The following is a conversation with Robert Proctor,
historian at Stanford University,
specializing in 20th century science, technology,
and medicine, especially the history
of the most controversial aspects of those fields.
Please allow me to say a few words
about science and the nature of truth.
The word science is often used as an ideal
for a methodology that can help us escape the limitation
of any one human mind in the pursuit of truth.
The underlying idea here is that individual humans
are too easily corrupted by bias, emotion,
personal experience, and the usual human craving
for meaning, money, power, and fame.
And the hope is that the tools of science
can help us overcome these limitations
in striving for deeper and deeper understanding
of objective reality, from physics to chemistry,
biology, genetics, and even psychology,
cognitive science, and neuroscience.
But history shows that these tools of science
are not devoid of human flaws,
of influence from human institutions,
of manipulation from people in power.
As we talk about in this conversation with Robert Proctor,
in the 1930s and 40s, there was the Nazi science
and there was communist science,
and each had fundamentally different ideas
about, for example, genetics and biology of disease.
This history also shows that scientists can be corrupted
slowly or quickly by fear, fame, money,
or just the ideological narratives of a charismatic leader
that convinces each scientist and the scientific community
that their work matters for the greater cause of humanity,
even if that cause involves the genetic purification
of a people, the extermination of a cancer,
and the unrestricted experimentation
on the bodies of living beings who do not have a voice,
whose suffering will never be heard.
All of this for the greater good.
In some periods of human history,
science was deeply influenced by the ideology
of governments and individuals.
In some, less so.
The hard truth is that we can’t know for sure
about which of the two periods we’re living through today.
So let us not too quickly dismiss the voices
of experts and non-experts alike
that ask the simple question of,
wait, are we doing the right thing here?
Are we helping or hurting?
Are we adding suffering to the world
or are we alleviating it?
Most such voices are nothing more than martyrs
seeking fame, not truth, and they will be proven wrong.
But some may help prevent future atrocities
and suffering at a global scale.
Let us then move forward with humility
so that history will remember this period
as one of human flourishing
and where science lived up to its highest ideal.
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This is the Lex Friedman Podcast
and here is my conversation with Robert Proctor.
What is the story of science and scientists
during the rise, rule, and fall of the Third Reich?
Well, we tend to think of science
as always on the side of liberty,
as always on the side of enlightenment,
as always on the side of enlarging human possibility.
And here we have this phenomenon in the 1930s
of really the world’s leading scientific power,
the Third Reich,
which collectively had won a big chunk
of all the Nobel Prizes.
Suddenly they go fascist, they go Nazi with Hitler.
And instead of being primarily a source of resistance,
science in many respects actually is a full collaborator
in the most horrific forms of Nazi genocide, Nazi exclusion.
And that’s kind of a relatively untold story
in the sense that when we think of science
in the Third Reich, we think of Joseph Mengele
injecting dye into the eyes of twins,
or we think of horrific human experiments,
and those are real.
But it’s also the story of a huge scientific apparatus,
a bureaucracy, you could almost say,
participating in every phase
of the campaigns of Nazi destruction.
And what I looked at in particular in,
actually in my first book,
was how physicians in particular,
but also biomedical science,
was collaborating with the regime
and that it’s wrong to think of the Nazi regime
It’s anti a particular type of science.
In particular, it was radically against
what they called Jewish science, communist science.
Certain types of science they did not like.
There’s a whole nature-nurture dispute in that period,
and they’re firmly on the side of nature,
which interestingly gives rise to a very different
type of science in the Soviet Union, by the way.
The Soviet Union is more on the nurture side?
The Soviet Union is on the side of the nurture side
in the dimension of genetics,
and this is sort of an untold story.
I was actually gonna write a book about it
until I was barred from access to the Soviet Union.
There’ve been different times in my life
where I was a Russianist.
A Russianist, okay, we’re gonna have to talk about that.
I got excluded from fulfilling that dream,
but one of the things I was gonna look at
when I got a Fulbright in the 1980s
was to go over and look at the anti-Nazi genetics
and anthropology of the Soviets,
and how a lot of their Lysenko-ist Lamarckism
was actually anti-Nazi anti-genetics
on the nurture side of nature,
and that’s really an untold story.
It’s an uncomfortable story,
because it sounds like we might wanna make heroes
out of the twisting of science in the Soviet Union,
but nonetheless, there are these interesting complexities,
and what’s amazing about Nazi science
is how there was this collaboration,
and you’re talking about a culture
where they’re inventing things like electron microscopy,
they’re doing all kinds of studies in anthropology,
so a lot of that’s an untold story.
So what was the connection
between the ideology and the science,
if you can just link on it longer?
Well, we tend to think of science and ideology
as completely separate
when I think the reality is they’re not.
If you look at why the Mayans in the 7th and 8th century AD
had the world’s most accurate calendar,
accurate to within 17 seconds per year,
that was all part of a ritual practice
to celebrate the rise of Kukulkan,
the rise of Venus with what’s called the heliacal rising,
namely the rising of Venus before the rising of the sun,
at which moment Venus is destroyed
by the light of the sun.
Well, they developed this elaborate calendrical astronomy
which required detailed observation,
detailed chronicling of the movement of the heavens,
in particular the planets,
for the purpose of celebrating this cycle of renewal
that they thought was sacred and holy and magical.
So where’s the ideology, where’s the science?
There’s the sort of instrumentation, the calendrics,
the measurement, all in the service of this magical moment,
and I think that’s true of a lot of science.
I had a friend years ago who was Mennonite
and wanted to study solar cells
and to improve silicon chips
to make more efficient solar energy.
There was no money for that.
Yeah, when Ronald Reagan took office,
the budgets for solar and alternative energy
were essentially zeroed out,
and Reagan takes off the solar panels
off of the roof of the White House.
So my friend ends up working on hardening silicon chips
against nuclear war.
So he becomes part of the nuclear war
protection defense apparatus,
even though he wanted to work on alternative energy,
doing very similar work with silicon chips,
but in a different framework.
And so the practices of science often gets pushed into
and is woven into ideological practices,
sort of in the same way that you get beautiful
medieval cathedrals built in service of Catholicism.
Well, what’s in the mind of an individual scientist?
So this process of ideology polluting science,
or is it science empowering ideology?
So almost like if we can zoom in and zoom out effortlessly
into the individual mind of a scientist,
then back to the whole scientific community.
Do scientists think about nuclear war,
about the atrocities committed by the Nazis
as they’re helping on the minute details
of the scientific process?
I think sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, right?
You think of the chemists working to develop the cyanide
that will be used to kill Jews in a concentration camp.
What are they thinking?
You can imagine a whole range of thoughts,
maybe they don’t know what they’re doing.
Maybe they do.
Maybe they know a little bit, but not a lot.
Maybe they don’t wanna know.
Maybe they have ways of lying to themselves.
Maybe they are the one person who agreed to do it
and 99 refused.
So it’s hard, if not impossible,
to know what’s in the soul of anyone.
But when you have enormous power directing the motion
and the currents or the ocean,
it’s not hard to find people willing to fill that in,
especially if they’re narrow technocrats,
if they’re just doing their job,
if they’re just building the widget.
And I think a lot of scientific training
is in widget building and that leads to the possibility
that they can become easily instrumentalized
in a particular action,
which is maybe horrific or glorious.
The other thing to keep in mind is that science is,
as we say, what scientists do.
And that can include a lot of things,
it can exclude a lot of things.
The word science itself is interesting
because it’s cognate.
It actually comes originally
from the Proto-Indo-European skein,
meaning to cut or divide.
And so it’s cognate with scissors, schism, skin.
Skin is that which divides you from the world.
Shit or scat is that which has been divided from you
into the world.
And so there’s this cognate between science and shit
or science and cutting,
with the whole idea being that you’re dividing into parts,
classifying, it’s the taxonomic impulse.
And to know is to know where something belongs,
to divide it into its parts and put it in its proper place.
And that taxonomic impulse can be very static.
It’s actually one of the things that Darwin had to overcome
in recognizing evolution, that the taxonomies are in motion.
But it also can lead to a kind of myopia
that my job is done when I’ve classified something.
Is this bird an X, a Y, or a Z?
And that again can be, it can be ideological
or it cannot be, but scientists are humans
and they’re fitting in with a world, with a world practice.
And that’s limiting.
It’s kind of inevitable.
It’s hard to be, if not impossible, out of the world
that we’re walking in.
Yeah, and it’s fascinating
because I think ideologies also have an impulse
towards forming taxonomies.
So just being at MIT, I’ve gotten to learn
about this character named Jeffrey Epstein.
I didn’t know who this was
until all the news broke out and so on.
And I started to wonder how did all these people at MIT
that I admire would hang out with this person?
Just lightly, just have conversations.
I don’t mean any of the bigger things,
but even just basic conversations.
And I think this has to do,
you said scientists are widget builders and taxonomizers.
I think there’s power in somebody like the Nazi regime
or like a Jeffrey Epstein just being excited
about your widgets and making you feel
like the widget serves a greater purpose in the world.
And so it’s not like you’re,
sometimes people say scientists want to make money
or they have a big kind of ideological drive behind it.
I think there’s just nice when the widgets
you like building anyway,
somehow somebody convinces you, some charismatic person,
that this widget actually has a grander purpose.
And you don’t almost think about the negative
or whether it’s positive,
just the fact that it’s grand is already super exciting.
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right.
I think that’s the story of Werner von Braun
and the fascination with rockets
and this will enlarge something in the world.
And here he is, he’s an SS officer,
he’s working around slave labor.
And then, but his rocket then gets compressed
into the Western world or the American world
and basically launches us to the moon
and we forget about how the sausage was made originally.
Well, can you talk about him a little bit more
because he’s such a fascinating character?
Because he, so he was a Nazi, but he was also an American
and it had such a grand impact on both.
And like there’s this uncomfortable fact
that he’s one of the central figures
that gave birth to the American space exploration efforts.
Yeah, he’s an interesting figure,
fascinated in a kind of a tunnel vision way with spaceflight.
He makes these beautiful rockets
already beginning in the 20s, early 30s.
Ends up for a while at Penamunda using slave labor
to build V2 engines and so forth like that.
I remember going to Penamunda
where people have actually tracked the flights
of aborted V2 rockets
and found some of these beautiful, beautiful old engines.
Just the most like works of art.
These engines used to rain terror on the British.
It’s interesting because in that same spot,
I was hunting for amber, Baltic amber
because I’m a stone collector.
And among the amber collectors there,
there’s a famous story of the Penamunda burn.
It’s called because they find yellow phosphorous,
they think is amber, they put it in their pocket
and then it dries out and then explodes
and creates this big burn on their legs.
But the whole Nazi regime is full of things like that,
is full of these scholars who get twisted into a mindset.
And it’s also important to realize
that people didn’t often see what was coming.
And we look back and we say, how could you X, Y, or Z?
But before the Holocaust, there’s not the Holocaust.
There are versions of it, but things get on a new meaning,
gain a new meaning in light of subsequent events.
And there’s an entire propaganda machine
that makes it easier for you
to hold the narrative in your head.
Even if you kind of intuitively know
there’s something really wrong here,
because of the propaganda you can kind of convince yourself
to be able to sleep at night.
That’s right, and we have to remember
that Goebbels’ office was not the office of propaganda.
It was the office of popular enlightenment and propaganda.
So enlightenment was part of his vision.
Just the new era of enlightenment from his perspective.
It was supposed to be the new age,
the new era of enlightenment.
It’s a little bit like the kind of myth
of Hitler’s failed artist.
You know, his art is not that bad.
You know, there are a lot of artists who are worse.
And I had a very interesting conversation once
with my college roommate who became a librarian at Harvard.
And at Harvard, he met an old, old librarian,
a German woman who had met Hitler as a kid
when she was like eight years old.
Her dad was like a Gauleiter for the Nuremberg area.
And she said that for 15 minutes,
Hitler goes out onto the balcony with her
and has this conversation alone
with this eight-year-old girl.
And she said he was charming and funny.
And then he said he loved kids.
And she said he was the most charming sort of person.
And that’s part of the history, too,
that we tend to forget when we make a scarecrow image
of this rabid, raging fanatic.
You know, there’s more to it than that.
That’s really, really, really important to think about
when we make a scarecrow
because that gives you actionable,
like it forces you to introspect
about people in your own life or leaders in your life today,
ones you admire.
They’re charismatic, they’re friendly, they love kids,
they talk about enlightenment.
You have to kind of think, all right,
am I being duped on certain things?
You have to kind of have a,
I mean, that’s the problem with Jerry Epstein
that people don’t seem to talk about.
I never met the guy,
but just given the people he talked to whom I know,
it feels like he must have been charismatic.
Like people think about like,
oh, it’s because of the women, it’s because of the money.
I don’t, the people I know,
I don’t think they’re going to be influenced.
Ultimately, it has to be how you are in the room
and make, it’s exactly like you said, the enlightenment.
I think that excites the scientists.
Of course, as a charismatic person,
you have to know what to pick in terms of what excites you,
but that is also the fascinating thing to me about Hitler
is all of these meetings, even like with Chamberlain,
inside rooms, whether he was screaming
or whatever he was saying,
it seems like he was very convincing.
There must have been passion in his eyes.
There must have been charisma that one-on-one
in a quiet conversation, he was convincing.
Yes, there’s a famous story about Goebbels
who would do a party trick where for 15 minutes,
for 15 minutes, he would rouse the crowd to communism,
workers of the world unite.
Then for 15 minutes, he would rouse the world to capitalism
and individualism, and then for 15 minutes,
he would rouse the world to Nazism,
and apparently, he was quite convincing
in each of those performances.
Well, all those ideologies are pretty powerful.
I mean, they, and I think it’s not even the reason
that matters as much as the power of the dream,
of the vision, of the enlightenment.
I mean, the vision of communism is fascinatingly powerful.
Like workers unite, the common people stand together,
they’ll overthrow the powerful, the greedy,
and yet share the outcomes of our hard work.
Yeah, well, it’s kind of like the story
of two-thirds of the things that Marx calls for
in the Communist Manifesto are already just part
of the liberal state, and so the parts we remember
or forget about an ideology are very revealing.
If we can just linger on this a little bit longer,
what have you learned from this period of the 1930s
about the scientific process?
So one of the labels you can put on your work,
and you as a scholar, as a philosopher of science,
and you also talk about Nazi Germany
as a singular moment in time, or like a rebirth
of the integration between ideology and science.
