Making Better Episode 13—Dean Amber Miller
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader
Francis: And I’m Francis DiDonato
Chris: And this is Episode 13 of Making Better Podcast, featuring USC-Dornsife Dean Amber Miller!
Francis: Amber Miller is a fascinating person. She has amazing ideas when it comes to new directions for how academia can function in society, but she’s also a cosmologist with over 100 scientific papers published so far.
Chris: We had a wide-ranging conversation, with topics from what role academia can play in society all the way to things like gravitational waves and some of the newest concepts in cosmology.
Francis: Why is there only one Big Bang, why couldn’t there be multiple ones? So, you’ll find out the answer to that..
Chris: Let’s go on to the interview…
Chris: Dean Amber Miller, welcome to Making Better!
Amber: Thank you for having me.
Francis: Great to have you.
Chris: Dean Miller, can you tell us about yourself, your background, and how you got to be where you are?
Amber: I grew up in the Malibu Mountains, sort of in the middle of nowhere. My parents were hippies, I spent a ton of time outdoors—I think that led to a certain level of curiosity and inquisitiveness, but also some self-sufficiency and love of the outdoors, love of animals. I went to Santa Monica high school, which was very far away, it was about an hour commute each direction, and that made me kind of an independent person. I spent a lot of time by myself, heading back and forth in the commute and trying to figure out what to do after school, between after school and my evening school-type activities. People often ask me, you know, what were the formative elements of childhood, and I think probably being left alone and being given a lot of independence made me re-think what was possible in a lot of ways. I think being different as a kid, growing up with hippie parents in a place where there was a lot of kids that were very, very similar to each other in a small town in Malibu made me comfortable being a little different. And I think having parents who didn’t tell me, you should be a doctor or you should be a lawyer, you should be an engineer, and just letting me figure out for myself what I wanted to do, gave me the freedom to be a musician when I was kid—I spent all my time playing music, pretty much—but then when I went off to college, it was really wide open. I could do anything I wanted. I studied a little bit of psychology right at the beginning and quickly got bored with that, although I have always been interested in the way people function, but I had a boring Psychology class, probably more than anything about the subject itself. In a really fascinating class, a little seminar course I took on black holes, it just worked my whole brain and made me think in a different way and I thought, man, college is the time when you can explore anything, and I can read about all kinds of things later on; but if I don’t study astrophysics right now, I’ll never learn it. So I just dove in and did it. That put me on that path for quite a while—although I was always interested in many different things at the same time.
Francis: Was it unusual for a woman to be engaged in that at that time?
Amber: You know it’s funny, I think that’s something about that independence—I never thought about that, to be completely honest. My friends have never been the people who are necessarily in my classes, or later on, my colleagues at work. I always had very close girl friends, but it never really was a thing for me that there weren’t very many other women studying astrophysics. I’ve always had a little bit of a schizophrenic perspective on being a scientist and being an academic. I remember when I left graduate school, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a professor. I was sure I wanted to do something interesting, and I was sure that I wanted to make an impact, but I wasn’t really sure how, exactly. And I’ve always been very interested in policy and politics, and I thought about going to—I can’t remember if I was looking at a Congressional fellowship or a White House fellowship at the time, and I remember I had gotten a NASA/Hubbell fellowship, which was kind of the best thing you could get in my field, and mentioned to my advisor that I was thinking about maybe going to D.C. and doing this other thing, and—I love my advisor, and he gave me good advice at the time, but what he said was, “that’s the craziest thing I ever heard! You don’t want to do that, you’ll never get a tenure-track job.” And he was right, it was the right thing to do, but it was kind of sad because I really did want to go off and do the policy thing at the same time that I wanted to go off and be an academic. I think that’s another thing that many of us struggle with, you know, the academic path to get to be a tenured faculty member at an elite institution is really a pretty, you got to stay pretty focused, which doesn’t reward people who are doing many things at the same time. So I did go on that very focused path, I took the Hubbell fellowship, I went to the University of Chicago, I worked on another set of cosmology projects, and—luckily, because I could not stand Chicago, it was too cold and too dark for me—luckily I got the job as a junior faculty member at Columbia only 6 months after I’d been there, or a I probably would have gone crazy in Chicago. I did stay there for one more year, but I needed to be near the ocean and I needed to be somewhere where the time zone made it so it wasn’t dark, ever, at 3:30. That was kind of my [inaud]. So I moved to New York to take this junior faculty position, and again, I tried to stay pretty focused, although New York is a very distracting place and there are so many things to do, and I really—and I don’t just mean socially, I already started getting kind of preoccupied by this idea that I really didn’t just want to focus on the single question in the world that was really most interesting to me, which was where did the universe come from. That felt like very much my own, single question, but I also really wanted to find a way to have an impact on things that affect everybody today. I was thinking about the environment, and thinking about the energy economy, and thinking about what scientists could do in all kinds of other ways. So up through tenure, I was not doing a lot of other things because I knew that I had to stay focused, but once I got tenure I felt like I was liberated a little bit to focus on other things. Not the the exclusion of my physics, but in addition to, and that’s when I joined the Council on Foreign Relations, and t hat opened up a whole other world of things that, again, impacted my thinking in terms of what could academics do, how can academic talent be pulled out of the academy and used to make a practical impact on the world, while also—as someone who understands more than anybody the real importance of fundamental research. I am not at all somebody who thinks that, if you’re working on something that doesn’t have a practical application, it’s not valuable. My entire research career has been working on things that have absolutely zero practical application, all about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But I’ve always had kind of these both sides, saying knowledge for the sake of knowledge is critically important and interesting, but I also want to do something that has more practical and transparent impact today.
Francis: What was it like for you, with all that history you had after physics, when the images from the Hubbell started coming through deep space?
Amber: I think maybe the level of awe is not what the general public experiences—I found them beautiful and fascinating, but maybe a little bit, I was perhaps less awestruck than I think some people might have been.
Francis: Is that because it was already known and there just wasn’t images for it?
Amber: I’m not sure that I would say “it” was already known—some things were known, some things were not know. Seeing particular images of them, it’s still spectacular and beautiful, but it maybe is not as shocking or new as it is to some people.
Chris: Getting back to your bio, you had decided to study astrophysics. Is that your undergraduate degree?
Amber: Yeah, so I did undergraduate degrees in—actually it was physics, and then I picked up a second major in astrophysics and then I went to Princeton to get a PhD in physics, but I studied cosmology at the time. There’s kind of a cultural difference between whether you get a PhD in physics or in astronomy/astrophysics, and I was always really more on the physics side. But physics was always a tool for me, so that I could study what I was really interested, which wasn’t even really astrophysics, it was always cosmology.
Francis: Why cosmology?
Amber: I think it was really about the question, where do we all come from? What is the origin of everything that we see around us? I think it’s really that most fundamental question that humans have grappled with for all time, and the idea that one could get at it through this physical mathematical, experimental kind of framework was just fascinating to me.
Francis: Thinking about those first few seconds, why one big bang? If there’s one, why couldn’t there be a bunch of them happening all over the place?
Amber: There could be. I think that’s one of the big questions. I mean, when you say “all over the place,” for a universe to be created requires a certain set of physical conditions. But that doesn’t mean that it has to have happened only once.
Francis: So, is there any evidence to that? Or is it all theoretical at this point?
Amber: It’s theoretical at this point. I mean, I think what we have evidence for is that the universe in which we live, this universe that has three spacial dimensions and one temporal dimension, we know roughly for how long this universe has been around. We know that this universe started very, very hot and very dense and much, much, much smaller than it is now. We know that there was some sort of creation event that happened at the time that we would define as time T equals zero; and we know a lot about what has happened from the very first moments of that creation event until what the universe looks like today. What we don’t know is the mechanism that made that creation event happen, and that’s why we try to study the detailed physics of the universe, looking further and further and further back in time. Now, the kind of research that I’m involved in now is trying to understand what the conditions were when the universe was much, much, much, much less than one second old. And the idea there is that if you can understand the mathematics and the physics of the universe at that point in time, you get the best clue you can possibly get as to what it was that formed the potentially underlying higher dimensional spacetime, or what it was that actually set off that event. I mean, if you can really understand that, then you have a better picture of whether or not there might be multiple such events.
Francis: Are there any theories right now that you particularly align yourself with, and what that was?
Amber: No. I mean, look, they’re all very, very highly mathematical and I’m an experimentalist, so my work is building from the ground up the kind of instrumentation that is needed to be able to make measurements to distinguish between different ideas. And if you’re not in this business, you’d say, well OK, but don’t you have a theory that you really like? And I guess from my standpoint, it isn’t really a question of one sounds better, or you like one better. There is a mathematical truth out there, and we will someday uncover it, and the goal is to try to get there. I don’t have a favorite potential truth. I mean, I guess what I can say is that for the non-expert, I think the way that is easiest in my mind to think about what almost certainly happened is something called the phase transition. And the phase transition that people are most familiar with is when ice turns into water and water turns into steam—it’s the same substance, but it’s going from one phase to another. If you think about the creation of our universe, one image I like to give people is that if you imagine a creature that doesn’t have any concept of up or down, it only understands a flat world, and it doesn’t have any concept of liquids or gases. For it to live, for it to understand a world, it needs something solid and it needs a solid, flat surface. So if you put that little creature at the surface of a lake, and the water in the lake is on the one side, and the air is on the other—there’s no universe for that creature to live in, because there is no flat, solid surface, there’s nothing there, so that creature has no universe. But then you cool the water in the lake, and all of a sudden—from the perspective of this creature—out of nowhere comes a universe to live in, that just appears in seemingly everywhere at the same time, because all of a sudden you have a layer of ice on the surface of this lake. There’s been a phase transition that has created a universe from no universe. And from the perspective of the creature that can only understand that type of universe, it came from nowhere. But from us, looking at it with an omniscient view, you know that there was something there before, that transitioned and phased to create this flat surface. I think it’s going to be something like that. There are mathematical theories that give phase transition, that creates the type of universe that we see.
Chris: These are fairly complex topics that we’ve just been discussing. How do you see communicating this to the general public?
Amber: You know, I think that there are people who do that a whole lot better than I do. I think one of the things that’s gone wrong in the relationship between academia and the public is that that the concepts that academics are working have gotten more and more specialized, and more and more complex. Academics have had to spend more and more time getting deeper and deeper and deeper into ideas, and t hey have not typically gotten a huge amount of training in how to communicate these ideas to the outside world. And in fact, there’s often a disincentive to learn how to do that, because people who spend a lot of time doing that often get hassled by their colleagues or looked down upon by their colleagues as people who are no longer serious about their science, because they’re spending so much time thinking about how to communicate it to the public. And it’s a two-way street, you see the public responding to academics trying to communicate by making dismissive comments about them being eggheads up in ivory towers, or working on things that are irrelevant and not practical in today’s world; and so I think there’s kind of a retrenchment, also on the academic side, to say well if people don’t appreciate what we’re doing, then why should we go out of our way to make an effort to help people understand what we’re doing? And people on the outside saying, well, if academics can’t explain what they’re doing, why should we care? And I think that we need to do a number of different things. I think that we need to do a much better job of training our academics to be communicators. We need to do a much better job of making sure, within the university context, that that kind of communication is rewarded and appreciated and not looked down up on or punished. And I think the public needs to slow down a little bit and be willing to get out of their Twitter-spheres for long enough to spend time thinking and talking about complex ideas. And I think that there’s some work for everybody to do.
Francis: My early research was at Rockefeller University, and it was firmly rooted in basic science. And it seemed like, at the time, studying what we, I guess at that time was just referred to as nuclear proteins and that sort of thing, it was something that we should know about. But it opened up what ultimately became the field of epigenetics. And when you think about what a huge impact epigenetics has had—back then, we were just sort of stabbing in the dark, and trying to characterize proteins that we knew had to have some kind of important function.
Amber: I think this is so important, and something that so many people don’t understand. You know, it is so much easier to understand a breakthrough cancer treatment than it is to understand the study of a basic protein that might be a fundamental thing that you need to be able to produce that treatment. Or, a really basic concept in chemistry that creates a way of thinking about a new drug, and it’s so much easier to appreciate the end state than it is, you know, the beginning of that pipeline, that I think the beginning of the pipeline often gets lost and sometimes you even hear people say, oh, it’s not science that generates innovation, it’s innovation that generates innovation—which makes me crazy, because it’s just so blatantly not true. Today’s technology companies and biotech companies are building on decades and decades of scientific innovation that have taken place and built this incredible knowledge base from which they can function, and that pipeline is important and it’s great that the end result is things that people understand, but we also have to find a way to give people a little bit more insight into the critical importance of the earlier stages of that pipeline. Because if we don’t, those earlier stages will dry up, and it will be a little while before we become, as a society, critically aware of the impact of those having dried up. But in the end, it’s not going to be a good thing.
Francis: And I would encourage the American public to be a little bit more demanding on the return in their investment, because if you think about how much of what ultimately becomes patents and medicine, rests on NIH funding—Americans are really paying for the development of these drugs as much as anyone else.
Amber: Yeah, they are. I think it’s just, it’s very hard for people to understand the research that’s coming out. I mean, you hear these crazy political statements, people saying “I can’t believe I’m paying for studies about shrimp on treadmills!” and these kinds of statements that are just—clearly don’t understand what the research is about, and that’s not helpful because ultimately that NIH funding is generating that knowledge base. But it’s such a black box to most people that it’s hard for them to make sense of. So great, that knowledge base, what does it do for you, where does it go? And where it goes is all of this incredible breakthroughs you’re seeing in the biomedical world, but it’s easy to just credit those as though the knowledge base wasn’t needed to get there, because people just don’t understand. And it’s not the fault of the consumer or the citizen who doesn’t understand, because it’s an incredibly complex thing to communicate. And I think we need to find a way to do better than that.
Chris: What is the role of the university in communicating to the general public, and how do the Humanities play a role in that?
Amber: We can unpack this for an hour. I think there’s—you know, it’s an incredibly complicated role. I think that there are many, many different roles. One role is in educating an entire generation of undergraduates and graduate students who will go out in the world and put those things into action so that people can see it. Another role is to do a better job of explaining what it is that our researchers are doing every day, and it isn’t just communication, but there’s also a role to be played in actually getting the expertise that’s locked up behind the ivory tower out, so that people can access it. And I would draw a distinction between that and communication, because communicating, to me, is—in my laboratory, we’re doing all this great stuff to try and understand the early universe, and we need to do a better job of explaining to people what we’re doing so they can appreciate it and experience it and see the wonder of it. But getting the expertise out so that people can access it is different in the sense that, we may here in Los Angeles, where we are, we may be trying to build an entirely new energy infrastructure. We’re trying to meet LA’s new sustainability goals—how do we get the academics, who are right here at USC, involved in that project? And that’s something we’ve been thinking very deeply about.
Francis: It’s a real shift in the role of universities overall, and I know you had mentioned something in a previous talk that you had given regarding the new social contract. Does it relate to that?
Amber: Yeah. So what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to find the new way to tap that academic expertise. When you think about it, right now the way most of this expertise gets out is, academics write papers, they write books, they write articles, they publish their findings and then someone in the policy sphere will look up an academic paper or make a phone call or read a white paper, but there’s a long time lag there, and there’s a mismatch between the kinds of problems that the academics are working on in their own time, focused on their own research, and the kinds of questions policymakers might need the answer to right now. And you don’t want to grab the academics and say, you can’t ask your own questions, you have to be focused on what the policymakers want, because that means that they are not doing that fundamental research that you need to build the base of knowledge. You don’t want to do that, but at the same time, here are people sitting right here in your city who have the answers to questions, and I can’t tell you how many times, both here in Los Angeles and also when I was in New York, when I would talk to people who were outside of the academy and they’d say, whether it was at a company or someone in the city or the county, saying “oh you know we’re working on this thing, and we have this researcher who’s looking this up,” and we would talk a little bit about what they were trying to get at, and it was just obvious to me that we have a faculty member who could tell you more than that researcher could find online in a week, in 20 minutes. So how you connect up that faculty member who has that expertise, who would be willing to spend 20 minutes talking to somebody and sharing that expertise, but they don’t know who to call, they don’t know how to access that person. So we are trying to create a new, really a mundane infrastructure, that something that creates an office, a connecting point, almost like a consultancy where people can come to get those kinds of questions answered. And it can be anything from a five minute conversation to a six or nine month or even a year-long research project where the university then becomes the research arm for the city, for the county, for the nonprofit community, for the business community. And it doesn’t have to take a huge amount of people’s time, it can be something they can do on the side instead of serving on a committee or instead of teaching one course for that semester, and that way you get, you can tap that incredible bank of expertise without sacrificing the researcher’s ability to do their primary production of knowledge type research that they’re doing in what I would think of as their “day job.”
Francis: It almost sounds like there’s a failure in the project management of society.
Amber: Yeah, I mean you can think of it that way. I do think that we have so many different silos, and we function OK because we have so many people who are doing—we don’t have to be maximally efficient. But I think when it comes to certain critical path things that society is dealing with, and I would put energy and the environment very much in that space, we need to solve this problem together as a society, we are out of time. To let that kind of random walk relationship between things get published in the academy, things that get commercialized to policy teams working in government, and to let the ideas sort of percolate out of the academic enterprise, to be able to be helpful, is not going to be good enough to save coral reefs and biodiversity and to prevent a lot of suffering, human suffering, on the global scale. So it feels to me like when you’re looking at something like that, you really have to activate all the talent you have in the most efficient possible way. And I’ve really been thinking about how does the university do our part in not just producing knowledge and generating the next generation of students, but really thinking about how do you directly get that expertise into the hands of the policymakers or into the hands of people working in a new company trying to get a new alternative energy project up and running. How do we create some shortcuts, because we’ve got to make this work.
Chris: You spoke of the value of a liberal arts education. Where does the English major fit in to all of this?
Amber: They fit in all over the place. Really, I think the term “liberal arts” needs a shake-up. You know, in much of our society both the term “liberal” and the term “art” have become bad words. But if you really look at it, you know, “liberal” comes from the latin word meaning “freedom,” and that was derived from the Sanscrit word that means “one climbs,” or “grows.” And “arts” comes from the Latin word that means “skill” or “craft.” So you could really think of a Liberal Arts education as an education through which you gain the skills to grow, to climb. It is not about reading old, stale texts, it’s about understanding the world, it’s about understanding humanity, understanding our culture, understanding our communities. It’s about understanding science, it’s about developing some quantitative skills to be able to do those back-of-the-envelope calculations in your everyday experience that allow you to guess whether something makes sense or not that you read in the paper. It is the kind of education that produces leaders, people who have the flexibility of mind to be able to come into a new situation and assess who the people are in the situation, what the boundaries are, what’s going on, who’s thinking what, what are some of the new ideas that can be brought to bear to solve a problem. How do you think about the problem from the standpoint of the humans involved, from the standpoint of what the problem is about. Is there a problem that has to do with a science question? What’s going on in the problem you’re dealing with? And that is important every single place you go. It’s something you need to be able to communicate, you need to be able to negotiate, all of those skills are things that you develop through what we now call the Liberal Arts education. And I really think of this as the difference between people who have the skills to function, sort of somewhere mid-way in the organization, and people who have the skills to build their own organization, to be somebody who can be a CEO or a President or a leader or someone who comes up with that new idea that changes the game. And that doesn’t matter if you are an English major or a chemistry major or an anthropology major. You are getting those skills if you are in an outstanding Liberal Arts program, no matter what your major is.
Chris: You also spoke about the value of inclusion in academia. This is something that comes up in the disability community, of which everybody on our team is a member—how do you deal with including students with disabilities at your campus?
Amber: There is an enormous amount of attention being paid right now to what we refer to as “diversity equity and inclusion”—and that’s not just students, that’s students, staff, that’s faculty. And the primary thing that we’re all thinking about, as we are getting involved in lists and lists of many things, is that it has been demonstrated time and again that outcomes are better and people are happier when you have inclusive and diverse groups of people involved, and that is true whether you are sitting around in a seminar, whether you are working on a project in the field, whether you are trying to create a leadership team. No matter what you’re doing, we have seen again and again that different perspectives and a sense of safety—and that’s where the inclusion piece comes in—a sense of safety and community that comes from people really feeling that they belong, no matter who they are, generates better outcomes and better ideas. Not to mention that it is the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, but, I think as a university is a place that has really grabbed that bull with both horns and is really trying to figure out how to do it right.
Chris: You also spoke a bit about empathy—do you think that a university can teach empathy, or is empathy something to do with mirror neurons and brain development, and is something hard-wired?
Amber: I am not a neuroscientist, so I would hate to take that one on from a scientific standpoint. But I will say, from an experience standpoint, I think empathy comes from understanding and exposure. And I think that the more time we spend with people who are not like us, in whatever dimension we think about, the more we realize that they are like us, and the more empathy that that breeds. And, you know, I think about that not just with humans, but I grew up with animals everywhere and I always had dogs, and you know some animals are more obviously this way than others. Dogs are a great example; you cannot grow up with a dog and believe that dogs don’t have feelings, or that they don’t get their feelings hurt, or they can’t be sad. You know, people say you shouldn’t ascribe human emotions to animals; but they’re not just human emotions, and when you spend a lot of time with animals, it’s so obvious that animals feel many of the same things that humans feel. I mean, there are dogs that are amazing, but so are so many other animals that we don’t day to day contact with, and I think for me personally, having spent so much time with animals as a kid, makes it impossible for it not to be very personally painful to me when I hear about the biodiversity loss in this world. I see a picture of a polar bear dying because there’s no ice for it to climb up on and no food for it to eat, and I—it makes me think of my dog when I was a kid, and the look in my dog’s eyes when the dog was sad, and I think that experience creates empathy. If it’s that true with animals, it’s even all the more true with people, it’s impossible to spend time with people who you would initially on the surface think are very different from you, but then when you’re spending time with them you realize that there’s so many more similarities than differences. And when you think about what does academia do for that, well academia is all about understanding communities and cultures and humanity, and the more you understand about that, the more it de-mystifies who all of these people are in the world, and I think it’s pretty difficult not to have that lead to development of a more empathetic perspective.
Francis: We as a society I think have different ideas about how much that matters, because on the one hand you’ll have, say, the free-market economy where it is sort of like a survival of the fittest model, and it extends into how people see each other. And the other level you have, when we talk about inclusion, is sort of more like the weakest link is the one that matters, and that we really should be caring about each other, and I think when you have empathy that’s really easy because you feel bad when other people are suffering. But I think one of the things that happens in our society is that we have kind of this spectrum of empathy that gets masked by political words like “libertarian” or “Republican/Democrat” but in reality it’s more how people are relating to each other. And there’s big differences in term of people who have that “rugged Individualism” that America is supposed to be famous for versus people who really want to kind of pull together and save this planet from destruction and save those animals, that kind of thing. You know, that filters into the kind of economy we have overall. I remember when I was thinking about the first time I heard the term “service economy”—I just shuddered, I was like “Ugh!” That sounds terrible! You’re going to take all these people with all this amazing potential who—and you’re going to throw them in a service job? Can’t we do better that that? I’m kind of rambling a little right now, but I feel like it’s all related to that empathy question.
Amber: Yeah, I mean I think our society has a very serious problem right now, in our lack of capacity to talk to each other in many, many different ways. I think what we’re doing is, we’re trenching into our own identity groups more and more and more. And one of the things that I’ve been involved in since coming to USC was the creation of a new center that we call the Center for the Political Future, and it’s run by Bob Shrum, who’s a very well-established Democratic strategist, and Mike Harvey, who’s a very well-established Republican strategist. And the things they disagree on are vast, but the things they agree on are that civil dialog and an insistence on intellectual arguments rather than personal attacks, or trying to debate ideas is critical. And they also agree that there are facts, and that in order to have a rational debate, you have to be able to accept the facts on the ground, you don’t just get to make up whatever starting point you feel like as the baseline for your debate. This has been a really great project for me, because I’ve gotten to spend time with both of them, and I am really thinking about what the Center can do. Recently we just hosted our first conference, we called the Climate Forward conference, which is a collaboration between the Center for the Political Future and our Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. The idea was not to have another debate about is climate change happening and what is the science of climate and what’s likely to happen, but really to say, allright, we know climate change is happening, that is scientifically established. Let’s talk about what it is that we can do about it, let’s bring in people from a whole range of different perspectives, academics and journalists and people in the political world, politicians from both sides of the aisle, and talk about what are the different approaches. And to really make sure that we’re engaging people from the wide range of political backgrounds, and trying to get us into one conversation about what it is that can be done. And I think we need to do a whole lot more of that, because again, I think people, if you get somebody who is very liberal and someone who’s very conservative in the room, right now they’re living in different worlds and they are focused on completely different worldviews. But if you start talking to them about their kids, and you start talking to them about their experience and the things that they care about, and getting them engaged with each other, again, there’s more similarity than difference when it comes right down to it, as human beings. And we all care about a future for our kids that is safe, and we all want air to breathe that is clean, and we all want water that is clean—there are many things that we can agree on, and it’s a matter of trying to figure out how do we get to those things we can agree on. How do we convince everybody that the scientific facts are what they are, and then say OK, now what? We can be working on this on a huge range of different issues, and that’s something that we really want to get more and more and more involved in at USC [*] where I am.
Chris: But how do you communicate with people who absolutely deny science? I mean, they say, you know, climate change can only happen if God wants it to, or the earth is only 6,000 years old, and people out there are like that and they’re voting.
Amber: Yeah, that’s right. And not every conversation can include every person. But I think that you can have conversations that include much broader ranges of people than are currently involved. You know, for example, people getting really focused on their own specific identity—if that identity gets too narrow, then coalitions fall apart. There are going to be people with whom you just disagree in so many different ways that there’s no point in having the conversation. But that’s not most of us, and I think that we can do a lot better at bringing together much larger groups of people in a rational set of conversations. And maybe not everybody is involved in every single one, but we can do a lot better than we’re doing now, I think.
Francis: And it’s urgent that we figure this out.
Amber: And not just energy and the environment. There’s immigration, there’s global health, and then when you get to maybe slightly one level down but still critically important, there’s cybersecurity, there are so many issues that we have got to figure out. And I think having people live in their silos and not really understand how to work together is just not good enough.
