Interview: George Hrab

George Hrab is a musician, podcaster and a “defender of the theory of gravity”. He is the host of the Geologic Podcast and a very cool person. Contrary to what the title may lead you to believe, the Geologic Podcast has very little to do with geology. Instead, it’s a pun on his first name and his interest in science. George’s creativy has led him to create and be part of many different projects, from writing a book to creating the 365 Days of Astronomy theme song “Far”. He has shared some of his time with us and it is an honor to say that he is the first person to be interviewed for Skeptics on the .Net.

Audio:

Transcript:

Sot.N: Hello, I’m Gabriel from Skeptics on the Net. I have the honor to present to you our very first interview. And it’s with a great person, a musician, member of the Philadelphia Funk Authority, the host of the Geologic podcast and a skeptic. George Hrab, vibraphone and thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

Geo: Vibes to you, thanks for doing it. My pleasure.

Sot.N: What got you to start writing songs inspired by science and skepticism… such an unusual topic for music.

Geo: Well, for me it was just sort of, you try to write about what you are interested in, and for me, I thought there were enough writing music about relationships and interpersonal things and for me being the kind of nerd that I am, I just wanted to write about stuff that I though was interesting. So, it just sort of came to be that it was a convenient topic to focus on and it turned out that there were plenty of people that wanted to hear songs on that subject. So, it wasn’t a conscious, necessarily… decision of “Oh, I’m going to be a skeptical composer.”, it was just “This things are interesting to me so I’m gonna write songs about them.” and some subjects whether they are scientific or skeptical just seemed interesting and are always floating around on my head and it’s very very difficult to come up with subjects that haven’t been done a million times before so when something pops into your head you just take full advantage of it and hopefully find something cool.

Sot.N: We need people like you to popularize science.

Geo: I guess, yeah, it’s not a direct kind of… I’ve sort of fallen into this role. I never went about it with the intent of “I’m going to popularize science and critical thinking.” It was just “This stuff is interesting to me” and I think people responded to it. It’s difficult, when you try to write a message sometimes, it can get kind of very preachy and it can be difficult to swallow but I think if you write something or if you create something artistic on some level that is just honest and genuinely shows an interest, people respond to it. I mean, there is lots of examples of songs and artistic endeavours that have a very purposeful message behind them and those are usually quite unpalatable, specially for me personally anyway it’s just “this is the message that I’m relaying” and that tends to be force, I hope that my music never comes across that way, as opposed to “Hey, isn’t this cool?” or “This is a funny way to look at this” or “Here’s an interesting turn of phrase.” So thanks, I mean I’ve fallen into this role and I’ll gladly take it but it’s not one that I’m pushing for. I just want to make some entertaining music.

Sot.N: For the people who don’t know you, how did you start being a skeptic?

Geo: Well, it goes back pretty far. I mean I was raised a Catholic. My mom was kind of in charge of my religious upbringing and my dad, who I later found out was a non-believer, kind of, sort of, stayed in the background, figuring that he would influence me through critical thinking and science and not necessarily directly through a lack of religion. He just assumed, or presumed, that I would figure it out eventually, which I did, kind of on my own. Which is a good way to do it. He never really pushed any kind of an agenda, where as my mom just thought that was important to be brought up catholic and understand all that stuff. But very early on a lot of the things related to Catholicism and religion in general, just even the ideas of a god or God, didn’t make much sense to me and I didn’t understand how praying was supposed to work. I didn’t understand how this all powerful guy could let such horrible things happen, and no one had a decent answer about it while sort of spousing an idea of “We know truth.”

So, it didn’t make sense to me very quickly, and it wasn’t until sort of after college that when I was in my early 20s when I read Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things” that I saw the word, the term, “skeptic” and “skepticism” and it was outlined for me so nicely in that book where I thought “Oh, yeah, this is what I am. This is my philosophy. This is my belief system. And there are other people that believe the same thing” or at least approach information in the same manner and that’s what being a skeptic is.” And so I had been it for quite a long time and it wasn’t until I read Shermer’s book, and I was amazing to be and see at TAM, this year, the Amazing Meeting, which is the big conference that happens in Vegas, and to be able to introduce Michael Shermer and I said that, I said that this is the guy that let me know what a skeptic is, and it’s really my privilege and honor to introduce him to the audience. So, it’s bizarre how it has come all the way around when the guy that I was sitting in the park bench reading his book is now an acquaintance

Sot.N: Yeah, that partially answers what was going to be my next questing that was: How was the transition from being a passive skeptic to being an active member of the skeptical community?

