Audio File #4: Civil, Civic Discussions

Our conversations about civic matters—economic policies, schooling systems, religion, science, and social institutions—are severely lacking in nuance and reasoned debate. Instead, what flourishes are simplistic arguments and ad hominem attacks. This trend is strengthened by a media environment where we can easily consume pieces tailored to our point of view, avoiding challenge and change.


On Being is a weekly public radio show hosted by Krista Tippett ostensibly about religion and spirituality, but now the host of a broader series of discussions called the Civil Conversations Project. I used to turn off On Being when it came on my radio Sunday afternoons, put off by the wispy quality, assuming it was a liberal echo chamber of feel-good, empty spirituality.


But as I would listen in snippets, or accidentally turn it on in the car, I found it to be a series of careful, respectful dialogues about difficult subjects, with religion, of course, among the trickiest.


So it did not altogether surprise me to find myself enchanted by arecent episode on gay marriage, which really became a window into how to have civil debates. An interview of David Blankenhorn and Jonathon Rauch—originally on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate, and now friends in agreement on many issues—the discussion covered David’s changed mind on gay marriage, but much more interestingly their process of what they called “achieving disagreement.”


For this post I really want to excerpt some longer segments that, I think, speak for themselves. I encourage listening to the full episode. To have two people agree about how to disagree, that are intellectually honest in their point of view and empathetic enough to consider the other side is tragically rare these days and models a better way to converse. I think we can learn from them how to continue to passionately disagree while remaining not just polite, but truly civil.


Following are minimally-edited excerpts.

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Reaching Across the Gap with Curiosity

"I think there is nothing so exciting as listening to someone think on the radio." — Jad Abumrad

On Wednesday, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame presented at Washington University’s first Ampersand Week, a series of events celebrating the ‘and’ of Arts and Sciences, or the value of liberal arts education over exclusive specialization. A perfect choice for such a purpose, Radiolab draws on the composing background of Jad and the inventive science journalism of Robert to explore scientific topics with a humanistic lens. The event took place in Graham Chapel, the pews filled with students, faculty, staff, and the public for the free event.

I was not sure what this presentation would entail. Would they present a live version of Radiolab? Or just introduce a series of archived podcast segments? The experience was somewhere between those two. Relying on existing tape, Jad and Robert discussed the production of Radiolab, the task of distilling technical knowledge from experts for a lay audience, and the musicality and intimacy of radio over other mediums.

Jad opened by acknowledging his mother, sitting in the front row, an obesity researcher here at Washington University, a professor in my program no less. I had no idea. On the large screen behind them, Jad put up a picture of his mother’s protein, what she studies every day, which helps bring fats into the cell. In fact, Jad grew up in a scientific home, with a medical doctor father and scientist mother, an environment that clearly influences his work to bridge the sciences and the arts.

The first segment began by peeling back the curtain on how a formal interview with a scientist becomes radio drama. Robert spoke with Cynthia Kenyon, a C. elegans researcher at UCSF, about two genes that control aging in the tiny worms. One is a hormone receptor, which, when activated, represses the activity of a transcription factor. When the transcription factor is allowed to function, it controls the expression of many separate genes that work together to increase the lifespan of the worms several fold. Jad played the unedited interview, demonstrating how even a media-savvy researcher stumbled to translate the molecular action of genes into something a non-scientist could grasp, and even care about. It was awkward and difficult to keep track of.
But as Jad pointed out, Cynthia’s explanation naturally gravitated to exciting, narrative verbs. Spring. Inhibit. Leap into action. The nouns suffered from alphabet soup—scientists rely heavily on acronyms and jargon for naming genes—and specialized phrases. Receptor. Transcription factor. DAF-2. Radiolab’s job, then, was what Jad called “noun replacement therapy.” Keep the substance, but swap technical language with vernacular.

The translated version: The Grim Reaper Gene (hormone receptor) cue evil laugh battles it out with the Fountain of Youth Gene (transcription factor) cue toddler giggles for control of the aging process. Beat up on the Grim Reaper (mutate it) painful groans and the baby is free to keep cells, and the animal, youthful, blowing spit bubbles as it does.

