Decoding the Gurus and the Necessity of Criticism
On Criticism and the problem of 'Bad Faith'
This is a deep dive on the nature of critique and criticism, of 'good faith' and 'bad faith', especially in the 'heterodox' space, as seen through the lens of an increasingly high profile podcast aimed at critiquing some of its most prominent members, Decoding the Gurus.
The podcast takes a close look at public intellectuals, what the hosts of the show, cognitive anthropologist Chris Kavanagh and psychologist Matt Browne call 'secular gurus', some of whom have also been interviewed on Rebel Wisdom, including Jordan Peterson, Jordan Hall, Bret and Eric Weinstein and others.
The podcast is only a couple of years old but has developed a large and growing, and influential audience, with it becoming a 'guilty pleasure' for many of the very same public intellectuals who might be targeted on the show.
It's a controversial project for many, with accusations of 'ankle-biting', that they are deliberately targeting people with bigger followings simply to gain status (clout chasing), that they are guilty of many of the same biases that they identify in their targets, and cherry pick their criticisms in an unfair way.
I think some of these criticisms have some validity, but I also believe that theirs is a fundamentally worthwhile and important project, and that the ratio of signal to noise in their criticisms is high. However, some of that noise is a problem, and this is something I put directly to host Chris Kavanagh in the video just released on YouTube, and will outline further in this piece.
The growing success of the project raises some crucial questions about the nature of criticism, and the necessary and overdue addressing of the topic of “good faith” and “bad faith” interaction. Particularly in what’s generally known as the ‘heterodox’ space, the accusation of “bad faith” has become almost a mirror image of the “no platforming” tactics that they would object to from the woke left.
Rebel Wisdom has historically been firmly in the 'heterodox' space in terms of the people we have interviewed, and DTG is sceptical of anything contrarian and heterodox. They have been critical of people I consider friends, and scathing in their treatment of many of the terms Rebel Wisdom has (over)used, as they said in their episode about the conversation I had with Jordan Hall: "This episode is about sense-making... if you are not sick of that term yet, trust us, you soon will be."
It would be very easy to see Chris and Matt as enemies, and there are many others in the heterodox space who do. However, I think they occupy an important and significant place in the information landscape, and despite disagreements and an occasionally abrasive nature (which I am also guilty of), I’ve found Chris open to dialogue.
Most of all, their podcast is fun to listen to, and brings a much needed levity to the conversation. Perhaps it's because they are not based in the US that they are able to take a bit of a healthy distance and perspective on the topics and personalities they cover. I've found that the American "galaxy brains" in particular tend to take themselves extremely seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself was sorely lacking among many heterodox figures, and the Northern Irish and Australian love of "taking the piss" is a refreshing and necessary injection into the cultural conversation, to puncture the seriousness and pomposity.
Using Peter Limberg's concept of the 'memetic tribes' to map out the culture war landscape, the heterodox tribe came to prominence, was perhaps formally identified, with Bari Weiss’s New York Times article about the 'Intellectual Dark Web' (IDW) in early 2018. She identified a number of public intellectuals and podcasters who were criticising mainstream consensus, and in particular the excesses of woke culture trying to shut down certain conversations and increasing its influence inside many news organisations. In reaction to the excesses of the IDW itself, there arose a counter movement, composed of many "too online" academics and others who found each other on Twitter. Matt and Chris and the DTG project are probably the most prominent nodes of that counter movement, what could now be identified as a new memetic tribe, the ‘Critique Sphere’, which also includes the likes of the Conspirituality podcast.
Peter also mused on the need for 'memetic mediation' between the different tribes, what he called the "hard problem of the culture war". It has been a central concern of mine for a long time, that for all the value I find in the heterodox criticism of the mainstream, there seems to be a lack of self-criticism or self-correction in the wider heterodox space, and an increased tribalism and polarisation that belies the central self-image of ‘being able to have the hard conversations others avoid’.
