Russ Roberts

Chuck Klosterman on But What If We're Wrong

EconTalk Episode with Chuck Klosterman
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Competition, Community, Transa... You Can't Handle the Truth...

But%20What%20If.jpg Chuck Klosterman, author of But What If We're Wrong, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the possibility that things we hold to be undeniably true may turn out to be totally false in the future. This wide-ranging conversation covers music and literary reputations, fundamentals of science, and issues of self-deception and illusion.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: July 21, 2016.] Russ: So, I want to start with the general question that runs through the book: Why are we so confident about so many things that are likely to turn out to be incorrect? So, there are really two parts to that question: Why is it that there are a lot of things that are going to be incorrect, in the future, and yet we still think they are obviously true now? Guest: Well, I suppose maybe there is a two-sided answer to this. Part of the reason is that we sort of exist in this world where we live as if we are right about how we view reality, even though maybe in the abstract we'll be like, 'Well, of course in the future we'll think differently; but we are going to live as though we are right, now.' Part of it has to do, out of necessity. I have sort of the luxury of writing a book where I can think about these ideas, and how people who are not yet born will look back on this time. I think for a lot of people it would be sort of an impractical way to live, to sort of constantly be second guessing every belief they have, or everything that they assume to be true. There's a certain utility in just working like, 'Well, the way we view the world is how the world is.' I think maybe the other, more insidious, problematic reason is that as we've kind of democratized communication and we have radically expanded the number of people who can be part of conversations about politics and sports and culture and science and the economy--all these sort of big ideas, we've really increased the number of people who can be actively involved in the public discourse--it has become much more difficult to get attention in that specific kind of attention economy. So, what seems to have emerged is this idea that expressing a high degree of certitude dovetails with some kind of authority. In other words, simply just having the confidence that you're right somehow gives your argument a little more merit, and of course as this has proliferated, it has had, you know, like the opposite effect, in the sense that people act more confident about ideas that they themselves understand to be fragile and probably incorrect. Russ: Yeah. And I may have remarked on this in the past on the program: when somebody says something with total certainty to me, 'There's no doubt that--blah, blah, blah' and I say, 'Are you sure?', they'll immediately back down. I'm thinking--and I'll find myself backing down. If I find myself saying something hyperbolic about who is going to win the World Series or who is going to win the Presidential election or what this policy's effects are going to be. And you find yourself sometimes overconfidently stating something, because, yeah, it gets attention. And it makes you feel good, too, by the way. And yet-- Guest: It's become a way of speaking. It's just like you say how back down when you bring this up: it doesn't surprise me. When the person says, 'There's no doubt that--' whatever the case may be, they're not really saying 'I have zero doubt in this,' or 'The world has zero doubt.' What they're basically saying is 'I believe this, and I want to make the statement stronger.' Russ: Yeah: 'I want to put this out there.' Guest: Yeah. And because those ideas are really question [?], after a while there does seem to be this illusion, this sense, that these things that are expressed to be without doubt, well maybe they are--maybe we just have to accept them. Maybe we just have to sort of unilaterally look at these things as kind of subjective truth--which is kind of a paradox in itself. Russ: Yeah, oxymoron.
4:39Russ: There's an irony here, which I thought about a lot while I was reading the book. Which is: We live in a time of unprecedented access to information, unprecedented access to people's opinions about that information. And yet, it seems, perhaps ironically--maybe it's not ironic--but it seems to me that it gets harder and harder to figure out what really is true. And the Internet, which is this glorious information machine is in many ways making navigating those challenges more challenging. Guest: Yeah. There's really two ways to look at this, I suppose. You could say that the Internet is creating more avenues for ideas; and that now instead of having only kind of canonical ideas or sort of one mainstream belief, we now have every possible idea existing in the world and people can access all these ideas with the same degree of fluency. And you could think like this is really going to give us a better sense of what the world is like, because you are hearing more voices. But at the same time, for the most part people are kind of supporting the same general belief system. The same general ideas are just being repeated in lots of different ways. And what that may do is actually make the things we think now harder to contradict later, or harder to disprove later. If you go back to something, a belief from the late 1700s or whatever, you'll find the idea expressed; you might find some critics of the idea; you might find a little more information about the person who presented the idea. But that's pretty much it. For the most part, that idea can be reinterpreted because we have just limited amounts of information about it. Now, every individual, every idea, every sort of concept that exists is remarked upon and analyzed and written about by so many people that it almost calcifies that perception. Like, I don't know if it will be as easy to go back and reinterpret a novel from this period the way we can go back and interpret a novel from the early modernist period or whatever, and say like this means something different now. I don't know if that will be as easy because there's so much information about the present tense. Russ: Yeah. It's really--it's just a fascinating thing about your book, because it really makes you think about how much we know and how much we think we know that's wrong. I'm a big fan of humility, and your book did humble me a little bit--even made me a little more humble than I like to think I am intellectually.
7:23Russ: So, there's an incredible range of topics in the book: literature, rock music, physics, football, lots more. I want to start with science: 1600. You contrast Brian Greene with Neil deGrasse Tyson: why is 1600 a possibly important date in thinking about whether science has it right or not? Guest: Well, that's really the perception of Tyson. Of the two guys--it's kind of strange: I interview two scientists and they are very high-profile scientists. So, they are already sort of outside of the norm. They exist in this different world where their job, really, is to explain complicated ideas in a mainstream way. But as it turned out, they kind of worked as like two good--not necessarily adversaries-- Russ: as foils-- Guest: Yeah, yeah. And Tyson's thing is that, around 1600, a lot of important things happened: the invention of the telescope, the invention of the microscope. The main thing was sort of the adoption of the scientific method as sort of the way we understand the world. Prior to this science had probably had more of a relationship with philosophy than it did with math. Russ: Correct. Guest: And from 1600 on it was different. So he believes that, this idea of paradigm shift--sort of the idea that maybe we'll believe something about the scientific world for hundreds of years and then shift our ideas completely--he argues that that is over. That the Copernican revolution, all of that, that was the last time that that was going to happen. And that from this point forward, all we're going to do is sort of hone the ideas we already have. We'll get a better understanding of how old the universe is or how gravity operates or any of these things: that there isn't going to be another big shift. Whereas, Brian Greene was more like, 'Well, it's really hard to argue that because the history of ideas basically is the history people being wrong. And we would certainly not be the first generation of people to assume that this time we got it right. So, the end of sort of being, you know, like the two ideas almost personified: one of which being like, 'Well, we've been wrong in the past; this time we are right and we're slowly getting better'; or, 'We've been wrong in the past; we'll probably be wrong in the future; but there's no way of knowing that while we're still inside the system'. Russ: Yeah. I had two thoughts. I'm more of a Brian Greene kind of guy--who is the skeptic. But I had two thoughts while I was reading that. One is ulcers--you know, we thought we understand that ulcers related to stress and it turns out it's a bug. Right? A lot of things in medicine get reversed. Now, of course, Tyson's really talking about cosmology and physical science more than, say, certain types of applications. Then also I thought about plate tectonics. We really--that was, you know, a shockingly ridiculous theory that 'Oh, because Africa and South America look like they've been together'--well, actually they probably did fit together. Or how the dinosaurs died. Those are things that happened way after 1600, where received wisdom got just sort of totally shocked. Right? Guest: How the dinosaurs lived, as much as how they died. But here's the thing: the question becomes--these things[?] you just mentioned, ulcers, plate tectonics, the age of dinosaurs, all these things--those ideas have clearly changed. The question becomes: Did they change in the way Tyson describes them, or did they change in the way that Greene sort of speculates that they could change? In other words, is the idea that our understanding of ulcers now is that taking a core idea and getting better and better and better and better at understanding it. In other words like, taking the same general idea and just getting it-- Russ: refining it-- Guest: more accurate? Or, are we reversing some thought? Like, we thought that there was a time not that long ago in Scandinavia really not that long ago where there were some people who were like, 'Well, you know, the reason people get sick, we used to think it was gods, but now we know it's gnomes and trolls.' Russ: Yeah, that's one of my favorite [?]