“There is a hidden truth in science, and it is unveiled in this book. Science is interesting when it is about us, and when it is useful to us. This is why the ideas in this book are about our needs and how to achieve them, and how to construct a better future for humanity.” – Adrian Bejan, The Physics of Life
The most important teaching experience of my life was having to #TeachTheControversy around evolution at Oaks Christian because it forced me to think long and hard about why humans adopt or reject beliefs. Coming from the culture of science and academia, I had somehow picked up the idea that Fundamentalist Christians were stubbornly refusing to adopt the latest scientific thinking. After all, evolution was 150 years old. The evidence was overwhelming. Why wouldn’t they change their damn minds already?!? I couldn’t change the whole school but I could do something about the one kid I was tutoring. If I had to #TeachTheControversy, then I was going to teach the shit out of that controversy. I was going to test every single one of the ideas laid out and rely on the evidence to speak for itself. Me and my student were going to have ourselves a little intellectual thunderdome.
Except the fifteen year old boy I was tutoring didn’t seem to care about any of the ideas. He wasn’t pro-evolution or pro-creationism. He dreamed of becoming a famous film director. In short, like young primates across species, he wanted status with all the benefits that comes with. And as far as he could tell, neither creationism nor evolution could offer him much in any of these departments. As he bluntly asked me one day, “Who the heck cares where fish come from?”
Ah, from the mouths of babes.
My student wasn’t opposed to science. He didn’t care about Creationism. He cared about what these ideas I was putting out before him could do to solve his problems. How is this going to help him become a famous film director? And the honest truth is that I didn’t know. And so, I went away and thought about it. In so doing, I was lucky to have already read the ultimate book on how to move ideas: The Diffusion of Innovations.
People often naively assume that good ideas win out all by themselves. Clearly, 2016 should have disabused people of this notion. When I appeared on Joe Rogan, he also bought into the idea that ideas diffuse all by themselves because we have the internet. You can listen to the conversation at the 3 hour and 12 minute:
After all, people can access the information easily so surely they do. Any teacher knows better. Just because students have textbooks, google, public libraries, teachers and countless online learning resources, that doesn’t mean they actually use them. Simply having information out there doesn’t do anyone any good. You actually have to engage with it and apply it. Has Joe Rogan read or even heard of The Diffusion of Innovations? Probably not. And, in my experience doing Mixed Mental Arts, nor have the majority of academics. David Sloan Wilson wanted to figure out how to diffuse innovations but had never read “Everett Rogers’ classic work.” Dacher Keltner had never even heard of the book. I love Joe Rogan, David Sloan Wilson and Dacher Keltner. But magical thinking isn’t something that simply disappears because you are a famous scientist or take “Joe Rogan Questions Everything” as your motto. Magical thinking is something that has to be rooted out by routinely bringing your beliefs into conflict with the evidence. And the evidence is that innovations don’t diffuse on their own. They need to be packaged, marketed and have their benefits made so obvious that everyone gets them. In short, ideas are so much like any other product as to be indistinguishable. Certainly, Everett Rogers draws no distinction and, as David Sloan Wilson puts it, he wrote the “classic work” on the topic.
Rogers deliberately begins his book by highlighting two examples of innovations failing to diffuse specifically to rebut the common myth that good ideas sell themselves. As Rogers puts it, “Getting a new idea adopted, even when it has obvious advantages, is difficult.” And so, he chooses two innovations with obvious advantages (they save your life) and shows how they failed to diffuse in spite of having everything going for them.
As Rogers points out, using citrus to prevent scurvy is pretty much the dream innovation:
- It’s cheap. Limes, lemons and oranges don’t cost that much.
- It’s 100% effective. Eat an orange and you’ll turn from scurvy dog into healthy human in no time.
- And it solved a huge problem. During the European Age of Exploration, scurvy killed 2 million sailors. It’s a horrific disease. I won’t inflict pictures on you. Google Image search at your own risk.
- And, not only that, it satisfied another category that is massively important to science-minded moderns: it had solid empirical backing. The evidence was there. A Captain James Lancaster demonstrated in 1601 that citrus fruit cured scurvy and then again 150 years later a doctor named James Lind did more extensive experiments.
If good ideas sell themselves, then using citrus to treat scurvy is the sort of innovation that should have diffused itself in no time. And yet, it wasn’t until 1795 that the British Navy started giving sailors citrus on long sea voyages. Scurvy was immediately eliminated in the Navy. However, the British Board of Trade wouldn’t adopt the practice for another seventy years. Only in 1865 did they adopt a similar practice and eliminate scurvy in the merchant marine. Two million people died because one of the best ideas of its age remained trapped in books.
