Radiolab lets me down

I’m at the gym this morning, and I put on a podcast, as one does, and chose to start Radiolab’s series on reproduction and human development. Just my sort of thing, I thought.

And oh my god it is awful.

To personalize it and appeal to the masses, it resorts to rampant anthropomorphization and mischaracterization of the environment. Germ cells start out in the allantois, which is a “wasteland”. They migrate “pugnaciously” to the embryo proper, “looking for” the genital ridge, which is like a “cathedral” filled with somatic cells that are like “monks”, who then “care for” the germ line. They ask deep questions, like “does the cell know where it’s going?”, and no one says no, that’s a stupid question, it’s a single cell with no cognitive abilities at all. And it goes on and on.

I only listened to the end of that episode because I could not believe how much misinformation was being spread in order to make developmental biology ‘entertaining’. I’m not going to listen to the rest of the series, because I can’t afford to smash my phone.

If you must listen, there is a tiny bit of factual information in there, but it’s all been slathered in the goop of humanizing individual cells, and it is totally detestable in the way it tries to make happy cartoon people of developmental processes. Not recommended at all. Listen with extreme caution and skepticism.


  1. John Hartung says

    Oh good, I also listened to that episode and also thought it was real weird. Glad to know that instinct wasn’t off.

  2. says

    @Kreator, that TV series was for little children, not university professors.
    IMO, given the target audience, it was pretty good.

  3. Claire Connelly says

    That seems like par for the course for Radiolab, And, really, most “documentaries” on science topics in the States these days. The audience is assumed to be stupid, and the hosts talk down to them, never realizing that they are so painfully clueless themselves. Bad information presented in offensive ways by idiots.

  4. mrquotidian says

    Agree with everyone here… I stopped listening to Radio Lab long ago because of their tendency to favor narrative and entertainment over messy facts. Too often they present wild hypotheses, however intriguing and potentially accurate, as much closer to verified fact for my taste (like the hookworms/allergies episode). Also, the sound effects went off the rails at some point, becoming so obnoxious it hurts my head. Awful.

  5. smariam says

    I remember their episode on epigenetics from a couple of years ago. It was pretty bad, after which I just stopped listening

  6. Alt-X says

    I personally stopped listening to the Radiolab podcast years ago. Whenever religion is brought up their brains switch off and they run on emotion.

  7. tccc says

    Content aside, I find RadioLab way way over produced, all the cuts make it impossible for me to listen to.

  8. Jeff W says

    I, too, stopped listening to RadioLab years ago. The show felt so dumbed-down, with Robert Krulwich acting as a proxy (presumably) for a clueless audience, that it became really difficult for me to listen to.

  9. voidhawk says

    #11 tccc
    Glad I’m not the only one. I don’t know whether they pioneered it, but there are way too many podcasts which use that style of cutting/ overlapping/ distorting their content.

    “Welcome/WELCOME/welcome to *sound effect* Podcast/PODCAST/p/pod/pod/podcast *clip from a conversation later in the episode* *sound effect*

    It just makes me incredibly twitchy and I have to shut it off.

  10. mijobagi says

    Couldn’t agree more. At one point they asked if the cell “Knows what it is” or something like that. It was asked not in a metaphorical way but as if the cell had a mind. I was completely turned off for the rest of the show.

  11. davenash says

    #11 tccc
    I agree. This series on reproduction is particularly over produced. The things I really appreciate about public radio– information depth and density– are missing.

  12. davidnangle says

    Sounds like somebody had some Real Live Sea Monkeys as a child, and drank deep of the marketing.