Francis: It sounds that collaboration, building bridges between disciplines, that sort of thing is, there’s a huge need for that and you’re answering that at your school…
Amber: Yeah, we’re trying. Interdisciplinary research is pretty well established at this point. I mean, I don’t have to push very hard, our faculty do that all by themselves. And I do try to facilitate that as much as possible, and try to make sure that we have the facilities we need to make that possible, and trying to break down barriers between our school and other schools. But I think the real challenge—maybe think of it as a moonshot kind of thing that we’re trying do that’s really different—is to try to think about how do you make the walls of the academy, particularly on the research side, not the education side, not that those aren’t important, but broadly the education side is already doing this a lot, but trying to make those boundaries more porous between the academy and the community. Part of this came up for me because when I was in New York, I ended up working for the New York Police Department counterterrorism division. And if you would think about this from the outside, there is absolutely no reason that I could have, or anyone I know could have imagined, how a cosmologist would end up working in counterterrorism. What happened was, I had been interested in many things, I became a member of Council on Foreign Relations, I was there at an event and I met the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism, and he and I ended up in a conversation and—I don’t even remember, I can’t remember how it came up, but he asked me if I would consider coming down and being their chief science advisor. And I had no idea what that would mean, and I’m not sure he totally had an idea at the beginning either, I don’t know, but I went down and we talked about it. And it turned out what they were doing was, they were trying to build essentially a ring around the city to prevent dangerous materials, devices, from getting in. And as the largest counterterrorism division in the nation, the New York Police Department got all the fun toys—they got the new radiation sensors and chemical weapons sensors and biological weapon sensors and new software, and all kinds of stuff from vendors and from national labs. And they had to figure out how do these new devices and pieces of equipment work, and how would they best be deployed. And in my laboratory, we were trying to build very large, very complicated telescopes that we would deploy either in remote locations in the middle of the [adaconda?] desert in Chile or up at 100,000 feet over Antarctica on a balloon platform—and they had to work. And so my team, what I would spend a lot of my day every day doing in the laboratory would be working with my graduate students and my undergraduates and my post-docs and saying, OK, we need to figure out how this camera works, how this sensor works, what does this lens do; so they would go off and they’d produce tests to figure out how this thing worked, and then we would all come back together as a group and everyone would report on their data, and we’d figure out how to deploy or not deploy these various constituent pieces. And it wasn’t that my research in cosmology per se had any application at all to counterterrorism, but the techniques we used, trying to figure out how these complicated new pieces of equipment that just came right out of the national labs or other research lab worked, was exactly wha tthe NYPD needed. And so I would do exactly the same thing, sending teams of their police out to do these kinds of tests, and then come back and we’d sit in the room and we’d look at the data, and it was exactly the same thing. It really got me thinking that, you know, if a cosmologist can be tapped to do that kind of stuff, anybody can be, because I was doing the most fundamental research of anybody, probably, at the university, and it was great fun for me—I learned a ton. I learned not only about something about counterterrorism, but how an entirely different industry functioned, and how those people think, and it was great and it was not a huge time commitment and it didn’t slow me down in my university efforts or my research career, but it was really interesting. And so it gave me a new perspective on how to think about the kind of talent that you can get out is not just the research that’s being built in the laboratory itself, it’s not just the chemical that turns into the chemotherapy treatment, but it’s the techniques, it’s the ideas, it’s the way of thinking, it’s the underlying expertise. And you have this pool of experts that you can draw from who have day jobs, so you don’t have to pay them all day—you can just pull them out and get them involved in something for a little while as needed. So we’re really trying to get that right now at USC, and if we get it right, what I would love for this to end up doing in the long run is providing a model for every other university to be able to do that. And then you’re not just talking about hundreds or thousands of faculty, you’re talking about tens of thousands of faculty who could be tapped to help with all kinds of problems. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning right now.
Francis: One of the things we like to ask our guests is, are you optimistic about the future and why?
Amber: It depends on the day. I have my moments. You know, in general I’m an optimist. I think that problems are solvable, I think that if you roll up your sleeves and you put together the right team, you can get things done. And when I look at the biggest problems facing our world today, I think yes, they are grave and they are serious and they are urgent, but humans are creative and we have the capacity to pull together and get it done. I just hope that enough of us are willing to roll up our sleeves and do that, and work together and try to overcome some of the political divisiveness and tribal sense of being on opposite sides of an issue, and be able to say what matters the future of humanity and the future of the planet, and we’re going to get this one right.
Francis: Is there any final thoughts about what’s new in either cosmology or astrophysics that you find really exciting at the moment, in laymen’s terms?
Amber: Well, I mean, I think everybody’s [*] is of the first image of the black hole, that’s probably the biggest astrophysics thing that’s hit the news lately.
Chris: Is that a bigger deal than the discovery of gravitational waves?
Amber: No, absolutely not. I just mentioned it because it’s much more recent. I think the discovery of gravitational waves is probably, it’s the most spectacular discovery in years.
Francis: Well, for those people out there that pretty much get their cosmology and astrophysics from Star Trek, would you like to explain what that is? Gravitational waves?
Amber: Gravitational waves are a whole other way of carrying energy. So, we think about the way we see the universe in every way that we’ve ever seen it up until gravitational waves were discovered, has always been through electromagnetic radiation. So everything that we see, every image we see with our eyes, is light—radio waves are light, X-rays are light, gamma rays are light, microwaves are light—everything we know, every ability that we’ve had to see and probe the universe around us has always been in the electromagnetic spectrum. The significance of the discovery of gravitational waves is that this is an entirely new way of carrying information and carrying energy, and gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space. And they’re basically, if you think about space as being like a rubber sheet, and you imagine dropping a pebble in the middle of that sheet, and the ripples that move out, the physical movement of that sheet itself is the analog of what a gravitational wave is doing in space. And what’s so remarkable about that, from the standpoint of astrophysics, is, since the discovery of the telescope we have had only one set of eyes on the entire universe, and the discovery of gravitational waves is as though we just got, now, ears. And now we have a whole other sense that we can use. You know, you think about the impact of the telescope—we discovered not only our own solar system, not only our own galaxy, we discovered that we live in this incredibly vast universe and we’ve discovered so many things about what is in that universe. And now, with gravitational waves, it just opens up this entirely new way of starting to understand the universe in which we live. The complexity, of course, is that gravitational waves are incredibly difficult to detect, so it’s going to take many years before we’re able to refine that new capability so that we get all of the richness out of it. But conceptually, it’s just incredibly exciting for that reason.
Francis: Would it help to learn about dark matter?
Amber: Maybe. I don’t know. My guess is probably not, because I think the leading theory for what dark matter is, is that it’s some sort of a particle that does not interact electromagnetically or does only very faintly. But I don’t know, I suppose it’s possible.
Chris: And with that, we’ll ask you the same question we ask everyone at the end of an interview, and that is, is there anything you would especially like to plug or promote, or something you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Amber: No, not really. I mean, i think the thing that I’ve been trying to get people thinking about is what we’ve spent some time talking about, which is how can we work together, and how can we bolster each other’s ideas and help each other be better. And what we’re really trying to do at USC Dornsife is to build this new academy in the public square initiative, where we help teach our academics how to do more of that and we engage the community and invite the community to come and work with us to try to figure out how to work better together. But we’re not really ready for the tidal wave of people to come and dive in quite yet, ‘cause we’re still building the models, so I wouldn’t plug “call us tomorrow,” but do keep an eye out for what we’re doing, and I hope it’s going to have as much impact as we would like it to.
This has been fun.
Chris: Thanks so much for coming on Making Better.
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Read some of Hecht’s writings on the blog at her website,
Read Hecht’s bio and enjoy some of her quotes at Wikipedia,
Follow Hecht on Twitter and finally Read a transcript of Episode 12 of Making Better.
Making Better—Jennifer Michael Hecht
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader!
Francis: Hey, it’s Francis DiDonato here!
Chris: And this is Episode 12 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring Columbia Professor Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Francis: And I’m really excited, because this is the first time we’ve had a poet on, who is actually going to read a poem.
Chris: Jennifer does do poetry, but she’s the author of three popular books: Stay, a philosophical history of arguments against suicide; Doubt, a philosophical history of atheism, and The Happiness Myth, a book that delves philosophically into modern culture and how we’re constantly being told to be happy.
Francis: Are you a fan of poetry?
Chris: Before we recorded the podcast episode with her, I read her entire collection called “Funny,” which is poetry but is also quite humorous.
Francis: I have this definition of poetry, let me run it by you: Poetry is truth beyond logic.
Chris: That’s poetic in and of itself!
Francis: (laughs) OK.
Chris: And with that said, let’s move on to the interview…
Chris: Jennifer Michael Hecht, Welcome to Making Better!
Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me.
Francis: Hey, it’s great to have you.
Chris: So you wear a number of hats—you’re a poet, you’re a philosopher, you’re a professor—how did you come to be all of those things?
Jennifer: Well, my father was an is a physicist, and I liked poetry, so when I went to college, which was where he taught—you know, it was very local, not the usual American college experience—yeah, I studied sort of everything, and by the end I literally had credits enough to be a history major or an English major and I just picked a line at graduation. But I kind of thought, because my father was (and still is) a college professor, and writes—he was home writing most of the time, and I thought I wanted to write poetry, so I decided to be a professor, and I wanted to know, to understand, a whole lot of different things. And history seemed like a skeleton that you could just keep adding things to, it gives you the structure so you can see what you’re doing. So history was what I was going to do, and I applied to graduate schools to do cultural history. I was going to write about poetry and history. I got a good deal to go to Columbia—I really wanted to leave the state, I grew up here, but they gave me the best deal and I didn’t have any money, so…While I was there, they kept saying “we’re trying to hire a cultural historian,” and I kept going to the interviews with them, they would give me the talk, and I would say, “great, I can work with this person”—and they just never hired one. Meanwhile, they had a Historian of Science who was already introducing me to some fascinating lines of inquiry, ways of thinking about these things, and I came to find that history of science was a lot like poetry. There was a kind of—how can I describe it—when you look at a society that’s spending a great deal of time measuring each other’s heads, why are they doing it? And the answer can only be poetic, the answer are things like, they were involved in empire, and they were suddenly scared about the difference between the French and the other peoples that they’re meeting. And yet, you look closely and they were more than any other race—which is, they said, was what they were doing—they compared French men and women’s heads, and concluded, of course, that women weren’t as smart. So the French threw that out pretty quick, with some dynamic men and women, but in any case, all of that kind of stuff, all history, is a little bit of a feel for it. You go into the archives, you unpack this box, and it could mean a lot of different things, but you use your own sense of psychology and the way things really work, and how competent are people? Like if you think people are competent and I think they’re not, we’re going to come to a very different story. I’m not going to come to a conspiracy theory story, ‘cause I’m not going to think people can manage that, right? I mean those are just examples, but I started to see that the history of science is a lot about how science didn’t work, how it was a cultural product, how it changed, and that felt like poetry enough to me that I got completely sucked in and I never really left. For a while, I felt a little uncomfortable about how totally different my two most important disciplines were—my history work and my poetry, but not now. Now it’s all come together, and it’s a very interesting experience for me. The book I’m writing right now is looking at how nonreligious people can use poetry, or already do use poetry, to do some of the tasks that religion used to do. So it’s glorious now, I can do research and just think about something and see what comes up.
Francis: That’s really fascinating. Can you just mention a couple examples of that, of how nonreligious people can use poetry in that regard?
Jennifer: Oh sure. The book I’m working on right now, it sort of is an idea that started from the most basic sorts of things, people at weddings and funerals and birth ceremonies, graduations a little bit, but especially weddings and funerals, have come to either add on poetry or replace religious items with poetry. And that started me thinking about how the sacred is constructed—you know, I’ve been saying for years that people, I call it “drop by and lie” religion where—and I’m not saying this is bad, I’m just saying it’s the situation that history has put us in, where many of us who are good people and just want to go along with what people want, and they don’t very much, and they’re willing to do the funeral or the wedding in a church or with religious aspects to it—but they still, they’re hungry for something that’s gonna speak to them, and say to them, here’s how we cope with death, here’s how we imagine the future with another person—and just create moments of heightened meaning. And that’s spread out to all sorts of different things, partially in work with my editor, who—and I’m a little older than her, and really it’s turned into more of a real guide, like here’s a problem and here’s a poem or three that can help change your perspective about it. But it also started in that I was giving a lot of talks and I would be invited to very scientistic places. And for a historian of science to see all these people so certain of science, when the whole thing that makes science cool is that it knows it’s 75% wrong today, and it’s going to work on those things, you know what I mean? Like, it knows it’s not right, that’s why it’s different than everything else, because it knows it’s not right and it’s looking. So aware of all the arrogance, and no mention of humanities, and I felt bad for people dealing with being human and not having the support of the humanities. And somehow we had just lost the notion that atheism, non-theism, a-religion, was for most of history in most cultures all around the globe, very much attached to humanities and literature. I mean, poets become poets because they don’t buy the story of what’s going on here. And so they’re searching for one they can buy. And if they’re leaning on religion, they become religious poets. So I was really trying to point out to people that we had this other resource, and while there I would end up—very often I’d quote Keats “when I have fears that I may cease to be…” I would tell them, look, this is a young man living in a Christian country, he’s just watched his mother die and tended her unto death of tuberculosis, then his brother dies of tuberculosis, and now he’s coughing blood in his white hanky—how does he feel? When he knows he could be a great poet and my god, he did more in his 26 years than anybody! There’s nobody who became a major poet at the age he did, certainly not in the English language, and what does he say? He doesn’t go to Jesus, he doesn’t go to God, he says he goes down to the shore, to the edge of the wide world to think until love and fame to nothingness do sink. He says, I go about and I see that giant sky—this part is my interpretation, but he’s saying he sees that ocean and he sees that giant sky and he knows that that’s what will shift his perspective and make it OK that we don’t live that long, we do what we can while we’re here.
Francis: While we’re on Keats, do you take the Ode to Grecian Urn “truth is beauty, beauty truth”—is that rhetorical, is that—how do you embrace or don’t embrace that part of that poem?
Jennifer: It’s one of these things that is poetically true and all poetically true things also poetically false in a way (I’m joking but I’m not joking)—So when Keats said it, and when Emily Dickenson said it, and when Emily Dickenson slightly shifted it and said it back to him, that what they were saying has a lot of strength to it. And the strength to it is partially that the imagination is where human beings live, and if what you know doesn’t match the inner life of a human being, it’s only interesting to us when we need that. What Keats says over and over in all sorts of different ways is that what happens in the imagination is a kind of truth for human beings, and it’s the direction we want to go in if we’re going to be wise and even happy, which kind of about this, just kind of giving, you just give once you realize you can’t get anything you want, really, not by taking it. So you make beauty, and you stop lying because lying doesn’t work, you don’t get anything, not for very long. On the other hand, if you tell me that a theory is true because it’s beautiful, I’ll sit you down, because that’s not how it works either. There’s no reason that a fleshy little short-lived piece of grub that we are, crawling around this dirt having been honed by evolution mostly to get food, avoid being killed and—not just having babies, that’s the easy, dumb part, it’s raising babies to the age that they can reproduce, that’s what evolution is. And there’s no reason that we are honed to even pick up the important information, let alone be able to make sense of it. So is there any reason that what we think of as “beauty” is always going to be true? How ridiculous, can’t be, we’re animals. However, within my human experience, those things are endlessly fascinating to look at.
Chris: Well, within your human experience you’ve written a number of books, in addition to the poetry. The first that I read was Doubt, your philosophical history of atheism. What brought you to atheism and what brought you to writing a history of it?
Jennifer: I was raised in a household with a very rational, smart but believing mother—sorry if I phrased it in an obnoxious way, but that was the case, and she—I’m learning more and more as I begin to ask her further questions—you know, she actually raised us with a little bit more religion than she was raised with, which is sort of hard to take in, in some ways. But my dad—also Jewish, both, they met in Brooklyn when they were kids, both very poor and just hung around with each other and then eventually got married. My dad is a physicist, as I said, and doesn’t believe in God, but my grandparents were the Holocaust generation. We were already here, people mostly came over around 1905. You know, there was just a lot of feelings about being Jewish, but my dad didn’t believe in God, and I remember asking when I was young whether he would be doing any of the rites and rituals that we did—and we didn’t do a ton of them, but we did some every year without fail. He said he probably wouldn’t be doing them if my mom wasn’t starting it. So, I came from a place where, I guess, I had more room to think about these questions, and as I’ve been saying for a long time—though it’s very hard to go back and know why I knew this, but as some point at twelve years old I had this, kind of an epiphany, like many young people have when you suddenly see the world differently than you saw it when you were a child, but it was just a, you know, a certain slant of light, and I suddenly felt like, if I had been born anywhere else, i would believe those things. And it made me see that we were animals on a planet, and we had a lot to deal with, and a lot of it was misinformation, and I knew that there was no god, and I had believed before, and I was sad for a little while, and then I broke out of the sad part of it and started, sort of, investigating. I think it was poetry that let me know that there were ways of—well, as Rilke puts it, living the questions. And that you can’t know answers until you get there, which as any person who’s getting up there starts to realize that’s true, but as a young person you have to first see it. So I was at Columbia, had already been an atheist a long time, didn’t think it had anything to do with much—a lot of people I knew were atheists, because I was so close to New York city and it’s a very open-minded world in some ways, at some times—and so at Columbia, I had to pick a dissertation topic, that’s what goes on. I had settled on France for—other long stories reasons—but I was reading a whole lot of different stuff, and I found in footnotes of two disserations mentions of the Society of Mutual Autopsy in France, turn of the 19th to 20th century, mostly it happened in the 19th century. I just found it fascinating, I could see there was something delicious in there and that other people were sort of scared of it, so they buried the headline—what does it mean, and is it serious scholarship to look at this? You know, when it was time to go do my research, again, because that’s what you do, I went to Paris and searched for the archives to the Society of Mutual Autopsy, and eventually found them. It soon became clear that they were radical atheists, that some of them were doctors, none of them were anthropologists because they were inventing it. These atheist people who came together first as atheists and anti-royalists in France said to each other—I mean, we have the letter that, where they say it—they say look, anthropology is gonna be where we can fight the church. Darwin wasn’t even on their mind yet, really, because Origin of Species wasn’t translated into French until 1871 by Clement *—and when she did she was one of them, and translated it with a huge preface, like 1/5 of the book size preface saying how this proves atheism, which she knew all along, even from Lamark, and the French reviewed it as “the translator has seen farther than the scientist”—and Darwin was irked by it and eventually asked for a new French translation. I think she had passed on by then, but she was a real interesting character—not all good, but awfully interesting, from our standards. So I was drawn into writing about these atheists, because they were doing something very interesting; they were dissecting each other’s brains after death to prove to the Catholic church that the soul doesn’t exist. They said as much, they were also trying to find relationships between brain morphology, weight, typology and traits, abilities, intelligence. And the reason they were doing this—and this finishes my thought from before I wandered off from that—it wasn’t Darwin that made them think they should invent anthropology, the science of men to use against the church, it was Broca. Carl Broca, I guess 1848, found the first definite relationship between an area of the brain and an ability. So it’s still called Broca’s aphasia, and it means if you have a lesion on your third left frontal convolution, you will have trouble speaking. We now know that the brain can sometimes compensate and build up in other parts, but this was the first time—and it really shocked the religious, who really had been saying, Catholic France believed, that the brain was a chair that the soul sat in, and that was so firm a belief that it made them feel, Oh my God, religion is wrong, we have no souls. They of course got used to it later said, right, the soul is different than that—but not at first. It really worked, it shook everybody in France, and you add to that that Darwin’s showing where we came from, but to the French atheists Lamark was enough. Even though Lamark was wrong, Darwin thought he was right, Darwin quotes Lamark a great deal and doesn’t dismiss it at all. He says, there seem to be these kind of inner push toward a certain direction of evolution. And Lamark had said that during the French Revolution, you know, a good deal before Darwin. So there is no, that we understand, there is no push in a certain kind of direction. The thing is, epigenetics, right now, is proving that Lamark had more on the ball than we thought, because indeed the way that a person lives, or what happens to you, including trauma, can change how your genes show up in the next generation—not because of DNA change but because of epigenetics.
Chris: Some contemporaries though, like Steven Pinker, who argues that we’re evolving to be a better species.
Jennifer: I don’t agree with that. His methodology is so different from my own that it’s not something I worry about processing very much. I don’t think that that’s the case—I think if anything, it’s going in the other direction, and I mean that largely in terms of, well, it’s a totally separate conversation and not that interesting. Whether we grow more moral over time is a wonderful philosophical question, and I don’t know the answer, and I try to live as if I believe that some gains are lasting; but in the United States right now, that’s a little hard, it’s a little hard to keep that kind of optimism going.
Chris: Well that’s why we started the podcast, though, was to try to provide an alternative, optimistic approach to what’s going on out there in the news…
Jennifer: Very much needed…you know, there’s this Muriel Ruckheiser poem—I don’t think I can remember the exact words—what is, the poem essentially starts that she, “I lived in the 20th century the first, “I lived in the first century of world wars, most days we were entirely mad” You know, and just like—that gives me a little bit of relief, just feeling like, oh, hearing from someone who says that in order to go around with normal life when the world around you is doing things you thought you’d put your body in front of; I mean, the babies in cages right now, I mean—if you hear my voice catch, I don’t want to talk about it, it’s too upsetting. But you know, it’s very hard to figure out all the right things to do. So yeah, it’s hard to keep up optimism when the world is literally dying around us, you know? No, the world isn’t getting better.
Francis: Human consciousness might be evolving in a lot of people—like people are getting more educated, in some ways people are becoming more spiritual in a non-religious way—maybe it speaks to a litte of what you were referring to, where there’s an interest in reverence, a basis for reverence, or the sacred in life, even void of religion or Gods. And the thing is, though, that power is being concentrated amongst people who haven’t been along for that ride. And we have a lot of people who are capable of living really peaceful, productive, amazing lives who are in a society that’s not geared toward permitting that. And this relates to a question I wanted to ask you about, happiness. You have people who say, for whatever reason, aren’t particularly empathetic. They are very, very narcissistic and selfish, and what happiness means to them is kind of like destructive to the earth, to a lot of other people. So I guess what I’m getting at now is, you have power in the hands of a lot of these people who are at that level of narcissism and destructiveness, and then you have all these other people evolved in another direction that really don’t want power. So how do we bridge all that, how do we get out of this mess? Are we allowed to say it’s OK for Donald Trump to keep doing what makes him happy?
Jennifer: No, of course not. And there’s a great deal of philosophical work on how, in order to achieve a certain kind of freedom, some people have to have less freedom, and especially in order to have a rule that values tolerance, you have to have to censor the intolerant people. People have trouble with that, but there’s sort of a lot of philosophical and sociological work—not that I’ve read it all—but that idea of limiting his happiness, that’s not a problem. What’s a problem is, as you say, the whole system is not set up to support the things that a lot of us care about. You know, when you’re young—I don’t know, I guess some people try to get theirs when they’re young, but a lot of other people try to change things. And you know, for overall fixes, you should’ve asked me ten years ago when I thought I knew everything—I’m joking, but what I have right now is that I’ve noticed, as I was sort of pointing at before, that the only thing that really works for me is being vulnerable, telling versions but trying to speak the truth about who I am, which is a mess a lot of the times, you know? I mean, yes, I could pretend that I’ve got everything together because I have these accomplishments, of these books and the other things, different prizes mean different things to different people, but it’s just not true. I’m 100% sure that success doesn’t make anybody more than possibly 5% happier, but it’s a good chance it makes you 10% less happy, because you don’t get what you want. You thought you wanted love, but impressing people does not get you love. It doesn’t. It gets you attention, it’s gets, you know, it’s you some stuff. But what works is crying in front of people when they’re crying, and just trying to say, let’s have strength in this together, and part of the way that happens for me is because I am thinking about life and death all the time, because I’m a poet, because I’m an historian, because I’m someone who’s trying to bring some poetry to people who might need it and who don’t think of it as something that can help. And so the other thing is that Stay book, we really haven’t talked about my argument against suicide. I’ll just put this capper on then, or segue, which is that I never feel so bad about myself that I can’t appreciate that I put the work in and made that book happen, because it helped. I mean, I hear from people, I don’t really want to expand on what I hear back from the world, but it lets me know that you can make a difference, you can help, or at least I can, when I can get myself to do the thing I can do sometimes—which is not all the time. So that your question, what can we do to get out of this mess—I frankly wish that Winston Churchill would go on the radio and say, let’s all just march down to the White House and—or just march down to the internment centers, that’s the first thing. You know, that this could happen while I’m alive and seeing it, and I’m still trying to figure out how I could, I don’t know, I try a lot of different things, and guess what—you get in trouble a lot of the time. So it’s really hard. But yeah, the Stay book lets me always know—though Doubt did too, people still reach out and tell me that they were just dying of guilt and misery and solitude in the middle of the Bible Belt and now they feel OK! So, for me, you do whatever you can do, and you don’t worry too much about that the whole thing’s collapsing because there’s a good chance to whole thing’s collapsing.
Chris: Seeing you talk at the QED conference, I think it was 2016, and then coming home to Florida and reading Stay was a really transformative event for me. I mean, I previously had been hospitalized twice for suicide attempts, and another time for ideation, and Stay just spoke to me so profoundly that I, I never think about suicide any more, unless I’m thinking about somebody else.
Jennifer: Me too! I mean—alright, the truth is I’m a little ideational too, and the words still sometimes go through my mind, but I just bat it away now, I don’t sit and think Oh my god, what did this thought, that I can’t go on, mean, and what does it mean about what I have to do—if it comes to my mind now, it’s with the same intensity as if you’re driving and someone cuts you off and you think, I gotta get that guy!—and then you just dismiss it. I too suffer from a kind of darkness and self-criticism and hopelessness that sometimes gets the better of me. And so I too have been very much helped by the arguments that I was able to put together and make vivid enough to me that I don’t really have to do any work about it any more, for myself.
Chris: Do you have some idea on how potentially humanity can avoid committing sui-genocide?
Jennifer: Well, I certainly have been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between the mass shootings and suicide—because those mass shootings that we’ve been having in the States are mostly suicide affairs, that is, they don’t even have a backup plan, they went in to kill themselves and, I’ve seen people say but the prime thing was to kill others, and other people say the prime thing was to kill themselves, they just decided to take people with them—I don’t know what the prime thing was, but I’m sure that there’s definite overlap in the hopelessness and the sense that many people have that they are the only ones who see how absurd this whole thing is. People do seem to perk up a little bit when they read a book that tells them that these feelings have been going on for a long time, and maybe they’re not the majority, but they have friends and there is a place where your pain will be embraced and a better world nurtured. So, what’s going on with the biggest issues in America today seemed to me to be problematically interwoven with religion—I have seen the monied Christians who are happy to say, I mean for the last 40 years, saying, yeah, we hear your environmental problems but the Lord gave us this planet and we should have dominion over it, and never said anything about using anything up, and when we do use it up, then the Second Coming comes—if they believe these things, then dealing with religion is a really good place to deal with this, including what they could possibly be thinking about Christian brotherhood with what’s going on at the border, but more importantly in terms of it being specifically a Christian idea. Controlling women’s bodies, which led to so many deaths when we didn’t have abortion rights in the past, because if you can’t do it you just get an illegal abortion, that’s what always happens and people just die, that’s the difference. People in a certain state go to another state, and if that state’s illegal, they die there. So that one and the environmental issues, and what about the insanity of the tiny percentage of Americans who have all the food and stuff and they give a little to charity because they want people to be happier, are you kidding me? People want work, people want education, simple stuff that they’re stockpiling money for some weird social game, and a lot of them say that they’re Christian that are making these decisions on the basis of religion. I’m not saying Christianity is the only religion that does that, I’m just living in a country where the Christian vote is the one that really seems to determine things and it’s let me feel that the platform I’ve built for myself, it does have a lot of different pieces, but unless I’m invited into something that seems like it would use my talents, it sort of looks to me that my best way of helping the world is to continue to show people the delights of an open mind, and that’s what I’m doing.