So like in terms of valueless science,
I think is the term.
Value-free science that you use.
I mean, it seems like Nazi Germany
is an important moment in history.
I mean, it probably goes up and down.
So what difficult truths have you learned
about the scientific process, and what hopeful things
have you learned about the scientific process?
Well, I guess the saddening thing
is how easily people can become part of a machine.
If there’s power, people can be found to follow it.
One of the things I work on is big tobacco,
and we’ll probably come to that,
but it’s amazing to me how easily people
are willing to work for big tobacco.
It’s amazing to me how many scientists and physicians
were willing to work for the Nazi regime
for multiple reasons.
Partly because a lot of them really thought
they were doing the Lord’s work.
They thought they were cleaning the world of filth.
I mean, if you really thought Jews are a parasitic race,
why wouldn’t you get rid of them?
So there’s an ontology, there’s a theory of the world
that they’re building on.
And interestingly, one that was also present
in the United States, and one of the things
I did find out in my earliest research
was that the Nazis had looked lovingly and enviously
over at the United States in terms of racial segregation,
racial separation, and saw themselves
in a kind of competition to become
the world’s racial leader as the most purified racial form.
And that this required this kind of cleansing process.
And the cleansing meant getting rid
of the physically handicapped.
It meant getting rid of racial inferiors,
as they imagined them.
It meant getting rid of cancer-causing chemicals
in the air, and in our food, and our water.
These were all of a piece.
There’s a famous illustration that Richard Dahl
talks about, the great cancer theorist
of studying in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
And he’s shown a lecture where cancer cells
are shown as Jews, and x-rays are shown as stormtroopers,
and these stormtroopers are killing the cancer cells
who are also Jews.
And so, there’s this metaphorical work
of cleaning, extermination, sanitation.
Purification of a sort.
There’s definitely a kind of purity quest,
and you see that at multiple levels.
And so, you see how easy it is for people
to fall into that, given a particular theory.
And again, coming back to that earlier sort of point
about the scarecrow, which I think is very important,
if we imagine that nothing like this went on
here in the United States, that would be a big mistake.
The Nazis are looking to save the Redwoods League,
to the Aryan supremacists, to the Ku Klux Klan,
to the separation of blacks and whites.
Blacks were not allowed to join
the American Medical Association until after World War II.
So, you have racial segregation.
You have massive sterilization in the United States,
way before the Nazis.
One of the first things the Nazis do
from a racial hygiene point of view
is start sterilizing what they called the mentally ill
and the physically handicapped.
Well, that had been going on since around World War I
in the United States, and even earlier
in certain states in the form of castration of prisoners
in order to prevent their demon seed
from being propagated further into the race.
So, there’s a kind of a racial international
that’s going on, and that part of the story
also needs to be told.
And scientists were able to carry those ideas
in their mind from your work?
Of course, of course.
I mean, that’s one of the things going on
with all the renaming of buildings now,
is scientists who were eugenicists
are now getting their names pulled off of buildings.
My personal view is that it has to be done
on a case-by-case basis, but in general,
I think it’s usually better to add on rather than subtract.
In other words, to add history rather than erase history
or pretend as if history had never existed.
Let me give you a specific example of that.
One of the most powerful and diabolical
university presidents in the Nazi period
was a guy named Karl Ostel, A-S-T-E-L,
and he was a rabid Nazi, high up in the leadership.
And in his portrait at the University of Vienna,
there he is in full SS uniform,
that painting was taken down.
Now, what I would have done is left the painting
and put a, you know, add a plaque.
But to pretend as if that never happened
or to erase history in that way,
I think is a big, big mistake.
Can I linger on that point?
So I haven’t gotten through it yet,
but I’ve been trying to get to the Mein Kampf.
And, you know, throughout its history,
it’s been taken down and up.
It actually was taken down from Amazon for a while recently.
What can you say about keeping that stuff up?
So the reason it was taken down from Amazon,
I mean, there’s a large number of people
that will read that and the hate in their heart will grow.
So they’re not using it for educational purposes.
You can’t put a plaque on the Mein Kampf.
You’re ruining Mein Kampf then.
Like, you can’t, I mean, Amazon can’t do a warning
Or an expurgated version of Mein Kampf.
Take out the word Jew, you know?
That would solve everything.
So it still just stands on its own.
I mean, it’s not well-written,
so you can maybe convince yourself that it’s okay
because it’s not well-written.
So it’s not like this inspiring book of ideology
that could easily convince.
But can you still man the argument
that Mein Kampf should be banned?
And can you still man the argument
that it should be not banned?
Well, I wouldn’t say it should be banned.
I think, if anything, that might make it forbidden fruit.
Now, this might be different when we come to statues
on the public square.
After World War II, the statues of Hitler,
there must have been thousands of them, were taken down.
Now, I think even the most rabid opponents
of cancel culture would not say there was something wrong
with taking down the statues of Hitler
that were in every office building, every post office.
So I think a lot depends on the placement
and the purpose of icons, of statues,
of texts, I don’t see the harm
in being able to buy Mein Kampf.
It’s so out of this world by now.
Just the language and, if anything,
there probably is more good done
by people being shocked at how dumb it is
than the evil that might be done by someone reading it.
I can’t imagine people being really gripped by that now,
partly just because it’s kind of outdated and crazy talk.
So in that case, I would not be in favor of that.
When it comes to monuments or other types of things,
it’s a judgment call in each case.
I think it has to be probably voted on,
but it also, I think, in many of these cases,
there’s an add-on view would fix a lot of the problems.
We’ll jump around a little bit.
We’ll come back to medicine and war on cancer.
Let me just add one thing on that.
Recently, the name of MacMillan,
who works on the charge of the electron
in the early part of the 20th century,
his name was taken off of a building at Caltech.
Well, to take his name off, what do you really do?
It wasn’t a central aspect of his actual work.
It’s not why he was put on the name
of that building at Caltech.
And also, the memory is lost and the lesson is lost.
When you could have kept the MacMillan name
on the building and added a plaque,
this guy was a racist or this guy was a eugenicist
or something to make a teaching moment
instead of just a forgetting moment.
Well, let me take a small tangent
and ask you about censorship
and this particular period we’re living through.
So my friend Joe Rogan has a podcast.
He hosts a few folks on there
and they’re folks of differing opinions.
And as we speak, there’s kind of a battle going on
over whether Joe Rogan should be on Spotify
and allowed to spread scientific misinformation.
In particular, there’s a guy named Robert Malone
that’s talking about, that’s making a case against,
at least against the COVID vaccine and so on.
So outside of the specifics of this person,
in this battle of scientific ideas
that are sometimes tied up with ideology
in our modern world, what do you think is the role?
Like who gets to censor, decide what is misinformation
Should we let ideas fly in the scientific realm?
So scientific ideas,
or should we try to get it under control?
Like which way, obviously all approaches
will go wrong in some ways,
which is more likely to go wrong?
One where you try to get a hold of like,
all right, this is a viral thing
and it doesn’t fit with scientific consensus.
So we should probably try to quiet it down a little bit,
or do you let it all just fly and let the ideas battle?
Do you think about this kind of stuff
in the context of history?
Well, that used to be a million dollar question.
Of course, now it’s a multi-billion dollar question.
Not trillion, yeah.
We’re talking about powerful internet platforms
becoming essentially publishers.
And publishers can’t say whatever they want.
There are limits.
They can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.
But there’s a kind of social responsibility that is there.
And I know some of these,
I don’t know a lot about this topic,
but I know some of the large platforms
do have dedicated offices
to trying to rein in misinformation
as you would expect any publisher to do.
You can’t just let anything fly in Time Magazine
or the New York Times either.
There are all kinds of codes of ethics and legal obligations.
So I’m a fan of the efforts,
or I think some of the large internet platforms
should be congratulated at least for trying
to make an effort to rein in misinformation.
It’s gonna be difficult,
and mistakes are gonna be made,
but it can’t be a let everything fly kind of situation.
But when I watch, unfortunately,
the pressure these platforms feel
to identify and to censor misinformation,
that pressure is ideological in nature currently.
So if you just objectively look,
there’s a certain political lean
to people that are pressing
on the censorship of the misinformation,
which makes me very uncomfortable
because now there’s an ideology
to labeling something as misinformation
as opposed to kind of having a value,
less evaluation of what is true or not.
And you also have to acknowledge that it says something,
that there’s a very large number of people
that, for example, follow Robert Malone or follow people.
I mean, what does that say about society?
There’s a deeper lesson in there
that’s not just about blocking misinformation.
It’s distrust in science and institutions,
distrust in leaders.
It feels like you have to fix that.
And then censorship of misinformation
is not going to be fixing that.
It’s only going to throw gasoline on the fire.
You gotta put out the fire.
Well, that’s certainly possible.
Yeah, I mean, I think people are distrustful
of certain institutions and not others, right?
And I think a lot of distrust is good.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist,
but I do know there have been a lot of conspiracies
and that people work behind scenes
to do powerful bad things.
And that’s what needs to be exposed.
The other thing I worry about,
which is relevant to your question,
again, it’s a billion or trillion dollar question,
is we’re, I think, in a world of kind of flattening
where all news or all information or all data
is kind of equal in some way.
And so you get the Twitterverse going
and it doesn’t matter if it’s peer-reviewed
or it doesn’t matter if it’s been supported by evidence.
It’s just a kind of outburst.
It’s interesting to contrast it with, say, 100 years ago.
I mean, what would a crazy person
or a flat earther or anything,
what venue would they have?
I mean, maybe they could go to a church or someplace.
I mean, so now we have these empowering engines,
then that’s what’s new historically
is that basically anyone can have a blog
or a Twitter feed and that is new.
And so that is, you can think of it also
as a kind of clutter.
So it’s a kind of a radical democracy in a way,
though kind of one of the weaknesses of democracy
is if everyone has an equal voice
and if everyone has equal power.
So there’s, of course, a flip side to that
where everyone has equal power.
It forces the people who are quote-unquote experts
to be better at communication.
I think people like scientists are just upset
that they have to do better work at communicating now.
They used to be lazy and you could just say,
I have a PhD, therefore everyone listen to me.
Now they have to actually convince people.
You have to convince people that the Earth is round.
You can’t just say the Earth is round, that’s it.
You have to show, you have to make,
I mean, not the Earth is round part,
but things like that.
You have to actually be a great communicator,
do great lectures, do documentaries and so on
to battle those ideas.
And then also to defend the sort of,
the people labeled as crazy.
In Nazi Germany, if you were protesting against
some of the uses of science, of medicine
to commit atrocities, you would also be labeled crazy.
And so those voices are important.
Yeah, there’s so many good points there
on the scientists becoming good communicators.
The history of scientists becoming bad communicators
has a history.
And the last original contribution to science
written entirely in the form of a poem
is Buffon’s Loves of the Plants.
And following that in the 18th century,
you get the uglification of science,
the deliberate uglification of science
with the idea being that if you are clear
and if you speak beautifully, if you write beautifully,
you’re hiding something.
You’re covering over the truth with flowers
and decorations and scents and pleasant odors.
And so you get this scientific paper format,
introduction, discussion, methods, results, conclusions,
and it’s kind of policed in this inhumane,
non-humanistic kind of rhetorical way.
And that’s a big problem.
And so you get that combined with just the rise
of the research lab and the ever narrower widget builders,
the cogs in the machine.
It’s not surprising that people might not trust
certain aspects of that.
That combined with the dirty laundry history
of a lot of science that you did have,
the requirement at Auschwitz that people be,
that physicians supervise the killings,
the horrors of Tuskegee and all kinds of other things,
or even something like the atom bomb,
which is arguably more neutral at least,
but nonetheless horrific.
And so it’s not surprising that a lot of people
don’t trust science and a lot of science
shouldn’t be trusted, right?
There’s science and then there’s science.
So there’s a long history of dirty, bad science
that you don’t solve just by saying
we should have trusted it.
Let’s just stay on COVID for a brief moment
and talk about a particular leader
that I think about is Anthony Fauci.
I’ve thought about whether to talk to him or not.
I have my own feelings about Anthony Fauci.
By the way, I admire basically everybody
and I admire scientists a lot.
And there’s something about him that bothers me.
I think because I’m always bothered by ego
and lack of humility, and I sense that.
Maybe I’m very wrong on this,
but so he has said that he represents science.
If you’ve taken him full context,
I understand the point he’s making,
which is when people attack,
attack him, they think of him as representing science,
things like that, but there’s ego in that.
And what do you think motivates and informs his decisions?
Is it politics or science?
And the broader question I have,
what does it take to be a great scientific leader
in difficult times?
Like these, and maybe you could say
Nazi Germany was similar.
When there’s obviously, like Anthony Fauci,
just like scientific leaders during Nazi Germany
could have made a difference, it feels like,
positive and negative.
And so it’s like there’s a lot at stake.
There’s a lot at stake in terms of scientific leadership.
If I’ve asked about 17 questions,
if there’s something worthwhile answering in that.
Well, Fauci, I think, is doing as good a job as he can.
I mean, he’s a, you can’t turn on the television
without seeing him.
But no, that’s, what’s the goal of the job?
That means he appears a lot, but there’s a,
he does not come off as somebody with authenticity.
Like I admire so many science communicators,
about 10x, 100x more than him,
including his boss, Francis Collins,
who have I recently lost respect for,
given some of the emails that leaked.
There’s ego in those emails.
And it upsets me, because like,
I hope all that stuff comes out
and wakes young scientists up to don’t be a douchebag.
Don’t, don’t be humble.
Be honest, be authentic, be real, put yourself out there.
Don’t play the PR game, don’t play politics.
Just get excited about the widget building that you love.
Communicate that and think about
the difficult ethical questions there
and communicate them, be transparent.
Don’t think like the public, don’t talk down to the public.
Don’t think the public is too dumb to understand
the complexities involved.
Because the moment you start to think that,
when you’re like 30, what do you think happens
when you’re 40 and 50?
The slippery slope of that, the ego builds.
Like, this taste for the public opinion builds.
And then you get into the leadership position
at the time you’re 60 and 70,
and then you’re just a dick.
And you’re a bad communicator to the very public.
So I think this is something that just builds over time,
is the skill to communicate, to be honest, to be real,
to constantly humble yourself,
to surround yourself with people that humble you.
Anyway, I’m bothered by it
because I feel like science is under attack.
People distrust science more and more and more.