-- Guest: So now we [?] better-- Russ: One of my favorite lines in the book, by the way. Guest: Now that to me is closer to the Brian Greene thinking-- Russ: Absolutely-- Guest: the idea that the big picture idea shifted. You know, it's a bizarre thing, though, because it's like--I get asked, you write a book like this, you get interviewed about it. As I am talking about this, I feel myself almost hoping or expressing the idea that, 'I hope we're wrong, because my book says we might be.' And I don't know if I feel that way-- Russ: Look how smart you are going to look in 2000 years. One guy-- Guest: [?] one thing right-- Russ: 'There was this one guy, Chuck Klosterman; he was a genius. He understood that thousands of years later...'. Shame on you. Guest: The only thing is--people want predictions. Russ: Yes, they do. Guest: I'm not a big predictor of things, but when you write about the future, that's what they want. They want you to say something like, 'Well, okay, we think it's going to be the Beatles; we think we are going to remember the Beatles. But nope, it's actually going to be Quiet Riot. And here's why.' And that's what they want. Russ: Yep. Guest: That's not really how this book works.
13:13Russ: Well, let's take the literature one, because I was totally fascinated by that, as a lover of fiction. You were speculating in that chapter and sections of the book about in 100 years who will be seen as the great writer of this period. And the easy answer is somebody like Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace--somebody who has a reputation among the elites, the academic world, as sort of being a great writer. It probably won't be Stephen King for that reason. It won't be J. K. Rowling. And you said, 'It almost certainly won't be Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace or anyone like those folks that have a great reputation now.' Explain why. Guest: Well, okay. This is the way I would describe it. If you had to pick someone--if I was a gambling person and I was somehow gambling on the perception of the world in a hundred years, those are the people I would pick, as well. They would be the safest pick. However, nothing about the way, sort of, literary history has unspooled really suggests that this is how this works. The apex people tend to be writers who a future generation reinterprets their work to mean something else. You know, that, the greatness they experienced within their lifetime, or sort of the value of their work, it's not that that is false. It's just that what is viewed as great changes--very often with the changing definition of what is transgressive. Because it seems as though as transgressive are, is what when we look back, seems the most important. People who had ideas that seemed to go against the idea of the culture, um, were maybe unsettling at the time-- Russ: They changed things. Guest: [?] Yes. They didn't necessarily change things. They were ahead of the curve that changed what was coming. That the way people thought about, you know, relationships, or the way people thought about what the value of your life is or whatever how you thought about these things. I use Moby Dick as this example-- Russ: example-- Guest: When--I mean, it's kind of the best example. Where, so, Melville writes Moby Dick; and he thinks it's going to be sort of his defining work and his masterpiece. And it gives him extra views. And it doesn't sell that great. And it kind of ruins his life. And it isn't until long after he is dead, after WWI (World War I), that the book is sort of rediscovered: not just as a good book but as The Book. Like this is the Great American Novel. And it essentially has become the template for the idea of the Great American Novel. So the question became what changed, right? Well, you can give specific examples of things that may have changed--guys coming back from WWI, you know, maybe the idea of fighting a faceless enemy somehow resonated with the idea of, you know, this faceless whale, and camaraderie between sailors and the camaraderie between soldiers and the need to know all this obscure information--Moby Dick has chapters on making rope and stuff like that. You go to a war; you learn how to take your rifle apart. All these things. But this is kind of a sense of reverse engineering. Russ: Yeah. Guest: What has happened is the book was, in many ways arbitrarily selected--and not that it's not great--but it's the book that got picked. And there were other great books that could have but didn't. And then we have to sort of explain why. So, what I think of a hundred years from now, kind of using the same logic, what someone's going to do is they are going to take a book out of this period, and its greatness is going to be found in these future people's ability to basically take their life, whatever their life is like, and see fragments of it in this book. So, the downside is somewhat like Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace or John [?] or DeLillo or Pinchon or any of these people have, is, we spend a lot of time arguing and deducing what these books mean. Like, we've had many, many, many public discussions, and so much writing, and so much analysis of what it's these books mean, that it's going to be hard for someone in the future to say, 'Well, actually it was this other thing, that's happening now.' So, the people who actually have the best chance of seeming very important in a hundred years are kind of blank slates--people who have written books that are either generally unread entirely, or are read but not taken seriously. So that, in the future, when these book are rediscovered, the meaning that they have can be kind of invented by these different people. But we can't re-invent what Philip Roth wrote about. Like, there's an understanding of what these books are now. You see what I mean? Russ: Yeah, absolutely. Guest: So, like-- Russ: No, it's a brilliant insight. Guest: There's a weird advantage to being unheralded in your time. Because if you are that sort of becomes the meaning of your work. But if you are unheralded, kind of unknown, it's kind of all things: people who want to care later.
18:28Russ: Let's take another example, which I loved. Which--you imagine that there was a television show in ancient Egypt that we come across. It takes a leap of the imagination. You recognize that it probably wasn't much electricity in ancient Egypt and broadcasting was pretty embryonic. But imagine that we found the tapes of that show: What would we do with them? And then you use that to imagine what people in the future will look back on, the age of television, to understand our cultures. Talk about that. Because that was really rather extraordinary. Guest: So the idea that I work with is that obviously, it's impossible, but let's say we found out the Egyptians had television. It makes no sense how this could have worked. But let's say that they did. And we have all the tapes. So, everything that was on television in ancient Egypt, we suddenly possess. Well, what would be interesting to us? Well, it wouldn't be whatever they classified as their best shows. Whatever they--if there was some ancient-- Russ: Blogger. Blogger-- Guest: Yeah. We would be interested in news and sports. Nonfiction programming. And of the fictional material what we'd be looking for is a way to understand what life in Egypt was like, through that show. In other words, we wouldn't care so much what they thought was the most entertaining. We wouldn't be watching for entertainment value. We'd be looking at it like an anthropologist: What allows us to see what the Egyptian world was like? And I tried to imply that [?] the age of television (TV). I assume, just because of the way technology works, that television will probably be like--it's not going to disappear overnight, but I don't think in a hundred years we'll have the same relationship to TV we have now. I think it will be replaced by something else. And TV will sort of be a dead media. We'll have access to all of those shows, digitally and [?]