Sometimes one makes spur-of-the-moment media decisions that do not, in the end, prove worthwhile. A couple of days ago I received the following email from one of the producers of the Mancow Radio Show:
The Mancow Radio Show invites you to join Mancow on the air for a brief guest phone interview to promote your article "Big Game Theory" in Discover Magazine, discuss physicists and poker, and promote your additional work. The Mancow Show is based out of Chicago and nationally syndicated to millions of listeners, with high ratings in top markets across the nation. Mancow is a passionate, opinionated, culture-engaging, and patriotic truth-seeker who thrives on quick-witted conversation with intriguing guests.
Sounds pretty good, right? I love quick-witted bantering, and am happy to do my part to promote Discover and similar publications (including my own books, natch). Now, granted, the reality is that Mancow is pretty much your average right-wing shock jock. The wit is limited to cheap shots about "National Politically Correct Radio", how annoying wives are, and the occasional off-color gag. In between is the usual ranting about "real" America, picking yourself up by your own boostraps, how homeless people choose to be that way because they're all drug addicts, and trumpeting one's right to shout as loudly as possible to drown out any potentially opposing views -- and maybe stomp on a few heads of dissenters just for larks. Because, you know, free speech is only for those who agree with you. But what the heck, I was still game -- Mancow's just playing to his core audience. That doesn't mean we can't have a good exchange. It's poker, after all. Everyone loves poker, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian and moderate Independents like me. How could that be politically charged? It's always possible to find common ground when everyone's acting in good faith.
Sadly, not everyone acts in good faith. My expectations were pretty low going in, and Mancow didn't even meet that lowest of bars. Here's the gist of our "conversation" this morning, which lasted maybe all of one minute:
Mancow: Hey there, so what's this Discover magazine thing? Related to the credit card company? I subscribe to lots of magazines, never heard of it.
Me: Oh, well, it's a science magazine. You can find it in lots of airports.
Mancow: Uh-huh. So what's this Big Game Theory story??
Me: (gamely attempting to be chipper and upbeat at 6:30 AM) It's about poker-playing physicists! Turns out there's quite a lot of them who are finding that poker is a challenging, intriguing game.
Mancow: So they're, like, card-counting and stuff to make money off the casinos....
Me: Actually, no, poker is more about the probabilities, game theory, human psychology, and physicists find that --
Mancow (interrupting): Oh, guess I'm thinking about blackjack. I'm a blackjack man. That's a MAN'S game. <click>
And he cut me off. Yep, I got the Bill O'Reilly treatment for the crime of Not Fitting the Right-Wing Narrative. Over poker. I have no idea what Mancow thought this was supposed to be about -- he mentioned card-counting, so maybe he was thinking about those MIT geniuses a few years ago who tried to rip off casinos while playing blackjack? Maybe he was annoyed because I didn't play along and kept earnestly assuming this was a real interview (my bad)? It doesn't matter, because the import of his final comment was clear: those high-falutin', pointy-headed intellectual elites, with their fancy math and their strategy and their stupid human psychology and their knowing-what-the-fuck-they're-talking-about -- they are Not Real Men (TM). (Corrollary: Real Men (TM) do not read Discover magazine.) At least he didn't try to make lame sex jokes like he did with the previous (male) caller.
Look, it's not like Mancow ruined my day; he just wasted my time, and not very much of it. So I just shrugged and went back to bed to grab an extra hour of sleep. But it was one more encounter with rampant anti-intellectualism that's been popping up in my life over the last few weeks, starting with a long article in the Guardian about "Miracles," the controversial music video by Insane Clown Posse. (I wonder if Real Men (TM) listen to Insane Clown Posse. Can they read the Guardian?) That's the one with the classic lines,
"Fucking magnets/How do they work?"
And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
Y'all motherfuckers lying and
Getting me pissed
Never mind that anyone with access to the Internet and the ability to type keywords into Google can easily discover how magnets work. Or gravity. Or that electromagnetism and our ability to not only understand it, but control it, is why Insane Clown Posse can make a music video and release it on the Internet in the first place -- and why Mancow has a career in radio broadcasting. Maybe what they should be saying is "Thank you, Science, for creating our jobs!"
Understandably, most people with a lick of common sense found these sentiments ridiculous, and weren't shy about saying so. Saturday Night Live even lampooned Insane Clown Posse with this:
The skit makes the point better than I could in 10,000 words. ("Isn't a volcano just an angry hill?" Um, no.) Much has been made of Jon Ronson's entertaining Guardian article and their anti-science rants -- not to mention the fact that they claim to be evangelical Christians. (Remember in the Gospels, how Jesus went around cussing and inciting his followers to violence, just so he could win their trust and then BAM! bring them to the Lord? Actually, I'd wager their faith runs about as deep as their lyrics.) Apparently, Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J are very sensitive, prone to depression, and all this mocking has hurt their delicate artistic feelings. They are Misunderstood. See, they thought they were being deep and philosophical and stuff when they wrote "Miracles." Gravity and magnets are cool and all but don't mess up their sense of wonder with actual understanding!
I've got news for the Insane Clown Posse. All this, "Whoa, dude, check out that giraffe! Aren't the stars awesome?" nonsense? That's not deep. Or philosophical. And it's definitely not wonder. That's -- well, frankly, that's called "being high." ("Fuckin' Ecstasy/How does that work?")