And it is perhaps unfair to put places
like Anthony Fauci to blame for that.
But you know what?
Leaders take care of the responsibility.
So in you saying that he’s doing the best job he can,
I would say he’s doing a reasonable job,
but not the best job he can.
Yeah, well, I don’t know what his capabilities are
on that one or the other.
Like, you can imagine how history sees great leaders
that unite on which history turns.
That’s not a great leader because there’s a huge division.
There’s a lot of people in leadership position
that can heal the division.
You can think of tech leaders.
They can heal the division because of the platform.
They can speak out with eloquence.
You can think of political leaders, presidents,
that can speak out and heal the division.
You can think of scientific leaders like Anthony Fauci.
They can heal division.
None of these are doing a good job right now.
And which is, you know, leadership is hard,
which is why when great leaders come along,
history remembers them.
So I just want to point out the emperor has no clothes
when the leaders are like, eh, kind of mediocre.
Because it feels like, I guess,
I’ll take it to a question about Nazi Germany.
What is the heroic action for a scientist in Nazi Germany?
Like, to stand, to see what’s right
when you’re under this cloud of ideology.
Yeah, well, it’s an almost impossible task in Nazi Germany.
Maybe the heroic task would have been
before Hitler was essentially elected
and the Reichstag is burned.
So in the 30s, because it’s building,
when it’s building what the other alternatives are,
maybe it’s events in World War I
that could have made Nazism less inevitable.
You know, maybe it’s going back to the British Empire,
which had a giant empire
and Germany wanted a big empire too, right?
And that part of the history of World War I
is often forgotten.
So, you know, the heroic act is to stand up
and tell the truth and fight against evil.
Of course you get, oh, sorry to interrupt,
but of course you get-
Well, just to have some courage, you know?
But I also, so I personally don’t always
have complete respect of people
who stand up and have courage,
because it’s not often effective.
What I have the most respect for is long-term courage,
like that’s effective.
Because like, you know, if you’re just an activist
and you speak out, this is wrong,
that’s not gonna be effective
because everybody around you is saying,
nah, it’s like, we like our widgets.
So you have to somehow like steer this Titanic ship.
And I guess you’re right,
the easiest way to steer is to do it earlier.
Well, everyone has different skills.
You know, Musk is building electric cars
and other people are trying to, you know,
build solar and wind.
And there are all kinds of problems
that we’re gonna solve, right?
People are building better vaccines, you know.
There’s a thousand ways to do good in the world
and a thousand ways to do bad in the world.
I mean, part of the problem in science
is that we don’t look enough
at what I call the causes of causes.
So cigarettes cause cancer, but what causes cigarettes?
Yeah, so the deeper, yeah, yeah.
So obesity causes heart disease, but what causes obesity?
And it’s not just gluttony and sloth,
it’s the decision to pump up the sugar industry
and to allow soda in school.
And I’m a big fan of what I call loop closing.
We’re all worried about climate change
and reducing our carbon footprint,
but what about the hidden causes, the unprobed causes?
I’m doing a project now with Londa Schiebinger
on looking at how voluntary family planning
could actually have a big role
in reducing carbon footprint throughout the world.
And these literatures are never joined or rarely joined
that we have this huge carbon emissions problem,
but we also have too many people on the planet.
And the cause of that is because too few women and men
have access to birth control.
And if you join those realms open,
there’s gonna be new possibilities.
And it’s kind of like looking at the flip side of fascism
and the kind of things, the discoveries they made
that have been ignored.
That’s one of the things I’m interested in
is finding some of the gaping holes,
the ideological gaps that have been ignored
because of ideology, left or right, by the way,
both of which involve blinders.
And so there’s all kinds of blinders that we live in.
That’s part of ideology is what don’t we even see?
And that would prevent us from seeing
some deep objective scientific truth.
Right, some truth.
And it’s actually, just to mention,
there’s some people, including Elon,
who are saying there’s not too many people.
There’s not enough people, right?
That if you just look at the birth rates.
And so it’s like some of this is actually
very difficult to figure out
because there’s these narratives.
You mentioned tobacco, obesity with sugar.
There’s been narratives throughout the history.
And it’s very, there’s certain topics
on which it’s easy to almost become apathetic
because you just see in history
how narratives take hold and fade away.
People were really sure that tobacco
is not at all a problem, and then it fades,
and then they figure it out,
and then other things come along.
What other things came along now?
Well, you asked about ideology,
and one of the things I always ask students before class,
whether I’m teaching agnotology
or world history of sciences,
what makes fish move?
And 90% of Americans will say
some version of muscles, fins, neurons,
when the reality is, at least in saltwater,
fish don’t swim places, they’re moved by currents.
Fish are moved by currents.
That’s what makes fish move.
This is not even counting the rotation of the earth
on its axis or the rotation of the earth around the sun
or the rotation of the solar system around the galaxy.
Ignore all that.
Even on earth, fish arrive up in Alaska.
They don’t swim there, they come by currents.
And this is known to people
who understand the ecology of fish.
But we, as sort of individualistic Americans,
The fish pulled itself up by its bootstraps.
Pulled itself up by its bootstraps, right?
And whatever gumption and courage made his own world.
Instead of thinking of something like cigarettes,
for example, hitting a village like an epidemic,
hitting the village like cholera or pneumonia
or something like that.
So there’s a big ideology we have of personal choice.
A great example of that is in the tobacco world
where people always, there’s a whole field called cessation.
That always means cessation of consumption,
never cessation of production.
All blame is put on the individual smoker
instead of looking at how they get smoked.
And looking at that bigger picture,
I think, is part of the story.
So a few years ago you wrote that
the cigarette is the deadliest object
in the history of human civilization.
Cigarettes kill about six million people every year,
a number that will grow before it shrinks.
Smoking in the 20th century killed 100 million people.
And a billion could perish in our century
unless we reverse the course.
Can you explain this idea that it’s the deadliest object
in the history of human civilization?
Maybe just also talk about big tobacco
and your efforts there.
Well, cigarettes have killed more than any other object,
than all the world of iron, all the world of gunpowder.
Nuclear bombs have only killed a few hundred thousand people.
Cigarettes have killed hundreds of millions.
And every year kill about as many as COVID.
They’re sort of neck and neck.
But if you took the last five years, there’s no contest.
Cigarettes have killed far more
and are far more preventable.
So what we’re in a world, this bizarro world,
where every night there’s a COVID report
and cigarettes would never be mentioned.
Cigarettes would no more likely to be mentioned
than if we were talking about chewing gum on a sidewalk.
They’d be no more likely to be in a presidential debate
than, you know, sneezing in the wrong place.
So we live in this world where most things are invisible.
You know, we are, the eyes are in the front of the head.
We don’t see what’s behind us.
We have a fovea, which means not only
do we only see what’s in front of us,
we see in a very narrow tunnel.
And that’s because we’re predators.
We don’t have the eternal watchfulness of prey.
We have a zeroed targeted focus.
And that leads to a kind of myopia or a tunnel vision
and all kinds of things.
Then when you get something like
a very powerful tobacco industry,
which is a multi, multi-billion dollar industry,
which still spends many billions of dollars
advertising every year,
but nonetheless manages to make themselves invisible.
You have this powerful agent
that is producing this engine of death that is invisible.
It’s been reduced to the fish that move themselves.
In other words, there’s not really a tobacco industry.
There’s just people who smoke,
and that’s a personal choice,
like what food we’re gonna have for dinner tonight.
And so it’s erased from the policy world.
It’s as if it doesn’t exist.
And creating that sense of invisibility
to failure to understand the causes of causes
is what allows the epidemic to continue,
but also not even to be acknowledged.
How’s the invisibility created?
Is it natural?
Is it just human nature that ideas just fade
from our attention?
Or is it malevolent, still going on kind of
action by the tobacco companies to keep this invisible?
It’s still going on.
Even when you see an ad against cigarettes on television,
that’s dramatically curtailed
because the law that made those even possible
required that there’s an anti-villainy clause.
The industry can’t be made even visible in those ads.
In some, they get away with it,
but the industry operates through very powerful agents,
They used to count 3 1⁄4 of the members of Congress
as grade-A contacts.
They had most of the senators in their pocket,
a lot of the senators.
Sometimes they’ll play both sides of the aisle.
Basically, tobacco is Democratic,
Democratic Party until basically the 70s
and Ronald Reagan,
then it shifts over to becoming Republican.
They create bodies like the Tea Party.
They merge with big oil, the Koch brothers,
in the 1980s and 90s to form the Tea Party
and a whole series of fronts
which fight against all regulation and all taxation
in order to prevent gas taxes and cigarette taxes
which are bonded in the convenience store and Walmart.
Most cigarettes are actually sold in places like Walmart
and pharmacies and 7-Elevens, things like that.
And through that locus,
then you have gasoline and tobacco
sort of in this micro-architectural collaboration.
So there’s multiple, multiple means
that they use.
Plus, a lot of their targeting is hyper-specific.
They use the internet very effectively.
They use email that are customer targeting.
What goes to the mind of a big tobacco executive?
This is connecting to our previous conversations
of scientists and so on.
I always wonder about that.
I talked to Pfizer CEO, for example,
and there’s a deep question with the Pfizer CEO,
with, I guess, any CEO, but Big Pharma.
Would you, it’s like, if you can come up with a cure
that gets rid of the problem that’s in the Big Pharma,
would you want to?
Because you’re going to lose a lot of money
once the cure fixes the problem.
It’s nice to, like, there’s so many incentives to make money.
Can you think clearly and make the right decisions?
I’d like to believe most people are good,
and it’s almost like this Steve Jobs idea,
just like, do the right thing,
and you’ll make money in the end.
It’s like, long-term, you’ll make a lot of money
if you do the right action,
because there’s always going to be problems you can fix.
You can always pivot the company to focus on other things,
as long as you’re doing the best innovation,
the best science, the best development,
and the production and deployment and stuff,
you’re going to win.
But there’s another view where you might,
that kind of idea of making money pollutes you.
It’s the widget building.
It’s exciting when you can release a product
that makes a lot of money,
and you start enjoying the charts
that say the money’s going up,
and you stop thinking about,
maybe that’s the wrong choice for human civilization.
Well, one of the reasons I was made
a courtesy appointment in pulmonary medicine at Stanford
was they recognized I was doing more to save lives
by trying to stop big tobacco
than they were by yanking out this lung, that lung,
you know, on a daily basis.
Cause of causes.
The cause of causes, which we can keep returning to.
Your question about how do people live with themselves
is a crucial one.
And it’s one I’ve thought about a lot.
It’s one you think about with, in any context of horror,
how do people live with themselves?
How do they get up in the morning?
I think there’s a lot of incentives.
One thing that you have to keep in mind
is that whoever becomes CEO of a big tobacco company,
they have already made decisions along the way,
and they are the remnant of a whole series
of aspiring people who wanna climb the ladder of success
who maybe would refuse.
You know, something like this.
But those don’t survive the journey.
Those survive the journey who can make it through,
and I think they have a mixture of ideologies.
One, they’ll say, well, if I didn’t do it,
someone else would.
This is kind of the pour the cyclone B
down the chimney into Auschwitz.
Well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would,
so what’s really the difference
between me doing it and someone else?
So that’s one view.
Another one is the tobacco industry, I think,
really doesn’t like their customers,
except for the fact that they like their money.
When you look at their documents,
they talk about targeting against young adults
or against women or against homosexuals.
There’s a whole project Reynolds has called Project Scum,
which is Project Subculture Urban Markets
where they’re targeting homeless
and homosexuals in San Francisco.
So what kind of business model
regards their customers as scum
or talks about them as one famous Reynolds executives,
you know, we don’t smoke this stuff.
We reserve that for the poor, the black, and the stupid.
That’s a direct quote from one of the Winston models.
So it’s a company culture that sees the customers
almost like as the enemy or worthless.
You know, so you have these executives,
you know, if we don’t do it, someone else will.
If people are dumb enough to buy our product,
let them buy it.
Maybe it’s a personal choice.
Maybe they’re libertarians.
Maybe they’re just, as you said, seduced by the money,
and the money is enormous.
The money is enormous, and these tobacco executives
make tens of millions of dollars per year
just in their salaries.
So I think there’s a whole series of logics.
At some point, some of the companies
have become food producers.
In the 1980s and 90s, Philip Morris,
which makes Marlboro,
was the largest food producer in the United States.
And so they could say, well, we’re producing many products,
many addictive, desirable products.
I think one project I’m working on now, actually,
is looking at how the industry maintains morale
in their own workforce.
And they create a kind of parallel world
of prizes and rewards and,
tobacco queens and tobacco princesses
and tobacco sports teams and tobacco.
It’s this whole separate world, a world within a world.
And we all live in bubbles of a sort.
And so there is this kind of tobacco world
where you’re with us or you’re against us.
And I even found evidence that the tobacco industry
lies to its own employees.
So they censored their own employee information
so that everyone would be on board that,
well, maybe it doesn’t really cause cancer.
The evidence is all statistics.
Can’t trust mice experiments because mice are not men.
They hire the guy, Daryl Huff,
who wrote How to Lie with Statistics,
the best-selling statistics book
in the history of the world.
They paid him to write a book called
How to Lie About Smoking with Statistics.
Now, that was never published
when sort of word of some other dirty tricks got out.
So one way they’re able to gain legitimacy,
gain normalcy, these are supporters of the arts.
There are universities named for tobacco executives.
We have Duke University.
We have the George Weissman School, I think,
is of Arts and Sciences at CUNY.
And there are prizes.
Philip Morris essentially created women’s tennis
as a spectator sport.
Billie Jean King joins the board of directors
of Philip Morris.
She signs coupons, the two-to-one coupons,
for buying Virginia Slim cigarettes.
So the industry is able to acquire this talent
and then through a kind of an application of causality
purely into the individual smoker.
If you smoke, you did it to yourself.
And so in a sense, we have nothing to do with it.
It’s sort of the same argument
Exxon is making now with carbon.
It’s like, well, we just make the gas.
We don’t burn the gas.
So really, we’re not the problem.
It’s whoever drove here in a car that burned gas.
And so there’s a very interesting question.
Who is liable?
Who is responsible for, is the manufacturer just immune
because it’s a legal product
and people make the foolish decision to smoke?
Or does the addiction play a role in the liability?
So these are all really interesting legal questions
and philosophical questions.
Where do you attribute the success in the fight
against big tobacco?
