The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and Science-Based Medicine's Steven Novella

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and Science-Based Medicine’s Steven Novella

May 21, 2020

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, cohost Leighann Lord talks with famous skeptic and Assistant Professor of Neurology, Steven Novella, MD.

Novella is also the founder and Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine which explores issues and controversies between science and medicine and works to expose dangerous medical scams and practices. He is also the host of the popular weekly podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Novella also has a series of insightful courses on critical thinking that he has published through Great Courses.

In this week’s interview, Lord and Novella speak about the ongoing battle to fight scientific ignorance especially during the current Covid-19 outbreak, how Novella’s Science-Based Medicine has stepped up to counter vast amounts of misinformation about the disease, the relationship between doctors and patients when there’s hard news to deliver, how we all have blind spots in our thinking that hinder our curiosity and skepticism, and the importance of not being comfortable with information that confirms our biases.

You can follow Leighann on twitter @LeighannLord.

This Week’s Music

“Cold” by Pictures of the Floating World / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

My name is Leighann Lord. Your co-host for Point of Inquiry, my guest, this episode is Dr Steven Novella. Steven is the founder and currently executive editor of science based Medicine. He is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and the author of Neurological Blog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking and the intersection of science with the media and society. Stephen has also produced two courses with the great courses and published a book on critical thinking, also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. In this episode, we talk about fighting scientific ignorance, how difficult it is for doctors to tell patients the truth versus what they want to hear. How thinking that you already know everything can lead to the death of curiosity. The importance of increasing scientific literacy, critical thinking, practicing intellectual humility and getting outside of our respective comfort zones and not just settling for information that feels right. It confirms what we already know and believe. Yup, it’s just that easy. Please enjoy my conversation with Dr Steven Novella. 

Hello, everyone, this is Leighann Lord. Your host, your point of inquiry. My guest today is Dr. Steven Novella. Steven, thank you so much for agreeing to be on the show today. Thanks for having me. It’s pleasure. I’m almost shocked that you said yes to this interview because I can only imagine how busy you are. 

I kind of consider you a science medicine superhero out there defending us all against all this, you know, resistance to science right now. 

Yeah, it’s it’s a bottomless pit of misinformation and pseudo science, but always happy to come on skeptical podcasts. 

It does seem every day I say, how much lower can we get? And the gnomes in the night have been digging deeper and deeper trenches. It just seems to me that right now, more than ever, you and what you do over at science based medicine is incredibly important. 

You know, especially in the face of the danger of people, how shall I say, self medicating with false cures from stench, unsubstantiated sources. 

Did that surprise you? How low we got there for a second? 

No. Mean I’m surprised it’s not even worse, if anything. Now, this is pretty much par for the course. 

You know, so it is a good opportunity to review the principles of science based medicine. Like, why are we not enthusiastic about hydroxy chloroquine, for example? And, you know, the president now famously said, give it a try. What do you got to lose? Well, you might die. You know that some people aren’t that on the list. There was, in fact, a study, you know, the V.A. study which showed that the risk of death for patients were covered, 19 treated with hydroxy chloroquine was about twice that of those who were who were not. Not a definitive study was retrospective cetera. So we know it’s got the opportunity to review how do we know things? What’s the quality of the evidence? How do we proceed through this? What’s the probability of something working out? Well, at the end of the day, what’s the probability that hydroxy chloroquine or is it there may soon or chloroquine is going to be an effective treatment for covered 19? It’s pretty low given the preliminary evidence, the fact that the preliminary evidence is moving. If anything, in the wrong direction, it’s actually showing that it’s not working. And in fact, the side effects that we knew about, like it could have a negative effect on your heart rhythm, are actually showing up in the data. Now. That’s not if you’re not looking really good in the preliminary data. The probability that you’re going to work out to be an effective treatment is vanishingly small. Almost zero at this point. So, you know, those of us who know how to follow and interpret them at the of the literature, the evidence are not very enthusiastic about this. And it is frustrating to hear, like, all this enthusiasm, like snake oil level hype of this one speculative treatment, you know, and that has, you know, who knows how many people, in fact, have died because they listen to the hype rather than to the science. But that’s, of course, happening with hundreds of treatments. That’s probably just the most famous one because it was parked by the president. But there’s the people are reaching for whatever they can, you know, in in the face of the unknown. 