I agree with Chris and Matt that this is a particular problem with a group that claim to be interested in good faith conversation and priding truth above other values.
As Chris says in my conversation with him from last summer (linked to below, and well worth a watch to see how our views have evolved since then): "A willingness to engage in and deal with difficult conversations was core to the branding of the intellectual dark web. It didn't live up to that purpose, and yet it's still framed by the members and by their supporters as if it does.
If you're listening to, say, Chapo's Trap House [dirtbag left podcast] for example, you know the ecosystem that it belongs to and you're under no illusions. But if you're a fan of the IDW, I get the impression from a lot of people that they feel they're beyond that kind of tribal partisanship. But that really doesn't seem to be the case and that strikes me as an issue that people need to grapple with and and criticise."
For me, the trajectory of the IDW is something like a morality tale for the failure conditions of the alternative media. The initial intention was to identify an alternative 'Sensemaking Network' as distinct from the increasingly failing mainstream media institutions. The idea was that only small, independently sustainable operators would be immune from the social, financial and ideological pressures that were increasingly crippling mainstream institutions like the New York Times.
However, what we saw was a whole new set of failure conditions inherent to the landscape of social media, where truth seeking was crippled by more personal factors like audience capture, aligned incentives such as a refusal to criticise friends, and also a tribalist mindset fuelled by an inability to deal with criticism, or a tendency to label any criticism as 'bad faith'. Paradoxically one of the main objections of so-called 'first principles’ thinkers has been to 'ad hominem' arguments, but what is accusing someone of bad faith if it's not an ad hominem?
The tribal boundaries were established and enforced, and reinforced by the dynamic identified by Venkatesh Rao in the ‘Internet of Beefs’, with online armies of ‘mooks’, defending their chosen celebrity public intellectual ‘knights’.
As well understood now through films like the Social Dilemma with Tristan Harris, all tech platforms are engaged in a battle for attention that leads them to rely more and more on emotional hijack, feeding tribalism and echo chambers. What is perhaps less well understood is that these factors are hugely magnified on creators. When your entire livelihood rests on the reaction of your audience, then you are set up for the phenomenon of audience capture, and an intense battle for relevance. Ironically one of the first people to recognise this phenomenon and frame it as ‘audience capture’ was Eric Weinstein, a regular target of the DTG guys.
In short, in the post legacy media world we *are* our brands, and if the failure conditions for legacy media institutions are systematic and institutional factors, the failure conditions for truth seeking in the alternative media space are individual, psychological and financial. They're our narcissism and inability to admit when we're wrong, or our moral compromises in the name of tribal biases.
It's fundamental to Rebel Wisdom's understanding of 'sensemaking' and the broader media landscape that navigating it leads us inevitably into the territory of personal growth and self awareness. We have to look at how we're being hooked and manipulated by different narratives, and by the tools and platforms we're using.
So we can't really avoid entering into the realms of psychology and even religion when we are trying to understand the modern media landscape. We are in a media landscape that exploits our confirmation bias to create echo chambers. What is the ultimate echo chamber? A cult.
The internet seems almost designed to create cult-like thinking, replacing friends with 'followers' and real relationships with para-social ones with 'fans'.
And this is where Matt and Chris have an advantage over many other media commentators. Both are academics who focus on the psychology (Matt) and anthropology (Chris) of religious thinking and extremist views and behaviour.
We’re all Bad Faith
There has to be a recognition that we're all bad faith at times, depending on the situation and the topic, and some careful thought given to creating environments and protocols to encourage good faith interaction. I would go as far as to say that this project is among the most important that we could devote time and energy to.
Daniel Schmachtenberger's Consilience Project recently released a very good brief on Good and Bad Faith interaction: "Communicating in good faith as a society requires that people take up certain skills and commit to shared values. These skills and values are generally not practiced and endorsed in most contexts of civic discourse today. People are instead being deskilled in the art of good faith communication, while refining skills in bad faith tactics (see both Box 1 and 2 below)."
