As far back as she can remember, Desiree Schell never really believed in Santa Claus.
“It always seemed ‘off’ to me,” she says. “But that’s because I’ve always been a reader … they don’t get to have any of that fun.”
These days, she’s still not driven by the pursuit of amusement. Rather, her spark is a relentless discovery of the truth via her own radio show, Skeptically Speaking, airing Friday evenings on University of Alberta radio station CJSR-FM. Since its premiere six years ago, the program takes a pragmatic, empirical look at public affairs issues, peeling away the veneer of common mythology to reveal the facts beneath.
Tackling subjects ranging from healthcare and religion to global warming and nuclear power, Skeptically Speaking has also garnered a following that extends well beyond the station’s city-wide broadcast footprint. At last count, the program’s been picked up by 20 additional stations in Canada, seven in the U.S. and four online international services including the National Science Foundation’s Science360 Radio. And the show is downloaded at least 15,000 times monthly on iTunes.
Devoid of partisanship or personal perspectives, the host takes great pains to filter out any bias in the subject matter and avoids insulting her listenership.
“I go into every interview with a ridiculous level of research. But I assume other people’s questions are the same as my questions, and it seems to resonate in a manner that isn’t condescending.”
Schell, 36, doesn’t recall a time when social issues didn’t piqued her curiosity. She also quickly discovered that the best way for her to explore a topic was to lean on logic rather than emotion.
“When looking at social-justice issues, I use a lot of critical thinking to separate what I’ve been told from what is actually happening. I don’t ever want to be driven by ideology and have that be the basis for my opinions and beliefs.”
Schell acknowledges her deductive mindset comes in handy at her day job as senior organizing adviser for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, where her activities include coordinating rallies, protests and marches, as well as presenting workshops on direct action strategies for labour groups. “I like measurable outputs and evidence in everything I do,” says Schell, who often fields story ideas and suggestions with her colleagues at work.
Schell, a native Edmontonian and graduate of M.E. LaZerte High School, didn’t have any plans to host a radio show when she was a marketing manager at CJSR. It wasn’t until she became dissatisfied with how the media was covering social and science issues that she decided to go behind the mic.
“I find media to be a big source of misinformation,” says Schell. “There’s a lot of ideologically driven news out there, as we found out during the last U.S. election.” As well, science reporting, according to Schell, has become less common, especially on important issues like climate change. “Newspapers and TV have dropped their science sections altogether,” explains Schell. And Schell worries that a lack of science knowledge among journalists means the public sometimes misses out on key information.
Schell does what she can to spread her knowledge – also speaking at conventions across the continent. Appearances in 2012 included paneling discussion on evidence of alien influence on ancient cultures at the CONvergence sci-fi convention in Minnesota, as well as a workshop on activism techniques at a student leadership conference in Amherst, N.Y. Lately, however, she’s been so busy she’s had to turn down offers.
But even when she’s not on the road, the show still takes her into uncharted territory, from demystifying effects of a woman’s menstrual cycle on a bear’s predatory instincts to the relationship between rabies and hydrophobia.
“This show has been a journey,” says Schell.
“Science isn’t the answer to everything, but then again, it gives you quite a starting point.”