So, I mean, there’s been a lot of progress made.
Maybe two questions.
One is that, and two, how much more is to be done?
Well, there’s been, in my view, not that much progress.
The tobacco industry basically won the war
In the 1950s, the broader assumption
inside and outside the industry would be,
was that if tobacco, if cigarettes are ever shown
as causing cancer, obviously, they’ll be banned.
The famous slogan in the 50s was if spinach
were ever shown to cause one-tenth the harm of cigarettes,
it would be banned overnight.
Flash forward 50 years, we still have 300,
we still have 200-some billion cigarettes smoked
in the United States every year.
Globally, we still have about six trillion cigarettes
smoked every year.
That’s 350 million miles of cigarettes smoked every year.
That’s enough to make a continuous chain of cigarettes
from the earth to the sun and back,
with enough left over for several round trips to Mars.
But it’s much fewer than before.
I mean, okay, so culturally speaking,
I grew up in the Soviet Union.
Everybody smoked, everybody smoked.
Well, by everybody, you mean about half.
Well, by everybody, I mean culturally.
So what does it feel like when everybody smokes, right?
What percentage is that?
Right now, in the United States,
it feels like nobody smokes.
Feel, I’m talking about culturally.
Do you see famous actors and actresses?
Do you see movies?
All the time.
You can’t watch a Hollywood movie
without seeing pretty much continuous smoking.
I mean, look at Peaky Blinders.
Look at any of the modern series.
Now, it’s pretty much a nonstop.
You’re right, there has been a change.
I mean, that’s true.
The purest metric in the United States
is number of cigarettes smoked per year.
And that peaks in 1981 at 640 billion cigarettes.
That’s declined now to the level it was in 1940,
which is about 240 billion cigarettes.
Now, globally, the number has increased.
But the perception, sorry to interrupt,
but that’s interesting.
Even in the United States, the numbers,
the decrease is not as significant as I thought it is
because just in my own experience with people,
people speak negatively about smoking.
Yeah, well, for one thing, smokers do.
I mean, smokers hate the fact they smoke.
So this is the interesting observation I’m speaking to
is even the smokers are talking negatively about smoking,
but they’re still smoking.
So even though I’m seeing this shift
where smoking is no longer the cool thing,
where it’s like when I was growing up
and I smoked for a time,
it was like a way to bond with strangers,
to talk bullshit with friends.
Share a moment.
Share a moment together.
I mean, it’s a beautiful thing,
and it’s interesting
because we need to find other ways to share moments.
But you know, you almost smoke from a stranger.
I mean, that was seen as a good thing.
Did you ever smoke?
Oh, yeah, yeah.
For how many years?
So what happened is I was a musician, I was in a band.
Well, there you go.
And no, there is a bonding aspect to it,
and I think I stopped smoking
when they banned smoking inside bars.
Which was, I mean, that was,
I mean, looking back now,
it seems it’s such a powerful move.
I mean, maybe you can speak to that
Yes, that’s key.
That was one of the moments that woke me up.
Wait a minute.
Like that was a big shift for me,
and I’m sure I’m not alone,
where it’s not just like,
it forced me to rethink the effect that smoking has on me,
and also to think,
can I actually live a life without smoking?
Can I, you know, some people have that,
I haven’t gone through that process yet,
but some people have that with drinking.
Can I have fun without drinking?
I think the answer to that is yes, but I’m still drinking.
So that’s a big shift.
For example, if they ban drinking at certain places,
and there’s a lot of negative things
to say about alcohol.
Well, I’m older than you,
and I remember when mother,
and I think you weren’t even in this country then,
but there was something called
Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
And if you look at movies from the 50s, 60s, even 70s,
being drunk was just kind of a funny thing.
And you would drive drunk,
what’s the big deal, really?
And Mothers Against Drunk Driving
really denormalized drinking and driving,
much like seatbelts.
When I was a kid, you know, there were no seatbelts.
You just lie in the back of the car,
and you drove out west with your parents,
and you’d lie flat, and it was wonderful.
Seatbelts come along,
and now it’s pretty normalized that you buckle up.
It’s pretty normalized that you don’t drink.
And so the moment you identify
is absolutely crucially important.
A lot of it started in California,
where there were bans on cigarettes.
Some of it actually started in the computer industry,
because some of the early bugs
that were found on tapes in the 70s were caused by smoke.
And some of the earliest indoor smoking bans
were actually in computer rooms,
which were supposed to be clean enough
that the tapes wouldn’t spin
and get caught by some snag of soot.
And the workers started saying,
wait a minute, if the smoke can hurt the tapes,
can it hurt my lungs as well?
And so some of these early laws,
already in the late 70s, early 80s,
pushing it out was a huge struggle.
The tobacco industry marshaled an army of experts
to say that secondhand smoke
is an entirely different kind of smoke.
It can’t hurt you.
They eventually lost that battle.
And now we have so-called smoke-free laws,
where you can’t smoke in most workplaces,
in most restaurants.
And that denormalization has been crucial,
because remember Aristotle says,
tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.
And if your friends are smoking,
if your friends are doing whatever, it makes it easier.
The tobacco industry has been a genius
at manipulating and really creating
the material culture of the modern world.
If your shirt has a pocket, that’s to fit cigarettes, right?
If your car has a plug-in,
every car that I used to have had a cigarette lighter.
It had an ashtray.
Every plane that I flew when I was a kid,
when I was younger anyway,
there was smoking on it originally.
And then there were ashtrays.
And even today, every plane by law
has to have ashtrays in the bathrooms,
because people still smoke in the planes.
There’s a special technique they have
where they go in and light up your cigarette
and put your mouth right down in the middle of the toilet
and then flush it right at that same moment.
And that’s why there-
Let’s take a good big puff.
Take a good big puff and flush it.
And to prevent people from bringing down the plane
by putting the cigarette out in the trash,
every plane must have ashtrays.
So that tells you something about the power of addiction,
the power of normalcy.
And it’s related to your question of this crucial moment.
If you can no longer smoke in a bar,
if you can no longer smoke.
And by the way, that’s different from drinking.
Most people who smoke wish they didn’t.
Most people who drink, that’s not true.
Most people who drink, they don’t wish.
There are some addicts, you know, 5%, we say.
But you’re talking about 70, 80, 90% of people
who smoke cigarettes regularly wish they did not.
And that’s actually where I learned about
the idea that we could get rid of cigarettes entirely
was just from talking to ordinary smokers.
Those are the people who are willing to say,
you know, let’s get cigarettes all together
and get rid of them all together
because it’s not a recreational drug.
It’s very different from alcohol.
And the genius of the tobacco industry
is to turn basic, to trivialize addiction
into just something we all like.
It’s addictive, I like it.
And also to say that basically smoking is like drinking,
which in fact it’s not.
Alcohol tends to be a recreational drug
and cigarettes are more like heroin.
So how do we get that 200 billion down closer to zero?
Well, the good news, and I know you like good news,
and I do too, is that every year
we have about 8 billion fewer cigarettes smoked
in the United States.
So we’re going in the right direction.
We’re going to solve this.
Not every problem you can solve in the world.
This is a very solvable problem.
It’s an enormous problem.
Arguably as big as COVID in certain respects.
Much more invisible than COVID,
but very solvable and actually will be solved
probably because of climate change
because we’re going to need to find ways
to reduce carbon footprints across the board.
And that’s going to be a kind of cultural revolution
of sorts once we have a category six hurricane
and hundreds of thousands of people start dying
from the storms that are coming.
But we’ll be, it’s like that metaphor
of there’s a sci-fi film from 1950
where they’re trying to get back to earth from the moon
and they have to jettison their toolbox
and their ladder and this and this and this.
That’s sort of, I think, the world we’re going to be in.
We’re going to have to jettison a lot of things
and cigarettes will be one of the things we can get rid of.
Let’s come back to Nazi Germany for a time.
You also wrote the book titled The Nazi War on Cancer.
What is the main storyline and thesis of this book?
Well, I had been researching Nazi medicine.
I went over to Germany.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I got a Fulbright.
I originally wanted to go to Russia.
Went to Germany partly because my girlfriend
was going there, Londa Schiebinger.
And I was quick with the language.
And my old landlady was born in 1900
and I was renting a room, a tiny room in Berlin.
And she told me, she’d been a nurse in World War I
and told me how sad it was that all the mentally ill
had died in that war and that how the same thing
happened in World War II.
And she told me about how sad it was
that she’d never gotten married
because there were no German men around after World War I.
But I also started taking classes in Germany.
And at that time there were still
a few old Nazi professors, just about to retire.
You know, very, very old.
And I remember there was one guy who would talk about
the impact on ovaries of women exposed to stress
and how this would damage their ovaries
and that this was like people who had been told
they were about to be executed.
And they would do a before and an after on these ovaries.
One of these horrific experiments.
This was a physician in Berlin.
And so I got involved in it with a group of people
and really as a kind of intellectual garlic
for living in Berlin, and this is in 1980, 81,
I started reading medical journals from the Nazi period.
And even the librarians didn’t like that.
I remember the Preussische Staatsbibliothek
in downtown Berlin.
They’re like, well, why do you wanna, you know,
you’re not supposed to be reading these old Nazi journals.
These are just medical journals,
hundreds and hundreds of journals.
And I just read them and read them and read them
and looking for details.
I’d find like a veterinary medicine journal
that would have a joking section where they’d say,
oh, we found a cow with a swastika on his forehead,
a natural black swastika.
Isn’t that funny, you know?
Or I’d find stories about tobacco.
I’d find stories about abortion.
I’d find stories about excluding Jewish medicine
or Jews from medicine or who’s been promoted,
who’s been demoted, who’s been Nazified.
I discovered there was an entire Nazi Physicians League
that was just the top Nazi,
the most Nazi of the physicians.
I discovered that physicians joined the Nazi party
in a higher proportion than any other profession,
that they joined the SS in a higher proportion
than any other profession.
Why is that?
Do you have a sense?
Because the Nazi regime is a kind of sanitary utopia.
It was to create this purified world
that would control the mind and fertility.
So gynecologists and psychiatrists were the top.
They were the most Nazified
of the various medical professions.
Control the body through sterilization, abortion,
control the mind through psychiatry.
They killed a lot of the mentally ill.
And you can read their professional journals.
And I’m not sure these had ever been read since.
I also went to East Germany,
because remember, this is way before the wall fell.
And they had a very special collection of taboo literature.
It’s kind of your point about, should Mein Kampf be read?
Well, of course, East Germany, nowhere close, right?
And so, but not only that,
Time Magazine couldn’t be read and Newsweek couldn’t be read.
And this file, this chamber
that the foreign scholars were allowed to look through
had all of the old Nazi literature
and Nazi scientific literature,
and Time Magazine and Newsweek
and a whole pornography section as well.
So all of the taboo topics.
So here I’m researching, in the West,
I’m researching these topics
the librarians didn’t even want me to look at.
In the East, I was sort of going over there.
I would hitchhike over there and overstay my welcome.
Things like that.
But in any event, I noticed that there was this kind of taboo
of talking about the big eugenics.
I’d already been, as a kind of a radical graduate student
at Harvard working with all the Marxist biologists there,
we’d already had a critique of eugenics
and women being excluded from science
and South African apartheid was a big deal
and Arthur Jensen’s blacks have lower IQs.
And so there was a whole nest of controversial hot topics
around sociobiology, around race and IQ,
around women and scholarship and so forth.
But we weren’t looking at Nazi medicine.
So I thought I’ll look at the big eugenics,
not just this smaller stuff.
Only 50,000 people are sterilized
in California but there were huge numbers
sterilized in Nazi Germany.
So the more I looked into that,
I realized there was a book there
but I had also started noticing this other weird stuff.
Why were they anti-tobacco?
Why did they recognize, why were the Nazis
the first to recognize asbestos as causing mesothelioma?
Why did they try to ban food dyes?
Why are they the first culture in the world
to encourage women to do breast self-exams?
I told my mom this and she told me that in the 50s,
women weren’t even supposed to touch their breasts in Texas.
And here in Nazi Germany,
you’ve got these mandatory breast self-exams
way before this was done in the United States.
You had the first laws banning the X-raying
of pregnant women.
Already in the early 1930s,
it was standard medical practice.
They recognized that this could harm the fetus,
harm the race, way before radiation was recognized
as a hazard in England or America.
I had started noticing these things
and I have an eye for oddities.
I like the weird, the contradictory,
that which doesn’t fit.
And I remember finding a German magazine,
a newspaper actually from 1919
that talked about a holocaust of six million Jews
using that language.
How could this be?
And I researched it.
I thought it wasn’t even real
and so I went and actually got the original newspaper
and there it was.
It’s just one of those oddities of life that just happens.
Just weird stuff happens, right?
That’s the source of conspiracy theories, right?
So weird stuff happens,
but there’s an inkling that that couldn’t have been written
in another time in history,
or it’s much less likely that little coincidence
to have happened in another.
So it has some kind of resonance with something
that captures something deep to the culture.
Yeah, that’s why I’m interested in probing.
I mean, history is about seeing the universal
through the particular in a way.
So you look for the weird particular
and then pull at that string
to see if there’s something there.
Is it that weird?
I did a project I never published
on what I call pseudo-swastikas,
which is a lot of companies in Nazi Germany
made logos that look pretty much like a swastika.
You start looking at them.
They’re disturbingly like a swastika
and I call those pseudo-swastikas.
It’s one of the many things I’ve filed away.
It’d be a great project just to write it.
How did this kind of visual iconography…
You weren’t supposed to do that.
You weren’t supposed to sell your bathroom cream
with a swastika on it.
So they would do these little things
that look pretty much like a swastika.
Or I would look at humor.
What are they laughing at?
What are they smiling at?
I didn’t even know Germans had humor.
That’s a good discovery.
Oddly enough, even Hitler had a sense of humor.
There’s one speech he gives, which is actually pretty funny,
where he’s ridiculing all the 29 tiny political parties.
Oh, there’s this party.
And that party.
It’s actually kind of funny.
So we do have this, again, this scarecrow image
even of Hitler and his personality and this and that.
But I started noticing that there was this stuff
that looks kind of modern.
Hitler being a vegetarian and trying to limit alcohol
and this and that.
And then I got a call, but I’d sort of filed it away,
and then I got a call from the Holocaust Museum.
Would I like to be the first senior scholar in residence
at the Holocaust Museum?
