Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Low-quality pundits are getting rich telling people what they want to hear, inside the economics and psychology of how it works

Low-quality pundits are getting rich telling people what they want to hear, inside the economics and psychology of how it works

‘Decoding the Gurus’ co-host Matthew Browne on how the tools of acquiring knowledge are being used to destroy it
[Article Image]
Internet psychiatrist Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA. June 15, 2018. Photo: Gage Skidmore.

Episode Summary

We certainly have our problems, but humans have come a long way since we emerged as a distinct species, roughly 300,000 years ago. Most recently, the key to our progress has been the idea that you gain more knowledge by questioning what you know to begin with.

Socrates’s idea of ‘question everything’ was a great one. And it led to a lot more great ideas, chief among them the scientific method of developing hypotheses, and then testing them to see if they’re real.

It’s worked out great for us so far, but in the last few years, the development of readily accessible mass publishing has made it so that the tools of gaining knowledge can be turned against knowledge itself.

For a lot of people, questioning everything has been reimagined into questioning everyone, except yourself. I call it the Zombie Socratic Method.

As finite beings, it’s always been easy for humans to delude ourselves, but now social media has made it so that people can get rich helping us destroy knowledge rather than gain it.

Joining me today to discuss this subject is Matthew Browne. He’s a professor at Central Queensland University in Australia where he does research on gambling addiction and delusional reasoning. Those interests have also led him to be the co-host of Decoding the Gurus, a podcast that closely examines the techniques of a variety of individuals who have built up massive followings selling everything from alternative medicines to political conspiracies.

Below is the unedited live video of our conversation from May 11, 2022. The transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Matt.

MATTHEW BROWNE: Yes. Nice to be here, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well, you get two podcasters together talking, they’ll probably talk forever. So I, I do want to structure our discussion here a little bit, but before we get into it, tell us for those who haven’t listened to Decoding the Gurus, what is it and how long have you been doing it?

BROWNE: Well, like most middle aged white men in the world I have a podcast, and I have one because about 18 months ago, I connected with another academic, a fellow called Chris Kavanaugh, who’s an anthropologist who holds positions at Oxford and is based in Japan. And we were both too online and still are, and as a result, had noticed a lot of interesting characters, the sorts of people you’re talking about. These people that present themselves as public intellectuals, but seem to do a lot of tricky maneuvers with seemingly the goal of capturing more of your attention and building up their sense of credibility and authoritativeness often with little substance to back that up.

So our initial intent was to write a bit academically about this, linking what we were seeing to stuff in the literature that we already knew about how cults work and how conspiracies work. And there’s a concept called “pseudo profound bullshit” in the literature, which is quite useful as well.

But we didn’t really have our thoughts in order. So we thought we would study a few more people and record ourselves as we talked about them about them. And yeah, ended up making this podcasting, Decoding the Gurus.

SHEFFIELD: You guys have recorded how many episodes now or released how many by now?

BROWNE: Oh, dear. I have totally lost track. We do a lot of interviews as well, with some interesting people with some insight to share. But I think all in all maybe 50 or, or 60.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Yeah. I definitely encourage people to check it out.

One of the things that is, I think perhaps a bit different about the approach that instead of try to make broad comments on the history of particular individuals, that you guys are looking at specific pieces of content and trying to focus on in detail on the techniques that are used, and the specific verbiage that people use.

BROWNE: Right. Yeah. Yeah. That’s correct. I think what we would hope to do is give people perhaps some tools, show them some red flags, and help them become better consumers of information. So we find it helpful to just take a limited piece of content. Because it takes longer, as is famously said, to debunk bullshit than to spout bullshit.

So casting the net too wide wouldn’t work very well. So we take a limited amount of content, usually just one or two episodes or a document of some kind. And we listen to it carefully and we talk about it carefully.

We try to be as charitable as possible and because our intention is not to foreground our own opinions and go, oh, so-and-so is wrong about this because he’s too right wing. And we think this is better.

We try to focus on stuff that is like demonstrably, false and misleading, like rhetorical ploys. So our bar is actually pretty low to get a clean bill of health in our evaluation.

You don’t have to align with us politically. You don’t have to be the best, most profound thinker in the world. You just need to not do these devious propaganda oriented rhetorical tricks. So we cover a bunch of people. Some of them are very good. Some of them are kind of fine, not too bad, and some of them are not good.

So, yeah, hopefully the whole process of going through it helps people identify those themes and red flags. And we’ve done that in terms of organizing the stuff that we think are red flags into this thing we call, in a tongue and cheek way, the barometer, which is really just a list of themes.

There is, let’s see, 10 of them. I won’t read them all out, but just to give you a sense of it, I might just tell you about the first three. So the first one is we call it galaxy brainness. So we live in this world where it’s famously being flattened, right?

Expertise is being flattened. And some people are presenting themselves as having this general purpose understanding of every topic that comes across their radar. So when we see someone who is linking together these disparate concepts, so Deepak Chopra is a perfect example. He’ll link together quantum mechanics and consciousness. Bret and Heather Weinstein, they take their field, which is evolutionary biology, and they use it to explain history, culture, politics, everything. They call it looking at the world through an evolutionary lens.

So, there’s also a degree of cultishness, which is our second thing there, like when you see that an online character is cultivating this very strong in-group of people who can really understand what’s going on, and is maybe above the sort of political fray, and that they’ll often flatter their followers, often tell them what clever and discerning people they are.