Well, that’s it. That was going to be my next question. You know, is this sort of propelled by desperation? 

Is it ignorance or is it nefarious? I mean, I really don’t want to think it’s the latter. And perhaps on the on the snake oil snake level, for some folks it is. But is it just this desperation that people have to want to have an instant cure? 

It’s all of those things, right? There’s no one there. So it’s a multifactorial, actually complicated socio psychological issue. So part of it is just too scientific ignorance. Right. People are not aware of the medical science that really can’t evaluate the plausibility of treatments and or the quality of scientific evidence. But, you know, as we know from doing this for a long time, that the knowledge deficit isn’t the only problem and the only reason why people fall for pseudo science. It is also, I think, fear and anxiety. People want to feel like they have the inside track. You know, that they have the special treatment that’s going to protect them so that they’re not going to become a statistic. So it’s it’s kind of like a superstition the more out of control we feel. And psychologists have demonstrated this in multiple different ways, the more out of control that we feel, the more magical thinking we engage in, the more willing we are to do superstitious things, things that seem magical to give us the illusion of control. We will reach for the illusion of control if we have no other option. And people are being deliberately misinformed or perhaps innocently but but recklessly misinformed. And I can’t read minds. I don’t know if somebody is selling snake oil. Do they believe it? Do they not care? Who knows? But the end result is the same. So there are people selling, for example, colloidal silver, which has been around for decades. And it has no it should never be taken internally. It causes, you know, Argyris, you could your skin could turn like grayish, silvery and color can cause other health problems. And it doesn’t help that it’s not a treatment not meant to be taken internally. It’s not a treatment for infections. But so that’s come up again now. Jim Baker is hawking that as a cure for covered 19. I haven’t seen that much homoeopathy. For some reason, that’s not related to to Cuba. Cuba, some for some reason is that’s their hydroxy chloroquine. They’re really pushing homeopathic treatments. That’s always there in the background. There are individuals just hasn’t really been making the rounds too much on social media. So, yeah, all the all of the old snake oils that were already there, you know, or will come to the foreground exploiting the crisis, exploiting the fear. And people are looking for it. They want that extra layer of protection. And it’s hard to accept. And like I tell you, when we talk about it, there basically isn’t any home remedy you’re going to be able to find on the Internet that’s going to give you a leg up on this pandemic. 

Just, you know, it’s not going to happen because, you know, we are so quick to discount, you know, people who spent years in medical school, years in their residency, doing the research, doing the work. And we’re going to Google it. Yeah, we’re going ahead of those guys. Right, exactly. When, you know, it just sounds ridiculous when you think of it like that’s going to give you the leg up like you have to. This is my vitamin C. I’ll be fine. 

Yeah. If you know, if it worked, the CDC would be telling you to do it because why not? That’s their job is to minimize the pandemic. Nobody has an incentive here to make this pandemic worse. Right. If it’s negatively affecting everybody, every country, both parties, every reach of society that I don’t know of, who even theoretically is benefiting from this. And so if if there was a way to protect people from getting it or minimize the severity of the disease. Absolutely. It would be out there. Everyone would be promoting it. You know, the you know, the experts, sources physician. The CDC, the NIH, etc.. Dr. Falchi, who has been the source of pretty good information, you know, well, he would be recommending it. But, you know, when the experts are saying, you know, don’t get excited, yeah, we should do some clinical trials, but don’t use this outside of a clinical trial or, you know, it’s really a response. Well, you shouldn’t be promoting this. Listen to them. They’re not lying. There’s no conspiracy here. You know, you have to be pretty deep into the conspiracy hold before you think that the authorities are lying on this one. You know, about. About potential treatments. You have every incentive to to minimize this pandemic and to get any effective treatments out there. So, yeah, you’re not going to get a leg up on the Center for Disease Control. With Dr. Google, it’s not happening. 

