A sense of ennui and overdetermination binds the audience of NPR podcasts together in a bloc of obnoxious explainerism
IT is Monday morning. Each week a fresh batch of NPR podcasts are delivered to my phone: Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio. They hope to address the relationship between technology and society: everything from the pace of technological innovation and scientific discovery to the role of risk and equivocality in decision-making. And yet, as the host opens with grand promises--“today we will look at what makes us feel like we belong” or “what happens when we start tracking the small things in life?”--I can’t help but think about all the authors who could speak to the topic at hand. Scholars of social movements that could describe the changing tactics and demands of women’s rights movements; philosophers that could weigh the responsibility of paying attention to current events with the desire to be happy; and sociologists that could explain why measuring everyday occurrences can change the way you think about them.
What I get instead are positivists: data analysts, neuroscientists, and behavioral economists. The invisible forces that control human behavior, as it turns out, are not sociological or even cultural; the answers to life’s most important questions are invariably cognitive, biological, or evolutionarily determined. Topics that might have once been subject to political debate or rhetorical argument--work demands, exposure to toxins, surveillance, the limits of love, even Marxian alienation--become apolitical subjects for scientific testing. But the results only lead to greater and greater complexity, prompting introspective thought rather than action. Thus, liberal infotainment is full of statements that sound like facts--what social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson calls “factiness”--that do nothing more than reinforce and rationalize the listeners’ already formed common sense, rather than transforming it: what you believed to be true before the show started was not wrong, it just lacked the veneer of factiness.
Each show delivers an old anecdote from an economist or a new study from a team of neuroscientists that shows "we may actually be hardwired to do" exactly what we feel comfortable doing. Cue the same word repeated by a dozen whispering voices, or a few bars of a Ratatat rip-off ambient band, and we’re on to a new book that argues organic food is not only good for you, it might make you a better person too. Finally, there’s a brief introspective monologue delivered in the exact same cadence of someone breaking up with you (“I decided that I needed to figure out who I really was so I sent my DNA samples to this guy who turns genetic data into floral arrangements.”) Ten minutes later you’re listening to the credits read by a guest into a voicemail inbox. NPR’s podcasts depoliticize important issues by recasting them as interesting factoids to be shared over cocktails--stimulating but inherently incomplete. No one can act until we get more data; we must wait until Monday, when we get another round of podcasts.
When the conclusions are not paralyzingly tentative, they are absolute, embedded in genetics, or inextricably linked to our identities, leaving no room for collective action. In an episode of The Hidden Brain from last July, Shankar Vedantam invited psychologist Jean Twenge to revisit the evergreen topic of narcissistic millennials. They made fleeting references to “cultural stuff” and how “expectations collide with reality” produce increasing amounts of depression and anxiety. “They were set up with this very buoyant view of what their future was going to be,” Twenge laments, “and they ended up disappointed when they got to adulthood.” But when Vedantam asks what millennials can do to improve their lives with her research, Twenge suggests that younger people should tell their kids to work hard and make friends, and not to think that they’re special. Millennials are apparently so beyond saving that, instead of action to make their lives and the world better, they should individually try to raise their offspring to be better cogs in the capitalist machine than they were.
The irony on display in the Vedantam interview--and in the background of nearly every NPR podcast--is that a focus on individuals, rather than society, is exactly the sort of self-centered worldview that the hosts claim is damaging to human flourishing. NPR podcasts frequently do exactly what they say their listeners should avoid. Note to Self’s Manoush Zomorodi wrings her hands about the outsized influence technology makers have on our lives, for example, but she turns to the makers of these technologies--game designers, data architects, and startup CEOs--to understand these social phenomena. While subjecting the choice to use digital technology to constant skepticism, the epistemology that builds our devices is not only left unchallenged, it is seen as the solution to the problem it ostensibly created.