Real wonder is something quite different; it can't be diminished or killed by science; it is only enhanced by science. It reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of House, where Dr. House is debating a magician who has refused to tell House how he achieved a certain trick. "If I tell you, then you'll lose the actual magic," the magician protests. House replies, "Magic is cool. Actual magic is an oxymoron. Possibly only moron." Later in the episode, the magician explains that people come to his shows to feel a sense of mystery and wonder, and knowing how a trick is done would spoil that sense of wonder. It's the same basic message as Insane Clown Posse -- just more articulately phrased. House's rejoinder should become the mantra of everyone who values rationality and critical thinking: "If the wonder is gone when the truth is known, then there never was any wonder." When I learn about the underlying science of something, it makes me wonder more -- not less -- and deepens my appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the world.
Shaggy and J can take comfort in the fact that they're clearly not alone in their sentiments. The anti-vaccination crowd is still misleading well-intentioned parents trying to do the right thing by their kids, urging them to trust their "gut instincts" rather than medical science. The wackjobs at Conservapedia are working hard to prevent right-leaning folks from encountering any uncomfortable "facts" by setting forth their own (laughably ignorant) take on Einstein's special and general relativity -- apparently part of some socialist Obama-genda (snort) -- and bashing the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics because sometimes the recipients vote Democratic, or hail from communist countries, and therefore must be punished for their blasphemy. New York magazine just ran an article making fun of the titles of various math courses, clearly demonstrating they didn't know the first thing about what those courses actually entailed (hint: topology is hardly "math for jocks"). It all adds up to a very vocal minority, fueled by incoherent rage, with the potential to do a great deal of damage -- particularly when it comes to things like vaccines.
It's really been getting on my nerves lately. We had dinner last night with our friend Carol Tavris, a psychologist and author (Mismeasure of Woman, Mistakes Were Made... But Not By Me) who writes about denialism, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, memory, decision-making, and all the other oh-so-many ways we trick ourselves into reinforcing our most cherished beliefs, because it's just too damned uncomfortable to admit otherwise. She's one of my favorite people: she's tough, scrupulously honest, and has the sharpest bullshit-detector I've yet encountered. Carol will never tell you the comfortable lie you most want to hear -- but she will be compassionate when dealing out the painful truth. I told her how, several months ago, an interviewer asked me why surveys showed that "scientist" is one of the most trusted professions, and yet there is such a strong anti-science rhetoric sweeping the mainstream media. I didn't have a good answer at the time, but now I do. It's this:
Science has a lot of fair-weather friends. People love science so long as it's wowing them with cool nifty insights or bringing awesome new gadgets and technology to market. But sooner or later, science -- by its very nature -- is going to tell you something you don't want to hear. It's going to challenge an easy assumption, or a deeply-held belief. It's going to make you question your personal reality that you've so carefully constructed up to that point. And that's the acid test. That's when you find out if you truly love science, if you're a genuine seeker of Truth and Wonder, or just someone who's content with the cheap ersatz substitutes. You can choose Option A: recoil against the truth and shoot the messenger, metaphorically speaking, by demonizing him or her and everything science stands for. Or you can choose Option B: grudgingly accept that you might be wrong, and if those facts turn out to be true, changing your beliefs and behavior accordingly.
Sadly, the vast majority of people choose Option A: it's easier, less work, less discomfiting to never challenge one's assumptions -- and therefore never change. Change is scary. Change is hard. And our brains are hard-wired against accepting new viewpoints once we have a "framework" in place. We live in an amazing era when information is available to just about everyone -- much of it free -- and there's simply no reason to remain willfully ignorant of well-established facts (things that are a matter of opinion are a different beast altogether). Do we take advantage of that tremendous gift? Or do we only seek out sites and facts that reinforce our biases? Do we twist what we read and hear to fit our pre-existing framework, and attack any source that contradicts it? If we're human, our default mechanism is bound to be Option A, unless we're very self-aware and work to counter those natural instincts.
And no, scientists are not immune to this. However, the best means of combating it is, in fact, training in science, logic, critical thinking. The process of science is carefully structured to account for human bias, and remove it from the equation, so to speak. Lots of physicists hated the implications of quantum mechanics when it was first proposed in the early 20th century. But when experiment after experiment confirmed the theory, they had no choice, as scientists, but to accept that yes, at the subatomic level, this really is how Nature works. Because they did so, you are now reading this on a computer monitor or electronic gadget, made possible by quantum mechanics. In the same way, you have to work at being self-aware, conscious of your biases. I work really hard at it, and I'm only partially successful. But at least I'm trying. I'm not taking the path of least of resistance. And I work equally hard to share my journey with others, in hopes of inspiring them to do the same. So yes -- it's sometimes depressing to see and hear that cacaphony of willful ignorance, day after day. It led to the following exchange with Carol:
Me: So, is there any hope?
Carol: No. (seeing my chagrin) But doesn't that make you feel better? You don't have to keep beating your head against the wall!
See? I told you she doesn't mince words. It didn't really make me feel better -- but she told me the truth. Then I came home and found a couple of lovely emails, from complete strangers, who'd read my work and been inspired to learn more about math and science -- two more candles to offset the darkness of willfull ignorance. Thanks to those people for choosing real wonder, and for making me realize my efforts aren't for naught. Sometimes, when you bang your head against the wall, you achieve the occasional tiny crack. It's not much -- but it's enough.
ADDENDUM: Carol admits that she was half-teasing me with the answer "no", and assures me there is always hope, although the challenge is indeed a daunting one: "As Stephen Jay Gould said to me when I asked him a similar question: Don't you ever feel like Sisyphus? Steve: Yes. But how much further down that mountain we would be if we didn't keep pushing the rock upwards."