Francis: I’d be curious to know what your feelings are, or what your thoughts are, regarding the need for myth in society and how religion has always been a way that, I think, humanity’s kind of answered that question? But when the metaphors turn into facts, you know that’s when you get the kind of religions we have now. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that in particular, like what sort of myths would help people today, if at all, and who is writing these myths and how are they affecting society?
Jennifer: It’s absolutely true that human beings make models in our heads, often when we are quite young, maybe we change them once or twice as we mature, and the myth has to be something that would make some emotional sense to us about what’s success or love or being a good person, or being an important person, would mean. I’ll bring up Churchill again, just because it’s—I was just reading it, and I was thinking about what makes people act, and what makes them passive. That’s really been the question that drew me into history in the first place, I really wanted to know. All you have to do is read a little bit of history, and you realize people rip up a few cobblestones for a barricade to have a revolution almost every day. But the vast majority of the time, it goes zero, it goes nowhere. Even when it gets going a little, it’s usually just a riot or just a little—it’s not a full-on rebellion, it’s certainly not a full-on revolution. What makes people act? It’s definitely not when things are the worst, when things are the worst, like American slaves revolted in places where they were not treated the worst—because they weren’t so broken that they couldn’t. It’s hard to see, it’s not always the worst treatment, the worst situation, sometimes it’s losing what you thought you were about to get that would have made things better, and you can’t tolerate going back, so it’s not even something new that’s bad. So what makes people, what makes people act? And at a speech like Churchill’s, you know, saying we’ll fight in the streets, we will never surrender—I’m susceptible to that, you know? People—language creates these myths as well as, of course, a certain amount of lived behavior, but I’ll sidestep a little bit and say that I count myself lucky that we’re living in a time when people are putting their vulnerabilities more on display in public than in recent history where I live. So that, somebody says, come read my new Instagram article! And my first thought is a kind of competitiveness, ‘cause once this person snubbed me at a party—you know, whatever it is, and then I go and look at the thing, ‘cause I want to know, is there anything here, and what I find there is this beautiful reckoning with a tortured inner self—I put the book down feeling less alone, stronger, wanting to try to be nice again next time I see the person, but it’s not really about that. It’s that I feel not in this alone, and that myth, the myth of—let’s say it’s two different myths: a myth of never showing weakness, like the Kipling “If” poem, and never breathe a word about your loss; or on the other side, people who are very much interested in taking away the mythology of their own success because they know that envy and desire hurt them so badly that they don’t want to be part of that. But also seeing that there’s cultural room to say, “I was in pain.” I mean, there’s not much cultural room, you’re allowed to say you were in pain, you were an addict, you’re not really allowed to say that you’re in agony right now and on a regular basis, and still have problems, you know what I mean? With issues, that they love that you solved, but are not really interested in the binges in between your moments of absolute purity. Nevertheless, with all caveats, still, we’re living in a moment where there’s room for the mythology to be—and it too is a mythology, but it’s a closer to reality and closer to health mythology—the mythology that a human being is a person who falls down and keeps getting up, rather than that if you fall even once, you’re done and you should go hide. But yeah, the mythology—that’s part of the poetry, it’s part of what reading is—you know, you read a book where someone makes it through a difficult thing by maybe debasing themselves for awhile. Maybe putting up with something they shouldn’t, but don’t know how to get out of—and then you see how it ripened them, to use Shakespeare’s term, “all is ripeness.”
Francis: I have a book I would like your opinion on, then, what about Candide by Voltaire? His take on happiness, what do you have to say about that?
Jennifer: It’s very limited, so it’s a mistake for a lot of people, but it works for a while—ok, so let me be more specific: at the very end of Candide, having been beaten and shit on by the world, having seen his friends have their limbs whittled away, having watched the people that they love get leprosy and awful, disgusting things happen to them—at the very end of that tiny little book, he comes up with the final line, that should cultivate your own garden. We should each just hide from the world—that ain’t gonna work, that’s not a workable situation. But look who wrote it—Voltaire isn’t most to be admired for what he wrote, he is most to be admired because he was the man who invented public protest against religious abuse. The Church was gonna torture a father because, I think, somebody murdered the wife and children and the father was Protestant and the wife and children were Catholic, and so there was a kangaroo court and they were going to kill the husband for being Protestant, essentially. (I’m not sure I remember this story precisely, but) Voltaire said, everybody who reads me, everybody who can hear me, everybody, we have to do this stuff to make this not happen. And it worked! And he kept doing it, he kept taking up subscriptions to pay for better legal stuff for people caught in this, and it was picked up. It was one of the big things we learned from the Enlightenment, and it was Voltaire’s good heart saying, I’m not going to sit here and watch this, and I’ve got just enough fame to start talking a little bit. So, he’s not a man who just cultivated his own garden.
Francis: Maybe that’s how he cultivated his garden.
Jennifer: Well, yes, if you make all of France your garden, then I’m fine with the statement. But I think that Candide, even his name, means “innocent,” and so he’s always a babe in the woods, throughout the book, even when he’s learned everything, he’s still the naive voice. He’s Candide, and you can’t be Candide in a world like this.
Francis: Well, it seems like a lot of people think that it’s all good, it’s nice to have Candide around for them to read and maybe reassess that theory.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s true. I read it first when I was pretty young. I read it in the English version for some Western Civ class, and then eventually read it in French when I was learning the language—not too taxing, in that book, but you know it’s definitely stayed in my mind tremendously as these different voices—you know, Dr. Pangloss saying “This is the best of all possible worlds,” and all of us tried to believe that things are running about as well as we could hope, and—I mean, if you’re mature enough to have seen your own plans go awry a few times, you stop being too arrogant about how things go wrong, and Pangloss was wrong. It’s not the best of all possible worlds, that was another way that Voltaire was making fun of religion, because that basis of it, being the best of all possible worlds, was based on, you know, God made the world, so it must be that every horror that you see is somehow useful in a way that makes up for it—which is just, it’s the most morally repugnant thing I can imagine. It’s just so awful when I hear any religious idea that the world is gonna be made fair, is moral, it’s a shanda, as we Jews say, it’s a shame.
Chris: Well, this brings us to your book, The Happiness Myth, where you discuss quite a few different visions of happiness and synthesize parts of them into an overall objective.
Jennifer: The Happiness Myth is, in a way, my history of science education. The Happiness Myth is what it looks like to be a scholar writing about issues that are not anything to do with, sort of, how we live our lives every day kind of thing. But you look around and you see behavior that you don’t see throughout all of history, you see in other forms, but we take very seriously some things that are not standard in the human way. So, I looked around and I saw on every street corner in New York City, there were—and every city I went to—there were these glass-walled gyms where, in the time of an energy crisis, we have able-bodied, healthy men, women and young people, running on a machine actually called a treadmill, called doing work going nowhere, and we plug it in! So that it even draws energy! We take the escalator to the Stairmaster, and we do that because we are showing class, that’s how it’s always been. We hire teenagers or foreigners to mow the lawn, to do the normal housework, to do the stuff that would have kept us fit, and we have dirty clothes that we keep—you know, we have gym clothes we keep in a separate bag marked “leisure,” and that’s where we’re willing to sweat. And this cult of the body beautiful, which is about those windows—whenever we see it, through history, historians say, oh that’s a militaristic trope. Right? We see the ancient Spartans, men and women exercising naked, all the sculptures were about physical beauty, we see it in fascist Germany, we see it in the slave plantations in the American South, that a sports culture that has nothing to do with production is created to retain the masculinity of the upper class. So we can get the poor people to sweat, but we stay muscle-y. And it looked to me like, as a nation, we were trying to show everybody else, look how strong we are—but we’re also so rich that we’re not actually going to do the fighting, it’s a sort of symbolic, sort of sexualization of the nation and also just this—so how was I thinking like that when I never saw anyone think anything like that? I was thinking like that because I had been using the tools of the history of science applied to history of philosophy, trying to just tell a story of the history of people who didn’t believe their religions. And the result of it left me feeling like the people around me were in a hypnotized trance about the value of fitness, about the importance of taking this drug, but never taking that drug, about the idea that our food isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. You know, a lot of these things are very old human stories, slightly changed in every time in history and in our time in history, you know, changed just enough so they seem new and true—but it’s all temporal prejudice. If we could just get it through our heads that the future will see us the way we see the past, it really helps. I’ve heard from a lot of people who it helps, so it doesn’t help everybody, or rather, I don’t know what happened exactly with The Happiness Myth, but I guess I came out with it too fast after Doubt. But for me, that was a book that was, I guess my first intellectual-poeticism, a kind of feeling around for what’s going on. Like in the case of Thiness, a hundred years ago, all different sizes of women were allowed, it was just a matter of being an hourglass shape. Now, you can be shaped like a board, shaped like a boy, shaped anyhow you want, but we don’t want to see whalebones in the corset under your clothes, you can wear a loose T-shirt, but we want to see your bones. So we’ve internalized a lot of these kinds of strictures that we think we’ve freed ourselves from, and that kind of thinking is, as I say, it’s poetic, it’s not something you can prove right or wrong. You can certainly set up other examples to the point where I might rethink what I’m seeing, but The Happiness Myth is not so much how to be happy—though I do, there is a section on the most lasting, ancient and present wisdom about how to stay happy, things like “remember death, it makes you live.” It lets you live, if you’re hiding from it all the time you don’t live, and if you live, you care less about the dying thing. So, there were some specific things to say, ways to think about worrying and ways to not worry—things like That, in sort of the front of the book, where I say the one thing that a lot of reviewers sort of grabbed onto, but I don’t talk about it that much in the book, which is that there’s “good day happiness” there’s “good life happiness,” and there’s ecstacy. And you need a little bit of ecstacy in your life, but it doesn’t have to happen every year—you need to have moments of transcendence where you danced like a crazy person and you felt one with everybody—there has to be some of that kind of stuff in your life, but you know, I’ve heard from people who believe in God because 50 years ago at church camp, they had a feeling near a rock. These transcendent moments matter, but if you don’t want to deal with the parking, you don’t have to go to the rave every weekend. You don’t have to go do these things much, but a good life tends to have some. Good life happiness is often the opposite of good day happiness—to have a good day, you often have to do things that will add up to a good life, but that aren’t that much fun today. And so that was a piece that people did find attractive, the notion that you can forgive yourself, because you can’t serve all these masters on the same day. You won’t have a good week if that’s the week where you have an ecstatic experience, ‘cause you’re probably gonna feel lousy the next day, given that ecstatic experiences tend to be a little hard on the body, or travel, or whatever—I’m just trying to say that, that was something that was a piece that I felt like I sort of came up with, and that helped people think about happiness, but a lot of the book really was just saying, check if what you’re terribly worried about is something that is a longstanding goal of humanity or a real weird little thing of your moment. You know, I talk about “Fletcherizing” in the last century, this guy Fletcher decided that if we chewed our food, if we chewed every mouthful thirty-two times (I’m guessing, I don’t remember anymore), that that would lead to health. You know, there were cartoons about it in the paper all over Europe and America saying you can’t go to dinner parties anymore because everyone’s Fletcherizing, they’re all just chewing, and they have the Jameses, Henry and William, are both chewing! I mean, you can be very smart, but it feels good to take part in the things that that people around you are doing, and often it’s healthier even if it’s a stupid thing, to be doing something everyone else is doing—not indicting anyone for it, I’m just saying if you’re feeling like being normal and doing just the normal, good stuff is beyond you, check to see which of those things are transcendent problems that you really need to deal with, and which are just—you don’t like corsets? Well, you live in the wrong century, that’s the only problems. You don’t have a problem, you know what I mean? And so The Happiness Myth was mostly debunking a kind of acceptance that we do, and I had so much fun with that kind of thinking, you know, just to say wow, there was famine in every generation—certainly in Europe, there was famine in every generation until about—by 1850 we’d started to get the railroad tracks down, so in the past there’d been enough food on earth, they just couldn’t get the food to the starving people fast enough so that the food doesn’t rot and the people are still alive when you get there. So, it was before refrigeration, so the history of us as starving beings is so long and deep, the story of us with the wolf at the door, and in essentially a quarter of a century we turned into a people of great bounty. Many of us are living in countries where there’s certainly enough food—it’s not always the food you want to eat, but the food is everywhere and so abundant. I mean, we didn’t have supermarkets before, you went to a market there might be a board with two applies on it. It wasn’t even there to be purchased all the time. So the abundance of our supermarkets, it just seemed to me important to make the point that after millennia of worrying about being too thin, as soon as we got the food, we just kept on worrying. We just flipped it over and said, now we’re scared that the food, we’re having too much food. That kind of thinking, to sort of, just kind of shake everything a little bit and see how it looks—for me, it’s always what I find the most emancipatory. And so I offer it, and it works for people who think like me.
Chris: And you write about, in Happiness Myth, about people going to gatherings and community and things like that; I go to QED every year and that’s where I was first exposed to you, and Francis, my co-host, here enjoys Star Trek conventions, and you mentioned them specifically in the book.
Jennifer: The society that we live in right now broke down a lot of the small communities—family got more important and national government got more important. A hundred and fifty years ago, as many have argued, if you went up to a peasant in the fields of France and asked what country they were in, they wouldn’t know. The overall–they would know what county they were in, just as if you ask a person on the street today what planet we are away from the sun, to my surprise, they don’t know. But if they all had little buggies that flew into space, they would know. The government, the overall nation, became much more important, and the nuclear family as a place of love, meaning, comfort, became much more important and everything in the middle disappeared. Even the last century had those Elks Clubs, these sort of clubs for men after work, those have all disappeared; and there were ladies auxiliaries, which were how a lot of women had their socializing. So my tendency, my personal tendency is to hide—I will isolate if given a chance, especially when I’m writing well. I have two kids, they’ve just entered teenage-hood, and a husband and a dog, and I have a life, and so it’s not like I’m alone, but I can seal myself off from the rest of the world rather easily. And then when I nudge myself back into it, I realize that it feeds you in all these ways that I was missing, that I didn’t realize I was missing. But for me, the push—I have to make the effort to go be with people, and other people have to make the effort to spend some time alone. I have all sorts of techniques for keeping myself busy and interested, alone, and having this little family which right now, of course, young teenagers, they need you a lot—and so, that’s where I am right now. So I don’t want to sound like somebody who believes that being with people is always the way to go. I do think it is more healthy.
Chris: Something I struggle with is agoraphobia, and I sometimes can get so anxious I can’t leave my house, so…
Jennifer: Yeah, it feels like, it’s more like feeling judged, like do I look alright? Did anyone, did someone just look at me funny? and I’ll just feel like, oh, it’s easier to not go out. So for me, I do advise anybody who has the same tendency that I do, tendency to isolate, to practice, to just keep practicing, and to frame it in a lot of different ways. One of the ways I’m framing it lately for myself is the idea of practice: like if I feel very uncomfortable with something, why should I do it? Go practice, go see, go try—not that I am always able to do that, but when I am being social on a regular basis, even if that’s once a month, but especially if it’s more like once a week, yeah, I’m definitely better for it, I feel better. So I think, my feelings about concerts and conventions, they change a little bit over a lifetime. Before we went to recording, we were all talking about music, and that going to hear live music was always a major thing for me and, just felt so alive, that experience. When I can—I don’t do anything but sing, but when I can—or play the drums, you know I can’t really play the drums but I can bang on something—I find that kind of experience very, very satisfying and good. And yet again, like a lot of people, I’m not always able to do these things. When I got a little bit—I guess I aged out of listening, going to the kind of live music that I had been doing—since then, I guess, it’s always a little bit of an experiment. I did a lot of going to readings for a long time—that’s not quite the same, it’s a little bit attached to the world of work for me—but I guess it’s true, that that is what I continue to do that gets me into a social place and grounds me a little. I go to readings and lectures, so I meet people and I talk to them, but yeah, there’s something interesting for Americans and many people all over the world that sports gatherings take the place of a lot of religious behavior, even if they’re very religious, they may never have a chance to be shouting and upset and then shouting happy with a crowd of thousands—and that’s part of what the religious life gives some people.
Francis: I’ve also heard that sport events are one men are allowed to be emotional with each other—but I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how social media has really in some ways alienated people from each other, it’s like we’re all connected in a way that—now I’m friends with people on Facebook that I haven’t seen in 30 years, in elementary school or something like that—but at the same time, it kinda creates this illusion that you are interacting with other people in a way that is satisfying.
Jennifer: I…stepped way back, for, whatever, I don’t know what it was, maybe five years, pretty much soon after it came out, and I get Facebook messages from nine to ten years back. But it really started to be something that everybody was on and doing, around eight or nine years back for me, and I did it like everyone else—pretty regularly, in and out of, you know, moods where I was posting every day, or every other day, or a couple times a day—now I’m pretty much off. I found that I scan Facebook and Twitter and Instagram at least every day, probably a few times—maybe not Twitter, Twitter I’ll check more infrequently—but probably every day I check these things to see what’s going on. I often get important news from a lot of different weird kinds of news, from just a quick scan. But overall, personally, it was harming my well-being more than it was doing me good. I’m frankly glad that it still exists and everybody else is on there, because then I can check in, and check my world, and I can click “Like” on a few things and then get out of there before I start to get—and I am not proud of this, but it is true—I start to get envious. A lot of the people that I’m Facebook friends with, because I’m a writer, a lot of people are writers or do-ers, or people writing about how happy they are, about each birthday, each holiday, each anniversary, each everything, and—I don’t think it’s good for my head. I shut it all off and the birds are singing outside. Yes, there’s also someone using a saw. I found that curating my world during the 2016 election, I simply ended, I blocked, I un-friended everybody—even the people I went to high school with—anybody who wanted to talk about this guy as worth a shot, I just said no. No, no, nope, no. And so I have the most radically left-wing atheist poet list of 5,000 friends on a rolling basis, and most of them I don’t know, but I have started Instragram in September. For the most part I just put silly pictures on there, or pictures of my art—I always have some sort of art project going, because when you’re working very cerebral ways and giving a lot of yourself in mothering—well, it’s just really nice to make something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but just to make things. And so I make things—I don’t know, I probably sit down and do some kind of art at least once a week and sometimes every single night, for months on end, just because I can’t quite handle myself, and that’s what settles me, and that’s where I can be at peace, ‘cause I’m never competing when I’m making art, I’m not trying to…I mean, I do weird things with my art and sometimes I get in the newspaper for it and stuff, so it’s like I’m not showing the things. It’s not that my art’s so good that I get that sort of thing, it’s that I think of these weird things and carry them out and—yeah. Like, I’ve been painting rocks. I find rocks in New York City, I bring them home, I wash them, disinfect them, paint them bright colors of all sorts of different designs, and then polyurethane them and then put them back out on the street. I’ve been doing it for a bunch of years now, but I had a different weird project before this, all self assigned, and they give me some joy! And this one is a lot of fun, because the world is involved. Of course, they steal the rocks, but I just find bigger and and bigger rocks. People have caught on—anyway, I don’t know why I’m talking about it, but someone did write that up in the newspaper. So do I have some ego in it? Yes. But the reason that it calms me is because it’s not about ego. I’m giving it away, I don’t sign most of them. I like color, and I like how simple that is, and I’m sitting around with my kids just being with them, and I don’t care what we’re watching, and so I have a little project for myself—just do some art. And again, it’s this project has held my attention so much because I hear back from people, so it’s community-building even though I’m alone when I’m doing it. When I put them out, people come running up and give me hugs and stuff, because it—I don’t actually know why everyone likes it so much, but they do. Well, the kids, I do know there are kids, every time kids walk down the blocks where they are, they run and they’re counting them, and it’s just so—it’s beautiful. A woman came up to me and said, she showed me her phone, and she said “I want you to see this,”—it wasn’t her kid who wrote it, but she went to her kid’s school, and they had been asked to write what they could do to make the world a better place, and this kid wrote “I can paint rocks and put them out for my neighbors.” It was like, that was his charity act that he could think of, which must mean it gave him something to see these, you know. Yeah, that’s just the sort of thing that really gets me, makes me really happy, feel connected, but I’m not always in the crossfires, you know…anyway.
Francis: That is really beautiful. I’ll be looking out for them. Do you do them on the Lower East Side at all?
Jennifer: I haven’t, no, and I definitely have found that if I concentrate them on a few blocks, they get stolen much slower, because people see that there’s a project, it’s not just a pretty thing. So it’s mostly around the Bergen Street stop on the F train in Brooklyn. But once you’re there, you’ll see ‘em. I’ve done like four hundred and seventy-something, and those are only the ones I numbered! I don’t even number half of the ones I do. It’s been going on for about, I don’t know, four or five years.
Francis: Reverence for beauty I hear in your work, and sort of your philosophy of life—I was wondering if you could speak to that at all, about the meaning of beauty in your life, and maybe how it relates to society today.
Jennifer: As you raised earlier, I do care about beauty and truth together, though I don’t always know what the relationship is. But I think that the easiest, truest answer is that it is just what makes me feel engaged in life when things are hard, but in a different ways when things are great. I see beautiful things and I have an urge to understand them, interact with them, copy them, try to do them—I mean, it’s wonderful that I’m not a good enough artist that I can ever copy anything, it turns out different, you know? Totally different! I can’t make it—I guess I’ve never really tried, but I’m saying, it’s not that I’m great at what I’m doing, so it has to be that I just love color, stuff like that. But yeah, It’s when I’m struck by something that I get a feeling of something that just plain is transcendent. It is true that we are the sentient little node of the universe, and when we’re removed from all thought by beauty, and we just want to take part in it or support it or try to do it, that’s life sustaining for me. It just, it’s like love, it’s like when you’re doing a hard thing and your friend shows up—it just brightens and sweetens. But then there’s the deeper aspect of, what is meaning? You know, I believe that the atheist world sort of—and the religious world, looking back—and all saying, how can you have meaning without meaning coming from God, and I certainly believe that the only reason anybody would say that is that we just broke up with this character called “God” who we’d assigned the source of meaning to. It’s ridiculous. Right now I have a whole range of things that mean a lot to me, and so do you, and some of them are just about what we’re going to have for dinner, and some of them are deep and wide and generous and—these ways that we are feeling, to me says, we have more meaning than we can handle. We’re not in a meaning-deficit; we’re in a justice-deficit, we’re in an understanding-deficit, but I don’t think we’re in a meaning-deficit. I think we have as much meaning per person as we’ve ever had, and it’s just about understanding how that makes any sense. And for me, it always is hovering around truth and beauty, these aspects of human experience that are always just beyond us.
Francis: Not to put you on the spot, but do you have a poem you’d like read?
Jennifer: Yeah, sure. I have one by heart, I can give it to you—it’s nice and short. This is called “History,” which it’s one of the poems of mine that gets reproduced a lot, and it’s kind of funny because it draws on the Garden of Eden scene, without of course being in any way religious. So, History:
Even Eve The only soul in all of time to never have to wait for love Must have leaned some sleepless nights Alone against the garden wall And wailed Cold, stupified, and wild And wished to trade in all of Eden To have but been a child In fact I gather that is why she left and fell from grace That she might have a story of herself to tell In some other place
Francis: Thank you.
Chris: The poem of yours I enjoyed the most was “funny ha ha,” from the book Funny, because it was so absurd and…
Jennifer: It’s hard to talk about poetry.
Chris: It is. I’m really struggling to find words for why I liked it so much.
Jennifer: Because the way that poetry can act out, even like the way the words are acting. They’re acting out a kind of exuberance. I think that poem sort of catches that—it’s not something I can just do, but just this feeling of, just being able to give it all away. That’s the one that starts…
Chris: “A horse walks in a bar..”
Jennifer: Oh, that’s a different one. That one’s “Funny ha ha”?
Jennifer: Oh. I thought it was a different one. I guess I was thinking of “funny strange.” All of the poems in the book have old jokes in them, except for the sonnets that introduce each—but there’s also “funny ha ha” and “funny strange” which are slight outlier for me, but the “horse walks into a bar, why the long face”—and this project was so interesting to me. I wrote one poem with an old joke in it, and I fell in love with it, and then I just started going—any time I heard an old joke, I would just twist it around a thousand different ways until I could see something human in there. And, you know, “a horse walks into a bar, why the long face”—it gets right to the fact that, to some degree, we just already are what we are. And you know, why do I have a long face? Sometimes because I am sad, and that’s why the long face—it’s like, it’s part of who we are. But you keep trying, and throughout the book it’s, all the jokes have that kind of, what I say in that final essay—if you slow down a joke, it becomes philosophy, and if you speed up philosophy, it becomes a joke. And that proved terribly true on many occasions.
Chris: OK. We always ask everyone the same final question, and that’s is there anything you’d like promote or plug, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, or something you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Jennifer: I think maybe I’ll just give a shout-out for the poetry that’s coming out these days. It’s a very vibrant art now, after many years of being a little bit insular.
Chris: Well, what do you think about the relationship between Hip-hop as music culture which is sort of street poetry?
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s great. You know, there’s definitely times when I’m listening to something, I’m like “damn, that’s good.” Yeah, there’s lots of different kinds, of ways of looking at poetry. The thing is, the poetry that’s on the page, that’s the written word, is engaged in different kinds of jobs, than you can do when the art form is mostly meant to be listened to. But you know, there’s definite overlap, no question. There are poets in the music business, no question. You know, if I’m just giving a shout-out to poetry, I’m asked whether there’s music that fits into that category, I would say a small percentage, but absolutely. And again, I mean, Dylan got the Nobel Prize for a reason—we know his lines, they’re good lines. You know, on a personal basis, I certainly would stand under that flag—but I also, you know I listen to some music that I don’t love the words to, because, you know, it rocks.
Chris: Thank you so much for joining us.
Jennifer: Thank you so much. It really was a great conversation, I appreciate it.
As always, this episode of Making Better is transcribed, and you can click here to read the full transcript of Episode 11: James O’Malley.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader
Francis: Hi, I’m Francis DiDonato
Chris: and this is Episode 11 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring journalist James O’Malley. James is a UK independent journalist, he’s published in many different UK newspapers, he runs the Pod Delusion podcast which is really excellent, we recommend you check it out. He’s also the founder of the TrumpsAlert Twitter feed, which tracks everything the Trump family posts online.
Francis: I think Mr. O’Malley is a good example of someone who’s trying to fill in those gaps in journalism that have occurred because of globalization of information as it’s become.