The Internet Creates Gurus
My first run in with Chris Kavanagh was not promising, when he criticised me for my questioning in an interview with Eric Weinstein in 2019. We had a testy exchange on Twitter, but over time mellowed towards each other and found many shared interests. As (almost) a fellow countryman (Chris is from Northern Ireland) I find it easier than some to tell the difference between his sarcasm and snark, of which he has large amounts of both.
Over time I've listened to a number of their episodes and feel that they are providing something of an essential service of public criticism, generally in a measured and non-ideological way, but also have concerns that they can spill over into selective outrage, out-of-context dunking and reputation damage, whether intended or not. They also have their blind spots and biases, and I've spoken to others observing the same landscape to gather some additional points of critique for this piece.
However, unlike some of their targets, Matt and Chris do not seem thin skinned, and are willing to admit mistakes and to attempt to course correct. They have a standing offer to anyone featured on the show to come on and respond to their criticisms. Recently the podcaster Chris Williamson went on DTG to complain that they had unfairly targeted him during an episode they recorded about the psychologist Gad Saad (disparaging him as a male model, saying they hoped he wouldn't become a more prominent figure and other throwaway lines). It was a fascinating listen, and Chris and Matt seemed to take in the criticism and understand that their offhand comments could have a real impact on the people they were featuring.
Sam Harris seemed to agree with that perspective when he recently appeared on the show to respond to an extended criticism from Matt and Chris: "I heard you do an episode on me and Waking Up, which, to call it critical doesn’t quite get at it - you were really shitting all over me, but you were having such fun doing it, that there was something really endearing about it. As much as I wanted to despise you, I really couldn’t quite, so I thought maybe there’s an interesting conversation to be had.”
The Sam Harris interview was fascinating on many levels, in particular that it was the first time that they were encountering someone who they had been critical of and attempting to criticise them live 'to their face'. As Chris Williamson pointed out in his subsequent episode with the DTG hosts, this is a very different situation than they are used to, where they prepare clips of content ahead of time and leisurely discuss them with a friend, something he called “podcasting on easy mode”.
The outcome of that Harris conversation is in the ear of the beholder, those critical of Harris found him obtuse and hard to listen to, those more disposed towards him found Chris’s relentless hammering away on the question of ‘tribalism’ to be obsessive and annoying. Personally I think Chris missed an opportunity, Sam had already conceded the point that friendships and other human factors do come into play, so there could have been a nuanced conversation exploring how that works, and whether it amounts to ‘tribalism’ in practice.
in response to this criticism about the Harris interview, Chris said: “The Sam Harris interview is not a fair assessment of what it is like to experience putting criticisms to someone’s face. We’ve done that with not much issue in several other interviews: Stuart Ritchie, Josh Szeps, Daniel Harper, Virginia Heffernan, the Stoa, etc. That interview (I would argue) was driven by Sam’s personality more than mine. It might not sound like that to his fans but I don’t think they are very aware of how interview dynamics function. Also I think my primary response to the issue of whether a confrontational interview might be fairer, is that we are commenting on content that is already out there and usually unchallenged.”
Culture of criticism
I've had a number of conversations now with Chris Kavanagh, including one last summer which was released as an exclusive to Rebel Wisdom members.
If I'm totally honest, I have to admit that I was hesitant to record a piece for release on Rebel Wisdom due to my existing relationships with some of the intellectuals they discussed. But this is yet another example of the problem of aligned incentives that cripple truth seeking in the alternative media ecosystem. Genuine dialogue and mediation across these divides is necessary and urgent.
I also felt uncomfortable with the style of the show they have created. I have had criticisms of many of the people featured on Rebel Wisdom, from Dave Rubin to James Lindsay to Jordan Peterson, to Eric and Bret Weinstein, and also Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster of Triggernometry. The code of conduct I inherited from my journalistic background meant that whenever possible I've addressed those criticisms directly to the people involved in an interview (which hasn't always gone down well).