I said, well, I wasn’t really working on Nazi stuff
that much anymore, but I did have this idea
maybe looking at how it could be that the Nazis
had the world’s most aggressive anti-cancer campaign,
which is kind of like an amazing fact.
And I said, it’s not exactly about the Holocaust.
In a way, it’s about the opposite.
It’s about what was Nazism that it was so seductive
that it could become so powerful
that something like the Holocaust could be possible.
And they said, oh, that sounds great.
Do whatever you want.
And so I went down to Washington, D.C.
and helped them build a little bit
some of the racial hygiene exhibits,
some of the push and to show the sort of
the medical aspect of the Holocaust.
And so I ended up writing this book
on the Nazi war on cancer, which talks about
how right before Hitler’s about to invade Poland,
he’s talking late into the night about how to cure cancer.
So for Nazis, racial hygiene encompasses
like way more than we might think.
So it’s like purifying in all ways.
And one of the-
Purifying, and it’s also much more normal
and more familiar.
Yeah, it’s like regular, in regular discussion.
It’s like the famous line that if Nazism
ever comes to Britain, it’ll be wearing a bowler hat.
And we create an image of Nazism,
which is this fantasy image.
And they’re human beings making these decisions.
And when it’s tied to things like removing cancer,
so you’re saying they kind of,
the effort of purification walks alongside
with this effort of fighting cancer.
And then the final, the difficult truth here
is that there’s a lot of innovation,
leading scientific innovation on fighting cancer.
It’s not a bunch of blind robots following orders.
It’s a period of massive innovation.
I mean, they declared the soybeans
to be the official bean of the Third Reich
because they realized how useful soy could be
in protein for the people.
They built a whole car out of soybeans.
They pushed for a whole grain bread,
calling white bread a French revolutionary
And they’re right about whole grain bread.
It’s better than, you know, so-
Allegedly, so far.
So far, that’s what we think.
We’ll discover eventually that bread
is the thing that’s killing us.
Well, by the way, I’m eating mostly meat,
so mostly carnivore, and that’s been a discovery for me.
I don’t care what, like, I’m not making
a general statement about the population,
but me personally, how I feel.
I like, I’ve discovered fasting,
so I often, like on days like this,
when it’s pretty stressful, I’ll eat once a day
and only meat, or mostly meat.
And that’s amazing to me
from a scientific discovery perspective
that that makes me feel way better.
You know, there’s no scientific support
why it might make you feel, but I don’t care.
The point is, I’ve done the experiments
on the N of one, and it just makes me feel better.
Well, I think fasting is way undervalued.
I mean, where do we get the idea
you need three meals a day?
I have a friend at Harvard, and he’ll go
seven or eight days periodically without food.
He drinks water, but he considers it
a kind of purification, and you know,
we’re in a world where it’s too easy to get food, right?
We’re in a world, I mean, most animals
are living in a sense on the brink of starvation,
but we have technologies and social conditions
that allow, it’s way too easy to find
a piece of cake or a donut,
and that’s not something we evolved with.
We’ve been talking about purification
in a negative context, but you know,
there’s appealing ways of minimalism,
of removing things from your life,
of seeking, especially for me being like OCD
and a scientist, I do like this simplification
of things, of this taxonomy of things.
I just recently, storage got hacked
by ransomware for these storage devices
called QNAP NAS, and you know,
50 terabytes of data locked up,
and I can’t, so it’s lost, but you know,
it was, at first it was a gut punch,
and it really hurts, and a bunch of stuff is gone,
but it’s also freeing, yeah.
Well, there’s a, my favorite New Yorker cartoon
is where the guy’s about to die.
As I say, he’s 90 years old, he’s got tubes in his nose.
His very last words are, I wish I’d bought more crap.
Yep, and that’s now, in this amazing world,
applies to digital world, too.
Like, you don’t need to store everything,
you just live in the moment and live for the people
that you love.
Well, that’s one of my fears of Bitcoin,
is losing your password.
I know a friend, his son, you know,
mined I don’t know how many dozens of Bitcoins
and lost his password, you know,
and so what can he do?
There’s a whole, I think, Silicon Valley episode
about something like that, where the three-comma club,
you know, asshole billionaire is trying to find
his old laptop with the password on it.
Yeah, that’s the kind of dread people feel
in the modern age, losing your Bitcoin password.
Or for me, it’d be like last-pass password.
It’s hilarious, we’re funny, funny creatures.
What else can we say outside of cancer
about medicine, about engineering?
Lessons about medicine, lessons about engineering,
and lessons about sort of applied science in Nazi Germany.
So before we leave the subject,
is there some truths that resonate with you still
that’s applicable for today?
Well, you know, historians celebrate contingency,
or at least recognize contingency,
and we always say things didn’t have to turn out
the way they did.
There were, you can’t always, you know,
foresee what’s going to happen.
And there were definitely missteps,
and the potency of that ideology
was such that it trapped a lot of people,
and I guess by the time it becomes
essentially a wartime operation,
that becomes very, very dangerous,
whatever the ideology is.
Once it’s blended with warfare, that’s catastrophic.
One of the things that’s ignored,
I’m very interested in things that are ignored,
and one of the things that we ignore now
on something even like the climate catastrophe
is the role of the military.
I mean, there’s a huge amount of carbon emissions
from military operations.
Again, just part of the loop we’re not closing.
Well, military is really interesting
because, you know, I’m a AI person, robots,
and most of my work when I was a PhD student
was DARPA and DoD funded.
And I think that’s probably true for a lot of science
that’s funded, especially engineering
is funded by the military.
And, you know, again, I don’t,
I really want to be careful drawing parallels
between Nazi Germany and anything else.
But, you know, there is a sense in which,
I remember when I was a,
it hit me when one of the people close to me
when I was a PhD, one of the faculty,
she refused to take funding from DoD, from DARPA.
That was interesting to me.
I thought, but what’s the, I mean, it’s not,
like, you’re not taking a stand against the war.
You just don’t want to take money
from tangentially associated military kind of efforts.
And that little stand, I mean, that had an impact on me.
At least it woke me up to,
like, this is something we should be
very, very careful with.
For me, artificial intelligence is,
you know, much of the DARPA research
on autonomous vehicles and all kinds of robotics, drones,
I mean, that’s pure research.
Some of the biggest discoveries,
like, I didn’t think of it as military.
I thought of it as engineering and science.
But then, when the drums of war start beating,
like, say, in some future time,
all of that machine is already there to turn it into,
now, Lex is walking around and working on autonomous drones
that are going to, you know, swarm China,
or swarms whoever, some terrorist part of the world.
And then, all of a sudden,
all my widgets are being used for that.
That’s why I’ve been waking up more and more to,
there’s been something released called, like,
the AI Report, Eric Schmidt was one of the co-authors of it,
which is essentially saying that,
because China’s developing autonomous weapon systems,
the US should not ban autonomous weapon systems,
it should also be doing it.
So, basically, put AI into our weapons of war.
And that escalation, that race, is terrifying,
just like all the things you mentioned.
But that particular one, for me, is close,
because now, too closely are the ideas of AI and war
are being linked.
Very much, yeah.
I mean, one of the things I think that is rarely taught
in universities is, what would you not do for money?
I mean, in a basic class on machine learning,
or even statistics, or history,
what would you not do for money?
What should you not do for money?
I have a lot of my own colleagues who work for big tobacco,
you know, carrying water for them in court.
A huge, essentially a mercenary army of historians,
a vast, undiagnosed, you know,
essentially a hidden, invisible army.
They don’t put it on their CVs.
And it’s going on the same thing
with a lot of the technical fields.
What wouldn’t you do for money?
At Stanford, there used to be secret PhDs,
secret research projects.
That was kicked off campus in 1971
with the whole 60s radicalism.
But nonetheless, individual professors still work
for all kinds of military operations.
We’re setting up a new school of sustainability at Stanford,
and it’s gonna be pretty much in bed with big oil as well.
Big oil is gonna be funding a lot of that.
You know, what kind of influence?
If they have a seat at the table,
if they’re giving money, if their gifts,
if their names are on certain projects,
what influence is that gonna have?
This is what really bothered me.
People don’t often have, they don’t have integrity
in the way that I hoped they would.
This is one of the things I learned in academia.
I think a lot of people, for money, you know,
if I give you a million dollars to murder somebody,
I think most people would not.
A billion dollars, that number starts decreasing,
but it’s still pretty, I think we would be happy
with direct murder not being done for money.
But like subtle stuff, just pressures.
And it could be with like, let me buy you a drink,
and just, you know, laugh about stuff, become friends.
That’s a subtle pressure.
I’m very upset with how many people would just unknowingly
like tell themselves a story, ah, what’s the harm?
And I see that with, for example, me personally at MIT,
a lot of people I admire, a lot of people I still admire,
I’m friends of mine.
I mean, for example, in doing autonomous vehicle research,
there’s car companies that fund that research.
And the car companies say, no, of course,
we’re not going to influence anything.
No, that’s like, you do, it’s wide open.
Do whatever you want.
But the fact is, you know, they give millions of dollars.
And I’m disappointed that actually a lot of scientists
in that context are still afraid,
even though legally it says they cannot,
the car company cannot at all influence your research.
They still start leaning slowly towards the ideas
that that company espouses.
And that’s a harmless, perhaps, topic versus big tobacco.
But I would argue it has harm on innovation.
Yeah, well, it skews innovation.
What happened at Stanford was
Philip Morris and the other big tobacco companies,
they had a massive denial campaign to deny
that exposure to someone else’s smoke could kill you.
When in fact it can.
It kills tens of thousands of Americans every year still.
They set up an entire conspiracy body
called the Center for Indoor Air Research
and funded hundreds of scientists to basically say,
you know, it’s all genetic.
If you get cancer, well, you had it coming
because of your genes, your ancestry,
your hormones, whatever.
Well, that was broken apart through what was called
the Master Settlement Agreement.
But it was rejuvenated and reinvigorated
by something called the Philip Morris
External Research Program,
which continued with the same fax lines and executives,
funding universities like Stanford,
millions and millions of dollars.
And when I came to Stanford,
there were millions and millions of dollars
being given to medical professors by Philip Morris
as part of the Philip Morris External Research Program.
Well, what were they researching?
They’re researching genetics, they’re researching diet,
anything but cigarettes causing cancer
and giving the non, giving the friendly research,
as Philip Morris often called it, of bigger voice.
They got money, they got jobs, you know.
It amplified that as a research tradition.
Remember, there’s nothing natural in a university
about how many professors there are
of human origins versus AI.
This is all a political decision
at a very non-democratic institution.
Universities are less democratic than the Vatican.
At least the Pope is elected.
Who elects a president of a university
or a dean, for that matter?
And so what happened was I helped launch a campaign
to get Philip Morris off campus.
And people started coming out of the woodwork,
like, well, does this mean I shouldn’t be working
for the CIA?
Does this mean I shouldn’t be working for big oil?
It’s like, what, you work for big oil?
And our faculty voted against
pushing Philip Morris off campus.
But Philip Morris got bad press from it.
And so they voluntarily withdrew the entire program.
So it was kind of a lesson in that you can lose a battle
but win a war if you’re doing the right thing.
And so by standing up, even though our own faculty
wouldn’t back us in kicking Philip Morris
out of the medical school,
Philip Morris did a cost-benefit analysis,
found, well, probably really not worth the kudos
we get for embracing Stanford.
So it can have an influence.
And in this case, the influence was simply by rewarding,
giving voice to the people who were blaming cholesterol
rather than cigarettes.
And of course, we know that historically,
the tobacco industry created a lot of these theories,
these alternative theories of what causes heart disease,
that stress causes heart disease, that salt,
or that anything but cigarettes.
They funded that research to basically skew
the whole research in their direction.
You edited a book titled Agnotology.
This is an interesting term.
So you mentioned it earlier,
The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance,
where you explore the topic of ignorance,
or the authors explore the topic of ignorance
in different applications and different contexts.
So let me ask the ridiculous, big philosophical question.
What is the nature of human ignorance?
Well, the first thing to say is that it’s infinite.
Ha ha ha.
Einstein quote or stupidity or something,
I forget what it is, yeah.
Well, the point is that, you know,
there’s probably trillions of planets in the universe,
and we know one, you know a tiny piece of one.
But not only that, who are the we?
I mean, we’re all born.
You know, we started as single-celled organisms, right?
As some sperm and some egg get together.
That’s certainly ignorant, and then we’re ignorant.
Each one of us, there’s an ontogeny of knowledge,
you say, but an ontogeny of ignorance as well.
We grow up, we have to learn.
But almost everything that has been known
has been forgotten.
If you think about the names of ordinary people,
and names of Neanderthal, did they even have names?
Most of the history of the world has been forgotten.
We have a few shreds, a few traces that we try.
History is a kind of resurrection projects,
a kind of archeological project and a genealogical project
where we look back and we find traces,
and it’s very biased.
I’m interested in empires
that we don’t even know anything about, you know?
And there are whole empires that are gone
if things don’t leave a written trace.
You know, we know something about Mayan cosmology
because we’ve got some of their stelae
and a few of their codices, four codices,
but we know the dozens that were burned by Diego de Londa,
the inquisitorial Spanish friar
who thought these were just heresies and so burned.
So that knowledge is all lost.
You think there’s a lot of deep wisdom
about reality that is lost forever?
Of course, of course.
That’s so sad.
Well, it is sad, but the human condition is sad.
I mean, but then if we can study ignorance,
that’s also a positive thing.
Agnotology, the study of ignorance,
the study of the cultural production of ignorance.
Cultural production, sorry to interrupt.
Cultural production of ignorance?
Yes, yes, you can-
So ignorance is not just a manifestation
of what it means to be human,
it’s also forced back onto you through the culture?
That’s the missing piece
that people don’t pay enough attention to.
It’s not a natural vacuum we explore,
like some empty cave, it’s there are factories of ignorance.
The tobacco industry,
when they built their propaganda engines
to deny that cigarettes cause cancer,
they measured exactly how much ignorance could be created
by watching one of their videos.
They would show that watching one of their propaganda videos
in the 1970s produced a 17% increase
in the people not willing to say
that cigarettes cause cancer.
So this is, I call it agnometrics.
They actually measured the success of their propaganda,
and I’m sure this has been done in marketing
and in other fields as well.
That framing of it somehow is terrifying
because it seems like a very effective way
to be scientific about how to sort of
create doubt in the mind.