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich’s Radiolab is, by far, the worst offender. They recast the political as endlessly unresolved scientific controversies, and act as science concern trolls--what may begin an honest desire to understand a complicated situation, invariably ends as an opportunity to praise the immense explanatory power of positivist disciplines. Abumrad and Krulwich received harsh criticism for doing this four years ago in their episode “Yellow Rain.” Ostensibly, they asked whether a mysterious yellow powder falling from the sky was a chemical weapon deployed by the Soviets as part of a genocidal war against the Hmong people in Laos, or whether a mass bee defecation just happened to coincide with rampant cholera, dysentery, and starvation. After interviewing Harvard scientists who said that the yellow rain absolutely had to be bee pollen, Krulwich turned to Hmong refugee Eng Yang and asked his interpreter and Hmong activist, Kao Kalia Yang, if he saw something that contradicted the scientists’ story. However, the activist’s expertise could not meet Radiolab’s definition of evidence; the interview turned into an interrogation not just of Eng, but also of human experience felt outside of scientific investigation.
How can you ask someone that has experienced something to contradict the professional opinion of a Harvard professor? What sort of truth could defy credentialed expert witnesses? To their credit, Radiolab’s producers eventually publicly agreed that they had “missed something” big in their coverage of the story. But they never came close to figuring out what that “something” was. This is where disciplines matter. There are entire subfields of sociology and anthropology that study the differing accounts of out-of-town experts and local witnesses. There are entire theories and methodologies meant to help someone navigate the murky epistemologies of scientific controversy. Evelyn Fox Keller, Brian Wynne, Barbara Allen, Harry Collins, and Robert Evans--just to name a few--have devoted their careers to scientific controversy and the problems of expertise. A search for “sociology” on the Radiolab website returns not a single interview with someone working in this subfield.
Of all the podcasts I listened to, Freakonomics hosted the most historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of science and technology. I heard host Stephen Dubner interview Ruth Schwartz Cowan on her work showing that washing machines and other domestic appliances actually lengthened and made more difficult a housewife’s workday. Dubner dedicated an episode to the issue of maintaining technological devices long after they have been invented, without falling into the typical “what can we do as consumers?” NPR narrative. Freakonomics sometimes gets things right because--outdated notions of rational individuals notwithstanding--economists still seek out answers between individuals and within the aggregation of social decisions. What unites Radiolab’s deference to authority, Note to Self’s mealy-mouthed fretting, and The Hidden Brain’s condescension is the assumption that the individual is the atomic unit of societal problems. But adding up individuals is not the same as describing structure; cognition is no substitute for sociological analysis, and big data misses what an anthropologist’s thick description might catch: the relationship between meaning and action.
None of this would be important if NPR’s science journalism existed in a vacuum. It does not. The individualistic perspective endemic to NPR pervades all progressive thinking, and the question of which disciplines contribute to our common sense--behavioral economists instead of sociologists, psychologists instead of historians--has direct political implications. To be clear, this is not a blanket indictment of expertise brought to bear on social problems. Rather, the left must step back from the brink of outright scientism and reevaluate its deployment of positivist explanations for social and political problems.
When economists of the 1920s and 30s pruned their disciplines, commenting only on the production of goods and side-stepping the political hot-button issues of wealth distribution, they helped foster a public common sense that wealth inequalities were not only political, but were the result of an inherently imperfect intervention into a natural process they called “the market.” In so doing, economists passed themselves off to the public as objective observers rather than partisan advocates of state-protected capitalism. At a time when capitalism’s legitimacy was being questioned, this rhetorical move helped put socialists and anarchists on the defensive.
Today, natural or hard sciences like neurobiology or data analytics are crowding out the more qualitative and critical social science and humanities disciplines in explaining social phenomena; center-left influencers seem to be doubling down on positivism to combat a right-wing extremism that rests on a foundation of affect. Rather than base their political program on a definable piece of legislation or a measurable set of policy outcomes, the right constructs emotionally meaningful futures that are only possible through electoral success. Something as meaningless and wonky as the national deficit is transmogrified into a fiscal vampire preying on future generations. Meanwhile, the mainstream left makes complicated infographics about poverty and serves them up with a “this is what poverty does to a child’s brain” pop science chaser. The plight of a fellow human should move you to act, not vaguely remind you of high school biology.