I challenged Chris on that point and his response was that there were a number of reasons that he felt that wasn't appropriate for their show. Firstly that the figures they were discussing generally had much bigger audiences than them and weren't generally open to critical interviews, secondly that a confrontational interview didn't always get anywhere closer to uncovering truth, creating more heat than light. He pointed to the Timbah on Toast series on Dave Rubin (Dave Rubin's Battle of Ideas) as an example of a clearly stated and detailed argument that was far more informative and useful than an interview with Rubin. And lastly that they would continue with the offer of a response on their show to the 'Gurus' featured. I have to say he has a point, it’s generally tough to do a complete and detailed address of all points of critique in a single interview.
The podcast is also awkwardly poised between academia and media, something Chris believes is lost on some critics who assume they are only interested in ‘clout chasing’: “We are both academics with genuine interest in conspiracy theory communities and religious/ritual psychology. To a large extent our project is exporting the highly critical culture of academia to the guru space. Academia is far from perfect but one thing it does have going for it is a culture that values robust criticism. Our sarcasm and political opinions don’t fall into this category, but we aren’t claiming to do formal academic reviews.”
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The Guru Metrics
They have several metrics where they judge their targets, making up the ‘Gurometer’: These are:
Galaxy Brainness: "Galaxy-brainness is an ironic descriptor of someone who presents ideas that appear to be too profound for an average mind to comprehend, but are in truth reasonably trivial if not nonsensical."
Cultishness: "How gurus interact with their followers and critics, their in-group and out-group, is often quite revealing. Gurus are not usually bonafide cult-leaders. However, the social groups they cultivate -- often with themselves positioned as intellectual leaders -- can have some elements reminiscent of cultish dynamics. A key characteristic of cults is the establishment of clear in-group and out-group identities, primarily between the cult-members/admirers and outsiders."
Anti-establishment(arianism): "It is necessary that the orthodoxy, the establishment, the mainstream media, and the expert-consensus are always wrong, or at least blinkered and limited, and are generally incapable of grappling with the real issues. In the rare occasions when they are right, they are described by the gurus as being right for reasons other than they think.
Grievance-mongering: “Gurus sometimes also engage in personal grievance narratives. These are especially convenient, in that they not only encourage emotional connection and sympathy for the guru, but they provide a convenient explanation for why someone of their unique talents has not been well-supported or given the recognition they deserve by the outside world.”
Self-aggrandisement and narcissism: "It is almost impossible to be a guru without having a sense of grandiosity and inflated idea of one’s self-importance. The role of being a guru involves cultivating praise and attention, and demands a certain level of charisma and charm. Another trait of narcissists is a belief in one’s uniqueness, and that only special people can appreciate them. Our tentative hypothesis is that narcissism is the key personality trait of gurus."
Cassandra complex: "We will often see that a guru positions themselves as something of a Cassandra - seeing the future and warning of possible calamities, that could be avoided if only they were heeded. The followers also gain a positive role for themselves, in supporting, defending, and promoting the guru, they can help make the world a better place."
Revolutionary theories: "If galaxy-brainedness refers to a breadth of knowledge, an ability to forge connections between disparate topics, then their professed development of revolutionary theories displays the depth of their knowledge. Connected with their narcissism and worthiness of being a guru, they are greatly attracted to claiming that they have developed game-changing and paradigm-shifting intellectual products. This is, in a sense, the credentials and the resume of a guru."
Pseudo-profound bullshit: "Whilst the ‘revolutionary theories’ and ‘galaxy brainness’ describe the content of their discourse, PPB describes the form of their discourse. It is typified by language that is cognitively easy to process, superficially appears to be something profound, but upon analysis turns out to be trite, meaningless, contradictory, or tautological."