Chris: So with that said, let’s get on with the interview.
Chris: James O’Malley, welcome to Making Better!
Francis: Hi, this is Francis DiDonato, in the House!
Chris: So James, you’re really well known for doing a whole lot of different things with Twitter, and in fact you even had one of your tweets quoted by Steven Colbert…
James: [laughs] I remember that, yeah…
Chris: Why don’t we start with how you got to be who you are, and move on to TrumpsAlert and things like that.
James: Sure. So, my name’s James O’Malley, I’m a freelance technology and politics writer, I’ve been a freelance journalist for several years now. I was editor of Gizmodo UK, the sort of UK spinoff of big tech website Gizmodo, until last October , but other than that I’ve written for a whole bunch of other publications, mostly in the UK so I don’t know how familiar I’ll be to listeners. Places like The Spectator, The Telegraph, The New Statesman; I did a Guardian piece; I’ve done a bunch of tech websites, Tech Radar, Engineering & Technology magazine, British Computer Magazine, loads of stuff like that, and that’s what I do professionally. Other than that, I waste a lot of my life on Twitter and I’ve built some bots and done some funny things there as well.
Chris: For users who might not know what a Twitter bot is, can you explain it, kind of fundamentally?
James: So basically, a Twitter bot is a Twitter account that is not run by a human being. All the tweets are posted by a bit of computing software. So, for instance, the bot I’ve built and the one that’s been most successful is a bot I built called “TrumpsAlert.” What this does, it monitors the Donald Trump family—so, Donald Trump himself, Don Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, as well as KellyAnne Conway. And what I’ve written some code to do (it runs on a server I’ve got somewhere), every few minutes it checks to see if any of these people—these hugely important, influential people—have liked any new tweets, or if they’ve followed anyone new, or if they’ve unfollowed anyone. And if it does spot that one of these things has happened, it will then just send a tweet out automatically. So I guess that’s a sort of practical example of one thing a bot can do. But yeah, Twitter bots more generally do all sorts of interesting things. One of my favorite ones—I can’t remember the name of the account off the top of my head—but someone set up a sort of aeroplane scanner at Geneva airport, and they wrote some code which basically looks at all of the aeroplanes being detected by this scanner and compares it to a list of planes that are owned by dictators, and if it spots any dictators coming in to land in Geneva, it will then tweet out and say, look, this horrible dictator from this country has landed in Geneva, and it’s just an interesting way of keeping tabs on things that way as well.
Chris: With the evidence being pretty obvious that there was foreign manipulation of the US election in 2016, using a lot of these bots, how does the average man on the street be able to figure out whether or not it’s a legitimate post, or whether it’s something done robotically to try to manipulate things?
James: Yeah, I think this is a really sort of interesting and sort of fundamental tension with how Twitter, especially, as a platform worked. So basically the way Twitter works is, Twitter the company have Twitter the platform, and then they provide all of these tools that are open for anyone to sort of go and build their bots and access the Twitter data basically. There’s a million sort of legitimate reasons you might want to do it, say you’ve built an app that wants to use tweets, or say, like me, you build a bot that you want to post, so something like that. The trouble is, they found before the election, this can be easily abused. So we got Russian troll farms or whoever building bots which would then post fake news and spread misinformation and that sort of thing. And so the sort tension there is that Twitter sort of have to figure out a way to enable legitimate uses and useful things, which I think enhance the Twitter experience, even if it’s something as simple as a news website wanting to post links to its newest articles automatically or something like that, and then balancing that against making the product secure enough so that you can’t have people posting loads of nonsense tweets to try and swing an election. In terms of differentiating between the difference, I think there’s a sort of almost like a media literacy, as a society, as a culture, we need to get better at. I think young people are a lot better at this than older people are. In the old days, it used to be that you’d get a newspaper and you could judge whether the information contained within it was credible or not based upon the reputation and the prestige of the newspaper. Well obviously, back then because printing newspapers was hard to do, and you had to be well-resourced to do it, if you work by the heuristic that if you do a newspaper, surely it’s had someone who’s gone through it and checked it and has done the work to make sure this is true, because they wouldn’t want to print any false information. With Twitter, because it’s so easy to post information, whether through a bot or through an individual, that heuristic no longer works when we have to have a different way of understanding information and processing it in order to make judgements. And I think young people are a lot better at that, because we were growing up with the internet and because we’re used to seeing a million different contradictory sources and not necessarily being clear where the provenance of a piece of information is, and that sort of thing. I think ultimately, the way to do it is—it’s not going to be solved by machine, I don’t think you could write a piece of code, I don’t think Twitter or Facebook or whoever could write a bit of code that says, “only favor or publish or share this verified, correct information,” because of a scale problem in doing that. So ultimately it’s going to have to come down to us as a society and a culture learning how to do it, asking the right questions. So the sort of thing I always do is, whenever I see a tweet or a claim printed somewhere—especially when it sounds too good to be true—so, I’m a really passionate “Remainer” in the Brexit debate here in Britain, so whenever I see a tweet or a bit of news that someone said, “oh it turns out that the Leave side have done something really awful and evil”—but rather than hit that “retweet” button, because it’s my team that win if that information gets out there, I always take a step back and think, well how do we know that? Who is saying that? Where is that information coming from? And just sort of taking a brief moment to step back and just think through logically how something like that can happen. And that’s something that we need to think more, work harder to do, I think.
Francis: In our country, the corporate media had been accused of intentionally dumbing down this country. And I guess with George W Bush we thought that it couldn’t be taken any further, but I think with Trump’s tweets its—almost like a cartoon, like when he tweets it needs a bubble and a cartoon character of him, because it’s just that idiotic and simplistic a lot of the time. But he manages to circumvent the media, and there’s an attempt by social media to replace journalism, but I don’t see it working, and as you, as a journalist—I would be curious to know what you think of the state of journalism and how social media has kind of taken over as a source of information to people.
James: I feel very conflicted about it, because there’s sort of two ways you can look at it. Because on one hand, we do have all of the problems that we’ve identified today, like you’ve just outlined. I think Donald Trump presents a almost unique problem, in that anything he says is intrinsically newsworthy, even if he posts any old nonsense, the fact that he’s saying that as President of the United States makes it something that journalists should cover and report. And so that is a unique challenge there. I think—the counterargument, though, is that if you imagine the way journalism was years ago, I don’t know if there was ever sort of a “golden age” of—I know we think of Woodward and Bernstein and all that sort of thing—but if you look more broadly at the power structures in society and in journalism back in the day, as it were, it was very different in a negative way than it is now. I mean, I’ve only got a career in journalism, to use my own personal story, because of Twitter and because of social media and because of blogging and getting into it that way, and sort of being able to use that as a way to accelerate my content out there and get my name out there and network, and sort of get my way into the journalism industry. If I’d tried to do this before the dawn of social media, certainly before the dawn of the internet, these doors would have been much more closed to me because I’m not from an especially privileged background, I’m not from a particularly disadvantaged background, I guess—my parents are sort of,…I went to a state school in a small town. The problem with journalism is, even today, it’s a very, very middle-class occupation, and I mean that in the British sense of it being, essentially high class. It’s all people who went to private school, who are well-connected, whose dad who also works in journalism and got them a job where they could work for six months for free as an internship to get in there and that sort of thing. I never had those sorts of connections. If you imagine how journalism was even more like that back in the old days, with fewer routes for people to see in, then that also sculpts the way that we see the world through journalism and the sort of reporting that people would see as relevant. I mean, you know, the really obvious examples of this are all the social progress we now, all the reporting we about the importance of even—I don’t want to say trivial, that’s the word I’m looking for, but even stuff like why it’s important to have female superheroes or even something like that—if the journalism establishment was the same as it was 50 years ago, that would obviously never have been part of the conversation, because of the people involved in creating that content in the first place. So to answer your question, and sorry I’m rambling on a bit, is there’s not one journalism. It’s hard to sort of go, it’s all good or it’s all bad. There are people doing some really good things, especially in new formats and so on, there are people doing really bad things. For every person writing an amazing ten thousand words New Yorker piece going into immense detail about the subject and really taking it apart and doing that, you’ve got people putting out nonsense as well.
Francis: What are your sources of good information?
James: Because I spend most of my life on Twitter, there’s not like, one publication or one outlet I’d point to as where I read as an authoritative source. I tend to look at individual journalists, and their records, especially. Again, because Twitter has sort of changed the landscape of how it works, you can now see there’s various publications where you know if it comes from one writer from that magazine or that publication, that’s a credible, well-sourced story because from another you sort of understand the biases of it, or where that person could be coming from, and that’s really granular detail, which is probably far beyond someone who’s not a complete nerd about this thing as I am, but it’s more of the thought of the methodology of understanding how the information might have come about, why that person would have obtained that information, and then just asking some basic logical questions about whether it’s true or not. And then maintaining a skepticism until you know about it rather than just going out there, is the best way to approach things. I don’t think you can go, oh, if it’s in The Economist it’s true, or if it’s in the Guardian it’s true, or whatever else, or if it’s in the Daily Mail it’s false. That’s sort of a really reductive way of looking at it, because all that lets out their good points and bad points and blind spots and whatnot.
Chris: How much do you know about the algorithms used by Facebook and Youtube and whatnot to decide what to show you next? Cause if you start with a completely clean account and go on Youtube and search on “US House of Representatives” about eight clicks later, if you just follow the “up next” you’re on a flat-earther website.
James: This is ultimately the problem with algorithms, in that they’re black boxes which nobody knows exactly how they work. You could say, oh well one solution to this could be, we could pass a law that says all algorithms must be transparent. But the problem is, the algorithms, they’re the secret sauce as what makes these products and these companies successful. Google wouldn’t want to tell you how their search algorithm works, Facebook doesn’t want to tell you how their news feed algorithm works, for good reason, because that’s their source of competitive advantage. Because they know that, why having their algorithm behave as it does, that ultimately benefits them as a company, and our [enya?] and benefits us as consumers to have these companies providing content that we like, I think, to a certain extent. Youtube, I think, is a particularly fascinating example, and the best theory I’ve heard on the Youtube algorithm, as to how it works—it’s all driven by machine learning now rather than a human level of looking at view counts or whatever. My understanding is, and I could be talking completely nonsense—so again, this is a good checklist, is a good opportunity to sort of review the source you had the information from and consider whether it’s nonsense or not—but what I’ve heard or what I read somewhere, and again I do recommend fact-checking me on this, is that Google basically said to its machine learning algorithms, “we need you to increase YouTube watch time. So, do whatever you can with users to increase watch time.” This sort of frame. So Youtube would then, because millions and millions of people go on that, is conducting thousands of mini-experiments every second, so if you go on there and you watch a video to the end, that’s really good, because then [*] that’s good for watch time. If you clicked for every suggest comes up next, is the next video to watch and then you watch it, that’s a really good example of that, whatever video comes up second, is clearly one that people want to watch, and that would then boost it up in the recommendations of everyone else. So it’s almost like a feedback, it’s literally a feedback loop, isn’t it, of recommendations that way. And so that’s why you get the sort of, you know, you can go down the YouTube rabbit hole, start with something sane and end with somewhere crazy. One of the reasons they discovered this was because more extreme views are more provocative, so more people are more likely to click on it than something middle-of-the-road. So, you start by saying, you start with…something in the center or something fairly moderate, but then you see someone…let’s say, you watch a video about the immigration debate, or whatever. Then you see next video suggested as “Idiot Daily Mail columnist says that we should have a points-based immigration system.” I think that’s a terrible idea, I disagree with that, but ultimately that’s a reasonable sort of view someone can have. So you click on that, and you go, “oh look there’s idiot Daily Mail columnist expressing that terrible opinion.” But then at the end of that you see “YouTuber who nobody’s heard of who has an avatar like an ancient Egyptian symbol or something says that immigrants should be banned” and you click on that, and you think “what, could he really believe that?” and then, you know, ten clicks later, because you…it’s a psychological thing, isn’t it, you end up watch flat earth videos and think “ how did I get here.”
Francis: Is that called “click bait”?
James: I think click bait’s a weird phrase, because it became a bit like how “fake news” was originally a descriptive term for literally falsified news stories that were published in order to get advertising revenue, and then it was appropriated by, well, Trump along with everyone else, just to mean “story I don’t like.” In the same way, I think “click bait” is a word which is basically, you never hear it said in a positive way, because it only ever means “thing I don’t really like”…As a journalist, I’ve had tons of stories I’ve published that people have just gone, “oh, what you’re doing writing this clickbait? Oh, clickbait!” Whereas if it’s a story people like, nobody ever goes “oh that piece you wrote, which was really good, yeah total click bait.” I don’t think there’s anything necessarily intrinsically wrong with the concept of click bait. If you’re writing an article, you want people to like i. The problem is when, you know, the headline or whatever distorts the story out of all recognition or you start bullshitting in order to get people to click on it. That’s not click bait, that’s just lies. And click bait isn’t necessarily a new thing with the internet, I mean, newspaper headlines—I don’t know about in America, but in Britain, tabloid headlines for 50 years have been essentially clickbait, they’re all trying to get you to buy the paper, it’s just when things are published on the internet, so…I think click bait can be good.
Chris: One of our previous guests was Richard Stallman, who you probably know of at least through the Free Software world, and he was talking about this social-credit system in China. I have to admit, it’s not something I know much about, but you’ve been writing about it lately, so if you can give us an intro to it?
James: Yeah, sure. So, I’ll go into it with an anecdote. So I went to China last October , just on holiday, and we took the train from Beijing to Shanghai, and when you’re on the train what happens is, you know when you get on a train usually it says “this is the train to (destination) and we’ll be stopping at X, Y and Z, and it did all that. And it was like, this is a train to Shanghai, stopping at the various intervening cities; and then the announcement came on and said “Please respect the rules that are on the train (I’m paraphrasing, can’t remember the exact thing, but it said) Please respect the rules on the train, if you don’t obey them, it could harm your social credit score.” And what this is, it’s a reference to a number of different systems that are being trialled across China, the sort of popular conception of it is that everyone in China will be given a score, a number, hanging above their heads virtually, which their behavior can impact. So the idea is, you do something good, you earn some extra credits, you do something bad, you lose credits, and then the number of credits you have can affect your ability to function in China and access services and so on, and may even lead to you being publicly shamed. The reality is, it’s slightly more complex. So basically, social credit is not a unified system or idea yet, there’s loads of different trials that loosely fall under the social credit example. So, different cities are trying different things, and some of them are just sort of crude blacklists of people; so, if you don’t pay your court fine, you end up on a blacklist which, in terms of the sort of social credit system, and then being on the blacklist might mean you’re not allowed to catch a high speed train, and you can only catch the low-speed train. Or, you can’t catch a plane, you’ve got to get the bus, and stuff like that. So there’s sort of systems that are involved in local government and that sort of thing, and one of my favorite ones—favorite in a sort of perverse “oh this is weird and scary” sort of way—is, I think it was Shenzen (again, Google this, don’t trust me blathering on about this), where they were punishing jaywalking. So if you crossed the road when the green man isn’t on display, it would use facial recognition cameras to identify you, and then would send you a fine automatically. Anyone who was detected by this system would then be publicly shamed by having their face displayed on the video billboard by the sides of the road, and they were supposed to incentivize good behavior. But again, that’s only sort of one system that’s being trialled in one place. The other technology which is being covered under this sort of social credits umbrella is a system called “sesame credit.” (I think it’s called Sesame credit), Basically it’s run by Ali Baba, which is like the Chinese equivalent of Amazon and EBay all rolled into one company, and there it was basically trying to create a scoring system to prove your credibility. The big problem with China is, not many people have bank accounts. And this ultimately is what underlies a lot of the motivations to create a social credit system. I think something like 20% of people have bank accounts, so if you want to have people interacting with digital services or even just government services, or you know, just doing a business transaction, you need a sort of another way to figure out if someone’s credible or not, because you can’t just run a credit check or something like that. And the idea is that, draws on other things like behavior to prove your reputable. This Sesame credit system, which is linked up to Ali Baba, does this sort of thing as well—so it looks at your purchase history and sort of judges your creditworthiness but also uses a number of other factors. So, for example, if you’ve got a number of verified friends on the services who have also proved their worthiness, that inherently improves your worthiness, because it suggests you’re not like a spam account or a scammer if you’ve got loads of credible friends. And there’s various other factors it can roll into this, and then once you get your score, this can unlock other different services and privileges whether it be taking out a loan—there was one, I think there was a trial where you could unlock basically a free umbrella when you’re leaving the subway station, so if it’s raining and you’ve got a sufficiently high social credit score, you can pick up an umbrella for free. Cause it can prove your worthiness or your legitimacy, and the other big link-up is with, it’s called Mo-bike, the kind of bicycles you hire using an app. Basically, instead of having to pay a deposit, because you’ve got a sufficiently high social credit score, you can take it out without needing to prove yourself or put any money down for it, you can rent bikes that way. This is where we are at the moment, and there’s all these different trials being trialled in all of these different cities, different rules all over the place. One city is punishing misbehavior—a misbehaving dog, and your’e not keeping it on leash or whatever, you’ll get punished for that, all sorts of different behaviors. So the big fear is, and the reason this has sort of become hyped in the West—and I think it is quite pernicious—but obviously, the theory is, and the government has basically said as much, they want to sort of create a national, unified, social credit system in the next few years so that any arm of the Chinese government would essentially be able to check your social credit. Obviously, in a totalitarian society like China, where you’re…it’s very easy to imagine how something could be abused. If you’re seen at a protest holding a sign, that’s going to be very bad for your social credit score. If you do something else the Party don’t like, that could hurt your score and hurt you that way, and then prevent you from catching a train or being able to work or something like that. And it is a very blunt way of aligning every incentive in your life, conceivably, with the incentives the government want to promote.
Chris: Did you see the Black Mirror episode about that?
James: No, I haven’t seen it, the Black Mirror, but I’ve had literally thousands of people tweeting me, suggesting I watch it, and I still haven’t got round to it.
Chris: James, we’ve had a number of other skeptics on the podcast, and you and I first met at the QED conference and your former podcast, Pod Delusion, won a couple of Occam Awards—we’ve had Michael Marshall on, we’ve had Haley Stevens on, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and now we have you, so four people I’ve met at QED have been on the podcast.
James: Excellent. Big fan of Marsh and Haley, I’m afraid I don’t know the other person, but Marsh and Haley are both excellent.
Chris: QED conference on science and scientific skepticism that goes on every year in Manchester, England—James, maybe you want to speak a bit to skepticism as a concept?
James: Back in 2009, I started a podcast called “the Pod Delusion,” punning on the title of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusioin, and the idea was that it was a magazine show that would cover a wide range of topics. Basically I engineered it so I could talk about whatever I wanted every week, and it was loosely a sort of unifying philosophy behind it was a kind of skeptical, rationalist point of view, so taking a scientific world view and very much much existing in the skeptics movement as it was then. It went on until 2014, and the format of the show was in [tooking] contributions recorded by literally hundreds of other people, and I was the sort of presenter figure linking together all of these different segments that people had produced. And it was really good fun, I really miss making…Chris did a few different segments for us. I like to think at a certain point it was sort of like the house magazine of the UK skeptics scene, for a little while, because it got a fairly decent listenership and it was covering all of the different skeptics events going on, so Skeptics in the Pub, QED, and so on. And also the sort of adjacent movements, so like humanism and not science movement but, you know, professional science promotion type things, all that sort of good stuff there. I’m still a skeptic, since then I certainly haven’t changed my views on many of the core—using the world “beliefs” in skepticism is a very odd thing to do—but I certainly haven’t changed my views on, for example, the existence of God or the usefulness of the scientific method or how we should take a naturalistic world view. No, I think as a movement I think it’s faded away, but I always think back to that sort of time, around 2010, 2011, when skepticism seemed to become a really tangible big deal, in that it was having sort of policy victories, it was having cultural victories, and there seemed to be a sort of movement of people sort of coalescing around the idea of being skeptic, and it became a label that people would organize around. I always think it’s a bit like Britpop. I don’t know if you remember Britpop, this was sort of a cultural movement in the mid-90s, it was in Britain, I don’t know how it was perceived in North America, but basically you had bands like Oasis and Blur writing the soundtrack to it—but it wasn’t just the music, it was about the broader culture. So you had Euro 96 big football tournament on the television with an England team that were performing really well, you had Tony Blair on the cusp of entering 10 Downing Street, ending Tory rule and bringing back some optimism and hope, as it was then, as weird as that is to imagine now with Tony Blair. And so it was sort of a cultural coalescence around Britpop as a thing. I think skepticism’s much the same, because you had the God Delusion being published, bringing lots more people into the movement, you had people criticizing the likes of alternative medicine, you had humanists, you had scientists all working together around the idea of taking evidence based approach to things. I think now, it has changed. I don’t think skepticism is necessarily a label I would choose to align myself with, in that, just because of the connotations attached to it…that perhaps weren’t back a few years ago, and..as a sort of organizing principle, as a sort of, almost like, as a word people organize around, I don’t think it’s got quite the same potency as it once had, because obviously in combination, we’ve seen the skeptics movement itself sort of splinter over various issues around social justice and so on. We’ve seen half the American Skeptics become weird libertarians, and then obviously, not unlinked to that, is actually all of politics going to hell? Everything we’ve seen with Trump and Brexit and the rise of sort of anti-pluralist ideas and the rise of totalist sort of ideologies once again—so to answer your question, again I’ve gone on for a very long-winded answer, my views are still essentially underlined by the same principles, but I think as an organizing moment…
Chris: The word “skeptic” is a hard word to work with, because flat earthers call themselves “skeptics,” climate deniers call themselves “skeptics”…I think Richard Dawkins suggested we call ourselves “brights,” I didn’t like that one…
James: This is the problem, there’s no sort of perfect word, I mean we have the sort of challenge now. I’m a trustee of a charity called Conway Hall Ethical Society, based in central London, which again, is sort of tangentially linked to all of the skeptics and skeptics movement and stuff, it’s where, it’s basically a atheist church from the 17 and 1800s. But the problem we have there, and again I’m speaking entirely with own personal views here, not on behalf of the organization or anything like that, is what are we organizing around? And you look at all the old alternative words, so can you be a skeptic? Well, yeah but there’s obviously negative connotations with climate change deniers and like all of that. Freethinker, that’s a nice word, I really like “free thinkers,” the Victorian free thinkers, that’s a really great tradition to try and align ourselves with, but then you get alt-right nutters calling themselves freethinkers, which is like, an association you definitely don’t want. And then you think, well, what about humanists? But then someone inevitably goes, but that wouldn’t care about animal rights.” What about religious people who believe in a scientific world view? For …deists or something like that, so there’s never going to be a perfect word I don’t think.
Francis: Part of the impetus of this show was to re-imagine all these terms, because to talk about capitalism, communism, all that stuff right now, seems to be very unproductive. You could take someone who is like a really, really wonderful, altruistic person, put them in a capitalist society, and they’re going to behave differently than someone who is a totally narcissistic sociopathic creep like Trump, and put him in a capitalist society. So, it’s like we got to move beyond that and figure out how to make things work in an optimal way for the most amount of people.
James: I think writing off the concept of socialism or capitalism wholesale is quite a tricky thing to do. I often think back to something the writer Nick Cohen wrote, the book called What’s Left—he published this book in about 2005—but the line that for some reason sticks in my head is, he said that maybe utopia won’t look particularly different to how it looks now. And the trouble with saying something like that is that you obviously then, there’s the obvious rebuttal of, “but what about x, y and z terrible things in the world” which are going on which you can’t obviously deny. But I think the value in thinking something like that is, maybe we don’t need a radical ideological project to completely reconfigure society. Maybe we don’t need Soviet Communism, that was an enormous experiment that had disastrous consequences. If you look at neoliberalism, whatever the maximal extension of capitalism will be, that is also ultimately a sort of grand ideological project which we’re still experiencing the consequences of. My sort of increasingly boring opinion—and I used to think I was fairly left-wing, or very left-wing, and then Jeremy Corbyn happened here in Britain. But my sort of more boring center-left opinion now is, well maybe we should look at what we’ve got, what institutions we’ve go, especially when you look at the landscape of Trump and Brexit tearing down all of these liberal institutions we’ve got. Maybe we should appreciate there’s been quite a lot of work over the past several centuries establishing these various norms that we now take for granted, like that freedom of speech can be a thing, and globalism and that sort of thing. And so maybe we should think more about boring social democratic tweaking of the system we’ve got. I mean, my favorite presidential candidate, to put this into more context, is unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Warren, because she’s again talking about sort of structural reforms. She’s not a timid centrist technocrat trying to turn the knobs a little tiny bit, she wants big structural reforms, but she’s putting detail in there and putting it in a way that she’s actually outlining a program of reform and then the outcomes that she would expect to see from those reforms, in a relatively technocratic way, which seems sort of realistic and appealing. Whereas if you look at someone like Bernie Sanders or Trump or Corbyn or Bolsonaro or whoever who are just saying, tear up the whole thing, and it will better somehow. That just seems like a fairly ill-fated approach. I think really boring things that we’re eventually going to learn, and maybe I am just getting more centrist in my old age, is that ultimately we’re going to miss a lot of the institutions that we’ve got when they’re gone.
Chris: I’m also supporting Elizabeth Warren, for primarily the same reasons. I mean, she’s…speaks so specifically to what she will do, whereas a guy like Bernie Sanders says, you know, “we’ll have free college education for all and I’ll tell you how we’ll pay for it after I’m elected.”
James: I don’t mind Bernie Sanders…I mean, as anyone who’s read my Twitter will understand, I really dislike Jeremy Corbyn, and obviously he’s often bracketed with Bernie Sanders because they’re sort of radical leftists relative to the presupposed political settlements where they are. But I think they’re very different people, in that while Bernie Sanders, he does use a lot of radical language, you know, he literally talks of “political revolution,” he’s still more moderated and still more measured and still uses a lot of the same axioms that we expect to see in a sort of stable political system. So, this is a sort of random example, but I think on various foreign policy things, I’m pretty sure like Iran or something like that, Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be too far away from what Elizabeth Warren would say. He’s not going to say, let’s do a war or he’s not going to say, well let’s be best friends with Iran, or something like that, whereas you look at someone like Jeremy Corbyn—he’s from a much more radical tradition, from a very different political tradition where, you know, he doesn’t seem to have any problems buddying up with autocrats and dictators as long as they profess to be left-wing, which is why I’m sort of a Corbyn skeptic, to say the least. But yeah, the differences and the reason I massively prefer Elizabeth Warren is because obviously, she comes across as someone who’s done the reading. Bernie Sanders is very much, like you say, we’ll sort it all out, we’ll worry about the details later, but we’ll do something; whereas Elizabeth Warren, from the programs she’s laying down, I mean I don’t think all her ideas are perfect, I know the big one was breaking up the tech companies—I think emotionally, that’s a very appealing thing. I’m not entirely sure whether her stated policies will actually deliver the supposed outcomes she wants. But the fact that she’s speaking about it, and the fact that she’s proposing actually plausible things that could be done, I think that’s sort of refreshing and detailed. But I would say that, ‘cause I’m a very nerdy man [laughs] who likes detail and likes that sort of thing rather than just brash sloganeering.
