Dan Carlin: Fake News, Misinformation, and Being an Informed Citizen — The Science of Success Podcast (2023)

In this episode we ask: how do you become an active and informed citizen? What are the challenges of forming a coherent view of history and politics? What do you do if your foundational beliefs are coming into question? In a world full of noise, confusion, and fake news - we sit down with our guest the legendary podcaster Dan Carlin to uncover how we can make sense of today’s confusing world.

Dan Carlin is a political commentator and podcaster. Formerly a professional radio host, Dan hosts the incredibly popular Hardcore History podcast and has been called “America’s History professor.” Dan uses his out of the box,“Martian” thinking, to bring listeners a new understanding of the past. He is the author of the new bestselling book The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses.

  • Can technological progress ever move backwards?

  • What constitutes an existential threat to humanity?

  • Can technological progress ever regress?

  • The reality is that up until the last few hundred years, progress hasn’t exactly been a straight line up

  • Things are going to be the way they always have.. or they won’t...

  • What is the concept of progress?

  • Even if you look at the pace of change

  • Is there a limit to technological change? What happens if we exceed that limit?

  • Creative destruction creates imbalances in society. Birthing a new age can be as bloody and traumatic as the real thing.

  • What does it mean to be an informed citizen in today’s America?

  • We often view the world as black and white and listen to pundits and talking heads - but the reality is that the world is infinitely more nuanced.

  • Ask yourself - why would someone do something if they thought it was wrong?

  • You have to create HISTORICAL EMPATHY - put yourself in the perspective of people in the past and try to understand the world from their perspective.

  • Exploring the grey areas is how you get a more holistic view of the way the world really works.

  • How do you think about the role of CONTEXT vs the PERSONALITY in the creation of great historical figures?

  • The reality in history is that there are always many different competing and overlapping dynamics.

  • “The rashaman effect” - on top of all the competing forces and dynamics, you have the HUMAN perspectives shaping the way history is recorded, told, and reported

  • Everything is a mosaic of forces and perspectives.

  • How have you navigated these waters? How do you think about being an informed citizen, forming a coherent opinion.. in the midst of all this chaos

  • “Wisdom requires a flexible mind.”

  • “When the facts I change my mind, pray tell , what do you do?”

  • Challenging your own beliefs is a basic sign of intelligence. You are required by your own consciousness to continually examine your beliefs and hold them up against evidence.

  • Without questioning your beliefs you have the equivalent of an ideology not a belief.

  • The news sells ANGER and OUTRAGE. The news is an outrage and anger machine. It generates anger for cash.

  • What does patriotism mean?

  • Most of the major radio and TV talk show hosts are acting personas.. that’s not what they really believe.

  • How do we deal with the extreme anger, outrage, and polarization in our current society and political climate?

  • Should we re-read the founding fathers? Should we re-read the romans and greeks on different systems of government?

  • It’s hard to get out of your own time and your place to form a REAL perspective with less bias.

  • “He who knows only his own time remains always a child.” - Cicero

  • The vital importance of studying context to get a better perspective on the world.

  • History and humankind is very messy. That messiness is the true reality. It’s easy to dispense with that, but it’s wrong.

  • If you could read a history book from 500 years from now, our entire century would be smashed into a paragraph. “Describe the last 100 years in a single page” - gives you a sense of how history is recorded and shared.

  • Simply trying to get a handle on what’s real is a HUGE challenge right now.

  • Garbage in, garbage out applies to the information you consume!!

  • Homework: Try to summarize the last 100 years in a single page, to get a sense for how complex history is and how much nuance is removed by the creation of history.

  • Homework: don’t trust people who are certain in their beliefs

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(Video) Dan Carlin: Fake News, Misinformation, and Being an Informed Citizen with Dan Carlin

Episode Transcript

[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.

[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 4 million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.

In this episode, we ask, “How do you become an active and informed citizen? What are the challenges of forming a coherent view of history and politics? What do you do if your foundational beliefs are coming into question?”

In a world full of noise, confusion and fake news, we sit down with our guest, the legendary podcaster, Dan Carlin, to uncover how we can make sense of today's confusing world.

Are you a fan of the show and have you been enjoying the content that we’ve put together for you? If you have, I would love it if you signed up for our email list. We have some amazing content on their along with a really great free course that we put a ton of time into called How to Create Time for What Matters Most in Your Life. If that sounds exciting and interesting and you want a bunch of other free goodies and giveaways along with that, just go to successpodcast.com. You can sign up right on the homepage. That successpodcast.com, or if you're on your phone right now, all you have to do is text the word “smarter”. That's S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44222.

In our previous episode, we uncovered the truth about what really holds people back and shared the secret strategy that all successful people use to achieve incredible things. We examined the world's most successful people and figured out exactly what commonalities they share and how you can use them in your own life. All of that and much more in our previous interview with Alex Banayan. If you want to learn what the world's most successful people have in common and how you can apply that to your life, listen to our previous episode.

