For the last decade, I have been trying to solve a problem most people don’t even realize exists. If you’re a non-scientist you probably believe that if scientists had found a solution to a problem that it would be implemented. After all, if there was a cure to cancer, wouldn’t drug companies jump all over it? Of course, they would. There’s money to be made there. However, for those of us who have wandered around within science, a different problem becomes clear: the answers exist but not in a form that most people can appreciate. Not even scientists.
In 2016, the world became deeply aware of the existence of a number of echo chambers. There are blue echo chambers, red echo chambers, libertarian echo chambers, Russian echo chambers and Chinese echo chambers. You don’t have to live in North Korea to live in an intellectual Hermit Kingdom. People self-isolate from competing perspectives. They don’t do it maliciously. In fact, they often do it unconsciously. You’re tired. You have kids to raise and bills to pay. After all that, why go watch a TV channel or read a newspaper that’s going to piss you off? Why read a book from a field that you don’t understand? All of this is perfectly understandable. And it’s exactly what happens within science. From the outside, science is this big, single thing. Inside science, there are a series of echo chambers (or silos) and ideas don’t diffuse between them. As the science writer Mark Schatzker put it to me in an email:
“One of the strangest experiences of researching this book was finding that different silos of science had different answers to the same questions. Even stranger was realizing that they didn’t really care.”
The problem both within and outside science is primarily one of obliviousness and indifference. It’s people just “doing their jobs.” And, in doing their jobs, they go along with cultural prejudices of which they’re not even aware. I’ve come to really appreciate the wisdom in Hanlon’s Razor: never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. There is no grand conspiracy here. Individual humans just aren’t that smart. It’s just people doing what they do because everyone else does and because this is the way things always have been done.
If you haven’t seen Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, it’s well worth a watch. One of the very best bits is when Steve Jobs talks about how most of what people do in companies makes no sense and can be improved on. You just ask why. When you do, people struggle to find an explanation. They say, “That’s just the way we do things.” From a tribesman somewhere in the world, we’d instantly recognize that this is simply a magical ritual that may or may not make any sense. From powerful people in our society, we can blindly sign off on it. Steve Jobs never did. He repeatedly questioned conventional wisdom and that’s why he was so unconventionally successful. Was Jobs always well liked? Nope. And Jobs acknowledges this but is also clear that difficult as working with him was many people felt this was the most rewarding and challenging part of their lives. They felt a sense of great purpose.
Humans hunger for great purpose. We crave meaning. And yet, our societies often do a terrible job of delivering it. Young people often lack a clear path to excellence, to a family and to dignity. And rarely do our societies achieve the sense of great mission provided by World War II or the Apollo Program. Instead, there is a great vacuum that leaves open the playing field to people like those in ISIS and Al Qaeda. They say “Come with us! We’ll change the world.” And rather than trying to outcompete ISIS and Al Qaeda we simply try and bomb them out of existence. As Amos Oz wrote:
“But Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.”
So you have science that doesn’t diffuse and move, people like me and many others hungering for meaning and a sense of great purpose and the need to outcompete the many forms of Fundamentalism. Why not put all that together and evolve the best worldview the world has ever seen?
But this is where the cultural prejudice of the scientific establishment reveals what Steve Jobs calls its folklore. To move these ideas you have to simplify them down. You have to put them together. And you have to empower people without any qualifications to treat these ideas the same way they would take a song clip or movie clip they were remixing. And you have to call out the people who use intellectual smoke and mirrors to hide what are actually quite simple ideas. There’s no grand conspiracy here but there is a profound obliviousness to the ways in which the culture of science does not promote the spreading of science to the public. After thirteen years of dealing with this, I have become radicalized.
I have become an intellectual terrorist.
It gets worse. I am now actively working with people all over the world to build knowledge bombs. No one is safe. Wherever you are, we intend to blow your minds.
Of course, plenty of people have built knowledge bombs before. I’ve been making them for my own students for years and so have many teachers and YouTubers. The difference is that I am now disturbed enough by what is happening in the world that all sense of personal safety has gone out the window. I’m willing to blow up my own reputation in the public eye if it will detonate a knowledge bomb in someone else’s mind.
Part of the dance we’re all doing in the age of social media is a dance between trying to connect with our friends and loved ones and the rest of humanity and being painfully worried about what everyone thinks about us. Those fears and worries aren’t unjustified. People screw up on social media and millions of strangers can turn on them. It’s now impossible to escape your mistakes. On the internet, they live forever. There’s the temptation to try and avoid making a mistake but that prevents you from learning or really engaging in the global conversation. The only real solution is to screw up and own it.
