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.
I recently sat down with the fine people at KCUR’s Central Standard to discuss my upcoming book (later this year) about how people do (and do not) change their minds.
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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.
For much of his career, science historian James Burke has been creating documentaries and writing books aimed at helping us to make better sense of the enormous amount of information that he predicted would one day be at our fingertips.
In this episode we interview Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain is Really Up To. Burnett’s book is a guide to the neuroscience behind the things that our amazing brains do poorly.