But on the other hand, they generally, like a cult leader, do not brook criticism. So if they start to experience that, then the followers will find themselves ejected from the inner circle pretty quickly. And the last thing I’ll tell you about, because I’ve got 10 and I don’t want to bore you by listing them all, is important actually, because it’s linked to conspiracists and we’ve called it antiestablishmentarianism, because this is something you almost always see with the more toxic online opinionators, which is that the official narrative, the institutions, have screwed up royally. They’re, they’re lying to you. They cannot be trusted. And really you need to go to them and people like them in order to have an accurate view of the world.

So this parallels, I suppose, a broader trend in politics, especially American politics, where the right wing, it used to be conservative, like the defender of the status quo in the establishment. But it’s shifted in an interesting way to actually being against the establishment, and really wanting to burn it all down.

But with gurus, you can see that this is an extremely attractive position to take. We would all like to get– we all feel dissatisfied with the establishment and the status quo. We all feel frustrated with mainstream media. We can all see the problems with various institutions, scientific, academic, political, whatever.

So the niche that the online gurus fill is to provide this alternative. But unfortunately in our opinion, in almost every case, the alternative is worse than the status quo.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Well, the other thing also though, about this, this attitude that they’re encouraging in people is that not only do they want you to think everybody else is wrong and you can’t trust what they say, you also can’t trust what other people say about them.

So in other words, if a person, has objectively demonstrated that so-and-so did a certain thing or said a certain thing, well, you can’t trust them, because they’re part of the establishment. And these are, these are techniques and ideas that, that do come from cult organization, religious cult organizations. Can you talk about that? Was that how you kind of originally got interested in this as a media phenomenon?

BROWNE: Yeah, exactly right. I mean, we call them secular gurus, and we call them gurus because we want to make that parallel to religious or spiritual groups or thinkers. And you’re right. They do use some of the same techniques.

There are some interesting differences as well. But that technique of making all criticism illegitimate essentially is quite a clever one in the same way that a Scientologist or a I’m, I’m blanking on the name of another cult.

SHEFFIELD: Well, I can tell you based on my own experience. So I was born and raised as a fundamentalist Mormon and in Mormonism, the church leaders explicitly tell people do not read non-church members who criticize us, because they’re anti-Mormon. You cannot trust anti Mormons. In fact, it is morally wrong to even read what they have to say. You are sinning just by reading it. It’s a sin.

BROWNE: Yeah, exactly. So Eric Weinstein, one of our gurus that we’ve–

SHEFFIELD: And I’m sorry, who is Eric Weinstein for those, because of internet segmentation, a lot of people, they can have massive audiences and a lot of people have no idea, other people have no idea who they are.

BROWNE: I’m really glad to hear that a typical person doesn’t know who Eric Weinstein is. That’s music to my ears. But Eric Weinstein coined the term Intellectual Dark Web. I don’t know if people would be familiar with that, but it was a bit of a thing for the last few years, since about 2018.

So a bunch of figures that we’ve covered are included in that category label. So people like Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Joe Rogan that kind of thing. So it was Eric who coined that term, perhaps to kind of attach himself to a group of people that were a little bit more well known than he was, being slightly cynical about it.

But that group kind of exemplifies a much broader trend that we see in the internet. Which is the topic of our discussion today, which is these characters who are purportedly have a commitment to civil dialogue and civil conversations, even when they disagree ferociously. They typically have this resistance to sort of mainstream political correctness, that kind of thing.

And they think of themselves as kind of banished or excluded or on the outside of institutions like universities and such.

SHEFFIELD: Even though they have larger audiences than almost any university professor who exists.

BROWNE: That that’s that’s right. And even though some people like Jordan Peterson did hold a tenured university job for a long time before eventually dropping it completely, in favor of sort of popular appeal. So it was Eric Weinstein who termed that. And he is himself, in our opinion, very much a secular guru.

He has claimed to have invented a great leap forward in physics. His background is in theoretical physics. Not that he’s really published anything on it in the academic literature, but he has written an informal manuscript on his theory of called geometric unity. And according to Eric, he delayed that publication for some time, because he thought that kind of powerful knowledge, the human race wasn’t quite ready for it. This is the kind of thing that could maybe permit faster than light travel. It’s been obviously ignored by–

SHEFFIELD: So he gave it to Peter Thiel instead.

BROWNE: That’s right.

But you know, this is an aspect. I mean, Eric is a great example. Again, exemplifies something we see a lot of them, which is that they’re pretty much fully concerned with weaving a narrative and a mythos around themselves. Being this visionary thinker, being someone who has seen further. Is not standing on the shoulders of giants, stands alone.

And that’s, again, it has these parallels with the religious gurus that we talked about. And they do use those same techniques. So Eric Weinstein likes to coin acronyms and neologisms. And he has a couple, like the Distributed Idea Suppression Complex, the DISC, and the GIN, g-i-n, the Gated Institutional Narrative.

So you can just tell from those phrases that it’s very similar to what you were describing with the Mormons, which is, these are constructs or theoretical ideas that he’s invented, the purpose of which accomplishes several things, actually. It’s quite interesting. One, this idea that the establishment, the institutions are all against them, and is this corrupt kind of self protective monopoly on intellectual thought.

It explains why the outsiders, the gurus, are not better recognized. It explains why most people, and most institutions, do not recognize their genius.