Geo: Yeah, again, it was never a goal, it just sort of, kind of, just happened that way that I have a particular skill set in terms of entertainment or announcing or organizing things or being fun in a public setting; that those skills seemed to line up with what was needed in certain skeptical environments, whether they are conventions or events or whatever.

It’s been incredible to kind of, yeah, cross the line and go from one who observes these events or one who reads the books or goes to the meetings, to be on the other side and one who performs at this kind of events, I’ve always tried to maintain a fan’s perspective, because I think first and foremost I will always just be a fan. I will always be someone who really appreciates and really loves what these people do; what they write about, how they perform, how they advocate, how they entertain and the philosophies they have behind them. And I think that’s something that my fans, the people that appreciate what I do, can relate to. That I’m almost like a conduit, that I snuck in somehow back stage and can relate stories about how what it’s like to talk to Richard Dawkins and be just as much of a fan as someone listening to my podcast. It’s a really neat position to be in. Tt’s almost like an archaeologist in a way, that I get to kind of invade the tribe and witness them doing their rituals the way they do them and report back to my peers, which is my friends and my fans. So it’s been amazing. Tt’s been incredible and I’ve been very lucky and fortunate that I just happen to have, like I said, have a couple of particular skills that seemed to be needed.

Sot.N: Yeah I think it’s great that you read all your e-mails and understand what it’s like being on the other side.

Geo: Oh yeah, and I hope to never really lose that, because I just, I hope I will never get numb or kind of, bored is too strong a word, but I hope I don’t numb to the fact that I’m sitting at a table with James Randi, or I’m, you know, talking to Adam Savage or something. I just, I always want to have a little portion of me remember what it’s like to be kind of really enthusiastic and excited and intimidated and nervous to be around these people, because they really are giants, and deservedly so, because of the things that they’ve done, not because of their celebrity, but because the things they have achieved and the way that they think and how inspiring they are, so I never wanna lose that.

Sot.N: Can you explain to us how did you start podcast? you had a radio show right?

George Hrab, looking dapper as usual

Geo: Yeah, I had a radio show locally here at a college, there’s a… LeHigh University is a local college about 2 miles from where I live here. And in the summer months, when the students are away they open up their radio program to local people that want to do it, so I had done an interview about a concert that I was doing and the gentleman that interviewed me was the station manager, and he said “Hey, would you be interested in doing a show?” and I said “Yeah, as long as I could do, kind of, like, a talk show.” I didn’t wanna do, just play records, because there is plenty of that and he said “Yeah, whatever you wanna do.” So, for about three months, I guess the summer, I did kind of, what ended up being, the laboratory work for what became the podcast. The summer ended and then my good friend Slau, my engineer and good friend, said “Look, it’s really time, you should be doing a podcast.” And that was just under five year ago and everything just exploded, it was just a good timing. There weren’t that many skeptical podcasts at the time, and it wasn’t even a skeptical podcast. Again, I just wanted to do something silly and fun that I could channel some ideas that I had into a weekly format because in the same way that my song writing reflects what I think about, the show reflects what I think about. So, it became, kind of, it had a skeptical component to it. So it’s like forty percent skepticism and atheism and critical thinking, and it just seemed to find its audience and everything major that has happened to me in terms of my involvement whether it’s nationally or even internationally now has been through the podcast, so it’s been crazy.

Sot.N: You also have a book called “Non-Coloring Book” that is, in a way, similar to the style that your podcast has. What inspired you to create it? Would you say that it is your default way to express yourself?

Geo: Yeah, to a certain degree, I mean I like eclecticism and I like, I mean writing is as hard as song writing and I don’t have a real particular knack for fiction writing or long essays. I can write an okay short essay. So, before I was doing the podcast I was blogging quite regularly and for about a year I guess, and that blog sort of became the basis for the entries that are in “Non-Coloring Book”. So, “Non-Coloring Book” deals, sort of there is three things, there is stories from my life as a musician, there is some commentary on religion and skeptical issues and critical thinking and then there is just silliness. So, those sort of three things are also in my podcast as well, in an audio format. So it kind of is the print version of the show, and it’s just a convenient way. And what’s so nice now with the way that you can self-publish that if someone is interested and they want to have a bit more Geologic material to carry around with them, they can download the book and just have a couple essays here and there. It’s mostly just silly writing. Just some fun stuff, but yeah it’s an excellent way to kind of encapsulate and express a couple ideas.