I should laugh because this is serious. This is a laugh sometimes. That’s right. Oh, yeah, you do. I you know, I feel like there are a couple of social forces at work that that really work against, you know, the CDC and folks like you. 

You know, it’s it’s this environment that we have for instant gratification. We all watch too many movies where the villain is the CDC or some other medical authority. And we think everything can be fixed in a tweet, like it could be that fast when you think you type it and we’re done. And I think those things are coming back to not help us in this situation. And as you said, in the broader sense, it’s social media at large. 

I think a good cinematic narrative that people reach for in situations like this is Lorenzo’s Oil, where the medical establishment does not seem too interested in really doing research into this problem. And they’re very cynical and, you know, pooh poohing it. But the parents just needed compassion and faith and just the desire to help their child. And that that won the day in the end. And that is, you know, it’s an overly simplistic narrative to the point of being basically wrong. It’s not how things work. It’s not how things actually happened. The data is really complicated. But in any case, people that’s the narrative they like. You know, it’s just if you have sort of the gumption to go out there and to try it, you’ll prevail over the the overly conservative or even to the point of being cynical or jaded medical establishment, which is coal that doesn’t really want to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. We don’t really care about people, which is not true. It’s just not true. I mean, you talked to anyone in the trenches. They are risking their lives on the front lines, treating people with a really contagious disease. They are dying of it themselves. They’re doing this because, you know, that’s our job, treating patients, treating sick people. And absolutely, we would want every every tool that we can possibly have. And in fact, some physicians who should know better fall for the snake oil, too, you know, because they may be competent practitioners, but they’re not good. They’re not as good scientists as they should be. And they’re overly impressed with preliminary data and fall for the kind of what’s the harm? Let’s give it a try approach. And so, you know, even physicians or some or, you know, have are overprescribing or inappropriately prescribing things like hydroxy chloroquine because, you know, so we’re not immune to psychology either. It’s hard to sit back and watch an illness get worse under your care. You know, we we always would rather do something and not do something, even though sometimes not do something. Not doing something is the better medical approach. It’s hard. It’s hard to do that. 

I can only imagine, especially if you you might have a patient, too, or someone advocating for a patient who is very aggressive. Yes. Or very pushy, you know, and try. And again, that’s out of desperation and love as well. You know, I yeah, I can see you know, we forget sometimes the humanity of the doctor because the cliche is you guys all have bad bedside manner. 

But yeah. 

But the thing is, if you ask people, they say they think that’s true of other people’s doctors, but not theirs. Right. 

So everyone thinks that their doctors the option to this fictitious rule that like doctors or whatever negative stereotype that you want to have, but people managed to find doctors that they have good relationships with good therapeutic relations, whether because they’re out there. 

I’m not saying there are bad doctors out there. There are there’s every kind of person, you know, if you have the ability and the ambition can become a physician. And so every all types of personalities are represented within within the medical profession. So, yeah, there’s some drugs out there. There’s people who are who are whatever or cynical or not caring. But the standard, you know, the baseline is is not that I think most physicians care about their patients. They what they know that we spend. Career studying good bedside manner knew how to talk to patients, how to deal with issues. But there are challenges and pandemics like this bring that out. And you know what you hit upon one of those challenges is when you have either a patient or a family member basically demanding that you do something and what you have to offer isn’t enough. 