To some scientists, this kind of translation may seem simplistic. (Cynthia produced the gene nicknames, it was not a liberty taken by Radiolab.) Robert even phrased it as having to ask, “How stupid do you want to be?” Always there is a trade-off between accuracy and understandability. Always. “You’re somehow trying to find a way to stay in the middle,” Robert said. Choosing that point, and then finding that point, is the challenge a show like Radiolab contends with for every topic. But to avoid any kind of simplifying is to wall off scientific research to the ivory tower, something far more damaging than “noun replacement therapy.”

This translation is not foreign to most of us, maybe just lost. Jad recalled trying to bridge the gap with his mom to explain her work when he was a kid, dinner plates standing in for cells and the salt shaker for her protein, the iterative process of trying to get closer to the truth one curious question after another. Our interest in understanding something new, something difficult, is dampened by a culture that discourages looking stupid, but it can be encouraged as well. Jad and Robert try to use the power of stupid questions asked with genuine curiosity to recapture that sense of wonder. “Yes, but why?”

Robert said that if they approach a scientist with sincere curiosity, about 60 percent will spend the time to tell them what they need to know. I wish that number were higher, but I am surprised it is that high. I think they may have a self-selecting group of scientists more inclined to work with the media than most. But I could not say for sure.

Beyond translation, the hour-long presentation delved into the frenetic production of the show, with layers of music and noise and swirling audio energy, a style that aims for a composer’s musicality and an authentic struggle for new knowledge. As a technically naïve but huge fan of radio, I appreciated seeing the depth of production at the software level that goes into making one of my favorite shows. Although hard to miss in a show like Radiolab, I know that most audio production is successful when it goes unnoticed, but it is good to be reminded of the work that goes into these programs.

The floor open to questions, I waited in line at the mic to ask: How can scientists help reach back out to the journalists, or the public, who have reached toward us to help bridge these gaps? I did not get an answer to my question, but I did get a good answer to a good question.

Robert instead answered the why. Why should scientists care about communicating their work? He couched it in militaristic, epic terms—scientific inquiry is the product of intellectual freedom, a resource that is constantly endangered. To tell a story of the science we do is an enchantment, one that can draw people in and convince them that the freedom required for this kind of work is worth demanding and worth preserving. No less than the ability to perform honest work is at stake in the communication of our research.

Jad again put on screen the structure of his mother’s protein, her life’s work, to help illustrate his partner’s answer on the value of free inquiry. He then answered a question closer to my own. “The story of science is in most cases the story of ceaseless failure, which is really the story of everyone who walks the earth,” he said. Tell that human story of vulnerability, confusion, failure, and occasional bright points of insight and success, and anyone can be reached.

Audio File #3: Getting Entangled in Invisibilia

Cover for "Entanglement" by Daniel Horowitz
“Two things separated in space can be the same thing.” –Geoff Brumfiel, Entanglement

After the hit podcast Serial landed and enraptured a widening audience of audio fanatics, I think that a lot of people have been searching for new shows to fill the gap left behind by the conclusion of Serial season one. To this group—and to existing podcast aficionados—I present Invisibilia.

Invisibilia is the spiritual successor of Radiolab, and its production love-child along with This American Life. The two hosts, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, are founding producers of This American Life and Radiolab, respectively, and NPR science reporters besides. Latin for “all the invisible things,” Invisibilia promises a weekly exploration of the invisible forces that shape human behavior. So far, four shows in, this means Spiegel and Miller are creating a surprisingly spiritual discussion rooted in cutting edge neuroscience about the psychology and brain biology behind how humans feel and act.

The first three episodes covered the power and intrigue of our very own thoughts; how to control your fear (and what happens when you feel none); and the profound, very real, effects of people’s expectations of the blind. Each is truly, almost alarmingly, excellent. Today, I want to cover the latest episode: Entanglement.

Lulu and Alix begin by visiting a physics lab at the University of Maryland to witness the creation of quantum entanglement, the physical phenomenon of linking two objects together at a deep level. Once entangled, if one particle is altered—even at a great physical distance from its partner—the other responds accordingly. It’s messy, and brushes up against our notions of causality and the fundamental limit of the speed of light, but it is very real. And quantum entanglement is the lead in to the equally bizarre and fascinating world of entanglement among people, how we are intimately tied to the people around us in conscious and unconscious ways.

