Decoding the Gurus

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.

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11 Responses to Decoding the Gurus

  1. Something that I thought I would add is that a few years ago (when the blog was more active) I felt as though I was working out how to write posts that might get more attention than others. In some cases I did so (consensus messaging anyone?) but in many cases I was reluctant to do so and didn’t. However, I think it gave me some insights into how you can build an audience and how doing so can influence how you promote narratives and how it can influence the information you decide to present.

  2. Bob Loblaw says:

    In terms of getting attention, I suspect that this blog post will suffer by being rapidly followed by the classification-of-contrarian-claims one….

  3. russellseitz says:

    I’ll lend an ear on the strength of their September 23 2020 episode blurb:

    “Chris and Matt discuss James Lindsay’s talk at the Speaking Truth to Social Justice conference held at the ostentatious National Liberal Club, in an episode that will disappoint Lindsay fanboys and haters alike. Blindingly hot takes include, “He’s a bit hyperbolic” and “Critical Theory is complicated”.

    They discuss some pretty strong metaphors (or are they analogies?) of Critical Social Justice involving monkeys, viruses, and boxes.

    Most importantly, the duo establish definitively that, despite James’ assertions, Jeff Goldblum did NOT die on a toilet in Jurassic Park (which, let’s face it, would have ruined the entire movie).

  4. Willard says:

    The last episode was their best one, I think:

    https://decoding-the-gurus.captivate.fm/episode/special-episode-interview-with-chris-williamson

    There are mentions of PatM (the one who pretends to have founded Greenpeace) and RichardB (the one from the MET Office), two Climateball favorites!

  5. Yes, I thought that was a good episode and I thought Chris Williamson made some good points about the challenges of trying to run a podcast and about how difficult it can be to assess the credibility of guests.

    I listened to his podcast with RichardB, but haven’t listened to any others.

  6. Joshua says:

    Haven’t gotten very far into it, but my first reaction was that Chris was kinda whining, and labeling himself a “content creator” was pretty funny – as if making a ton of money from recording his conversations with mostly provoceteurs becomes more sophisticated if he calls it creating content.

  7. Joshua says:

    … ateurs

  8. Joshua,
    There was an element of that, but I thought he did a reasonable job of acknowledging errors and seemed to be willing to learn from this and did seem willing to bring on new guest who might address issues with previous guests. It seemed a lot more reasonable than some who seem to just go for guests who will appeal to their audience and who will promote preferred narratives.

  9. Joshua says:

    Anders – OK, I was being overly negative. Even in the small amount I listened to there was an element of being open to critique and willingness to adapt and that’s rare and important.

  10. Pingback: Matt and Chris’ Gurumeter | …and Then There's Physics

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