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“Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcast fails utterly; crumbles under own incompetence

by Brian Dunning, Apr 29 2010

Sketchy looking back-alley characters like this are what set the SGU apart from legitimate science journalism.

I had, until quite recently, always held The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast in high esteem. It was usually entertaining, frequently skeptical, and the information presented was often correct.

Sadly, that reliability has now all but crumbled completely away. I first noted this disintegration when I was listening to an episode a few weeks ago. They were, as they often do, discussing fake foreign accents — a topic of grave concern, and far reaching implications. They were unified in their disdain for “Brian Dunning’s terrible German accent.”

I received a number of reports that they repeated this charge during the recent live recording during the NECSS conference. Suspiciously, this specific line was edited out of their broadcast version. The point at which the edit was made can be heard during their obligatory “fake German accent” segment of that show, which begins at approximately 47:30.

The problem is that I did not recall ever attempting a German accent in any public forum; except once, seventeen years ago, which can be heard in the last five seconds of this video.

Curious to know the source of this bizarre claim, I turned Skeptoid’s impressive resources loose. And, with such a powerful weapon brought to bear, the true facts were soon uncovered. Does Brian Dunning indeed have a terrible German accent? Read on.

Some months ago, I was contacted by Richard Saunders of The Skeptic Zone podcast for a small favor. He was doing a piece on Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy. The piece was to be in the form of “The Diary of Samuel Hahnemann”. Richard asked me to record a short introduction, which I did, in which a fanciful tale was told: That Hahnemann’s diary had recently been discovered. This introduction was presented in my normal Skeptoid speaking voice, and can be heard at 27:30 in The Skeptic Zone #71. I sent the introduction to Richard, and then thought no more about it.

When the show was completed and came out, my introduction was followed by a satirical, comical German-accented voice of Hahnemann reading from his diary. I heard one listener describe the voice as similar to that of Dr. Strangelove. Clearly, this was what had so rocked The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and sent them into their insane, self-destructive spiral of obsession with fake German accents.

Richard Saunders, the actual perpetrator

Richard Saunders, the actual perpetrator

But who had recorded that voice? I made some inquiries, and it became clear that a misinformation campaign was afoot. I was pointed down a number of false trails by Skeptic Zone contributor Kylie Sturgess: The Pseudo Scientists, the Young Australian Skeptics, and even Skeptic Zone presenter Dr. Rachael Dunlop. Finally, I went straight to the source, and asked Richard directly who had performed Hahnemann’s voice. I give here his emailed reply in its entirety:

Ummm…. me.

The mystery was thus solved, and SGU’s claim was rent asunder. In that same moment, I was exonerated, and resumed my place as a shining beacon of unerring infallibility, tolerance, and sensitivity to all foreign accents.

The repercussions have been staggering. A YouTube video reveals that SGU host Dr. Steven Novella does not practice medicine, and has been both disbarred and defrocked. Listeners are reeling from the controversy, and it’s now widely acknowledged that The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe can no longer be trusted to provide unbiased or well-researched information.

And so, rest in peace, SGU. You had a good run, but failed to recognize the need for at least rudimentary quality control.

P.S. for the uninitiated reader – This post is all in fun. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is awesome. The basic facts of this case are true, however.

P.P.S. – In another Skeptic Zone episode I recorded an announcement of Richard Saunders’ upcoming visit to California, in a burlesque Australian accent that purported to be Richard’s own voice. This was widely panned as a horrible Australian accent. However, in my own defense, it was not actually intended as an impersonation of Richard or of any real Australian accent, but rather as a parody of the popular American stereotype of what we think Australians sound like. And, in that context, I still maintain that it was impeccable.

58 Responses to ““Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcast fails utterly; crumbles under own incompetence”

  1. PaulRugg says:

    “I still maintain that it was impeccable.”

    In dingo’s eye, matie!

  2. Thom Hixenbaugh says:

    Bravo, although I find it sad that you had to put in the PS. When I read the link “SKEPTICS’ GUIDE TO THE UNIVERSE” PODCAST FAILS UTTERLY” I was instantly ummm what’s it called? Ohh yeah skeptical.