So it’s helpful in that respect, but as you said, it’s also very helpful for de-legitimizing any criticism. So for instance, if the physicists are not paying attention to his grand unified theory geometric unity, well that’s because of the Gated Institutional Narrative, where they’re too afraid of these dangerous ideas and they’re totally corrupt. So yeah, it does parallel religious cults in those respects.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it does. And the other interesting thing that, and we talked about this before our show here today, that you guys were not originally, you and Chris were not originally intending to have it be so politically oriented. But it became that way just by virtue of who the subjects are.

BROWNE: So here’s the thing to be aware of. We like to say we live in an information economy, but to a large degree, we live in an attention economy with every everybody, right?

You, me, the New York Times, and the gurus. Anyone who is making any kind of public commentary of any kind is competing for attention. And one way of describing the gurus is that they are characters who are willing to stoop lower, in order to capture that attention. And the fact is, is the politics, making people upset, making people angry, making them afraid, is the best way to capture someone’s attention.

So it’s hardly surprising that most of our toxic gurus do have a strong political bent to them. They will sometimes be a straightforward left or right wing agitator activist. We talked about Dinesh D’Souza beforehand, and he would certainly fall into that category.

But many of them take a, a slightly stranger or more abstract political perspective that is sometimes hard to discern, but they certainly do the same things, which is to essentially present themselves as Cassandras warning of this impending doom.

The vaccines are, are gonna kill us all. Terrible things are going down. And unless you pay attention to them, right now, and get this information, you’ll be led like lambs to the slaughter into this catastrophe. So that sells right? That sells a lot better than some dispassionate talk about some abstract intellectual topic.

So as a result, most of the gurus do have a strong political slant. Therefore, it’s hard for us to totally escape the pool of politics. And we have to acknowledge, we have our own political opinions and view of the world.

And I’m just not interested in being a political activist of any kind. And Chris isn’t either .We are interested in the critical consumption of information and hopefully helping people develop better information literacy.

And we’d like to think that you can do that regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, whatever your convictions are. But when somebody is talking about the Capitol riot and making it out to be a false flag or something. One’s own worldview comes into play when you are making some assumptions about whether or not these claims are true or false.

SHEFFIELD: And that kind of goes to the topic that I was talking about in the introduction, the idea of what I’m calling the Zombie Socratic Method.

So in the Socratic Method, the idea is that the reason that we engage in Socratic dialogue is to question and to separate what we know from what we assume. Because a lot of things that we think are facts are actually just assumptions. And so that’s the point of Socratic in inquiry.

But basically what you guys are calling gurus, or we could just call them sort of misinformation, purveyors, what they’re doing is they’re changing the Socratic method to say that well, everything is an opinion. Nothing is knowable. And you should question everything that everyone says to you, except for me. You should take what I say as the truth, because I’m against the establishment. I’m the only one that tells you the truth.

And what I’ve found when I personally– and you can maybe tell me how it is in the discussions you’ve had with people– but when I engage with people who are Joe Rogan fans or anti-vax people, obviously a big overlap there, that they don’t believe in objective reality, which is interesting because they often claim that they do.

And then like in the case of Rogan or Eric Weinstein and his brother, Bret Weinstein, they both claim that they’re not political. Even though Eric Weinstein literally works for a right wing libertarian who some people are calling a fascist, Peter Thiel. Obviously, they have political opinions. And Joe Rogan does not invite socialists onto its program on the regular.

These are highly politicized individuals. Jordan Peterson obviously is not going out there talking about how God does not exist and is a myth and the Bible is full of nonsense, even though he himself says he doesn’t believe in the Bible and is not religious. So it’s an interesting dynamic that’s afoot there, I would say.

BROWNE: Yeah. I mean, the thing that unites those things, is that what the person is doing is not what it says on the tin.

And people who might be listening who are fans of these people will say: ‘No, no, no, no, that’s, that’s completely wrong, Matthew. Joe Rogan repeatedly says, I’m just a big dummy. People shouldn’t listen to me.’

People like Eric or Bret Weinstein make a big deal about intellectual humility and having these honest discussions and being willing to revise their opinions when new evidence comes along. The, the people that are prominent anti-vaxers will claim that they are interested in science and that they are simply following the evidence.

Any good thing that comes along tends to get imitated and you end up with this, ersatz version of it. And so I quite like your concept of the zombie Socratic dialogue, because there is this intense element of cosplay to what they are doing. It’s all about acting a part.

And when you focus on acting the part, you can be very, very good at it. So our most recent, or we shortly will be releasing an episode of Bret Weinstein and a less known character called Alexandros Marinos, who was essentially just a super fan. And you will see them acting out the process of critical scientific evaluation of a randomized control trial to evaluate ivermectin, this proposed treatment for COVID, to evaluate this trial.

So, they’ve both been massive proponents of ivermectin, at the same time, talking a great deal about the risks of vaccinations and how vaccinations don’t work. So they’ve really invested a huge amount of reputational capital in ivermectin, and they’re doubling and tripling down on it.

Neither of them have any expertise in RCTs. And neither of them have any experience in real research, really. But you’ll see if you listen to that episode, this elaborate charade of dispassionately evaluating the methods of a pretty standard, randomized control trial which ended up with results showing that ivermectin didn’t work. And of course, finding thousands of, thousands of problems with it.

But a along the way, you can find out things like that Alexandros Marinos doesn’t understand how to interpret a P value, right? A P value is just a, a frequentist method of determining whether a result is statistically significant.