Francis: The defense budget is just so huge, just imagine what that would cover. Student loans would be nothing, that would be like the cost of probably a few percent of the defense budget.
James: I’ll tell you the weird thing I find—maybe as Americans, or North Americans you can shine more light on it—is that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, Elizabeth Warren says she’s a capitalist, but functionally there isn’t that much difference in the sort of outcomes they want. It’s so weird that Bernie Sanders is sort of framed as…I mean I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want Soviet-style socialism or a sort of extreme form of socialism, I’m pretty sure what he wants is basically Social Democracy, unless I’m radically mistaken, in the same way that’s more in the direction of what Elizabeth Warren wants, which is very different from what I think a lot of people who have Cameron Picknell avatars on Twitter think Bernie Sanders stands for. Or maybe I’ve got him wrong, maybe he is much more radical than I give him credit for. The one phrase I think is incredibly smart, and I apologize if this is a bit tangential, is something Mayor Pete said, and obviously he’s more of a centrist candidate than many of the others—the phrase he came up with, someone said like “are you a democratic socialist?” and he said, “no, I’m a democratic capitalist.” And I just think whoever becomes the final nominee, we should appropriate that phrase, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or whatever, because surely that solves the sort of linguistic challenge of selling socialism, social democracy, moving the the left economically, with Americans who may think, “oh no, but we’re capitalists, and we want to be capitalists” and all this sort of thing.
Chris: I’d like to go back to the notion of post-scarcity and how either capitalism or socialism can handle—what if in 30 years we have 80% unemployment?
James: Yeah, I can’t claim to have thought in particular depth about this, but I think that if we assume that post-scarcity is a thing that’s gonna happen, or certainly we’re going to get to a point where there is a lot of technological unemployment, the solution isn’t to go down the Trump route of “bring back manufacturing” by what seems to be the President calling in personal favors from executives to keep factories in Ohio open, or something like that. The solution is to look to ideas like Universal Basic Income. I’m sure there’s critiques of that that I’ve not read in depth, but in principle that seems like an appealing idea. But also, I think there’s a lot more that could be done if society, certainly American society, and indeed British society, were to take more of a social democratic turn. You could offer retraining and accessible education throughout someone’s life so they can retrain and so that seems like a much smarter solution to this problem.
Chris: I mean, as automation takes over people’s jobs, I mean…
James: This is why you need UBI…
Chris: My sister’s husband was a mortgage broker, and he’s been replaced by an app.
James: And the other reform we’re going to need, and this is presumably why nobody really wants to talk about it, is because at the moment most taxation is income-tax based, you know, taking a proportion of your income that you get every month, whereas instead if you had a wealth tax, or taxed the super-rich more, you could then have more to redistribute. I mean, the really startling thing—I’m going to generally assume that the sums were done correctly—but I think it was Elizabeth Warren’s student loan program, you know she wanted to abolish all student loans. The maths on that, she said it pays for that, and then again I can’t remember the exact detail, but it was by adding a wealth tax or increasing the taxes on the top, by a sort of minute amount, and then you’d just wipe out all student debt because things are that massively imbalanced. Which is just crazy, considering the size of the figures we’re talking about, but ultimately it’s going to be about figuring out what the taxable thing is in post-scarcity society—whether it’s wealth, whether it’s, there’s been talks about robot taxes—sounds ominous to me, because surely while robots is a good thing, we’re going to have move away from just straight up income tax, I guess.
Chris: The way budgeting and money is spent in the United States means that the Congress will often pass military spending bills that the military didn’t even ask for, because the weapon will be built, or the weapon system will be built in their district and it means 2,000 jobs or something like that. They’ll insist—one thing that’s not even military that’s kind of interesting is NASA’s Orion rocket project. It cost $20 billion for the whole project, and then it’s gonna $2 billion for a non-replaceable rocket every time we send it up. Meanwhile, we could be using a Falcon Heavy for $100 million per use, and it’s reusable. A group of congressmen called the Alabama mafia, who all have huge space and defense construction going on in their districts, are all insisting on this money to keep a bunch of people employed on a boondoggle.
James: Which is insane, isn’t it? So at the risk of defending the military-industrial complex, which is not something I expected to do this evening, I think the thing to think about—and don’t get me wrong, I think there is absolutely, clearly going to be thousands of ways the defense budget could be better spent or optimized and so on—I think the extra consideration needs to be that basically American power, for better or for worse, does underpin the existing world order. That involves not just, that’s not all just Iraq wars or whatever, that’s literally protecting ships which are delivering containers going around the Persian Gulf or going through the straits of Malacca, and just sort of maintaining, basically, the base level preconditions that we are now used to, that have basically enabled our entire sort of post World War II lifestyle and affluence as a society. So, I think you need to be very careful. It pains me to say this, as someone who does listen to a lot of punk music and [laughs] is on the left, but I think just saying we should get rid of all defense spending, or we should do something dramatic there, you do need to think about the wider implications. It’s a bit in the same way that Brexiteers in Britain think we can leave the EU and everything will be fine, forgetting all of the sort of boring, foundational stuff the EU provides to the British economy. In the same way, America is almost providing that sort of foundational layer to the existing world order. Maybe there’s a better world order, maybe we can change things so that the world is organized in a different way, and maybe that could be a good thing. But ultimately, it is at the moment underwritten by American power. So if that goes away, we need to actually consider what changes or what replaces that.
Chris: OK, what about artificial intelligence? I heard a woman on the BBC refer to the US AI giants as the “G-mafia,” standing for Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, IBM and Amazon, and how they are growing both economically, but also they have intelligence power greater than most nation-states.
James: It’s really funny, I’m sort of quite pleased that these sort of, the power of the big tech companies has come into focus over the last few years, because this is something I’ve been banging on about for years. Like, I was writing about this in 2012, 2013, and I wasn’t prominent enough to have people scold me and write it off or whatever, I was just writing blogs going out there that were being read by very few people. I was basically, again at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I was making sort of a similar point to what everywhere is almost a normal part of the conversation now about how these companies need greater regulation, we need to bigger conversations about what their power means because they are different to a lot of other companies. Actually it’s Paul Mason, the left-wing journalist, who wrote a book, Post Capitalism, which made this point. If you look at all of the tech companies, like Google, like Amazon or whoever, their business models, their products, their technology, it tends towards a situation of natural monopoly in that Google, you can’t beat Google because Google has the amount of data Google has, and every search you do in Google makes Google better. In the same way, Amazon can’t be beaten because everything Amazon does makes Amazon better, and this is all powered by AI, because we’re all training the AI of these companies. So they’re sort of entrenched in the system now, they’re almost too big to fail, like the banks were.
Chris: Richard Stallman likes to say that with Facebook, you’re not a “user” you’re a “use-d”…
James: I think that’s broadly true. But what should we do about them? And there isn’t a really easy answer, because—I mentioned Elizabeth Warren’s proposals earlier to sort of break up the tech giants, but even then, that’s not a particularly satisfying answer, because ultimately…so say you forced Facebook to, you tried to break it up into Instagram and WhatsApp are separate companies again. Which sounds like a sort of do-able thing, in the abstract, because they used to be separate companies, surely they can be separate companies again. But then you look at how Facebook have integrated the two companies, and Facebook, Instagram messaging, and Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, they’re all running off the same back end, the same messaging service is now powering all three, it’s just like three different logos because that is the sort of legacy brands that were in use. So, how would you separate out that, considering it’s basically copy and paste? I hope not the same files running these different systems and the same backends, and even if you did sort of save, segregate out Instagram from Facebook or something like that, you’ve then got the problem of, well, what’s to stop Facebook, which still has 2 billion users, just creating a new Instagram knockoff and stealing all of Instagram’s users, like we saw with—say, Facebook would basically manage to….well, not necessarily destroy, but neuter the threat of Snapchat. There was a while where it looked like Snapchat could claim some really big market share against Facebook, but then Facebook basically ripped off all of Snapchat’s best features, put them into Instagram, and now Instagram’s store is, and why Instagram filters, do the job of Snapchat and Snapchat’s user base have dropped off completely. So even without buying the company, they’ve beaten it. I don’t know what the easy way to sort of stop them, or to regulate or neuter them is…
Chris: We had the anti-trust lawsuits against Microsoft, and Microsoft was put under a ton of restrictions and moved into the AI business and now they’re one of the giants there.
James: This is the thing, and Microsoft are like the biggest company in the world, depending on the day of the week, depending on the market cap, but nobody really cares because they’re not at the forefront of people’s minds any more, because they’re just doing boring, boring business stuff, and doing enterprise software, ultimately, and then have an XBox on the side for some reason—nobody really worries about them, yet often they are the largest company in the world.
Chris: And like in the old days, they’re working very closely with IBM again—largely, Microsoft has a compiler for the IBM quantum computer.
Francis: I think a lot of what’s going wrong on this planet right now, especially with regards to global warming and that sort of thing, is just simply greed. And you know we all, I think, recognize that after a certain point, greed is a bad thing, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how to deal with greed in our society?
James: I think a lot of the problem is in terms of—I agree, in the abstract, we should regulate Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple more. But then, how you actually regulate it and how you would go about writing a rule to manage it, is a much more difficult question. Because even those four companies, if you try to think about, well, what rule can we…say you want to write a rule that no company should have a big market share in search, or something like that, then that punishes Google but not the others. Or if you say, even the big four companies, right? They’ve got very different business models. We all think if you say “big tech” that has a colloquial meaning, everyone knows the companies we’re talking about when we use the words “big tech,” but they’re very different companies. Where are they actually competing? Because they’re all competing with each other, but in such different ways and to such different ends. If I was a government regulator trying to draw a line and saying, right, this is the legal line in the sand, we’ll restrict your behavior in this way—I would find that almost impossibly complicated. And like the really good example is…so sorry if I keep going back to Elizabeth Warren, but she’s talking about detailed proposals. One of the things she said is that one rule she would draw is that companies shouldn’t be able to, if they operate a market, they shouldn’t be able to sell their own products on that market. So Amazon can have a market of sellers that they’re taking to people being the market place, then they can’t have Amazon basics, which are like, you know, their own brand. Various household things they just sell on with an Amazon label. Or, you can’t have Amazon publishing its own books through Kindle on the Kindle store or something like that. And that sounds like a good idea, but then you think, what about the Apple app store? Because Apple both operate a market there, and then also control what goes on the market through the app store, and it rules and so on, an often writes rules to rule out, you know, you can’t have an app that competes with Apple in certain categories. You can only have certain types of apps on the app store. But ultimately, there’s also a good argument for why they should be allowed to do that, which is that it enhances the security of our phones and our devices by having Apple as the sole monopolizer of that market, being able to kick apps off of the app store or not allow apps onto the app store at their discretion. That makes our phones more secure and less hackable.
Chris: And if you want more access to different apps and things like that, you can always switch over to Android and become a full-time systems integrator…
James: Even they’ve got the same sort of problem in that, you know, Google have the Play Store and they monopolize that, and I know there are third-party stores on Android, but for the 99.9% of users, they’re never going to do anything even vaguely complex to sort of get around that.
Chris: Google seems to read absolutely everything that flows through its system, which includes gmail and things like that; privacy is disappearing, what do you have to say about the right to privacy?
James: It is important. I mean, of the big tech companies my favorite is—that’s a weird way of talking about them—but it is Apple, because Apple do have a big focus on privacy and seeing it run through all of their products, and I think it’s a really clever way they’ve positioned their business, is in terms of privacy. So the really good example of this is, they recently announced that in the future, you know when you see, when you go on an app, like sign in with Google or sign in with Facebook? Soon you’ll be able to sign in with Apple, and what this will do, it creates a disposable email address, so whatever service you’re signing up for or signing in to, it won’t actually get your real email address, so you’ll be able to just—if they start spamming you, you’ll be able to cut them off really easily with stuff like that. And again, Apple—they encrypt everything on your phone, they won’t give the data to the FBI, and everything else, and ultimately that more secure experience is a good thing because it creates more trust for the user. If we’re going to have these devices in our pockets with all these sensors on, we want to be able to trust what’s going on there.
Chris: It was Apple’s end user license agreement that got you onto the Stephen Colbert show.
James: [laughs] It was. I can tell you that story, if you want. When Donald Trump signed the “nuclear agreement” with Kim Jong Un, and it was like a 2-page of aid for with basically no commitments or anything else in it, when they had the first summit. I tweeted out the fact that it was a looser agreement than the Apple iTunes terms of service, because if you look at the iTunes terms of service, buried on page 10-billionth or whatever that no one would ever read, it literally says this software cannot be used for nuclear weapons, which is more than the “nuclear agreement” with Kim Jong Un, and yeah, that was picked up by The Late Show. So that was a very strange morning, waking up and seeing the video of Stephen Colbert reading my tweet, and that was very cool. Can I just go back to privacy? Cause I’ve got one other thing I want to say on that—so the flip side of me evangelizing about how Apple are really good at privacy and how I think that’s a really good thing, is that it’s almost too easy for Apple, in that their business model—it’s almost like a free hit. Like, they don’t need to worry about the negative ramifications of taking that stance, whereas if you look at a company like Google, which exists on advertising, that obviously needs to read our data to target advertisements, and you’ve got Facebook, and the same for Amazon. And the flip side, [I’m stealing this] opinion from a blog called Stratechery which is all about the tech industry and different, takes more of an abstract approach to it, but basically Facebook came out and said, not so long after this, “well, yeah, but we’re not putting our servers in any country that aren’t a democracy.” Basically this is a riposte to Apple, because Apple have servers in China and let the Chinese government access iCloud because they have to in order to operate in that country. But again Facebook, they can say that, because obviously Facebook is never going to be unbanned in China. It’s almost like a freebie, it doesn’t harm their business model to take these stances, whether it’s pro-privacy or anti-China, see what I mean? But that gives each of them more power their own privacy, and I think any steps to enhance it are good…
Francis: Maybe the purpose of government should be that, in capitalism in business, the bottom line is profit. It’s kind of a survival-of-the-fittest world that it inhabits. But then, when there’s things that are necessary for the common good, then let’s maximize the benefit to the most amount of people, and that’s the realm of government. So, why can’t we either regulate business to behave themselves, or not get to big and allow diversity maybe to take the place of government? Why don’t we re-imagine the usefulness of government being in charge of things that are, say, like banking, healthcare, energy, things that are necessary for everyone.
James: Ooh. Yeah, again, I can’t claim to have any specifically complex thoughts about this, but I think it’s about designing laws and institutions in such a way that it mitigates that, again, because greed, I think, for better or for worse, is a part of human nature. That isn’t to say that we should embrace it—we should try and control it, that’s why we have higher taxes for the rich and so on, because if people are going to be naturally greedy, then we should design our institutions to try and re-balance things. It’s like, if you ask a relative of a murder victim whether you think the murderer should receive the death penalty or not, they’re probably gonna be thinking, yeah, the murderer should get the death penalty. But the reason we have the institution of the courts and impartial justice, is partially to a) insure the person is actually guilty rather than is just a gut reaction, and b) to make sure it isn’t just an eye for an eye, heat of the moment, taking revenge type thing, and there’s actually a different aspect to it. So when it comes to dealing with greed, if greed is a part of human nature, which evidence suggests it certainly is, then we need to design our institutions to mitigate it.
Francis: Well, when Richard Stallman was on our show, he came up with an idea that I thought was pretty brilliant, which was to have a progressive tax on corporations so that they couldn’t get to—beyond a certain level, it would be pointless. And I just loved the simplicity of that.
James: That idea is definitely emotionally appealing to me. I’d have to think a bit hard about that, as to what sort of cases that would be. That just sounds, again, emotionally appealing.
Chris: OK James, as we ask everybody, is there anything you’d like to promote or plug or—this conversation, we could probably continue for the next four hours…
James: Ha ha—so what would I to promote or plug—you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @Psythor, that’s where you’ll find links to all of my content, my terrible opinions, my retweets of people subtweeting Jeremy Corbyn, and any extra followers are always useful for sort of increasing my—social credits in the journalism world. So that’s probably the best thing, my website is JamesOMalley.co.uk if you want to look at my CV. Why not commission me to write for you? That’s about everything I’d like to plug I think—actually, I’ll tell you, I’ve got one more thing, I’ve just thought about it, sorry, I should pretend I didn’t just think of that and it was planned all along—if you enjoy podcasts, which I’m guessing if you’re listening to this you do, you should check out a podcast called “Science Fiction Double Feature,” available on all good podcast stores. It’s made by my partner, Liz Lutgendorff. And what it is, it’s a science fiction podcast where she’ll interview a science fiction author, and then she’ll interview an expert spinning off one of the themes in the book, and it’s really fun, really informative, you should go listen to that as well.
Chris: Great! Well, with that, thanks so much for coming on.
James: It’s been fund, thank you.
Francis: Yes, thank you very much.
She has a background in forensics and toxicology. Her blog, SciBabe, is dedicated to “clearing up misinformation about science, food and nutrition.”
She also works to debunk falsehoods in alternative medicine, the anti-vaccination movement, and the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement.
D’Entremont started blogging in 2014. She believes that using “snarky humor” is an important tool for communicating science and has been influenced by the style of Penn & Teller’s show, Bullshit. She began to get wider recognition in April 2015, when her Gawker article about Vani Hari, titled The ‘Food Babe’ Blogger is Full of Shit went viral.
As with all episodes of Making Better, this one is transcribed so that everyone can enjoy it. Click here to read the full transcript of Episode 10.
Making Better 10 Transcript: SciBabe
Chris: I’m Chris Hofstader.
Francis: I’m Francis DiDonato.
Chris: And this is Episode 10 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring Yvette D’Entremont, known to the general public as “SciBabe”
Francis: Yeah, I had a lot of fund talking to her. I think as a scientist, I love when people are as diverse in their interests as she is, not just science but other things as well.
Chris: Yeah, you don’t find too many science communicators who also talk a lot about pornography.
Francis: She’s definitely one of the sexiest guests we’ve had on—it’s unusual for me as a scientist to expect someone to be quite as fetching as this guest.
Chris: So, with that said, let’s get on with the episode.
Chris: Yvette D’Entremont, welcome to Making Better!
Yvette: Thank you for having me.
Francis: Yeah, very exciting to have you today, welcome.
Chris: You’re known as the Science Babe, but you also do a podcast about porn…
Yvette: SciBabe, there is another woman, Debbie Berebichez, she is a physicist and she is a science babe, so there are two for the price of one.
Chris: Oh, so you are the Sci Babe..
Yvette: SciBabe indeed.
Chris: How did you get started in science?
Yvette: Well, I needed to choose a major, and I actually double-majored in Chemistry and Theater, and Chemistry was because I wanted a career, and theater was because my father didn’t hug me enough–could have been worse, he could have hugged me too much–look, it’s my childhood, I will cope with it how I want. … The awkward silence on that joke is always great, people don’t know whether to laugh or to go “awww…” So after I got my degree in Chemistry, worked for a year in sales—hated sales! Of all th things that got me to go into forensics for my masters, we’d had a talk from a chemist from the Boston Crime Lab when I was in P-Chem, my most hated course I had in undergrad, and I was like, “oh you can use chemistry for forensics? that sounds like a lot of fun!” Because apparently I had missed every show on CSI ever—so, I got my masters in Forensics and concentrated on toxicology and biological criminalistics, really enjoyed that, and ended up working mainly in toxicology. I did explosives analysis for Department of Homeland Security contractor, worked in a toxicology and drug analysis lab for a couple years, and then most recently, before doing SciBabe full time, worked in a pesticide analysis lab as an analytical chemist, mainly doing method development for analyzing new formulations of pesticides. So that’s been that, and then one day I decided that I liked telling people they were full of shit, and that has been a pretty fun career path for me. Oh yeah, and now I analyze porn for The Plot—for fun.
Francis: When I was told you were going to be on this show, I saw the work you had done regarding Roundup, and I was really surprised to hear you kind of be an advocate for its safety, because there’s very few people that are in the media at the moment who are doing that. So, I told the guys from our show that I was going to do a literature search on it, and I was going to confront you with the data and see if your analysis could hold up to scrutiny. Well, I did the literature search, and….I got nothing. (laugh)
Yvette: So this is our big confrontation—is that you’re like, oh shit, I have nothing to say.
Francis: There’s almost no evidence to suggest it’s a carcinogen—that was just so surprising. Do you find other people are surprised?
Yvette: Yeah. It would have been so much easier if Monsanto was just 100% evil, it would have been easier if all the documentaries were right, right? I wish that everything we saw on Netflix was real—I wish that there wasn’t all this misinformation and mixed-information going out to consumers about the safety of their food, but I mean the truth is I don’t want to let this go unsaid, there are still problems with safety in the food chain and the food supply, let’s not cover that up. But we do have the safest food system and the safest way of growing food that we’ve ever had in history now, and Roundup is a part of that. We left much more toxic pesticides when we moved over to pesticides like Roundup—and I just want to clarify one thing before you get emails about this—pesticide is the blanket term for all of the other “-icides”. So an herbicide is a pesticide, “pests” is not to denote insects. Insecticide is also a pesticide, herbicide is a pesticide, fungicide is a pesticide. So, there you go, before you get emails.
Francis: I must add though that it’s not that there’s conclusive data that it’s absolutely safe, it’s just that there’s very little data to suggest that it’s not.
Yvette: Basically the data does not show that it’s carcinogenic or that it builds up in the system or that there’s long-term toxicity. The LD-50, the TD-50, the measurements that show that it’s going to cause you the types of things that proponents of organic agriculture or the people that are very scared of it—the things that in the scientific studies would would show the type of harm that they’re indicating, are just not there. It’s not the danger that people are making it out to be. Technically, it’s not as bad for you as table salt, on just a plain old measurement of toxicity. It’s less dangerous to you than caffeine and salt,, and aspirin. I think those measurements jar people, and then people always come back with, but what about long-term carcinogenicity? And same thing, there really isn’t evidence for it—and if I see evidence for it, I will change my goddamn mind, because I eat the food too. Just to give an example, Aspartame, of all things, that I have defended because it’s been studied so thoroughly, there came an announcement from—I believe the European Food Safety Administration—that aspartame needs to go through some more thorough testing, because some of the tests don’t hold up to scrutiny, and I was horrified. I want to look more into this report, but the fact that this even came out bothers me, that there might be some validity to this this, and that I might have been wrong, or I might have…said bad information, or that these tests were not held up to enough scrutiny. And I looked at the scientist that put out this report—they don’t seem to be alarmists. I’m always willing to re-look at something that I thought I had known for a fact before, but man, do I like my aspartame and am I going to be disappointed if it’s not safe.
Chris: When we do hear about problems in the food supply, in the United States at least, it’s usually e-coli and it’s usually coming from organic farms. I mean the whole Chipotle disaster…
Yvette: It was precisely because of how they sourced their food. I do not want to bash on organic here, because I think organic farmers, they do a lot of care into the food just like conventional farmers. But part of the way, of how they fertilize their crops, is still through older means, a lot of times it’s through…fertilizer that comes from a cow’s butt, or from other—you know, it’s poop. Where do we get microbes that aren’t always conducive to human life? Yeah, it’s poop, that’s where e-coli comes from. Please, just wash your produce carefully.
Yvette: I literally do talk about the plot-lines in porn, so we could talk about that if you want…we’ve done a few nerdy ones. We did the Avengers, and you would be surprised at what makes a parody porn good or bad, and we really like doing the parody ones. Because, you know, they’re something that the audience can kind of sink their teeth into, because they’re familiar with it—and you would be amazed at what makes a bad parody porn. Part of it is, you have to enjoy the sex you’re watching, but there has to be a thread through the movie that takes something that was in the original and kind of turns it into a sex thing throughout the whole thing, and that’s kind of how you make a good parody. There are a couple ingredients to it that makes it work. We got Tom Arnold on the show—this is what I get for having an occasional celebrity who follows my writing—and when Tom Arnold was on, Arnold Schwartzenegger FaceTimed him, so we accidentally had a guest appearance from “the governator”—[*] podcast. That’s my closest to a claim to real fame.
Francis: I was wondering if in that industry, it was sort of taking advantage of women who were, either doing it because they’re addicted to drugs, or they had mental illness, that kind of thing, and that in contrast to how many can actually do that and not be negatively affected by it, given our patriarchal society where men are so predatory a lot of the time?
Yvette: That is a really good and deep question, and here’s the thing—I know that we have a sampling bias in the people that we have on our podcast. We don’t end up having people who come in for three months and leave after they’ve grabbed some cash. We end up having people who have been on for a while, we’ve had Ella Darling, who—she has a masters in library science, and she’s gone on to have this long career where’s she started off in VR porn, started a VR porn company, and now she runs a company that’s just VR for people to interact with each other without a porn element. So we’ve had people who have gone on to have really empowering careers, and it was because porn gave them the money to have a career that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. No matter what, it’s going to be a little predatory, because you’re—there’s more money if you do more extreme scenes, to a point—but women are, because they’re able to do a lot of things to monetize on their own now, which they couldn’t back in the day when all of the money was through DVD sales, which admittedly did make more money, from what I understood—now, women are able to kind of run their own empires. This is something that we’ve heard from a lot of women who have come on the show. They can run their own fan site where people can buy clips exclusively. Fans can request—and the porn stars don’t have to say yes to it—but fans can request a specific clip from a specific porn star. They can ask, can you make a clip in which you masturbate with x-thing, and the porn star, for a price, will say yeah, they’ll do it. We’re living in a golden age of porn, women are in charge of what they’re doing with their body more. They’ll mix up a few nights of featured dancing with a day of doing a scene, they’ll do a trade for scene with someone, there’s a lot more autonomy now than there was years ago. One of the downsides, though, is that the straight-up pay for scenes, because of pirating now, because of digitization, pay has gone down quite a bit. It’s actually much lower for men in the industry, i’t about half, depending on the type of scene and whatnot, but yea, women get paid much more than men in the industry, it’s very strange. It’s one place where the pay inequality benefits women. But it is gonna be a little predatory, in a way, but I think much less so than people think. There’s weekly STD testing in the industry, mandatory. You are safer having unprotected sex with someone in porn than you are almost anyone else on the planet, and it really does take much better care of its people than I think a, “civilian” would think.
Chris: Are you familiar with Jon Ronson’s work, The Butterfly Effect?
Yvette: To a point, yeah.
Francis: I think one of the things that alarms me is that…I have 14-year-old son, and if he goes on Pornhub, something like that, the kind of things that’ll come up are not representative of what I would like him to think good sex is like—at least as a starting point.
