David H. Freedman is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing us—and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, and coauthor of The Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Before moderating a discussion on propaganda and public health, he talked about why his attic is in danger of destroying the rest of his house, what outsiders don’t get about Boston—where he lives—and his crazy love of condiments.
If you could be any animal, which would you choose?
I think it’s a dog’s life, so I’m going to go with dog—I’m going to go with beagle, because the sense of smell suggests to me that they’re aware of a whole ’nother dimension of the world that we know nothing about, and I’m just fascinated by that.
Whom do you go to for advice?
I do listen to experts, and it’s not so much that I tell people not to listen to experts; I tell them to understand that experts usually end up being wrong. What I recommend to others, and what I do, is see if there’s a consensus among experts that’s credible, that doesn’t show bias. I think you have to find that consensus, and that’s your best bet. Even then you’ll still end up being wrong a lot of the time, but hey—you’ve got to play the odds.
What’s the messiest corner of your house?
It is pretty homogenously messy, but there are a couple of places that really stand out. One is our attic, which is now getting to the point where we actually fear for the structural integrity of the house, and we’re going to have to go to some sort of massive effort to try to make sure the house doesn’t collapse. The other really messy spot in the house right now is my office. It’s not that I’m such a mess; I’m more a victim of circumstances. It just happens to be a good place for a lot of stuff that’s going on. I have to literally shovel a path to get to my desk; I’m going to have to be fixing that, too.
What’s your favorite condiment?
I’m a condiment nut, and I hate even to have to pick, but if I do have to pick one I’ll say Sriracha sauce. I eat almost everything with some kind of condiment. I love ketchup of all kinds, mustard of all kinds, I’m a pickle nut. Give me condiments, and I’ll eat them all. I have at times eaten small bowls of just mixtures of condiments and nothing else. I’m not sure at that point if you can even call them condiments, but I’m a huge fan.
Where do you go to be alone?
I’m able to be alone wherever I am, even when a lot of people are around. I’m not sure if that’s a skill I’ve developed as a freelance journalist who has to work in noisy environments, or if it says something about a lack of social skills I suffer from.
When did you last laugh?
Of course a question that makes people laugh, so that would be four seconds ago. So before that, I stopped at a burrito place before I came here, and the guy behind the counter was a funny, friendly guy. He made me laugh while he was serving me a burrito. I find it pretty easy to laugh.
What’s the first thing you bought with your own money?
A motorcycle, about 14 seconds after I got my license at the age of 16-and-a-half—a little Honda 175cc cafe racer. Still probably my favorite vehicle of all time.
What don’t people understand about Boston?
That Boston can be a very parochial town—it can be a very bigoted town, small-minded. It is of course also a wonderful town, a bastion of liberal thinking and of education. And yet there is a holdover that goes back hundreds of years, of segregation and prejudice, and unwillingness to change. And being unfriendly to many people.
What year, past or future, would you time travel to if you could?
I would go as freaking far into the future as I could, just out of sheer curiosity.
What do you do to clear your mind?
I’m very, very good at clearing my mind. As soon as someone described sort of the idea of meditation to me, I instantly got it and found that for some reason, not to my credit, I can blank my mind out just by doing it. It’s effortless, and I can do it anywhere and get a great break from thinking, which I need all the time.