The first story of entanglement takes Alix and Lulu to a woman, Amanda, and her family. Amanda experiences a very rare form of extreme empathy, called mirror-touch synesthesia. Synesthesia is the general term for relatively rare but well-documented cases when people experience a mixing of traditionally separate senses, like seeing colors in numbers or tasting sounds. Basically, synesthesia boils down to crossed wires in the brain, which ultimately integrates all of our senses into conscious experience. In some people, that integration is messier.

For Amanda, the very experience of seeing someone experience something triggers the subjective sense of that act within herself. When she was young, she realized that seeing someone get hugged felt like a hug, at a very real, physical level. A woman scratching her arm felt like a scratch. People chewing food felt like they were stuffing food in her own mouth. Pain also transferred across space. Experiencing all of this, and an intense level of emotional empathy as well, left Amanda drained every day, and even unsure of her own identity as she took on the feelings and mannerisms of those around her.

The neurological explanation of Amanda’s difficult condition relies on mirror neurons. Observed directly only in monkeys so far, mirror neurons fire both when observing an action and when doing it. They are a cellular explanation for empathy. Presumably, mirror neurons, or something much like them, cause Amanda’s sensory cortex to light up just when watching a stranger feel or do something. I will leave the engrossing and melancholic exploration of the effects of this overcharged empathy on Amanda and her family to the hosts. Suffice to say, it is not easy being so intimately wrapped up in the world.

The second story features psychology researchers Elaine Hatfield and Dick Rapson of the University of Hawaii and their studies on ‘emotional contagion,’ the phenomenon of mimicking the physical and emotional states of those around you. Unconsciously, we match the posture or speaking patterns of people we interact with. Lulu goes on to explain that even imperceptible patterns, like blinking or breathing, will become synchronized.

Emotional mimicry is at play here as well. Linked to microexpressions—unconscious, rapid-fire flashes of emotion—this kind of emotional empathy influences the mood of everyone you interact with. Filled with audio of old Candid Camera episodes and the meshwork of Elaine and Dick marveling at the subject of their studies, the story comes alive with emotion and a sense of wonder. The researchers explain the consequences of this sponge-like absorption of our environment’s emotional energy, which include a limit on our individuality. We cannot truly be isolated, emotionally contained individuals if we react so viscerally to the emotions around us. Like smokers who try to quit but still hang around smokers, all of us are influenced in obvious and subtle ways by the people we surround ourselves with.

Or as Lulu explains: “It's like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism, a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us.”

There is a bonus story at the end about the greatest entanglement—the one with our mothers—that I won’t spoil. In their exploration of Amanda’s extreme empathy, and our commonplace experience of it, Lulu and Alix manage to weave an emotional hour of awe, sadness, and laughter. Their story-telling pedigrees, and science journalism chops, combine to create the best science show I know of since Radiolab.

The show can stretch credulity. This is clearly not an accident. Alix and Lulu want to stretch your mind to the border of science fiction, and then push you back just over the edge toward reality. They deliberately construct ridiculous claims—about the blind seeing or the material reality of thoughts—and then carefully lead you to that exact conclusion through their narrative. They may test the boundaries of accuracy with hyperbole, but the sense of curiosity and wonder they instill seems worth it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the refreshing power of having two quick, smart women discuss science with a clear sense of awe, respect, and desire to learn and share. Although Lulu and Alix are journalists, not scientists, I expect the show could really impact our culture where women are still underrepresented in science and face a lack of role models for scientific curiosity. Not scientists, no, but Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel have the scientific curiosity down, and we all benefit in Inivisibilia.

Agreeing to Disagree

“Disagreement agrees with me.” –Mike Pesca, The Gist

Honest opinion and in-good-faith disagreement seem rare in today’s media. Now, that statement may first conjure up the millions of blogs (ahem) that are nothing but opinions. But! I would challenge the ‘in-good-faith’ clause of many of those. The press, on the other hand, shies away from opinion in order to present an even-handed account of ‘both sides’.  (We’ll cover the value of the he-said-she-said approach to reporting another time, perhaps.)