Conspiracy mongering: "They are encouraged to go beyond standard heterodoxy, contrarianism and scepticism, into the realm of conspiratorial ideation. This leads them inexorably down the path of bespoke conspiracy mongering, with an alternative view of events that authoritative sources either can’t or won’t tell you about. Conspiracy theories require a ‘suppressive network’ to explain away the lack of evidential support, and why almost nobody else is willing or able to accept their theories.
Grifting: “Gurus perhaps desire respect and admiration above all else, but they also tend to feel that more worldly and tangible recognition of their talents is appropriate. Note that it is natural and reasonable for any intellectual worker or content creator to be compensated for their effort. Thus, book royalties, YouTube advertising royalties, or the insertion of standard advertising in a podcast does not usually or necessarily indicate grifting. However, gurus tend to go somewhat further in an effort to monetise their following, while avoiding the appearance of such - which would detract from their guru status.”
They argue that these metrics: "Taken together, help us in the task of spotting gurus in the wild. The most concise definition of a guru is “someone who spouts pseudo-profound bullshit”, with bullshit being speech that is persuasive without any regard for the truth. Thus, all these properties relate to people who produce ersatz wisdom: a corrupt epistemics that creates the appearance of useful knowledge, but has none of the substance."
Who Watches the Watchmen?
In the research for this article and the accompanying video piece I sought out some contributions from other commentators, and one of the best summaries was offered by Mark Ledwich, the creator of Transparency Tube and a keen observer of the 'online guru' ecosystem. He put together a detailed package of criticisms of DTG, harvested from the podcast and Twitter that I will outline below, and summarised it as: "Like many traditional skeptics, they think they have better epistemology, but don't realise they just have a different trust network."
His strongest criticisms of the DTG project, and Matt and Chris themselves, is that they have a tendency to "play the man, and not the ball". Mark Ledwich says that they will frequently criticise 'first principles thinkers' who are trying to make an argument from 'object level reasoning', meaning someone who is arguing about primary evidence. Mark identifies multiple examples of where they fail to engage with the substance of the argument and instead judge the person's critical thinking skills or suggest that they should defer to majority or consensus opinion.
Mark argues that some of the DTG tactics are harming the information landscape/epistemic commons, by spending a lot of time throwing shade at anyone questioning consensus, but without dealing with the substance of the argument, including Scott Alexander, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and Sam Harris.
"To me these people are superior and more reliable than the gurus, yet they put them in same group of valid guru targets. They are looking for any opportunity to catch them out. These people are doing better than centroid-expert epistemology, these are all people that are collecting and arguing in good faith about object level things. But Matt and Chris will usually mock and scorn, and “catch out”, retweet scorn than actually get into object level reasoning."
He also argues that they spend a lot of time focusing on the worst aspects of their outgroup, rather than trying to steel man the best versions of their arguments.
"By focusing on the worst of their out-group they become, more confident in their epistemic superiority, which selects for an audience that want to dunk and scorn the same outgroup, and bad faith begets bad faith."
I think there is some truth to Mark's critique, in particular that they rarely take the time to steel man many of the people they feature.
However I agree with Chris and Matt when they argue that some inclusion of the psychological, the motivational and the social, is unavoidable. We cannot avoid the "ad hominem" entirely. And why should we? There are many people that I like who I enjoy taking the piss out of at times, and real human relationships involve an appreciation of people’s flaws as well as their strengths.
I'm guilty of the same behaviour at times, particularly on Twitter, partly because it's impossible to always argue from first principles, too costly in terms of time wasted, and one very rarely convinces people by making an object level argument.
I also agree that we are making those judgements about people's motivations, their credibility and their trustworthiness all the time, subconsciously, anyway, and part of sensemaking is including those judgements in the process as consciously as possible.
But I also agree with Mark that the DTG guys occasionally overstep the mark, and in practice have a particular bias against people who are attempting to address sensemaking questions by reference to object level reasoning, like Scott Alexander. Their criticism can boil down simply to a reference to a majority consensus opinion as if it's self evident.
