“Very Bad Wizards is a podcast with the philosopher, my dad, and psychologist, Dave Pizarro, having an informal discussion about issues in science and ethics. Please note that the discussion contains bad words that I’m not allowed to say and, knowing my dad, some very inappropriate jokes.”
This is the disclaimer at the start of Very Bad Wizards, which is my favourite informal academic podcast. I’ve already written about Conversations with Tyler, which is my favourite rapid-fire academic interview podcast. I would have written about the 80,000 Hours podcast, but their content is already so meta that I wouldn’t add much by talking about my favourite episodes.
Very Bad Wizards is hosted by Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, and David Pizarro, a psychologist at Cornell. The format is like this: there is an opening segment, where Tamler poses a rhetorical question to Dave, or where they discuss funny issues related to the news and academia. Then in the second segment, the hosts interview an academic, or discuss a book, film, or paper. Here are the best episodes to start with, sorted by the subject of their discussion.
Book and short story episodes
The co-hosts discuss Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, which is a critique of utilitarianism (I also recommend Sam Harris’ discussion of it). They also do a round of ‘guilty confessions’, a recurring segment.
Dave and Tamler discuss one of the strangest and most interesting books in the Bible, The Book of Ecclesiastes. It came as a shock to me that there are parts of the Bible that throw into question whether God even exists, whether heaven is real, whether the God is the only God, and so on. From this podcast Ecclesiastes comes across almost nihilist. A friend tells me that there is a more Christian interpretation here, but that Ecclesiastes is indeed one of the most unusual books of the Bible. They also make fun of an article from Aeon (an endless source of silly philosophy articles) about compersion.
They discuss a VBW favourite, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and his most famous short story, The Library of Babel. You should read the original story. Borges’ stories are open to interpretation in the good way, so they make for great discussions. They also have a hilarious discussion about the Ashely Maddison leak.
Dave and Tamler both talk about their five favourite books, which is a great source of recommendations. It also shows something I find unreasonably hilarious – that Tamler always breaks the rules of their top five list by including something from a different category or having ties. The podcast has definitely gotten better over time, hence why so many of these featured episodes are recent. But one great thing about the earlier episodes is that the co-hosts get pissed off at each other at the drop of a hat.
Best intro segments
In the main segment, they discuss William James’ account of instinct in The Principles of Psychology with classic VBW guest Paul Bloom. In the intro segment, Dave and Tamler take a peep into the weird and horrible world of “orgasmic meditation”.
Tamler complains about how the Dunning-Kruger effect, like so many findings in psychology, has become a misunderstood tool for liberals to bludgeon conservatives over the head with. They also discuss an evolutionary psychology article which argues that poor and hungry men prefer women with big breasts. Are there not many differences between rich and poor men? Does this not imply that fat guys should be incredibly sexually desirable? Is this a good use of public research funding? If you wanted the answers to these questions, you’re reading the wrong paper.
Dave’s daughter and Tamler’s daughter have a confrontation about what it’s like having dads with a podcast. Dave and Tamler also make fun of that webapp from MIT that presents people with dilemmas about self-driving cars in honour of making it to 100 episodes.
In this recent episode Dave and Tamler discuss Meditations on Moloch, which is the most famous essay by the blogger Scott Alexander. The essay is about coordination problems, and how the world is so screwed up despite how most people have good intentions most of the time.
Einstein’s relativity implies that time is a dimension just like the three spatial dimensions. If we turn a physical object sideways, it retains all the same properties. But if we turn a piece of music sideways (?) through time (??) it is no longer the same piece of music. Therefore, Einstein is wrong about spacetime. Dave and Tamler discuss a real philosophy paper written by a real person that makes this argument.
Best guest appearances
Yoel Inbar is a VBW favourite and co-host of the great (and similar) podcast Two Psychologists Four Beers. He comes on the show to discuss Gogol’s bizarre 1836 short story ‘The Nose’.
This discussion is about the Gorgias, one of Plato’s lesser-known dialogues, with the University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard. She’s a great interviewee.
Tamler Sommers’ stepmother is the professional anti-PC public intellectual Christina Hoff Sommers, with whom he has… many disagreements. It became a VBW annual tradition for them to record a podcast together while drunk at Thanksgiving and try to iron out their differences.
The great debate: which is better, The Big Lebowski or Pulp Fiction? Outcome unclear. The primary source of tension in my relationship is that my girlfriend thinks The Big Lebowski is bad 😦
I don’t generally enjoy the film episodes nearly as much, because I usually haven’t seen the film, and I’m usually not bothered to watch it just to listen to a podcast. But Vertigo is a phenomenal film which I have actually seen, and I found their discussion enlightening.
The psychologist Paul Bloom is famous for writing the contrarian (and excellent) book Against Empathy. So, it was only fitting that they brought him on to discuss the best films about empathy. They’ve done a number of favourite film episodes, giving their top five films about topics like revenge and personal identity.