Sot.N: We know that there are many ways to approach skepticism, can you explain how you do it?

Geo: Well, yeah, skepticism is a tool, you know, for me, it’s not necessarily a belief. Being a skeptic, it’s a tool in your brain’s tool box. So my skepticism applies to just about every decision that I make in a day to day basis, in some way. When you think, you know “Am I thinking about this in the most critical way? What is the evidence that is being presented?” for whatever that choice is, whether that choice is where to go to eat for dinner or what color paint to buy for, you know, your living room. To a certain degree you are using those critical thinking skills to influence your decision or the decisions that you make. So, that’s something that we need to really push in terms of the presentation of what a skeptic is. It’s that it’s not just in those decisions about, you know, religion or the biggies, you know, about philosophical questions about the universe, but it’s near day to day dealings with friends and family and telemarketers and parking spaces and health decisions, medicines. All of these things need a certain critical component to them and most people do have a critical component to their thinking. They don’t even realize that they are being skeptical necessarily when things are presented. You know when you are walking in the mall and someone presents this bogus product to you? Instinctively you sort of think “This is bull. This isn’t doing what it reports to do.” You are being skeptical, and most people are like that and I think that’s something that we need to connect with people and not necessarily remove it. Not remove it totally but just have it be a part of the big issue of skepticism to also the small issue of skepticism and kind of tie them together, have it be all part of the same package. Because for me it’s, you know, literally throughout the day whatever decision has to be made, I revel in the fact that I can kind of sit back and think “Alright, am I using my critical thinking skills correctly here? What’s influencing my decision about which website I want to bookmark?” or, you know “Which camera do I want to buy?” It’s important. I think that message is getting out slowly, but again, it’s not… the thing that people kind of confuse sometimes is the idea that it’s a belief system, and it’s not. I don’t believe in skepticism. I don’t believe in critical thinking. It’s a tool, and it’s an approach and I think that’s something we need to relay a little bit more clearly.

Sot.N: I agree with that. Do you think there is lack of skepticism in popular media?

Geo: There is, but I think it tends to be hidden, and there is a lack of skepticism in a lot of popular media as well. But there are things, there are common grounds that can be found and, I think, if you look at the popularity of something like “Mythbusters”, that kind of is the default good example. When those guys, they never set about to create a skeptical show. They never set about to create a critical thinking show. They set about to create a show that was going to be fun to watch and they used their critical thinking skills to develop a program that would be fun to watch and subsequently it’s one of the most successful cable shows of all time, but the science behind it is really smart. The science and the process and the methodology behind it is skeptical and smart and really well done because that is a part of who they are. Those guys that are running that show and the people behind it, the producers, all know what good science is. So it was never “Let’s sit down and make this show about critical thinking,” because that, again, relating to what I said earlier, can just be really boring and preachy. They said “Let’s blow stuff up and make it really cool. While we are blowing stuff let’s just make sure that we are doing it in the smartest way and that can relate something about data sets and about information and looking at what results and how the scientific method can work.” So yeah, it’s there in the media. I think it can be there a lot more and there is plenty of examples where there isn’t skepticism and where it’s lacking. But, you know, that’s always been true and ultimately a lot of the [information?] we try to get across does wind its way through, and there is all kinds of examples throughout history of all kinds of crazy products and crazy thinking that basically eventually gets proven that this stuff doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. So yeah, it’s good and bad at the same time.

Sot.N: We have a series of articles in “Skeptics On The Net” called 10 To Start where we present the best ten episodes to start with a show, do you have any episodes to suggest for people to start with the “Geologic Podcast”?

Geo: Well, there’s a couple of “best of” programs that we have, if you just go to the geologicpodcast.com and if you type “best of” into the search, there’s two or three episodes. That’s a good place to start to kind of get the vibe. Those are mostly made up of sketches, just some silly things. There’s a couple stories here and there. People like to approach it differently. Some folks go to the very beginning and they start show by show and go all the way through. Some folks start at the most recent and go backwards. The most recent show, episode 225 is kind of a different and sort of unique show. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens in that program but it is an interesting episode that I think people have responded to very positively and that sort of shows, specially amongst the skeptical community, it deals with some issues that we have to deal with sometimes while thinking critically. But, I think for the most part if you jump in and you check out the “best of” episodes, also episode 170 is where I put my latest album into the feed for free, so it’s seventy minutes of music, seventy one minutes of music, it’s the entire album “Trebuchet”, for free. You can listen to the whole record. If you like it, you can go to iTunes and you can buy the whole album, you can buy specific songs, that’s a good place to start too. It gives you a sense of what my music is about, some of the skeptical tunes that are included there as well. So that’s a good place to go, the “best of” and episode 170.

