The Underpants Gnomes’ View of Intellectual Progress: What EXACTLY happened between the Greeks and the Scientific Revolution?

One of the oldest public speaking tricks in the book is to imagine the audience in their underwear. It changes the emotional context around the audience from intimidating to naked and afraid. You’re literally turning the emotional tables on them. You feel vulnerable on stage. Then you make them vulnerable.

A lot of people are VERY intimidated by public intellectuals. You know those fancy folks who use ten-dollar words and making themselves sound so smarter than other people. They’re like some kind of superhuman. Until, you spend a lot of time around these people and I have spent most of my life around them. I spent a year living with Jim Watson who co-discovered the double helix of DNA. I went to Harvard. And I have interviewed 200 of the world’s most eminent scientists for a podcast called Mixed Mental Arts and I have come to realize that so much of why the public is so disconnected from science is because scientists have made themselves so unrelatable. The problem of science communication aren’t with science; it’s with W.E.I.R.D. Science.

Recently, I had a conversation with Mohamed Ghilan, a Muslim Neuroscientist, about that most basic of questions “What is Science?” It triggered a big conversation in the Mixed Mental Arts community about whether it was appropriate to talk about people’s backgrounds in making sense of the quality of their ideas. Frankly, I don’t think we can NOT talk about that if we’re responsive to the latest evidence. We know ALL humans pick up culture from their environment through the emotion of awe and that cultures create myths about themselves. That’s why it’s so important to help science become less W.E.I.R.D. I’ve been in a process of realizing how even though I went through one of the best scientific educations money can buy and exposure to world class scientists I still had my head full of all sorts of myths. In fact, it was only talking to Mohamed and having this conversation in the Mixed Mental Arts Facebook Group that I realized just how W.E.I.R.D. my view of science still was. (Thanks team and especially Anthony Fuller.)

In talking to Mohamed, I came to realize that while I knew in some vague way that Islam had made important contributions to human intellectual progress. And yet, when I tried to think concretely about EXACTLY what they’d done I was clueless. In fact, my understanding of human intellectual history is a lot like that of the Underpants Gnomes from South Park. If you don’t know about the underpants gnomes, they are the little fellas who steal your underpants. Why? Because they want to make money. How is that going to make them money? Well, allow them to explain.

A lot of business plans work this way. We do stuff (collect underpants) and then we make money (profit). How is a mystery. Turns out that middle step is super important. It’s the same thing with my understanding of intellectual history right now.

Phase 1: The Ancient Greeks (Collect underpants)

Phase 2: ??? (Something to do with the Muslims preserving Greek texts and doing science stuff)

Phase 3: The Enlightenment and Western Science (PROFIT!!!)

There’s some vague sense that stuff happened in the middle. Why don’t I know about it? Well, because tribes shape stories about their own epicness that exaggerate their successes and downplay the contributions of others. Did I not know the hole in my mental game maliciously? Nope. I was oblivious to it. I hadn’t really thought about how Islam advanced the thinking of the Greeks and set up science. And then I went Wikipedia-ing and found this in an article about the Scientific Method.

WHAAAAAT?!? A Muslim may have founded the scientific method. That’s a pretty big middle step there and it really moves your understanding of science from a “Western invention” to cumulative cultural evolution passed between many cultures. In short, W.E.I.R.D. Science rests on a lot of photoshopping. It’s one big genius myth that Western Culture has told about itself. It’s heavily photoshopped. And that’s not healthy for anyone. It’s also not scientific.

Because science is about describing reality as well as possible based on the evidence. And I’ll tell you that a lot of scientists will have internalized these myths. So, go ahead. Ask them about what happened between collect underpants (Greece) and Profit (The Enlightnment and Western science). I suspect you’ll get a lot of handwaving and ??? Force them to get specific.

And if you don’t feel comfortable questioning them, you can picture them in their underwear or you can just remember that…

If it doesn’t feel appropriate to think of an esteemed public intellectual pooping, then just remember this. Pooping shatters awe. That’s why Kim Jong-Un has as part of official propaganda that he doesn’t poop.

If the North Koreans ever saw Kim Jong-Un on his squatty potty, the awe would be gone and then they’d start questioning him. And isn’t questioning and challenging authority what intellectual progress is all about?

So question authority and hold all your fellow humans accountable to the available evidence. When you focus on living the scientific principle as fully as possible, you’ll find that some people who supposedly love science don’t live the principle at all and some people you don’t think lived the principle actually did.

I just found a major hole in my mental game thanks to Mohamed Ghilan. I’m excited to fill it. In the end, that’s all you can expect of a scientist. You admit when you were blind and you try to understand things a little more clearly. And that sounds strangely what Jesus taught and what the many wonderful Muslims I’ve known like Mohamed practice. After our podcast, a 16-year-old Mixed Mental Artist named Lance Mann sent Mohamed and I these tweets:

I don’t even think there are bad people. Just people who are oblivious. I call it Hanlon’s Razor. And the more I think about it the more I understand what Jesus said when he said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He was talking about the power of culture to bind us and blindly drive our choices. Sometimes we have ears but do not hear and eyes but do not see. An MRI study done, in part, by the New Atheist Sam Harris helped confirm this. The Oatmeal did a great job summing up that research in a brilliant comic:

I wonder what is Sam Harris’ view of intellectual history? Does he think he rediscovered what Jesus already knew? And what does he EXACTLY think happened between the Ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment. I don’t know. But I do know that when confronted with the intellectual threat I presented him, he responded like it was a physical one.

Does Sam Harris poop? I know I do. I just found a MAJOR hole in my mental game.

Love to all humanity – Toto




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.

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