Critical Thinking

Et tu, Radiolab?

It’s time for my morning jog and I spend a few minutes looking over my list of podcasts to choose my educational listenings for the next hour or so. Scrolling through my podcasts I find my trusted running companion, Radiolab. A new episode. Thanks, loyal friend.

If you are not familiar with the radio show, Radiolab, take a few moments and look at their website. It might even be helpful to listen to a few minutes of one of their podcasts.

Done? Ok, let’s continue.

I have been a huge fan of Radiolab for many years. The stories are inspiring and quirky, and the hosts are entertaining. The shows have featured in my classroom on many occasions due to the interesting content, and the fact I think it’s good for students to listen to an entire radio show every once in a while. It’s cathartic to sit still, without distractions,  and hear a story being told devoid of visual clues except those recreated by your imagination.

The most recent episode, Rodney Versus Death, caught my attention and I decided to screen it for my class while doing my morning jog. Midway through the podcast, however, there was content that left me baffled as to why it was part of the show.

To make my point I have to give you information about the show. If you are going to listen to the show, do so before reading below, as this is sort of a spoiler alert.

The show is about rabies. I quickly realized how little I knew about rabies, and found this episode quite interesting. Did you know rabies is basically incurable? I didn’t. Did you know about 55,000 people die from rabies each year? Neither did I. Did you know rabies attaches to your nervous system and slowly climbs its way to your brain? Frightening information.

The beginning of the podcast centers on a young girl, Jeanna Giese, who takes a wounded bat out of church (it had been flying around bothering the congregation so church staff hit it with something and it fell to the ground). While trying to help the bat, Jeanna was bitten, which leads to a strange series of events where she is eventually diagnosed with rabies. Her parents are told the disease is incurable, but the doctor had a sort of last ditch idea to try and save her. The idea is to induce a coma and allow the body’s own immune system time to react against the rabies.

This had never been done before, and while based on solid reasoning, there was little science to support this decision. Yet, sometimes desperate times require desperate actions. Jeanna was dying, and they were out of alternatives.

At this point in the podcast I’m very intrigued. I’m learning new things, science-based logic is happening, and because the young girl is already speaking on the podcast, we know that she did not die from rabies, and thus a new scientific discovery will be unraveled. It was exciting.

While the girl is in an induced coma, her mother, Anne, waits by her bedside. The following is a transcript of the show.

Host: Anne stays with Jeanna in the hospital room and spends her time…

Anne: Praying and calling people and asking them to pray.

Host: She repeated this one prayer.

Anne: Psalm 91.

Host: Over and over again.

Anne: It talks about, you know, basically, the devil not getting ahold of you.

Host: He is my refuge and my fortress. My God in whom I trust. Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare, and from the deadly pestilence.

The girl was bit by a rabid bat IN A CHURCH. Additionally, hasn’t prayer been shown to be ineffective?

Is Radiolab suggesting that prayer was the answer rather than the induced coma? (It turns out in the end the neither is really the answer, but at this point in the podcast we are none the wiser) What gives, Radiolab, trusted friend? Have I been betrayed? Perhaps this is just a misunderstanding.

It was a truly annoying and unnecessary addition to the podcast, yet, while listening to it I was ready to forgive give Radolab for the indiscretion.

Then, just a few minutes later, it happened again.

The doctor who suggested inducing a coma, Dr. Rodney Willoughby, was worried that Jeanna might become ‘locked in”. This is a state in which the mind is functioning, but has no control of the body. It is the ultimate prison, and a frightening existence to envision. As the doctor points out, it would be better to die than be a locked in victim. The show continues:

Host: As Rodney drove back from work, he kept repeating this prayer.

Dr.: Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a poor sinner. Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a poor sinner. Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a poor sinner.

The show reveals that just 2 days later, Rodney hears Jeanna has been brought out of her coma and is able to move.

Beware the Ides of March! Et tu, Radiolab?

Again, is Radiolab really suggesting that prayers were answered? The prayer sections of this podcast take away from an otherwise interesting and scientific-ish story. As an educator who uses Radiolab in the classroom, it is my sincerest hope that this trend ends with this show. Otherwise, I will cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war (Is that Shakespeare or Star Trek?). Then fall, Richard.


Featured image: Richard

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Richard teaches art at a Catholic school, and spends most of his days coloring and pretending he is not an atheist. He likes vintage furniture and french bulldogs.


  1. August 21, 2013 at 10:14 pm —

    The episode in April about doubt drove me up a damn wall because they throw out Pascal’s wager while wrapping up a segment and congratulate Pascal (and each other) for making a really great point.

  2. August 22, 2013 at 8:07 am —

    Radiolab has long had a cloying side to it that I always disliked. I think it’s a carry-over from the old-school radio training of Robert Krulwich (and former producer Ellen Horne). For all his gifts as a science communicator, Krulwich too often has to insert what I’ll call “human interest” into a science story – perhaps to ramp up the emotional aspects. I never liked these parts of the show, because I thought the stories were strong enough without emotional anecdotes.

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