So, how have I screwed up? I screwed up because I failed to have the systems in place for after the knowledge bomb went off. I created conflict non-violently but I didn’t have the teaching tools ready to go to quickly bring people into the world of these ideas. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. And that is the nature of failure. You screw up and then you say “This is what I should have done.” And then you use that failure to do better.
Most of humanity will be oblivious to my first acts of intellectual terrorism. I called out certain individuals as Western Fundamentalists who preach a simplistic doctrine that draws in (among others) young, angry, lost people and give them a simplistic sense of historical mission. To those without purpose, they give purpose. People don’t join ISIS or Al Qaeda because it offers them nothing. They join because it offers a quick fix to a spiritual emptiness. It offers them a sense of destiny, being wanted and belonging. Anarcho-Capitalism, Islamic Fundamentalism, Christian Fundamentalism, Atheist Fundamentalism and a certain Self-Righteous strain of social justice offer easy answers. They allow practitioners to believe we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. You can feel Self-Righteous about anything as anyone who has spent time around the worst kind of vegan will tell you. In LA, people often say that veganism is a religion even though it has nothing to do with God. In fact, though, the real issue is a holier-than-thou attitude. It’s fucking annoying.
To be clear, not all vegans are this way. And I almost certainly eat more meat than I need to. But what that experience reveals is that you can be a judgmental asshole, have valid points and actually alienate people from things that might help their lives simply because of your attitude. The attitude of many scientists and especially public scientists towards religious people sucks. They’re like vegans. You may have things to offer people that will help them but you’re such dicks about it that they don’t want to be in your club.
I first became aware of this problem when I tutored kids at a Christian school. This was when New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were about as popular as they got. They were a huge deal in this school and I realized that if I was a Christian kid and this was my only exposure to scientists I would never have wanted to become a scientist. They’re condescending dickheads who don’t know how much they don’t know. So, I thought I’d call them out. I also called out Lena Dunham and an Anarcho-Capitalist called Tom Woods and a libertarian named Peter Schiff. And I teased Richard B. Spencer, the intellectual founder of the alt-right, and called him Emo Kylo Ren. It was all designed to be playful and good-natured. None of it was an attack on the person. It was an attack on their ideas. And, predictably, I was congratulated by some people and offended others. Whole videos were edited together and memes created to discredit me as a person. Many of these jokes at my expense were hilarious. “Atheism-is-unstoppable” found my many verbal ticks and made a whole video of them edited together so it’s just me continuously saying the tag question “right?” For two months, my Twitter feed was endless attacks on my appearance, my lack of fame and my lack of intelligence. The book I wrote to empower kids to take charge of their own educations was criticized for not having enough attention. Agreed. It’s remarkably hard to get attention for ideas that will change people’s lives. Actually changing your life takes really work. Blaming and insulting something like religion or the government or white men is a much, much easier sell than a message of personal responsibility, dealing with your own emotions, empathy for others, constant learning and constantly admitting when you screwed up. I’m trying to sell beliefs that work…and the problem is that very often they aren’t the easiest sell.
As a teacher, you come to profoundly appreciate the idea that we live in an attention economy. You spend your time trying to compete for your students’ attention against Kim Kardashian’s greasy butt photo, well-funded video games made by some of the most talented people on the planet and whatever insanity is currently happening on social media. How can ideas trapped in books that are hundreds of pages of dry prose compete with all that? Well, they’re not. They’re losing. They’re losing in the classroom. They’re losing on the internet. They’re failing to win hearts and minds. And that creates a mental vacuum. And the mind abhors a vacuum. It wants something to latch onto and so people with simplistic, easily-digestible worldviews that play the blame game do well. The insanity of 2016 was set up decades ago. Abraham Lincoln famously said that the philosophy of the classroom in one generation is the philosophy of government in the next. Well, the philosophy of the classroom a generation ago was one which saw the problems of belief systems, clear storytelling and advocating for a definite worldview. It was a philosophy of just communicating facts and expect students in a generation to reinvent the insights and wisdom that it has taken humanity millennia to come up with. The result is confusion and chaos as people try and make sense of the most complicated world any human has yet been expected to make sense of. Although we did not realize it, we were sowing the wind. Harvest time has come. We are now reaping the whirlwind.
Fortunately, we have the tools to turn the ship. We can change the course humanity is on and we can do it remarkably quickly. The internet, video and audio technologies and social media make it possible to teach on a mass scale. We can diffuse those ideas that have been trapped in books for so long but it requires getting attention for those ideas. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where intellectual terrorism comes in.
