember that!

  • Oh, and also, bring this debate over to @Matt Grandis’ blog! @Matt, @Doc, I, and even ol’ @Chris Hardwick have posted there! And I think we’ve made a good start to a more structured discussion. You can find the link to Matt’s site above.

  • @Josh
    Hang on Josh, this guy’s about to explain to me why somebody deserves to get hate mail for voicing an opinion. After than, unless it’s a really REALLY good explanation, you can get concerned about me taking a slight turn for the aggressive.

  • @Matt
    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you there, Matt. I think that this person’s stance (blame the victim) is a foolish, cowardly, cop out. What’s worse, this idea that people should just sit down and shut up when somebody attempts to intimidate them for doing nothing more than speaking their minds is a dangerous and all-too-prevalent point of view. We may not all agree about science and religion, but I think we can all agree on right and wrong, and that’s wrong.

  • You’re right. It’s just … *sigh* … why would anybody act so shitty? I’d *love* to simply ignore that. It’s just one stupid troll after all. But you’re absolutely right. We let it slip, it sets an example. Sorry for being ignorant.

  • You’re not ignorant, sir. Far from it. I love that smart people always think that they’re dumb and the least ignorant people are always calling themselves ignorant. :) If anything I should be apologizing for being sanctimonious.

  • My message wasn’t at you, @doc. If it turns out someone on this post wants to defend hate anything, I’m definitely ready to cowboy up! Join the posse! All that country-western jazz. Was just trying to give a general plug to cordiality. And a reminder to THAT dude that we’re all intelligent people here and can do better in the way we talk about things…

  • Sidenote-

    I’m midway through Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, and it’s a fantastic read. A little hard starting off, but it offers a great argument for natural morality.

    Also, I wish I had Cara Santa Maria as a neurobiology professor when I was still in college. I may have passed the class the first time around.

  • Oh Man, while I was really excited to hear this talk, and as Moderate-Right Christian fan of Nerdist, wasn’t opposed to her since side of things. I like things science… I lost her after my google search. Bill Maher? Eff that guy. I’m sorry. But, delete. #SingleTear

  • @XLCranium Yeah, I don’t like Bill Maher either (left of center religious Jew here) — his movie “Religulous”, in my opinion, is complete hooey. But still… I would hate to be judged based on the people I’ve dated, wouldn’t you? (I think the consensus is that they’re not together anymore) I say give the episode a chance, read the comments, check out our debate on @Matt Grandis’ blog ( and join in! I’ll bet anything you have some great opinions to add here.

    • @Josh , Yeah, That last post was a bit of sudden troll-ism on my part. I thought Cara was TOTALLY charming and engaging. Lord know if someone polled my EX’es I would cower. Apologies to Nerdist team and Ms. Santa Maria. I thought the dick jokes were perfect.

      I still don’t like Bill Maher though.

  • That was a brave move, @XL! Not everyone would post back like that. You’re freakin awesome, dude! Not to be a broken record — I so hope you check out @Matt’s blog. @NathanaelBenDavid just joined in … I think we’ve taken the conversation to amazing depths, well worth your time!

    • @Josh, I did actually check out the blog! Very thorough. @Matt’s blog is now a bookmark… Do I now have to make some Tall-Can-Induced comment then retract it on his page too? kidding. Imma do it anyway.

  • Love all your episodes but Cara, Neil and Philip have been the most interesting for me. Would love to hear them on the podcast again. Mythbusters still all-time favorite. kutgw.


  • I think I’m in love. One of the best episodes ever. Cara is awesome.

    Chris, you should get one of the guys [or a girl!] from Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. That and Nerdist are by far the best podcasts around, and they are all very smart and funny!

  • I’d love to hear an actual religion themed podcast on Nerdist. Chris, you’ve had Christians on the show before, I can think of at least 5 or 6, and yet faith or religion is never brought up at all. It’d be interesting to get one of those guys you respect on and have them open up a little, or find someone who fits the “Nerdist” description yet is also a Christian and can rationally discuss things.

    Unfortunately, you could put 40 atheists in a room and they’d have consensus, but if you put 40 Christians in a room, you’d have 40 different opinions…

    • I wouldn’t be so quick to say that StuartB I know too many atheists who can’t even agree on what an atheist is. I always figured there was a standard definition for it, but then I realised we’re human and nothing is standard.

      That said Chris I would love to hear you interview someone christian and nerdy like Rob Bell. Wow that would make my day.

      Anyway, keep on keeping on and the Brent Spiner episode was absolutely laughtastic!


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