. So when somebody in this future time wants to go back and examine television, what will be interesting to them? Well, I don't think it will be shows like Madmen, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and all these shows that we consider to be artistic successes. And they are. But what they'll want to see is a way to understand the world almost accidentally. In other words, TV shows that have what I call ancillary verisimilitude. Shows that end up being real not because that was their intention, but it wasn't like the show owner was saying, 'I want to make the realest show possible.' The show owner just thought they were going to make a television show and accidentally created this kind of transparent sense of reality. And that's sort of how I worked through this problem, and sort of came to the conclusion that it might be a show like Roseanne, where it aired during a time when the perception of TV was pretty low. Nobody thought it was art, the way they do now. It wasn't any--we were not in any golden age of television or anything like that. The motive of the show was just to succeed, be a popular network sitcom (situation comedy); but there were all these little details within the program that I don't even think were intentional but give us an actual sense of what a family living in America in the lower middle class during the late 1980s or early 1990s, what that would be like. Now, what does that tell us? Does it tell us Roseanne is a better show than we think? Does it mean--I don't know what it means, in some sense. I just think it's interesting. Russ: Yeah. It's really interesting. I love your point that reality TV would be the last place you'd look, even though you think, 'What could be more real than that?' But of course it's not very real. Guest: Yeah. The word 'reality TV' is the problem. The people going on reality programming now understand what they are doing. They understand that this is not really an attempt to show a documentary of what life is like, but they are supposed to embrace character types--that there are certain kinds of conversations and conflicts they are supposed to have. So what they are really doing is acting without a script. So, of course it seems extra fake. If you are flipping through programs on your remote control, you know immediately when you've slid across some reality television--like the way it looks, the way the people talk. It looks less real than scripted TV. It's funny--I mention, like, MTV [originally standing for Music Television] is the real world, kind of the counterintuitive success of that show is based around its title and how there was immediate recognition that this is the complete opposite of what you are seeing. [?] not seeing the real world. Russ: It should have been called the surreal world. Guest: Yes, but that wouldn't have worked. If they had called it that, it would never have succeeded.
23:42Russ: So, let's talk briefly about music. There's a long discussion of it. It's absolutely fascinating. But the part I found really interesting to start with, was this idea--Turning to my audience, I'll ask the question: How many people can you name who wrote marches, the kind of music you'd hear at a parade, at a football game? And you point out is that the answer is 1, and that's John Philip Sousa. And you suggest--it's a little bit of a stretch--that, say, 300 years from now, we think about, say, rock music, that if someone wanted to evoke the last half of the 20th century musically, there is only going to be maybe 1 representative of that kind of music. Guest: What seems to happen is this: Now, when I forward this idea I'm not saying there are no exceptions. There are, of course. But for the most part, everything, whether it's music, film, books, whatever the subject may be, culture seems to operate like this over time. You start with a huge field of potential candidates. There are many people who could be seen as really central to the existence of that art form. And then time plods along. And as time plods along, certain candidates drop by the wayside. They get lost or they disappear, or their relevance changes. And eventually you get down to only one artist remaining. And then, the significance of that artist is kind of amplified and exaggerated. And that person ends up becoming interchangeable with the art form. John Philip Sousa being this example--there were many people creating marches. And now we have a form of music we all vaguely understand--I think even the average 7-year old kid knows when they hear marching music that they are at a parade or they are at a football game or whatever the case may be. But if we go on the street and we ask people, 'Who made marching music? Name marching composers,' 99% will either name nobody or just Sousa. He has become the idea itself. So, you apply that to rock music--it just seems impossible, right? Rock music is so popular for so long--really along with television, probably the biggest cultural influence of the 20th century. There are so many key artists. But the same thing is going to happen--that we are going to move forward and artists are just going to disappear from people's radar. It's already happening now. So, who will be the one person who will end up becoming the epitome of this? In a rational world that answer would be the Beatles. But we don't live in a rational world. It's going to happen for other, more capricious, more arbitrary motives. And I kind of try to work through this chapter, saying, 'Well, how will this work? Why will people disappear, and who might remain and what will be the reasons that they remain for?' Russ: And of course you make a semi-prediction--we can leave it for the excitement of the readers to find it--but the part that makes this interesting, as you mentioned earlier: even though people want predictions, what I found more interesting was how you thought about making a guess or a gamble or a bet on who it might be. You didn't mention Eric Clapton, by the way. He would be in my group of people that might qualify. You mentioned about 5 or 6 that might make. And your point that the Beatles, even though they are incredibly successful and are not just like successful, they are considered artistically successful as well, not just financially successful--makes them a strong possibility, but it very well might not be them and it could be lots of other people. Guest: Here's another kind of possibility. There's another possibility that the Beatles might become more remembered than rock music itself. That, for whatever reason--the way that the music resonates with kids and sort of the way it's built the culture of the last half of the 20th century, the Beatles as characters might be what exists; and rock music is only remembered as the ancillary thing of what the Beatles did. Russ: Yup. Guest: Like, rock music matters because the Beatles did it, not the other way around. There's also, I think, a possibility that the things that we'll remember about rock music won't be individuals: it will just be tropes. It will just be qualities of what we think rock music is supposed to represent--a sense of lawlessness, or something a kind of simple blues-based music. Russ: Rebellion. Guest: Music that--yeah, rebellion--and music that was invented by black people and co-opted or stolen by white people. So then it's just all these just different kind of qualities, which will then be applied to whatever seems to best fit the puzzle. I think the way that history works is just pretty fascinating. Because it's almost as though we knowingly live in a way that contradicts the way we suspect you'll end up being constructed. I don't know--I'm not a historian, but I love thinking about it. Russ: Well, part of it is we don't want to think about that, like you said earlier. It's just too--there's something dissonant about that--that I'll, say, love the Beatles--I don't--but suppose I love the Beatles: 'Well, of course they are going to be the ones.' Just like I want my friends to like the Beatles, I want my great- great- great- great-grandchildren--they'll think the same as I do. So there's a desire, which Adam Smith mentions--we'll get a little economics in here directly--that we want people to like what we like, and dislike what we dislike. So if I tell you that Abba is an awful music group, it would jar me if you thought they were great. So the same thing, I think, is true down through the generations.
