Thomas Levenson on “The Hunt for Vulcan”

It was believed for decades that our Solar System had an extra planet, closer to the Sun than Mercury: the planet Vulcan. The planet doesn’t exist, of course, but it took quite a while to figure that out. Why is that? What does this episode say about science and how it works? Is this a laughable mistake or a blunder in the history of science, or was science doing its job?

Today we’ll be speaking with Thomas Levenson, whose new book, ‘The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe‘, addresses these questions while telling the compelling story of the “discovery” of a false planet.

Thomas Levenson is a professor at MIT and head of its science writing program. He is the author of several books, including ‘Einstein in Berlin’ and ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.’ He has also made ten feature-length documentaries (including a two-hour Nova program on Einstein) for which he has won numerous awards.

Whiteness, Racism, and The Economics of Cruelty

America is a racialized country. Built in part on chattel slavery predicated on a decidedly European model, the hegemonic power exists under the social construct known as Whiteness. If you are of that hegemony – or dominant group – you have access to many of the privileges this society has to offer. Of course there are other hegemonies in place: Male over Female, Straight or Cisgendered folks over LBGT folks, the Upper Class over the so-called Middle Classes – and both of those over the Working Classes and the Poor – Christians over other religious groups, and indeed religious groups over atheist and agnostic ones, and so on.

Over the course of US history, the tensions between those who dominate and are considered the “norm,” and those who are subordinated, has helped shape the culture and subcultures we now see. And this built in, often considered virtuous, hierarchical nature of our society determines the ways which resources are distributed and lives are lived.

In short, wealth leads to power and power leads to more wealth. We currently live in one of the most economically unequal society on the planet, which some argue is just what we should expect from late-stage Capitalism.

Today we will be speaking about what capitalism has wrought, as concerns the majority of the American population, and how being a highly racialized society is a big part of how we got to our current tragic circumstances. We will be speaking with a longtime friend of Equal Time, Tim Wise, and with someone I only recently discovered, Robin DiAngelo. Robin is the author of What Does it Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy. Tim’s new book is Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America.

Part two includes excerpts from Dr. Joseph Graves, author of The Race Myth, Peggy McIntosh, and a special segment on ISIS with excerpts from Noam Chomsky.

ETFF’s Membership-Drive Special: Merchants of Doubt!

Merchants of Doubt was one of the most talked-about climate change books of recent years, for reasons easy to understand: It tells the controversial story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. The same individuals who claim the science of global warming is “not settled” have also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.”

On this program we will be discussing both this book and the new Merchants of Doubt DVD, and play excerpts from the film as well as from our 2012 interview with one of the book’s author Naomi Oreskes. If you appreciate this kind of programming, please support WBAI this Autumn! If you enjoy Equal Time for Freethought – the only Secular Humanist/Atheist broadcast possibly anywhere in the nation!

Does Altruism Exist? A Conversation with Evolutionary Biologist, David Sloan Wilson

Altruism gets a bad rap in the US.  Concerning ourselves with the welfare of others, extending empathy to all citizens here and in other countries, and looking at humanity as one diverse, if complex, collective is something some of us give much lip service to while leading their self-concerned busy lives, and others actively try to squash if it means their small piece of the pie might be nibbled at.

Regarding both political and religious institutions, altruism is at best a Utopian fantasy or at worse – as so-called libertarians who embrace the philosophy of Ayn Rand – dangerous and an abomination.  Even scientists working in various fields – especially evolutionary psychologists – argue that altruism is not what it seems to be, and that true altruism as we tend to think about it does not exist in the human animal.

But others disagree, and disagree strongly.  Among scientists who have written in favor of pure altruism are primatologist Franz De Waal, neuroscientist Donald Pfaff, bioethicist Peter Singer, anthropologist Christopher Boehm, physicist Stefan Klein, psychologist Dacher Keltner, biopsychologist Nigel Barber, evolutionary anthropologist Douglas Fry, and today’s guest, biologist David Sloan Wilson — author of Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

Our Better Angels? Have humans turned over a new leaf?  A Discussion with Steven Pinker

Matthew LaClair interviewed evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker on his most recent work which includes an examination of his claim that humans have become more altruistic and less violent over the last 50,000 years.  Many contest this hypothesis — from social scientists to historians — and some have suggested that quite the opposite is the case.

We asked Dr. Pinker about his work in the hopes to better understand his argument and what is indeed the reality concerning human nature in this special LIVE program!