Sot.N: Yes, I recently started from the beginning and I’m almost catching up.

Geo: Okay, alright, pace yourself, because you know, I have to be in my head, you don’t have to be there, so yeah, good. It makes me happy when I hear people, like, are going from the very beginning, so yeah, it’s quite a ride. It’s quite a ride to go from the very start.

Sot.N: Can you describe how your show works for people who don’t know it?

Geo: Again, it’s sort of like the book. I mean there are recurring bits that happen on the program, we have things like the Religious Moron of the Week, where people send me in kind of examples of people being silly in the name of religion, being stupid in the name of religion. We have Interesting Fauna, which is just talks about really bizarre cool animals I think. My mom calls in which is called Geo’s Mom Reads Jay-Z Lyrics, where she reads some lyrics from the hip-hop artist Jay-Z. I put beats behind it and we just kind of talk about what she’s doing and what’s going on. There’s the History Chunk where we talk about what happened on that particular day in history, things like that. [What? No mention of Mortimer? – ed.] And then there’s about me. I play drums for a living, so my day job is playing drums for the “Philadelphia Funk Authority” like you mentioned in your very nice intro. So, I talk about what that is like sometimes. Gig stories, you know what it’s like behind the scenes at a wedding or a concert or a venue. And then there’s some silly sketches that are just, you know, just silliness: Vikings talking about how they have to burn ships at every event that they do and what a waste of resources that is or just silly word play. It’s quite eclectic, you never quite know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes it will be a concert, sometimes I’ll just do an hour worth of songs, sometimes I’ll interview people, sometimes I’ll write something specific for the episode which is just a long essay. You never quite know what you are gonna get but you do get rewarded for paying attention. My fans are very very loyal and very generous and I think people that enjoy the show and that come back week after week know that you never quite know what you’re going to get.

Sot.N: I know you have six albums, the last one, “Trebuchet” was released a year ago, do you have any new projects in mind?

The cover of George’s sixth album, Trebuchet

Geo: Well, this year we’re gonna do… either this year or early in next year we are gonna do a live album, which is gonna quite exciting. So, it’s gonna be a live album and a DVD. So it will be a live concert, video as well as a live album. Since we do have six albums worth of material, it’s time for a live record and my fans and friends have been clamouring. They’ve been saying “Look, it’s time for a live recording.” So, we are gonna do it right. We are gonna have a big concert. I’m going to put a big band together, probably like eight or ten pieces, we are gonna do a live show, you’ll be able to come to the show if you want to and we’ll have a big, you know, three camera shoot. I have a friend who is a director, he’s going to film the whole thing and that will be available within the new year, probably, hopefully within the spring. We’ll record it probably January / February and that will be the next big project. Plus, I’m still working on “Geologic Podcast: The Book” which will be kind of a compendium of all the best sketches, interviews and things like that in written form, so that if you wanna perform a sketch at a comedy night or something you can actually. It will be the scripts of those as well as some of the essays and some other silly little bits from the program. So those two things are the next big things coming up.

Sot.N: I’m sure it will be great.

Geo: I hope so.

Sot.N: Where can our listeners find your work?

The best bet, my name is unique enough H-R-A-B is my last name Hrab, so if you Google Hrab pretty much you’ll find me, but if you go to georgehrab.com that is kind of a portal that links to my facebook and my twitter and the podcast and my blog and iTunes and… everything is available right there so you can kind of find, it’s like the George Hrab / Geologic menu where you can do whatever you want. You can go to geologicpodcast.com and download shows, they are pretty much posted every Thursday. There’s two hundred and twenty five episodes that are in the archive. It’s over, I think it’s like four and a half solid days of material if you wanna go through it and listen to it all. I don’t know why anybody would, but if you want to, you can do that, but the best bet is georgehrab.com.

Sot.N: Of course we will link to that, and again, thank you, it’s been an honor.

Geo: Thank you very much, take care. Cheers.