Podcasts, positivism and "explainerism"

David A Banks argues that the boom in NPR explainer podcasts — Radiolab, Note to Self, Hidden Brain, Freakonomics Radio and others — are ideologically bankrupt, presenting individual, often neurological explanations for social phenomena — rather than turning to the traditional social science accounts of these issues, so that the weird, broken, messed up things in our world are the result of our human "hardwiring" rather than the outgrowth of policies and ideology.

I'm sympathetic to this critique; it reminds me of Anne Innis Dagg's essential Love of Shopping is Not a Gene, which holds that the field of evolutionary psychology is an ideological exercise in cherry-picking examples from nature to excuse social injustice as innate to the human condition.

But I'm also a regular listener to most of the podcasts that Banks slams in his piece, and I've never thought of them as being dismissals of policy and ideology as the ultimate explanation for our woes. Rather, I've viewed them as explanations of the micro-scale truths that are pieced together to make the macro-scale social systems that we fight over. You can't understand macro- without studying micro-, but both complement each other. Statistical sociology is important, but it needs anthropology and ethnography to be complete.

Though I disagree with Banks on whether the exclusion of social science is the same as the repudiation of social science, I'm with him on the wider shift in the way that the right and the left communicate their values. In the 1990s, the conservative narrative was all about "facts" — "Newt Gingrich, Republican speaker of the house from 1995 to 1999, was citing futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler on the floor of Congress, writing forwards to their books and demanding that congress read about cybernetic democracies and innovation economies." The left's narrative then was about telling stories about what could be, describing a better future on the grand scale of societies.

Today, progressives are as apt to explain the reason for feeding poor children as "ensuring their brains get to develop" — using science instead of the moral argument that children shouldn't go hungry. Meanwhile, the trumpian post-fact right is all story, no facts, about imaginary crimewaves and immigration crises.

That's one of the many reversals that the left and right have undergone in my lifetime. As Leigh Phillips documents in Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, the left used to agitate for high-tech, material abundance — arguing that pollution, over-extraction and waste were the result of capitalism's excesses. Now the left is more apt to argue for a kind of austere, timid life in which we must all get used to having less — rather than making more, in a smarter way, and sharing it better.

The progressive movement is losing ground, and this has coincided with a loss of its ability to imagine and describe a future where societies — not individuals driven by remorseless brain-chemistry — provide for everyone, in a world of abundance and mutual aid.

The NPR podcast approach to addressing the problems they create would go like this: Begin by exploring how a steady media diet of behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychological changes affects cognitive processes. The podcasts' invited guests would then socialize the effects by adding up all affected individuals and imagining what it would be like to constantly encounter them at work or at a party. In short, they would misunderstand their own impact on the world the way they misunderstand just about everything else. They'd still leave out the political valence of these effects, as well as the benefits realized by middle-income liberals in thinking this way. They would also leave out a proper understanding of how affect and emotion (and their seeming absence) do political work.

Circulating among an NPR podcast's audience is a sense of obnoxious explainerism. Experiences are not to be trusted even though they're the only things individuals can control. These podcasts trade-in an illusion of understanding, offering bits of data to support preconceived notions about who is broken, wrong, or just annoying. The behavior they encourage–if they do that at all–is in the register of the heroic, but it can only be displayed by well-resourced individuals who seek to make dramatic moves because most others cannot, supposedly, see the whole picture. The others, it seems, must wait until next week.

Podcast Out
[David A Banks/The New Inquiry]

(Image: Nucleus accumbens sag, Geoff B Hall, CC0)