  3. Mchl says:

    I also recall an episode of ‘The Skeptic Zone’ that starts with ‘You’re listening to Skeptoid. I’m Brian Dunning from skeptoid dot com’. Since I was prepared to listen to Australian accent, this caught me by a surprise. Definitely worst Australian accent ever. ;)

  4. Grania says:

    Hehehe, very funny!
    We’re all very fond of the Rogues’ dire attempts at accents, and the worse it gets the more we love ‘em.

    As the offspring of a British mother & a German father it is hard to choose which is more outrageous, but I think I’ll settle for saying they are equal opportunities offenders.

  5. mathyoo says:

    How funny. I’m looking forward to the next SGU to see what they have to say about it.

  6. Tanewha says:

    Stimmt, es war keinen deutschen Akzent, aber echtes bayrisch.

  7. kBartlez says:

    For a brief moment, I thought I had traveled back in time to April the 1st. Thanks for the laugh.

  8. Rachael says:

    You know, Brian, adding those post scripts in just takes away half the fun. And here I was, looking forward to the outrage (OUTRAGE, I say!) from potential commenters who think you’ve had your sense of humor surgically removed. :-D

    Cute post. ;)

  9. Stephon says:

    I believe this was an honest error; your Aussie accent is so horrendous that the SGU, suffering from auditory paradolia, concluded that it was actually a horrendous German accent.

  10. Kurt Hunt says:

    Epic! Laughed the whole way through.

  11. BJ Marshall says:

    I was exonerated, and resumed my place as a shining beacon of unerring infallibility

    You forgot to add “humble” to that list. Nice post! Maybe they’ll choose you for their skepticism quote of the week, so I can hear “BRIAN DUNNING!!” in a fake excitable-Jewish accent. Or whatever that voice is supposed to be. (It reminds me of Mort on The Family Guy.)

    – BJ

  12. Warwick says:

    In a recent SGU ‘science or fiction’ episode, several members thought that ferrets were rodents. They also thought that ferrets smell bad. This level of ignorance is inexcusable.

  13. Wayne Povey says:

    Australian? I thought you were doing a South African accent.

  14. badrescher says:

    Very cute. Thanks for the chuckle!

  15. So does this mean Homeopathy is true now? I’m so confused – can someone please tell me what to believe?

  16. Jason M says:

    Had me going for a little while Brian. That was some great dead pan sarcasm, as on the “listener feedback” episodes of Skeptoid.

  17. Leah Illing says:

    Haha Brian I love it!! I always knew those Novella Brothers were dodgy (especially the silver fox that is the Dr Novella)


  18. Jay says:

    Richard and I will take care of you at TAM….YA VOL!!!

  19. Sandy R says:

    Big smiles! Nice to see a demonstration proving that skeptics are not a bunch of party poopers out to spoil everybody’s fun!

  20. MadScientist says:

    I didn’t even know Novella wore frocks.

    For those who watch too many movies (or too much TV), I suspect they would find a genuine German accent to be “terrible” because they don’t sound enough like Sgt. Schultz. Even Werner Klemperer spoke in an exaggerated tone. I thought Leonardo di Caprio had an awful South African accent (he didn’t sound like any South African I knew) but a friend of mine who lived in South Africa for a few years swears he did a great job.

  21. LovleAnjel says:

    Well, accents in other countries vary as much as accents in the US. So not all Germans sound “German” and not all South Africans sound “South African”. I suspect many people abroad would think a Chicagoan had a “terrible American accent”.

  22. Podblack says:

    Sorry – did someone expect us to be surprised? :D

  23. Podblack says:

    Actually, I liked the one which went “I’m Brian Dunning from skeptoid dot’! :D

  24. Robo Sapien says:

    Stay tuned for the next episode of Skeptoid where host Brian Dunning discusses the dangers of bad accents. The first segment will be in the voice of Hitler, the second as Crocodile Dundee, and concluding with a musical piece in the voice of that guy from District 9.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Edit: the show was originally slated to be in the voice of the prophet Muhammad, but a last-minute change was called for, as Brian does not have a panic room in his house.

  25. Citizen Wolf says:

    I’m glad to say, as a Irishman, that I don’t have an accent at all. It’s only foreigners that have accents.