This is a particular problem when addressing the fans and audiences of heterodox and contrarian positions, because they are very aware of these kind of tactics, and have strong ideological defences against these kind of approaches.
In Rebel Wisdom's 'War on Sensemaking', Daniel Schmachtenberger observed that ideas (memes) will usually be found as structures (memeplexes) alongside other ideas whose main function is to protect or defend the central ideas (defensive memes). Some of the core defensive memes of the IDW-adjacent space are 'bad faith', 'russell conjugation', and particularly 'ad hominem'.
In practice these defenses are often used selectively, for example, 'Russell Conjugation' (defined as a manipulative and deliberately emotive framing of an issue) is pointed out in a piece of writing that you are keen to deconstruct, but often waved through in a piece that supports your position.
As I said earlier, I don't believe we can avoid looking at the 'hominem', the world is simply too complex to avoid some short cuts with judging who is reliable, who has a track record of good quality reasoning, or who has emotional or audience drivers that may be affecting their arguments, however, care has to be taken to balance this with actually addressing the substantive point at issue.
Steel Manning Heterodoxy
This would be my main criticism of the DTG guys. They have a strong mainstream bias that fails to understand and address the strongest version of the heterodox perspective. While I agree with them that the contrarian criticism of the mainstream goes too far and fails to appreciate what qualities remain within the institutions, they swing too far in the other direction.
One of their metrics for gurudom is the 'Cassandra Complex', where gurus predict disaster. But what if we are indeed heading for disaster?
If there is a coherent perspective in the heterodox space that Rebel Wisdom is paying attention to, it's that we are indeed facing existential crises, what philosopher Tomas Bjorkman has called the 'meta-crisis'. The 'Game B' movement, which has overlapped with the heterodox and IDW space could be summarised as "the current system (Game A) has built in self-terminating (game theoretic) dynamics, and we need a new system with fundamentally different characteristics, the placeholder for which has the name Game B".
I find this to be a deeply researched and persuasive case, Jordan Hall and others reference works such as Joseph Tainter's 'Collapse of Complex Societies' to explain how civilisations regularly expand to the limits of their capacities, extract all they can and then suddenly collapse.
This is a way of thinking that is clearly dominating the thinking of many of the most wealthy and informed people in society. Douglas Rushkoff tells the story of being paid by some of the world's richest hedge fund managers to answer questions about 'the event', what would likely happen in the immediate aftermath of a sudden collapse of civilisation and how they could prepare.
I would love to see the DTG guys actually attempt to understand and critique the strongest version of this perspective, partly because I hope that it's wrong in significant aspects. In that case then some of DTG's criticisms of some of the figures broadly aligned with the heterodox space seem facile and ill-conceived, a kind of 'rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic'.
For example, when heterodox thinkers such as the Weinsteins talk about systemic factors that have led to the hollowing out of many of the institutions since the 1970s, they tend to see this as borderline Alex Jones/InfoWars conspiracy theorising. While, again, I agree that there is a paranoid tendency that goes too far (and in Bret's case has collapsed into many unsupported and dubious specific claims about vaccines and ivermectin), they don't attempt to grapple with the strongest version of that argument, which I have heard from many of the different intellectuals we have hosted.
Many of the people I've spoken to look to concepts like Baudrillard's 'simulacrum' to explain how the institutions have become shadows of themselves. This is a process where the institution becomes so large, and people within it start playing political games and signalling virtue, rather than carrying out the original purpose of the institution.
It's actually an argument that was made in an artistic way through the series The Wire, which was described as a "meditation on the death of America", and looked at how the institutions fell prey to bad incentives, over-reliance on 'statistics' and obsessively rationalist measurements, institutional power games and jockeying for position rather than fulfilling the mission. It’s also a case made at length by people like the influential BBC documentarian Adam Curtis.
While Matt and Chris are generally good mannered, self-aware and easy to listen to, in my view there is a lack of epistemic humility common to many skeptics. Of course, many of the people they are critiquing also lack epistemic humility to a greater degree.
