Shame On HowStuffWorks

Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know is the latest podcast from the popular Discovery Channel owned website HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks is a website well known for producing quality science articles explaining, obviously, how stuff works. I often use the site as a reference, and as inspiration, for my podcast The Reality Check. Much of their content has science/skepticism to back it up, but unfortunately some articles, such as this one on pet psychics, are a bit lacking. While it’s unfortunate for a few crummy articles to slip through, even the worst articles tend to have some solid skepticism. The pet psychic article, for example, had a good description of cold reading. The site also produces ‘rich media’ such as videos and podcasts. Most of their podcasts are well produced, informative, and entertaining. Their flagship podcast Stuff You Should Know, is one that I regularly recommend to friends due to the fact that it is usually well researched and entertaining.
The reason why I’m giving HowStuffWorks all this praise is to try to convey to you the disappointment with which I was faced when I discovered their latest podcast Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know. (Note: The hyperlink takes you to an RSS feed because I failed to find any kind of web page or blog for the podcast. In fact, I failed to find any reference to it on the entire HowStuffWorks website. You may need to open the link in a podcast program such as iTunes). The podcast is basically a short 5 minute conspiratorial rant that is full of twisted facts, logical fallacies, and debunked claims. Every episode is broken down into two main sections: a section ironically titled “Here Are The Facts”, and the aptly named “And Here Is Where It Gets Crazy”. The “fact” section rarely contains any facts (and neither does the latter section). It usually contains assertions covered with weasle words such as “many people believe” or presents assertions within questions. This is a cowardly way to avoid criticism by appearing neutral when actually promoting these ridiculous views.
Even when the show contains facts, they are presented in misleading ways. In the fluoridation episode, for example, the narrator states that fluoride is used to describe “compounds derived from the poisonous gas fluorine.” Yes, it’s true that fluorine is poisonous, but so is chlorine. Salt (i.e. sodium chloride) is necessary for human survival, but people recognize it is only harmful if consumed in large doses. Nearly every sentence uttered is false or misleading in some way. It would take multiple blog entries to debunk even just one episode of this short podcast. The narrator also consistently refers to the rational view (i.e. the scientific consensus) as “the government” and presents the conspiracy views as “some researchers”. They are obviously feeding into people’s distrust of the government, and are overplaying the credentials of conspiracy theorists. They ignore the fact that “the government”, at least with fluoride, is acting on the advice of scientists and health experts. Just because a government holds a certain view, it doesn’t mean that it is wrong (or right).
The show is presented with a spooky soundtrack, a monotone “private investigator” style voice, and somewhat disturbing visual imagery. These just add to the fear and tension that the makers of the podcast obviously intend. They’re clearly trying their damnedest to scare the crap out of viewers. Generally, it’s fine to scare people. Hollywood has been doing this for years with horror films, and we all love telling ghost stories around camp fires. It’s all good fun. What is not fun is to convince people that their government is poisoning them with fluoride, or controlling them with chem trails. They also spread the myth that the world will end in 2012. These real world fears have consequences. I know someone that only drinks bottled water due to fluoride fears. The reviews on iTunes are largely divided, with nearly an equal number of 5 star and one star reviews. The five stars largely consist of people defending the podcast as being “entertaining” or “mysterious”. Excuse me, but I don’t think it is entertaining to spread lies and misinformation.

The shame about this podcast is that it could so easily have been a tool to educate people instead of misinform. If only they used their slick production quality to draw people into the “mysteries”, but then reveal the science and explain how things actually are, with proper references (as it is, there are no references). I encourage HowStuffWorks to reconsider producing this podcast. They should either redesign it to include much better science or drop it entirely. If this was just yet another paranormal or conspiracy podcast, I would have gladly ignored it. But due to its popularity (ranked #4 in the podcast section of the Canadian iTunes store) and the fact that HowStuffWorks has put its skill and resources behind it, it deserves massive criticism. I believe that this podcast greatly undermines the good name and brand that HowStuffWorks has worked to develop over the past decade. The people at HowStuffWorks are smarter and better than this. They should really know better, and for that, shame on them.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.