29:34Russ: But I have a puzzle for you, which you don't mention in the book, which is the following. And by the way, for listeners who are thinking, 'Oh, come on. You are telling me the Rolling Stones won't be remembered? The Doors? The Who? Van Morrison? Elvis Presley? Come on. They are all going to be remembered,' the answer is, 'Yeah; who is remembered before 1950? Who captures--what artists can you think of who were important between 1900 and 1950?' I happen to like that era a lot. I can name a bunch. But I think most people can name one. And that was-- Guest: You already can--this is already visible when you start talking to any person, really under the age of 50, about jazz. Russ: Yup. I mean, jazz was a real important thing in the history of the United States. You look at Ken Burns' documentary and all these things--it was incredibly central to the black experience; all these things. And the number of famous jazz musicians now, it might be-- Russ: Three? Guest: It might be down to 10. Russ: Yeah, it's a handful. Guest: I mean, yeah, I mean 3 I guess are real famous. But finding someone who can name 10 jazz musicians, that's possible. Finding somebody who can name 25, you are probably talking to somebody who-- Russ: A scholar. Guest: A scholar or a big, like a real invested fan. Like somebody who-- Russ: A jazz fan. But before 1950, in the non-jazz world, it's Frank Sinatra. Then it's nobody else. I happen to love Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan; and I like Tony Bennett, and I like Billy Eckstine, but outside of people who really care, it's 1. So, anyway, here's the puzzle, though. In the literary reputation discussion you say it's going to be somebody we've never heard of. Probably--not necessarily but probably--who can be reinterpreted. Why is it that in the music debate of 300 years from now you think it will be somebody who was extremely famous and successful, just not necessarily the one that we would think of now? Guest: Well, that's a good question. Part of it has to do with the inherent tie that popular music, and particularly rock music, has to youth culture, in that it's--you know, books have sort of existed, or what we sort of use in a loose way in describing a book, you know, really since the dawn of complicating thought--in that books aren't expected sort of to--the success of a book is not dependent on its having an impact on the world at large. And popular music, it's very, very difficult to be an important musician with no audience. You look at something like, okay, a record like, Trout Mask Replica or something, some of these records from the 1970s that critics know about but no one bought, who still have not, you know--like it's, or Frank Zappa, or something like this. Russ: That's a good example. Guest: I suppose it is possible that, you know, over time those things could emerge and become sort of the standard for what rock music was. But also, if that were to happen, it would suggest something about rock music that would be kind of profoundly untrue--which was that it was fundamentally an experimental art form. You know, if Trout Mask Replica is the example, or if Frank Zappa is the example of what rock music supposedly was, it would be beyond rock. I mean, you talk about maybe we're wrong: that would be like maybe the wrongest way to think about what rock was. Literature is not really like that as much. The thing I say about books is, it seems very plausible--there are kind of like three easy kinds of candidates: People who that we expect to be great. There's people we don't know at all. And then there's a third category of people who we know of but don't take that seriously. Actually, the Herman Melvilles of now. Herman Melville was a commercially successful writer. He made a living doing it. He just wasn't seen as being transcendent. That class actually might be best positioned for this. Because their books will have been popular enough and proliferant enough and in libraries enough that people will be able to find them. But, the idea of them having a very clear meaning or what their importance is, that will be kind of still up for debate. Russ: Well, I just want to take the opportunity to say "Peaches en Regalia," which I don't get to say very often on this program, for you Zappa fans out there--I don't think those 3 words have ever been said in a row-- Guest: Have you seen the new Frank Zappa documentary? Russ: No. Guest: Oh, I just saw it a couple of weeks ago. Russ: Is it good? Guest: Just a collection of his interviews, basically, with some of his music. I find his music very difficult to listen to. So that complicates the experience of watching the documentary. Russ: "Peaches en Regalia" is pretty good. If I've got the title right. I hope it's right. But the other point I thought I had, talking about these differences, is that: What is still talked about in literature, it's extremely ephemeral--people whose reputation was, somewhat like Somerset Maugham, who was incredibly well regarded when he was alive, and I think is probably less so now. Or Hemingway, who was a giant in his lifetime and I think now--I'm not sure if people are going to read him in 100 years except in English classes, maybe. A lot of that reputation comes from the academy. I feel like it comes less from the academy in the music world. It comes more from something else--the culture writ large. Is that true? Guest: Well, I mean, yes, there's less of an academy, for one thing. Although, I will also say that is changing. The idea of music criticism has become, particularly in the last 15 years, 10 years, more of an academic pursuit-- Russ: More scholarly. Yeah. It's true. Guest: Yeah. But, certainly from like, you know--it's kind of weird to think about this. So, the first album, that was, rock record, that was really taken seriously by like the mainstream media was Sgt. Pepper. Okay? So it's 1967. And yet what we view now as the most important phase of rock in many ways is basically like 1955-1965, 1966. So this incredibly important period, it's importance comes from what? You're right--it's not like there's some academic source telling us this. It kind of happened naturally. Which is also part of the way, part of the reason why artists from that period will always be seen as sort of the most important-- Russ: foundational-- Guest: creators of this art form. It's like, we talk about Presidents, or whatever, you know. The list of the great Presidents is constantly shuffled. Every year we go through this. When I was in college, Grant was the worst President. Now it's Buchanan. You know, it's like FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) seems to be creeping up the list higher and higher. Lyndon Johnson used to be sort of in the middle of the pack; now he's higher. However, the very top of the Presidential list is always going to be Washington and Lincoln and Jefferson--the people that have been at the top forever--because they sort of create the definition of what a good President is like. Like, a good President now is somebody who seems to embody and represent what Washington and Lincoln did. It's the same way in rock music. There can't really be a rock band greater than the Beatles, because they essentially invented how we believe rock bands-- Russ: the idea of the rock band-- Guest: how they are supposed to interact. Like, everything else--what's good about the Beatles' music is what's good about rock music now, in a lot of ways. So, there are some things that are hard to change simply because they create the definition.
38:15Russ: So, I want to shift gears, and I want to move to sports. Which, you have some very provocative things to say. You start off by making, I think, a very deep point: that a lot of people have predicted that national football is going to die. It's too violent. Players are apparently being harmed physically and very possibly deeply disturbing ways through their cognitive abilities being degraded by concussions. And the NFL (National Football League) has responded; they've tried to make the game a little bit safer. It's not clear whether it's going to make it. And the standard view, by many, is that, well, over time, people aren't going to want their kids playing football. You hear former football players, stars, saying, 'My kid's going to be a baseball player. A soccer player. I'm not going to let him play football. I don't want that to happen to them. I want him to be able to walk, and think.' Etc., etc. And so a lot of people think football is going to die off. And you make the great observation that it actually might thrive a lot more by becoming more violent. Explain. Guest: Yeah. Well, right now there seems to be like two baseline perspectives on the future of football. One is, as you said: The game is doomed. The other, that it's too big to fail. It's too central to our culture now; it's too central to American life, so they'll just tweak the game and they'll adjust the game, and [?], the level of violence is brought down to an acceptable level. But I sort of see two other possibilities. Because, you know, we might be wrong about these two things that seem sensible. One is that, I can imagine football becoming significantly less popular but socially more important, because it will come to represent a certain kind of ideology that for the most part has been removed from the way we think about life. I mean, you know, it's--the idea of physicality in life, which was a real central part for most Americans through really the 1950s-- Russ: Most of human history-- Guest: Yes. Exactly. And now that's kind of been taken away. But it still exists in football. So--it also seems like a lot of the ideas that would come to be viewed as unenlightened and troubling--the idea that, oh, the ability to intimidate someone is a value. Or that masculinity is prioritized in any sense. Or that you can yell at someone in order to get results. All of these things-- Russ: I'd add suffering--the idea that you have to be punished physically to be, to go through a crucible that changes you and makes you a better player or better person. Guest: Yes. And also, that the rules governing these games are extremely strict and kind of inflexible, and don't really seem to be impacted by the changes in society. These things--in most of society, we're trying to remove those ideas. So, there's this one place where it still exists and where it still flourishes. And I can imagine people--that it might become a political idea. Like, for example, the Republican National Convention is happening right now. I can easily imagine if a convention like that were happening at a time when people were trying to say, 'Ban high school football in the state of Ohio.' Or, 'Ban high school football in Alabama,' or something. Or, they would be like, 'We are against this: this is part of the problem.' This idea that, you know--and even if football maybe loses 2/3rds of its audience, the third still watching it would care about it in a much deeper way, and then would actually become more popular. The violence of the game is what would save it, because there's no other place for that to exist in society. Russ: Yeah. It's an incredibly deep point. And it reminded me of my childhood. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. My father was raised in the South. I was born in the South. Both my parents grew up there. My dad found himself in Lexington, kind of a fish out of water. And, frisbee became very popular. And my dad didn't like frisbee. And I couldn't understand why he didn't like it. Guest: Like, Ultimate Frisbee? Russ: No. It took a while for Ultimate Frisbee to be invented. This is just tossing a frisbee. Because he viewed it as an anti-sport. He viewed it as anti-competitive. I thought he was crazy. But he wasn't crazy. Like many things, I thought he was wrong. But he wasn't. He had an insight there. He might not have been right about frisbee, but he was right that it was in some sense a statement. Parents wanted their kids in Lexington to play frisbee because it was not competitive. It was not physical. There was not a two-a-day, four-hour intense workouts without water to transform your soul and make you a great frisbee player, as there was with, say, football. And-- Guest: That [?] still exists right now with soccer. Russ: Of course. Guest: There is a meaning to being a soccer proponent. It means that you are more of a global thinker, and that the kind of, the reactionary sense that football represents, like, you are against that. The cities where soccer tends to be embraced tend to have a political ideology that aligns with that-- Russ: A different sensibility. And even Ultimate Frisbee--which is competitive, right?--there is no contact. It's a very different kind of sport. And one way to say it, which you don't say in the book, but you alluded to a minute ago, is it's not as physical; and it's not as masculine in the traditional definition. Because that word is dying. That whole idea that there's anything virtuous about masculinity--whether it's the physicality or other parts of it--our culture is rejecting that relentlessly. Which means, as you point out, I think correctly, that things that still accept it or embrace it--football being the most, one of the most dramatic examples, but football being the most--might become a bastion for contrarians as a way to express themselves. And I just think that's a really interesting idea. Guest: Yeah. I think that's very true, exactly what you said. Yeah.
45:03Russ: Let's go to Koko. Not the drink, but the animal. You were "The Ethicist" at the New York Times Sunday Magazine for 3 years--which is in itself a fascinating thing. Talk about Koko and animals versus people. Guest: Yeah. I get this letter when I was at "The Ethicist." For those who don't know what this is, it was like the column in the New York Times Magazine where I--I always hated when people made this comparison--it was a little bit like "Dear Abby" or Ann Landers, except people were writing in problems that were ethically based. And I was supposed to sort of deduce what's the most ethical conclusion to this problem. And somebody asked a question that, on the surface seemed really kind of preposterous: It was that after Robin Williams committed suicide, they went to this gorilla, Koko the gorilla who I believe is at the Cincinnati Zoo--she speaks in sign language, seemingly intelligent gorilla. Russ: At some level. Yeah. Speaks in sign language at some level. Whatever that means--we don't really know. Guest: Has a relationship with their owners that somehow seems--I guess not owners but keepers--that seems to transcend the normal human/animal relationship. And they tell Koko, who had met Robin Williams many years ago--Robin Williams had come to the zoo and they had interacted and had a great time--they tell this gorilla that, 'Hey, that guy you met 11 years ago or whatever, Robin Williams, has died. He committed suicide.' And Koko cried--he was very depressed. Now, the person who asked him the question to "The Ethicist" was like 'What's the point of telling a gorilla this? You are only going to upset it. Isn't it unethical to tell a gorilla something that you know will make it sad, or whatever?' Now, that question is sort of interesting. But the larger question is this idea, is like: Is this even possible? Is it possible that this gorilla could somehow have an emotional response to the news that a celebrity actor has committed suicide? Because, if it did, it would mean many things. It would mean that gorillas, apes, sort of have a recall for every person or thing they encounter. Would it mean that Koko would have somehow sensed something about Robin Williams, that she knew he was a different kind of individual even though she'd have no sense of celebrity? Do gorillas know they are going to die? Do they know what death is? All of these things. And, while I was answering this question, which I just found kind of fun and just really sort of compelling, I talked to a, kind of a specialist, a veterinary specialist, about this. And his response was, 'An ape has the cognitive ability of, say, a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old. But that's not what you need to think about. What you need to think about is the fact that animals might have a greater emotional intelligence than humans do.' And his argument is that we're constantly learning that animals do seem to have a greater sense of emotional intelligence than people. Now, emotional intelligence, in general-- Russ: It seems like a stretch. But it's possible. Guest: It could be. Here's the deal: In the 1980s--we were having this conversation in the 1980s--the whole idea of emotional intelligence we probably kind of scoff at. That was something you might see in Cosmopolitan Magazine, the idea that somehow there was intelligence to your emotions in the same way that there was an intelligence scholastically. Well, that's not the case any more. Now, everyone kind of agrees that emotional intelligence is the real thing. Russ: Yeah, but they could be wrong, Chuck. Guest: [?] What? Russ: They could be wrong about it, too. But go ahead. Guest: They could be. But I'm saying that we have now come to sort of generally take the idea of emotional intelligence much more seriously than we used to. Well, let's say this keeps going. Let's say that in 50 years, it's not just that we just recognize that emotional intelligence exists, but we actually see it as more important than scholastic intelligence. And that an understanding of empathy and all of these things, they are actually the most meaningful way to understand how smart someone is. And at the same time, this idea that animals have greater emotional intelligence than us becomes more and more verifiable. So, we believe emotional intelligence is important. And we agree that animals have more of it than we do. Well, that would really paint a strange portrait of society. Because obviously humans dominate society. It's not like we're going to turn it over to the animals. We're not going to be like, 'We're going to elect a cat President' or whatever. We'd have this strange situation where we would have to concede that animals are both our slaves and more intelligent than us. Russ: It's really interesting to think about. We'd almost certainly stop eating them. And we may stop eating them anyway. But that part would be just the beginning, as you say. We'd be--kind of up-ended in many ways. And the part that ties into this, that I think is important as well, is that human intelligence may turn out to be seen as less and less relevant as artificial intelligence grows. And so, many people have argued--I'm sympathetic to the idea--that empathy will be a much more valuable skill in 25 years than it is now. That to be human, to be non-intellectual part of our humanity, our heart rather than our mind is going to be valued much more than it is relative to the mind--our heart will be. And that does raise the possibility that animals that are, say, loyal--like, just thinking about a dog--I'm ashamed to say: I kind of look down on, because he's always glad to see me regardless of what else has happened in the day or how I've treated him. I don't actually have a dog. It's hypothetical. But that idea that somehow dogs are--that's a pleasant trait for dog owners, but what if it came to be seen as not just a pleasant trait but so much more important, as you say, than our ability to do calculus--because we're not going to need that? Machines are going to do all the calculating. Or math. It's kind of wild. Guest: [?] I mention this in the book, sort of the idea of rote memorization, because