I would love to see them attempt to steel man some of the heterodox positions and to try to understand more before criticising. They could host someone like Daniel Schmachtenberger, Jim Rutt (former head of the Santa Fe Institute) or a heterodox thinker on Covid like Zubin Damania, with the aim of genuine dialogue and trying to see if they themselves have blind spots.
Eric Weinstein has coined the term 'chimera' for what he describes as an online figure who "leads with criticism", but the criticism is a thinly veiled attempt at destruction. This is a person who poses as a 'critic', often even has some well founded criticisms, but is using these as a front for a resentment-fuelled attempt at destruction. I personally have a couple of these obsessive critics (one from the left, and one from the right), and can testify to the existence of the phenomenon.
They're fuelled by an inexhaustible passion to tear down and destroy, but paradoxically because of this they're also more likely than anyone else to actually find genuine evidence of slip ups, as they are prepared to spend hours hate-watching your material and to clip out 'proof' of your misdeeds.
How we deal with this chimera critic is another of the big questions of navigating the new alternative media space we find ourselves.
I would not say that Chris and Matt fall fully into that trap, but they are subject to exactly the same audience dynamics that have pushed others towards the 'dunk/destroy' outcome, and have some audience members that would love nothing more than to see them attack people they consider enemies. It should be said that from my observations, the Decoding the Gurus Reddit community seems like a generally healthy, high calibre and measured group.
We named the ‘critique sphere’ earlier in this essay as a new memetic tribe, and each tribe has certain biases, strengths and blind spots. I would argue that the critique sphere has a tendency to ‘snideness’ at times. Again, I think Matt and Chris are less guilty of this, but it can creep in, and is much more present among some of their fans.
What I see Matt and Chris doing is a more subtle version of the chimera attack. Many of the figures they target do have many things they can be criticised for. These are public intellectuals who are very fond of their own voices, and by definition they are often people who are often hugely overdeveloped in some areas (the 'Galaxy Brain' syndrome) and noticeably lacking in others, such as self-awareness or social skills.
Yet Matt and Chris seem to think that the simple observation that someone is indeed peculiar, obsessive or wrong about specific things means that they can and should be dismissed 'in toto'. In my view there is a subtle message of dismissal that veers towards social ostracism and shaming behaviour.
Personally I believe that we have to learn to deal with people's complexities, criticise them by all means and use that awareness to weigh up their credibility, but to understand that everyone has flaws.
The huge irony here is that their most frequent target, Eric Weinstein, makes exactly this point, that progress all too often depends on the most disagreeable, annoying and marginal figures. Eric was described by my friend Andrew Sweeny as the ‘patron saint of the outcasts and oddballs’ for his defence of the fringe figures.
I sent this article to Chris to get his response before publication and he disagreed strongly with this reading, that they tend to reject people entirely. He said that their episodes on characters like Robert Wright and Brene Brown demonstrate that they are able to criticise without entirely rejecting, however: “We do label various people to be of little value to the discourse outside of self aggrandising waffle… but that is our honest assessment and that does not apply to everyone we disagree with.”
I have been featured twice on DTG, firstly over my interview with Jordan Hall regarding his conversation with the Propertarian Fascist, Brandon Hayes, and secondly over my conversation with Eric Weinstein during the controversy over the Dark Horse podcast's vaccine scepticism last summer.
The latter is arguably an example of the accusation of cherry picking and taking the most damning interpretations. Matt and Chris, and their guest David Pizarro are scathing of Eric's criticisms of Fauci and the CDC, and his suggestions that he and other heterodox voices should be drafted in to help with public health messaging. At one point Pizarro goes as far as to describe his language as “evil”.
