Wendy Zukerman is an Australian-American science journalist and host of the podcast Science Vs from Gimlet Media. Since 2015, the podcast has taken on fads, trends, and popular opinion to separate the facts from the fluff — with a healthy dose of humor.
Wendy was nominated by The Podcast Academy for Best Host at the inaugural Ambies Awards this month. Over more than 150 episodes, topics have included gun control, psilocybin mushrooms, ghosts, climate change, and of course, the coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci joined the show multiple times since October 2019.
Wendy was kind enough to sit down for a chat and offer podcasting insights on production, the importance of making both sides of an argument angry, and why humor can help us welcome difficult truths we may otherwise be reluctant to accept.
What you’ll learn:
- Humor’s role in blending education and entertainment
- Wendy’s process for taking complicated ideas and making them digestible for a podcast audience
- How your listeners can provide checks and balances for your show
- The importance of adjusting your interview pre-screening process to fit particular circumstances
- How creative storytelling is shaping the way science reaches the mainstream
Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and content.
What was your original intent for Science Vs?
I really wanted to make a show that was funny and enjoyable to listen to, but at the same time, was tackling these big issues people had in their lives — and was using science as the tool to tackle them. When I started Science Vs, the Paleo diet was really big.
I really wanted to make a show that was funny and enjoyable to listen to, but at the same time, was tackling these big issues people had in their lives — and was using science as the tool to tackle them.
Season 1 — which feels like a million years ago, back in the Paleolithic times — people were genuinely curious, like, ‘Should I be eating like the Paleolithic people?’ And with a very genuine question of ‘Will this make me healthier? Will this make me live longer?’ I wanted to help people understand the science and not make it feel like homework.
How has the growth of the show influenced its production?
We now have resources we didn't have at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And so it's gotten bigger, and the sound has changed. Our fact-checking is way more detailed than it was in Season 1, just because we have these amazing resources. I think this show has gotten better and it's more interesting to listen to. But that sort of DNA of using humor and joy to explain science that people care about, I think that that has remained a core part of the show.
It's interesting that humor plays such a big role in a science show. What role do you think humor plays in teaching?
I think it's actually really important. I think when we're telling people their firmly held beliefs are not necessarily based on science, that is a tricky thing to hear, particularly when you might be doing the dishes or driving to work. You're not sitting down to a lecture from your parents, you know, you're doing this for enjoyment.
When we're telling people their firmly held beliefs are not necessarily based on science, that is a tricky thing to hear, particularly when you might be doing the dishes or driving to work.
I think it can make people quite defensive depending on the topic, depending on how much they care about it, how much they thought the science was on their side — even if it's not.
Humor is this really important way to bring your defenses down, to make it clear that the purpose is not to make you, as a listener, feel bad about it. It's just like, we're all in this together.
I think the best teachers I've had, there's always some element of humor in their teaching style. And that’s stuck with me. Even the most difficult lessons, because of the little twist, made me open up. And in a way, I guess I felt less vulnerable about what was to come.
I think so. I think because you're laughing a little you're feeling good. And if you're laughing at the joke, you were listening to the science rather than tuning out. So I think that's really important. Another thing humor does as well is it keeps things interesting. On the show, we try to reduce the amount of broccoli we're giving people. And though I do like broccoli, having humor just makes it more fun to listen to.
During the peak of the coronavirus, there was a lot of fearmongering. I think we really tried to avoid that and use humor where we could. Then it had a different purpose. Because then it wasn't about lowering people's defenses and making them feel less vulnerable. Then it was about hey, this is a very scary time and there are unknowns, but that doesn't mean we can't still try to just enjoy the science.
Humor is this really important way to bring your defenses down, to make it clear that the purpose is not to make you, as a listener, feel bad about it.
It was such a horrible time, but we were still trying to laugh, you know, it was an opportunity for wonder rather than just horror. Because that's what people do. I go to funerals and I still try to make people laugh because that's humanity. There's ups and downs and I think a lot of the stuff I was listening to was really doom and gloom. And we tried to make it like yes, this is horrible, but we still have to live and learn. So then humor had a different purpose.
Have your listeners responded to that humor in a positive way?
Yeah, definitely. Particularly during the coronavirus. We had a nurse getting in touch who was saying this was the only coronavirus content she listened to because she was in it. She was in the hospitals, she knew how bad it was. But she still just wanted to be able to learn what the science was. And she wanted to have a smile on her face while doing it.
