Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and a lecturer in ethics at Harvard Extension School. Formerly executive director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, he is the author of Post-Truth and the forthcoming The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience. Before joining a Zócalo/Getty event titled “Did Truth Ever Matter?” that took place in Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about his love of dogs, psychological blind spots, and the hate mail he receives.
What did you have for breakfast today?
I splurged today and had an omelet. Every morning of my life I have oatmeal and raisins, and this morning someone else was paying so I had an omelet.
What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?
That’s an easy one. His name is Richard Adelstein, and he’s an economist at Wesleyan where I went to college. And he was the best of the best. He was philosophically interested even though he’s an economist, and the thing I like the best about him is that he took all his students’ ideas seriously and treated us as equals. Worked us very hard. And I’ve tried to live up to his example ever since with my own students.
What’s your least favorite thing about the internet?
The fact that you can find confirmation for anything you want, even if it’s untrue. You knew I was going to say that, right? The internet has the opportunity to be the greatest educational tool ever. The truth is there, available for anyone who wants it, but it can amplify the worst sort of misinformation as well, which is terrible.
What question do your students ask you most often?
So, I teach ethics, and actually the question my students ask me most often is what my own views are, which I will not tell them. My idea in teaching philosophy is to teach students to think for themselves and to learn how to justify their beliefs. And, once they hear what my views are, then they think that’s the right answer, and they stop thinking for themselves. So I really enjoy keeping my own views quiet, and I play devil’s advocate a lot in class. So they never really know. But my favorite is when on teaching evaluations one student will say, “Oh, he obviously believes this,” and “He obviously doesn’t believe that,” then I know I did my job.
What’s your hidden talent?
No one has ever asked me that before. I don’t know if I have one. OK, I just thought of it. Dogs. I love dogs, and dogs love me. I understand them, and I understand their body language, and what they’re feeling. And so when I tell a dog to do something, they’ll do it. I know how to speak dog.
What do you think is the most dangerous fact denied?
Right now, currently, the most dangerous one, is that there is no consensus on climate change. I just got to say from scale—I can think of more horrible facts that are denied, more personally upsetting, and more shameful facts that are denied—but I got to say in terms of the threat to humanity on a global scale, that’s the worst one.
Do you have any psychological blind spots?
Yes, and it’s important for everyone to know that they have these. When I started to study cognitive bias, I realized that we all have confirmation bias. We all have these (blind spots). It’s been a challenge for me as I’ve studied these and been writing about it to try to challenge my own biases as I go. And you notice, I haven’t told you what they are.
What are they?
This is a funny one. I’m probably more likely to trust than I should be. So if I’m talking to someone face-to-face, I’m the last person to think that somebody is lying to me. Somebody will say, “Oh yeah, that person was lying to you,” and I realize it, which is kind of a weird thing for someone to admit who studies truth, and lying, and skepticism. But in my face-to-face personal encounters I sometimes get taken in by people who lie to my face about things where it doesn’t occur to me that they would lie.
What do you think is the most common psychological blind spot in America?
That we don’t have them. People feel that they already understand a lot, and there’s something called the Dunning-Kruger effect that I wrote about in my book, which is that the less experience we have, the more confident we are of our skills and opinions.
What pseudoscience irks you the most?
Intelligent design, because it’s not just that it can do so much damage. It’s the idea that they can seem so smug about the idea, that they’ve got evidence for their view, but they really don’t. It’s the double standard of evidence. No evidence could possibly convince them that evolution is true but they feel like they don’t need any evidence to believe that intelligent design is true. And I’m going to pay for that answer because I was targeted by a group of folks in this one time, and it will happen again, but I’m going double down on that.
There are a number of others. I mean, dousing, palm reading, witchcraft, all of that, just bothers me.
In what ways do you think the right borrowed from postmodern thinkers?
This is an incendiary topic. I get hate mail. And most of my hate mail is from postmodernists. Not from the right, but from postmodernists who dislike the claim I made in the book that postmodernism is one of the roots of post-truth. I think that what happened is that once you start questioning the idea that there can be objective truth, or that truth tellers are political, that is dangerous and can be borrowed by people who use that to do damage, who use that to deny climate change. And then ultimately use that to deny the crime rate, the size of an inauguration crowd, how many votes people got in an election. And it’s not that Kellyanne [Conway] is reading Derrida, that’s not how it goes. Ideas are exploited and then get out there in the air, and in the book, I actually make a case, specifically for how—who read the postmodernists and how the ideas got out there.
30 years ago, Lynne Cheney was writing this book, just execrating the postmodernists. The right wing hated that, now I think they’ve adopted it. And that, by the way, drives the left crazy, which is where my hate mail comes from, because it was like a weapons manufacturer that all of a sudden find that their weapons have fallen to the other side and are being used against them, and it just drives them wild. One of my hate mails was from a Nietzsche scholar who threatened to punch me in the face. You haven’t lived until you’ve been threatened by a postmodernist, I’m telling you.
What is your favorite place to eat in Boston?
It’s not very fancy, but my favorite place to eat is Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton, my hometown. My kids' favorite restaurant from the time they were kids. I go there for breakfast and dinner.
Who’s one person, living or dead, you’d most like to have a beer with?
OK, so I don’t drink beer.
I don’t drink coffee, but the person I would most enjoy talking to I think would be David Hume. I think he’s a terrific philosopher. Reputed to be a great conversationalist and just an enjoyable person, and I have some questions about his work that I think we could have a pretty good conversation about. It’s funny that I chose a philosopher. Another person would be Henry David Thoreau, one of my all-time favorite authors. He probably wouldn’t want to talk to me.
Do you believe objective truth exists?
I think truth exists. I think that there’s a way that reality is irrespective of whether we know it or not. So, I think there’s the way the world is, and there’s what we know about the way the world is, and they’re two separate things. The minute you bring objectivity to it, that brings an epistemology. It’s the question of how people know reality. And there can be different ways of describing the same reality.
I think I’m going to say yes, I do believe in objective truth because the example here that I always come back to is science. People come up with a common vocabulary that works across different cultures, across different languages, so, I’m going to get some heat from my philosophical colleagues, but I guess I do.