NPR launched a new show this month called Invisibilia that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” The show’s hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller are great personalities and the show is beautifully edited in a way that doesn’t reach the Reggie Watts-esque soundscape of Radiolab nor does it stick closely to the dry public radio persona that has been lampooned countless times. I was, however, really disappointed when I learned that the huge topics under investigation in this show would only be understood through “psychological and brain science.” There are a lot of different disciplines that can be brought to bear on huge topics like “ideas” so why are we getting another show that confuses humans for brains?
There’s no doubt in my mind that psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology have a lot to teach us about ourselves, but these disciplines are over-represented in our popular science media landscape. Wasn’t Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, and the typical selection of science news coverage enough? Not to mention the growing number of TV shows that filter psychology through the genre filters of crime dramas and medical procedurals? Sociologists, anthropologists, and… hell even political scientists have equally important and empirically valid interpretations of the world but I can’t seem to find any of them represented in my podcast queue.
The blame does not rest solely on the shoulders of Spegel, Miller, or any other reporter. The “softer” social sciences, admittedly, do a crappy job of conveying our discoveries in a publicly accessible way. I really enjoy the topics in my subfield of Science and Technology Studies but I’ll admit that the New Books in STS podcast is pretty dry. In general, our books appeal to each-other and rarely help people outside of the discipline. There’s lots of unnecessary jargon and intentional obfuscation in social theory literature, but that’s starting to change. There are tons of really smart people who can give unique and cogent insights that go beyond how our brains are “wired” and what we’re “instinctually” meant to say, do, and (yes, even) think.
This might all sound self-serving, coming from an editor of a website that runs social science commentary and analysis for a public audience, but I also wouldn’t have chosen the field that I’m in if I didn’t think it had something immediately relevant to everyone else in the world. I wouldn’t choose a discipline that ranks 145 out of 232 for “highest paying advanced degree” if I didn’t think the work was important. (For example, sociology might help explain why 232 out of 232 is a master’s degree in “early childhood education.”)
Invisibilia, like most NPR shows, has a theme for each episode. Its second episode was on fear but opted to focus on snakes and rejection instead of the sorts of fears that seem much more relevant to the the current political climate. To spend an hour talking about fear, but not once consider how it might intersect with race and institutional authority, comes off as agonizingly apolitical.
I was hopeful at the beginning of the episode when they spoke to Roger Hart, an environmental psychologist who discovered that even in places where crime rates and the built environment did not change, children were given far less areas to play due to increased perceptions of danger. They started talking about media’s ability to amplify and distort the presence or likelihood of certain dangers ––over-covering dramatic tragedies like school shootings at the expense of stories about historically low crime rates–– but this was only the ten minute lead-up to nearly 50 minutes of stories featuring interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, the guy that invented “rejection therapy”, and even a herpetologists that studies snakes.
Certainly there’s no guarantee that if you bring sociologists and anthropologists onto your program you’ll get a rich discussion of intersectional politics. They will however, challenge the widely held notion that brain chemistry holds all of the secrets to the human condition. Society is more than the sum of its human actors. There are phenomena that are only observable across time or in large groups. There are seemingly universal properties of human existence that are actually just a few decades old and aren’t true across all people all of the time. There are even hidden assumptions within the often-cited hard sciences that are worth exploring and questioning.
And perhaps it is this attention to hidden assumptions that make it more difficult to invite sociologists and anthropologists onto shows like Invisibilia. As clickbait headlines seem to indicate, audiences think they love having their “minds blown” by things that they “would never see coming” but the truth of the matter is that we like to have our hopes and assumptions validated by external authority. A lot of social science is about confirming hard truths about the pervasiveness of white supremacy or the small degree to which one’s life is really of their own making. If we ever do end up on the phone or in the studio, what we have to say will complicate the narrative. That’s sort of our job.
Ever since humans descended from the trees and formed bands, something other than evolution and brain science has been at play. The stuff that makes cultures, societies, friendships, one night stands, wars, music, and tweets are not simple replacements for the lions that used to be our predators or the fellow proto-humans that looks healthy enough to reproduce with. There is something so much more than that going on. We ignore this at our peril because the moment we think the world as it is, is the world that always has been, is the moment we lose our imagination to create a vastly better world than the one we have now.
David is on Twitter: @da_banks