Intellectual Terrorism 101: Make Famous Things Blow Up!

Terrorists have a flair for the dramatic. Al Qaeda and the Producer of Independence Day think in the exact same way. They love to blow up famous landmarks.

Both Al Qaeda and Independence Day’s Roland Emmerich love to find the MOST symbolic landmarks and blow that shit up! Why? Because both moviemakers and terrorists aim to provoke strong emotional responses. In each case, that’s because both terrorists and Hollywood’s emotional terrorists are trying to highjack your brain. Emotion drives attention. Fear, surprise, awe, anger, joy, curiosity–these emotions drive your attention to focus on very specific things. It’s a way of manipulating your thinking.

The emotion that terrorists obviously love most is terror. As George Friedman, founder of the geopolitical intelligence service Stratfor explains, terrorism is the strategy of the weak against the strong. Al Qaeda never had the power to occupy even one US city. Imagine what would happen if Al Qaeda tried to take and hold Milwaukee. How long do you think they would last against the US Military? Not very long. All terrorists can do is piss off the giant so much that he stumbles and gets drawn into a fight with the weaker man.

I do not have much social power. I have a mere 5,000 Twitter followers. As an educator, I realized that if I wanted to draw attention to great ideas that have not diffused to the masses, I would have to experiment with the most emotionally provocative behavior possible. I would have to become an intellectual terrorist. My goal was to provoke an emotional reaction from people by attacking symbols.

Shakespeare famously wrote:

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,”

— As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

This has never been more true than in the age of social media. We all wear masks. We create screennames. We put on avatars and strut about on the public stage. Some of us present the image that we have it all figured out. Some of us aim to be a source of great comedy. Some of us choose to be trolls. But our online personae often have little to do with the reality of our offline lives.

Living in LA, you get to see the masks slip. Spend thirteen years in this town and you will see many celebrities walking around looking nothing like they do on the silver screen. It takes a lot of hair styling, cosmetics, photoshop touch-ups, and carefully-worded press releases to create that image. Celebrities become celebrities in part because they typecast themselves. They create a character so clear the public instantly understands it.

And when that image is threatened, they often get very, very upset. That image is more than just their livelihood; it’s a role they get wrapped up in. They get lost in the character they have created.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that any human being anywhere is the character they play on the world stage. And yet, ridiculous as that may be, humanity has done it again and again. The people of North Korea believe the image that Kim Jong-Un has created of himself, just as much as many in the Western World believe the image that Kim Kardashian has created of herself. The two Kims have made themselves iconic.

Throughout history, people have turned themselves into icons in order to sell products. In his time, Thomas Edison was known as The Wizard of Menlo Park, while in our time Steve Jobs is known as The iGod. The iGod is dead, but the image lives on. Like the Pharoahs and Popes, The Wizard of Menlo Park and the iGod knew how to inspire awe. They put on a show. They played characters on the world stage.

Working in education, I know how damaging this belief in icons can be. Most students never slip behind the curtain to see that there is no Wizard. There’s only a man pulling some levers. They fall for the photoshopped image of Edison and Jobs just as surely as young girls fall for the image of photoshopped fashion models. This sets up unrealistic expectations that mess kids up both physically (in the case of fashion models) and academically (in the case of genius myths).

It’s precisely the emotional power of the images that Jobs, Edison, Mozart, Newton, and Michael Jackson created that makes them such effective teaching tools. When you blow up those images, students begin to question what they thought they knew. In order to do that, you have to be Toto. You pull back the curtain and invite them to look more closely at reality.

For the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with blowing up the images of some powerful LIVING people as a way to drive attention to ideas. Sadly, what I consider my best work is the least appreciated. My petition to get Lena Dunham to End Pizza Now! only has 29 supporters. I’ve gotten stronger responses from calling out a couple of famous libertarians, Tom Woods and Peter Schiff. But the biggest response of all has come from calling out two members of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism who purport to be scientific thinkers.

Richard Dawkins has yet to respond to my teasing or my assertion that he has actually become a barrier to the teaching of evolution. However, Sam Harris was apparently so upset by my challenge to the image he has created of himself that during his recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience he spent six minutes of his and the listeners’ time talking smack about me to his buddy Joe. When I had the opportunity to go on Joe Rogan’s show (which has 30 million downloads) I nervously tried to present the massive amount of science that hasn’t diffused into the public conversation. I talked endlessly about the work of scientists like Jon Haidt, Joe Henrich, Richard Nisbett, David Sloan Wilson, Martin Seligman, Carol Dweck, and many others of whom most people have never heard.  I think we’ve heard plenty from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

My admittedly poor performance lacked the smooth, self-confident polish that has allowed Sam to become one of science’s leading ambassadors. But my goal was to draw the public and the scientific communities’ attention to the science it isn’t aware of by any means necessary. Apparently, I put enough of a crack in Sam Harris’ self image that he felt impelled to use his time telling Joe Rogan’s audience that they shouldn’t listen to me.

Fortunately for me, Sam Harris has done the same poor job of researching me as he has done researching Christianity, Islam, and the science. Sam Harris has said I am wrong about the “relevant biology.” Great! Now we’re getting somewhere. Let’s unpack all that science. Let’s get it in front of the public and let them decide, because in the end the evidence speaks for itself. My goal was to pull back the curtain, and now that I’ve done so, Sam is saying “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” I have aroused the wrath of the great and powerful Sam Harris!

So what is the “relevant biology” that I am wrong about?

