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The History of Knowledge

by Brian Dunning, Mar 24 2011

Nothing can say it as well as the video itself, so attend:


The History of Knowledge is Skeptoid’s third observance of the tradition of every 50th episode being a musical. For episode #150, Screwed!, I employed composer Lee Sanders to write a lavish Broadway piece. For episode #200, I used the ill-advised tactic of applying my own ignorance and lack of talent to the project, and produced Buy It!. This time, I got composer Peter Zachos (peterzachos.com) to knock it out of the park with a history not only of pseudoscience, but also of music.

We started by tossing around a few ideas. Peter’s idea was to visit several eras throughout history, but I was worried that trying to create 4 or 5 different songs would be too much work and put the deadline at risk. Then I realized Peter was talking not about 4 or 5 genres, but more like 15. Hmmm. I politely suggested alternatives that I thought were more attainable.

But he put together a demo tape, came by my house and played out some ideas on the piano, and I was hooked. In the end we whittled it down to 12 musical genres, each an example of how pseudoscience or bass-ackwards philosophies were popular in the day:

Caveman – Pagan superstitions
Gregorian chant – Astrology as medicine
Renaissance – Bodily humors
Opera – Magical objects
Americana – Dowsing
30s Jazz – Seances
40s Jazz – Sexism and segregation
Elvis – McCarthyism
60s Rock – The power of you
80s Pop – The power of me
Indie punk – Conspiracy theories
Autotune – Energy healing

Not that it’s a comprehensive list, but it’s a fun one. I quickly learned that writing 30 seconds or a minute of a song is little less work than writing the entire song. You still need all the elements. So, basically, we wrote 12 songs.

My main job was writing the lyrics. I’ve done this before, and it’s never been easy for me, and most of the results have been terrible. But for some reason, the muse was shining on me. I’m actually damned proud of most of it. The grunge, the flower power, the Elvis, they actually came together and sounded like actual songs from those eras. Peter wrote some too, the Renaissance and the 80s, and also tweaked all of mine to fit the music, and added lines or two where needed. It’s a pretty solid piece.

Peter had two jobs. First was to compose and perform and engineer all the music, and that was only the small job. The larger one was making it sound like I can sing. You’re actually hearing hardly any of my real voice in there, even though all the lead vocals throughout are mine. What you’re hearing is the combination of rough source material (me), Pro Tools, and a talented sound editor. Recording something rough, off key, and off beat, and watching it transformed into an actual lead vocal was (for me) a Master Class in how music is created these days. I would sing several takes, line by line, and Peter would pick and choose a word from this take, a consonant from that take, and blend them all together. It was really something else to watch.

Peter also sang all of the backup voices, and created The Skeptettes (to echo the Andrews Sisters) from a singer he works with named Liz (elizabethegan.com). A session guitarist was also brought in, who made child’s play out of any musical genre. For a muggle like me, it was really impressive to watch what real professionals are capable of.

Composing the music proved to be much easier than I had initially feared. Pop songs are pretty much made of Lego these days, and someone who’s handy with the craft can throw one together in minutes. “Oh, 90s grunge? (blop) There. How’s that?” “Oh, a Wagnerian opera? (glop) Bob’s your uncle.”

The full credits are at the end of the video. We presented this at the Skeptoid 250th Episode Party in Irvine on March 19, so Peter’s production assistant Kimberly put together a Powerpoint to display the lyrics for the crowd of about 140. That’s what you’re seeing in the video. I hope one day to do more with it; it’s a really neat piece of music and deserves a full blown music video. I’m going to start buying lottery tickets now.

I hope you enjoy it.

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24 Responses to “The History of Knowledge”

  1. Skepman says:

    Excellent peace of work! Well done. Thanks for the amusement and the equal amount of intellectual awesomeness.

  2. Patrick says:

    Well done, it was a bit of a change from the normal Skeptoid, but I liked it.

  3. Congratulations on the anniversary, Brian. What a titanic amount of work 250 episodes represents!

  4. Gem Newman says:

    I really, really enjoyed this episode! Normally, I’m not as fond of the musical episodes (because there tends to be less content) but this one was amazing; not only was it really well produced, but the lyrics were witty and the songs were catchy! Congrats on 250 episodes, Brian!

  5. Mat says:

    Awesome! It must’ve taken ages… Did you write the score too, Brian?

    • Mat says:

      Oops! I was so blown away by it I didn’t even see the prose of the piece. Obviously ignore that question… You can keep the praise though.

  6. Max says:

    I could tell that this was some professionally done stuff.
    I’m just afraid that conspiracy theorists will adopt the Green Day-sounding riff as an anthem. Oh, and I’d call it 90s pop punk rather than grunge.

    • Max says:

      Come to think of it, the original lyrics to “Basket Case” were already a good description of conspiracy theorists:

      Sometimes I give myself the creeps
      Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me
      It all keeps adding up
      I think I’m cracking up
      Am I just paranoid?
      Am I just stoned?

  7. tmac57 says:

    Well done Brian and Peter.Very slick and professional.I especially liked “60s Rock – The power of you” (very ‘Byrds’ like).The autotune piece was also pretty catchy.

  8. Bryan says:

    I really appreciate all the hard work that has gone into producing this…. wow!

    Thank you, Thank you, thank you :)

  9. Mand says:

    Loved it! And my kids thought it was great. Btw – my six year old can do a great Brian Dunning impersonation :)

  10. John Draeger says:

    Awesome! Highly entertaining. Brian, your work is greatly appreciated.

  11. Karla McLaren says:

    Oh nicely done, and the coloratura in the Opera bit is fab!! Also loved the 40s vocals, and I’m not sure, but I think the Autotune aligned my meridians! Wait, are they supposed to be aligned?!

  12. Robo Sapien says:

    This was so amazing that I think it admonishes Brian from all of his sins done on the payroll of Big Everything.

  13. Robo Sapien says:

    What to do in a world of woo?
    Brian Dunning will carry us through!

  14. Tim says:

    “It’s me me me..’ I have never heard a more fitting summary of the 1980s ideology.

  15. Gem Newman says:

    How difficult would it be to release this in iTunes? I know that I would buy it!

  16. Citizen Wolf says:

    Excellent work.

    Did you mean to spell Rhine in the German way? Just say yes.. :)

  17. Carol says:

    My family and I had the pleasure of attending the 250th party in Irvine. A great night, everything we expected. Thanks Brian.

    The Wolfe Pack
    Brian, Carol, Thomas and Zack

  18. Jeff Wagg says:

    Umm.. I’ve been so caught up in the stupid controversy that I didn’t even listen to this. It’s freakin’ brilliant! Well done Brian… you are one of the few producers in this movement.

  19. Jeff says:

    Awesome Brian. Fools who can’t get past the art… the CONTENT is fabulous (and so is the cover)!

  20. Guy McCardle says:

    Genius. Entertained me as well as making me laugh and think. Homerun.