Exactly, it’s diabolical,
and luckily we have some of the tobacco industry’s
own internal documents, the ones that were not destroyed.
We actually know, we have some traces
as to which ones were destroyed,
and we know that the most sensitive were destroyed.
And we know that some of the ones that were sequestered
by whistleblowers or by disgruntled spouses or whatever,
that those contain the real gems and the truth.
And one of the ones that was leaked already in 1981
was the doubt is our product memo
that we don’t just make cigarettes, we make two products.
We make doubt and we make cigarettes.
We make cigarettes, but we can only keep selling cigarettes
so long as we can keep selling ignorance.
And that then becomes a template of sorts
for climate denial and for all kinds of other denial engines
that are produced by the 1500 trade associations
in Washington, D.C.
So this is something new in the research enterprise
of the world.
After World War II, you have this enormous trust
in science, trust in research.
So what could be more effective than big tobacco saying,
look, we’re supporting research.
We wanna get at the truth.
We’re funding hundreds of millions of dollars of research,
which is exactly what they did.
What they didn’t say was it was all an effort
to distract from the truth that cigarettes cause cancer
and a million other diseases, too.
Blindness, amputation, all kinds of other diseases.
All of that was hidden, covered up
through a distraction process.
Richard Nixon declares war on cancer in 1971.
It’s called the War on Cancer.
Cigarettes were excluded,
even though cigarettes cause a third of all cancers,
all cancer deaths.
Cigarettes were excluded because the tobacco industry
successfully argued that cigarettes cause cancer
is not a scientific fact, but a political opinion.
Much like the argument that guns don’t cause death,
pulling the trigger causes death, or shooters, or whatever.
In other words, it’s all about breaking down
the chain of causation into pieces
that serve your interests.
So it’s not that cigarettes cause cancer,
it’s maybe the smokey them at most,
the way they’re even denying that.
It’s the fact you have lungs that cause cancer.
It’s blaming the victim,
and they had a thousand ways to blame the victim.
I mean, there’s some legitimacy to this line of argument,
which is why it stakes, which is figuring out
what is the causation of things is hard to figure out.
A lot of the politics of science have to do
with which parts of the causal chain
do you view as real or not real.
When we say that carbon causes climate change,
well, what causes carbon?
If it’s Exxon causing carbon,
is it the person driving the car causing it,
or is it the Republican Party causing that,
or is it the Tea Party causing that,
or is it big tobacco and big oil
controlling the Republican Party, or is it what?
Is it the Jews controlling the weather,
which is where the conspiracy theories come in,
or the lizards, and whatever sticks.
You try it out, and if you’re a tobacco company,
you’re going to actually literally be scientific about it
and try different options.
The genius of the tobacco conspiracy,
the tobacco denial campaign,
which is born on December 14th, 1953,
we know on an hour-by-hour basis how it worked,
is to create an alliance between solid research,
or as they called it, impassionate, dispassionate research,
and to tar all of their opponents as fanatical,
emotional, hysterical, political.
You mentioned Marxism at Harvard
a couple decades ago or something like that.
So 30 years ago, you wrote the value-free science book,
Purity and Power in Modern Knowledge,
which is interesting that you kind of,
what you were describing then
seems to be a concern for people now still.
So you were, I think, referencing more Nazi Germany
and how social scientists would attack or defend Marxism,
feminism, and other social movements using science.
There’s a, you know, depending on who you talk to,
I just spent a day with Jordan Peterson,
there’s some arguments that science is not being leveraged
in some part of the university, which bothers me,
because most of the university,
at least like MIT, is doing engineering and not,
ideology doesn’t seep in yet,
but the concern they have is ideology seeps in eventually,
if you let it in at all.
Anyway, I ask all that, do you have some modern concerns
about the seeping in of ideology into academic research
in these social movements for or against Marxism,
for or against, you know, well, nobody’s for racism,
but, you know, on the topic, like anti-racism,
all those kinds of critical race theory things,
and then also on the feminism and gender studies
and all those kinds of things.
Yeah, I mean, these have always been in the university.
When people have been most adamant in saying
that science is a neutral, value-free enterprise,
it’s times like the 1950s when there weren’t blacks
and there weren’t even women in universities,
so what I discovered was that value neutrality
or this ideology of that we are value-free,
it really arose as a defensive shield
to prevent greater inclusion,
to prevent, you know, questioning
of the priorities of science, the practice of science,
the nature of science.
Now, we’re in a period now, I think,
of a kind of inclusive revolution
where people are realizing, well, we can’t have,
you know, universities that look too much like a certain way.
There’s probably gonna be, in that omelet making,
you know, there’s gonna be a few eggs that get broken,
and I think people may exaggerate the extent
to which that’s going on, it’s definitely real.
So like cancer culture, all those kinds of things, yeah.
I mean, it’s definitely real,
but in a way, it’s also a distraction
from looking at big power in a university.
If big oil is going to control, or at least influence,
the direction of the sustainability school at Stanford,
isn’t that a bigger issue than whether we have,
we can’t say certain words on campus?
In other words, there’s some very interesting
and complex aspects to this,
and the idea that certain words should not be said,
or that certain people should not be invited.
An invitation to a university is always political.
I mean, who do you invite, who do you not invite?
Much as an admissions process is,
if a student is admitted to Stanford,
what that really means is 96% of the applicants
did not get in, they were rejected,
they were canceled from a Stanford.
4% are admitted, they call it an admissions committee,
they should call it a rejection committee.
When we hire someone in my department at Stanford,
we get 300 applications, and maybe we accept one.
It’s not a hiring committee, it’s a non-hiring committee.
That sounds like toxic cancel culture,
all these rejections.
Everybody should be accepted.
In that sense, it’s the essence of meritocracy,
is that selection is involved in any hiring decision,
in any, because in a way,
when you were hired into a university,
you were hired to control the means of production,
at least part of it.
And this part of the politics of it
is invisible to the undergraduates,
because they are consumers,
and you’re free as a consumer to eat whatever you want.
But you’re not free to own the means of production
to say what’s on the menu.
And that’s where the power is.
You have to ask the question,
where’s the power in the university?
I think that at MIT,
the entire administration should get fired regularly,
and more power put in the hands of faculty and students.
There is an overgrowth that happens,
that it feels like administrators
are more easily influenced by big tobacco than faculty.
Maybe it’s me being sort of romantic
about the idea of faculty,
but if you’re in the battle doing the research,
I feel like, well, I don’t know.
I don’t know, I don’t know.
But it feels like the administration
helps you delude yourself longer.
So it prevents you from waking up.
It’s like, no, no, it’s okay to take this fine.
Oh, Jeffrey Epstein, it’s okay.
And oh, okay, so he went to prison.
Let’s just keep it a little bit secret, it’s fine.
Just keep taking the money.
And I feel like that comes from the administration
more than the faculty.
Well, there’s certainly a cult of celebrity,
a cult of money.
Donors have the, remember in the whole scandal
about the side door entrance in universities,
there’s always been the front door and the back door,
where the back door is the rich donors,
the kids of the rich donors,
the legacy kids that you still get.
So there are a lot of ways universities get corrupted.
They get corrupted through money,
they get corrupted through influence,
and that should be recognized.
We’re jumping around a little bit,
but I read you also do work on human origins.
So we mentioned this earlier.
Let me ask another big philosophical question.
What makes us human?
What is human?
And where did that humanness come from?
That’s exactly the question we need to problematize,
because it’s what I call the Gandhi question.
It’s like, you know, Gandhi’s asked,
what do you think of Western civilization?
And he says, it would be a good idea.
And so when did humans evolve?
Well, not yet.
So we don’t talk about when did,
we talk about the rise of modern humanity.
And what’s happened in the last 50 or 60 years or so,
which I think is a good thing intellectually,
is that we’ve smeared out humanness
to mean many different things.
It’s not just tool use.
It’s not just upright posture.
Upright posture goes back at least 5 million years.
Tool use goes back at least 2 1⁄2 million years,
stone tool years.
But since wasps and chimpanzees use tools,
then it’s gotta be even older.
So that’s actually one of the things I’m interested is,
how have different notions of what is human
influenced our theories of human origins?
And in particular, there’s sort of the problem
of what I call like sodomy in the uncanny valley,
which is, how long ago would you be willing
to date someone, say, someone that existed,
say, 5 million years ago, 10 million years ago,
3 million years ago?
In other words, when is it?
A date or one night stands?
I mean, that’s strong.
Either one, either one.
Let’s say, be the mother of your children.
That’s a lot of commitment, but yeah.
But it’s an interesting question
because after World War II, as a result of Nazism,
no one wanted to be the one to say
that this particular fossil we’ve just found
was anything less than fully human.
So there’s a projection of humanness
arbitrarily back into the past.
So that even these little monkey-like creatures,
were being declared to have folkways and mores
and language, which is ridiculous.
No one wanted to say that Neanderthals
were anything less than fully human.
So it’s a very interesting question.
At what point are they us?
I mean, human origins is very much an identity quest.
It’s when did we become us?
Which sort of begs the question, what are we?
Who are we?
And how much of that is the hardware evolution question
versus the software?
Like, what the actual development of society,
can’t you argue that we became human with agriculture?
I mean, can’t you argue that we became human
with the Industrial Revolution?
Well, certainly by then, they are us.
But agriculture is only 12,000 years ago.
That’s a blink in the eye, right?
It’s interesting, prior to the 19th century,
most scholars thought that the pyramids
were at the beginning of time.
Essentially, they were closer to the beginning of time
than they are to us.
Now, it’s a blink in the eye.
We use the metaphor of a meter.
The Earth is five billion, so that’s a meter.
The natural history of upright humans is five million.
So that would be like one millimeter.
It’d be the thickness of the white of your fingernail.
And then the pyramids are 5,000,
so that’s a thousandth of a millimeter, a micron.
Which is the amount taken off
when you brush your fingers on your jacket.
So there’s a natural history of humanity,
and then there’s the history of our constituents.
We’re all stardust, because all of our complex atoms
began in supernovas many billions of years ago.
But upright posture, five million.
Agriculture, only a few thousand years ago.
We cultivate dogs a couple hundred thousand years ago,
so those are Paleolithic instruments.
Cats are Neolithic instruments,
because they’re used to kill vermin.
Dogs are used to hunt with us.
But there is what you say, this co-evolution.
Our social aspect and our physical aspect.
Even the fact that we have whites of the eyes.
We’re the only animal with whites of the eyes.
And the whites of the eyes tell intent.
They tell direction, they tell interest.
They know if you look at something,
I can tell what you’re looking at,
because there’s a lateral resolution.
I can tell what you’re looking at.
And the people who do reconstruction for museums,
they want to create what I call an ethnographic identity
with the viewer, and so they fantasize
about all these other early hominids,
non-human, pre-human hominids, if that’s a word,
as having eyes like us, but they probably didn’t.
And they were probably not self-aware.
At least the early ones can’t have been self-aware
the way we are, insofar as we are.
They may not have spoke.
So I’m interested in, basically,
when did we become what we think is human?
It’s clear that when we start burying the dead
and making jewelry, and when we, in a sense,
invent fantasy, when we invent deception,
that’s human, that’s fully human.
We become human by thinking there’s a world
that really is not.
I mean, that feels like we’re starting to operate
in the space of ideas more and more.
So to have deception, to have imagination,
you start to be able to have ideas and share them.
And it feels like the sharing is the thing
that really develops the ideas.
So it’s not you come up with ideas.
And we become able to sort of understand
what each other is thinking.
Some animals can do this to a certain extent.
Dogs have a certain empathy, but it’s limited.
It’s highly limited.
But you could probably argue that the dogs
got that from the humans.
Yeah, I mean, humans and dogs have co-evolved,
have definitely co-evolved,
because it’s over 100,000 years
we’ve been working together there.
But all our hands have evolved with tools.
And so I’m trying to figure out now
the original purpose of Acheulean hand axes,
the first beautiful tool made by humans,
which were made unchanged for-
What kind of axes is this?
They’re called Acheulean hand axes.
They’re these beautiful teardrop-shaped objects
that go back 1.5 million years.
And what’s your thought about its possible purposes?
Well, the most important thing, I think-
A jealous husband comes home?
What’s astonishing is that no one knows
what they were used for.
So they may have been maps.
They may have been weapons.
They may have been chopping devices.
They may have been sexual displays.
Oh, like ornaments to display something
versus actual practical-
Like the peacock’s tail.
Something to attract a mate.
No one really knows.
But what’s interesting is how in becoming ignorant of those,
that’s a form of knowledge.
In other words, a lot of-
This is one reason I’m interested in ignorance,
is that really, to understand something,
and especially to teach something,
you have to know what people don’t know.
And that’s hard often.
It’s very hard to remember what it’s like
to not know something once you know it.
Very hard, very hard to do.
But you sort of have to do that
to recreate that moment you can teach.
Well, one nice thing I like about the internet
is you can look at old tweets of yours
and to be like, okay, for some reason it brings to mind,
like, okay, that’s where my mind was.
Another interesting exercise is Google search history.
So I think for everybody, you can look up your own history
of what you searched for.
And it’s so cool to go back to 2008 or something like that.
Like, oh, okay, I remember where your mind was.
And immediately, actually, it’s a nice way to restore
at least an inkling of the ignorance you had,
or have a peek into the ignorance you had about the world.
And also to discover the things you’ve forgotten,
the new ignorance you have now.
You say, oh, right, right.
I was really concerned about this and that.
I do think that, as you’re saying,
it’s both sad and illuminating to think about
that most of what we’ve known,
even like the deep wisdom,
is forgotten as a human civilization.
But, you know, we create it new all the time as well, so.
Right, hopefully forgetting is a feature and not just a bug.
It’s like those mice that can’t forget, they go insane.
If you imagine all of your memories as present,
that’s a recipe for insanity.
You have to forget to learn, right?
Learning is unlearning.
Which is exactly why I drink now.
And then write some blues songs
about forgetting a broken heart.
Okay, you mentioned Amber and Stone Collection.
I just have to ask, does that connect to human origins
or just a personal love?
What is it about Stone Collecting that attracts you?
Well, scholars tend to be text-oriented.
I tend to think books are overrated.
We evolved without books.
You know, I walk for a couple of hours
in the forest every day.
I gather mushrooms and all kinds of things,
just located pieces of the 1953 Resolution airplane crash
outside of Half Moon Bay just a couple days ago.
I like finding things.
Have you ever found pieces of a crashed UFO?
