Our Town: Talking philosophy | March 5, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

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Notes & Comments - March 5, 2008

Our Town: Talking philosophy

by Don Kazak

John Perry and Ken Taylor adjust their large microphones while their producer, Ben Manila, flashes them a "30 sec" sign through a window from the control room.

Philosophy Talk is about to go on the air again at KALW (91.7 FM), a public radio station in San Francisco.

Perry and Taylor aren't typical talk-radio hosts. They don't rant and don't belittle callers. That would be unseemly for Stanford University philosophy professors.

Their show, which airs at 10 a.m. Sunday, is "the show that questions everything," Taylor tells listeners as it begins.

Last Sunday's show was on "science versus pseudo-science." It included a guest via phone, Stuart Vyse, who teaches psychology at Connecticut College. Vyse's recent book is about superstition.

The two Stanford professors have done more than 160 shows on KALW over the last four years. Some explore pure philosophical ideas. Others are less lofty.

While Taylor and Perry start the show, with Vyse waiting to be introduced, Zoe Corneli of the KALW news staff sits at a telephone switchboard, waiting for listeners to call.

For a while, things are quiet.

Taylor rhetorically asks Perry, why should they, as professors, decide what is science and what isn't?

Perry replies that science is provable, pseudo science isn't.

"There's a right and a wrong," Perry adds, "and we're right and they're wrong."

Two of their researchers and other staff smile from inside the control room.

It's getting good.

Then Vyse says something disparaging about astrology and the phone lines light up, with Corneli trying to field a half-dozen calls almost at once, making a list of callers who want to go on the air.

Lucie from Daly City wants to know if religions, especially fundamentalist versions, are pseudo science.

"You're giving science a bad name" by criticizing astrology, John from Oakland tells them.

David from Hayward insists "reincarnation is a fundamental part of reality."

Perry and Taylor are thoughtful with their callers. It may be talk radio, but it's Philosophy Talk radio.

"Why do irrational thinking and superstition have such a grip on the human mind?" Perry asks, and they and Vyse kick around variations on that theme for a while.

The hour-long show goes well, with some lively discussion. Not all callers could be squeezed in before the end.

Perry, who has taught at Stanford since 1974, originally got the idea for a philosophy radio show while listening to the popular Car Talk program on public radio. If cars could be made interesting, why not philosophy, he wondered.

But it wasn't until he approached Taylor, who arrived at Stanford in 1995, that he found an enthusiastic partner. With Stanford's help, they did a pilot show and then took the tapes to a large PBS radio convention, trying to interest others.

Manila, an independent radio producer based in San Francisco, was interested.

Now, Perry and Taylor have five student researchers who help develop questions and schedule guests.

Perry and Taylor also make gentle fun of themselves as part of academia.

"What's does science tell us about the meaning of life?" Perry asks later. "Not much. It's hard to look at the starry heavens and not believe that they have some meaning."

"What is truth, what is beauty?" Taylor asks with a shrug.

"We do pure philosophy shows and they work pretty well," Taylor adds. They tell the story of one listener, who they learned later was sitting in his car in his driveway one Sunday morning taking notes on the show.

"We haven't run out of ideas yet," Taylor said.

While most of their shows are live, they do road trips in front of audiences, which are recorded and replayed later.

They are finishing the details of a plan to do eight shows at a small San Francisco theater that will be recorded and played back later.

The two are especially popular when they do shows in front of audiences in Oregon.

"We're rock stars in Oregon," Taylor deadpanned.

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.

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