You’ll find out on the way that Bret Weinstein doesn’t understand what power is, in the context of an RCT. He talks about the study being underpowered. And demonstrates again and again, that he thinks that means that they didn’t give the patients enough ivermectin. When in actual fact, anyone who has even a passing, like even my undergraduate students, if you ask them would know that an underpowered study is one where you do not have enough subjects.

Not enough data. That’s what underpowered means. So these are just a couple of examples to illustrate that they genuinely do not know what they’re talking about. But the interesting thing is, is that they’re very good at appearing to know what they’re talking about.

Bret sounds extraordinarily professorial. He has this lovely baritone, authoritative voice. They do a lot of the TED talk type maneuvers like ‘okay, now let me just lay this out for you, for those people that don’t understand,’ this kind of very authoritative tone.

And unless you actually have familiarity, which most people do not obviously have a great deal of familiarity with running randomized control trials, then this will be extremely convincing to you. And you’ll come away from it with the very strong impression that these are two extremely intelligent, very trustworthy people who have looked into this trial, and yet again showing that ivermectin works just great.

And then they’ll read in the mainstream media, or from some scientist type person, from some university that ivermectin doesn’t work, which is the actual truth.

And that will start to lead them down this conspiratorial rabbit hole, where you reallocate your trust from these institutions who are usually anonymous, aren’t talking to you directly. You don’t feel like you have a personal relationship with them to characters like this, these secular gurus, who you feel are trustworthy.

So I think that there’s two aspects to having good information literacy and navigating the minefield that is the internet info-sphere. One of them is just critical thinking and paying attention to the content. You can do fact checking, that kind of thing. For instance, when somebody claims that they’ve been using ivermectin in Japan for the last couple of years and it’s been amazing. And that’s why Japan has got low COVID deaths. Well, you could Google that and you can fact check that and find out that that is entirely untrue.

So you can look for the red flags that we spell out in our guruometer. But the other thing you can do is really focus on cultivating a good trust network. A lot of it boils down on who you should be trusting, and who you shouldn’t be trusting. And allocating your trust correctly will save you a whole bunch of pain, basically.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. One of the other things that, and we discussed this also beforehand, not only did you not want it to be a political show, you also were not trying to focus necessarily on one side of the political spectrum, more than the other, but as it turns out, it seems like there are almost all the most successful gurus are on the right.

And many of the people who are aspiring gurus who say they’re on the left, well, all they ever do is criticize Democrats and talk about how much they hate Joe Biden. And never say anything about Donald Trump or anybody else on the right. It’s like there’s there’s something in the water on the political right. But a lot of people who will have maybe more moderate conservative tendencies, it makes them upset if you point that out to them I’ve found.

BROWNE: Mm. Yeah. Now look, that’s, that’s all true. I think certainly there a lot of pseudo liberals. I don’t know why, I do not know why some people who are right leaning feel like they need to pretend to be left leaning. Why not just be who you are and present yourself in a straightforward way.

As to your other point, I agree with you. This is something Chris and I have talked about a lot, which is that we don’t want it to be a politically valanced podcast. We would like to pull out examples from across the political spectrum to help people identify issues like because of course the most appealing and seductive ideas that are wrong will come from a place that deeply appeals to political and moral convictions and intuitions.

So we would like to source deceptive material from across the political spectrum. And we are actually intending to do a season where we’re gonna be covering sort of Bitcoin and tech bro sense making types, which is gonna be fun next. But then after that we will be focusing on left wing gurus.

And, I use gurus again in the, in a pretty broad sense. We cover a lot of people that don’t conform to this sort of stereotype or this archetypal internet guru that we’ve just been discussing. We’ll essentially look at almost any content, and look for logical or rhetorical problems with it.

But as you say, the archetypal guru is, does seem to be more of a feature on the center right, say, and going further out to the right. The Intellectual Dark Web that we talked about for instance, was very much, even though they claim to be, many of them claim to be liberals. It was really center- right leaning with a sort of libertarian, slightly anti woke bent.

So why is that? I mean, we’re not really sure, but I do think there is something about the culture that the sociology of left and right wing contemporary politics. As we just talked about right wing politics in the States, and to some degree elsewhere, is becoming increasingly less conservative and more populist and more conspiratorial and more geared around the kind of cult of personality of the strong leader.

So we obviously saw that with Donald Trump, and you also see it with this otherwise mystifying positive regard for someone like Vladimir Putin who exemplified that, that kind of cult of personality.

So I think the sociology of it is that on the right hand side of politics, there is a greater tendency to find someone who is a great person to follow and to basically be quite a loyal follower of that person. So someone like Jordan Peterson inspires a massive degree of loyalty amongst his fans.

And if you try to find a writer or a sense maker on the left, perhaps some feminist writer, maybe Kate Martin, something like that, you will struggle to find that degree of loyalty. You might find people reading their book or saying good things about it or whatever, but you’ll also find a lot of people criticizing it. There’s a lot of back biting.


BROWNE: There just seems to be less of a tendency to sort of follow the leader tendency on the left, to be both sides about it. And to give to try to be fair, I mean it’s not like this is the only toxic sociological phenomena on the left side of politics relative to the right then. Arguably one sees more of this kind of conformity and or the mobbing or canceling that kind of thing, where if one does not conform to the sort of group’s consensus point of view, then one can find oneself ejected. But yeah, I think there’s a political valance to it, and there’s a reason why most of our gurus tend to be on the right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I think the other thing also is, to go to your point of the anti-establishmentarianism, so the Republican party was originally kind of a multi ideological party. There were moderate Republicans, liberal Republicans in the 1950s.

