Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
Behind everything, there is an idea: ideas start wars and movements, undergird societies and governments, and shape the daily experiences of our personal lives. Every once in awhile, they change things at an extraordinary massive scale, and we see a paradigm shift—it’s possible we’ll see one in the world that emerges post-COVID. We ignore or underestimate the power of ideas to our detriment. And yet they can feel slippery to reckon with; difficult to see, tougher still to understand their complex movement through the world.
TPN Members Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations and MoveOn.org, and public intellectual Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now and several other books, joined us for a wide-ranging discussion on ideas, including how we can participate in their power ourselves, the best way to build a forum for their exchange, and what it means to be part of an idea movement. Watch the entire conversation below or read an extract, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. The event was filmed on May 12, 2021.
Zachary Karabell: The philosopher Karl Popper writes that “the possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say it’s our duty to remain optimists, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do. We are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty not to prophecy evil, but rather to fight for a better world.” What I love about that is his point that the future is not written. We are all of us in the process every day of writing it. If you go too far in the assumption that doom is impending, you inscribe that doom into the future. Which is totally different than identifying problems that are real and tractional in the present—I don’t think Popper or any of us in the Network would say that naming real problems is in any way anything other than essential. The problem is the assumption that those problems are the tip of a downward spiral, and then adding fuel to that spiral.
Popper is saying, if there’s a problem that is manifest, it is our responsibility to, in an idea framework, think about what the constructive pathway is out of that. I wanted to frame that, because in a lot of ways, that’s the point of an idea network of people who are more focused on what do we do with our present and not on the assumption that our present portends a very clear, inalterable, and specific future, and that future is grim and negative.
What exactly do ideas do in an incredibly noisy world, where every idea is jockeying for attention? Do ideas actually change things, and how?
Steven Pinker (SP): It’s intriguing to hear a philosopher of science like Popper talk about ideas as having causal power, because there is a tendency among scientists to think that in traditional history and humanities in general, there are these airy-fairy things like ideas and trends, but if we really want to understand human history, we have to look at measurable things like economic resources, military weaponry strategies, and power. Because how could something as wispy as an idea actually cause human history?
I’m a cognitive psychologist, so I’m in the science that claims to study human ideas and their source. I don’t find it at all mystical that ideas could change history, because ideas are patterns of activity in the brain. We have a means to share them, namely language. Ideas can jump from brain to brain. They can go viral. They can affect an entire society. People act out of their beliefs and their expectations. It is not only eminently possible, but also kind of obvious that a lot of history cannot be predicted by technology, availability of resources, climate, and so on. Things happen. Marxism becomes popular. Abolitionism becomes popular. Christianity becomes popular. I don’t think anyone could have predicted any of that from the climate. But there’s nothing mystical about it when you have cognitive creatures such as ourselves that live by shared norms and values and knowledge.
So there is a scope for ideas to change history, and echoing Popper, the space of conceivable ideas is so, so vast. It’s a combinatorial explosion. You could have one idea that could combine with any of ten other ideas, which in turn could combine with any ten other ideas. The set of ideas out there is literally mind-boggling. By being cognitive creatures that can explore the realm of ideas, of formulas, of recipes, of algorithms, of hypotheses, then the future, if not technically infinite, is for all intents and purposes infinite. There are solutions out there to many of our problems. There’s no guarantee that we’ll blunder our way into solving them, but the more we can direct our search in the space of possible ideas, the likelihood is that we will find such solutions.
To make the statement that it’s up to each of us to write the future assumes a degree of agency. And we do all have some degree of capacity in whatever sphere, small or large. But I think you’ve experienced, Joan, that not everyone believes that. How does one inculcate that sense of agency?
Joan Blades (JB): I wish I had the answer to that! One of the interesting things about this conversation is the science that says facts don’t convince people. We keep thinking that we’re rational beings—and we are capable of being rational beings—but most people are first and foremost emotional beings, which means our context is much more predictive of our beliefs than individual exploration and understanding, by and large. Whereas we like to think that we go based upon our excellent judgment, in so many cases, it’s the context of your social setting that is going to be most predictive of what you believe and what you do.
Believing that we have agency is essential. There’s a learned helplessness that we’ve all got. It feels so impossible sometimes to make changes when it seems like there are obstacles that are so much bigger than us. But we do have to create our future—I’m a passionate believer that that’s right. Finding the ways to help make it so people own the future and see how critical they are to creating it is why I’ve headed in the direction I’ve headed. As a founder of MoveOn, I’ve seen the political space where each side is trying to overwhelm the other for a couple decades now. It’s a wrecking ball of sorts. If we are going to come to real progress and solutions, we actually have to have everyone’s best ideas in the room. And we have to have the agility that is created when you have a relationship that has some trust and respect, so that you can do more of what’s working and less of what’s not, and not just get in a defensive pose.
