Since I haven’t had much to write about, I thought I would briefly highlight a podcast that I’ve really enjoyed listening to. It’s called Decoding the Gurus, and is run by Chris Kavanagh, an anthropologist, and Matt Browne, a psychologist. It focuses on various public intellectuals, which the podcast hosts call gurus, who are currently quite prominent. This includes people like Jordan Peterson, who we discussed in this post, Bret and Eric Weinstein, Sam Harris, and some I’d never come across before.
What I like about the podcast is that they approach things from the perspective of academics who understand how research is undertaken, how researchers typically behave, and how one might assess the research literature. One of the early episodes covers a discussion between the brothers Bret and Eric Weinstein. This discussion includes Eric Weinstein suggesting that Bret has been doing ground-breaking research that hasn’t been recognised, and includes a suggestion that Bret contributed to the work of someone who later got a Nobel prize, but was not suitably acknowledged.
As the podcast points out, Bret Weinstein’s publication record isn’t what you’d normally expect of someone who is doing ground-breaking research. Also, you can’t really complain about people ignoring your ground-breaking ideas if you aren’t telling people about them. Similarly, it’s possible that a Nobel prize winner based some of their work on unacknowledged ideas from someone else. However, when the prize is based on a large body of work, much of which pre-dates this supposed discussion, it seems more likely that this discussion was less influential than suggested.
The podcast also does a good job of highlighting how much of what is presented by these gurus is conspiratorial, even if they do provide various caveats. However, it’s hard to argue that what you’re suggesting isn’t conspiratorial if it implies a very large number of researchers across the world are hiding inconvenient information because they’re trying to promote a preferred narrative.
The podcast doesn’t only criticise gurus, and also includes some interviews. I particularly enjoyed the one with Stuart Neil, which included a discussion of the lab leak hypothesis. One reason I have enjoyed the podcast is that I have been interested in how people become public intellectuals and how they can get such prominence. My impression (which might be simplistic) is that it almost always involves promoting narratives that appeal to a particular audience, and I think this is roughly what the podcast highlights.
I do find this unfortunate. If someone is measured, thoughtful, highlights nuance, and tries their best to present views that are balanced and consistent with our current best understanding, they are much less likely to become as prominent as someone who promotes narratives that appeal to an audience, but that are much less credible. Of course, it may be that it’s the growth of the audience that’s driving the narrative, but the outcome is essentially the same. I don’t think this does us an favours, but I have no idea how one could improve this situation.