Theory Gang
15. Questioning Academia at Scale w/Geoffrey West

15. Questioning Academia at Scale w/Geoffrey West

From CERN to Godzilla - absurdism and curiosity abound

Some conversations really give me the warm and fuzzies, and I wouldn’t have expected them to come from one with a theoretical physicist.

You often hear about great scientists being absolute shit people, but rarely do you hear about people who are genuinely wonderful all the way around. I don’t know Geoffrey’s dark side (as a Jungian psychoanalyst, I’m sure his wife would argue he has one), but I know vibes. And the vibes with Geoffrey West are immaculate. I mean, this man spilled the tea! I love how messy boots he was, and I hope to always speak my mind the way he does.

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To spill our tea from the beginning of the episode, I met him in Santa Fe, and we were supposed to record there, but I was really pushing myself to get my in-person set up together, and frankly, it was stressing me out. It felt more important to focus on the conversation, so I told Geoffrey what I was thinking and he had forgotten we were recording anyway. Plus he was driving around on a (pretty much) flat tire, which I hypocritically scolded him for (I literally had two leaking tires at the exact same time). So, it was better that we post-pone, and then he had some other crisis the day we were supposed to record online -yada yada, we made it work. He was a peach about it, and it just showed me the kind of person he is.

Another thing I admire in Geoffrey is the way he seems to think in memes. His story relating Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca to misinformation is a sweet example of how his mind works.  Part of what I love about doing this podcast is getting a different view into these great minds that I haven’t seen before. Obviously, I watch/listen to shows that have had my guests on them before they come on - I’m noticing an interesting pattern there as well regarding who has my guests on before and after I do - but I try to bring up different conversations than what you’d hear from the regular suspects. Great minds are more than the products that arise from them. Sometimes, the little moments tell us so much more about them (and the world) than their greatest discoveries.

In these moments, I’ve started to realize I fall into similar conversational patterns with my guests. The only reason I can see for this is that I’m looking to each of these people for insights into these open social questions which they experience to varying degrees. Most of the time, they defer to their lack of knowledge on the subject, apart from anecdotes, but even if I were to ask “the experts” - I can’t honestly say I trust most social science. Asking these people their opinions gives me little clues to possible solutions. For example, in this episode talking with Geoffrey the pace of life/research seems to be a huge component of a number of these problems - and he has potential physical laws of scale that might support this. At the end of this season, I will reflect on these things and see what I can do with this information, but I do hope to turn my findings into something more tangible to help not only academics but the vast majority of people out there who are curious and not in the academic world.

You’re part of this, no matter where your career path (or lack thereof) has taken you. You’re interested in things like physics, intellectualism, and knowledge, and your curiosity should be not only rewarded but integrated. So, as always I’d love to hear your thoughts. Don’t be shy about your contribution. Your input as a listener is an inherent part of the collective intelligence we need to harness. The only thing I ask is that you contribute your honest thoughts and context. Did you really think about this and if so, say more. If not, tell me that this is a gut reaction. It’s not that these things count for more or less, but the context of our thoughts seems to matter.

I hope you enjoy this episode, my friends. Cuz I sure did!

Time Stamps:

0:00 Introduction

02:03 Geoffrey’s attitude

4:40 How has the Santa Fe Institute changed over time?

6:57 The SFI’s radical approach toward integrated problems

14:04 Why the Sante Fe Institute is a conservative one

15:50 The High Table vs. the Corporate University

18:16 The Economics of CERN

20:18 The Making of Middlebrow Science 

21:54 Explaining science vs popularizing it

25:09 How the University kills Godzilla

33:44 No days off for academics

36:45  Recipe for pressure-cooked assholes

38:07 The Revenge of the C students

43:06 Hubris, fear, and narcissism

45:02 The problem with Nobel prize winners

50:40 The life of a scholar

56:41 Stan Ulam Adventures of a Mathematician

58:41 What Geoffrey doesn’t regret

01:00:31 Catching the intellectual overflow

1:04:08 Collective Stupidity Symposium

1:09:57  David Baltimore and scientific fraud

1:15:09 Incentives for/against dis/misinformation

01:17:57 Complex Obscurantism

01:19:56 Biomedical Esotericism

01:20:49 Advertising in biomedical journals

I hope you enjoyed the episode! Here’s the Big Nerve Question:

What could be an interesting solution to one of the problems I discussed with Geoffrey West on my podcast?

(defining and evaluating misinformation, catching the intellectual overflow, fixing a culture of hubris, fear, and narcissism, or managing scientific fraud) Check the time stamps for our thoughts.

This episode is possible with support from ya’ll (thank you), and also BigNerve. Big Nerve is pushing hard to get thinkers funded and recognized. You should be one of those thinkers. To enter my idea tournament, win money, AND help me answer some really tough questions click the linked question and start playing!

More resources:

Geoffrey’s book Scale (we read this for book club last year)

The full video episode (subscribe on YouTube, yeah?)

My TikTok where I’m reading philosophy LIVE at 11am CT

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