Dr. Bo Winegard is a professor of psychology at Marietta College in small town Ohio. A swift adoptee of the principle that academics are more successful if they can write to a popular audience, he’s penned some notable pieces for public consumption in Quillette, and Arc Digital. We asked him all the questions you have to ask someone who’s playing a supporting role in the online meta-drama that is life as a member of the IDW.
Banter: You’re minor league Twitter famous. Is there any way that fact tangibly affects your experience as a real professor who has classes and students etc.?
Winegard: Do you mean: does my Twitter experience affect my teaching? Or, am I concerned about tweeting because my students might follow me?
Banter: Either of those implications would be interesting to hear more about.
Winegard: So, I do have a bunch of students who follow me because they all found my account somehow. And then they’ll come to class and be like, “dude, I loved that tweet.” I found it a little disconcerting at first, because I try to be a bit provocative on Twitter because that’s the only way to do it right? I was a little concerned that a student would get offended or something but it hasn’t been a problem; my students all seem pretty cool. The fact is, I have twelve or thirteen thousand followers, but that’s not a big population in the real world, most people have no idea who I am. I think every semester the students will think it’s funny to find me and follow me because I guess that’s what you do with your professors now. I didn’t have Twitter when I was a student so I guess I would’ve followed my professors too. But, it’s kind of cool because they get to see some of my opinions as long as it doesn’t bleed into the classroom. And, I’m very careful not to let my political views enter the classroom. There was a concern that they might see my political views and if they had different political perhaps it would cause them some consternation.
Banter: Centrism isn’t sexy, and in many ways that will always be the stumbling block of moderate political positions. How do you attract people to the middle and have better conversations with friends and family from different sides of the spectrum?
Winegard: It’s one of the things that I think about quite a bit. How can one make an ideology that’s not particularly exciting (because the exciting thing about centrism is: we don’t have strong opinions about a lot of things, and we think that we should qualify, be humble, look at the evidence etc.), exciting. To be honest, I don’t think that can compete in a marketplace with ideas that are more exciting and forceful. So, it’s probably only something that can appeal to a subset of people. And, that’s okay because maybe if you have enough people in the subset you can provoke interesting debates that get picked up by parties that have more appeal, ideologies that have more appeal. As far as family goes: people in my family love to debate so it’s not very hard. We have whatever personality it is that leads to debate and nobody takes it terribly personally. But I guess the trick is trying to appeal to people who otherwise wouldn’t be like that.
The idea is to create the right incentive structure. So, one thing I think a lot about is, how do you create an incentives such that saying you were wrong, or saying you don’t know are actually rewarded. I try to commit myself to that publicly, I try to commit myself to fairness and non-tribal epistemology because then people will hold me to the fire if I don’t live up to those ideals. I think that’s probably the best we can hope for, set up this incentive structure and then call out hypocrisy when we can, because it [centrism] really isn’t exciting. Read history and think of political movements, communism, fascism. Whatever one may think about those things, and obviously I’m not a fan, I get the psychological appeal. It’s exciting to have this worldview that tells you about everything and has intriguing symbols etc. Centrism is boring, it’s basically we should just be cautious and think about everything more.
Banter: Thinkers like Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom will regularly distill some of the most important psychological principles for a clever lay audience; is there anything you believe the average man routinely fails to comprehend? If you were going to write your pop psychology book, what would it be about?
Winegard: I think there is a lot of room in the public domain for education on evolutionary approaches to human nature. Once you start to understand evolutionary thinking, then you can actually start to arrive at solutions for yourself and things just start to make sense. So, if you’re at a restaurant eating dessert and you ask, well why do I like cheesecake? You can think about that question from an evolutionary perspective. And, I’m not saying you can solve that puzzle, but you can come up with a reasonable hypothesis if you understand the logic of Darwinism or natural selection. Every semester I have one or two students who really gets natural selection and how it applies to human psychology. You can see how it changes the way they approach almost every problem. I think that’s why it’s cool, because it’s such an expansive theory, it can do so much.