And basically the kind of reactionary types went, took over the party in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And then they proceeded to cancel any Republican who disagreed with them. And so that’s actually where cancel culture started was in the 1960s by that the Barry Goldwater campaign.

So the thing about it though, is that when that began, that movement kind grew out largely through the John Birch Society, and also this guy named William F. Buckley, both of whom had very strong anti academic ideologies and very pro God, pro-gun, type religious fundamentalism.

That was their audience. And in fact Buckley, his very first book was called God and Man at Yale. And it was quite literally– you can buy this book at a lot of thrift stores in the United States– the point of the book was him tattletelling on various professors. ‘So-and-So doesn’t believe in the resurrection. So-and-So said this about Mary. So-and-So said this, they need to be fired.

But they weren’t fired. And this university calls itself a Christian university. Well, if that’s the case, then you need to get rid of this atheist professor who’s mean. And that’s the point of the book is basically: ‘alumni, you need to take away the money of these evil left wing, communists atheists.’

But effectively what that did is that, it made the U.S. Republican party become openly antagonistic toward academia. And this was in response to the development of biblical higher criticism.

When that came along as the academic discipline, when higher criticism in biblical studies– referring to looking at the text as a compiled document, so understanding that there’s multiple God figures, God has multiple names in the Bible. So as that hypothesis became very obvious that that was the case, that these were two religions that kind of were smooshed together and turned into one, that became very up upsetting to a lot of people.

And that kind of gave birth to a lot of this anti-intellectualism that we see today, I would say. But anyway, that’s a long way of saying that because the right doesn’t like academia, it basically means it’s left them to their own devices intellectually. They have no one forcing them to prove their ideas in a sound fashion.

BROWNE: Yeah. Yeah. It is interesting how the academy, it’s been liberal leaning and left leaning since forever. And there is something about at least traditional conservative values, which is sort of antithetical to, to what the academy is all about, which is sort of genuinely asking questions and genuinely challenging, fond assumptions and traditional beliefs.

And I think yeah fundamentalist Christianity in the United States is probably, would probably be the best example of that.

SHEFFIELD: But inherently, conservatism is not necessarily religious. I mean, the posture emotionally is skepticism


SHEFFIELD: So a natural conservative, the ur- conservative is David Hume, who was an atheist. But his form of conservatism has just been thrown in the garbage can by the right for the most part.

BROWNE: Yeah, I think that’s really important to remember, that there isn’t anything inevitable or intrinsic to the kind of phenomenon that one sees today or in recent history.

Like it, it didn’t have to be that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way. A conservative party could be a party that wants to conserve the environment. Because they’re just naturally cautious and don’t want to fool around with strange new technologies with unknown effects, because we’ve only got one biosphere. So we need to look after it. That makes perfect logical sense.

It’s kind of an accident of political history. I mean, not an accident. There’s good reasons for it, obviously, but I guess I’m just, just backing up your point, which is that there’s nothing inherently toxic. There’s nothing inherently conspiratorial. There’s nothing inherently anti-institutional about conservatism in the broader sense.

So yeah, it’s kind of a shame where the direction that the contemporary right has been going. I keep saying in the United States, but you know, you can see features of this happening all across Europe and to some degree in places like Australia or Canada or New Zealand.

SHEFFIELD: In that regard though, it is kind of always fascinating to me how much non-Americans know and care about American politics. And I’ve had non other non-Americans on my show before, and I said: ‘Let’s talk about your country’s politics. And they say, oh, no, no, no, thank you. I don’t know anything about it.’

BROWNE: Yeah. Well, look, here’s the, the sad fact, is that your politics is simply more interesting than ours.

There’s so much drama. We don’t have the same kind of crazy stuff going down. There’s no capitol riots happening in Australia. Our politicians are basically a bunch of dumies and stuffed shirts, blathering about nothing. We don’t have the colorful characters.

So yeah, American politics is different. It’s more interesting. Also in the online interconnected world, there is an, there is obviously domestic Australian politics and people only talk about domestic Australian politics, but you’ll never meet those people. Because they’re not talking about the same things as that as an American would be talking about.

If you want to participate with the large majority of the social media, then you have to talk about American politics. Because you know about American politics, but Americans don’t know about whatever country you are from, New Zealand politics, right? Or very, very little. So if you want to participate in the discourse and we are all mere servants of the discourse, as Chris Kavanaugh likes to say, then you kind of need to engage.

As well, phenomenon that tend to happen in America, you tend to see them here as well. They might be less extreme, or it could be happening in a few years’ time as opposed to today, but America does export, especially to the Anglosphere an awful lot of culture.

SHEFFIELD: So you might be able to get your capitol riots after all then!

BROWNE: It could happen. It could happen. We’ve certainly had a lot of jokers turn up at Parliament House down in Canberra, a bunch of idiots. So, they’re giving it a go. I mean, we have our own right wing demagogue grifter in Australia as well. He’s like a low budget Donald Trump, Clive Palmer in the United Australian Party. Yeah. So we have like a, like a toned down slightly stupider, slightly less interesting version of whatever you have.

SHEFFIELD: We’re interesting in all the wrong ways. (laughter) But, so just to go back though, you were saying that a lot of these right wing gurus don’t want to say that they’re right wing.

And it, it reminded me of something of of a New York Times profile that came out in the 1990s. And I’m gonna put it up on the screen. So this was a, a profile piece that was, that was written in 1995. And basically the thesis of this profile is that there’s a new generation of conservatives and they’re not like the other ones that you have known.

They’re young, they’re bold, they’re ambitious. And they have sex. That literally is one of the themes in the profile.

BROWNE: The head section.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, but,

BROWNE: Good for them.

SHEFFIELD: And what, yeah, good for that. Who knew that people had sex? This is a new thing. But what’s funny though, about the picture further though, is that, on the front there, that’s actually Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host when she was in her early thirties or late twenties, I forget.

So she’s got a leopard print skirt there, but look at this right there: leopard print jacket! This is from the more recent New York Times Intellectual Dark Web picture. So you have one of the people who was mentioned in there, Christina Hoff Sommers. She’s got the leopard print.

So I it’s just this kind of interesting parallel, visual parallel, between the way that the mainstream press is doing these, allowing for these sort of rebrands of conservative punditry. But they’re doing it in the exact same way.

These are not, these are not your father’s conservatives. These are different people, they’ve got different ideas. But then when you go back and look at the ideas, it’s literally the same ideas: maybe welfare is not a good use of money because some people are just stupider, or maybe women should not have rights because women should have babies.

That’s the exact same type of arguments that you’re hearing from today’s Intellectual Dark Web, which suggests that there’s really nothing new under the sun, including leopard print clothing.

BROWNE: Well, I mean, actually I was just looking into Christina Hoff Sommers, because I didn’t know much about her because we’re writing an article to celebrate the four year anniversary of the Intellectual Dark Web.

And as you mentioned, she’s one of the founding members, and those photos were from the photo shoot that was imagined there. I actually thought some of those mossy bits of logs behind Bret Weinstein, there looked a bit like penises, but that could just be me. Maybe it’s branding, maybe not.

I mean, I don’t think that they’re all the same. I think Christian Hoff Sommers seems like a sort of libertarian center right-ish, but still a feminist, who is kind of that old guard feminism that isn’t on board with the sort of new wave, right? Disagree, agree, whatever. I think that seems to be where she’s coming from.

So, I don’t think, I don’t think they’re all the same. I don’t think she’s identical to Laura Ingraham when she’s not identical to Bret Weinstein, they all have their particular takes, and they really do vary in the degree to which they are, they are doing deceptive, rhetorical nonsense.

So, I can imagine, I can imagine certain right wing figures just being completely upfront about it. It’s, presenting their point of view saying that marriage’s between a man and a woman and the women should put their family first over a career, and list off every other kind of view, and do it in a totally transparent and non deceptive way.

So Bret Weinstein, who would be much, probably, closer to where I would be sitting politically, would be far more deceptive than that kind of figure on the full throated right.


BROWNE: Yeah. So it’s, I, I just want to emphasize that there sort of, sorry, there’s actually two different things: There’s whether you agree with someone or not is one thing, and whether or not they are putting their position forward in an honest fashion, I think decoupling those things is important.

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah. Yeah. And I wasn’t meaning to say that they’re exactly the same, only that these are similar rebranding type initiatives. This is something that happens just periodically. Because the nature of both left and right, is that the left is going to change its positions over time. That’s baked into the cake of saying that you are progressive, meaning you believe in new ideas. Whereas, on the conservative side, it’s resistance to new ideas.

And so therefore, a person who might at some point in their previous age have decided that their things that they believed might have put them on the left side of the spectrum. That’s the way it’s always been. I mean, on the political left at some point, it was okay to say you were in favor of segregation, racial segregation.

But then at some point the progressives decided, ‘Well, you know what? We, we don’t like racial segregation we’re against that.’ Then you had people saying, ‘Well, okay, you know what? I’m against the left. Now you have abandoned the position that I believed.’

And so that, there’s this kind of inbuilt dynamic that doesn’t, that isn’t remarked on enough in when people talk about these larger analyses.

BROWNE: Yeah. I mean, there’s certainly an arc of history there isn’t there, where there has been a general trend towards more liberal, more progressive societies in the west. That’s been happening for decades now.

There was very interesting tweet that I saw, somebody had taken photos of a board game that was popular in the 1980s called like it was it called Dilemma? No. Anyway the game involved posing these dilemmas that you would kind of talk about in a fun way about whether or not you would do this or not. And to, to our eyes today in 2022, it’s kind of shocking, right?

Because this 1980s board game is posing dilemmas like you find out that your neighbors have been abusing their children. You’ve tried talking to them about it, but they refuse to. Should you tell the authorities? That’s meant to be a dilemma or your daughter wants to date a black man or something, do you advise her not to. Again, that was posted as a dilemma in a family board game, just in the 1980s.

So, so that certainly supports your point, right? That there is this, there is this, we almost don’t observe it. Like I was a kid a young child in the 90s, so I don’t really remember that period firsthand, but you know, for those of us who are of a certain age, you do actually kind of forget what you know, and you’re like a frog in a pond that’s changing temperature and you’re not really aware of it. So yeah, we can kind of forget.

SHEFFIELD: It makes it also that if you’re somebody who opposes racial segregation, that doesn’t mean that you are a progressive. Because the conservatives eventually adopted that belief. Well, most of them. So when somebody is saying: ‘This is proof I’m a liberal. I’m against racial segregation.’ Well, that’s not proof you’re a liberal at all. If that’s what the you’re–

BROWNE: No. You’re a, you’re a 1980s liberal .

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, basically. But the, the other thing about it though, I do want to talk about the idea of why there has been kind of a, a migration of this ‘I’m a liberal, but I hate the Democrats.’

And this has been kind of a new genre of media punditry, that you’ve now got this whole class of people like to Tulsi Gabbard, like Glen Greenwald, like Matt Taibbi, I mean, there’s a bunch of these or Tim Pool even. And he’s finally come clean, Dave Rubin was as well for a long time.


SHEFFIELD: They obviously, they do not say liberal things. They do not criticize the Republicans. They don’t criticize Trump. They don’t advocate for, let’s say, single payer healthcare. They don’t do any of those things. But they want you to call them liberal. And their audience is exclusively right wing.

And so the question is– I think it’s more similar to if you are trained as a French chef, but you only make sushi, well, you’re a sushi chef.

BROWNE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, no. So I, the question you’re posing is why the charade? What is the appeal of wanting to present yourself as something that you are not?

And I think there’s a connection there to part of the appeal of our gurus and their audiences, like their audience. I mean, the people that come to them are actually generally kind of curious. They may well be disenchanted with various things, but these are people that want to be intellectually stimulated.

They want to feel that they’re getting a deeper understanding of the world, and they want to feel like their intelligence is being respected. They’re not just being given 10-second sound bites or just being told some slogan that they’re supposed to believe. They want all of the details.

So there is a self-concept, a sort of a centrist and apolitical self-concept there that we would all like to think of ourselves. That we’re not ideological, that we don’t have this blinkered, tunnel vision, that we are intellectually curious, and that we can consider all possible ideas on the table, and consider them the evidence and the logic on its own terms.

And come up with our own decisions, essentially be a free thinker and not a sheep, right? This is the self-concept all of us would like to have. And it’s very much something that the gurus flatter, spend a lot of time flattering their audience.

Now I would guess I think that the presentation of someone like Tim Pool or Dave Rubin, the self presentation as liberals and to some degree being sort of apolitical. So I think their presentation would be that they are a very much in principle, on board with, with all of these very good and nice liberal ideas, but they are fundamentally a free thinker. Someone who is based on logic and reason as they famously say.

And so they have that self image, but they can also dig plum a very powerful well of red meat outrage and emotion-laiden and knee jerk kind of responses, which as we talked about is the real thing that drives our attention and keeps us coming back. You have to pull on those heartstrings.

So it allows you to have those two things at the same time. So, “Timbah On Toast” is by the way, an amazing account that’s he’s done a very deep dive on Tim Pool and really emphasizes this interesting feature of him, which is this self presentation. Tim Pool presents himself as being sort of both sides and in this sort of journalistic, dispassion and reason and so on.

But at the same time, he sort of maintains these sort of two things at once. He’s doing total “anti-woke,” rah-rah-rah, full- on right- wing stuff, but the audience gets to have their cake and in it too. They get the kind of emotional pull of the very partisan politics and they also get to maintain the self-concept that they’re not one of these crazy ideological people, they’re sort of a scientific thinker.

So, I think that’s helpful. Look, I’m trying to think of an example, because I want to be fair about this. I’m trying to think of an equivalent example on the left. And like we said before, it is different. The left is just different. You can find toxic things going on, you could find bad things, but they’re not the same things as what’s happening on the right.

So an example of where self-concept might not fit reality on the left is, the left has, left wing people often like to think of themselves as a movement that is against the hegemony, right? That is a, like a workers’ parties. ‘We’re looking for a revolution, we’re supporting marginalized groups and the powerful groups that runs society.’

We like to think of ourselves as sort of in opposition to that, as the underdog, right? It’s a very nice narrative, and it’s a very nice feeling and largely true, for most of most of recent history, but I think that’s becoming progressively less true.

Like you have people like me that are professors at universities, right? You have people that are running large corporations and our institutions. The left broadly has control, not so much in the United States, you have Supreme courts and stuff like that, that are institutions that are not dominated by the left. But, I don’t think the left is necessarily underdog party to the same extent that it likes to think of itself.

So, just trying to think of examples where the self concept we have is not necessarily aligned to the reality.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, one where I would say is when you get people who try to think about societal problems through only one lens. So in other words, all problems in society are because of racism, or all problems in society are because of the 1%, or pollution or whatever, that is a subset of left wing guru that does exist, I think.

And it’s harmful to the left, because it prevents a larger analysis to show that these issues are often interrelated and caused by, they influence other things. And the reality is that it’s not all the 1%, it’s not all the patriarchy or the racists or whatever. These problems exist in societies that are in Africa where there aren’t any white people.


SHEFFIELD: Or where there is a lot more equality or things like that in terms of income. And so yeah, those are things to keep in mind for sure, I think, if you’re on the political left.

But just as we’re wrapping up here, let’s maybe have the last question be– one of the problems that we have for the internet is that, and I guess it’s endemic to humanity as a whole, but this idea of understanding how to think about expertise. Because as you were talking about earlier with the idea of galaxy brain, a lot of disinformation and misinformation purveyors, they’ll tell people that, well, you can decide for yourself, I’m just going to show. Like, again, Tim Pool, this YouTube commenter, he will, just throw out a bunch of stuff and be like: ‘Okay, yeah. Well now you decide.’

And like Dinesh D’Souza, who we’ve been talking about, the right wing filmmaker, he just came out with this movie claiming of this pervasive, gigantic conspiracy of vote fraud in the United States, but he presents no evidence of it.

He doesn’t name a single person in his movie who he says did it. This is, by definition, a conspiracy theory, if you have no people you can point to. Like that’s literally what a conspiracy theory is. It’s an unprovable broad assertion in which no particular person is responsible. And so, but at the same time he will tell people: ‘Well look, I did these things here, you can evaluate the things for yourself, think for yourself. But then, but then–

BROWNE: It’s terrible alternative, yeah. It’s such a trick, isn’t it?

I mean, well, this is the thing we’ve, we’ve touched on a few times, right? Which is that any good thing sort of gets weaponized and turned into a bad thing. So it’s good to have, to be able to have civil conversations across the aisle, whatever, right?

But that also gets turned into what’s been called civility porn. Which is this idea of fetishizing that. And the most important thing is tone. And then you give yourself a big pat on the back for having a very nice friendly chat with someone who’s a neo-Nazi. And giving them softball questions like Dave Ruben would give, to say Candice Owens, that isn’t a laudable thing, but it can be twisted so as to be presented as something good.

The sort of stuff that some of our gurus do, you could call it ‘scientism,’ I guess. Or cargo cult science, right? Where they’re going through the motions of a rigorous, critical scientific method, but in truth, they’re doing none of the sort. It’s a total cosplay exercise. It’s all about the show.

SHEFFIELD: And their audience has not in a position to know that though, either.

BROWNE: Exactly there. So that’s where I was getting to, I guess, which is that if you are just a normal person, and you’ve got a job, and a family, and hobbies, and a dog, and you have the skills to, to get to the bottom of any question– whether or not there was vote tampering on the election, whether or not ivermectin is an effective treatment, unless you have the requisite expertise, and are not being influenced and not doing motivated reasoning, essentially being influenced by your your prior assumptions. Then that is very, very hard to do.

And the people like Dinesh D’Souza, or Bret Weinstein, or Tim Pool, who purport to give you both sides of an issue or give you the sort of evidence or the facts for you to make up your own mind. That’s very flattering. It’s very flattering that they are giving you the respect of bringing you into this conversation and encouraging you.

And that would be great if they were doing it in a fair and balanced and accurate way. But the truth is that they aren’t. So look, I think the moral of the story is that navigating the social media info-sphere that this new kind of news and information system that we’ve created is currently extremely fraught.

So, the solution is naturally to listen to “Decoding the Gurus” and nothing else. Just, just listen to every episode. No.

The solution is you can, you can do basically three things, as I said at the beginning, you can either learn some of the red flags like if someone is like self-aggrandizing and making out that they are the expert of everything and the smartest person in the world, then you know, that’s a red flag, just, just make a note of that. So you can pay attention to these red flags, which is what we try to do with DTG.

You can try to do your own fact checking, doing your own research, which frankly, for a lot of technical topics, is a little bit fraught, most conspiracy theorists who try to do their own research to get to the bottom of climate change or COVID vaccines or whatever, unfortunately end up deluding themselves more, because they have these unacknowledged motivations influencing their research, which guides them along the wrong path.

So I think perhaps the best thing that one could do is to try to cultivate a healthy trust network, which is what they call it. And be aware of the kind of biases and so on in, in whatever circles you’re in. You could be in academic circles, you could be in left wing activist circles. You could be in this sort of liberal, libertarian free thinker circles, or you could be in religious Mormon circles, whatever.

Just, just have an awareness of whatever circle you are in, where the bias is going to be, and just be particularly on guard for things that are sort of pushing you in that particular direction.

And, and try to get a variety of sources for any claims and pay attention to expertise. A good example of this is COVID, which has been a total disaster in terms of public understanding of science. But one of the things like you could have gotten, like I’m not a virologist, right? And I don’t need to be, I can easily get a correct view about vaccines by just noting, ‘Well, who is a virologist, who was working in this field doing research on gain of function or whatever, for instance, long before the present bruh haha happened. And who were the people that sort of parachuted into this topic who have no sort of research background or trainings?’

Well, that gives you a guide of who to listen to on a given topic. So that’s my advice for people playing at home.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. And I guess I would say also to people that questioning everything begins with yourself, and questioning your own assumptions. And if you want to believe something is true, the best way to see if it is true is to research it as if it were not true.

And then if it is true, then you would find out that it is, but it’s a much better way of gaining knowledge rather than confirming your own bias.


SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, I appreciate you joining the show today. We’re talking with Matthew Browne, he’s the co-host of Decoding the Gurus.

And for those who are listening, I’m gonna read out the Twitter handle. That’s ArthurCDent. For those who do not get the reference, that is A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What was that, a 2005 movie now? So I think perhaps your reference may be–


SHEFFIELD: For, for some people that might be a dated reference.

BROWNE: I have bad news for him. The reference is older than that. That’s from, for me anyway, the references from,

SHEFFIELD: Oh, the books are older, sure.

BROWNE: The books, obviously.


BROWNE: The books are old in the seventies, but also the BBC radio series, which was made shortly after the books were published. I, when was it late seventies or early eighties? But that’s, that’s where my character is, yeah, is from.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. And then what’s your website address if people want to check that out?

BROWNE: Oh, I don’t really know. But if people type in Decoding the Gurus, you’ll find us.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Well, sounds good. I appreciate appreciate you being here today.

BROWNE: Thanks so much, Matthew. See ya.

SHEFFIELD: All right. See ya.

All right. Well, so that’s our program for today. Thank you everybody for joining, and please to check out theoryofchange.show. And if you liked what you saw here today, please go to patreon.com/discoverflux, where you can support us in our work.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.