Last week The New Inquiry published an essay I wrote about science journalism podcasts syndicated on NPR. Shows like Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, I argued, were more about wrapping pre-conceived notions in a veneer of data than changing minds or delivering new insights into long-standing problems. Worse yet, social and political issues that might be met with collective action are turned into wishy-washy “well isn’t that interesting” anecdotes:
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.
If anyone acts at all on what they hear in NPR podcasts it is either as a means of self-help or, as I wrote in the essay, “in the register of the heroic … by well-resourced individuals who seek to make dramatic moves because most others cannot, supposedly, see the whole picture.” I would like to pick up where I left off and describe two particularly stark examples of self-help and heroics. I think the two, juxtaposed as they are, demonstrate exactly what kind of world liberal infotainment seeks to engender.
I had some good things to say about Freakonomics Radio in the essay. Because the show is mostly about economics (I say mostly because there was one pledge drive episode where, and I am not kidding, they did not talk about economics at all and instead interviewed a neuroscientist that studies fMRI scans of people as they listen to podcasts.) the episodes mostly focus on what happens “in between” individuals and how the aggregate of human behavior cannot always be found in individual cognition. They do, however, make a point of encouraging listeners to apply theories meant for corporations and governments, to their daily lives. People gush about how the application of abstract economic theories on their bathroom routines or training regimens has resulted in huge gains in productivity and happiness. It is the kind of relief that can only come after a steady diet of equivocality suddenly and selectively provides a path forward.
In one such episode (the same one with the fMRI scans of podcast listeners) they talk to a young man who dreamed of being on they Olympic rowing team, only to come up short. On his way home from the training camp, feeling dejected, he looked for a radio show that would take his mind off of thing and, sitting there in the top 10 podcasts on iTunes, was Freakonomics Radio. From the transcript:
It was a very small segment of the podcast. I think it was like five minutes where it talked about Marine, Army Rangers, I believe. And how to get leaders out of them, they didn’t say, “You’re a natural leader,” or something like that. They said, “You’re hard-working and your success is built off hard work and not talent or not how a natural leader you are.”
The host, Stephen Dubner replies: “It sounds like you were a hard worker, but if I’m reading you correctly it sounds like you’re saying even though you worked hard, a) you could work harder and b) you could work more strategically or engage in what we call deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is a term out of (surprise) psychology that says talent for a given activity comes out of a lot of “maximal effort” that is “generally not enjoyable.” (Quotes from here.)
The mundane point here is that practice makes perfect and that practice is often difficult but ultimately rewarding. Of course our rower probably already knew that, but it is the declarative power of science that makes such advice unavoidable. I had a professor in graduate school that once told my class, “Witch craft and astrophysics might both be equally true but only one is more likely to help you get to the moon.” The point he was making is that different kind of knowledge are good for different things and I think we can apply that to the case above. It is fine and good to hear a coach or someone you trust say, “it just takes more practice” but science has a way of telling you there is a single path to one’s goal. No matter how good you are, you can’t break the laws of nature (as described to you by a scientist) to get what you want. The only people who break the laws of nature are scientists themselves, and then they get rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
Now who does feel empowered to act on anything that isn’t themselves after listening to NPR podcasts are the incredibly rich. In an episode of Radiolab produced by the makers of Note to Self (brought to you in part by Goldman Sachs) the listener learns about the development of a high-powered camera technology that can scan entire cities to track cars and monitor people. Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi and her colleague Alex Goldmark interview the inventor of the technology who wants to take his plane mounted camera from the battlefields of Iraq to the United States to fight crime. This technology, the episode promises, can track cars in real time providing detailed evidence for all sorts of major and minor crimes.
That episode aired in June 2015 and concluded with the technology getting stymied by elected officials and citizens who had serious privacy concerns. After describing the technology in heroic terms (the inventor is said to have a “super power”) and giving examples of how it brought killers to justice, Goldmark complains, “The advantages are so concrete and the dangers are nebulous.” They fret and lament that such a powerful technology for good is held up by reactionaries with “nebulous” concerns about big brother. They end on a sad note, saying this technology is being used for traffic monitoring and analysis.
Over a year later, in September 2016 they do a follow-up episode where they feign confusion at how their coverage convinced an ex Enron executive-turned-“philanthropist” John Arnold (along with his wife, Laura through their foundation) to singlehandedly bankroll a pilot study in Baltimore. Because the Arnolds are willing to bankroll the system there is no need for a public hearing or vote. Instead, the police chief signs a contract and the system is up and running. In addition to the city-wide photographs there are also the pre-existing CCTV cameras that can sync up with the aerial photography. The episode ends without a single self-reflective moment where Krulwich, Abumrad, Goldmark, or Zomorodi consider perhaps how they portrayed that technology would have attracted the interest of law and order-loving aristocrats.
I hope these further examples outline the stakes that we’re working with here. More than just bad traffic jam entertainment, these shows are widely listened to and inspire people to change their lives and the lives of others. Most importantly, NPR podcasts are a symptom of a much larger failure of political imagination. The fact that these shows are so popular indicates that they are maintaining hegemonic ideas rather than creating new ones, but if we are to truly face the issues current events demand, we are going to need a fundamental shift in how we approach problems of politics and science.
David is on Twitter.