I couldn’t be more excited to announce my new podcast, Model Citizen, which will be launching in earnest later this week. Until then, I’ve worked up a short, 11-minute trailer that introduces the podcast and its themes. I hope you’ll check it out to get the show’s flavor, and stay tuned to hear interviews over our first few weeks from the likes of Jacob Levy, Matthew Ygelsias, and Elizabeth Cohen.
Let me say a bit more. Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve crossed over to the far side of middle age, but I’m seriously alarmed by our culture’s decadence. It’s not that the kids won’t pull up their trousers or that television is a foulmouthed minefield of f-bombs or that teens these days refuse to indulge in sex and drugs like normal people did in the good old days. Rather, I’m worked up about what I see as a sort of intellectual or epistemological decadence. I honestly can’t say that things are worse now than they used to be, but they certainly seem worse to me–and I’m about 52 percent sure that this isn’t just fogeyism on my part. I’m pretty freaked out by algorithmic radicalization–by the fact you can log onto YouTube looking for a panini recipe and end up believing the Earth is flat or that the moon landing and the JFK assassination were both filmed in the same studio in Burbank.
That some of our most powerful and celebrated corporations evidently don’t care about, and take little-to-no responsibility for, the broader social and political effects of whatever it is that their engagement-maximization algorithms seduce people in believing, is part of our decadence. That we have so little capacity to resist this kind of seduction is part of it, too. Both suggest that very few of us see ourselves as having a duty to the truth. Fewer still take themself to have a duty to others–as citizens, neighbors, and fellow human beings–to not to believe dangerously idiotic things, and to help others to do the same.
The premise of Model Citizen is that the proper care and feeding of our mental models — our subjective maps of our shared world–matters. It’s a duty of good citizenship. We owe it to one another to try to get our beliefs right, because we do share a world, and we’ll all suffer if politics and policy are shaped by lunatic conspiracy theories, braindead dogma, and unabashedly corrupt self-interest. But it’s hard to get it right. Who to trust? Who’s reliable? What’s an “expert,” really? What methods nudge us toward truth and which shove us into a lalaland of nefarious rubbish?
The aim of Model Citizen isn’t to explicitly belabor all this meta-level stuff. We’re not going to catalog fallacies or apply Bayes Law to everything. Instead, the aim is to help listeners build better mental models by learning from trustworthy guests whose challenging ideas will help us revise them in the direction of the truth. We’ll talk about their big ideas, but we’ll also talk about how they arrived at their conclusions, the mistakes they’ve made, the biases to which they’re prone, how they guard against them, and how they’ve changed their minds and why. The idea is that good cognitive citizenship isn’t so much a matter of learning and applying a bunch of rules, but more about cultivating a certain sort of sensibility. Bertrand Russell called it a “robust sense of reality.” Ernest Hemingway called it “a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
Whatever you call it, it’s the opposite of what leads folks to become QAnon enthusiasts, and you can’t be a model citizen without one. Smash that subscribe button on your favorite podcasts app and tune in Thursdays, when new episodes drop. Join us!