I talk about Bob Dylan and how there's, in Bob Dylan's autobiography at one point he kind of makes a passing reference to the fact that the reason he likes to record songs that have 16 verses or whatever is like, he's like, 'Well, there's just something enriching about memorizing things.' Of course, he was born in like 1946 or whatever, whenever he was born. So he was raised during a time when rote memorization was still a big part of school. Now, I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s. By the time I got there, rote memorization had been profoundly reduced. I had to memorize like the Preamble --for the most part it wasn't a thing any more. Now I think there's almost none of it. Like, the idea of kids memorizing anything is seen as almost superfluous-- Russ: Anti-intellectual, actually. Guest: Yes. You know, so, but that changes sort of what the meaning of what intelligence is. I grew up to believe--and I'm not saying this belief is right, but it was like: Intelligence meant you knew about things that you didn't have necessarily first-hand experience of. Like, anybody can read the paper and know what's going on right now. A smart person knew about what happened before they were born. A smart person knew about films that they hadn't yet seen because they predated them and they went back and saw them. If you really liked sports, it wasn't enough to know who was good now: you had to know about Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain and all these people. That seems to--we've moved away from that, it seems like. That there's now almost this belief that all of that kind of information has been kind of curated and is built into our computer. We don't need to know these things any more. It's a waste of time to know things that aren't right in front of you. You can always go back and find them. That changes what it means to be smart, to me, in a way that I don't know how comfortable I'm with. Not because I can really argue that my way was better. I just don't know if I like the different way it is now. Russ:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoards, and feeds, and sleeps, and knows not me.
I think I got that right. [Almost perfect: last line as written by Tennyson was "That hoard, and sleep, and feed..."--Econlib Ed.] That's the opening of the poem "Ulysses," by Alfred Lord Tennyson, that Miss Kineen made me memorize in the 8th grade. And I can go on. I don't remember the whole thing, but I can do the ending, which I get goose bumps every time I say it--and I'm not going to do that. But it's an interesting question as to whether rote memorization of certain things is a bad thing. I love what I have memorized. I love that it's-- Guest: Yeah, but the thing you just did now: Now it's just kind of a bar trick. Russ: Yeah, it is. Guest: Somebody would say, like, okay, what's the utility of that? And it's a hard thing to answer. It's hard to say why memorizing something, what utility that has. But, I don't know--I remember in high school, we learned algebra--of course you would say, like, 'Why do I need to know this?' And the argument was very often, 'Well you don't need to know specifically this. You need to know how to think.' Like, this, like algebra helped you how to think and how to sort of understand ideas that aren't visually clear or visually obvious. It's like: Was that true? I guess I probably argued against it at the time. Now, as I'm older, it seems [?] that's how it always is.
55:22Russ: But I think that misses something else. Which is that if I have a desire to know what the opening of the poem "Ulysses" is, I don't need to have memorized it so I can find it right away. The virtue of the memorizing isn't, 'Oh, I helped put some grooves down in my brain. The virtue is, is that the poem, "Ulysses," the idea of heroism, the idea of an old warrior near death--which is what that poem is about, reminiscing about his youth and trying to stave off death, and reviewing his life--that concept is so much more salient to me because I've memorized it. Not just because I've heard of it. And I think to tap into that is that value. And I think one of the reasons that music is so powerful in our lives, pop music, is because rhyme and music help us memorize things. We're much more likely to memorize the lyrics of songs now than a poem--for obvious reasons--and certainly than a passage in a book. And, so it's more relevant to our lives, in a lot of ways--I think just for that reason. Guest: I mean, it could be, at the same time, I mean, you gave, you opened that poem, you described it, you memorize, you told me what you remembered, you know. And it kind of went over [?]. And then you described what it was later. Was the second description more helpful? I don't know. I mean. For you it wasn't. For me it was. But my understanding of this is shallow. Your understanding is deeper. I think that there probably is a depth to memorization that is hard to quantify. But-- Russ: Yeah. It's an interesting question.
57:04Russ: Well, we're almost out of time. And there are a lot of other things I wanted to talk about--which is a shame, but such is life at EconTalk. I want to close with a question you raised at the end of the book, which is whether this matters at all. There are a lot of wacky ideas in the book, much even perhaps wackier than that animals are smarter than we are in the emotional sense and that that will turn out to be decisive. You speculate on whether we are in the middle of a simulation and we are not really living reality the way we think we are; that there are multiple universes; that the Constitution could turn out to be a mistake. So, you speculate that many of our deeply held beliefs might turn out to be wrong. And then you raise the question--having talked about all those things, and all the ones we've talked about, with great zest and style, you say: Does this matter? Who cares if we're right about gravity? For example, you speculate about, 'Maybe gravity will be different, the way we think about gravity.' Gravity is not going to be different, but the way we think about gravity in 500 years might be really different than how we think about it now, or maybe we'll--who is considered a great writer is going to change a lot. One response to this entire book--which you confront--is: 'Well, yeah. Who cares?' It's not going to change anything. So what if plate tectonics are real? So what if Philip Roth is going to be forgotten and the Beatles aren't going to make it in 500 years? What difference does it make? Guest: Yeah. You know, I was on this book tour. The last event was in Portland, and after the event one person said exactly that. They came up after the talk, and they were like, 'Yeah, I really enjoyed the talk but I do have one question'-- Russ: An awkward question. Guest: Yeah. Well, it's like who cares if this is true. They basically were asking: Why did you need to write this book? And, you know, my answer to that--probably unsatisfying to them, maybe unsatisfying people listening to this podcast. But like, to me, if something is interesting and entertaining, that's enough. Like, I don't need to feel as though every extension of my creative life has a real, practical purpose. I probably wouldn't have pursued writing if that were the case. I would have done something different. Russ: Hear, hear. Guest: My--the way I view it is this: Like, it's amazing that we're alive. And the experience of life is crazy. It's crazy that it's happened. It's crazy that it's happened, all this--I just think the world is an amazing thing. So, it's like, to me, the most fundamental question that I can ask is: What does it mean to be alive? Is this really happening? All these things I'm having, these thoughts I'm having--why am I having them? So I pursue what's interesting to me. I don't say to myself: I've got to find something that will change the world or that is necessary or that is critical. I'm just not like that. Like, I'm not mad and not criticizing people who view the world to that length [?]? I don't. I just think to myself, it's like, 'Boy--my whole life I've been unconsciously wondering if what we know about the world is right or if it's all an illusion. Maybe I never had the language to describe it or to explain to other people. But now I'm 44; now I do. Now I sort of understand the question I've been unconsciously been asking myself. And I'm going to take this ball of yarn in my mind and straighten out the strands. And that to me is what writing is. So, maybe we are wrong about the world; and maybe it doesn't matter if we're wrong. That's not my concern. I'm just trying to bring up the idea that this is a real possibility, and that we shouldn't live life just saying to ourselves, 'Well, that's how it is.' That doesn't matter, either.' Like, I don't know. I, I don't know if that's a real cogent answer. But that's how I feel. It's like, to me, whether or not this matters is secondary. Russ: Well, as a reader who spent a few hours enjoying every page, which doesn't happen very often, you certainly changed those hours for me and made me think about a lot of things. In the book you mentioned 'wonder,' and I think your book has a lot of wonder and I think appreciating the wondrousness of reality. And the puzzle of it is very much worthwhile.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
pyroseed13 writes:

