Little did the champions of the Enlightenment know that once we had access to all the facts…well, reason and rationality wouldn’t just immediately wash across the land in a giant wave of enlightenment thinking.

While that may be happening in some ways, the new media ecosystem has also unshackled some of our deepest psychological tendencies, things that enlightenment thinkers didn’t know about, weren’t worried about, or couldn’t have predicted. Many of which we’ve discussed in previous episodes like confirmation bias, selective skepticism, filter bubbles and so on. These things have always been with us, but modern technology has provided them with the perfect environment to flourish.

In this episode, we explore another such invasive psychological species called active information avoidance, the act of keeping our senses away from information that might be useful, that we know is out there, that would cost us nothing to obtain, but that we’d still rather not learn. From choosing not to open open bills, visit the doctor, check your bank account, or read the nutrition information on the back of a box of Girl Scout Cookies, we each choose to remain ignorant when we’d rather not feel the anguish of illumination, but that same tendency can also cause great harm both to individuals and whole cultures when it spreads through politics, science, markets, and medicine. In this show, you’ll learn how.

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We aren’t treating tribalism as a basic human drive, but that’s what it is. Fast food lowered the cost to satisfy a basic drive, and we grew fat. Then we figured it out. Social media lowered the cost to exhibit tribal behaviors, and we are growing apart. But we can figure this out too.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we spend time with political scientist Lilliana Mason and psychologist Dan Kahan, two researchers exploring how our tribal tendencies are scrambling public discourse and derailing so many of our best efforts at progress — from science communication, to elections, to our ability to converge on the truth and go about the grind of building a better democracy.

This episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is about progress, how we invented it as an idea and then went about pursuing it on-purpose.

Our guest is University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer. I wanted to talk to Ada because she wrote this brilliant, fun, illuminating essay earlier this year titled On Progress and Historical Change which felt like had been written specifically to address my exact confusion.

Historians, she writes, are careful to avoid a teleological frame of mind they sometimes call “Whig history,” in which we look back at our ignorant pasts and compare it to our amazing present and then assume there is an ultimate goal to all of this activity, an end-state of perfection, a strange attractor pulling us toward the ultimate purpose of all human effort. The truth is that it is a lot more complicated than that.

In the essay, she reveals the problems with thinking in this way and asks, “Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?”

In the episode, you’ll hear her address all these questions and more, and I promise it will leave you feeling optimistic, but also a bit more realistic.

You Are Not So Smart is a one-person operation.

With no staff, the support of patrons allows me, David McRaney, to devote long hours to producing new content. In short, you keep the lights on, buy the coffee, and make the show possible.

One day, I’d love to hire a producer and a reporter to help the show grow and cover new ground by traveling and making episodes on-location, and with your support, I know we can make that happen.

Head to this link at Patreon.com to pitch in. Any level of support will give you exclusive access to an ad-free version of the show, and at the higher levels you’ll get extra episodes, t-shirts, signed books, posters, and more.

Last year on this show, we did three episodes about the backfire effect, and by far, those episodes were the most popular we’ve ever done.

In fact, the famous web comic The Oatmeal turned them into a sort of special feature, and that comic of those episodes was shared on Facebook a gazillion times, which lead to a stories about the comic in popular media, and then more people listened to the shows, on and on it went. You can go see it at The Oatmeal right now at the top of their page. It’s titled, you are not going to believe what I am about to tell you.

The popularity of the backfire effect extends into academia. The original paper has been cited hundreds of times, and there have been more than 300 articles written about it since it first came out.

The backfire effect has his special allure to it, because, on the surface, it seems to explain something we’ve all experienced — when we argue with people who believe differently than us, who see the world through a different ideological lens — they often resist our views, refuse to accept our way of seeing things, and it often seems like we do more harm than good, because they walk away seemingly more entrenched in their beliefs than before the argument began.

But…since those shows last year, researchers have produced a series new studies into the backfire effect that complicate things. Yes, we are observing something here, and yes we are calling it the backfire effect, but everything is not exactly as it seems, and so I thought we should invite these new researchers on the show and add a fourth episode to the backfire effect series based on what they’ve found. And this is that episode.

Our guest for this episode, Will Storr, wrote a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.

In that book, Storr spends time with Holocaust deniers, young Earth creationists, people who believe they’ve lived past lives as famous figures, people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, people who stake their lives on the power of homeopathy, and many more – people who believe things that most of us do not.