Wendy Zukerman, creator, host and science journalist, Science Vs

Just ask – “Fracking, good or not?”, “GM tomatoes, would you eat them?” or “G-Spot, do you have one?” – and watch the fun ...

Have you every wondered if organic food is really better than conventional? If antidepressants really work? If the G-spot is a real thing? Well you needn’t wonder any more – Wendy Zukerman has made it her personal mission to uncover the truths behind these everyday questions using the power of science. The ever-curious science journalist is the creator of podcast Science Vs, which uncovers what is fact and what is fiction in the topics that divide the opinionated set. What Wendy believed would be a fun side project to work on for Australia’s ABC soon escalated into something huge, achieving more than one million downloads in its first season. In 2016, Science Vs was picked up by Gimlet Media – you may know its shows StartUp, Reply All and Mystery Show – which saw her and her editor move to New York City and the show achieve global success. In between her investigations, we caught up with Wendy to chat fascinating discoveries, mind control and Pop Rocks …

Can you remember what the first scientific fact to blow your mind was?
The first scientific fact to blow my mind was probably when I worked out that Pop Rocks (a lolly that pops in your mouth!) worked by reacting with your saliva, not just any fluid. It was a little experiment we did with the family.

When did you know that you wanted to incorporate science into your career?
At first, I wanted to be a political journalist or a war correspondent. When I was younger, that sounded so romantic. So, at university, I started pitching political stories to editors – but no one returned my emails! (What a surprise! They weren’t interested in the political rantings of an 18 year old). I switched tactics and started pitching science stories. Suddenly, my emails were getting returned and I was publishing pieces. My first story was about the science of sexuality. I soon realised that science is so much more interesting than politics – I get to report on evidence-based ideas.

For those who haven’t come on the aural journey of scientific exploration with you, can you tell us a bit about your podcast Science Vs?
Science Vs is a podcast that looks at the science behind everyday ideas. Does gun control save lives? Is fracking that dangerous? Should you be an attachment parent? To answer these questions, we scour the literature, speak to the experts and then, best of all, deliver our findings with good humour. The show is fun to listen to.

What inspired you to undertake such a project?
I’ve always loved myth busting and looking at the evidence behind people’s closely held opinions. So, when Kaitlyn Sawrey at the ABC (now my senior producer at Gimlet Media) approached me, asking to me to pitch a science-based podcast, Science Vs popped in my head immediately.

The first season of Science Vs quickly racked up more than a million downloads – how did it feel to discover that there were so many science-hungry listeners out there?
I was amazed. It was so remarkable. I didn’t expect any of it! I knew people loved science, but I didn’t know that they would like the way I presented it. I thought Science Vs would be a fun thing to do for a few months – and that’s it! But it has completely changed my career and my life. After the first season with the ABC, it was picked up by Gimlet Media in New York City, and that’s where I am now. (It just snowed last night!)

Gimlet Media is a pretty big backer of excellent podcasts. What was the biggest change that came about as a result of linking up with Gimlet?
Moving to Gimlet Media has meant that I now have a team of people to help me create Science Vs. At the ABC, I was producing the show practically on my own, with the remarkable Kaitlyn Sawrey as my editor. Now, Science Vs has an intern, two reporters, an editor – and Kaitlyn is my senior producer. There are also resources to go travelling, so that I can meet the people affected by the issues we are reporting on. I feel very lucky. Last month I went to the US/Mexico border, for our upcoming show on immigration.

How do you decide what to research and discuss on the podcast?
We often use the ‘Science Vs pub test’ – if you said the topic in a pub with your mates, would most of them have a strong opinion on it, despite not doing any research in the area? Try it out! Just ask – “Fracking, good or not?”, “GM tomatoes, would you eat them?” or “G-spot, do you have one?” – and watch the fun.

What’s the most unusual topic you’ve explored or experience you’ve had while researching for the show?
We’ve had a few out-of-the-box topics. One of the most surprising topics from last season was hypnosis. We dove into the research to try to get to the bottom of what it is and whether people on stage are just faking it. By the end, we’d found ourselves sifting through declassified CIA documents from the Cold War.

In your opinion, what frontier of science is producing the most fascinating discoveries?
There are so many fascinating areas of science, but to name a few … I think the discoveries being made about the bugs that live on and in the body, and how they interact with our mental and physical being is really exciting. The preliminary research suggesting the blood of young mice rejuvenates the brains of old mice also amazes me. Plus, the announcement of a discovery of new exoplanets always leaves you with a sense of wonder. Then there’s the research into how parasites ‘control’ the minds of their hosts …

Speaking of fascinating discoveries, is there still a phenomenon that has yet to be explained by science that you’d love to see an explanation for?
Science is constantly advancing, in fact, there are few phenomena that we can fully say, “we’ve got it, move on”. Still, I would love to see science understand depression better. We did an episode on antidepressants, specifically asking how they work and whether they are just dummy pills. Throughout the research I was surprised at how little science understands about this condition. The idea that depression is merely a ‘chemical imbalance’ that needs fixing has been found to be deeply inadequate.

If someone is jonesing for a science fix in the time between seasons of Science Vs, what are some good resources to keep the education going?
I love giving people good resources for science education! There is so much bad information on the internet – and people forget that Google is not an encyclopedia, its algorithms don’t necessarily feed you with accurate information from reliable sites. For good science, my favourites are New Scientist Magazine (I used to work there, so I know how seriously they take their editorial!), Science Magazine and, of course, Dr Karl.

Can you give us a sneak peek of what to expect for the next season of Science Vs?
We’ve got some really exciting stories on our plate for next season. We’re exploring the economic and criminal effects of immigration, the potential health effects of artificial sweeteners and you’ve got to tune in to find out the rest. The next season starts in March!


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