GrantTree used statistical analysis to determine, once and for…well, a while…which science and technology podcasts are the best
Water, water everywhere
‘Which science and technology podcasts should I listen to?’ It seems like a pretty straightforward question, doesn’t it? One of those things you should be able to just plug into Google and get an answer nanoseconds later. But then you Google it. And rather than a specific answer, you end up with a pile of other people’s opinions and no way of knowing if their advice is any good.
It’s not Google’s fault. If anyone’s to blame, it’s Serial. The show’s riveting debut season is widely credited with reigniting our interest in podcasting. Despite some early success, thanks to hit series like The Ricky Gervais Show, interest in podcasts was fading. Listenership was falling. Shows were getting worse. Would-be broadcasters were hanging up their headsets and sulking back to their day jobs.
Serial turned the tide. Its excellent first series, a reinvestigation of a 90s closed-case murder, reminded us of everything podcasts could be: entertaining, insightful, intelligent, intimate. Its viral popularity soon piqued the interest of advertisers, who began funnelling money into a raft of new shows that piggybacked on Serial’s success. Podcasts’ audience was back, and investment followed right behind.
Too much of a good thing?
Serial triggered a Cambrian explosion in the podcast ecosystem. According to Podcast Insights (they sound pretty qualified, don’t they?), there are now more than 500,000 podcasts on iTunes. A massive two million episodes available for download. Yay for podcasters. But this presents a problem. With 500,000 shows to choose from, what should we listen to? Attached to this is one of the fundamental anxieties of the digital age: FOMO, aka the worry that we’re constantly missing out. That we’re not maximising our time. That the grass is greener on the other side of the hyperlink.
There are three ways to make this kind of decision, be it about a podcast, a lipstick, a vegetable, or a phone contract. One: trust your guts. *Listens quietly*. Nope. No help there. Truth be told, asking your stomach to pick between half a million podcasts is a bit like asking a magnet to choose its favourite iron filing.
Another is to listen to other people’s opinions. This seems to be our de facto approach to decision-making in the 21st century. Just look at the traffic received by amateur-review-aggregators like Yelp and TripAdvisor, or how often we’re presented with crowdsourced ratings of products and services. But popularity doesn’t always equal quality. Just look at the UK Top 100 or McDonald’s market cap.
So we opted for the third way – seeking out expert opinion. We wanted input from tech journalists, bloggers, wonks … basically anyone with a favourite calculator and at least one piece of Star Trek merch. The problem is that there are a lot of qualified people out there, each offering their own take. And all Google can do is gather everything up, present it to you in a clumsy little pile, and then frolic back off into cyberspace. Not unlike a Golden Retriever piling up muddy sticks at its owner’s feet.
Still, the dozens of listicles that Google dug up were a good place to start. But there was absolutely no consensus between them. In fact, the 54 articles we read recommended us a whopping 270 different podcasts. 270! Assuming an hour an episode, and eight hours sleep, it would take more than 16 days just to sample each one. *Wilhelm scream*.
So, the idea occurred to us to try and add some proper scientific (or close enough) analysis to this mess. So that’s what we did. To paraphrase Andy Weir, we scienced the shit out of it. *(see how we did this below).
In short, we took all the articles and the podcasts these ‘experts’ recommended, weighted their suggestions by the authority of the source (website, newspaper, blog etc), accounted for a few other variables, and ta-da, we produced this: The definitive top 10 technology and science podcasts…in the world.
THE Top 10 Science and Technology Podcasts
1. Radiolab – Produced by New York public radio station WNYC, Radiolab is a weekly series of excellently produced mini-documentaries about topics of scientific intrigue and bookish wonderment.
2. Reply All – A quirky, bi-weekly show about our relationship with the internet. How it shapes us, and how we shape it.
3. Science Vs – A podcast that points science’s arsenal of critical instruments at various topics of interest – fads, trends, fashions – in an attempt to distinguish fact from fiction. Prepare to have your misconceptions walloped.
4. StarTalk Radio – Hosted by the marvellous Neil deGrasse Tyson, America’s appropriately boisterous answer to Brian Cox, this chat-show-style pod enlists A-listers and academics to talk science and science culture.
5. Science Friday – Another show from WYNC’s industrious stable, Science Friday (SciFri for short) is a weekly, two-hour pod that takes a microscope to news from the worlds of science, nature, and technology.
6. This Week in Tech (TWiT) – A rolling panel of expert pundits dissect the week’s top tech news. Published on Sunday, and available in audio and video formats, TWiT brands itself the last word in tech. TWiT is also the flagship show of TWiT.tv’s armada of weekly tech content, with dedicated shows for topics as granular as “this week in Google”.
7. Stuff You Should Know – A long-running pod where charming duo (and hopefully BFFs IRL) Chuck and Josh drill forensically into pretty much anything that catches their fancy. Their last three shows, for instance, covered the morality of lethal injections, algae, and the Concorde. Incurious minds need not subscribe.
=8. Stuff to Blow Your Mind – The sister show to Stuff You Should Know, Stuff to Blow Your Mind reserves its meticulous research for the awesome, the mythic and the downright unbelievable. Ready your best Macaulay Culkin impressions.
=8. Invisibilia – Unseen forces control our lives and our actions. Invisibilia tries to make those invisible influences, visible. From the always excellent NPR, Invisibilia is published in once-a-year seasons rather than through ongoing episodic releases. And it’s all the more special because of it.
10. 99% Invisible – So much of the thought going into our world completely escapes our notice. 99% Invisible aims to whip our ignorance into intelligence, by grabbing hold of our faces, turning them this way and that, flapping at something and screeching ‘look at this!’ Impress your friends with your knowledge of straws, pockets and more. Episodes weekly.
So there you have it. The best 10 science and technology podcasts around. So, how did we work it out?
We did a Science
We took the 54 articles from Google and weighted their input based on the source’s Domain Authority, which measures its performance on search engines. This was our proxy for judging trustworthiness and quality.
Next, we factored in other relevant variables, including the podcast’s rank in the article (mostly the recommendations were unranked, in which case the rank was 1), the year in which the article was published, the nature of the article’s recommendations and whether the podcast was still running. We assigned points to each of these variables, totted them up, and created our ranking. Here was our equation:
P = Whether the podcast is still publishing (1 for yes, 2 for no)
D = (2018 – year that article was published)^2
R = relevance deductions. 2 points are deducted for any of the following:
- The article was for a specific audience, e.g. programmers, IT specialists
- The podcasts are stated as being the best within a particular timeframe, e.g. the best of 2017
- The article doesn’t list the podcasts as being ‘the best’, and instead meet a similar but lesser criteria, e.g. ‘podcasts we really like’
We’d like to see you try
As you might have figured out by now, we’re not data scientists. We’re R&D tax credits experts (plus one dog, whose expertise is limited). So, if you think you could come up with a better model and a more accurate ranking, we invite you to try!
Below is a link to our dataset. Let us know how you get on in the comments section below. We’ll celebrate the best submission we receive with its very own blog post (and maybe you’ll win a prize. A small carnivorous plant or something. We’ll see).
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