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Mars 1, This American Life 0

screen shot 2015-08-18 at 10.25.17 pm

Palko points to the ultimate takedown of Mars One, courtesy of Sydney Do and Andrew Owens. At this point, shooting down the financials of Mars One seems a bit of overkill, something comparable to debunking the statistical expertise of Satoshi Kanazawa or Daryl Bem, or questioning the quality of publications with the name “Edward Wegman” attached to them.

Nobody takes Mars One seriously, but it’s still fun to mock them. Also, and more importantly, Mars One, like Kanzawa, Bem, Wegman, etc etc etc, is an illustration of how shoddy work can get taken seriously and mixed in with the good stuff, wasting all of our time as we untangle exactly what went wrong, both in the work itself and in the process leading to its publication and publicity.

Anyway, a couple days later I happened to be listening to a podcast of This American Life and came across this. I almost fell off my bike. This American Life got conned by Mars One.

Let me repeat that. This American Life, the premier radio show of our time, got conned by Mars One, a crude P.R. job that makes those Herbalife guys look like sophisticates.

Whatssup, aren’t the people behind This American Life supposed to be professional skeptics??

I asked Palko and he replied:

Disappointing but not surprising. 09.05.2014 was just before the shit started hitting the fan. There were plenty of aerospace guys out there pointing out the flaws but they were lucky to get a line or two in the articles from the major outlets.

I’ve also noticed that TAL’s standards often seem to drop when they partner up with someone like that Apple in China jerk. I’ve decided that TAL falls in my Tom Wolfe/Pauline Kael class. I love most of their best work but I think they’ve mainly had a bad influence.

To which I replied: Tom Wolfe is a genius and I’ll forgive him anything, even the incredibly bad ending of Bonfire of the Vanities. Pauline Kael, I’ve always found irritating, I’ve never seen her appeal. TAL I love. I’ll give them a pass on Mars One because they’re non-technical people. They also got suckered by the LaCour and Green study, but lots of people (including Green himself) got scammed on that one, so I’ll give them a break there too.

Palko returned the volley:

I’m mainly familiar with Wolfe’s early work, but what I’ve seen is consistently brilliant, both as literature and real time history.

Unfortunately. while much genuinely great stuff came out of New Journalism, too many of today’s journalists have embraced the flash and the rule-breaking but without the independence, accuracy or talent. (See Brooks, Dowd and company).

As for TAL, they are probably the best of a real golden age of radio journalism, but recently I’ve been noticing a number of shows like RadioLab (“Two grown men who just can’t get enough of each other.”), Ted Radio Hour, and Dinner Party Download that distill all of the cuteness and over-production and self-satisfaction that TAL sometimes flirts with and while they leave out the great writing and solid journalism that makes TAL so good.

I still love public radio but I’m starting to have to watch where I step.

Palko also writes:

The secret to reading Kael is to keep in mind is that she’s a wonderful critic but a terrible reviewer. I almost always find her sharp-eyed and insightful when she takes the time to develop her ideas, often dead wrong in her assessments but wrong in an interesting way (though she got less interesting as the movies got less interesting). Unfortunately, most of her imitators imitate the reviewer, not the critic, and the result is sweeping pronouncements, rhetorical tics, and contrarianism masquerading as independence.

He could be right on Kael. The long Kael quote here seems thoughtful, interesting, and reasonable.

P.S. Palko provides more context on that Kael article we just linked to:

First, the essay itself comes with an authorship dispute. Kael did a lot of research for the piece including extended conversations with John Houseman (who is the source for much of the attitude toward the two main subjects) but she also purchased research, particularly interview notes with Mankiewicz’s widow, from a UCLA professor. As far as I can tell, the research was not quoted at length at any point in the essay but it certainly did inform it and back up Houseman. The professor appears to have thought he was to have a bigger role and remains bitter. Critics of the essay have often used this to accuse Kael of being “the real plagiarist,” but that entails an awfully broad reading of the term.

Critics also like to argue that the essay has been debunked because Welles probably contributed more to the script than Houseman and Mankiewicz suggested. The problem with that argument is that the authorship dispute is a relatively small part of the piece and is decidedly secondary to its main points.

Kael’s take on credit for the film was pretty much identical to what Houseman had been saying for years:

I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote Citizen Kane and everything else that he has directed — except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of Kane was essentially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom he had been carrying around with him for years and which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned Kane into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make Citizen Kane one of the world’s great movies — those were pure Orson Welles.

The fact that these claims suddenly became controversial when they appeared in “Raising Kane” was probably mainly due the heated politics of sixties film culture.


  1. Jacob Hartog says:

    You might like the TAL parody podcast, “That American Life.” The episodes are mixed, but I found this one about 3d printing really funny:

    I’d forgotten about Kael, but it does seem like she’s good evidence for why snobbery is often wrong; from Wikipedia:
    During the same year, she wrote a blistering review of the phenomenally popular The Sound of Music in McCall’s. After mentioning that some of the press had dubbed it “The Sound of Money,” Kael called the film’s message a “sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat.”[17] Although, according to legend,[10] this review led to her being fired from McCall’s (The New York Times printed as much in Kael’s obituary), both Kael and the magazine’s editor, Robert Stein, denied this. According to Stein, “I [fired her] months later after she kept panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.”[18]

    I can forgive someone for hating Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, but “A Hard Day’s Night?”

    • Andrew says:


      I loved the Sound of Music (granted, I did see it when I was 11) and also Lawrence of Arabia. A Hard Day’s Night was ok but to me it seemed overrated. It may have been more of a big deal when it came out.

      • Dan Simpson says:

        I was once in a situation where I had to explain “The Sound of Music” to someone who had never seen it before. I panicked slightly and came up with “Some singing nuns save children from the Nazis”.