What's lacking throughout is any credit for the context of Eric's intervention, or appreciation of the impact of his words. He's commenting on a controversy involving his own brother, and making some criticisms of Bret's position, including that he has likely overstated the case on Ivermectin. He is also making a pro-vaccine argument that is likely to resonate with sceptics of big pharma, saying that despite his concerns about the incentive structure and corruption of the medical system (a case made by many people the DTG guys would support such as Ben Goldacre and Stuart Richie), he is personally vaccinated with the J&J vaccine and believed that there is enough residual competence in the system.
In the aftermath of that interview the conspiracy-sympathetic and influential writer Daniel Pinchbeck wrote on his Substack that he had been vaccinated with J&J after watching. In the vaccine-sceptical circles Pinchbeck moves in, this was a brave and controversial thing to do. I heard anecdotally that others had made the same decision after listening to Eric's interview. Given that nearly a quarter of a million people in the heterodox ecosystem heard the conversation, that could add up to quite a large number. Given the DTG focus on the Covid landscape and vaccine advocacy, this could be something they would appreciate and applaud. A standard 'trust the consensus' argument would make no progress among people who already distrust the institutions.
Mark Ledwich argues that on Twitter both Matt and Chris are 'consensus enforcers' who have a tendency to target people who are trying to argue from the factual, or 'object level', and to criticise them using largely social metrics, as if describing someone as an "anti-vaxxer" is enough to shut down the argument, or to argue that 'everyone knows' that this perspective or person is invalid. I think that, being largely embedded in academia and consensus thinking, Chris and Matt don’t easily appreciate the way more contrarian audiences think and the messages that are more likely to reach them.
Chris disagreed with the suggestion that he and Matt were ‘defenders of orthodoxy’, and said: “I think this claim is largely misplaced and is really only applicable in so far as you compare us with the baseline you find amongst contrarians/heterodox. Matt has published articles criticising government research on vaping/e-cigarettes, I’ve published in academic journals about the over reliance on critical theory in certain disciplines/the need to reform research practices in the wake of the replication crisis. And similarly, I didn’t have any issue with disputing mainstream coverage and inaccurate claims when it came to Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook ‘hacking’ scandal. What Matt and I are arguing for is not an uncritical acceptance of mainstream positions but rather an *appropriately* critical approach to ALL sources: mainstream and alternative. This means factoring in things like imperfect messaging, differing opinions with institutions, political influences, conservatism in organisations, tradeoffs in public health messaging, etc.”
In listening to their recent criticisms of Joe Rogan I had a bit of a revelation about their perspective. They released three episodes on Rogan in total, starting with one about his conversation with Jocko Willink that preceded most of the recent controversy. I'm a fan and admirer of Joe, so it was a tough listen as they persuasively laid out a case that Joe was abandoning his previous "I'm just a comedian and lunkhead, what do I know" perspective and was increasingly overestimating his ability to parse the scientific landscape around Covid, repeating easily falsified claims (such as Uttar Pradesh/Japan & Ivermectin) and being increasingly attracted to a conspiratorial perspective that would result in him giving the credulous and unchallenging interviews to conspiracy theorists Robert Malone and Peter McCullough that would directly trigger the recent blowback.
Some of their criticisms in the three episodes were overblown, but many landed. FWIW I don't believe that Rogan should be censored, but I do believe he has a responsibility to host counter perspectives to the ones made by Malone & McCullough, something he himself acknowledged in his first apology on Instagram.
In dialogue with Chris about this I realised that the difference in our perspectives was largely that I believed in Rogan's ability to take criticism and course correct, and he didn't. In short, that I tended to see people as capable of learning and growing in response to criticism, and he was largely cynical about the potential for a 'redemption arc', certainly with regards to Rogan.
This wider realisation also informs my different attitude to many of the other public intellectuals they (and we) have featured. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, while Chris seems to adhere to a view that 'people don't change', and is very good at finding evidence to prove his hypothesis. If I'm honest I would have to admit that he has been proved right more often than I have so far, but I prefer my narrative over his, even though it seems to lead to disappointment more often than not.
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