Hence the brilliance of unleashing Mike Pesca upon the world in his new show, The Gist, on Slate. A short, daily podcast, The Gist typically covers around two topics from the personal (advice column follow ups) to the curious (the state of candy Peeps) to serious current events, like Ebola. And Pesca’s energy and, yes, opinion, permeates the show in a way I find refreshing. The ending segment, the spiel, is Pesca ranting—rant doesn’t need to be a bad word here—on the same mix of anything from the fantastic to daily minutiae.

Friday’s spiel was an argument in favor of arguments, couched in the context of debates on HBO and CNN around the very premise of Islam. Is it a bad religion or a good religion? You can, I’m sure, imagine some of the simplistic arguments on either side of that simplistic question. But Pesca was not diving into the specifics, but rather encouraging the exercise. Strip away the personal attacks and you have the basic elements of a debate. “There was a struggle over the definition of terms. There were competing assertions as to what the relevant facts were. There was a thesis offered…” Counterpoint. Counter-counterpoint.

Although Pesca cops to the increasing tendency to devolve into “shouting or bullying or baiting or clapping at the dumb parts,” he calls out for a (possibly imagined?) past when argument was intended not to make your side feel better, but to reach through the column to the undecided, even the other side. Because these are different constructions, of course. The cheerleading argument is much simpler and easier than well-framed persuasion.

I’m not sure that Pesca is imagining the supposed golden age of discourse quite right. Regardless, I would like to see his vision realized today. I think of the ongoing conversations St. Louis is having over the events in Ferguson, and now in the City as well, about black youth and police behavior. Many of my conversations are civil and respectful, with participants vulnerable enough to provide honest opinions and to be swayed by good-faith arguments and to stand comfortable in disagreement. But a fraction (and a majority online, unsurprisingly) of these conversations are sadly reduced to choir-preaching and name-calling. Disagreement is taken as evidence of treason. Even skepticism can be anathema in the wrong circles. That’s sad. Because as our society grapples not just with the inequities of race, but with our stance toward Islam, our approach to immigration, or our rights and responsibilities on the world stage, we need disagreement. The called-for ‘public debate’ after every significant moment must be both. To shut down debate is to shut out progress.

I think one thing wrong with our conceptions about disagreement is the tendency to write off opinions that are not our own far too quickly. But, as Pesca notes, “if the argument is sound, and if the disagreement is honest, then an expressed opinion doesn’t need to be subscribed to in order to be valued.” There is no debate without disagreement. No progress without debate over the facts and over our values. Let’s not squash that with conflict-aversion or simplistic name-calling. Let’s embrace it.

Unless, of course, you disagree.

Audio File #2: In the Dust of this Planet

Radiolab is a breathtaking exploration of scientific and philosophical topics. Each season is tragically short, but it is always worth the wait for each new show. Jad Abumrad is a former composer and a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow, Robert Krulwich, an award-winning and inventive science reporter.

One of the most recent episodes, unfortunately Krulwich-free, is slightly out of the norm. Unlike many shows that are wonder-filled takes on science, it’s a little darker. The conversation revolves around nihilism. Specifically, Jad’s brother-in-law’s surprising cultural hit, an academic book on the topic called In the Dust of this Planet. What should have been just a contribution to philosophical libraries was sampled by True Detective, fashion magazines, and a video by Jay-Z and Beyoncé for their tour. The show asks: Is this evidence that nihilism is taking a greater hold in our culture now than before?

As a summary of nihilism, they paraphrase Nietzsche who called it “the most difficult thought”: that nothing about existence matters. We aren’t here for a reason. Life is not here for a reason. The universe’s existence is inherently meaningless. The question then, if such morose thinking is overtaking popular culture, is what draws people to that difficult thought? And what makes it cool?

Nihilistic thinking may draw people today because of uncertainty and disorder in our culture. Unlike past fears of the Soviet Union and nuclear annihilation, today we’re afraid of less-tangible carbon emissions and GMOs. And as our progressive society continues to push for social change and empowerment, individual agency reigns supreme. You can decide to be anything, or anyone. Each person is wholly in charge of their own destiny. But with that agency comes responsibility for constructing meaning in a complicated world. What if we’re just not prepared for that responsibility? Nihilism offers us an out—meaning can’t be had, so it’s not ours to construct.

