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Should Scholars Take Real Action as the World Burns?
An interview with David Poeppel.
“Things aren’t looking so good for society right now, so do we have a responsibility as scholars and intellectuals? I think so.”
“We don’t want to do wonderful experiments that will be of zero consequence when everybody’s dead.”
“In the end, we’ll be the ones to blame because had the information and we had the ability to assess the information and we didn’t do fuck all.”
David Poeppel is a fascinating scientist—he’s Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University; Director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics; co-founder of the Center for Language, Music and Emotion; and Managing Director of the Ernst Strüngmann Institute.
See below my interview with Poeppel that I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
1) What responsibilities do scholars have in our imperiled world?
I often talk briefly about this issue at the start of lectures—we typically get sucked into fascinating topics or into the minutiae of what we care about in our work, and we often forget that we’re part of a larger group and society and planet. We’re the people who have been extensively trained to deal with evidence, to evaluate claims, and to evaluate arguments, so there’s a great cost to everybody when we don’t engage.
Things aren’t looking so good for society right now, so do we have a responsibility as scholars and intellectuals? I think so.
And I think we all—me included—don’t engage enough. We have to step up.
If not us, who will actually read the information? And try to digest it, summarize it, and make a judgment about which parts of the data and evidence are critical?
2) Bertrand Russell apparently had a quote where he said that it would be irrational to focus on philosophy—as opposed to activism regarding nuclear weapons—since philosophy means nothing if everybody is dead and nobody is around to appreciate it.
That’s right—by and large, we do very little in our field, as in all areas of academic inquiry. Academia is not that different from the business world—our notion of profit might be different and our notion of revenue might be different, but you get caught up in day-to-day stuff and you don’t dedicate any substantial part of your effort or time or intellectual wherewithal to addressing certain topics that we all know are catastrophic.
Why am I not out there writing blog entries on—or giving talks on—the climate catastrophe? It’s because I’m dealing with the minutiae of my brain-science experiments—that’s my job and that’s presumably what I was trained to do, but it’s not enough anymore.
We don’t want to do wonderful experiments that will be of zero consequence when everybody’s dead.
3) To what extent do scholars tend to fulfill these responsibilities?
Clearly we don’t. I’m not sufficiently well-informed on what kind of activism the climate catastrophe needs, so I need to inform myself about that. Partly it’s a failure of all of our imaginations—why can’t I find the very easy incremental baby steps that I could take to become active on this?
We’re great at virtue signaling in academia, but where are the small- and medium-sized actions that can move the needle—where are the implementable steps?
I’m sitting in New York in my office right now chitchatting with you—I’m not out there doing anything right now. So who is supposed to be doing stuff, if not us?
In the end, we’ll be the ones to blame because had the information and we had the ability to assess the information and we didn’t do fuck all.
4) What things can scholars do to fulfill these responsibilities?
I can read the articles in Science and Nature about catastrophic consequences, but that doesn’t tell me the next step, so we have to figure out incremental and pragmatic next steps that aren’t such a high bar.
5) Do you have solar panels on your house?
I do not—my house is in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut and the contractors don’t want to come to the middle of nowhere. It also might be too expensive.
But my family and I need to make a plan and make it happen.
6) My intuition is that people should make a stink. Imagine someone strips down naked and goes to the top of a building and says: “I want to talk to these politicians about the climate catastrophe!” The media would cover it, and more people would come to that rooftop and join. Or everyone in linguistics could say: “We’re not doing any linguistics until we fix the climate problem!” But I emailed with Chomsky about this—he told me that hunger strikes don’t tend to work that well, that self-immolation doesn’t tend to work that well, and that you have to find the right tactics.
You do have to find the right tactics.
And where is the threshold for how much protest has to happen in order to change things? Venezuela is a completely broken place from every direction, and there’s an overwhelming popular feeling there that things are completely messed up—there have been demonstrations there where a million people have gone out into the streets for weeks and weeks, with no effect. It’s tragic.
7) Which scholars demonstrate what it looks like to fulfill these responsibilities?
It’s a good question. Chomsky’s a good example because he puts his money where his mouth is—he literally gives his money away; he insists on also giving a political talk (on the same day and/or at the same institution) whenever he gives an academic talk; he’s always principled about writing; and he’s always principled about speaking.
We should all make an explicit commitment to changing our work and pointing our work—at least in part—in the direction that matters in the bigger picture.
The environment is a huge thing, but another issue is that education is appallingly bad for the most part—we’re not educating people in a way that allows them to become autonomous, independent, functioning, critical adults. What’s up with that? If you look at things from elementary school to university education, the actual output is pretty peculiar.
8) Is there any such thing as a strike where all the linguists get together and form a massive bloc? The bloc could say: “We’re not doing any research until there’s action on climate.”
If you did that, it would actually be kind of charming and funny.
Linguists all hate each other, so it would have to be cross-ideological or else a lot of linguists would be glad to see their colleagues stop working on the stuff that they hate.
And the engineers would say: “Good riddance! Let’s get you right out of the academy!” Fredrik Jelinek had a famous quote: “Every time I fire a linguist, the performance of the speech recognizer goes up.”
9) What if a bunch of linguists got together and signed some kind of commitment and said: “Whenever I give a talk on cognitive science, I’m also going to give a talk on politics.”
Most of us aren’t able to give a second talk, but it would be interesting to dedicate 50% or one-third of each talk to raising important issues—you could listen to 40 minutes of me blathering on about my experiments, and then 20 minutes of me trying to outline how we could do something and not just virtue signal.
10) You’re actually the first scientist I’ve ever seen do a political thing at the start of a presentation—and the audience gave you big applause for doing that.
I’m kind of bored of hearing my own voice, so I try to mix it up a bit, so sometimes I do it at the start of talks and sometimes I do it at the end of talks.
Every now and then they applaud—it depends on the audience. Some places are shocked into recognition and they say: “Yeah, actually, good point. Maybe I should remember that—I’m happy to listen to your cognitive science stuff, but I may want to walk out and remember that I’m actually also a citizen and a person and a parent.”