Great episode. I agree that it is highly disputable whether any artists we consider innovators in "rock" music will be remembered many years from now. This is mostly because those artists are becoming less and less important within the realm of popular music. Once the boomers are gone I don't think you'll find many people talking about how great and influential the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton are.

Szymon Moldenhawer writes:

Brilliant episode.
Lots of ideas to think about and digest.
Keep Them coming Russ.:)
PS. For your guest I have suggestion read Summa Teologica of St. Thomas Aquinas or at least Aristotle ( Neither was popular for few centuries after "publishing")

Thomas A. Coss writes:

A provocative conversation which itself is exemplary of the zeitgeist of Econtalk, to question certainty with humility.

Kent Lyon writes:

Interesting podcast. Mr. Closterman I think subliminally recognizes that Modernity is indeed "wrong". In Science, Dr. Green is much more circumspect than de Grasse Tyson, likely having learned a lesson from the 19th Century that Tyson ignores. At the end of the 19th Century, renowned scientists declared that Science had answered all questions, and that henceforth science would be a question of extending the accuracy of measurement. Almost immediately, as if to mock such sentiments, Einstein produced Special Relativity and ushered in the Quantum era by explaining the photoelectric effect based on light as a particle, which was at complete odds with Maxwellian electromagnetism that had proven the light was a wave. All of Science trembled and attempted to deal with the New World thus created. Yet scientist, and the larger world, have refused to come to grips with the deepest implications of Quantum Theory, which is that human consciousness affects the physical world (induces the collapse of the wave equation, creating reality out of superimposed probabilities). This is completely at odds with the general "scientific" consensus in a strictly Newtonian deterministic cosmos, that human consciousness is an illusion. Mr. Closterman wonders why he wonders. Quantum science says that he is an ineluctable part of a cosmos whose most funcatmental characteristic is consciousness. Further, that consciousness has both a constitutive component and an emergent component, meaning that animals do indeed have consciousness, and the same "Qualia" or emotional capacity that humans do. Modernity tells him that his consciousness is an illusion (see Danial Dennett, "Consciousness Explained"). Who is he going to believe? Dennett of his lying mind? Dennett's view reduces Mr. Closterman to a fungible organism of no import, and removes any significance to his existence, let alone any transcendence. Quantum theory implies he is an integral part, and an irreducible component, of a universal consciousness that is at the base of all of existence.Modernity demands that not be the case. Modernity (and post-Modernity) is a crock. Wrong. Completely. The modern world is in a state deliciously referred to by William Blake, e.g., "...single vision and Newton's sleep." And all art matters, now and forever. Like matter and energy, information (and art), once created, cannot be destroyed. .Wlaker Percy recognized this with his "Delta Function' of metaphor and language creation. It is all there and always will be, whether attended to by our descendants or not.

Kevin writes:

Great podcast and it sounds like a great book.

Its rare art that transcends cultures. The book may not deal with demography but if trying to predict the future it is important. People of European decent will probably be less than 1% of the world population in 200 years. Less than 50% of the US population by 2050 will be European. Predictions about our culture may be making predictions that future Chinese/Indian/ Hispanic/African/Middle-Eastern populations will find amusing. Its more likely the famous literature in 100 years will not be US or European since they will be demographically dwindling population. Do Africans care about the Beatles now? How likely are they to care in 200 years?

I laughed out loud when the host and guest suggested we are trying to remove masculinity from society. I think you guys got it exactly backwards, its femininity that is dying - everyone wants to be a man and be bold, innovative, strong, outspoken, brash, etc. If you leave the coasts you might find these attributes are still accepted and celebrated in men and routine life - even their occasional violent outlets. Suggesting the more aggressive aspects will disappear is an odd blank slatism. "Masculine" features are biological realities that will continue long after our music interests and books.

Emotional intelligence seems to be rebranding of traits that have long been considered crucial and admirable: empathy, compassion, understanding, etc. They may indeed be considered even more important in the future, but it is very hard to argue that they have ever been neglected. However, I very much doubt a cat would be a worse president than Hillary Clinton regardless of their emotional intelligence.

An issue not touched on - what if the Millennials achieve biological immortality as many imagine we might in the next 50 years. I suspect their music might live on to dominate for generations. In such a society the relative importance of historical culture might be frozen.

Bryan Pick writes:

Kent Lyon: "scientist, and the larger world, have refused to come to grips with the deepest implications of Quantum Theory, which is that human consciousness affects the physical world (induces the collapse of the wave equation, creating reality out of superimposed probabilities). This is completely at odds with the general 'scientific' consensus in a strictly Newtonian deterministic cosmos, that human consciousness is an illusion."

Just in case someone takes Mr. Lyon's word for what is implied by quantum mechanics, there are several alternatives to the "consciousness causes collapse" interpretation, including the deterministic many-worlds interpretation (or Everett interpretation), which dispenses with any actual "collapse" of the wave function.

Todd Kreider writes:

Bryan beat me to it.

As David Deutch would say, it isn't an Everett "interpretation" but where quantum mechanics clearly leads as reality. Well, heck if I know, but while I was fascinated with the conscious/wave collapse aspect in high school and college when I studied quantum mechanics in 1988, I began to think that couldn't be right, yet I didn't know of Everett and his version of parallel universes until 2011. How embarrassing...

Jerm writes:

I kinda feel like the Greene vs. DeGrasse Tyson distinction is splitting hairs. One of them thinks science will produce large shifts in beliefs, while the other thinks it'll only result in refinements of what we already know. But both of them believe these things are going to happen via the scientific method. As long as insights are reached as part of the scientifically determined body of knowledge, it'll fall nicely into both of their perspectives. The only foundational change would be if there was a method out there that was better than the scientific method. But that couldn't possibly happen...right?

And I think that the ideas about football were the exact opposite of the ideas given earlier in the episode. Football's popularity persists into the 21st century because of the general public's ignorance of the health consequences of the sport (until very recently). Making it even more violent would require the sport to move in the opposite direction that it's currently going toward. And it would require that the culture of the future would place more value on violence for entertainment than we currently do. It sounds like a contrarian position for the sake of sounding cool. I bet the Freakanomics guys would like it, though.

Makes me wonder what the minimum number of enthusiasts are necessary to sustain an artform into the future. With increased communication, population, and lifespan, could a small number of people allow cultural practices to make it into the year 2200? Is there enough groundwork laid to let future civilizations ressurect Native American cultural practices after the last tribal members die?

John G. writes:

Neil deGrasse Tyson and his 1600 balderdash was exposed in the Athestically Speaking podcast episode #262.

Neil deGrasse Tyson couldn't be more wrong. But I guess that is Mr Klostermans point.

Lauren writes:

I have two different takes to add on the value of memorization. One, the more intellectual point, is that memorization and repetition may start as rote but then motivate us to get past the dullness by delving more into meaning. The other and more poignantly fundamental is that what we learn sometimes by rote as children may guide us adults by giving us richer understandings as we ourselves come to understand life or come of age.

A month ago I visited my aging Mom. I took her to Jones Beach on a long walk from the most familiar parking lot through the familiar echoing tunnel, past the petunias--now not just petunias--and then over the boardwalk; and then a mile over the beach sands to the water. Yeah, it's a mile just to walk over the sands to the water. That's a special thing about Jones Beach.

Mom was pretty well worn out. She couldn't make it past the expected crest of the sand with only a few hundred feet to go, and she rested in the useless dapples of the railed fences protecting the lifeguard stands while my brother and I took turns running the last yards to dip our toes in the ocean. I started walking Mom back, thinking I would have to get her through this long walk and I'd pushed her too far.

But suddenly, she started reciting a poem--I think in fact because she, as my mother, wanted to take _me_ on this journey she was experiencing. She knew every word. The start was

Across the lonely beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I,
And fast I gather, bit by bit,
The scattered driftwood, bleached and dry.
The wild waves reach their hands for it,
The wild wind raves, the tide runs high,
As up and down the beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I.

She recited the whole thing, rhythmically but with caring, as we walked back up this mile in the sand. It was a distraction as we walked. But also, her eyes started tearing up the further she got into the poem.