Jad eventually distills the cool factor down to, “It’s not so much 'I don’t give a shit'. It’s 'I’m not afraid.'” In the face of meaninglessness—and our own mortality—facing those thoughts without fear is what gives a gloss of cool. Or as Brooke Gladstone, in a cameo from WNYC’s other wonderful show On the Media, puts it, it’s being a “badass.”

But the show is not all doom-and-gloom. Nietzsche considered nihilism only a first step. That to go forward into nihilism, to accept it and then move past it, brings us to “a re-evaluation of values.” And in fact love is what may be on the other side. Love in the face of nihilism. Love despite nihilism. Maybe even love because of the meaninglessness.

And in one of the greatest summary statements you’ll find today, the philosopher Simon Critchler takes us out: “In a world where love has been reduced to a series of Tinder exchanges… If that’s the hell that you’re living in as a 25-year-old, yeah you’re going to read these mystics [walking into the desert and burning their flesh for love of Christ] and you’re gonna say, ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’” Passion, even flesh-burning passion, is preferable to superficial exchanges that pass for personal relationships.

I think nihilism may be on an upward trend today because of uncertainty about our future and the many challenges we face and our grappling with the immense responsibility of our own happiness. And Tinder. But maybe what comes on the other side for our culture is a keener sense of love. Love for ourselves. Love for others. If so, maybe it’s worth the trip through the wilderness.

Audio File #1: Urban Cultures

Audio stories captivate me. I know I am not alone, but radio is something I can totally geek out about. Hell, it's a cliché now to be obsessed with NPR. It is an old adage that while TV speaks to an audience, radio speaks to an individual. There is something innately personal about hearing another human speak in their voice into your ear, tellng you news from around the world, or stories from their experience in the world.

To honor the power of audio, I am beginning a series of short posts on favorite shows of mine. Up first for the holiday weekend: Urban Cultures, from To the Best of Our Knowledge.

To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK, as they abbreviate it) comes from Anne Strainchamps at Minnesota Public Radio. At first I was slow to warm to the sometimes-flowery take on different subjects; interviews seemed to lack a hard-hitting truth-seeking approach. But what I came to appreciae was the sheer sense of wonder that seems to drive the production staff of this show, and the breadth of topics they take on. It is not a news magazine show that seeks to tell all sides of a story evenly. Rather, the staff curates interviews with individuals really invested in their take on a subject. (Side note: Strainchamps is apparently the cousin of my boss, and not-infrequently covers plants; both of these things are awesome.)

Naturally I was drawn to the show because of its focus on cities and the human experience of urban life. An ongoing topic in the twenty-first century is the increasing urbanization of our world--the majority of humans live in cities now for the first time in history--and how that impacts our society. I, of course, feel that cities can augment our humanity and bring diverse groups closer together. But it is really in the developing world that the problems of urbanizing hundreds of millions of people over the coming decades will be decided.

The show starts with a melancholy look at Istanbul, once the seat of the Ottoman empire, now an enigmatic bridge between East and West. We move on to the power of cities and their progressive ideals, such as individual property rights, free enterprise, and representation, to reshape the world. Curiously, Russell Shorto proposes that the immigrant experience of New York as the entrance to America helped define American culture as those immigrants then moved inward and continued to take New York ideals with them.

Next we get a chance to consider how places can shape our experiences and memories, and the danger of building or inhabitating "blandscapes", generic stand-ins for authentic locales. Fittingly, the urban section ends with a focus on the cities of China, specifically Shanghai, and how the migrant experience there continues to shape Chinese culture.

One nice thing about TTBOOK is that the final minutes are reserved for different topics. A "dangerous idea" offered is to split America into several smaller countries to make government more nimble. I already worry about the cultural fragmentation enabled by the segregation of liberals and conservatives geographically, so I am left unconvinced. Our government seems to lumber in paralysis today, but I sincerely feel that our progress is strengthened through debate. To live in a homogeneous society driven by groupthink would be a sad state for our society indeed.

The show ends with NPR's Michele Noris recounting her own father's interaction with a police officer, and how the stories brought up by the events in Ferguson, Missouri over the last several weeks go back decades. Unfortunately, the circumstances in our society that lead to ongoing racial segregation and inequity will likely take decades more to address. The solace I find there is that I may be able to contribute to addressing them.

A nice hour of audio coming out of Minnesota this week. Savor it!