Yvette: Kids should not learn sex from porn. Porn is—it’s kind of like trying to learn quantum physics from the Avengers, or learning Tai Kwon Do from an action movie. That’s not where you should learn about sex—teenagers should learn about sex the way that the rest of us did, from fumbling in the dark in the back seat of a car, trying to figure out where the clitoris is and failing miserably for about ten years—that’s how the rest of us did it, right?
Francis: I think it was seven years for me..[laughter]
Yvette: I…like it took me a while to locate my own, and I have one…
Francis: But what I think is encouraging is that there are some sites, mostly run by women, that feature actual couples having sex, and it’s not edited and it’s not always like those nasty ways that they end in normal porn and things like that, that just seem very un-respectful to women in general, things like t hat.
Yvette: Here’s the thing that I think people don’t understand, because I think that a lot of people think no matter what, if there’s a degrading scene, you know, with cum in the hair, there are women that are into that, too. This is not just for the man’s benefit. A lot of sex is about consent, and that’s the thing that gets left out of the conversation is, don’t teach the teenage boys it’s OK to do this. Teach the teenage boys to have a talk with the woman that they’re going to have sex with. Teach everyone about communication skills, because—and not to be pushy, and to talk out what you want in sexual experience, because yeah, it’s OK to do something ridiculous within a sexual scenario that you wouldn’t do with anyone else, but you have to talk that shit out every time. Because what you did last time with the same partner might not be what they want this time. What you did with another girl definitely might not be what you want or what this new girl wants, but the things that you see in porn are never going to automatically be what somebody wants. I mean, the angles they fuck at so that it looks good for the camera, the putting it in one hole and then the other hole and then back to the first…oh my god. There are things that just happen in porn that don’t happen in normal sex, and it’s not where you should be getting your cues. Everyone that I know in porn will say the same thing.
Chris: Ronson suggests that one of the reasons younger people are having less sex is because sex in real life doesn’t live up to the porn.
Yvette: I don’t know how true that is…but it also wouldn’t surprise me. I think one of the reasons why people might be having less sex, with the advent of freely-available porn—and I kind of liked this, admittedly, in my 20s—I would decide, I’m not going to go on a date with a guy if he’s gonna be more likely to be a hassle and less likely to be an orgasm than my Hitachi. [laughter] You know, if I think this guy is gonna be a—not likely to lead to boyfriend or great love or good sex, and my Hitachi and a couple hours of watching re-runs of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit”—that’s gonna be a good night. This guy—not so sure. You know, which one are you gonna go with? I can see that. Porn is always sex with someone you love, it’s never gonna lead to an STD—there are good things to teenagers watching porn instead of going out and having sex with someone who they’re not interested in. Which would you rather your kid do, watch porn or knock somebody up? And I know those are not binary choices—but, think about it. It’s OK for your teenager to watch porn, but you need to talk them through it. And that’s an awkward conversation, and why I’m glad I only have cats and dogs.
Francis: I’m just trying to leave a couple of windows open on the computer of porn that I think is…good to learn from.
Yvette: Well, first start with Ryan Creamer and wholesome porn—it’s completely clothed, just go to Pornhub and check out Ryan Creamer, it’s hilarious. It’s like, “honey, I washed the dishes without you asking me. Honey, I know you need to go to Ikea today, here’s my credit card, buy what you need.” Like it’s stuff that’s completely not sexual and it’s like, oh, porn for women!
Francis: I think some women would consider that foreplay…
Yvette: I mean, that’s stuff that will get the guy laid later…my partner and I were already starting product development on the first stage of this, but eventually we want to have a whole “wash your junk” kit. We already have a website for it, and it’s in development stages, but we’re starting a product called “fuckwipes,” because you need to wash your junk before you expect anyone to touch it. That area needs to be clean, I want it to pass the white glove test.
Francis. Nice. Well, that kind of brings us to one of the things that I think is the purpose of this podcast, which is to talk about the future, and utopia…
Yvette: You know, enemas do lead to utopia…literally, that was what Gandhi believed. Look this shit up, I am not kidding. People who are listening right now are like, what? He used to give enemas to people.
Francis: What about the future of sex? How is all this technology, if you also consider the potential for AI and robotics to weigh in, and all this other stuff, what is this doing for the future of sexuality and humanity? What are the pros, what are the dangers?
Yvette: There are a lot of both, and I’m glad you brought that up. So, I think future of it—I hope this helps us facilitate communication, because a lot of things that have fucked up people’s sex lives is just not being able to talk about it. I’m sure that you three have all been perfect lovers, a hundred percent of the time, to all of your partners, right? As have I, we’ve never screwed up a thing by not discussing it—huh? Huh? uhh. So I hope that this new digital age will kind of help us realize, and give us the tools to be more open with the people that we’re mashin’ genitals with. There are even apps now—I downloaded one a while ago and then deleted it, ‘cause I realized my husband and I discuss everything already—but you know, there are tools to help you discuss which fetishes you’re into, help you walk your way through what you want and what you don’t want. And people are getting more open with it.
Chris: What’s on the back end of that? I mean, is somebody building an expert system or an AI based on all the data you put in, and they’re going to have the privacy problem that exists on Facebook becomes like a really explicit privacy problem?
Yvette: That is a terrifying possibility. Like, how safe are your porn preferences? If they’re anywhere online.
Chris: How does your life as a porn podcast host dovetail with your interest in science and science communication?
Yvette: It’s a very interesting dichotomy, because I—well, I try to write about science with a big ol’ heaping dose of humor. I’ve wanted something to add some levity to what I do. I was kind of at a point with SciBabe where part of me wanted to pack it in, really. I was deeply depressed at the time, the week that we launched—it was, I don’t know if you guys remember this happening, I’d just been sexually harassed/assaulted at a conference, and that kind of blew up my life for a while, and it was like, I need something to focus on that’s not this. It was like, how do we find a way that’s funny and informative to just kind of get some comedy out, and do something that’s completely off the map. I had—and here was how it kind of came from a Science thing, I was giving a talk at a local science museum when I lived back in San Francisco, and it was a talk on bad science in the movies. And this is why I make this joke about Neal DeGrasse Tyson all the time—I was riffing on his whole, you know, ripping apart bad science in movies and I’m like, Neal, they’re science fiction movies! Nobody goes to Avengers to learn about quantum physics! They go to see Tony Stark punch a robot spaceship alien! But I just joked, I’m like, it’s ripping apart the bad science in a sci-fi movie, hey, it’s like ripping apart the plot in a porno—you still get out of that what you went in there for. And then I was like, wait—if there’s a market for ripping apart the science in a sci-fi movie, maybe there’s a market for ripping apart the plot in a porno. Hmmm. And so the podcast was born. There’s such a loose tie-in, but I think one of the things we enjoy about it, both my podcast partner, Alice, and I, is it’s a chance to tap some comedy out of something that’s ripe for it, because we sit there are look for continuity in our porn. We really do, and I mean I think this throws people. It’s like, no no, we are looking for the plot. We’ve had comedians, we’ve had scientists, we’ve had of course porn stars on, to review a porn with us. And we tell them, and this is what throws them the most, we’re like, yeah, you can skip the sex scenes if you want. We literally watch the plot. So does it tie in to the Sci-Comm? I don’t know, but we try to have fun with it. There was one episode we did with Riley Reyes, who if I recall correctly is president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Group—I’m probably screwing up the name on that [note: Adult Performer Advocacy Committee]—but after we recorded, she shot me a DM, she’s like, “oh my god, I just realized I follow you on Facebook. I’m a huge fan.” This is something that people forget: porn stars are, you know, after they get off the stage, they have interests and they have lives. It’s been nice to kind of de-mystify this entire field and get people to see, kind of like I always try to tell people, scientists are people too! We’ve gotten to become friends with a lot of these people, and we’ve seen a lot of them do stand up comedy—Kate Kennedy, we saw her performing this last Saturday at the Comedy Store, she was amazing. It’s been interesting to see people react to this, and be shocked that, oh, you know, “oh my god, porn performers are human beings—what?” It’s like, yeah, they don’t go back and be hung up on the shelf with the rest of the sex at the end of the day. So, it’s been a multi-faceted thing that I’m not sure exactly if it ties in to Sci-Comm or not, but we’re enjoying it.
Francis: I imagine one of the difficulties you would have, though, is, based on the statistic I had read once, which is that they measured how long people watch porn for in hotels, and they found that the average was something like 11 minutes.
Yvette: Wow, that’s longer than I expected.
Francis: Yeah. I don’t know, maybe they’re nervous, ‘cause they’re in a hotel or something. But that doesn’t leave much time for plot development, and characters, and …
Yvette: We watched, yesterday, a two-hour and forty-nine minute parody of the show “Cheers,” and it was amazing.
Francis: Who makes…?
Yvette: WoodRocket Studios…and they’re almost all directed by Lee Roy Myers. We really love the Big Lebowski XXX, you should watch that for the cinematography values…
Francis: Can you give an example of that? It’s hard for me to…I love Big Lebowski, so…
Yvette: So, you know the dream sequence where he’s like flying through the bowling alley? That happens. The beginning sequence where everyone is like, you know, it’s just this kind of dreamy, well-lit sequence of people bowling—instead it’s topless women at, they rented out a local bowling alley in Hollywood, in the middle of the night, to have a scene full of recording topless women at this delightfully lit bowling alley. The acting is so good in this that they have—and this is something people don’t understand—they have non-porn roles in movies like this. And the guy playing the John Goodman character was so good that we’re like, man, he could have just stepped into that role! If you see a porn with either Tommy Pistol or Evan Stone in it, guaranteed to be hilarious. They’re funny! I wish I was kidding, but they’re better than people expect, every time.
Francis: Well, sex in general has to be really great source material for comedy.
Yvette: Oh—one last one. Horat, the parody of Borat.
Chris: What do you think about film makers like John Waters, who don’t exactly do porn but push every other limit possible.
Yvette: I think he’s great. I think that ’s part of art and cinema is finding edge and making people think with it. That and I love that John Waters just kind of tries to tap dance around an NC-17 rating with pretty much everything he does.
Chris: Yeah, he got one the last film he did, and that’s the last film he did. He can’t get financing anymore. His latest book, by the way, is really terrific. It’s brand new, it’s the last two, three months, and the opening sentence to the book is,”Somehow I became respectable.”
Yvette: Wait, John Waters, really—are you sure about that statement?
Chris: He goes down the list of the awards he’s won and his installations at museums and all this—the fact that the art world woke up and sort of embraced him.
Francis: Well, we have a President that a lot of people are very offended by…
Yvette: Doesn’t feel like we have a President right now.
Francis: And here’s my question—you know, like we’ve been talking a lot about sex and porn and stuff like that, but given the state of this country right now, what do you find obscene?
Yvette: I find sexual assault to be obscene. I find the language that the President uses to describe immigrants to be obscene…
Francis: How about when he talks about grabbing…
Yvette: Yeah, well that’s sexual assault, so I find that to be quite obscene. I find the disrespect towards anyone that disagrees with you, and I mean, I get it—that’s something that’s coming from, I hate to say this term, but that’s something that’s coming from both sides. In general, I find the complete lack of concern for people that don’t look exactly like you to be kind of obscene, given that he’s orange, that’s pretty much everyone.
Francis: One of the things that’s come out of this show, in discussing concepts of utopia, is a recurring thought that respecting diversity is fundamental.
Yvette: So, I went out to dinner the other night with a handful of atheist-y, sceptic-y people, and I had a Star of David necklace on. And of course everyone’s like “but you’re an atheist!” and I’m like, “I’m also Jewish.” And they’re like, “Wait, wut? How does that work.” I’m like, on a molecular level, when you throw my DNA into a tester, I cannot not be Jewish, it’s the only thing I am. So, on my mom’s side I am Acadian, and we are a people without a land mass. We were deported from Canada by the British—basically I’m genetically indistinguishable from the cajuns, give or take, and we are a people without a country. And on my dad’s side, Jewish, and once again, all the little towns that my people were from, destroyed—and that [cost de hollow]. And so I am, on both sides, a people without a country. So I don’t wear the Star of David to say “I’m Jewish,” I use it because this is my family. I don’t know what else to be. And so when I hear people who have complaints wish diversity and don’t want immigrants, and I’m like, you know, you’re basically advocating for me not being alive. I’m not OK with it, and I really wish that people were not so offended by different strains of DNA.
Chris: What do you think are the most important recent discoveries in science? We’ve had pictures of a black hole, we’ve discovered gravitational waves, there’s all kinds of amazing stuff going on—what excites you the most?
Yvette: I’ve focussed more on nutrition and health than I do on the cosmos, but I think in my field, at least, there’s a lot of research that’s coming out on obesity more and more lately, to figure out what’s the thing that’s gonna kill us. And that’s a lot of where I try to focus, because that’s what got me into skepticism, was falling for everything and then un-falling for it. There’s a ton of research going into not necessarily how do we get people to lose weight—because, you know, we kind of know how to do that, it’s just hard. But now we know that there are people who get the “fat diseases”—the ones that are associated with obesity, at a very low weight. And there’s a wonderful article in the New York Times talking about a woman who weighs 119 lbs and has fatty liver disease. So they’re trying to study what causes people at different weights to get these diseases “of obesity,” and from that they can look at what medications can be used to stave this off, or to see what gives people a genetic predisposition to these diseases that we commonly associate with being overweight. So, it’s like, is it a genetic quirk? Is there a way to fight this, is there a way that we can manage this, along with managing weight? But if there is a way to keep the diseases that come with this at bay for people who are at a manageable weight, obviously get the—you know, keep weight into a healthy range, but there have to be other ways to fight these while we’re trying to keep calorie control and exercise as a part of a solution. And I think the fact that they are looking at these answers is pretty wonderful right now, because it’s something that really hadn’t been explored for a long time.
Chris: Where do people go to learn realistic things about diet and health? Because every tabloid at the grocery store has “he beef and beer diet or whatever the fad diet of the week is…
Yvette: Everyone wants to lose weight on bacon, right? Thus the basis of the keto diet’s appeal—and here’s the thing, keto will make you lose weight. Even me, who wrote an article ripping keto to shreds, will tell you—if it makes you lose weight, if it makes all your numbers healthier and your doctor and a registered dietitian say, yeah, this is a healthy option for you, go for it. But I’ve recently lost 50 lbs and I didn’t do it by following any set diet, I just counted my calories. I kept track of what I was eating. I had ice cream on a regular basis, I had tacos a few times a week—from my taco truck, not that I measured out—and I just kept track and lost weight, and that’s the thing. Calorie counting is hard, it’s a pain in the ass. People are—even registered dietitians—are bad at it. People underestimate what they eat, and that’s a big part of why we gain weight. And people want an easy solution, and that’s why they grab a diet book. They’re like, if I just cut out this macronutrient or this food, if I cut dairy, if I cut meat, if I cut the rice, then it’ll all go away. And all of these types of things, they’re cutting calories, each thing you do is just a way to cut calories. So you don’t have to be afraid of certain types of food, you just have to figure out how to make it manageable. If you’re a person who can’t put the ice cream down, don’t buy the ice cream. Leave it for special occasions. I mean, if you want good information about how to lose weight, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian—not a nutritionist, that is not a protected title, I could call myself a nutritionist tomorrow and no one could stop me legally, which is why you shouldn’t come to me to ask me how to lose weight. I’m not a medical professional, go to a registered dietitian—that is the best advice I can give you on this. It’s partially because a diet book, a website, they don’t know your health, they do not know your numbers, they don’t know your history, they can’t ask you for a food diary; diet is largely personal, the way that you get to a diet that you can manage long term—and I don’t mean “diet” in terms of calorie restriction, I mean the way that you eat, long-term. It has to be sustainable, it has to be something that works for you. So Pleeaase a registered dietitian.
Francis: One of my favorite science terms is “elegance,” used to describe when an experiment is done or there’s a finding and it just has this simplicity, and this harmony and perfection to it that is almost, it’s just very inspiring, almost sublime. I was wondering if you’ve had experiences of that.
Yvette: So, I have worked mainly as a chemical analyst. So you hand me a thing, I have to put it through a series of extractions and put it into a machine and see if that machine doesn’t break—both doesn’t break with the way that I extracted it, and analyses it really well. And I don’t know, it’s hard to describe that as an elegant process. But there is something that I find very beautiful about the fact that we can manipulate the chemical processes of these various polarities, of all the solvents we’re using—I’m told, hey, we have about 20% of the target molecule in this vial, and there are a bunch of binders and a bunch of other things that we’ve used in there, and you have to get all those other things out without losing a single percentage of this, and tell us exactly, down to the hundredth of a percent, how much is in there. I think there’s something beautiful about the fact that we can make a method that, you know, just from scratch, from what we know about all the different items that we’re using to extract this, we can make a method that can consistently will tell us, to the hundredth of a percent, from solvent to, you know, minutes of extraction we need to shake this thing out, to filtering, to which column we’re using, to runtime, to ramp temperatures; and we’re eventually going to get a readout that tells us, consistently, what’s in our mystery liquid, and that was what I really loved about what I was doing—was that process of making that, and at the end having my organic chemist and my formulations chemist being able to give them that readout that said, here’s your thing, and they trusted my results. There was something beautiful about that to me, and that’s what—I miss that about the lab. So I like my writing, but I really did love the beauty of analytical chemistry.
Francis: Beauty is one of our favorite topics here, and you are such an open person, I’d be curious to hear you elaborate on other things in other areas that you find beautiful.
Yvette: My masters is in forensics—I know forensics is a messy, gross, horrible field, where we always think about dead bodies and things like that. This is not beautiful thing by virtue of looking at it, but I find something elegant, I think, about the fact that we can measure the stage of maggots in a human body, the stage of maggot development, and determine when someone died. And now, there’s also entomotoxicology, where you can measure the amount of drugs in a bug and get a rough measure of what the drugs were in someone’s system around when they died. Please don’t quote me on that, please check with an expert, I have been out of the lab for a while, you should check with an entomotoxicologist for the exact on that. The fact that we have all these tools now—that’s something scientifically wonderful and beautiful to me, that I look and and go, these tools are something that we could have had, that I wished we’d had for much longer, that there’s not enough of.
Francis: Well, that’s a [first?*] time on our show…
Chris: …that maggots have come up, yes.
Yvette: I do what I can to bring up gross beautiful things…
Chris: We had M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath, on as a guest. She’s an actual sociopath who’s trying to work to make life for livable for people like herself, and she was telling us that there’s some Instagram page that has all this really weird medical stuff that she’s just obsessed with, and …
Chris: It’s all really gross stuff.
Yvette: It doesn’t surprise me. Sociopathy is a…like, I read a decent amount about it….and it’s like….I think it’s something like 4% of the population have a degree of sociopathy. It’s interesting to think that there are, within that group, there are a lot of CEOs, there are a lot of surgeons—the percent that become criminals and serial killers is much lower, but if you go into jail and you meet serial killers and other types of criminals, good chance you’re talking to a sociopath in a lot of those situations.
Francis: Or in politics…
Yvette: Oh yeah. Anyone who’s a professional liar, or like there are a lot of symptoms—lack of empathy, inability to connect—lying about things that are completely unnecessary to lie about…But then there are sociopaths who have kinda gone, oh, I have to fit into society, and even though I don’t feel like there’s a reason to be honest here, I probably should. So there is learned empathy in some cases. Have you ever met a friend who you suspect is a sociopath?
Chris: Francis and I used to hang out at CBGB all the time, and there was one guy there we were absolutely certain, and he was violent and…I mean, he was the only person I was actually, I can remember being actually scared of.
Francis: Well, the punk scene, given its nihilism, was sort of a…attractive environment for people who were that type of sociopathy, I guess.
Yvette: Like, I hate throwing a clinical diagnosis on someone, that is not my expertise, but just going by behaviors, I think I have known at least two that I could just be like, yeah, if these guys aren’t sociopaths, I am not capable of understanding human behaviors. You know, people who just lie all the time and rile up shit amongst their friends, and can’t hold a steady job—I’ve known a few of those. And I’m like, either a narcissist or a sociopath, they’re really close.
Francis: But you have to know them for a while for that to be true. In my experience, the people who were probably the sociopaths that you came to know in your life, were amongst some of the most charming, charismatic people you’ve ever known. I mean, I had dinner recently with two friends who—they’re both diagnosed. So it was me and them having dinner together, and honestly, I had to struggle at times to even notice, because it’s strange how invisible and maybe it’s sometimes, in some situations, unimportant it is.
Yvette: With one of the friends that we figured it out with, it took years, because you felt good in their presence. They were so nice to everyone, and you…this person, for so long, you thought that all of the problems in your friend-group was because of everyone else, then you realize this person was just lying about everyone. And you felt so good around them, but years later the person who had been her best friend for a decade up and, like, friend-dumped her. And I’m like, hmmm, this is interesting. So when I moved to the west coast, had a phone call with her, and we talked out everything and she’s like, yeah, she said all these things about you. We went through everything, figured out all the lies, all the completely unnecessary lying, all the behaviors lined up with sociopathy, and that’s the thing—is that charming, really manipulative, lied about unnecessary things that just made no sense, unless there was an underlying pathology there. And it was just, some of them were just grandiose lies that made no sense, like I said, unless either a narcissist or a sociopath, and so many of the things are interchangeable. But it was so strange to look at it and go, wow, we think there was a sociopath, you know, in our dorm for all these years, one of our best friends, living with us for all these years—collecting our secrets for all these years.
Chris: But now Facebook will do that for you.
Yvette: [laughs] Yeah. Cambridge Analytica is our new sociopathic friend.
Chris: I mean, an AI that, even if we can, you know, jump 20 years into the future, or 50 years into the future, whatever, an AI that became self-aware is probably going to be a sociopath.
Yvette: There is a new documentary on Netflix on Cambridge Analytica. It’s terrifying. People that worked for it that kind of left and, should we say, told on the company—they’re, in retrospect, they’re like “what did we do?” Because they’re looking at Facebook telling lies at the Congressional hearings, they’re like, “no, they definitely still had our data, they knew what they were doing, Mark Zuckerberg’s lying”—it’s just…whoof
Chris: There’s a book called Zucked that was written by one of the early advisors to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and Jim Fruchterman discussed that on the podcast, and it’s a pretty scary book.
Yvette: Doesn’t surprise me. Like, I remember when Facebook started, I was a senior in college and everyone’s like, hey, our school finally got access to Facebook! ‘Cause we were like, Boston area, all the schools were getting access first, and it still took till the end of grad school for me, until Facebook was starting to become a thing—and then it was, you know, a few years of Myspace-Facebook-Myspace-Facebook. I feel like we should just all go back to Myspace.
Chris: After Friendster went out of business, they released their database, and with 95% certainty—there’s been a lot of progress since—and just using the Friendster database, you could determine the sexual preference of somebody who didn’t have a Friendster account, but was in the contact list of somebody who did. That study was published four or five years ago. I mean, Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google, what I call the G-MAFIA (stands for Google Microsoft Apple Facebook IBM Amazon), their level of intelligence power right now is greater than any nation.
Yvette: This doesn’t surprise me at all. Just check out, I think it was called “The Hack,” [The Great Hack (2019), Netflix] was the one that I watched yesterday—they said basically they had 5,000 data points from every person that signed up, and from that, from everyone that they scraped, that was connected to everyone that they took the survey from—and it’s just knowing how much data they have on all us—it’s terrifying. Part of me goes, you know, makes me want to shut down my Facebook account, and then part of me goes, wait, what would happen to SciBabe? Like that’s the thing, they know that they have us already, and it almost feels like it’s pointless to un-sign up.
Chris: I haven’t killed my Facebook account, and I know what it’s doing, but all I use it for is to promote this podcast.
Yvette: Yeah, like because I’m so online, I know how public I am. How would it help me to get off the internet, the way I am right now? I don’t feel like it would help me at all. If I wasn’t doing what I did, I would shut things down.
Chris: We could try to encourage people to use things like GNU Social and Mastadon, which are ethically-run social medias, but unfortunately they have fairly few users. And those are entirely community-driven, so you can inspect the source code and everything like that to make sure it’s not spying on you…
Francis: There’s so much room for improvement, which gives me hope, because you know there was a time when everyone thought AOL was invincible, and then poof! And if I watch my son with his gaming things and how like, one day Minecraft, they’re all playing that, and next day they’re all playing Fortnite, it can come and go before you can even imagine—it just happens. And I think Facebook is that vulnerable, and you know, it’s gonna be figured out.
Yvette: I would be surprised if Facebook was—and I say this knowing I could be completely wrong, but—if Facebook still looks the same way it does by 2025, either in power or in design, and I know it will be redesigned 15 times, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t a major restructure or a major exodus by, within the next five years.
Chris: And the other problem is, Facebook is so rich and powerful that any sort of competitor other than one that’s community-driven comes along, they’ll just buy it, like they did with Instagram and all the others.
Yvette: I mean, and as much as people in Congress have been saying it needs to be, there’s a monopoly that needs to be broken up, can you see these people…they’re not exactly regulate-business type folks in charge of the country right now, and this really does need to…how is it not a monopoly when it owns Whatsapp, Instagram, and god knows how many other apps? Does it own Snapchat, too? I don’t even remember.
Chris: They don’t actually own Snapchat, they just sort of drove them out of business by putting all the Snapchat features into Instagram…
Yvette: They own every platform you’re on, basically. Like, at one point I was like, yeah, I’m gonna use Whatsapp to avoid..oh. There’s no point. I mean, even if you get off Facebook now, don’t they pretty much still own your data?
Chris: They say they’ll delete your data if you ask them to, but I don’t believe that.
Yvette: How many times have you—and this is the one place where I sound kind of conspiracy-theory-ist. Part of me knows that it’s just they drag your material from everyplace you’ve ever looked on the internet. But how many times have you just thought something, or said something to someone else in the room and discussed it, and suddenly there’s an ad for it on your Facebook, or somewhere online?
Yvette: Yeah. And it freaks you out, right?
Chris: Your Amazon Echo might be listening to you all day long…
Francis: That happened to me this week, and I still have no idea how those ads got up there.
Yvette: Yeah. There will always be something online saying you’re imagining it, it just…like, your computer knows so much about you because it grabs from 15 different places. Because I tell people, don’t believe in conspiracies—so much of me wants to say, naaah, it’s just so ridiculously good at grabbing information….and then there’s the other part of me, that’s like, you know, they lied to us about Cambridge Analytica, so they’re fucking lying about this too! I don’t believe in any other conspiracy thing, and this one makes me go…what the fuck? Like—sometimes it just doesn’t feel like there’s another explanation for some of the ads that show up, other than—I never typed it in. I’ll look through my google searches, I’ll look through things that I typed online earlier, and I’m like, why is there an ad for something I just discussed with my husband a minute ago, and never typed in? Then there’s the thing that we say in forensics, that there’s no such thing as coincidence.
Francis: It’s too bad that there’s such a bias against regulation these days.