  26. Nigel says:

    Regardless of the source of of the “Dr. Strangelove” German accent, it does not compared to Jay Novella’s (a-hem) spot on “British Accent.” : )

  27. Podblack says:

    I want Richard Saunders to do the Live Show of Skeptioid and Brian Dunning to be the host of Skeptic Zone at the next D*C!! :D

  28. iamproof says:

    Brian, which episode of the SGU do you speak of where they first mentioned your “terrible accent”. I’d love to hear how the conversation went and send them a scathing email regarding their complete incompetence.

    • I didn’t note which one it was at the time, and didn’t have all the hours available that it would have taken to go back and find it. If anyone else knows, please post it.

  29. Max says:

    Geez man, are you paddling or just dragging? :-)

  30. Anthony says:

    Perhaps when Brian comes to TAM Australia we can hold him to account for his poor Aussie accent.

  31. Skepdude says:

    Wait a minute: are you saying there is a difference between a German accent and an Australian one? What next, Germany and Australia are different countries???

  32. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    No Wuckin’ Furries, mate.

  33. Paul B says:

    I only really listen to the SGU for the times when the presenters slip into their impeccable British accents. It’s like Mary Poppins all over again.

  34. AdamK says:

    “I suspect many people abroad would think a Chicagoan had a “terrible American accent”.”

    Not just abroad, either.

  35. Actually, Brian suffers from what is known technically as “foreign accent syndrome.” (resulting from an excess of masturbation) He occasionally slips into horrible foreign accents, and has amnesia for these events. It is a socially disfiguring affliction, but Brian has compensated for it well and is considered “high functioning.” He now primarily communicates to the outside world through blogs and podcasts where editing can remove his occasional outbursts of terrible accents.

    I do apologize, Brian, for making fun of your serious disorder.

    • tmac57 says:

      Are you saying that Brian comes by his affliction ‘onanistly’?

    • Bill says:

      Green our Foreign Accent Syndrome vaccines!!!


    • And I owe you, Steve, a vote of thanks for the tireless hours you spent with me diagnosing my excess masturbation problem. All those photos you texted to colleagues for second opinions, the long hours at night handing all the cleanup, the midnight trips you made to Intimate Obsessions for more Whack Tubes and lubricant. Is it any wonder I was speaking in tongues by the time it was over?

  36. Christopher Grove says:

    It’s true! Have you ever seen Brian’s hands? Of course not, his palms are covered with hair due to this disorder. On inFact you can clearly see that he is wearing a flesh like glove. And Steven, if that really is you (on this site you could just be an imposter), how can you say you’re sorry and at the same time reveal Brian’s embarrassing problem. Shame on you

  37. Robo Sapien says:

    New evidence suggest that bad accent syndrome can be cured by spending a few weeks in Brooklyn.

  38. tmac57 says:

    Dunning’s Aussie accent hurts my psyche

    Saunder’s Hahnemann sounds quite 3rd reichy

    Jay Novellas a jester

    But,please give us a rest sir

    From YA VOL!!!,Guvnuh,and Crikey!

  39. Chris says:

    I have a new next door neighbor. While talking to me she asked me where I got my accent from! Um, what?

    She told me that my accent sounded British at one point, and then something a bit southern, and I don’t remember what else. Since I was gardening and listening to either the Skeptic Zone or the Naked Scientists (UK science podcast), I just told her that I listen to a bunch of podcasts from places like Canada (Skeptically Speaking), Australia (Hunting Humbug 101, my condolences to the family of Jef Clark), UK (lots, loving Merseyside Skeptics game show. InKredulosus!), and USA.

    So I had to explain that podcasts make me talk funny!

    (my ex-Canadian hubby told me I do not have an accent)

    By the way, I always figured the Hahnemann guy was Richard Saunders because he made appearances at their Skeptic Tank. Which was missing from today’s podcast!

  40. Voight says:

    Brian Dunning, aren’t you the guy from Spotify ads?

    Seriously :)


  41. Anita Ikonen says:

    Well why should anyone make fun of Brian’s accents when they should be
    ridiculing his spreading of the pseudoscience that nutrition be woo.

    In his Here Be Dragons, he puts “Modern Day Dragons” such as psychic readers, ghosts, and superstitions, right next to the Woo Woo of “chemistry”, such as the entirely supernatural fish oil, vitamin C, St. John’s Wort, soybean powder, and pesticide free “organic” ketchup. The woo of these so called “molecules” he finds comparable to homeopathy, which is the absence of molecules.