Am I wrong about Descartes’ Error? Because it seems that as much as Sam LOVES to talk about how rational he is he got really emotional in this video. After all, why, as Dan Harris pointed out, does he care so much about what a tutor no one has heard of thinks?

Am I wrong about what I have said about cultural evolution? The public has heard enough from the Four Horsemen. I think it’s time that they hear from The Holy Trinity of Cultural Evolution, namely Jon Haidt, David Sloan Wilson, and Joe Henrich.

Am I wrong that the approach of the New Atheists actually alienates people from science while claiming to promote it? I don’t think Sam has read The Diffusion of Innovations.

What is this “relevant biology” that Sam thinks I am wrong about? I want to learn. Teeeeeeaaach meeeeee, O Great Sam Harris!

As a teacher, I care about popularizing the science, and to do that you need to drive attention to that science. We all love a good fight! Nothing drives attention like social drama. Here’s the scientific evidence that demonstrates that! Social intelligence is humanity’s superpower.

Of course, Sam understands this. And not just because he has built his public persona by making provocative statements about Muslims, Christians, and religion in general, but because he grew up in and around Hollywood. Sam Harris’ mom is Susan Harris, who created Soap and The Golden Girls.

The Harris family knows that to get and keep attention you have to create social drama week after week. That’s what I’m doing for science. I’m creating and using social conflict to drive eyeballs to the science, and Sam is helping me.

Personally, I think that he secretly knows what I’m up to and is helping me out. I see you, Sam Harris. Thanks, bro!

Is the Intellectual Terrorist approach socially retarded as Joe Rogan has said? Well, I agree with Einstein. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Science has been writing boring papers (and ignoring the evidence from The Diffusion of Innovations) for years. By combining the lessons of Sam’s mom’s show and the science Sam obviously hasn’t read, I think we can evolve a much better approach for moving scientific ideas. I want to blow up the walls of the Ivory Tower and let the ideas flow out. You say troll. I say intellectual terrorist.

In the end, this approach will be judged by what it achieves. If it fails, I will be demonized. If it succeeds, I’ll be cast as a bold visionary. In the end, Shakespeare was right: “All the world’s a stage” and “one man in his time plays many parts.” Sam and I will both play many roles.

Terrorists provoke much more powerful nations to act out of emotion so that they get involved in conflicts from which they can’t extract themselves. Intellectual terrorists provoke much more socially powerful people to engage on the battlefield of ideas from which they can’t extract their public personae. I don’t need to get in the same room as Sam Harris and “debate” him. All the world’s a stage. I can now unpack the “relevant biology” in front of the world and let the public decide.

Thanks for driving attention to the science, Sam, even if it blows up your carefully constructed public persona in the process. It takes a real intellectual terrorist to be willing to destroy your own image.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.


  1. J Smith Reply

    I was really enjoying this and quite intrigued when I got to the Sam Harris bit. Then when I got to the ‘Teeeeach meeee!’ bit I could read no further. Whether this article goes on to redeem itself I don’t know. But maybe you should think about reworking that part.

      1. J Smith Reply

        “What is this “relevant biology” that Sam thinks I am wrong about? I want to learn. Teeeeeeaaach meeeeee, O Great Sam Harris!”

        I just couldn’t recognize this last sentence as you. I know you’re not the petulant teenager that you come across as there. Perhaps you meant it more playfully than I took it. But it seemed very odd after just reading you say “My admittedly poor performance lacked the smooth, self-confident polish that has allowed Sam to become one of science’s leading ambassadors.” I think that just “What is this “relevant biology” that Sam thinks I am wrong about?” gets you point across fine.

        1. Hunter "Toto" Maats Post author Reply

          Yeah! It was intended playfully. Sam’s whole thing rests on people trying to compete with him intellectually and one up him. Then, he swoops in and atomizes things and it looks to young people who don’t know a whole lot like he’s “WON.” Me playing the fool and saying “I don’t know. But there’s all this other science from people who are way smarter than me that doesn’t fit with what you say at all” draws in the crowd. I’m not saying I’m smarter than Sam. I’m saying I’m a nobody who just wants to learn. So, can someone please explain this to me ’cause Sam said I don’t get it at all…I mean he said I was wrong about HALF the biology. That means I score 50% Jesus! That’s bad. That’s a failing grade. Woah! I better do some work. Can someone help me?!?

          And now what? Well, you’ve moved the conversation away from who is the authority…which is why we’re stuck here anyway. The scientific evidence exists but it can’t be put together because NO ONE is enough of an authority to cross fields. Katie O and I had to put together seven different fields of neuroscience and psych to create a clear, compelling and functional view of learning that teenagers could understand. Sometimes, we get asked if we’re qualified to do this kind of work. NO ONE is. We figured out a long time ago that the secret is to do what we do with our students. Play dumb! We don’t know. We put it all together. See if this fits with your experience as a kid. Does it work? Does it actually work in reality? If it creates progress, then great! Run with that. You let the results speak for themselves.

          So, this is really an extension of that. With Mixed Mental Arts, we’re now trying to knit together not only all of science…but all preceding cultures. We are so far beyond what any individual human has the authority to do. So, I play the fool. The goal is to draw the crowd in to engage with the ideas, break them down, remix them and shape better tools. As it becomes clear this works and delivers measurable results, then who can be mad at that?

          In the end, these are all just roles. You play the fool or you play the wise, all-knowing sage. In the end, the point is play the variety of roles needed in order to break down these echo chambers both within and outside science to get #ideasex happening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *