Can we talk about dr. Mayim Chaya Bialik for a second? You might know her as the neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon’s love interest in “The Big Bang Theory”. She was so stunning beautiful that the production had to dress her down, to make her an acceptable academic. Because, well beautiful women cannot have brains. *sigh*. Bialik actually has a doctorate in neuroscience, with a dissertation on hypothalamic activity.
Watching her debate today with Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, historian, bestselling author, and considered one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals, made my brain happy. In a world where half of the internet finds arguments for a flat earth on YouTube, and another third believes Bill Gates is interested in injecting 5G controlled nano-bots in our bloodstreams, finding two consenting adults in a sapiosexual parler-vrai is re-assuring.
Harari, in his bone-dry way, manipulates words like The Witcher wields his sword: precise, relentless, efficient. Information kills. The first mass medium, printing press, through solid catholic books, labelled smart women as “witches”. Sleeping with the devil, turning decent people into frogs, the works. Men, already feeling threatened by women with brains, found in these books the permission to kill: thousands of innocent women and girls were tortured, burned or drowned. Because the book said so. The parallel to today’s witch-hunt with virologists, epidemiologists and immunologists is frightening: a second mass-medium (the internet) is slowly stigmatizing them as “the enemy”, the “deep state”, “paid for by the 1 percenters”, “wanting to de-populate the world”. Information with the potential to kill. Because the web said so.
Weeks ago, thousands of people invaded The Capitol, because The Man said so… and the ones who said otherwise, the media, were ‘enemies of the state’: fake news. A story well-crafted, well told for years, grooms the masses.
It does not have to be true
Bialik chimed in on how we are programmed, neuro-scientifically, to react to stories. Stories wire us to believe, to do, to feel, to act. Stories make us understand, make us feel safe. Stories have a beginning, an ending. Innovation makes that if you change the story-line, you change the ending. You hurt our hard-wired programming. You will be met with resistance. If God created us, in the middle of the universe, a story placing the sun in the middle of the solar system, will be met with disbelieve, with anger, with violence.
Harari points out a bone chilling truth: the story does not need to be true. The truth does not matter, the story-line does. Find the story that is easier to believe, and it will become truth. The better told story wins over scientific evidence. Time after time. Look at religions, complot theories, sects; look how wars were started… Trying to point to the truth with facts and science is laudable, but very inefficient. Few people that have the right background to point out the truth, have the storytelling skills to make that truth compelling.
We are afraid of change
The debate showed how the introduction of almost any transformative technology has been met with wonder as well as fear, aggression and rejection. Our greatest inventors were considered heretics. The mad scientist is burned in our brain-wiring from our very youth. The new still scares us. We are afraid of change.
Media are stuck
Where journalists in bona-fida media for long showed the way through the muddy waters between disinformation and truth, they seem to have lost their magic. The fourth power has lost its steam. Logic investigative journalism is not great at storytelling. Some kids with a collective low double digit IQ, weaponed with a 4k camcorder and a YouTube channel tell way better and more compelling stories. A scary amount of people is not even able -or willing- to understand the very arguments that set out a theory in the first place. “Journalists are now stuck in arguments about basic established facts instead of moving the ball forward. This prevents true conversations… instead we’re wasting breath on whether or not the Earth is round” says news anchor Ben Collins.
Ethics should rule
Harari and Bialik point out that every single doctor needs to pass tests on his ethical skills before he can claim his degree. He swears an oath to Hippocrates. So do judges. And the rest of us?
What is the staggering power teachers have? The tremendous power -and responsibility- the coders have that build the very platforms that are designed to feed us with news? The people bringing the news? The corporations and brands that pay for the news? The spin-doctors creating the political and brand stories? The communication and media wizards and their data-loaded, AI driven programmatic machinery?
Is it not time that they take ethic courses? Pass an ethical exam? Swear an oath that matters? Should we not start working on a society that embeds ethics-by-design?
United, we conquer
How can we ensure that innovators, legislators, coders, data-architects, communicators and educators should consider these ethical issues and understand their staggering responsibility in ensuring outcomes that lead to the betterment of people and the planet?
In the end, the truth always prevails, like oil on water. Aids did not kill sex. Covid19 will not kill hugging. We will all be fine. Science will save us, once again.
But the better story, in the wrong skilled hands, with the wrong intentions, might cost humanity a lot more than a pandemic.
And you, you are the very first line of defense. I will do my part. I will tell my five year old daughter about dr. Mayim Chaya Bialik.