That’s you know, nobody likes being in that position. That’s very difficult to do. The family doesn’t like it. The patient is like the physician doesn’t like it. It’s hard. And sometimes our job is telling patients and families not what they want to hear. But the truth. And those two things are often not the same thing. And so anything that you know. So, again, there’s a huge motivation for physicians to reach for things to say, just to say, all right, I’m turning over every stone. I’m offering you everything that there is to offer. And you’re ending a visit by saying, OK, let’s try this, you know, is a lot better than Wellwood. We’ve already done everything we can. Now he’s going to let it play out. There’s nothing more to do. It’s just, you know, I mean, for people that don’t like, they will take that as the answer. 

I absolutely get it. I mean, you put me in my nerve and this is, I guess, maybe slightly off track, but a wonderful book by a doctor named a Tulga one day. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Who wrote Being Mortal. And, you know, I forget the subtitle, but it’s it’s basically about the limits of medicine and science. And sometimes you get to that point, unfortunately, where it’s, you know, do you want quantity of life or quality of life? And these are very hard conversations to have. And of course, he’s writing the book from his own professional point of view, but also personal because he’s dealing with his father’s aging and ailing. 

And he really painted a beautiful picture on just how difficult this can be for people in the medical profession, because now no one signs up for that last conversation. 

They’re all signing up to save the day or do the best they can do or have an option. And it’s really hard to learn or to or to do that, to have that conversation, that that hard conversation. 

Yeah, and you’re right. And, you know, just finished a round of interviewing, you know, residents and fellows, et cetera. And they all say the same thing. It’s like I really wanted the ability to make patients better, you know, and to help people. And, you know, I have to say. And what do you how do you feel about managing a patient that you can’t make better? You know, just do, you know, helping them cope with their disease and maybe mitigate their symptoms to some extent but can’t cure them? 

You can’t make them better. They’re either going to get worse or they’re they’re chronic illness is not curable much not treatable. 

You have to be able to deal with that to, you know, not just the happy ending. You made the patient better. We all want that. You know, we all want to do that every time. But that’s not that’s not reality. 

Well, yeah, those are the those are the movies that were raised on. Well, or I should say, before you’ve watched anything of Game of Thrones where people are just asked the wind. 

I wanted to ask you firstly, just fan girl here for a bit. 

I love your writing the articles that you put up on science based medicine now. Now, I will tell you, I don’t have that background. So sometimes I have to read a paragraph multiple times. But you have such a way of trying to, not trying to, but succeeding and taking the information and making it understandable. And you did an article recently about trying to understand the mind of anti taxers, which is making me think to the future. 

You know what’s coming in the next year and a half as people are trying to do the test and find a vaccine. Do you think that community of folks will even be resistant to that? Oh, yeah. It’s in the face of a worldwide pandemic. 

Sure. So but it will it ebbs and flows. Right. So I think the anti vaccine movement has been around exactly as long as there have been vaccines. Right. Hundreds of years. It’s always been there. It’s never gone away. But it’s sort of become a grows in prominence and then recedes to the fringe and then comes back out again to get to. It goes in cycles. Part of that cycle is driven by just cultural memory. Part of it is driven by the fact that, you know, anti vaccines don’t have something good to sell. What they’re selling is fear about the single most effective medical intervention. Humanity has ever developed. And I think that’s part of the reason why it tends to go away over time, because the end result of not vaccinating your kids is they get more disease. That’s it. That’s the only result of that. And so, you know that when things like a pandemic happen, I mean, the one thing that pretty much everybody agrees on is that this thing really isn’t going to come to an end until we get a vaccine. The vaccine is the cure for this pandemic. Until then, we’re basically managing it. You know, we’re flattening the curve. But but that’s it. We’re not we’re not going to spend hours going to run its course. The only way to. Really, you know, take a bite out of it, is with an effective vaccine. And so the people who were not hardcore anti vaccines, but maybe vaccine hesitant are kind of in the middle or confused or whatever. Those are the ones that will tend to go away from the anti vaccine movement. And and the fear of the pandemic will be greater than their fear of of vaccines. The hardcore anti vaccines, they’re not going anywhere. They’re they’re true believers. You know, they’re they are immune to evidence. They are immune to reality like any really deep, true belief. And I have no I have not seen. There’s is not a knowledge deficit problem. So one thing that’s interesting that we’ve learned over the last 20, 30 years, as you know, professional skeptics, is that not every pseudoscientific belief system or subculture is the same. 

There is that they’re different in some important ways. For some for some big topics, like the anti GMO topic, it’s that’s primarily a knowledge deficit problem. 

Most people who are anti GMO are anti GMO because a lot of things they think they know about genetically modified organisms are simply not true. And when you fix the knowledge deficit problem, a lot of those people go, oh, I, I didn’t understand the issue. Now I do. Okay, I guess they’re OK. I’m not least less worried than I was about them. Then you can move over to something like global warming where it’s absolutely not a knowledge deficit problem. There’s zero knowledge deficit that correlates with being a global warming denier. That’s purely ideological. That is a tribal ideological position. 

And then you move to anti vaccines, anti vaccines again. They not only have a knowledge deficit problem, but they have what we call a super dunning Kruger problem. They know the least about vaccines, but think they know the most, even more than experts. So they are sort of flipped in their self-assessment and their actual now. They’re just full of misinformation about vaccines. It’s not a knowledge deficit problem. It’s a misinformation problem. And they had this profound illusion of knowledge that is completely wrong. And there’s also a conspiracy. Thinking plays more or less of a role in different types of pseudosciences. And the fact the anti vaccine movement is heavily conspiracy driven and conspiracy theories are completely immune to evidence and logic and reason, that’s kind of their point is to take the conspiracy theory is a shield against reality. That’s kind of the function that it serves. In these belief systems and and with the anti vaccine movement, it’s very heavily embedded in the conspiracy mongering. So for those various reasons, it’s not fixable. And, you know, it’s like it’s like a cult or, you know, some religions, like once you get into deep, you know, you’re you know, at that point, nobody can control what happens at that point. There’s nothing anybody can do to get you out of that belief system. Something quirky may happen where you get yourself out of it, but that’s unpredictable and and chaotic and nobody could really engineer it or make it happen. 

So it’s it’s almost easier to be rescued from physically rescued from a cult than it is to be rescued from a mental cult. 

Yeah. Though, you know, we don’t do that anymore. 

No, no, no. I, I’m sure at my age now I’m thinking of 70s movies. Yeah, it’s true. 

I mean, the 70s, 80s, like the anti cult organizations. That’s what that was their what they did. They they were physically rescuing people from cult. But now they just do exit counseling. You know, if you’re ready to come out, they’re there to help grease the spokes. But which is it’s it’s sort of a gentler way to go about doing it. But anyway, just as an aside. But, yeah, I mean, I think that because the harder thing is physically removing people from the cult doesn’t solve the problem. You have to mentally remove them from the call. And and that’s a long journey. It’s a long, long journey. You know, sometimes like it, see, when it gets it can feel overwhelming. And that’s why you always have to sort of pace yourself as an active skeptic is when you realize, like, wow, I need like years of critical thinking, training for this person to really make any dent in their belief system. This is one conversation is like a drop in the bucket. You need this person has a mass of critical thinking deficit that would take years to. Correct. And that’s you know, that’s when people ask me, what do I do about purt, this person in my life who’s like an imaginative actor or whatever? My first response is, well, how much time do you have? You know, what’s your investment? 

What’s your is this sum? What’s your relationship? What’s your investment in your relationship with this person? Is this your spouse or a family member? OK. Prepare yourself for a multi year saga. If you really want to get them out. If you know somebody more casual acquaintance that work or something. This is a different I would take a completely different approach. 

You know, just somebody you’re trading comments with on the Internet. A different approach still, you know, so it really depends on the context and the relationship. Yeah. 

So I guess the shorthand for that would be pick your battles. 

Yeah. Yeah, apparently. Yeah. 

Yeah, yeah. Because you’re right, it is a different level of investment. And you know, in terms of how to fight this, you say there’s almost no way to do it. But if I recall correctly, one of the things there were two things you suggested in your article, but one was is is opting to play the long game. 

Which is, you know, the adults are done for. We’re set in our ways. You know, maybe we start teaching this to the kids eat Algas, they can come. They we are teaching them critical skills. We can start teaching them about evidence and how to evaluate. 

Now, if you’re looking at it not on an individual level, but a societal level like how do we make society more science friendly, more skeptical, more accepting of things like vaccines, then that’s all about education. Right. So we end and of course, who works? Who is you? I don’t think I think education’s a as a lifelong endeavor as well. But it’s more more intense, obviously, and perhaps arguably more effective. The younger you get to people. And so, again, one of those things that everybody kind of agrees about but still doesn’t seem to happen, at least to the degree that I would like to see, is, yeah, we need to make a populace of people who are scientifically literate and critically thinking literate as well. Both of those things we need to critically thinking, scientifically literate Partito population. But how exactly do we go about doing that? Is, you know, it’s some to some extent a simple matter of what you just do. It raises teach good science and critical thinking in school. And but if it seems like despite the fact that the people at least give sort of nodding acceptance to that, that approach doesn’t really happen to the level that I would like to see. You know, I’ve ushered a couple of kids and and witnessed many people going through the public education system, sometimes even pretty decent private education. And, you know, through the high school level, colleges and universities tend to be excellent in the United States. But through the through the you know, the 12th grade and the science, which I always find the science education to be lackluster, just completely lackluster or even in good schools. I mean, like they’re teaching kids about science, but they’re not teaching them how to think scientifically. And when they try to do it, they it’s almost laughably bad. 

And the I think systemically this or the one piece of data that I think, you know, shows those to some extent, is that the quality of a science education that a student gets is pretty much completely dependent upon the quality of the science teacher. Which which. Right. So that means to me, that means that systemically we’re failing. So it’s up to the individual teacher to succeed. And some do. And some don’t. Based on their own knowledge of science, teaching ability, whatever. But we don’t have a floor in place so that every science teachers can succeed appropriately. The system fails. And so it’s completely left up to the individual. And there are many great science teachers out there. I’m not implying otherwise. The problem is it’s up to them. They’re kind of on their own. And, you know, if you have a mediocre science teacher, there’s nothing in the system that’s going to make sure that their kids still get a good science education. 

I will say I feel like I fell in that gap. I did not have great awe inspiring science teachers, but I had no tactic. You know, history. And so, you know, social studies and English teachers. And it was, you know, that that had an effect on me. You know, what I did get on the basic level is something I had to fight for and learn on my own as an adult. 

But how many people do that? How many people go, you know what? I don’t know. I want to learn about that. That’s not really inculcated in our culture in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable because I don’t know about it. 

Yeah, that’s. That takes that. It takes a lot of work. And the other thing is, if you don’t have a decent understanding of science, you might not understand what you’re missing. So why would you why would you know, too, that this is some hole you need to fill? You know, and that’s a that’s a bias that I think is pretty universal, is that we tend to value the things that we know, like overvalue the things that we know and undervalue the things that we don’t know. And that’s a that’s a bias. So even detected in myself that I’ve really try to be vigilant about. It’s like, all right, I’m I don’t know a lot about rococo art or whatever it is. Something that’s just been flying, I know exists out there somewhere. But I really have no idea what what’s going on. And just to be careful not to minimize, first of all, like how complex as knowledge base there is there how much the experts in that field know and the value of that expertize and their knowledge, even though, you know, so try not to judge things based upon your own ignorance. But we all do that. You know, we all think and think that, you know, about all this is an elaborate set of knowledge that’s really valuable, you know, because I know it, you know, because it’s something that it’s been. So you see the value because you kind of live it and you know that. Then there how deep the knowledge is there, because you’ve taken it, you’ve looked at it. But anyway, the that’s part of the problem. That’s and detecting that out in the field, you know, somebody who doesn’t know enough about science to know that they don’t know a lot about science or even to know the value of understanding science. That’s a how do you reach somebody like that, you know, where they’re dismissive of even the value of scientific knowledge. That’s that was that’s a failure. There’s like nobody should get through public education without at least understanding what the knowledge base of science is all about and what value it brings and completely agreed. 