I’ve been thinking a lot about non-violent conflict in the last few months. Like most people, I’ve tended to focus on the non-violent part. After all, it is the commitment to non-violence that distinguishes non-violent conflict from violent conflict. However, I’ve come to focus on the ways in which they are the same. Both violent conflict and non-violent conflict require conflict. Rosa Parks could have avoided conflict by sitting with the black folks on that bus. The Civil Rights community deliberately created conflict by sitting a black woman in the whites only section. This pissed people off. It got attention. And that forced people to reflect on what they believed. Rosa Parks was a model citizen. Why was she doing this? She wasn’t some perennial troublemaker. She must have a really good reason for doing this. In so doing, Rosa Parks drew out feelings that had been driving people’s thinking for years that they’d never really examined. In the same way, Gandhi repeatedly provoked the British. He marched to the sea to make his own salt. Why? Because it drew attention to the Salt Tax about which most people didn’t even know before. Non-violence aims at conflict. Its goal is to draw out unexamined feelings and beliefs so people can re-examine them. Even Jesus engaged in these kinds of publicity stunts flipping over the money changers’ tables in the Temple to draw attention to a practice that had become accepted cultural practice. We know the amount of thought and strategy that went into Rosa Parks sitting down on that bus. We know that Gandhi was being deliberate when he marched to the sea. Gandhi, MLK, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela were amazing at drawing a crowd. They knew how to create conflict that drew people in.
As a kid, I was always fascinated by the moments when Jesus lost his cool. Why did Jesus, a man who preached that we should love everyone, go on a rockstar-like table flipping spree in the temple? Because the problem that non-violent conflict aims to combat is unacceptable behavior that has become culturally accepted. Rosa Parks, MLK, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus and many others drew attention to ways of behaving that had become accepted that they felt should be considered unacceptable. They not only asked why things were done the way they were done. They wanted more and more of society to wonder why. They wanted to create millions of people who were willing to “Think Different.” That’s how societies change. And sometimes that requires causing trouble. It requires publicly embarrassing people.
People don’t think of Teddy Roosevelt as a practitioner of non-violent conflict. After all, Teddy loved violence. He boxed. He sang the virtues of war. He fought at San Juan Hill. And yet, Teddy Roosevelt practiced both violent and non-violent conflict. The great achievement of Roosevelt’s political career was fighting corruption. Along with muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, Roosevelt created conflict to draw attention to abuses of power. Roosevelt courted the press because he knew that the great challenge was one of attention. Corruption was a hard problem for most people to grasp. It wasn’t even something people were really thinking about. And because the public wasn’t thinking about it and didn’t see it as a problem that meant creating drama. He publicly busted up corruption and let people know that as Doris Kearns Goodwin puts it in her book The Bully Pulpit that the law would be enforced “without fear or favor.” And Ida Tarbell and the team at McClure’s knew that the public could not and would not be able to track a vast series of monopolies. And so, they strategically picked out one monopoly and decided to lay bare the full behavior of that monopoly and its founder. They picked Standard Oil and John D. Rockerfeller. As the public tracked the problems of Standard Oil, they began to see the general problem of monopolies. And the groundswell developed for a movement that would pass the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Today, each of us has a Pulpit. We can all set up blogs, YouTube channels, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. How should we use this Pulpit?
Well, for years, I didn’t. I had no real interest in having a big social media following. The idea of constantly updating your social media feed seems like a giant pain in the butt. Moreover, my primary interest has always been in practically solving problems and making the world a better place. Since I had to pay my bills tutoring, I decided to focus on fixing education. And so, I read all the science. Then, I realized (or rather my co-worker Katie O’Brien lovingly browbeat me into realizing) that no one was going to read all these books and so we synthesized seven different fields of research into a single, fun book that would help teens take charge of their own educations. Since then, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find it also has an audience with lots of people in places we wouldn’t have expected who also never got the memo on how to learn or what they were capable of. But the reality is that it’s still a book. The ideas aren’t diffusing fast enough. And so, we need to break them down more. We need to make a podcast for kids and videos and we need to inspire people to take these ideas and remix them into memes and songs. We need to unleash the wisdom of crowds by injecting these ideas into the conversation. You can’t do that unless you have people’s attention. And so, I’ve moved from using social media in a non-violent way that avoids conflict to using it in a non-violent way that seeks to create conflict as an opportunity to then inspire people to reflect on their cultural prejudices. Like Teddy Roosevelt, I have decided to make my Pulpit a Bully Pulpit.
One of the most interesting parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Roosevelt is that early in Teddy’s public career, some people he’d pissed off held a protest to criticize his actions. Roosevelt showed up to the protest against him and marched along with the protestors. He laughed at all the jokes at his own expense. He listened to his critics. He explained his side. And, by the end of the protest, everybody loved Teddy. Teddy was fighting corruption. He was fighting for “the people” as a whole but he was also fighting against “special interests.” He aimed at unity but had to separate out the people who were creating problems. Of course, that pissed those special interests off. And so, he switched roles. He switched from being Teddy the Crusading Reformer to being Teddy the self-deprecating, all-around fun guy! This switching of roles allowed Teddy to build an even larger platform which gave him the ability to better fight the corruption the protestors were trying to defend.