As late as the 1990s, the opposite was the case: Conservatives demanded facts and numbers while it was liberals who were all stories and ideals. If you wanted to make fun of NPR twenty years ago, you’d mock their hosts’ unremitting commitment to the quiet and calm dictation of winding stories about obscure topics; as Saturday Night Live’s “Delicious Dish” sketches did, you’d depict NPR as resoundingly sedentary and trivial, even in the face of sex, death, and violence. It was calm and even boring, but it was all about personal experience. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, Republican speaker of the house from 1995 to 1999, was citing futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler on the floor of Congress, writing forwards to their books and demanding that congress read about cybernetic democracies and innovation economies. Even climate change was real for Republicans of the 90s. Researcher Ed Maibach told SFGate’s Carolyn Lochhead that as late as 1997 “there was no difference between the way Democrats and Republicans across America viewed the issue."
Today, of course, it’s a different story. There has been a massive epistemic and rhetorical sea change in how the right and left think about what is explicable, knowable, and actionable. President-elect Donald Trump has stated that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and nearly every political topic imaginable has been ordered along similar, murky lines. But while liberals dress up their morals with decimal points and white papers, far-right populists like Trump are tapping into raw ethos. This switch is dangerous for many reasons, but one of the more existential consequences dovetails with NPR’s science journalism. Progressive and leftist voices are at their most inspiring when they articulate all possible tomorrows; they cannot afford to get mired in positivist ennui while conservatives paint the future in their own moving, affect-driven tones.
Even in instances where the left’s underlying political convictions have remained the same for decades, those convictions now appear more positivistic, their factiness punched up. Moral authority is described in econometric terms, appeals to human nature are based in neuroscientific discoveries, and success in electoral politics are to be found in polls and approval ratings.
IN July, 2016 it was reported in multiple high-profile publications that a glitch in fMRI software may invalidate fifteen years’ worth of brain research. This has yet to stop NPR’s producers from turning to neuroscientists to explain human behavior, of course. And even in the wake of Trump’s decisive Electoral College victory, there appears to be no sign that news organizations will de-emphasize the centrality of reporting on polls. These refusals to change demonstrate that the illusion of scientific accuracy is simply the preferred means of making arguments. They offer quantitative and discrete data points that seem difficult to argue with but, like the climate change debate, simply invite complete epistemological detours (e.g. “God gave us the Earth to use as we please.”) by political opponents.
Outsourcing self-validation to the illusion of scientific authority is an abdication. While seemingly definitive answers rooted in positivist thinking can be comforting, they suffocate one’s own ability to make meaning in the world. Under positivism, only the scientist can tell us, for example, that we feel heartbreak in our whole body. No one needs to be stuck in an fMRI to find this out, and yet that is precisely what NPR podcasts do. They stoke existential anxiety by feigning surprise that science told you that just this time you were actually right.
The NPR podcast approach to addressing the problems they create would go like this: Begin by exploring how a steady media diet of behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychological changes affects cognitive processes. The podcasts’ invited guests would then socialize the effects by adding up all affected individuals and imagining what it would be like to constantly encounter them at work or at a party. In short, they would misunderstand their own impact on the world the way they misunderstand just about everything else. They’d still leave out the political valence of these effects, as well as the benefits realized by middle-income liberals in thinking this way. They would also leave out a proper understanding of how affect and emotion (and their seeming absence) do political work.
Circulating among an NPR podcast’s audience is a sense of obnoxious explainerism. Experiences are not to be trusted even though they’re the only things individuals can control. These podcasts trade-in an illusion of understanding, offering bits of data to support preconceived notions about who is broken, wrong, or just annoying. The behavior they encourage--if they do that at all--is in the register of the heroic, but it can only be displayed by well-resourced individuals who seek to make dramatic moves because most others cannot, supposedly, see the whole picture. The others, it seems, must wait until next week.