As any regular listener to The Bryan Callen Show knows, this has become the dominant theme of the show. In fact, it’s why we changed the show to become Mixed Mental Arts. We wanted to assemble a community that could put all these ideas together into a coherent worldview that could be shared with the entire world.
And one of the best ideas that is trapped in books are the ideas in The Diffusion of Innovations. It is a profound irony that The Diffusion of Innovations isn’t better known and applied. The book was written in 1967 and yet the ideas are still entirely unfamiliar to people like Joe Rogan, David Sloan Wilson and Dacher Keltner. The Diffusion of Innovations is an innovation that hasn’t diffused. That is something I intend to change because the naive assumption that good ideas win out simply because people are exposed to them generates a level of complacency and passivity that leaves the field open for Fundamentalists who sell simplistically destructive ideology. It takes concerted effort to move ideas that are realistic and inclusive. The second example from the beginning of Everett Rogers’ “classic” but massively underapplied work demonstrates this.
Like using citrus to treat and prevent scurvy, boiling your drinking water is life-saving, incredibly effective, cheap and has a mountain of empirical evidence behind it. And yet, many people around the developing world don’t do just these sorts of simple health innovations. Actually, while we’re at it, many people in the developed world don’t do very simple things to take care of their health including yours truly! Fortunately for me, unlike Rogers’ book, I’m not half a century old and so rather than hold my diet and exercise “regimen” up as an example of the failure of good ideas to win out, he focuses on the residents of a small Peruvian village named Los Molinas.
A well-meaning healthcare worker named Nelida went in and spent two years intensively trying to diffuse the idea that drinking water should be boiled first. She explained the health benefits. She talked about all the scientific facts. And she failed. Her failure has been the failure of science with the teaching of evolution over the last 150 years. It is the failure of medicine in dealing with anti vaxxers’ beliefs. It is the failure of communication over climate change. And it was the failure of the Brexit Remain camp and Hillary Clinton. Whatever you feeeeel on these different issues, the interesting part is what the strategy of a myopic reliance on facts leads to: failure. Facts are great. They’re a useful tool. And they’re essential to science figuring out what to believe. However, the human brain didn’t evolve to be responsive to facts. It evolved to care about status. My student cared about achieving status in his community, Hollywood. And so, he wanted to have the respect of BOTH the people who give out awards AND the people who make money doing films. In his culture, the ultimate thing to aspire to was to be one of the tiny handful of directors who can pull off both.
As a result, my student wasn’t resistant to new ideas. In fact, he was obsessed with them in the areas he cared about. He was always looking into the latest camera, lighting, sound and editing technology. And I quickly figured out that I could teach him literally anything if I reframed it in terms of his goals of being one of the great movie directors. Perhaps the most famous line in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the founding text of Capitalism, is…
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
While the majority of humanity reads this line in terms of capitalism, I read it slightly differently because Adam Smith and I have the same day job. We’re both tutors. As a tutor, you’re expected to “diffuse” ideas into the brains of young children who will almost certainly never need a job to pay their bills. They will need for dignity and self-worth. You have to address “their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Adam Smith is rightly celebrated for his contributions to economics but I suspect his day job tutoring the children of the wealthy was the perfect incubator for his understanding of human motivations.
There’s often a narrative that rich kids are lazy because they don’t have any “real” problems. And yet, the people of Los Molinas’ failure to adopt the practice of boiling water before drinking it reveals what humans consider real problems. Everett Rogers doesn’t go into detail about the living conditions in this Peruvian village in the 1950s but we can bet that compared to my student they are poor. And if their drinking water is unsanitary then they’re dying unnecessarily of diseases. By 1st world standards, these people have real problems. And yet, Nelida, the healthcare worker, fails to tutor them in a way that helps them change their behavior. Why? Well, as Everett Rogers observes “Nelida was ‘innovation-oriented’ rather than ‘client-oriented.'” She was interested in her idea (boiling water) rather than in treating the villagers of Los Molinas as clients for her to serve. Nelida should have spoken to the villagers’ self-love.
As my student tried to learn all the aspects of film directing, he found himself with a problem. There was a lot to learn. The only way to do that with a human brain was to create a clear overarching framework. That is why evolution was so practically useful. It answered why.
My student may not care where fish come from. However, he does care where human nature comes from. In fact, that is the most intensely interesting question for a young primate with off-the-charts social intelligence. What makes people tick? Why do we do the things we do? And it’s especially interesting in an age when globalization is pushing so many different cultures together. Cultural evolution is how you finally diffuse the innovation of evolutionary thinking across cultures. Why? Because man searches for meaning. We seek to understand who we are. We seek to understand our shared humanity and cultural differences. We want to know how to prepare our children for a future we can’t anticipate. We dream of a better, fairer, more prosperous world. But to build that vision it not only has to be grounded in reality to be workable. It has to be diffused. And to understand how to do that, you have to return to the village of Los Molinas.