Yvette: I don’t know, I was about to say fear of it. But there is so much fighting against it, because the argument is always, you regulate an industry, it’s gonna make it harder to do business—but is it really? Is making it harder to screw over consumers really gonna make it harder to do business? I mean, I worked in two highly-regulated industries before, in pesticide analysis and in a biotech lab, and you know, we were still pretty able to work. I worked in producing pesticides—I want that industry heavily regulated, I eat the food, so throwing on extra regulations to things has never really destroyed an industry. Like, I’m sure someone out there is gonna be like, “but what about…?” and they’re gonna pull up one example, but a little regulation has never killed off an industry.
Chris: Well, if we go back to the late 70s, when the United States was much more favorable towards regulation and taxes were much higher, people say that stifles innovation, but a couple of guys named Steve Jobs and Bill Gates went out and created two absolutely, monstrously innovative companies.
Yvette: How dare you bring up facts, Chris! How dare you!
Chris: [laughs] Why do people, it seems to me, do you think—and this is kind of, from out of left field—but people on the left and people on the right, everyone just seems really angry right now.
Yvette: It’s probably because the country seems to be in a bit of a perpetual dumpster fire?
Chris: But it seems to be even outside the US—I mean, you have Brexit, you have Italy’s economy falling apart, you know, we have all kinds of—Venezuela’s a disaster, Brazil, one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas, is in a state of collapse…
Yvette: Well, let’s see. A handful of years ago—and this is just from listening to too many podcasts on history, economics and rising authoritarianism—in the 2008 economic crisis that really did affect us globally, not just in the US, ‘cause the US economy will, really is a trigger on the rest of the economy; we saw economic collapse everywhere, at least to a point. In countries in Europe that we’ve seen rising authoritarianism, it’s not that they’re like, yeah, we want fascism! It’s that what the have there right now, or what they’ve had in the last five, ten years, they don’t see the good economic impact that they want. So it’s not that they suddenly hate Macron or the policies that he’s had, it’s that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Bolsonaro down in Brazil, it’s not that they’re like, “authoritarianism, yummy!” it’s that it’s the economy, stupid. Their economy has not been doing well under the last guy, and Venezuela—the sad thing is that even though they have to know that Maduro is a bad guy on some level, but there are still people who are loyal to Chavez who did help the economy quite a bit. He didn’t help it as effectively as he could have, because there was a lot of money coming in from the oil boom, but he also needed to put more of that money into infrastructure and into the people, and there was money squandered, and there wasn’t a structure set up for it to be continued to work for the people in the country. And it’s kind of, and this is why people are mad down there, because all these oil fields are just rotting. Their entire financial system has kind of crumbled. I am clearly not an expert on Venezuelan economy, so…ask an expert to clarify all the things I just fucked up…but like, that’s the thing. When the economy crashes, and it crashes under one system, people are gonna go hard to the other side. So right now, in Poland, in Hungary, in Italy, in France even and England, anywhere that there’s been an ability to convince people that the economic unrest is due to the other side, you can force in an authoritarian regime, whether it looks like an authoritarian regime at first or not. And that’s kind of what’s happened in a lot of these countries, is that people are upset about one thing or another, or they’ve been convinced to be upset about one thing or another. And you saw it here with Trump, starting off with Mexicans are sending rapists and murderers, and that rhetoric has continued on. Because the economy was getting better, it was steadily progressing under Obama, so it wasn’t economic distress. He’s caused more of it since he’s got in, but he managed to stoke fears—and that’s what’s happened across Europe. In Germany, at first, they were like, bring in the Syrians, and a couple of small incidents were used to stoke fears, not just about Syrian immigrants, but there were people—I want to say it’s the ADL was the name of it? But there was a group in Germany that, when they were having riots because of an alleged incident with Syrian refugees, were going to Jewish-owned businesses and throwing bricks through windows. So a lot of old prejudices are coming back with these new authoritarian regimes. It’s kind of terrifying.
Francis: I’ve always had this metaphor in my head that I’d like to run by and get your opinion on, and it’s an economic kind of metaphor where, when I think of cancer, I think of how you have these cells, and these cells are in your body and they’re part of you. But then they decide, fuck everyone man, I’m just gonna get big and take everything and bubble off and try to like, pretend that it’s all about them. So I think in society we all live so interconnectedly, and with all of our wealth and what makes the world so beautiful in a lot of ways has to do with things that our ancestors built, our grandparents, our great-grandparents and all the work they put into—New York city, this city was built by people who are mostly dead now. So, I was thinking, you know with capitalism we have this idea that, of rugged individualism, and how everybody can just sort of like really focus on themselves and then somehow magically, it’s gonna be good for everyone. But what happens with cancer is, if it keeps growing, the body dies, and I feel like that kind of concept in terms of how, with multinationals and corporations just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, is kind of like happening on an economic level.
Yvette: Yeah. I’m trying to think of which direction to go with an answer to this—at one point it felt more like corporations understood they had a responsibility to make sure that their employees were paid enough so that they could put money back into society, and now it seems like the only responsibilities that they have are to their investors, and to make money for themselves. And it’s like, you know, if you don’t pay people enough, they can’t keep the economy moving.
Chris: Way back at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, we had in Germany the Krupp corporation, the munitions manufacturers, recognized that and started all kinds of great programs for their employees, and that’s where Henry Ford got the idea, he went over to study there. He came back to start Ford motors, he was going to make a car that his employees could afford to buy, so he’d sell more cars.
Yvette: I want to say, “good on ya, Henry Ford,” but he was also a virulent anti-Semite. Hitler loves the guy.
Chris: Oh, he was a horrible person.
Yvette: Him and Charles Lindberg were kind of like the biggest Nazis in America, and I’m not being hyperbolic.
Chris: The reason the Krupp corporation and Ford did it was to stop unions. It wasn’t benevolent, it was to keep from unionizing.
Yvette: This is why I drive Toyotas, because they’re not Fords and they actually work well.
Chris: We’re running really long, so I’ll just ask you the same last question we ask everybody, and what would you like to promote or plug or…?
Yvette: Oh! Let’s see, so if you want to find my podcasts, you can check us out over on Twitter @TGOMpodcast
Chris: What is the name of your podcast?
Yvette: Oh, it’s the Two Girls, One Mic podcast, because we’re classy and we talk about all things porn. I like to say we talk about the holes and the plot-holes in your favorite porn—and indeed, we’re the porn podcast that your grandmother would love! It is far less tawdry than you expect, and it really is just a comedy podcast. You can also, for my “day job,” find me over at the SciBabe on Twitter and Instagram, and at Facebook.com/SciBabe where I talk about science with a heaping dose of snark. Thank you guys for having me on, I’ve had a great time.
Chris: Well, thank you so much coming on, we really appreciate it.
Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein,[and] Freud,” by Britain’s Channel4 TV , “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing”—The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering”—The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), and The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich). Click here to read his full biography, find Howard on Wikipedia, read Howard’s writings on Medium, follow Howard on Twitter and finally watch Howard on YouTube.
As always, there is a transcript available for this episode. Click here to read Episode 9 in its entirety.
Making Better transcript: Howard Bloom
“…and those changes, those uplifts and upgrades, those messianic moves, those are the real responsibility of capitalism.”
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: What do Prince, mining asteroids, starting the hippie movement, and being on Coast to Coast 300 times have in common?
Francis: Could it be Howard Bloom?
Chris: He’s our guest on this episode—he talked to us about his history as a rock’n’roll PR guy—
Francis: And that includes some time with Prince, which is a really interesting story.
Chris: We also discussed how Howard helped start the hippie movement—
Francis: All that and some background in science, in politics, in…you never know what Howard Bloom’s going to discuss next.
Chris: So without further ado, here’s our interview with Howard Bloom!
Chris: Howard Bloom, welcome to Making Better!
Howard: Thanks, it’s nice to be here.
Francis: Yes, thank you very much for joining us, we really appreciate it.
Chris: You’ve a long history doing public relations for rock and roll bands—can you tell us a little about that?
Howard: Ok, well you have to know, my background is not in popular culture, it’s not in popular music; my background is—at the age of ten I got involved with theoretical physics and microbiology, and at the age of 13 I realized that what really interested me was ecstatic experiences, the stuff that William James called “the varieties of the religious experience.” And when I got out of college phi beta kappa/magna cum laude, I had four fellowships in what is today called cognitive neuroscience, and I realized that if I accepted any of those fellowships—actually I accepted the one from Columbia—it would be Auschwitz for the mind, I would never get anywhere near the ecstatic mass human emotion tidal waves that I was looking for, the tidal waves that make the forces of history. So I took an opportunity, and I went into something I knew absolutely nothing about—popular culture—absolutely nothing about it. And a few years later founded the biggest PR firm in the music industry and worked with Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley, Bette Midler, ACDC, [?], KISS, Queen, Run-DMC, Billy Joel, Billy Idol, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, ZZ-Top, GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five, and a bunch of others. And my role, since I came into this from science and not from being a vinyl junkie, my role was, if you approached me, my role was to know your career, to have already analyzed its strengths and its weaknesses, and to see how we could make you—if you deserved it—how we could make you a permanent icon in the landscape, how we could make you a permanent presence in the lives of kids. So that’s what I did in the rock and roll business—I helped generate icons, I helped subcultures find their voice, I helped the country music—of all things, ’cause I didn’t like that kind of music—find its voice, but yeah, there was a group of people that were prisoners of the Bible Belt, and they felt they had a right to be on a global stage; well, I helped them find that voice on a global stage. I did the same with glam rock and with heavy metal, with punk music, with disco, and with…Texas culture and a bunch of others. So, the job wasn’t what you would think in terms of PR. Danny Goldberg, who was a terrific publicist and then became the head of Atlantic records and head of Polygram records, says that I wasn’t in this for the spoiled egos of rock stars, I was in it as an applied science—well yeah, but applied science with a heart, with a gut, with a soul. I mean, if you walked through my office and you were interested in working with me, I sat you down and told you something very basic: if you expect me to create an artificial mask for you, an image, and claim that it will make you a star, I’ll send you to my best competitor, I’ll get you a meeting in the next two hours. You can walk over from my office to his. If you’re going to work with me, you have to understand that music is a soul exchange, that it’s an exchange between something deep in you that takes you over and dances you on a stage, that takes you over when you try to write a lyric and are sure you can’t and two hours later there’s a lyric on the blank screen in front of you. Those are the gods inside of you, and my task is to find those gods, put you in touch with them, so you know what it is that is a force bigger than you are, that makes your music for you.
Francis: Can you give any examples of how that happened with some of your clients?
Howard: Yeah. Once upon a time, I used to read all three trade magazines, all three of the insider magazines on what was going on in the music industry every Monday morning when they came in, and I noticed something very odd; there was an artist I never heard of who was moving way up on the R&B charts, which white people didn’t pay any attention to in those days. Not only was he moving up on the R&B charts, his record went platinum, and I’d never heard of him—and I was a student who studied every comma and period in the music industry. Then I got a call asking if I wanted to work with this unknown person out of Minneapolis, who claimed to be 19 years old at the time, and it was the artist that I’d been watching move up the charts. And so I said immediately yes, he was obviously some kind of a strange phenomena. And his name was Prince. So I laid out my conditions, I will only work with you if I can sit down with you in your own environment, for anywhere from one to three days with no handlers around—no managers, no assistants, no wives, nothing—just me and you, and if I could go on a hunt for the soul inside of you, or the soul that dances you, the soul that makes your music. And the manager said yes. Then I got a very strange phone call from Warner Brothers Records—Prince was on Warner Brothers—and in those days, there was a big barrier at record companies between the black people and the white people, within the company. If you were a black act, you automatically got thrown over to the black staff, and the black staff and the white staff didn’t really talk. Warner’s was a little bit different, because whereas most of the black staff on the other side of the color barrier within record companies were relatively unsophisticated people, the folks at Warner Brothers, even in the black department, were Harvard-level people—extremely articulate, extremely intelligent. So I got a phone call from one of the extremely articulate, extremely intelligent black publicists at Warners saying, you put your foot in it, you’ll have a real hard time with this one. Prince won’t do interviews, we set him up for two interviews and he was quiet in one of the interviews and didn’t say anything, and in the other interview tried to strangle the interviewer. Now if this had come from a standard black staff, maybe…god knows how that idea would have arisen—but I would have taken it seriously in one way, but I had it taken a whole different way coming from this super-intelligent Warner’s publicist. Nonetheless they met my demands, and so they flew me, Bob Cavallo (Prince’s manager), flew me to Buffalo New York—which ironically is my home town, not Prince’s home town—where he was rehearsing for his “Dirty Minds” tour at the Shea Theater. And when his rehearsals were over around one o’clock in the morning, we locked ourselves in a back room in the dressing rooms, and we sat there talking until roughly 7-9 am in the morning. It was the Warner Brothers person was dead wrong that Prince wouldn’t talk to me. What were we looking for? We were looking for Prince’s imprinting points; there are certain points in your life where your brain is open to a certain kind of phenomena, and when it finds that phenomena it latches onto it and it makes that phenomena, whatever it’s hooked onto, whatever it’s imprinted on, a part of your brain’s shape, your brain’s morphology for the rest of your life. I call those things passion points, imprinting points. So among other things, I asked Prince a very simple question—when was the first time you remember being interested in music? And Prince talked about when he was five years old—which was often a key imprinting point, almost always a key imprinting point—and Prince’s mom had taken him to a theater in Minneapolis to see his father rehearse. And they come into the empty auditorium, and there his father was on center stage; and behind his father, said Prince, were five of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen in his life, and that was it. Some of the imprinting characteristics for most rock and rollers are that joining point, where sex and massive attention meet. With many of the artists I work with, their imprinting points came in watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, or watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. A point where the screaming girls, the mass attention, the sexual attention, they all come together in a common point. So, this was my main story in understanding Prince—there were lots of others, but this was a key story. So now I was in a position, when I finished my hours and hours of interviews, I went back home—I didn’t yet have computers—I had to cut and paste literally with scotch tape and scissors, and I cut apart the interview and I arranged it in chronological order so it told the tale of Prince’s most important imprinting points, and I sent it back to Prince, and I said, “this is your story. And whenever you do an interview, I want you to tell this story, no matter what the interviewer asks, tell this story, because the interviewer is a megaphone, the interviewer is a microphone through whom you speak to your audience. And your audience has to know what’s at the heart and core of you.” And I gave him a bunch of other training in how to do interviews, and then within the next two years, he did roughly 150 interviews altogether, the person I was told could not possibly do an interview, and who had tried to strangle an interviewer—we never had a problem, never. Now look, Prince—it took me a long time to realize this—Prince was only about five foot, two inches tall, he was tiny. And so I would imagine that when Prince was growing up, he’d taken a lot of shit, that he’d been beaten up a lot, and so he was very timid around men. He wasn’t timid around girls, especially attractive women. I insisted on going out to Minneapolis once a year, after looking at the lyrics to his upcoming album, and debriefing him, because every year your imprinting points change a little, you continue to grow and your imprinting points grow with you. And the third year when I went out to Minneapolis to interview Prince, he had me in the auditorium watching him as he was rehearsing, and then refused to see me. The fear had taken over. Nonetheless, one of the tricks to what I was doing is that, Hermann Hesse says that you have 10,000 personalities hidden in a dark closet of the mind, and the only one of those 10,000 personalities you know is the one that fought to the surface and became you. But those other personalities are inside of you, so one of the tools that I use, which is strange coming out of science, was tuned empathy. It was finding that hidden self in that dark closet of the mind that corresponded to Prince, and then resonating to Prince’s frequency. So Prince’s manager was able to call and say, look, you know, I’m not supposed to have lyrics to Prince’s album, and you’re not supposed to know about the lyrics for Prince’s album. But if the lyrics to Prince’s album mysteriously show up at your desk at 10:30 tomorrow morning, can you tell me what Prince is thinking? And the answer was always yes. All I had to do was see the lyrics, and I knew where Prince’s head was at, I knew where his heart was at, I knew where his soul was at, for years, without ever once again being able to sit down and have a multi-hour conversation with Prince. So that’s just one example of finding the soul inside of you and helping reveal it to your audience. So you think science would be the basis of what I did, and science was in fact the basis of a lot of what I did, but you know science isn’t science unless it uses empathy as well. Science isn’t science unless—or has a good sense of a lot of the stuff it doesn’t know. When it comes to the realm of the human soul, which is what I was after in the music industry, science doesn’t have a clue. So you have to be able to open your eyes. And the first two rules of sciences that I learned at the age of 10, the two rules that converted me to being, to science as my religion, are the truth at any price, including the price of your life, and look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there. When I was twelve and thirteen years old, I discovered that the most interesting stuff right under your nose isn’t under your nose, it’s behind your nose, it’s what I call “the gods inside.”
Francis: As a scientist myself, I kind of view it as science is what we’ve been able to demonstrate in a reproducible way, and there are phenomena that we can see are pretty reproducible but we don’t have any instruments to measure them.
Howard: Right. We have no numerical system for grabbing ahold of them, and in science very often when we don’t have a system involving equations and numbers, we feel helpless. In fact, usually we deny that the phenomena exists altogether until we find a way of dealing with them with formulae and math.
Francis: Yeah, I think as I’ve grown as a scientist I’ve just become more and more humble in terms of being aware of how much there is to know, how much phenomena is out there that is not subject to our senses and to our tools. But you could see their effects.
Howard: Absolutely. Hitler’s not a replicable phenomena, although his speeches tended to have pretty much the same impact when they were made, and yet should science understand a Hitler or how he came to be, so that we can stop new Hitlers from arising? Absolutely. Should we understand what he was able to do successfully in stirring the souls of his audience? You bet! Should we be able to use that for good? You bet! Should we deny that it exists? No way! Science is the aspiration to omniscience, it’s the aspiration to know and understand everything, and our science is still, very, very, very, very primitive. It thinks it understands the world, the cosmos, but it understands such a tiny fraction of the cosmos, that it’s ridiculous, and there is something called observational science. You go out into the field and you become a participant-observer. You become a part of the process that you’re observing—Margaret Mead used to do that in anthropology, and in fact that all the great anthropologists have done that, and it’s where the phrase “participant-observer science” comes from. Well, I was doing participant-observer science in the music industry, and the tales of all of these adventures are in a book. It’s called Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll, and that book will be available in April of 2020. And the other books tend to focus on science, because the situation is that I left the music industry in 1988, I felt I had learned everything that I was going to learn from it, and I got sick. So I was sick in bed for 15 years and started to write my books. This sounds hideous to say it, but the fact is I had become a legend in the music industry and the BillBoard Guide to Music Publicity, a publicity textbook, for example, had 20 pages just of an interview with me, about what I called perceptual engineering. I was credited with having re-invented publicity in the music industry. So because of that, I needed to re-establish my scientific credentials, because the rock and roll publicity overshadowed my scientific credentials.
Chris: Did you choose to walk away from the music industry, or was it your illness?
Howard: I started doing the research for what would be my first book in 1981, I started organizing the material in 1984, and I started writing it in 1987, I think. And then I wanted to move away from the music industry and just do my books full time. There’s no way you can get away with that when you’ve got a wife and you’re at a legendary level. And I got sick, and the sickness was horrible, it was monstrous, I was too weak for five years to have another person in the room with me and too weak to utter syllable, too weak to say a thing. So it was hideous, but monstrosities produce advantages sometimes, and it allowed me to do my work on my books full time, and I needed to do my books on science because, as I said, I needed to re-establish those credentials. And when I was 12 years old I had built my first [?] algebra machine, I had co-designed a computer that had won science fair awards, I had been schlepped off to a meeting with the head of the graduate physics department at my hometown university, the University of Buffalo. I imagine that he was granting five minutes as a courtesy to my mom, and instead we spent an hour discussing the hottest topic of science at the moment, the interpretation of the Doppler shift and Big Bang vs. Steady State theory of the universe. At the age of 16, I had worked at the world’s largest cancer research facility, the Roswell Park Memorial Cancer Research Institute, and I had spent that summer at Roswell developing a theory of the beginning, middle and end of the universe that predicted something that wouldn’t be discovered for another 38 years—dark energy. And if you go online and look up “Howard Bloom Big Bang”—or big bagel—you’ll see the theory in a five and a half minute, very simple animation, and it explains what dark energy is, which is a mystery to science. The actual existence of dark energy wouldn’t be discovered until 1998, I was coming up with this theory in 1959. So even though I had this scientific background, nobody knew it. So my first books were all science, The Lucifer Principle of Scientific Expedition to the Forces of History, which a lot of people call their bible and reads like it was written tomorrow. The Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, the office of the Secretary of Defense had a forum based on that book and brought in people from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM and MIT; The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, which the sheik who runs Dubai named a racehorse after, which his former minister of development who runs a 33 billion dollar sovereign real estate operation and he’s co-founder of the Arabian business and economic forum, and he went in front of the Arabian Business and Economic Forum and said there’s a book I particularly resonate to, it contains the future of Dubai, and proceeded to read passages from The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism. The 11th President of India called the book a visionary creation, and he and I worked together for four years on harvesting solar energy in space and transmitting it to earth. The next book was The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates, and that’s very relevant to what you’re doing in science, because Barbara Erenreich read that book, and she wrote an introduction for the paperback version. And in her introduction, she says that for 250 years we’ve been doing reductionist science; it’s only gotten us so far. To understand how a hummingbird flies, via reductionist method, you have to kill a hummingbird—well, there goes everything that makes the hummingbird fly. In this book, The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates, is the first step in the next 250 years of science. The other books are How I Accidentally Started the 60s, which I wrote while I was sick in bed. Certain forms of human yanked me out of my misery, and they were P.G. Wodehouse and Dave Barry, and I wrote this book, it’s the story of my adventures accidentally helping start the hippie movement, and I wrote it to be as hilarious as I could possibly make it. And then a manuscript got to Timothy Leary and Timothy Leary came back with a quote that was just astonishing: he said it was a monumental masterpiece of American literature, and filled with [wow woo aha] experiences and nonstop scientific comedy routines and waves of hilarity, and wow-woo-aha and he compared it to James Joyce. What I didn’t realize is, as I was writing this book from my bed in an attempt to create the kind of transcendent humor that had lifted me out of my circumstances, and Timothy Leary was dying prostate cancer and needed exactly the same thing, and apparently he found it in that book.
Chris: Can speak more to how you accidentally invented the 60s?
Howard: It was an acdent. I was a total outcast in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. The other kids, to the extent that they acknowledged me at all, called me the sickly scientist, and I read Time magazine from cover to cover every week. And every week Time magazine covered the latest escapades of the beatniks. I thought, well, there may be no social group that want to have anything to do with me in Buffalo, New York, but if I could ever get anywhere near the beatniks, they would accept me. So I thought the beatniks would accept me, and so I tried to drop out of high school, I tried to get a motorcycle and drive to California, not realizing not only did I not have the money for a motorcycle, I did not have a driver’s license and knew nothing about how to drive one. But nonetheless, my parents managed to enlist my teachers, and they persuaded me not to drop out of high school, so when I went off to Reed College, which was called the Harvard of the West and had the highest median SATs of any school in the country at the time, higher than Harvard, higher than Cal Tech, higher than Yale; a few weeks before the end of my freshman year, I dropped out to seek Zen Buddhist Satori and to find the beatniks. And I trekked all the way down from Portland, Oregon to North Beach, which was where the Beatniks were supposed to be headquartered. And I went to the City Lights bookstore, which was owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was the king of Beat poets, and the store was empty! I walked in, there was a guy behind the counter, he was reading a book, he didn’t lift his eyes when I walked in; I asked him where the beatniks were, he didn’t even answer. I walked out on the street looking terribly confused, and somebody stopped and said, “you look disturbed about something, can I help you?” The kindness of strangers is really remarkable under some circumstances, and I said, “yes, I’m looking for the Beatniks.” He rolled his eyes up into his head, and scratched his forehead, and then he finally said, “well, have you tried Colorado?”—and that was a little bit vague as a destination for me. So what ended up happening is that people followed me and my two companions, and the group grew larger and larger, we ended up living naked all day long in a big condemned house in Berkeley, California, and people were dropping out of their jobs and dropping out of their schools to come out and follow us. So while looking for the Beatniks I accidentally became one of the catalysts—I’m sure there were thousands of us—for a movement that as yet had no name. And I left the country for a year after these adventures, and when I came back Time-Life publications, the same people who had told me about the Beatniks, had found a name for our movement, they called it the hippie movement. So that’s how I accidentally started the 60s. And I’ve got another book, it’s The Mohammed Code, and it’s about the rise of Islam and within a hundred years of Mohammed’s death, the empire of Islam conquered a territory 11 times the size of the conquest of Alexander the Great, five times the size of the Roman empire, and seven times the size of United States. Nothing like it has ever happened in the history of the world, it is the biggest imperialist and colonialist movement this world has ever seen, and the most successful. And since understanding the forces of history is what I’m all about, using science, that book is essential reading. So that’s it, that’s my seven books, and now Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll in April.
Chris: What can you tell us about the new book without spoiling it for us when it comes out?
Howard: Well, Michael Jackson’s the most remarkable person I’ve ever met in my life, so far utterly beyond the norm that it’s hard to describe it, except that I tell the stories and the stories get that across in this book, and I also pursue the mystery of who killed Michael Jackson. But the stories you must read, because you know there are certain people who expand the boundaries of human possibility: like for example, in 1954, no one had ever broken the 4-minute mile, and a guy in England got together with somebody who had a very analytic mind, and they took pictures, they took film of his running, Roger Bannister, and they analyzed every movement of his knees, every movement of his ankles, so that he could be trained to maximize his energy when he was running. And the 4-minute mile, which experts had considered a biological impossibility, he broke it. Now once Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, if you look at Wikipedia and look up the 4-minute mile, it will explain that every decent, [boldly] competitive runner now automatically breaks the 4-minute mile. So there are certain people who expand the bounds of human possibility, and Michael was one of those people. And he did it—remember the first two rules of science? Truth at any price, including the price of your life, and look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there? Well, rule 1, the truth at any price including the price of your life, it’s courage. And rule 2, look at things that are under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there, is awe, wonder, curiosity. Michael had a quality of awe, wonder, and curiosity I had never expected to see, I had never imagined. He was purely committed to his kids, to his audience, absolutely, totally dedicated to them, and he would have laid his life on the line for his audience. But you have to read the stories, because until you read the stories, you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. I’m hoping this book will correct the record on Michael, and it’s the stories of my involvement with all these other artists: with Bob Marley, there’s a lengthy chapter on Bob Marley, with Bette Midler, with Billy Joel, with Paul Simon, etc. It’s my adventures, literally looking for soul.
Chris: And how does Einstein fit in there?