Now, for the interview with Dan.

[00:02:07] MB: Today, we have another epic guest on the show, Dan Carlin. Dan is a political commentator and podcaster. Formally a professional radio host, he hosts the incredibly popular podcast Hardcore History and has been called America's history professor.

Dan uses his out-of-the-box Martian thinking to bring listeners to a new understanding about the past. He's the author of the new best-selling book The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to the Nuclear Near Miss.

Dan, welcome to the Science of Success.

[00:02:38] DC: Thank you for having me.

(Video) 184. History's Biggest Questions with Dan Carlin (Part 2)

[00:02:39] MB: We’re so excited to have in the show, Dan. As I was telling you in the preshow, I'm a big fan of Hardcore History and your work, and I’ve listened to so many of the podcasts and really dug into that. But I'm curious, as somebody who's explored many of the most interesting periods and events throughout human history, what inspired you to take on this new project and write about The End is Always Near?

[00:03:04] DC: The listeners. They’ve been asking for something like this for a long time, specifically transcripts are what they wanted. I always thought that they wanted the transcripts because they’d never actually read them, and I have read the transcription, and they’re indecipherable is a good way to put it in terms of – I was a little appalled to be someone some people think is a good communicator, and then to see my actual words in transcript form on the piece of paper was a little humbling.

So in answering the question though, there were a bunch of people that came together at the same time, people wanting a book, people offering books. That just seem liked something – The time had come to do that. There have been several times when it’d come up and it just wasn't the right time. So it seemed like the right time to sort of move forward with that and just sort of experiment with another storytelling means or outlet maybe.

[00:03:49] MB: How did you pick the topic of apocalypse or apocalyptic moments and what struck a vein with you in wanting to write about or share that?

[00:03:58] DC: Well, I’ve been broadcasting for about 30 years now. So I consider myself whatever else I might be. I’m a veteran broadcaster, but I'm not a veteran book writer. I've written articles before, but that's really different than trying to write an entire book. So I was leaning heavily on the advice of the people I was working with who had written books before, publishers, editors, people like that, and they had suggested that there must be tons of material in our archives that would make a great book. They suggested I sort of lay it all out on the floor, which I've actually never done before with all of my – I never looked back sort of.

So we laid it out on the floor and they said, “See? You can find some commonalities that connect the various stories.” It was a little like doing one of those inkblot tests from the old psychologist TV show where you go, “Oh! I guess I'm interested in apocalyptic stuff and end of the world stuff,” and I think it was a little revealing personally.

There was a lot of stuff that connected the material together, or at least in my own mind connected the material together, connected with things like questions that I find fascinating like, “Can technological progress ever move backwards?” for example. That to me sort of fit in to the general template of decline, or end of the world, or things that could knock us back.

There’s a guy named Nick Bostrom, who’s a fascinating guy. He's sort of like half physicist, half philosopher, and he works at the Future of Humanities Institute, I think it's called, at Oxford University, and he defined – One of his definitions of an existential threat, because I always thought that that just meant the wiping out of life.

But one of his definitions of existential threat was to have your human capabilities knocked backwards and to never regain your former abilities. Imagine if we lost the ability to shoot satellites or anything else up into space. You could look back and say, “Wow! Our grandparents could do that,” but we can't do that anymore.

In Nick Bostrom's definition of existential threat, that would fall under the category. Those kind of things are fascinating to me, and I don't think there's any right answers. But exploring the questions, I could talk about that stuff all day, and that's what the book is about, I guess.

[00:06:09] MB: It’s so interesting. I love the way you open the book, which is essentially with that question of have we reached the end of history, or is there a possibility that the technological progress that we've come to see as inevitable and forever increasing could actually regress at some point.

[00:06:27] DC: Well, I think it's fascinating because I think we’ve been on – I mean, if you look at – I always call it the civilizational stock market. If you could draft human capabilities, and I say that because there's a lot of things that we consider to be progress or things that you would measure the standards of a society by. Something like, for example, reading. But reading might not be as important as we think it is. The idea of technological progress is a biased one from the get go. Things that we assume might be important. Things that we do, like reading, for example, might not seem that important to different people in different realities, right? It’s a skill we value, because we use all the time, but that might not be important in another context.

But if you say human capability, like the ability to do medicine the way we do, or we said shooting things off into space, or computing, or anything like that. Well, if you looked at that like a civilizational stock market, that was your criteria. You could say that we’re on – Let's call it a 500 or 600-year bull market, where things have been going gangbusters since at least the Renaissance and probably since more the Middle Ages.

But if you look at history on a larger continuum, certainly in certain times in certain places things regress, and people forget how, for example, in some spots, how to rebuild the Roman aqueducts once the Romans are gone. Those are fascinating things to modern people if only because we haven't experienced them in a long time.