As Everett Rogers explains, “An important factor regarding the adoption rate of an innovation is its compatibility with the values, beliefs, and past experiences of individuals in the social system.” In order for an innovation to diffuse, it must fit within the existing culture. And one of the major problems Nelida had was that the villagers already had beliefs about boiled water. Like many cultures around the world, they believed that foods could have hot and cold energy. When heated water acquired hot energy that stayed with it even after it cooled down. And so the people of the village drank water after they already had colds to cure them. In the mind of the villagers, boiled water was for sick people. You certainly didn’t boil your water when you were healthy. Nelida’s ideas weren’t coming into a blank space. They were running up against existing cultural intuitions.
And that was the same when I tried to diffuse evolutionary thinking into my student’s head at Oaks Christian. He may not have cared about evolution or creationism as an individual but his community cared deeply. In the minds of his tribe, evolution was a dirty idea because they saw it as a threat to their belief in a Christian God. And so, we get to the fork in the road that I have reached. On the one hand, there are the prejudices of some public scientists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who insist upon driving a narrative that suggests that evolution and atheism belong together. On the other hand, there are scientists like Jon Haidt and David Sloan Wilson who view religion as a useful adaptation that emerges from evolutionary pressures. You don’t have to get into the evolutionary theory to test out these ideas. Instead, you can just listen to Everett Rogers:
“An important factor regarding the adoption rate of an innovation is its compatibility with the values, beliefs, and past experiences of individuals in the social system.”
I’m advocating for the ideas of Jon Haidt and David Sloan Wilson and trying to take down the ideas of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris because I know what a changing of the scientific guard can do. It can end the 150 year conflict over evolution once and for all. And if humanity can end one dispute in 2017, then that will give us the confidence to tackle others.
To all of this, you could say what Joe Rogan said towards the end of our interview “But they didn’t have the internet…”
Well, the internet is a tool that is available to everyone, including ISIS and the many other types of fundamentalists around. The difference is that their ideas are simpler, offer the feeling of knowing all the answers and empower you to blame all your problems on something outside yourself. Selling the idea of self-reflection, confronting your own emotional and cultural baggage and doing ten thousand hours of practice is not an easy sell. The real advantage is that there are no gatekeepers. It is up to us whether we take on the challenge and the work of packaging these ideas so they can diffuse.
On the 50 year anniversary of the publication of Everett Rogers classic work, Rogers’ own words seem self-prophetic:
“It matters little, so far as human behavior is concerned, whether or not an idea is “objectively” new as measured by the lapse of time since its first use or discovery. The perceived newness of the idea for the individual determines his or her reaction to it. If an idea seems new to the individual, it is an innovation.”
The Diffusion of Innovations has proven to be a new idea to people ranging from Sam Harris’ followers to Joe Rogan to David Sloan Wilson to Dacher Keltner. For the Mixed Mental Arts community, it is the playbook on how we get good ideas out of books and into the world. It’s how we outcompete the bad ideas of Fundamentalists. In so doing, it is worth recognizing that there is no difference between a new camera, an iPhone, a new food brand or an idea like The Dunbar Number. In the end, the last couple of months have demonstrated the ways in which Joe Rogan was right and I was wrong. The internet does change things. There are no gatekeepers anymore. We can build whatever we want including knowledge bombs that will blow people’s minds and diffuse ideas that have been trapped in books for ages.
It has been amazing how many people have come together since my appearance on Joe Rogan. People from all over the world who have felt many of the same things. Today, Katie O’Brien and I met with people who wanted to volunteer their time and skills to diffuse these ideas. This website was built by Matt Maurer whom I’ve never met. Nicole Page Lee is doing our t-shirt store even though she has a job and a family. And people are contributing money to the Mixed Mental Arts Patreon to help make #CultureMatters a reality. I’ve joked before about The Callenphate but that Field of Dreams seems less and less implausible. We have built a beta version and some people have come. But this is naive:
You don’t simply build any kind of startup and relax. Instead, you take the resources you have from your initial success and you leverage those to rebuild your field of dreams better.
If you build it, some people will come…and they’ll figure out ways to build it better. So more people come. So they can build it even better. The Callenphate will forever be a work in progress. As Matt Maurer recently put it, “You build the bicycle while you ride it.” That’s the game, folks. Here goes.