Howard: Einstein was a major role model for me when I was a kid, and…OK, so I’m in eighth grade and I’m 12 years old and…I didn’t register at the time, it took me decades to register this, but no one ever made eye contact with me in school. So one day, it came as a total surprise when one of the girls in class moved her eyes in my direction and fixated on me, and said “I told my mother you understand the theory of relativity.” Well, in reality I didn’t understand the theory of relativity, and it was a big deal in those days, it was said that only seven people in the world understood it, but I wasn’t going to contest that to her, because it’s the only thing I had to stand on, being the sickly scientist. As soon as school got out, I got on my bicycle and I rode the two miles to my local library—the librarians knew me better than my mother, literally—and I said “give me everything you’ve got on the theory of relativity” and they went in the back and did some shuffling around, and they found two books and they shoved them across the desk to me. One was a great big fat book, and one was a little tiny skinny book. So I started with the great big fat book, because I had learned at that point that if you don’t think you understand something, if you push yourself all the way through to the bitter end, by the time you finish you’ve understood something. And then eight o’clock at night rolled around, and I was only 50 pages into this book, which was all equations and very little English, and I don’t understand equations, I never have. And I realize that my mom’s going to put me to sleep at 10 o’clock and I’ve got two hours left to understand the theory of relativity. So I turned to the little skinny book, and I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but every once in a while it feels as if an author has reached out through the page, grabbed you by the lapel, put his nose up to yours and said, “schmuck, listen, I’ve got a message for you.” Well, that’s [Patton?] with the introduction to Einstein’s book. Einstein seemed to drag me nose to nose with him, and say these words: to be a genius, it is not enough to come up with a theory that only seven men in the world can understand. To be a genius you have to be able to come up with that theory and then explain it so simply, so clearly, that anyone with a high school education and a reasonable degree of intelligence can understand it. So Albert Einstein, through the pages of a book, had told me, “schmuck, listen up! You want to be an original scientific thinker? You have to be a writer, and not just any writer—you have to be a delicious writer, a clear writer.” So that became part of my marching orders, as a part of my science, to become a writer. And becoming a writer was what accidentally got me into popular culture, and ultimately into the music industry. So Einstein was responsible, of all things, for my ending up working with Michael Jackson and Prince. There is this movie that’s come out recently, about Michael Jackson, it made it onto HBO, it was a hit at the Sundance festival, and it accuses Michael of all the hideous sexual deeds with children that ultimately destroyed Michael’s life and destroyed his career. And when that movie came out, what was noticeable was, there was an avalanche, a tidal wave, of reaction against it. And there were people going online, going on Youtube, and giving detailed analyses demonstrating, with timelines, with precise timelines, why the claims being made about Michael couldn’t be true. The avalanche was an avalanche of Michael lovers around the world who refused to give up on Michael Jackson, and this is 10 years after Michael Jackson died. So the remarkable thing is that Michael’s hits record, in the public mind, not just here in Amsterdam and Moscow, all over the world, that no other artist in my lifetime has ever hit—I mean, beyond even Elvis. And people know there is something worth loving there, they don’t know what. And this book attempts to answer the question of what, what was it that the fans of Michael Jackson know at an intuitive level, that the critics of Michael Jackson do not know.
Francis: There’s a phenomenon that I’ve always been interested in, which is how popular music participated in the evolution of human consciousness, and one of the things that was really clear in the 70s is, American at that time seems very free in terms of the process by which grassroots music would be discovered and then curated and offered to the public, by either AM or FM radio, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, in some of the communist countries, it was all controlled by the government—it was laughable, actually, in comparison to the richness and, I guess, just the immediacy of the music that the West had. Are we sort of creating, through the corporatization and monopolization of the media, something that kind of mirrors what happened in Russia and how causing things to stall maybe in terms of how fast this country could be evolving, is the fact that the cutting edge of the art isn’t really being offered to the masses, the people who are capable of appreciating it but aren’t going to go out and find it on their own.
Howard: Well, I think the opposite is happening. Look what I just alluded to, Pandora. Pandora and Spotify have changed everything, so has Youtube. People are able to find a far vaster array of music than they’ve ever been able to find in their lives. Musical artists are able to find an audience more easily than has ever been possible in the past. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s, when I got into the music industry, there was a rough equivalent of the Stalinist bureaucracy at the top, the gatekeepers, the folks in the record industry. You had to get the attention of A&R guys, those were talent scouts, and manage to get a record company contract, and record company contracts were almost impossible to get—maybe one out of a million musical acts actually got a music industry contract—so without going through the gatekeepers, you couldn’t reach the public. Today, you can go out and start touring on your own, if you can afford it, ‘cause it’s very expensive, and you can start connecting with your audience. You’ve got people like Amanda Palmer, who raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter—that wasn’t possible back in the 70s and 80s. And with Pandora, you have personal control over what you get to listen to, you give thumbs up and thumbs down to things, and you can add any artist who’s on Pandora that you want to the station that you’re listening to. That wasn’t at all possible in the 1970s and 1980s; you had top 40 radio and you had something I helped establish, and the whole story of how that was done—or at least I was there for its birth—you had progressive radio, where the DJs were allowed to play anything they wanted.
Chris: I think we used to call that AOR…
Howard: Yeah, Album Oriented Radio, you’re right. My role was accidental—I mean, most of my life has been accidental—in order to get into popular culture, I started a commercial art studio with a bunch of starving artists. One day, I walked our portfolio of artwork into ABC, and ABC had owned seven FM stations, and this new concept of progressive radio had just been invented. ABC was going to do something incredibly risky—it was going to take these seven stations, stop doing the top 40 which everybody else was doing, a limit of 40 songs that got airplay—and was going to go with the progressive format. It hired me and my art studio to do all the graphics for this huge change, and we did a spectacular job. I had a 19-year old artist named Bradley Johannsen who was a visionary—every time he sat down and did a picture, it was an entire world you had never seen or imagined before in your life. So he did seven of these imaginary worlds for ABC, and it helped put them on the map, and ABC asked me to found an advertising agency in order to handle all their ads, and I didn’t want to learn time-buying, which sounded incredibly boring to me, so I didn’t do it—but that gives you a measure of how trusted we were at ABC Records. So I was there for the inception of Album Oriented Radio, I wasn’t a move and a shaker, I was a participant. Remember, I didn’t know anything about popular music—my Rachmaninoff/Beethoven/Bartok and Stravinsky were the people I had been listening to since I was ten years old, and the head of promotions for ABC started educating me about popular music. And then one day she said, look, we’re having a concert in Studio B, why don’t I give you two tickets. OK, so I took the two tickets and I took my lead artist and took him with me, and we went to Studio B. There was this piano player on stage, and my artist, Peter Bramley, started getting up out of his seat and whooping and hollering and he embarrassed the shit out of me, I thought this was terrible behavior, why can’t he just sit still? And then the concert was over, and it took me years to process this. What I failed to realize is, one of the reasons that that artist on stage, that piano player, was able to give such an incredible performance, was because Peter Bramley was feeding him energy, and you need energy from an audience if you’re a performer on stage. It’s what lifts you out of yourself, it’s what does give you an ecstatic experience. It does allow the gods inside of you to dance you around like marionette. The artist onstage was named Elton John, and the album came out as Elton’s first live album, and you can still hear Peter Bramley to this day whooping and hollering, and helping make that concert what it was. So I learned about popular music from my experience, my involvement with ABC, and my involvement in helping them establish Album Oriented Rock, or Album Radio.
Chris: I used to just absolutely love the DJ Vinnie Scelsa in New York, I don’t know if that name rings a bell..
Howard: Oh yeah, absolutely. Plus there was the day I was [up] at ABC, their DJ and the new format, one of their DJs was named Dave Herman, and there was a stack of records almost up to his shoulder, at least up to his nipple in front of him, and he was leaning on it with his elbow, and we were talking, and then one of the album covers caught his eye. And he looked down, he lifted the album cover in his hands, and he said “this looks interesting, I think I’ll play it when I get on the air.” The album that he’d picked up was called “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it was the most unlikely record you’ve ever heard of, it was a rock opera, which was a dream at the time. It was the story of Jesus Christ told from the point of view of Judas Iscariot—I mean, how the hell would that ever be commercial, right? And it was the first airplay, in Herman’s play was the first airplay that Jesus Christ Superstar got. And of course since then Andrew Lloyd Webber, the writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, has become a multi-billionaire and has been recognized by the Queen. So it was almost, my experience was almost Forrest Gump-ian experience. Sometimes I made things happen, and it wouldn’t have happened without me, and sometimes I was there, along for the ride, and can tell you what it was like—and it was fascinating.
Francis: One of the things we like to discuss on this program are concepts for the future and how we can evolve beyond where we currently are right now in terms of technology, in terms of how the world is structured, in every regard. I was wondering what your thoughts are about what direction the world is going in, and what kind of vision we can aspire to.
Howard. Well, four billion years ago there was this hideous planet, absolutely monstrous; poison pill in stone. And it was the mother of all climate change catastrophes, its temperature went up and down 88 degrees every three hours, for three hours you were on the surface of this killer of a planet, you were exposed to something poisonous called radiation and for three hours you were exposed to something equally poisonous called [darkness?]. Plus it had a tilt to its rotation, and the result was that as it rotated around the sun, it produced four major climate changes a year—summer, fall, winter and spring. And life had the audacity to get started on this planet, and over the course of the next four billion years, despite catastrophe after catastrophe after catastrophe, the greened and gardened the place. Despite a hundred and forty-two mass extinctions, life continued to hold on and expand. If life has greened and gardened one poison pill of stone, how many poison pills of stone are there above our heads, just waiting to be greened and gardened? They’re all over the place. We’re discovering there are billions and billions of planets up there. Look, life is imperialistic and life is colonialistic. It likes taking over territory, kidnapping and seducing and recruiting dead atoms and bringing them into this enterprise of life, into this grand initiative of life. There are creatures that are better than us at research and development, they’re called bacteria. We race with them and we narrowly manage to stay neck and neck with them, but there’s only one species on this planet that can take green and garden stuff, that can take ecosystems out of the gravity well and to other poison pills of stone—and it’s us, humans. It’s our obligation to open the rest of the solar system and ultimately the galaxy and beyond that, a multitude of galaxies, to life, to green and garden the whole thing. So I’ve got this document called Garden the Solar System, Green the Galaxy, and you can find it on HowardBloom.net, on my website, again that’s HowardBloom.net. I was at Maxwell Air Force Base in May, and with a team of people I put together a two billion dollar moon program, and right now we are promoting that two billion dollar moon program because they current President, much as I loathe and despise him, and the current Vice-President, much as I loathe and despise him too, want to get us to the moon by 2024. And if that’s the motivation that gets us greening and gardening all of those gravity balls up above our heads, fine. And we’ve got a way that we can do it, so we are promoting this two billion dollar moon plan, and the two billion dollar moon plan and my partner in this is a three-star general, and the plan is very simple: give a billion dollars to the first company that can land a nice, big roomy human habitat on the moon, and give another billion dollars to the company that can set it up and run it. That’s it, that gets us on the moon to stay, and it gets around a whole bunch of obstacles that the space military industrial complex is trying to throw in our path and keep us from getting to the surface of the moon. One of my friends, a chief research scientist at NASA, visited his old friends at NASA, the powers that be at NASA, about eight months ago, and he came back with a very simple report: that the people at the top in NASA had told him, “if you think we’re going let you step on the surface of the moon, you’ve got another thing coming.” In other words, NASA was sabotaging our ability to take [ego?]systems to space. And this program gets around any form of NASA sabotage whatsoever. So, the future is above our heads, the future is in taking life to places it has never been before and allowing it to adapt and kidnap, seduce and recruit a biotic atoms, dead molecules and atoms, and bring them into the grand enterprise of life.
Chris: I heard you on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about this space-military-industrial complex. Now, I was born in 1960 so I was not aware when President Eisenhower gave the nation the warning about the military-industrial complex, but I’ve certainly grown to see its evils. Would you like to speak to that?
Howard: Well, yeah. The space military-industrial complex saddles us with impossible programs, and they kill us! It is not here to provide American security, it’s here to undo American security. I mean, just like Donald Trump to undo American security, too, but it’s a different process. So back in…10 years ago, Boeing was doing research on gas stations in space, fuel propellent depots in space. What’s the advantage of a gas station in space? Well, you could take an existing rocket from ten years ago, you could fly it to orbit, you could refuel it in orbit, and it could go to the moon, it could go to Mars, it could go to Jupiter, it could go to the moons of Jupiter, it could go to the rings of Saturn, it could go anyplace in the solar system with a simple refueling, and no new rocket had to be developed to accomplish this. So we could have been up and running if Boeing had continued the development of these propellent depots, these gas stations in space. We could have been up and running with human programs to the rest of the planets a long time ago. But Boeing managed to land a contract for something that would produce far more immediate lucre, far more immediate profit. It was called the Space Launch System—it was a mega-rocket, it was a franken-rocket cobbled together by Richard Shelby, the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee in order to keep jobs in his district, and cobbled together from old technologies. So Boeing killed—not only killed its work on gas stations in space, it forbade the use of the word “depot” anywhere in Boeing or the other company that it controlled, United Launch Alliance. Meanwhile, Richard Shelby got that same gag order placed on NASA itself. So for ten years there’s been this focus on a space launch system, the mega-rocket, the franken-rocket, and it has meant two billion dollars a year to Boeing. The franken-rocket was supposed to fly, space launch system, was supposed to fly in 2015. I don’t know if you noticed it, but 2015 is in the rear view mirror, that was four years ago, is the franken-rocket/space launch system anywhere near being ready for flight? Not at all! It may never fly. And if it ever flies, it will cost between one and two billion dollars per flight. Now for that, you could buy 22 launches of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy. In other words, you could buy 11 launches to the moon, and 11 launches to Mars from Elon Musk, and you could buy it today, because the Falcon Heavy rocket is already flying, it’s already done three flights—unlike the space launch system, which may never fly. And for the sake of all of this, we stopped the space shuttle and America has not had access to space in American vehicles since 2011. We’re supposed to be the space leader, we hitch our rides to the International Space Station on Russian rockets. This is a hideous, monstrous embarrassment. Plus, the space military-industrial complex has come up with this plan to never get us to the moon—it’s called the Gateway, the Lunar Gateway, and it’s a tiny little space station that’s supposed to orbit the moon, but never get us to the lunar surface! And Lockheed Martin is trying to put all of our attention, all of our money into this, and it is succeeding, so far. So the business of the space-military-industrial complex over the course of the last nine years, has been to keep us out of space, not to get us into space. Why? In order to make a quick and easy profit. A friend of mine from Boeing points out that the space-military-industrial-complex makes its profits off of what are called change orders—every time that Congress changes its mind about what the characteristics of a rocket should be, or every time NASA changes its mind.
Chris: My background is engineering, and I’ve done a lot of contracting, and I know exactly how the engineering change order, ECO as we call it, can bloat a project and absolutely destroy the deadlines.
Howard: Right. So the more bloat, the better, because the more money that means on the bottom line of companies like Boeing, Northrup-Grumman, and Lockheed-Martin. So, the goal is to get beyond this, and the two billion dollar moon program just doesn’t say a word about them, doesn’t threaten their program, takes whispers of money—a billion dollars for two years running, is a whisper of money in NASA terms—and simply gets us to the moon, period, to stay, with a nice big roomy human habitation. And Bob Bigelow, the reasoning behind this program is that Elon Musk has already got the Falcon Heavy, and he’s about to have the Starship to get us to the moon and back. Jeff Bezos has already announced his moon program, with his Blue Moon lunar lander. And Bob Bigelow, who was behind the Quality Hotel chain, or something of the sort, he’s a hotel entrepreneur, and he bought inflatable habitat technology from NASA over 15 years ago, roughly 20 years ago, and he’s had a plan for a lunar colony, and he’s been building it—for ten years. For ten years, we’ve had a lunar colony that could be finished in a year or two, with a little bit of extra funding. And here we are talking about this useless little lunar orbiter, just to make money for Lockheed-Martin? Are you kidding me? Americans’ leadership in space is going to determine which set of values rules the world for the next 40 years. The Chinese want it to be them, and they have a detailed program for how they are going to colonize the moon, colonize Mars, colonize the solar system and then colonize the universe. And it is so important to the Chinese that Xi Jinping has had this all locked into the Chinese constitution, what he called the Chinese Space Dream. So we have our own companies knifing us in the back, and if China wins in this space war, it’s the Chinese set of values that is going to dominate the world for the rest of this century. It’s the Chinese totalitarianism, it’s the Chinese intrusion into your personal life, it’s the Chinese system of using face recognition in order to give you toilet paper. You’re in a bathroom in China, a public bathroom, and if the facial recognition system says you have not been a good citizen, that you haven’t toed the party line with enough fidelity, it won’t give you toilet paper! That’s a major motivational interference in personal life.
Chris: We’ve recently had the journalist James O’Malley on the podcast—we haven’t published that episode yet—and he’s been following the Chinese social credit system very closely, and he took a trip to China and was just…you know, if you have good social credit you could ride the fast train, if you don’t you have to ride the slow train, it’s really like a dystopian science fiction story…
Howard: Yeah. It’s Pavlovian, it’s Skinnerian, it’s, you know, you give the pigeon a piece of corn when it moves in the direction you want it to move in, and you successfully shape its behaviors. That’s what the Chinese are doing, giving out little rewards if you turn in the direction the party wants, and depriving you of rewards or giving you negative reinforcements when you turn out of the direction that the party wants. So if that’s the way we want the world to be run, no freedom of speech, no tolerance, no pluralism—you know, we have a million Uighurs who are in re-education camps in China right now. If that’s the way we want the world to be run, then let them win the space race, and they will make sure that’s the way the world is run. If you want tolerance, pluralism, freedom of speech, and democracy, the things that we value in the United States, we gotta win this space race, it’s as simple as that. Plus, the space race is going to do, for the future of humanity, what opening up the New World did for the Europeans—it tripled the gross domestic product in 100 years, of all of Europe, and space is going to triple the gross domestic product of all of humanity. It’s going to provide what are called, in my book, the Genius of the Beast, material miracles and secular salvation like you wouldn’t believe. Who should be delivering that to the world? Well, I’m an American chauvinist, I want America to be the country that delivers this to the world. In the music industry, which I departed from in 1988, I want to see soul come back. I want to see an emphasis on the fact that music is a soul exchange, that it’s not about downloads, it’s not about pieces of plastic, it’s not about the transfer of money, it is about fucking goddamn human soul. I would love to see that return—whether it ever will or not, I don’t know, because I was the only one preaching it when I was there, and I’m not there anymore. Every once in a while, I try to inspire somebody new in the music industry to follow this particular line, but it’s not that easy. So the future is space, and the future is soul.
Chris: You say that you want to return “soul” to capitalism—can you explain to our listeners what that means?
Howard: Yeah. There’s a hidden mandate in capitalism that most capitalists fail to see, but they follow it whether they see it or not, and it’s “be messianic.” It’s “save, lift and upgrade your neighbor.” Upgrade one neighbor you get a dollar, save, lift and upgrade a hundred neighbors you get a hundred dollars, save, lift and upgrade a hundred million neighbors and you get a hundred million dollars. It’s as simple as that. When Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, he upgraded human possibilities in ways we have never imagined before. Look, when I was co-designing a computer, when I was twelve years old, computers were the size of a brownstone in Brooklyn, like the one I’m sitting in right now. To have a computer in your pocket is astonishing! To be able to communicate with friends in Beijing or Hong Kong or Hungary while you’re walking down the street with tiny little headphones, ear buds in your ears, that astonishing! So what Steve Jobs developed was a material miracle, it was a source of secular salvation. And we’ve been churning out these material miracles since approximately 1790, when the steam engine was perfected. We once upon a time…what’s the name of the guy who wrote Robin Hood and…Sir Walter Scott. So Sir Walter Scott was alive as the new steam engines were coming online, and Sir Walter Scott said, “Those who tell you that a steam engine will ever power a mode of transportation are lying to you, it will never happen!” And you know, Sir Walter Scott was a reasonably intelligent and well-informed guy. Well, then, steam engines were put on ships, and all of a sudden instead of taking months to get across the Atlantic, and being totally reliant on winds, you could directly go across the Atlantic in a week or so. We’ve been introducing these new material miracles every ten to fifteen years now, for over 200 years. And what’s the job of you and me, what’s your job as an engineer? What’s my job as an imagineer, as a visionary? It is to make sure that those material miracles come at an even greater pace in the future, that we utterly change the nature of what it is to be human. Look, when their parents put an iPad in the hands of their 16-month-old child, and that 16-month old lays in his cradle and starts exploring the digital landscape that’s implicit in the iPad, and comes to know that digital landscape better than his parents ever will, and comes to be more proficient in the use of this thing…the use of an iPad, than anyone could have possibly have imagined, and that child ends up at the age of 5 going to first grade with the equivalent of bachelor’s degree in submarines or dinosaurs or whatever the subject of his or her personal obsession is, you’ve changed the nature of what it means to be a human being. And those changes, uplifts and upgrades, those messianic moves, those are the real responsibility of capitalism.
Francis: Yeah, I was just wondering where you go from there.
Howard: Well, where you go from there? The law of unintended consequences. Every time you invent something, if it really takes hold, it produces results of kinds you never could have imagined before. And according that first habitation, that nice, big roomy comfortable human habitation of Bob Bigelow, inflatable habitat on the moon, where that’s going to lead—well, it’s going to take an industry. When Sputnik went up, who could have ever imagined a communications satellite? Dish TV? Direct TV? Being able to take the Olympics from one side of the globe to the other instantaneously? Not having to make a videotape and then rush the videotape by courier to New York so it could be seen in North America. Who could have imagined the telecom business? Nobody! Nobody did. And yet today, the satellite industry alone is worth a third of a trillion dollars a year, and once we get to other poison pills of stone and start greening and gardening them, we’re going to triple the gross human product, eventually. First we’ll raise that to three trillion dollars, from a third of a trillion dollars, and then it will utterly change the nature of what it means to be human. And it’s the unintended consequences that are going to be the real stunners. When Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, he never imagined putting an iPad in the hands of a baby, and how it would change that baby’s life. Look, you know, we’re born with twice as many brain cells as we use, and then half of our brain cells are pared away, they go through apoptosis, pre-programmed cell death. So the ones that stay alive, the brain cells that stay alive and the assemblies of brain cells that stay alive are the ones that are called upon for action and use. When you put an ipad in a baby’s hands, you re-sculpt its brain, because there are whole ensembles of neurons that would have died out in a previous generation and are now kept vigorously alive. You have just changed the nature of what it means to have a human brain, with a simple piece—well, not so simple piece—of technology. So we do not know what the impacts are going to be, of gardening the solar system and greening the galaxy. We don’t have a clue. All we can say is, material miracles come tumbling out of the least expected places, and this is certainly an opportunity for material miracles we have never imagined in our lives.
Chris: We’ve had a couple of Scientific Skeptics on this show, and you’re on Coast to Coast, the radio program with the UFOs and the weird conspiracy theories and all of that, and I’m certain you’re probably going to be the only guest we ever had who’s been on Coast to Coast—so what do you actually believe of what they—George Noory and his guests talk about?
Howard: Nothing. I don’t believe that there are aliens up there, but the fact is that this universe has a tendency to super-simultaneity and super-synchrony. I did a paper about this for Physica Plus a long time ago. That means that all of the quarks at the very beginning of the universe came into existence at precisely the same time, in only 16 different forms with gazillions of identical copies of each. Then, all about three hundred thousand to three hundred and eighty thousand years after the big bang, the first atoms came together, and they were precisely the same and they all came together about the same time. Then, gravity took over, you had the era of the great gravity competitions, the great gravity crusades, and that resulted in the assembly of black holes, galaxies, and stars. Black holes, galaxies of stars are all pretty much the same, and pretty much arrived, sort of, at the same time. So if the universe is in the habit of giving birth to new forms, entirely new forms like galaxies and stars and planets, and putting them together in pretty much the same form at pretty much the same time, then it stands to reason that mega-molecules have assembled life all over the place at pretty much the same time, give or take a million years or two. But we have absolutely zero evidence for the existence of alien life, of life outside of this one single planet, and we’ve been looking diligently for it since I put Earth, Wind and Fire together with Carl Sagan to see if Earth, Wind and Fire could do a benefit concert for the SETI project, and that would have been about 1981. That’s forty years ago, almost, and we haven’t found a thing. So the odds seem to be, from a scientific point of view, that there is no alien life, that we’re it when it comes to life. So I don’t believe in any of the conspiracy stuff…I mean, they have me as their token Democrat, as their token liberal, and as their token real-science person. And I appreciate the fact that they want me—I mean, 300 appearances is terrific, it gives me new challenges, new things to explore and research every single week. So I’m very grateful to them, but I don’t agree with any of the ideas that they tend to fixate on.
Chris: I enjoy listening to Coast to Coast—sometimes I have weird sleeping problems, and I’ll find myself awake when it’s on, and even though I disagree with everything, I enjoy the humanity of the callers, I think there’s something in the people who call in to that show that I just find compelling.
Howard: And you’re one of a whole mess of people, all over the country, who are secret listeners to the show, who will not confess it during daytime hours, but who are, for one reason or another, awake at one in the morning, Eastern Time, when the show starts, and are insomniacs and enjoy listening to the show. So when they had me do a one-hour debate with one of their Republicans, on Republicanism versus Democratism, they took a poll, and he got 80% of the votes and I got 20% of the votes. But that 20% is so grateful for hearing sane stuff that it makes it worthwhile. And George is very good to me—George Noory, the host—is very good to me.
Chris: What makes the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?
Howard: So the Republicans operate on fear of people smaller than they are, people weaker than they are. They get their hierarchical kicks, they feel high on the social totem pole…stepping on, stomping on, the people beneath them—immigrants, in this case. Democrats tend to want an open world. Democrats try to, tend to want a global world. The amygdala, which is where political activities are centered for conservatives, is a fear center; the insula is an identity center, it’s more concerned with flashing symbols to those in your group that you’re one of them. And there’s a huge amount of conformity within the liberal left, among us Democrats, but we’re operating from different parts of the brain, and we’re operating with different assumptions about what the world is really all about, and Donald Trump is betraying America and he’s the traitor—I mean, to use words, I don’t like to use these words in political discourse, but they’re words that are used every single day by the Tea Party and the conservatives. They use the word “traitor” and they use the word “turncoat.” Well, Donald Trump is the only traitor and turncoat I have seen in the White House in my entire lifetime.
Chris: I think this has been a very good interview, I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. Howard, what would you like to plug or promote, what would you like our listeners to look at?
Howard: Well, just look up Howard Bloom on Amazon, and buy any book that you choose, and then let me know what you think of it. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for Einstein, Michael Jackson and Me: A Search for Soul in the Power Pits of Rock and Roll, coming in April.
Chris: Maybe you can come back on the show then, and…
Howard: Well, that would be terrific. I will look forward to the next time.