And I think for some people, nothing. You know, there’s something positive coming out of this pandemic. 

But I think, you know, that the the elevation of scientists, you know, is like, hey, let’s go to the smart guys. These folks seem to know what’s going on. 

Like, when I tune in to any, you know, press briefing, it’s like, okay. Yeah. Politician talking, talking, talking. Where’s your. I want to hear from the doctors and I want to hear from the experts. And in, you know, photogenic, it is fine. 

But I don’t need that lying. I do. 

You you reference this. You references. You know what? I’ve heard you speak and read your stuff. 

And I find it fascinating, you know, that that I think it’s a dunning principle that you talked about. 

The less you know, the more you overestimate your knowledge. And I think about, wow, how many times have I done that and not necessarily, you know, playing bar trivia. 

You know that, you know, the Dunning Kruger effect applies to everybody. It’s often misinterpreted as only applying to dumb people, but now it applies to everybody. We’re all somewhere on that curve with respect to different bodies of knowledge, you know, and things you don’t know a lot about. You will overestimate your knowledge more than people and things you and you do know a lot about. It’s also funny because, like on the on the graph, everybody is is above 50 percent. So that’s just a generic sort of overconfidence bias. Nobody wants to think that they’re in the bottom 50 percent of knowledge about anything, but obviously half of us are. 

Somebody has to be at the bottom. Right. I like to think I embrace something that my dad used to say. 

He said he would say that the older he get, the older he got, the less he knew, which was just stunning. And he was somebody that if he didn’t know something, he would go out and find that information. He would talk to people who didn’t agree with him. And he would say, change my mind. 

He he he had this honest, youthful thirst for knowledge. That I thought everybody had apparently they do not. 

Yeah, and part of it is the experience of knowledge itself. So often one of the ways, one of the hooks I try to get into people to try to help them understand where we’re coming from is, you know, is there anything that you know a lot about? Does it matter what it is? Does it matter what could be baseball, whatever knitting? Does it matter? Is there something that you feel like, you know, seriously more than the average person that you’ve. 

It’s a hobby of yours or an interest or a profession or whatever. 

All right. Think about your knowledge in that area and think about everyone else, the average person’s knowledge in that area. Right. Well, we all have. Oh, yeah. Like, I’m I’m into scuba diving and everyone everyone else doesn’t know anything about scuba diving and whatever whatever they think they know is wrong or misleading or it’s a misconception. That’s right. And you’re that way about everything else. So use that as a as a window into your own reality of ignorance and just allow that to be humbling. You know, so the fly. That’s the you know, the wisdom that your father experience. It’s the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, like the more knowledge that you perceive out there. And so that’s that’s a huge, you know, a huge thing to grasp that really helps give people perspective and humility. And I think also the ambition to learn more. The worst thing somebody could have is a false sense of the illusion of knowledge. Right. Again, that’s like where the anti reactors are. The illusion of knowledge is death. You know, intellectually, it’s intellectual death. 

Because what you think you already are there, you know you know everything you need to know. You know more than the experts. Right. How more poisonous a philosophy can there be than that when you think, you know more than genuine experts that that is the complete death of curiosity, of self correction, self promotion, of understanding. So that’s why, you know, one of the things that we as is as skeptical activists that we are frequently trying to emphasize is that, you know, part and parcel of critical thinking and skepticism is intellectual humility. It’s absolutely essential. 

Well, you know what? You’ve almost answered you’ve just about answered the final question that I wanted to ask you, which is, you know, I would like to think the point of inquiry audience is smarter than your average audience. These are these are folks who are familiar with critical thinking. They embrace science. 