"Mom, why are you crying?" I asked when she was done. "It's a beautiful poem. But why this poem?"

Mom responded, "It means more, in different ways, now. I don't know why." So said my Mom, who always recited poetry and music lyrics and encouraged the same for me. I know many poems by heart from childhood; but not this one. She was teaching me, still. Walk, walk, step, step. I thought I was taking her up the sands of the beach, but she was taking me.

I later looked up the author: Celia Thaxter, 1835-1894. (Not the now well-known Elizabeth Bishop, also writer of a poem about a sandpiper, though perhaps someone who probably already knew the Thaxter poem.) You can find the Thaxter poem here.

The Internet is good for documentation and details. But it is not always good for the fundamental experience of our human-ness--our memories and how we can bring them to bear in moments when it matters. Sometimes those moments are times we need to buck our own selves up. Sometimes those moments are times when we want to inspire our children or give insights to others. A moment of recognition can happen in life. Sometimes bit of rote memorization, the simplicity of words--be they through poetry or literature or music--augments our lives later on.

And sometimes, the earlier committed to memory, the better or the more likely to have an effect, be it because of just having more possible years' worth of coincidental effects or because sometimes as people age, earlier childhood memories seem to be retained better than later memories.

jw writes:
  • I am a Greene-ite. With the unknowns about dark matter, dark energy and quantum physics, there are a lot of unknowns out there (like, 97% of the universe). We cannot, and realistically may never, see beyond the observable universe, but there may be ways of inferring what is out there that are unknown to us now. For example, at one point not long ago, we thought that we would never be able to see other planets, then we could infer them, now we have proven thousands and can resolve a few. Of course, the ability to resolve them was greatly helped by the previous breakthroughs in that we now knew where to look.

    Our current understanding of the inflation theory of the universe depends on multiple constants with extremely fine values (on the order of 10^120th power). These are by definition highly improbable, yet here we are. Either there are an infinite number of unprovable and invisible other universes or we need a better theory. I find this much more challenging that the problems of 1600.

  • The Mona Lisa was just a great painting before 1900. After the celebrity of its theft, it somehow became the greatest painting in history. I’ve seen it. I’ve read the history of it. I’ve seen bazillion pixel studies of it. I greatly respect DaVinci. I still don’t get it.
  • Excellent commentary on jazz and early twentieth century music. Sad, as the experience of their beauty has been greatly diminished, but accurate.
  • The de-masculinity phenomenon is still highly geographical in the US. It may be out of fashion in some parts, but it is far from obsolete. When the coasts want to get a shot of masculinity on demand, like college football or military officers to defend them, they look to the South or Midwest, their otherwise “flyover” country.
  • I think that the future will not treat kindly the world’s experiments with negative rates and central banking in general. In a completely different area, I think that abortion will be looked upon negatively, and partial birth abortion will be considered positively barbaric.
  • Kent Lyon - You are correct on quantum theory, but that does not lead to a proof of universal consciousness (as far I as can see, but I could be wrong…)
  • Bryan Pick - There are those alternative theories, but they have those nagging multiple infinities, and most are still based on human perception being the driver. Is it harder to believe that a photon detected by a human collapses a wave function or that it creates one of an infinite number of alternate universes? (Agreed that we don’t know now, but someday we might, or at least might have a better theory.)
  • Lauren - I couldn’t agree more. Googling is not the same as understanding.
Dave Poplawski writes:

On the question of whether rote memorization or learning algebra is of any value, consider that the inner workings of our brains is one of the biggest mysteries of the day, right up there with dark matter and energy. What we have been learning is that our brains are constantly assembling both new inputs and old memories into new thoughts, ideas, questions and solutions. The fewer old memories we have, the less our brains have to work with, and I posit that the shallower our thoughts, ideas, questions and solutions will be. As a teacher this is my response to the question of "why am I learning this?" when students pose it, which is quite often.

As a "student" (meaning in school, I'm still learning and hence still a student in the broad sense), I learned a lot that I thought was useless. But I can't count the number of times an obscure fact or concept, that I railed against learning at the time, served me well in some situation.

Wisdom, I think, is highly dependent upon all the stuff, "useful" and otherwise, that we have stored away using some electro-chemical technology buried in our skulls but basically unknown to us.

Of course if some day we can connect our brains seamlessly to a future version of the internet, with our amazing thought creating mechanism able to tap the huge amount of information and algorithms therein, then memorization will have been outsourced, and all we will "learn" will be our individual experiences. Of course we may store all of those experiences in the internet for all to access too, in which case we will all become "absorbed" as in a great Star Trek episode, all knowing exactly the same things and acting in exactly the same way.

But then I may be wrong about some or all of this, but I'm not sure what.

Dave Neff writes:

Man. I've been both a Klosterman and EconTalk fan for a while now and never did I think Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs would collide with The Library of Economics and Liberty. Just wanted to drop by and say I loved the episode. It'd be cool to hear as a potential follow-up (or blog post?) how some of Klosterman's ideas apply to or sit alongside economic thought, but maybe that's more Freakonomics' thing. Also, as a long-time listener who's bad at internet participation, I'll just take this chance to say thank you, Russ, for hosting such great dialogues.


James Robbins writes:

Spinal Tap!

Jon Kleve writes:

I only had one real, possibly original insight while listening to this episode, though I enjoyed it very much:

If you think of a rock band that wasn't taken seriously in its day, and therefore avoided a contextualization specific to its contemporaries, but later assumed a different context placed upon it, while still maintaining the artistic and lyrical sensibility of the medium of rock and roll itself, you can only come up with one future exemplar of rock music:


Robert Swan writes:

Running even further behind than usual, but enjoyed this chat.

I liked the contrast between the lived experience today and the future's historical view of it. As my mother liked to say "history is just his story".

Fortunately, you don't have to wait until you're dead to see this. I used to race motocross and, back in the '70s, you'd have a more than 3:1 ratio of Japanese:European bikes. Fast forward and today's vintage motocross races have almost no Japanese bikes. Common as muck back then meant not worth saving.

I was disappointed in Russ offering "oxymoron" where Chuck Klosterman had used "paradox". Yes, it was very cute twenty years ago to call "military intelligence" an oxymoron, but these days it's pretty inane. Oxymoron is a literary device: "hopeless optimist" or "sweet sorrow".

Speaking of which, Lauren's touching comment was sweet sorrow for me. I think our essence, the wisdom we gather through the years (such as it is), is just the sum of little episodes like that.

And that brings me to the closing point: "What difference does it make?" -- it's a rather nihilistic question. As the old song put it "What's the use of getting sober when you're gonna get drunk again", or, as Keynes famously put it "In the long run we're all dead".

Seems I've been put into philosophical mode. Better stop.

JRo writes:

Who cares? Why does this matter? Of course Russ knows it is simply like Ulysses' desire

"To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought."

Those lines are from a severely yellowed old 3x5 card which I keep on my desk, on which I typed Tennyson's poem as a memorization aid in my youth.

David Li writes:

Laughing when they talk about football can survive by being more violent. That it's the only thing that's so masculine and physical. Do they not know anything about UFC? It's popularity is rising, and Joe Rogan's podcast had a person discussing if it would be safer going bare knuckles. Recently Buzzfeed even had an article about people doing medieval fight clubs. If violence is the only thing football has to cling to, it will lose because there is more entertaining violence.

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