Not yet, okay.
All right, let me know, please, if you do.
But of course we have extraterrestrial other stuff.
I mean, we have, I collect meteorites, so I’m into that.
And so I’m interested in stone, stone quality.
I grew up in Southern Texas and grew up surrounded
by people who would hunt for stone and gather stone
and cut stone.
I cut stone as well.
I’m a lapidary.
And so I have this interest in the physical qualities
of objects, sometimes called material culture,
but it’s just stuff.
And I’m interested to know how different cultures
have manipulated stuff, worked stuff, stone, wood,
things like that.
And also the fantasies people project into it.
So I’m doing a book on all the different ways
different cultures have found different images in stone,
like Roshak tests.
And so in India, they love agates with Hindu temples
in them and altars.
And in America, they like, you know,
three crosses on the mount.
And if you can find a stone with the word Allah in it,
that’s beloved in Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
So there’s a long history of people projecting fantasy
And I’m using that as a kind of a metaphor.
I’m also looking at the rise of hobbies
and amateur stonework and how a lot of our gemologic
techniques were actually invented by amateurs,
which means just lovers, as opposed to professionals.
The amateur is the lover.
And hobbies, I don’t know if you know,
but the word hobby comes from a hobbled horse.
And so you would hobble a horse to keep it from running.
That’s hobbling it with a stick or a string.
And then kids would ride a hobbled horse for play,
a horse on a stick.
And riding a hobbled horse becomes riding a hobby horse.
And then that becomes a hobby.
And so hobbies become this so-called job you can’t lose
in the Great Depression in the 1930s.
And then they explode.
And so when I was a kid, people would collect coins
or stamps or fossils or this or that.
So I’m interested in that collecting passion.
So it’s interesting, the development of hobbies,
because it feels like the future of human civilization
will be very hobby-driven.
Some of the, I often now,
because of this particular little thing I’m doing
with the podcast, I get to interact with photographers
and videographers, and I’m disappointed to find
how many professionals are not very good
and how many hobbyists are very good.
So it’s almost-
Well, if they’re amateurs, they’re the lovers.
I mean, you can think, that’s what that means.
From Amur, you’re an amateur if you’re a lover of the thing.
And you’re not in it for the money.
You’re in it because you’re obsessed.
But sort of as the GDP, as our freedom grows
to sort of financially to be able to have a hobby,
it feels like there’ll be more lovers,
more amateurs in the world,
and not just for the artistic pursuits,
but like science, technology development,
building all kinds of technologies,
almost like as a hobby.
You have much more freedom to figure out
what is the thing you love doing.
And actually, over time, you won’t even notice,
but it’ll start making money.
And yeah, that’s really fascinating.
And yeah, it does kind of, I mean,
when did that originate?
Just the collection, the widespread-
It goes through different stages.
People have always gathered the odd thing
to make something else.
But you also get this tradition
of what’s called curiosity cabinets,
especially in the Renaissance,
which replaced the kind of treasure chambers
of the ancient sultans or kings or whatever.
And you get these curiosity cabinets
that were often linked with magical practices,
People would gather bezoars, or they would gather,
they would have an alligator hanging from the ceiling,
or they would have a rare shrunken head or whatever.
And that’s part of the rise of natural history,
the idea that you taxonomize the world,
you classify the world, you look for the rare object,
And rarity still is a kind of virtue,
like the recent news about trying
to figure out ball lightning.
When I was growing up, ball lightning was the big question.
Does it exist, does it not exist?
And now there’s new evidence of how it actually might.
Wait, what, really?
There’s new evidence?
Yeah, there’s new evidence.
When I grew up with that, my dad, when I was young,
told me, I asked him, like, how do I win a Nobel Prize?
He said, invent a time machine
or figure out how ball lightning works.
And so I got really excited.
I was like, damn it, I’m gonna figure out
how this ball lightning works.
It’s very interesting from a history of science
point of view because it’s so rare
that in a way it doesn’t exist.
You can’t replicate it, you can’t make it,
does it really exist?
It’s a little bit like Libyan glass.
Another thing I collect is Libyan glass,
which is a tektite, which falls
as a result of a meteorite.
A meteorite hits the Earth, blasts Earth up into space,
it falls back down as a glass.
That’s called a tektite.
And there’s a rare form of it called Libyan glass,
which fell probably around 20 million years ago
and now works out of the Sahara every now and then.
It was the most valuable stone of antiquity.
The centerpiece of Tutankhamen’s breastplate
is made of this beautiful yellow gemstone Libyan glass.
So rarity is something that the hobbyists
have always liked to cherish.
The rarity, and science has a kind of often aversion,
is a kind of a love-hate relationship
with rarity and novelty.
Science is often trying to pursue novelty
to make discoveries.
But if you can’t replicate it,
it’s kind of like what does it really exist?
Which is why UFOs and aliens and all those kinds,
there’s a general aversion to that
because it’s a one-time event.
It’s sad because there’s, just like you said,
singular events or rare events
are somehow really inspiring to us.
And so you kind of have to balance that.
Yeah, there’s a scientific process,
but you also have to, it’s the thing you find
with the weird, the peculiar.
It’s like, huh, what is that?
Even the universe itself.
It could be that the universe begins
and then will end, say in a cold death, and that’s it.
I mean, it could be a one-off thing.
Or it could be one of an infinite many cycles.
And maybe all of the laws of nature
are recreated anew with each cycle.
Or maybe what we’re assuming about the Big Bang,
there’s some element of falsity.
Maybe the speed of light is not constant,
but changes over time.
That would throw into question all kinds of theories
about dark matter and dark energy,
and even the age of the universe.
And to me, there’s very likely trillions
of conversations going on like this on other planets.
Yeah, no doubt.
Different kinds of drugs, different communication styles,
different timescales at which life form is,
or what life looks like, or how life behaves,
or what life is.
And all those things, every time you think about this,
it’s more and more humbling.
It’s just this whole fog of ignorance.
Yeah, I mean, what drives me crazy
is wondering about the beautiful gemstones
on other planets.
I call them exo-aggots.
They must be unbelievable features and forms
which are unimaginable to us.
Because one thing we do know is that nature is very creative.
I mean, we are the product of nature,
and we seem to be fairly creative.
And so imagine what else nature has created.
But even that’s unknown.
How common is life in the universe?
Is it common, or is it rare?
We only have a sample size of one.
It could be quite common, or it could be even unique.
I tend to believe it’s everywhere,
except for the fact that we don’t even know
how to define what life is.
Like, what is everywhere exactly that we’re talking about?
It’s very possible that there’s not
anywhere in the universe an organism
with two legs and two arms, with two eyes,
and mostly hairless, walking around at this time scale.
But there could be very different kind of other things.
It was interesting, there’s some people,
this is not a common belief,
but a friend now named Lee Cronin,
he’s a chemist and biologist,
and he believes that if we ran evolution
over and over and over and over on Earth,
you’d get very different.
Not just, you wouldn’t just get different organisms,
you’d get very different biology.
Yeah, it’s quite possible, yeah.
And that’s a weird thing.
I mean, most people kind of assume,
well, it kind of, you know, it fits to the environment,
and you’re gonna get similar things,
maybe not humans and so on,
but to get very different biology,
like starting from the bacteria to the, you know, just how.
Well, the idea that it would be DNA-based
on some other planet, that seems to me
like saying they’re speaking Swahili on some other planet.
I mean, the odds of that particular architecture,
I think, are infinitesimally small.
What’s the coolest stone you’ve ever seen?
Oh my God, there’s so many.
And what defines, is it rarity, is it just raw beauty?
What captivates your excitement?
I like a storied stone.
I have a very beautiful Fairburn agate,
which has multiple layers,
and there’s something I call agate paralysis,
because to polish it, you have to go through the layers,
which means you’re destroying the layers.
And maybe what should be done
is it should be like a movie,
where you film the entire process of cutting and polishing
so that it’s not dead.
In other words, what was the diamond when it started rough?
The rough diamond is gone,
but if you could sort of do a filmic version
of a cutting process so that the stone would exist
from a pre-polished to a polished state,
all as a kind of NFT or something.
That should be an NFT, that’s right.
So the other thing I fantasize about
is how pattern recognition technology
will probably in the future allow us
to discover all kinds of amazing stones,
including, for example, fossil skulls,
fossil skulls of humans.
Now it’s kind of a chance process
that you discover a skull in East Africa,
but why not have a drone moving constantly,
scanning for pattern recognition of human skull,
human teeth, very slowly.
Just on the surface, you mean?
Just above the surface, just 10 feet above the surface,
20 feet above the surface.
No, no, no, sorry.
You think you’ll be able to find skulls on the surface?
Yes, yes, in the middle of a place that no one has looked.
These areas are vast, right?
So it could be found on the surface,
then move to the next layer,
then find it under the surface as well.
There’s LIDAR, there’s all kinds of ways.
We’re finding jungle cities under the Amazon
that people didn’t know about.
Do you think there’s something out there
that would just blow your mind?
Oh, for sure, for sure.
Yeah, no doubt.
And how much of it is a little bit underground, right?
Or how much of it is in the ocean?
Yeah, I mean, here, right here, we are in the Bay Area.
We know that much of the Native American civilization here
was under the bay because 6,000 years ago,
the bay was dry.
It was a river, not a bay.
And so all of those, whatever material,
culture, archeological traces existed there
are now at least preserved under the water.
So I think we’re just beginning to touch the-
Could be treasure, too.
I mean, literally, like you said,
we’ll lose the wisdom or we’ll lose the knowledge,
but I mean, if there’s the pyramids, right,
it’s the great wonders of the world,
there might be other wonders that are completely lost.
I mean, one of the stones, you asked about stones I like.
I like stones, for example,
every now and then, dinosaurs would eat rocks
as gizzard stones, and then you find them
in their guts, in their bones.
Well, every now and then,
they would eat a piece of petrified wood.
So the idea that something was a tree,
and then stone, and then swallowed by a dinosaur,
and ground up in the gizzard, and polished,
and then left in a, you know.
So I like things that have been through dramatic-
There’s a story there.
There’s a story.
Yeah, I mean, that’s, okay,
the really fascinating thing,
why seeing Allah or crosses in the stone
is it feels like the stone has wisdom
because it’s been through so many generations of humans.
It’s like bigger.
It’s seen it all.
Also, it’s also the intellectual question
of intelligent design.
In other words, when people say intelligent design,
mostly it’s bogus,
but there are several interesting examples
of actual intelligent design,
meaning when is a stone the product of artifice
and when is it a geofact produced by nature?
And that was an important discovery in the 19th century.
The zone of percussion, it’s called, the percussion zone.
Or how do you know that a signal from out of space
is an intelligent signal?
And as opposed to hydrogen doing something
or some natural thing,
that’s the genuine problem of intelligent design.
How do you know if it’s pi, maybe if it’s E,
if it’s some pattern,
how do you know that that’s an intelligent signal?
How do you know that an artifact in the ground
is we’ll see in the clouds a face?
It’s called pareidolia.
We have a kind of a built-in ability to see faces
where they really aren’t there, right?
That’s why kids like clowns.
We’ve evolved that so babies evolve it
to recognize their parents and so forth.
But when is it a projection
and when is it really in the stone?
And that was a big question with the rise of fossils.
If you find a curly thing, is that life or is it non-life?
People have made this mistake before.
They’ll find a rock on the moon or Mars.
They say, oh, this is a face or whatever.
Well, no, that’s just projection, that’s pareidolia.
I guess throughout science you have this problem of signal.
Just because something is beautiful
doesn’t mean it was, I mean, that’s not a good signal
to determine if it’s intelligent design
or natural evolution or natural design.
Just because you see a stone that just,
the pattern is incredible.
How do you know?
How do you know it’s a fossil is one question,
namely the remnants of an organism.
And how do you know if it was manipulated by a human?
This is a big problem in trying to figure out
the oldest art.
If you find scratchings on a bone, is that a tally?
Is it someone marking her menstrual period?
Is it phases of the moon?
Or is it trampling by an antelope?
And that’s called the science of taphonomy
to discern when a marking on a bone or a stone
is in a sense an artifact or a geofact
or an antelope effect.
And it’s an intellectually challenging question.
And people wanna fantasize.
They’ll find a stone that looks like a carving
that’s 300,000 years old.
Generally, I think those are just odd stones.
You don’t find the explosion of carved stone
until around 60,000 years ago, 50, 60,000 years ago.
There seems to be something that paleoanthropologists
call the creative explosion or the big bang of the mind
that produces a kind of ability to see in the distance,
to identify a shape in an object,
to create a shape in an object that you don’t get.
The Neanderthals don’t seem to have ever done
what we would call art.
That’s a very interesting phenomenon, you know?
But it requires that you have some understanding
when is something art and when is it just,
oh, that’s a rock that looks like a face.
Or some, not necessarily understanding,
but a conception that’s mutually agreed upon
that we’re able to,
because maybe Neanderthals, maybe fish,
have a conception of art that just.
And this also gets back to your question
about professional bias and ideology,
because there’s a huge reward for finding the oldest art.
If everyone says it’s 50,000 years ago
and you find one that’s 300,000 years ago,
that’s a huge discovery.
So there’s a bias.
And this has been one of the things that’s led
to probably the overproliferation
of different species of hominids,
because there’s no academic reward
for finding yet another example of someone else’s species.
But there’s a huge reward if you can find a Lex Friedmanite,
you can name it after yourself or whatever, new fossil.
There’s a huge professional reward
to be the first at something.
And so those types of professional rewards
also influence science and what kind of science gets done.
Yeah, so I’m always suspicious of,
and as we should all be when you can kind of intuit
a financial and otherwise motivation.
I mean, that’s actually often in the modern age
where I’m suspicious of conspiracy theories.
It’s not that the logic doesn’t make sense
or something like that.
I personally actually just enjoy conspiracy theories.
I’ve been listening to Flat Earthers
discuss stuff recently.
It’s kind of exciting for some reason.
It’s fascinating, yeah.
It’s like, because I consider like,
what if it’s true?
It’s exciting to discover together,
like think through first principles,
like what does the world look like?
I mean, it’s the childlike discovery of a new idea.
But the reason I’m skeptical of a lot of conspiracy theories
is when I see how popular you can get
propagating those conspiracy theories,
how quickly you can form a large movement.
And it’s like, hmm.
Well, it’s such thin evidence.
It’s like if Loch Ness exists,
there’s just one?