    Brian Dunning. Has a free weekly audio podcast. Dedicated to furthering knowledge of the widespread pseudosciences that infect popular culture. Such as the woo woo that there be these mythological and totally unproven by science “molecules”, and how these allegedly are used by the body in such things as “the immune system” or “nutrition”. Woo woo at its best. Just like the non-existence of bacteria, and all other little things Middle Age man and Brian Dunning not see with their eyes.

    By profession Brian Dunning is a computer scientist, both as a Silicon Valley CTO and as a consulting engineer. How about that Freshman chemistry Brian? You clearly make an error by classifying nutrition in the same category as true woo, and perhaps we should all light a candle, take a moment of silence, join hands, and let this embarrassing skeptical blunder of a man remind us that just because we call ourselves a critical thinker, it does not grant instant wisdom in the sciences in which we have no education.

    You can say it in any accent you wish, but vitamin C continues to offer its electron and support the immune system, fish oil continues to feed our body, and soybean powder still contains the amino acids, yes Brian, even though it is not made from meat.

    The quality of Brian’s musings of critical thinking, does remind us of this other critical thinker, who, like Brian, looked at the world through the eyes of just a man, thinking critically, and sharing his wisdom with the rest of the world, although in a perfectly genuine Australian accent.

    • Max says:

      Here’s Brian’s take on fish oil

      “Fish oil is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, and these have been shown many times to have certain cardiovascular benefits. The American Heart Association recommends that you eat fish at least twice a week.
      Where the pseudoscience invades is in the area of supplementation — basically fish oil pills…”

      Does that sound like he thinks fish oil is woo woo?

      • Walleye says:

        How hard must one squeeze the fish in order to extract the fish oil?

      • Anita Ikonen says:

        Regardless of the knowledge Brian Dunning may have, I disagree with the way his documentary portrays chemistry and nutrition in a way that will easily be misinterpreted by the average audience into distancing from these important sciences. I regret if I am sometimes the first to note when a Skeptic that has been given prominence is at fault. There appears to be an elitism among the skeptical community, awarding its top skeptics some extent of immunity from scrutiny and enhanced tolerance toward blunders.

        I am not one to follow suit, perhaps enabled by some of the rejection I meet in the skeptical community due to my investigation into my own paranormal claim, but then perhaps such distancing can serve useful and add objectivity as well as honesty into my observations.

      • Max says:

        In case you haven’t noticed, Brian started this thread by calling out the SGU on its blunder.
        If you want to see a top skeptic catch a lot of flack, read Michael Shermer’s threads here.
        It’s important to keep skeptics honest, and also to give them credit when they put in extra effort to be honest.

    • Anita rightly calls attention to the opening sequence in Here Be Dragons, where I said “Here are some examples of woo,” then showed pictures of a lot of products without further information or context. I am the first to admit this was badly done. I answered some of the specific questions about some of the products on the Here Be Dragons FAQ page:

      I did not mention the “organic soybeans” or “organic ketchup” on that page specifically. There is nothing wrong with soybeans or ketchup, organic or otherwise. The woo I was referring to was the belief that “organic” versions carry some magical extra benefit lacking in the regular versions. Nothing in the video made this point clear.

  42. Without the P.S. I knew this was an “in all good fun” type of post. Sadly, I am convinced that people who are not skeptical, or are too literal, just don’t have a sense of humour. Mayhaps that is why it’s so easy to Poe fundies and the like?

  43. Vito says:

    Still not as bad as Desire Jennings’ (Who claimed to get dystonia from the H1N1 vaccine) fake accent.

  44. Alexander says:

    I for one can’t get enough of bad accents, there is nothing better than to get a face full of stereotypical accent of some place in the world, be it India, Australia, or Good Old Boy Souther(my favorite).

    There should be more accents thrown around not less, truly brings a smile to me to listen to my favorite shows and someone lets out a good old fashion bad accent. Keep up the great work people, bad accents bring job this one human.

  45. Coby Smolens says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not a correlation between vaccinations (pick one) and foreign accent syndrome (the tendency to speak using accents not native to the speaker, often at inappropriate moments). Unless I’m very much mistaken (and please correct me if I’m wrong), all the individuals in this thread who have admitted (or been accused of) speaking in foreign accents (however well or badly) HAVE BEEN VACCINATED! Coincidence? Hmmm…