The second thing I would focus on, which is more of a moral concept, is tribalism and tribal biases. The amount of polarization in today’s society is quite intense and one of the best ways, it’s not a panacea, but at least understanding our tendency towards tribalism is a start. One of the most fundamental things about human beings is that we are tribal, we form coalitions and we favour people inside the coalition at the expense of those outside the coalition. People sometimes present that as though it were unequivocally bad, but I don’t think it is. It gives us a lot of meaning to care about some people more than others, but it can be bad. It can lead to dehumanizing the outgroup or interpreting certain facts one way if they go against your coalition. For example, ethnic favouritism can lead to racism and other horrible things.
I would teach: everyone is going to be tribal, ethnic affinity is a fraught word but it’s probably natural to some degree, and I’m not even sure that there’s anything in and of itself that’s bad about that. But, it can be bad and it’s important to understand because it’s one of the most potent forces in the human psychological palette. And, now it’s very important because we live in these very complicated, cosmopolitan societies in the West and trying to understand how we can all inhabit the same government system, the same country is going to be crucial over the next couple hundred years.
Banter: Since we’ve spoken about tribes and tribalism, do you have a favourite baseball team?
Winegard: I do actually. The Houston Astros, and let me say why because it seems like a random team given that I’m not from Houston. I’m interested in baseball analytics and I got into Houston because I was reading about which front offices are the most advanced in the analytics area. And, most experts said Houston was just so far ahead of the game. So I was into that in 2014-2015 when they were young and coming up, but then I really got into them in 2017. Then, Justin Verlander who happened to be my favourite player, from Detroit (I’m from Michigan) got traded there.
Banter: That’s serendipitous.
Winegard: Yeah, massive serendipity. And it was awesome because that year they also won the World Series.
Banter: You are on the front lines as an educator. How often do you see college students who needn’t be in college, and do you have any advice for those souls that the mantra of “everyone should/can be a student” has failed?
Winegard: I think we need to rethink our approach and our attitudes toward what humans can and can’t achieve. I think of intelligence/learning ability the same way I think about athleticism. Now, I’m a horrific athlete, just awful, and I tried to play sports, I wanted to be a good athlete, I was just terrible. And it was disappointing and in some sense humiliating. I think there are students that simply don’t have learning ability, they’re not as good at learning as other people are. It’s counterproductive and probably frustrating and humiliating for them to pretend that if they just worked harder they would be learning.
Banter: Can you put your finger on any of the more sinister mechanisms that might have propelled those people into colleges they shouldn’t be in, or educational paths they shouldn’t be on?
Winegard: I wouldn’t use the adjective ‘sinister’ because it makes it sound like there’s something nefarious going on. But, there are a few things at play: obviously colleges want more students because that’s how they make money, so of course they are going to emphasize the idea that people should go to college. Also, there’s this widely shared, I don’t want to call it blank slate, but environmentalist-oriented belief that everyone can succeed in college. I just don’t think that’s true. It’s pernicious in fact, because there are people who could have successful lives doing something else, and they’re stuck in a math class in college where they can’t possibly succeed, maybe they can scrape by and get D, but they’ll forget about it the second they leave and they’re just wasting a ton of money. It would be better if we punctured this myth and started to emphasize some other outlet for these people, some place in society that is dignified and respected that isn’t based on being hyper-educated or intelligent.
One of the problems with talking about this is that the term ‘intelligence’ is so loaded with social significance that if you say some people aren’t intelligent it sounds bad, it sounds insulting. But it’s true, there’s a distribution, a standard deviation and there are people with IQs of 80, 70, and it’s going to be incredibly hard for them to succeed at scholarly tasks. Expecting that they will do so is both painful for the person and counterproductive for society as a whole.
I would like to see us value labour that isn’t based on intelligence as much as possible. How do we provide meaning for these people? How can they belong to our coalition and succeed? It’s always a tough call because sometimes you get students who are struggling but then you turn them on to something and they get invigorated by it, they work hard, and it feels good as a professor. It’s tough, you never want to tell a specific individual they can’t make it, but we need to figure out the best way to gauge potential.