My first attempts at a Bully Pulpit have taught me that that strategy works. I’ve used it to get people’s attention and then engage them in conversation and shift their minds on the issues. And when they have a joke at my expense about my nose or putting me in a gimp suit, I retweet it. I laugh right along with them. Like all humans, I care what people think about me but for me the goal and helping do whatever it takes to solve humanity’s problems is what’s most important to me. The challenge is that my current Bully Pulpit is not scaleable. I, and the other members of the Mixed Mental Arts community, have had a lot of very, very long Twitter conversations that can be more effectively turned into much more finely-crafted knowledge bombs. Once we get someone’s attention, what do we do with it? What knowledge bombs do we need at the ready to quickly drop to maximize having grabbed someone’s attention? Well, I found that out by not having them at my disposal. The followers of someone I’d called a Fundamentalist, nicknamed and mocked would rush in and ask some question and I realized I wouldn’t have a blogpost ready to go to answer that specific question. And so, I wrote them. And I kept writing better ones. And I realized even that was too much of an ask and came with all sorts of shitty associations about self-promotion. “Dude, I’m not reading the dumb-assed blogpost of some guy I’ve never heard of who insulted my favorite thinker.” Totally understandable.
And so, we make better knowledge bombs. We’re making a short video series called #CultureMatters with Katie O’Brien directing. Nicole Page Lee and Andreas Christensen are making a glossary to explain key terms. Cate Fogarty is writing #knowledgebomb posts that in less than 500-words explain the key concepts. We’re now working on Buzzfeed-style quizzes. Nate McCabe, Ian Marra and Scot Radtke are working on the belt system. And people like Matt Maurer, Nicole, Matt Madonna and Brian Otoya with skills I don’t have are building out a t-shirt store and building a website and marketing tools. Leland Chandler has his own dojo. James Miller has taken his podcast and made it a Mixed Mental Arts dojo. And people are giving money on Patreon to help fund all this #IntellectualTerrorism.
I have had many failures. They’re on the internet. I love them all. They have been my best teachers. I look forward to making many more. I could call what I’m doing non-violent conflict but I prefer to call it intellectual terrorism. Why? Because you can’t serve humanity without pissing off the narrow-minded special interests. When you study people like Teddy Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Jesus, Gandhi and MLK, you come to realize that strategically pissing people off is the whole point. You just have to be prepared for what comes next.
So, for now, I’m taking a break from calling out Fundamentalists. Me and my friends have better and more powerful knowledge bombs to build. We’d love to have you help in any way you can. Just know that you don’t have to go to Syria to fight bad ISIS. Instead, you can join good ISIS. We’re just the latest in a long history of non-violent movements in history. So why call ourselves intellectual terrorists? Well, we need attention to do our work and I think it’s helpful to remind people that non-violent conflict involves conflict. The muckrakers owned what their critiques said about them. Jesus was slapped and turned the other cheek. And MLK, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks suffered physical violence and personal attacks. And Teddy Roosevelt marched in a parade to protest him. I appreciate all these approaches but the last one has a special place in my heart.
So call me a troll, a hook nose and an idiot. Tell me how unfamous I am. Make memes of me in a gimp suit. And I’ll laugh at them. I’ll retweet them. And all the time I’ll be thinking of Teddy Roosevelt marching in that parade and laughing.
Why? Because Teddy Roosevelt knew a great secret. A secret that science taught me. Humanity’s superpower is social intelligence.
When you create social drama, you grab people’s attention. People rush in to find out what it’s all about. And that’s when you can teach them. The problem is that if you’re always creating drama you become boring and predictable and so you have to switch up the story. You have to switch roles and show yourself to be good-natured. You make fun of yourself. That switches the story again. Social media celebrities are amazing and creating and turning narratives around themselves. Marriages, pregnancies, tragic miscarriages, divorces. Oh, no! They’re fighting. There’s trouble in paradise. Is he the one? Will they or won’t they? They turn the story again and again. If I had a butt like Ms Kardashian’s, I would grease it up, perch books on top of it and then post that on social media. Sadly, my butt isn’t very photogenic. Fortunately, there are other ways to get attention and grow attention to drive ideas. Teddy Roosevelt used this exact approach to grow interest in reform over decades. And so, that is the challenge. It doesn’t much matter to me whether I personally succeed. I’d like to. But far more important is to share my mistakes and experience so that humanity can do better and better. The people who have mastered social media so far don’t have much of value to say.
Now, it’s time for those of us with substantive things to say to evolve the most powerful form of non-violent conflict yet seen. It’s time to pioneer intellectual terrorism.
Prepare to get knowledge bombed humanity.