They embrace knowledge. But as you said, and none of us are immune. And so as we are in this brave new strange world and we’re all watching, relatively similar news broadcasts are taking in, you know, different points of information everyday. How do we continue to inoculate ourselves against the nonsense? How do how do we guard that? 

And I think you really you really tackled it correctly, having that intellectual humility and death of Kerry and guarding against the death of curiosity. 

Yeah, there are there are lots of other skills in there as well. So given one thing I’ll add. 

I think it’s particularly relevant to our current time and situation is to to use a variety of sources and to carefully evaluate your sources. It’s no longer the case that we could take for granted that any professional sounding source or authoritarian sounding source is indeed reliable. In fact, just today. My fellow rogues and I was sort of, you know, always sending around possible things to talk about on the show. And someone sent a report by what sounds like a respectable professional organization, essentially promoting hydroxyl chloroquine for a covert 19. And but it turns out they were a political, you know, conservative action group. You know, they’re not an objective professional organization. So there’s a lot of astroturfing going on. A lot of fake experts out there. You know, people can choose their own news source. It’s very easy to cocoon yourself in a bubble of self reinforcing, you know, reinforcing ideas. You have to actually reach beyond your comfort zone to seek out information that isn’t what you want to hear. Right. That seems like it’s coming from a different perspective. Try to look at all the perspectives and have some method of figuring out other than it just feels right to me. You know, which ones are more reliable? Which ones have the better argument? Which ones have the are more in line with the evidence and really pull back from our tribalism and our tendency to pick a team, you know, and then root for that team and to really try to be objective and above kind of the fray. You know, that’s hard. And that’s a that’s a that takes years of habit to develop that approach. And we end no matter how you even now I know we know how long you’ve done it. It’s easy to backslide into just accepting the comfortable information and sources and answers that go along with your existing narrative and beliefs are not challenging yourself. You know, it’s like not working out. You know, at some point you just get lazy and not work out anything intellectually. You know, the intellectual working out is challenging yourself with the other perspectives, with the other information from a humble perspective. And it takes a lot of work on that. There’s no shortcut, unfortunately. Always asked me, you know, what’s the shortcut on getting the right information? There isn’t one. It’s way too complicated out there. And so there isn’t any. There’s no shortcut. You have to evaluate your sources. You have to look at multiple sources, you know. And it takes time and it takes introspection. You have to really guard yourself against your own biases and your own narratives and question everything, especially yourself. And, you know, the more you do that process, the closer you will get to reliable information. But there’s no shortcut. 

Well, unfortunately, that was gonna be my very last question. OK. What’s the shortcut? Thank you for dissuading me. And Steven, I want to thank you for taking the time to to sit and chat with me. I really appreciate it. I know the audience is going to enjoy this interview very much. Thank you. 

It was my pleasure. Thanks, Latifa. 

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Leighann Lord

Leighann Lord

Standup Comedian Leighann Lord was the New York City face of the African Americans for Humanism outreach campaign sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and it’s Millions Living Happily Without Religion campaign. Author Chris Johnson featured her in The Atheist Book: A Better Life. Leighann has been a co-host on the Emmy-nominated StarTalk with Neil de Grasse Tyson. Leighann has shared her comedic and hosting talents at many secular conferences including American Atheists, American Humanists, Center for Inquiry, CSICon, DragonCon – SkepTrack, The PA Freethought Society, NECSS: The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism, PASHTACon, and Skepticon. Leighann is also a CFI certified Secular Celebrant; officiating at milestone life events commemorated with a nonreligious worldview. And she was honored with the 2019 Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association. As a veteran standup comedian, Leighann has been seen on Lifetime, VH-1, Comedy Central, and HBO. She is the author of Leighann Lord’s Dict Jokes: Alternate Definitions for Words You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Will Definitely Never Forget (Volumes 1 and 2) and Real Women Do It Standing Up: Stories From the Career of a Very Funny Lady; available on Amazon.