I mean, how does the reproduction work on that?
How do you talk about an animal
that has only one in a population?
It just doesn’t, some of the things don’t make sense.
No, but see, this is the logic side.
I don’t even go that far.
The fact is, if you say there’s a Loch Ness monster,
I just see how quickly the idea spreads in popularity.
It’s the people are hungry to discover something new,
just like you mentioned with the hominids.
And I’m very suspicious of where there’s like
a strange hunger for ideas,
because then they’re less likely to be objective
and rigorous in considering the validity of that idea.
I’m not going to the logic,
because actually, flat Earth is pretty logical.
Yeah, very logical.
Logic is not the problem.
Right, but it spreads really quickly.
And once again, with conspiracy theories,
I think it represents,
you have to think about the cause of causes,
or cause of cause of causes, like you talked about,
which is like, it represents some deeper fragmenting
of the common humanity,
who have the trust in the big community that is science
and the big community that is government,
all that kind of stuff.
Well, that’s why things like ball lightning are cool,
because it’s like, the scientist denied it, but here it is.
And that ultimately ends up being-
Everyone said I was insane, but…
But it’s still, you said there’s some breakthroughs?
I need to look it up, it’s really cool.
Yeah, check it out, it’s pretty exciting.
Yeah, there’s some new theories
of how it actually might work.
Because I think, I mean,
there’s obviously several ways to prove that.
Like, one of them is to recreate it in the lab,
which is probably very, very difficult.
Just because we’re on the topic of rocks,
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this interstellar rock
that flew through our, called the Mua Mua.
Yes, yes, the cigar-shaped one.
The cigar-shaped one.
As a fan of rocks, what do you think about that one?
Well, I think that generally,
I mean, when the people were speculating
it might be a spaceship, I thought, come on,
rocks do all kinds of crazy things.
They do a lot more than you realize.
They can do unbelievably cool things.
There are parts of the desert there in Utah
where rocks move and create these long tracks.
And it’s, now we know it’s from liquefaction
and wind and various other things,
but they’re still unbelievably cool.
Rocks can do almost anything.
And so, just the fact that one comes from
outside the solar system
doesn’t mean it has to be a spaceship.
So, but nonetheless, I thought it was awesome.
I thought it was really, really cool
and I sort of wish it would happen more often.
I kind of hope it’s trash from another alien civilization.
That’d be fantastic.
Because if you’re,
if humans are all a lesson,
that we produce like more trash
than we do intelligent signal.
So, the first thing to reach other civilizations
I feel like would be our trash, our pollution,
before the intelligent signal reaches them.
You mentioned this interesting term, Russianist.
The things we do for love.
For some reason, you went to Germany.
So, you said you’re pretty eloquent with German.
I learned German, yeah.
Did you ever learn Russian a little bit?
I did learn Russian.
Yeah, I studied actually Russian as an undergraduate
at Indiana University for several years.
And then I wanted to do a Russian,
I wanted to do Russian and Chinese as a graduate student
because I thought this is kind of the future.
And Harvard said, no, it has to be French and German.
And so, I essentially gave up on my Russian and Chinese.
And the other part of that story is nonetheless,
I wanted to do something with Russian.
I wanted to study how much the Lamarckian ideology
and biology in Russia at the time
that led to their distrust of genetics under Stalin
had to do with the fact that genetics
was being pushed by the Nazis.
And we tend to see those literatures in isolation.
Nazis were racist, the Russians were environmentalists
biased by Lamarckian theories of heredity
and rejected that part of Darwin.
When they’re right next to each other at the very same time,
there must be a connection.
And so, I started reading into this
and I actually got a Fulbright to go write a book on this
and canceled all my classes.
I was teaching at the New School
for Social Research at the time.
And I couldn’t get a visa into the Soviet Union.
I was just barred admission for doing this project,
looking at how Stalinist science
had this anti-Nazi aspect which we’ve overlooked.
Which year was this?
This was when the Soviet Union was still together.
Yes, that was in the late 1980s, but before.
Gorbachev was in power, but it wasn’t before 89.
But still then, there was a careful attention to.
Well, you never know how careful it was
or built to the cracks.
You never know when something fails.
You don’t always know why it failed.
But I was very disappointed
and it sort of ended that project.
I didn’t have access to the archives on it.
I could have obviously done it later, but you know.
So, there was that curiosity initially,
but then you focused on the Nazi side of.
Yeah, I mean the other thing was
I was trying to figure out where to go
for a Fulbright on a different year.
And I wanted to go to China.
And turns out you could only go to Taiwan.
I didn’t really want to go to Taiwan.
And it was one in 50 odds of going to Taiwan,
but it was one in three of going to Germany.
And so I ended up going to Germany.
I didn’t have any particular interest
in Germany at that time.
But that’s what I ended up doing.
So I wrote one book in German, actually.
I wrote two books on Nazi Germany.
And otherwise I might have been doing the same thing
in Russian or Chinese.
Yeah, those are.
In other words, history chooses us
as much as we choose history, right?
And those are really powerful cultures, right?
Maybe can you comment on the German
and the Russian and the Chinese,
how much language,
when you were reading those medical journals,
how much are you able to understand?
How important is it to understand language deeply
in order to understand the culture?
Did you struggle?
And the opposite of that,
did you find the beauty of the moment,
like richly understand the moment
because you had a hold of the language?
Well, in the Russian or Chinese case, no.
I never got that far with it.
I knew enough, I could read some Russian
and I could tell there were anthropologists
who were anti-Nazi and therefore anti-genetics.
And they saw genetics as essentially Nazi.
And that was enough for me.
I know there’s something there,
but I didn’t have enough time.
I wasn’t allowed to go and actually research it.
In the German case, you never fully know a language.
We don’t fully know English.
There’s always more to learn.
I’m always learning new.
I didn’t know the word done last year, D-U-N.
I mean, some kind of brown color.
And I’m always finding new words.
The words are near infinite as well, right?
And new combinations.
I’ve coined several words too in my life.
But it did help understanding the humor,
understanding the romance,
and mainly just plowing through
all of these medical journals,
one after another after another.
There’s a kind of a voyeuristic aspect
to looking into this lost world.
You’re reading texts by people who have died long ago.
And direct, it’s not like reading books by famous people.
It’s like real people.
It’s real people and they make mistakes.
And fascinating little stories.
I was looking at how the Nazi tobacco industry
had their own denial campaign,
which was pro-Nazi and pro-tobacco,
even though the Nazi regime was anti-tobacco.
And they developed a lot of these rhetorical tricks
that were later used by the Americans.
Like, oh, you can’t trust that evidence.
It’s merely statistical.
Can’t trust the animal experiments
because all it proves is that mice should not smoke.
But I noticed, just in passing,
these remarkable stories, little hints.
There’s a report from a Japanese military man
in one of these tobacco journals,
tobacco industry journals in the Nazi period.
And they’re talking about this brotherhood
of all men through cigarettes.
And the tragedy that the Chinese and the Japanese,
who were fighting each other,
in a way wanted nothing more than to smoke together.
And the Chinese would sneak up to the Japanese forts
to try to find a Japanese cigarette
that had been thrown away and they’d be glowing.
And the Japanese knew this.
And they would throw their cigarettes out,
the Chinese would come,
and then the Japanese would kill these Chinese.
And then this guy is poetically lamenting the fact
that even though all they want is a smoke,
they nonetheless end up in the crosshairs and in death.
And so it’s just weird, and I’m reading this,
translated from the Japanese into German
in a Nazi tobacco industry newspaper.
I mean, the layers of weirdness
are really fascinating and touching, but.
And those very kind of brotherhood stories
actually resonated later.
Because I mean, that’s how I feel about cigarettes.
Some of my favorite moments in early life
is about people connecting over a cigarette.
And that, you know, that works.
That’s, those narratives.
Yeah, it’s the movies, right?
The movies, it’s called Meet Cute.
The tobacco industry, when they put cigarettes into a movie,
they put it in right at the moment where boy meets girl.
Let me ask you just, in all the research you’ve done
with Nazi Germany, just for me,
from a conversational perspective,
I was listening to a bunch of Holocaust survivors recently
just on YouTube, listening to interviews.
Also listening to Nazi SS soldiers,
like they’re still alive, or were recently.
Some of them, especially the ones
that deny many aspects of the Holocaust.
It’s so interesting to watch.
Because they’re still, still, it’s so fascinating.
Anyway, in your research,
are there interesting people to talk to?
They’re still alive?
Or are they mostly, that part of history
is no longer living, is in the books?
It is mostly no longer living.
And that’s one reason in the 1980s
when I started working on Nazi science,
I really did interview quite a few people,
and elderly people, people who had sort of slipped
through the cracks, you know,
maybe even should have been prosecuted.
So few people got prosecuted.
But these were people who had racial theories,
who published on these topics, and they were guarded.
But these were the lives they lived.
And you know, mainly they wanted people
not to be talking too much about this.
So it gets sealed off, and walled off.
And that’s why reading the medical literature itself
was so much more valuable.
Because there’s no self-censorship, it’s just there.
I’m sure there’s some censorship,
but it’s what they said is what they said,
and it’s immense.
It’s immense and largely unread.
As I said, there are hundreds and hundreds
of Nazi medical journals,
and people had not been reading those
before I really started looking at them.
Given that you studied these really difficult parts
of human history and human nature with big tobacco,
and just these mechanisms of manipulation,
what gives you hope about the future?
Oh, all kinds of things give me hope.
The forest gives me hope.
The Wikipedia gives me hope.
Space exploration gives me hope.
All kinds of things give me hope.
I had this insight the other day.
I walked through all of these giant redwoods,
which were almost all cut.
They’re not very far from here,
just half an hour straight west of where we are now.
You end up in redwood country.
And I had this idea that they’re growing back now,
and every year they add how many cubic miles of wood,
if you count California as a whole.
But not only that, the roots are all old growth,
if you think about it.
These are re-sprouting.
They’re not from seeds.
These are re-sprouting,
so they have this tremendous resource underground
that even the loggers couldn’t kill, right?
And so from these stumps,
you get what are called fairy rings,
which are like five trees coming in a ring around it,
each one competing to be the successor.
So they’ve seen this story before,
and they know to re-sprout.
And that, I think, is a very hopeful thing,
is that the roots are old growth,
and hopefully in 100, 200, 300 years,
it won’t peak until around 1,000 years from now,
you’ll get these restoration
of all of this magnificent old growth.
But so many other things give me hope.
We have to have hope,
and I think that if the world is infinite,
there’s infinitely many ways for it to become fixed.
I mean, we have some problems that need to be fixed,
but they’re fixable.
That’s really beautifully put.
That is a really hopeful idea
that nature, that life, even human civilization
is resilient to all the mistakes we make.
So the roots are there.
So it outlives us.
It’s patient with our adolescent fuck-ups.
I mean, we’re a thin layer on the crust.
And eventually the Earth will be swallowed by the sun,
and humans will have long gone extinct by then.
But yeah, there’s all kinds of grounds for hope.
So us being a thin layer of crust,
what do you think is the meaning of this layer?
What’s the meaning of human existence?
What’s the meaning of life?
Well, I think it depends who you’re talking to.
If you’re talking to a raccoon, it might be one thing.
If you’re talking to an old growth tree,
it’s making sure you’re straight up, upright,
and not on a slippery slope.
Or a fish.
Yeah, a fish.
I guess they’re trying to avoid the hook, right?
No fish ever, when they take the bait,
no fish in the world has ever said, I hope I get hooked.
And that’s one of the problems with tobacco,
is that there’s all this bait and people get hooked.
But the fish don’t have heads.
We have heads.
One of the great innovations in the history of humanity,
going back way pre-human, is the invention of the head,
the mobile head that turns and sees.
You know, and the fish didn’t have that.
You know, they didn’t have hands.
The octopus have cool stuff.
It’s not all about the head.
Well, in fact, the octopus,
basically they’ve got brains in their fingers.
And maybe brains is not even that good of an invention
in the long arc of history.
Because the fish maybe got it right.
Stay in the ocean.
Well, of course, we evolved from fish, so.
Yeah, but we moved on.
Is there a why to this?
Or is it just the way, it’s like the current.
It’s just like these pockets of interesting complexity
pops up, like Allah showing up on a rock.
This is what human civilization is.
This weird little thing that showed up on a rock.
And then it’ll disappear.
Well, we are probably the most remarkable creation
that nature has ever belched forward.
We’re probably the only one,
if you don’t count the KT meteorite
that almost destroyed the Earth.
We’re the only ones that really have the capacity
to destroy the Earth.
I’m fascinated by the meteorite
that wiped out everything bigger than four feet long.
You know, the Mount Everest size meteorite
that hit the Earth 66 million years ago
and destroyed most species in the water and on land.
There could have been some smart folks around then, too.
Well, actually, one thing I like to think about
is that 232.3 million years ago
and 232.4 million years ago, that’s 100,000 years.
That tiniest of a sliver,
maybe a millimeter in most parts of the Earth.
It’s enough time for a species of dinosaur
to become intelligent, build a civilization,
and go extinct with no traces.
And maybe that happened.
Our ignorance can fully engulf the fact that that happened.
Oh, the beautiful self-importance of us humans.
It’s easy to forget that multiple intelligent civilizations
could have lived on Earth.
It’s possible and gone extinct.
Or even life may have evolved more than once.
Not only that, but proto-life may still exist
and we are not even looking for it.
You know, some type of clay that became life
may still exist and people…
One thing I like to think about is always
what is the before time that is now?
I remember lecturing about this right before COVID.
It’s sort of like, what is the our world now
that we’ll say, what was it like to be then before?
And that’s the world we live in.
We live in a before time for something
we really can’t predict.
Probably physical, you know.
And being in person, being able to touch each other
or wanting to touch each other
versus being in the digital world, right?
This whole idea of the metaverse
and more and more moving into a digital space.
What was it like being born before most of your life
wasn’t on the computer?
It’s pretty damn good for the record,
but maybe I don’t know the alternative.
Robert, this is a fascinating conversation.
Thank you for taking us through some dark periods
of human history, but I think they contain
a lot of lessons for today.
That science is often inextricably connected
to our values, to our ethics, to our politics.
And that’s something we have to contend with.
So your work is really important
and thank you for shining a light on it.
Thanks for listening to this conversation
with Robert Proctor.
To support this podcast,
please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, let me leave you with some words from Carl Sagan.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.