Where we had the most negative feedback about the coronavirus coverage was when we started talking about how serious it was. On one episode, we looked at what was happening in Sweden. There were these big cultural wars around ‘Why can't we be like Sweden’ and Sweden was like, ‘You’re basically doing what we are doing.’ We had one doctor who I think just came off his shift and said ‘If we don't socially distance now, many more people will die and this will turn into something truly horrible.’ We immediately caveated it because some people on the team were like ‘Oh, that sounds like he's fearmongering a little too much. He's right, but the death rate isn't like ebola or something.’
We immediately calculated the figures and mentioned that it doesn't mean this will become War of the Worlds, but it does mean more people will die. And still we had listeners saying that was too much. You know, that it was fearmongering. The moment we started saying this thing is scary, people didn't like that. So I guess it's a balance.
Does your audience typically act in that way? As a checks and balances for the show?
Oh, always. I know we've done a good job when we make both sides angry. That's my role. The vast majority of listeners don't get in touch and just keep listening. And we have very lovely, lovely stories of people who vaccinated their children because they listened to an episode about vaccinations.
I know we've done a good job when we make both sides angry. That's my role.
We had another episode about the aerosols that the coronavirus could be in, could be in the air, which we now know. But at the beginning of the pandemic that was sort of uncertain. And then a listener passed it on to her relative who was building a hospital. And they used that information to make sure the toilets were designed in a certain way.
But to go back to the negatives, we definitely have people who sometimes do not like the messages on the show. On a recent episode, we looked at the history of the word “moron.” There were a lot of elements to that story, but it was really about the history of eugenics. And we used the language of science from the early 1900s that classified people into certain levels of intelligence. Part of the point of the episode was to use that language, which is incredibly offensive today. They would be categorizing people like you're a “moron” as if that was an official category of science, and you're an “imbecile” and you're an “idiot.” Nowadays, those words mean different things, they're just insulting. But back then, it was science.
On our Instagram, we had people being like, ‘Why would you continue to use that language throughout the piece?’ And then another person who was like, ‘But that was the whole point.’ So I'm like, okay, we've done good, we've done good.
The whole point was that you're supposed to feel a certain way listening to it. You were supposed to feel this emotion because that's what we're trying to do.
The whole point was that you're supposed to feel a certain way listening to it. You were supposed to feel this emotion because that's what we're trying to do. And if we just used modern language, you wouldn't feel anything.
Do you have a process for taking complicated ideas and breaking them down to their simplest form for your listeners?
Step one is getting talented academics on the show that can explain it well. When I ask them to explain electromagnetic energy to me like I'm in high school, they can do that. So that’s the first step. And then it's also making sure we're asking the right questions to get that tape. When they answer that question, we're really asking ourselves, ‘Was that clear? Do we now understand electromagnetic energy?’
I think the team's really good at being honest with us. No one's trying to be clever. No one's trying to be like, ‘Well of course I understood that.’ Whenever I write a script, the whole team will be like, ‘This is confusing. We still don't get it, write it better.’ And we keep that honesty for each other. In the second stage of writing scripts, we're always on each other like, ‘Is this truly clear?’ I think that's a super important part of the process.
In the second stage of writing scripts, we're always on each other like, ‘Is this truly clear?’ I think that's a super important part of the process.
Do you pre-screen your interviewees to make sure they're the right person for the show?
Yeah, definitely. During the height of the pandemic, our screening process had to adjust because we were working on such tight timelines. And a lot of the academics were either researching the coronavirus, or in hospitals treating patients and they didn't have time to do a 15-minute call with a podcast and then a follow-up chat. That wasn't going to be happening. So we were kind of going blind. If they weren't good talkers, then we would just cut the tape. We were chatting with maybe five, to sometimes more than a dozen, academics before we found someone who made the final cut of the show.
I have one last question for you. Where do you see the future of science in podcasting?
Oh, that's a really fun question. In many ways, podcasting is a mirror to real news on the internet. You have some really high quality stuff, where people are trying to get the truth out there. And then you have just people on the mic, having a chat, and putting it out and calling the show, you know, “science.”
I think there's been some headline news about podcasts that have gotten it wrong, and the facts have been totally wrong in the same way that you have rubbish on the internet. And then you have good news sites.
In many ways, podcasting is a mirror to real news on the internet.
But I do think we're seeing more and more science shows that are really trying to explain science in really fun ways. When Science Vs started, there weren’t too many shows like that, though obviously we had Radiolab, the OG, the grandmother of basic science fun in podcasting. But there weren’t too many more.
I was just chatting to a friend in Australia who makes Patient Zero. In that podcast, he’s basically using the true crime format to explore science. You know, like a whodunit, but instead of someone going missing, it's a virus that's popped up out of nowhere. And so we're seeing all these cool elements of journalism, and different ways that we're seeing podcasting and storytelling grow, then getting applied to science. I think we're gonna see a lot more of that in the future, which will be super cool.