Why clever people believe stupid things
The Joe Rogan Spotify controversy is not about cool science people v antivax rubes
An elderly man wishes to have a controversial radio host banned from an entertainment platform because he’s encouraging the misuse of drugs. The great and the good rally in support of the veteran cultural figure, even if not everyone agrees that censorship is the right course.
To paraphrase Scott Alexander: ‘When was the last time you could hear a story like that and have it be even slightly probable that the [old man] was rightist?’
Neil Young is off Spotify after giving the streaming service a him-or-me ultimatum about the Joe Rogan Experience and its platforming of anti-vaxxers and people promoting the use of ivermectin. ‘They can have Rogan or Young,’ he wrote. ‘Not both.’
Joni Mitchell has also removed her catalogue; like Young, she was a childhood polio survivor so has good reason to approve of vaccines generally. Even Prince Harry and Meghan have added their moral weight, always a good bellwether of whether a belief is now mainstream and hegemonic, although if I were them I’d probably keep quiet about Spotify.
Rogan has certainly entertained some colourful characters, including not just those overplaying the risk of myocarditis in younger people taking the vaccine, but full-up anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. He features people making both sides of the argument, but that kind of fake balance is arguably even more irresponsible. There aren’t really two ‘sides’ to the vaccine debate, if the overwhelming evidence is that they are safe and effective. Similarly, with global warming, although that’s slightly more complicated.
Why do people even entertain an idea that is so obviously insane and reckless that we need an old rock star to step forward as a moral authority? Not because they’re stupid, but for the same reason others support Young. Tribalism.
In Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene cited an experiment by Stanford’s Geoffrey Cohen in which he presented ‘self-described conservative and liberal Americans with two different welfare policy proposals’, one of which was far more generous. Obviously. liberals preferred the more generous proposal and conservatives the stricter one, but what was far more important was whether these ideas were proposed by either the Republican or Democratic Party. ‘Liberals liked extreme conservative policies in liberal clothing better than they liked extreme liberal policies in conservative clothing. The conservatives did the same thing.’
For various reasons, it just happens that vaccine-scepticism has become more associated with the Right in America (in Britain we don’t have the same covid culture wars, or at least, one side is miniscule). It’s almost forgotten now, but when the virus first hit the West, many of the same people who became mask fanatics were confidentially assuring us that it was no worse than the flu, indeed that racism was a worse danger. That many switched to become ardently pro-lockdown was pure tribalism.
Similarly, had the vaccine been approved earlier – and resulted in Trump’s victory – there is no reason why the political division on vaccine-sceptism might not have gone the other way.
If you don’t think that’s possible, bear in mind that more than half of Democrats believed that 9/11 was an inside job. I really don’t think it would be hard to convince many to believe that ‘Trump’s vaccine’ was unsafe and the sinister work of Big Pharma. (Or similarly, to persuade many Republicans that a Democrat administration was equally capable of a September 11-style conspiracy.)
Global warming is one area where there is obviously a huge imbalance between Left and Right in the US (again, not in the UK). Greene cites a 2010 Gallup poll finding that only 31 per cent of Republicans think global warming is happening and 66 per cent think it’s exaggerated. However, it was not ignorance that caused large numbers of Republicans to be wrong about the issue: ‘Contrary to conventional liberal wisdom, the researchers found that scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with slight decreases in the perceived risk of climate change’.
The Left-wing version of this is opposition to nuclear power, which is far better for the environment than other forms of energy, not to mention making democracies less reliant on the likes of Russia. Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power, under pressure from the Green Party, has huge, disastrous consequences. Similarly with Neil Young’s opposition to GM crops, a scientifically illiterate belief which inspired an entire album!
Very intelligent people can believe some insane things. This is what made Don’t Look Up so weak and uninteresting as a satire, rather than as a slapstick comedy. For those who haven’t yet watched it, the story revolves around two scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who spot an asteroid heading for earth. When they tell the president, played by Meryl Streep as a sort of female Donald Trump (with Jonah Hill playing her idiot son) she doesn’t care because she’s only interested in the midterms, and she’s also essentially a moron. Neither do the presenters of a television show the scientists appear on, nor the audience. They’re much more concerned with the tittle-tattle personal drama of singer Riley Bina (Arianna Grande) and her on-off relationship with some other cretin.
Soon the country is polarised over whether this asteroid is coming towards us. The Republicans (it’s clearly the Republicans) are in denial about the meteor and say ‘don’t look up’ while all the cool, clever sciencey-people are telling the unpalatable truth.
This kind of partisan flattery runs throughout the film. At one point the Donald Trump Junior character tells the crowd: ‘there are three types of people: you the poor people, us cool rich people, and them’. But it’s Democrats who are disproportionately found at either end of the financial/social spectrum, as you’d expect from the urban party, since cities tend to be more extreme.
In an aside, an actor in a film promo interview says the meteor shouldn’t be politicised and we should see both sides, the implication being that we should politicise everything because there are actually right and wrong opinions; you should start arguments with your conservative relatives at Christmas or Thanksgiving because these aren’t complex dilemmas, your opponents are just wrong.
I’m not sure something counts as ‘satire’ if it’s designed to flatter the prejudices of educated, wealthy audiences with money. If the meteor is a metaphor for global warming, then Republicans are far more anti-science — but a meteor isn’t at all a good analogy for climate change. When faced with clear emergencies, humans tend to be pretty good at responding; look at the Covid vaccine, which was created in record time after a concerted, international response to a disaster staring us in the face, one supported by the very president satirised in Don’t Look Up.
Global warming is a problem because it is insidious. It’s slow, it’s also complicated and often quite boring. Unlike the asteroid hit, it’s also not a clear-cut disaster but a matter of degrees (literally). The most likely outcome is that global warming is going to be terrible but it’s not the end of the world.
But Don’t Look Up’s biggest failure as satire is that it’s often highly-educated people who are prone to believing insanely untrue things, not because of money or that they want to trick their voters, but because humans are irrational. Dominic Cummings was completely right in his belief that ‘Generally, the better educated are more prone to irrational political opinions and political hysteria than the worse educated’. The history of communism is the most obvious example, Bolshevism being a student cult that was passionately believed in by some very intelligent, brilliant people long after it was exposed as a disaster.
Today there are plenty of quite irrational beliefs we tend to hear mostly from educated people: sex isn’t real, IQ isn’t measurable, Russian interference significantly influenced recent western elections, America’s racist police are gunning down African-Americans in large numbers.
Some of the brightest and most eloquent people will decide to believe something based mostly on partisan, tribal lines. Indeed, a study in one major psychology journal found that high cognitive ability does not predict irrational beliefs, since ‘intelligence and rational thinking, although related, represent two fundamentally different constructs’. Many intelligent people suffer from ‘dysrationalia’, meaning ‘the inability to think rationally despite having adequate intelligence’.
Don’t Look Up would have been a far more interesting satire if it portrayed the well-educated refusing to believe the meteor was coming, with only rural rubes and dummies on the left side of the midwit meme trusting what their eyes were telling them. The greatest enemy of ideological extremism is the timeless argument ‘it’s just obvious, innit’.
That would be much more painfully true to life – and therefore not the sort of thing educated audiences want to be told.