Roy Speckhardt and Carl Chudy on CommonGround2015 & Science Teacher, Dale Debakcsy

Up first, a discussion with secular humanist Roy Speckhardt of the American Humanist Association, and then Father Carl Chudy of Xaverian Missionaries on an all day conference at Rutgers University in New Brunswick on finding common ground between atheists/humanists and religious folks. For more information, please go to

Then we will be talking with Dale Debakcsy on two of his latest essays; one on the late philosopher Walter Kaufman, and the other on the New Age notion of BioCentrism.

Considering the Confederate Flag, Part Two

This Saturday on Equal Time for Freethought… after Matthew LaClair’s recent interview with South Carolina Representatives Jenny Horne (R) and Joseph Neal (D) on the Confederate Flag, voter ID laws, and religious tolerance, ETFF digs a bit deeper and speaks with life-long South Carolinian and Clemson University professor, Orville Vernon Burton.
Professor Burton is an expert on the South, focusing on race relations, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. He has written numerous books including The Age of Lincoln, has provided expert testimony in high profile voter ID cases including the South Carolina v Holder 2011 case, has previously served as president of the Southern Historical Association and the Agricultural History Society, and has received myriad awards for his work.
Prof. Burton listened to our show with the SC representatives, and gives us his take on the program as we address the issues of culture, law, and history of the South.

Greta Christina on Facing Death without God & Michael Lynch on The Importance of Reason in a Democracy

Death.  There is perhaps no other event in our lives which emotionally and psychologically affects us as strongly.  Trying to keep your head above water when a loved one dies can sometimes feel impossible; facing your own death?  Beyond impossible!  But these are what we are to expect as emotional creatures.  What many cultures and individual people do to soften the existential angst is to invent or follow one or another of the myriad super-natualistic religions.

But what if you are an atheist? Should we concede death to the Christians or Muslims?  How can WE face death without a belief in gods?

We will speak to Greta Christina on this first, and then for the second half of the program, we will talk with philosopher Michael Lynch about the important of reason and critical thinking for modern societies.

What IS reason?  When we say we should build people’s critical thinking skills, what do we mean?  And can a society be healthy and beneficial to all within it if the ideas and beliefs of leaders (and everyone for that matter) are based on falsehood or pure ideology?  Finally, how can we tell what is true and what is false?These questions and more will be discussed in our interview with Professor Lynch in the second half of today’s show.

“Peer Reviewed!” w/Sabine Hossenfelder

What is Science? Why is the peer review process important for keeping science the most reliable method for gaining knowledge on how things really are? Is science’s success best understood through the sensational discoveries we learn about in the media, or the day-to-day work of scientists everywhere — which may, occasionally, lead to such discoveries?

Today, E.T.F.F. will be taking a peak into the ordinary life of a peer-reviewer as she helps maintain the integrity of an extraordinary human endeavor–to understand the Universe. To do this, Xaquri Rzetelny will be talking with German quantum physicist Sabine Hossenfelder who in addition to her scientific work, runs a Blog in which she ‘peer reviews’ both fellow scientists’ work, and how this work is presented in the media.

A Discussion on the Confederate Flag in the 21st Century

The state of South Carolina has taken a positive step towards combating discrimination as state representatives came together to remove the Confederate flag from the State House lawn.  But other potentially discriminatory practices, such as voter ID laws and South Carolina’s constitutional prohibition on non-theists holding public office, remain intact.

On this weeks program, Matthew LaClair speaks with two members of the house of representatives: “white” Republican Jenny Horne and “black” Democrat Joseph Neal, who came together on the issue of the Confederate flag while disagreeing vehemently on related issues such as the voter ID laws.

You may recognize Rep. Horne from the passionate speech she delivered on the floor of the house on the Confederate flag issue.  We will ask her about this speech, her views on the Confederate flag — both before and after the shooting in Charleston, SC — her justification for passing a voter ID law that was proposed just a few weeks after the first black president was sworn into office, and her views on the South Carolina constitution.

Rev. Neal was chairman of the South Carolina Black Legislative Caucus back in 2000, when citizens gathered before the State House demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the State House dome.  The decision to remove it from the dome to a flag pole out front was challenged by Neal and the Black legislative caucus, where it remained until last month.  We will discuss this experience with Rev. Neal and asks him about the walkout staged by the 2009 Legislative Black Caucus in opposition to the voter ID bill.

Tune in this Saturday at 2PM on WBAI 99.5FM for this exciting discussion, and be sure to join us for our post-show discussion with Professor Orville Vernon Burton, who delivered expert testimony on behalf of the Department of Justice on the issue of South Carolina’s voter ID bill. Visit to listen to our conversation and learn about the legislative history of the voter ID laws, as well as his take on our program with Ms. Horne and Rev. Neal.