My Favorite Social Science Podcasts

by | Aug 1, 2016 | Reviews

Has anyone else driven the long way to work just to catch a few minutes more of a really good podcast?  I know, I could just sit in my car in the parking lot and finish it there, but that just feels weird.  Social science podcasts fuel my commute.

Just a few years ago, I had not heard of podcasts, and I was not a big fan of radio in general.  The lonely exception was during my childhood when I snuck my transistor radio under my pillow at night to listen to Jack Clark play for the San Francisco Giants.  But with podcasts came radio that I could have a bit more control over – and a new obsession was born.

Here’s the level of addiction that I have for this stuff – at the moment, I am subscribed to 52 total podcasts, many of them social science podcasts – and I currently have 264 podcast episodes to listen to.  I am fairly strict, however, on which podcasts I keep a subscription to.  In any given week, I will subscribe to about a few new podcasts, and unsubscribe from about the same.

I keep organized by creating “Stations” in the Podcasts App.  I have stations for Favorites, News, Podcasts About Podcasts, NonProfits, Other Work, Social Science Podcasts, and Other.  There is some overlap, certainly, but this gives me a way to match my listening mood with the right episode.

The podcast industry is still young and growing – and those producing podcasts have much to learn.  There are great content podcasts that I can’t listen to because the sound is terrible.  There are wonderfully engineered podcast with contents that are seriously lacking.  I generally lean towards contents as being more important, however, a poorly engineered episode can turn me off quickly.

For this list, I scoured my Favorites category for those that I get the most out of in my day-to-day work life.  I have approximated the length of most episodes and included some observations around frequency of new episode releases and how many historical episodes are currently available via iTunes.

Note to binge listeners, if you want to occupy your week – go directly to Freakonomics!

Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People

Typical Length:  65-70 minutes
New Episodes:  Weekly (Tuesday)
Historical Library on iTunes:  22

I have added this one here, even though it generally falls into the comedy category, by comedian Chris Gethard, because it reminds me of the complexities of an interview with a stranger.  That puts it into the social science podcasts category, right?

The premise is this – a caller dials in to talk with Chris.  They talk for an hour about whatever the caller wants to talk about.  The caller generally sets the topic of the call – but then Chris usually leads the conversation once he finds something interesting.  The only rules are that the caller cannot identify themselves (thus, it is anonymous), and that Chris cannot hang up.  When 60 minutes pass, the line is disconnected.

This one gets emotional, can be quite dark at times, but also always seems to convey a sense of hope.  It is one of those podcasts that I will jump on the same day that a new episode is released.

One favorite episode of mine is the first – Ron Paul’s Baby.

Feakonomics Radio

Typical Length:  45 minutes
New Episodes:  Weekly (Wednesdays)
Historical Library on iTunes:  250

This is one of the first social science podcasts that I started listening to.  From the authors of the bestselling book and movie of the same name, this one is a classic and a must listen.  Steven D. Levitt (a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago), and Stephen J. Dubner (an author, journalist, and TV/radio personality) team up in a high quality program that explores economic principles at work.

One of my all time favorite episodes is called “Riding the Herd Mentality” – it dives into the work of social psychologist Robert Cialdini and others who have done some wonderful work in the area of persuasion.  A useful set of tools for those in the survey research business.

This podcast is also very family friendly – my kids always perk up if I’m listening at home. It was launched in 2010, so there are hundreds of episodes to binge listen to if you are in the mood.

Hidden Brain

Typical Length:  20-30 minutes
New Episodes:  Weekly (Mondays)
Historical Library on iTunes:  48

The host, Shankar Vedantam, a science correspondent for NPR on the topic of human behavior and social sciences.  This podcast focuses on how the unconscious mind influences people.  Nearly every episode contains some nugget that I have found useful in my work in survey research.

Embedded in each episode is a short segment called Stopwatch Science, where Shankar and Daniel Pink (Hidden Brain’s Senior Stopwatch Science correspondent, and science author) each get 60 seconds to communicate some interesting ideas from social science research.  They take turns, and have a bell of some form that rings when their time is up.  I don’t know how many times I have repeated something I heard during this segment later.

One favorite episode of mine is “This is Your Brain on Uber“, which dives into behaviors around Uber’s “Dynamic Pricing”, where people will spend many more times the normal rate to get an Uber ride.

FiveThirtyEight Elections

Typical Length:  45 minutes (but wide range from 20 to 70 minutes)
New Episodes:  Weekly (Mondays), plus occasional extra episodes
Historical Library on iTunes:  30

Probably the most directly applicable to the work that I do in some ways – but also the furthest from it in others.  Nate Silver, a statistician who started by building tools to predict success of MLB players using statistical modeling, then successfully moved into politics after an amazing streak in predicting the 2008 U.S. Presidential race in nearly all States, created the Five Thirty Eight brand (which corresponds to the number of seats in congress).  Nate is joined by the podcast host, Jody Avirgan, and several other data journalists.

Discussions often revolve around political predictions and interpretations of the data, however, there is an ongoing discussion of errors and accuracy in polling, which I find refreshing.

While I have no specific favorite episode, if you would like to listen to the evolution of data journalists turning into pundits, then being slammed back to reality (and subsequently back to the data), there is a lot of content to listen to between January and May 2016.  For a written overview, check out Nate’s blog post.  It takes a special kind of person to admit they were wrong in this way.

I’m going to leave it at that for now — these are certainly four of the most enjoyed and influential social science podcasts that I listen to on a routine basis.  There are many others that could have made this list – I’ll save those for a later post.  But now it is time for you to share.  I would love to hear about your favorites.  Submit your favorite in the form below, and look for a future list/compilation of podcasts that are submitted – like this review of The Measure of Everyday Life!

Your Name

About the Author

Scott D. Crawford

Scott D. Crawford is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer at SoundRocket. He is also often found practicing being a husband, father, entrepreneur, forever-learner, survey methodologist, science writer & advocate, and podcast lover. While he doesn’t believe in reincarnation, he’s certain he was a Great Dane (of the canine type) in a previous life.