  2. Mitch says:

    Wait… do you mean This American Life/RadioLab/TED Radio are supposed to be real? I thought they were just stories, personal reflections (or rather honest reporting of personal reflections). It’s not like they’re reporting that homeopathy works, more like they’re reporting that this one guy thinks homeopathy works. Which is different from Dowd/Brooks making stuff up out of thin air.

    Anyway, it’s not like The Sound of Music was trying to be Schindler’s List.

  3. zbicyclist says:

    I listened to that episode some months ago, and I thought the angle was primarily around the people who were interested in going to Mars. The people story is interesting, even if the tech story is bogus.

    I like RadioLab, but the episodes I liked best were with Oliver Sachs, now gone. They will miss him. (Although the episodes with NYT’s Carl Zimmer are also very good.)

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, but once you realize that Mars One is a scam, it changes the perspective from, “These people want to go to Mars” to “These people want to go to Mars and they are getting scammed.” It’s a new level of sadness.

      • JS says:

        When I listened to the episode, that was how I heard it – as a very sad portrait of the lost soul who takes this lame scam seriously as her way to feel important. Worse, she should clearly recognize if it weren’t a scam, she would not be the person to be on it.

  4. The disturbing thing is that more and more “science” is scam. Obviously not all of it! but it doesn’t take that much to really seriously hurt science as an industry, particularly when money preferentially flows to the scammy parts (because it’s SO AMAZING!!!)

    I mean, even the stuff you write about in Psych Science and whatnot is ultimately pretty scammy (look p < 0.05… an IMPORTANT DISCOVERY!! Feeling Blue causes us to see blue… blablablabla) And it's not just psych, or just social sciences… Bio has had a lot of serious issues in the last few years (induced stem cells, blablabla)

  5. Dan Simpsom says:

    Until now, I’d only heard of Pauline Kael through Renata Adler’s magnificent hatchet job “The Perils of Pauline”. I heartily recommend it!

  6. Chris G says:

    > As for TAL, they are probably the best of a real golden age of radio journalism, but recently I’ve been noticing a number of shows like RadioLab … , Ted Radio Hour, and Dinner Party Download that distill all of the cuteness and over-production and self-satisfaction that TAL sometimes flirts with and while they leave out the great writing and solid journalism that makes TAL so good.

    Yes! That’s it! I’d never tried to articulate it before but that’s it. RadioLab is a show that I’ve always felt guilty for not liking but damn I can’t stand it. It’s cuteness and self-satisfaction without the good writing or journalism that TAL brings to the table.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    Pauline Kael is an interesting example of A Basically Male Field In Which the Top Individual Ever* Was Female.

    I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on Kael personally, it’s just that after all these years her name comes up far more often than any other film critic’s so that appears to be the consensus.

    • Andrew says:


      That’s a great category. Now I’m trying to think up other examples. After thinking for a minute, I came up with Alice Waters (arguably the top chef/restaurateur, or at least the most famous well-respected person of this class, most of whom are men), and then I thought of Julia Child (top cooking writer, also I guess there’s M.F.K. Fisher, who’s supposed to be the top cooking writer of all time . . . hmmm, if the top two are both women, maybe we shouldn’t consider this a basically male field). So, OK, Pauline Kael and Alice Waters. Both of whom lived in Berkeley.

      Any other examples? Maybe that chick who invented the wheel? That was pretty damn impressive.

      Hey—I just thought of another one: Mata Hari! Most famous spy ever. Maybe not the top spy—she did get caught, after all—but, all these years later, she’s the one we’ve still heard of.

      Mary Baker Eddy, hmmm, not quite: she was quite a success in the basically male field of Founders of Religions, but Christian Science ain’t what it used to be (as Mark Twain might say), so she’s not the top.

      OK, here’s another: Agatha Christie. #1 mystery writer of all time. Personally I prefer Conan Doyle or George V. Higgins or whoever, but Agatha’s got the strongest claim of anyone to be #1.

      So now we have a bit of a list: Pauline Kael, Alice Waters, Mata Hari, Agatha Christie. All at the top of their fields, all famous for what they did, not, like Amelia Earhart, famous for being female.

      Hey, I just thought of another one: Helen Keller. I’m not quite sure how to define her category: People Who Overcame Handicaps? But, whatever the category, Helen is #1 in it.

      Marie Curie, top physicist, top chemist. But best physicist/chemist ever? Maybe not.

      Ellen Willis is said by some to be the best pop-music critic of all time, but I’m not qualified to judge this one. It’s basically a male field, so if she is the best, she’d count in this list.

      Caitlyn Jenner, best decathlete of all time! Just kidding.

      OK, so now we have Pauline Kael, Alice Waters, Mata Hari, Agatha Christie, and Helen Keller. And while writing the above, I thought of someone else, but now I forgot her. But that’s encouraging, that there’s at least one other person in this group whom I can’t remember.

    • Rahul says:

      More often than Roger Ebert’s?

  8. D.O. says:

    If fame rather than internal quality of the achievement is an allowed criterion than Margaret Mead is probably the most famous (in the US) anthropologist and Ayn Rand is the most famous libertarian author. I have no judgement on the quality/value of their contribution.

    According to Wiki, Agatha Christie ties The Bard as the most sold out author, though it does not seem to be a particularly male-dominated category, romance literature seems to sell very well. AC is hands down leader of the mystery genre. There is probably a subcategory which JK Rowling leads — fantasy? young adults? — they don’t seem to be necessarily male-dominated, at least not by much.

  9. D.O. says:

    QEII is the longest reigning English monarch (if you discount the Pretender) and still has a chance to beat Lois XVI for something bigger.

  10. Xi'an says:

    definitely too much of a niche culture for me to get the point…

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