Steven, I want to push you for a minute, because you’ve tried to make a rationalist argument for positive change, and at times I think it has surprised and bothered you the degree to which so many people, as Joan said, react emotionally to the world as opposed to factually. You can give them chapter and verse of all these things, and people will still say, “yeah, well, I don’t feel that.” What do you do about that?
SP: Even Joan, I think, in downplaying the extent to which we deploy rationality, said that people are capable of it, which is a major theme of my next book, Rationality. And they do it all the time in their everyday lives. When the fridge is empty, we don’t think, “Oh, it sucks that I have no food in the fridge. I really hate that. I’m going to wish there to be food.” No—we go out to the grocery store, we buy the food, we bring it back. We put gas in the car when the tank is empty, we clothe the kids, we get them to school on time. We couldn’t do any of those things if we were utterly incapable of rationality, if we just surrendered to our emotions and to wishful thinking and to hoping that the world will be the way we want it to be.
There is a zone in life in which we are completely rational, and that’s how we transformed the planet and had technology and science and medicine and all the rest. The thing is that there are other zones where the whole Enlightenment and scientific revolution hasn’t really sunk in. When it comes to things like deep history, metaphysics, what happens in remote corridors of power and how the microscopic processes work—if we don’t see them with our own eyes, if they don’t affect our day-to-day life, they’re in a zone more of mythology than factual reality, where beliefs are evaluated in terms of how uplifting they are, how energizing they are to your coalition, how much they glorify or demonize the other side.
Until the scientific revolution, we had no way of knowing what happened 10,000 years ago. How atoms work, how bacteria work—no one could find out. And so it didn’t matter, really, what you thought in terms of how you lived your life. But you could have theories that you shared within your tribe that could make your tribe look good, that could embolden them to stand up to its enemies. And I think a lot of that psychology is still with us. So what we have to do is look at the border between the zones in which people are driven by uplifting myths as opposed to empirical facts, and try to push the boundaries, so that more and more of what people already treat rationally is encompassed by that mindset. With highly politicized issues, it is true that people can be completely mule-headed. They can simply ratify what makes their own political party, their own religion look good. But there is a flexibility—when people see a graph, they will often change their mind. When they’re told, “Get into a skeptical mindset, do you think this is really true or not?” they can exercise that kind of skepticism, and it can extend to other beliefs. It doesn’t happen enough, but the capability does exist.
JB: I’m not suggesting for a minute that it doesn’t exist. But facts don’t convince people until you have a connection. If someone I distrust tells me something, it totally passes me by. Persuasion, perversely enough, is much less effective at changing people’s views than really listening and asking some good questions, and developing that connection where you have an exchange where trust and a relationship are built. That’s actually where I was going with that. That’s my quintessential example of the need for having that relationship to be able to make progress, to be an effective actor.
I’m focused on the US political situation. If everybody in DC woke up tomorrow morning with whatever your top issue is—for me, climate change is way out in front—as their top priority, I do not think it would mean that our leadership would be particularly effective. I look at healthcare, where we’ve had affordable high-quality healthcare as a priority for decades. And we’ve got the most expensive healthcare in the world, and it’s not even in the top ten in terms of outcomes. So it’s that combination of creating good human dynamics that allows the facts to then be incredibly effective. But we tend to want to skip that human part and go right to the facts, and then we don’t get anywhere.
SP: I couldn’t agree more with that. Trust is essential in aligning conventional wisdom to our best understanding of the truth. There are studies on people who disagree on politicized issues like climate change and evolution. The people who are what we would consider to be on the right side of the issue really do believe that human activity is warming the planet. But probe their understanding of climate change, and they’re out to lunch. These are our fellow climate change acceptors. The average person will say, “well, it has something to do with the ozone hole, maybe. And maybe if we clean up toxic waste dumps and stop throwing plastic straws in the ocean. . .” They have a general sense of green being good and pollution being bad. The reason that people end up on what I would consider to be the correct side of this issue is because they trust the people who do have the apparatus that vets hypotheses for the best claim of being true. If you trust those people, and you don’t trust the AM talk radio hosts, the celebrities, and so on, then your opinion will tend to align more with the truth, even if you yourself have a shallow comprehension of scientific facts. Which is true of almost everyone.