Due to the inkblot test that my editor started, apparently I'm interested in that too. So we ask questions about – I look at it as a fork in the road. Either things are going to be the way they always have, which on one level is terrifying, or they're not going to be the way they always have, which is fascinating. On something like technological regression, either it's going to happen again or it's not, and either one of those questions is something that apparently I'm very interested in, and I frame a lot of the books challenges with that sort of fork in the road tradeoff.

[00:08:32] MB: That’s such an important distinction, and the notion that if you look at the record of history. The reality is that progress is not always a straight upward line. It really puts into perspective the belief that we have that we may or may not be in a unique historical moment. I'm sure the Romans probably felt the same way that their empire would be ageless and forever progressing upwards.

[00:08:55] DC: Well, and like we said, even the concept of progress is biased, because we look at it in terms of these technological capabilities, because that's sort of the way we frame everything in our society. But what if somebody was judging things more on some sort of moral criteria, and their moral criterion was let's just throw something out there. Maybe they’re pacifistic, and so their moral criterion for progress would be how well are you doing at eliminating violence.

So by that sort of standard, progress might look, and they might not be able to read. They might not be able to shoot satellites into space. But the way that they value something is based on a totally different system. So that's why capabilities sort of comes to mind, because I think even if you look at the pace of change, I don't think it takes a genius.

I mean, I'm raising a couple of teenagers right now and I was talking to my wife, there's three years difference between them. Well, it's fascinating how quickly technological change seems to be speeding up the differences between generations, because if you took me, I was born 1965, and you said how different are you from people born six or seven years before or after you? I'm a little bit different, but I'm not a lot different.

My children who are born three years apart from each other and their friends are quite different from each other, and a lot of it is technological, right? One of them, her generation doesn't seem to talk on the phone at all. They’re completely text-oriented. But her little sister whose only a couple years different for her, they all FaceTime each other all the time. You sit there and go, “Could there possibly be differences due to the pace of – The speeding up of the pace of change in people that are that chronologically close to each other?”

So I thought about how we’re all guinea pigs in this generation, because we’re all raising kids in an era where there are no metrics, right? So if your child is coming up to you and saying, “Am I old enough to have an Instagram account?” It's not like you can sit there and go, “Well, let me tell you how old we were back when I was a kid getting Instagram accounts.” You have no idea. So you’re just sort of making it up as you go along with this guinea pig generation.

So I keep wondering, if the pace of change continues to speed up at the pace it is, do you reach a point where it can't continue, right? So I think we've all – Because that's been the world we live in, have become accustomed to and computer hard drives doubling in space every couple of years, capabilities increasing. When you get to AI, theoretically, increasing faster than humans can even do it. Is there a finite limit to that and ability to societally deal with that? To me, that’s one of the ways things could get totally screwed up in the future.

If you're looking at like nasty things that could happen, certainly, outpacing society's ability to deal with the pace of change is right there. I think you see it right now in some of the more vulnerable societies on earth. I mean, if you look at the culturally constrained societies, I’m thinking of a place for example like Iran, or a China, or a Russia, and these people that are already – These countries that are already having a really hard time. For example, the social media and the ability of people to connect the way they do. That's an example of societal evolution trying to keep up with technological change.

I think that that's going to be an interesting metric down the road. I mean, 500, or 600, or 700 years of sustained growth in human capabilities and a speeding up of that. Can the civilizational stock market, this civilizational bull market continue forever? I don't know. But those are the kind of things that are fascinating, aren’t they?

[00:12:31] MB: It's so interesting, and you raised a really good question, which is even turning the mirror back on ourselves and saying, “Can we as humans from a psychological perspective, from a social perspective, can we even handle the pace of change?” It's starting to get to a point where in many ways it looks like we can't. If the pace keeps exponentially increasing, it might get even more difficult.

[00:12:52] DC: Well, you say yourself, logically, is there a limit? You start from that premise. Is there a limit? If you suggest that there is a limit, then you say, “How close are we to such a limit and what would a limit mean? What would it even mean to say that there is a level of technological speed that we can't adapt to? What is not being able to adapt to something on a societal level even mean? Are we talking about some of the themes in the book when you get to that pace? That sort of level? I don't know.” But I think you can call it – When you look at – The history books will call them revolutions, right? The agricultural revolution, the Industrial Revolution, maybe you’d say the information revolution. That sort of situation destroys an old world in order to create a new one, right? Maybe you would call it creative destruction.

But creative destruction creates imbalances and systems – For example, if the whole idea of robotics taking over a lot of the low skill jobs in society is as disruptive as some people suggest it might. Well, then that might be an example of the technological revolution we have now outstripping the systems that we have in place to accommodate life as we know it, right?

In one sense you might compare it to like a caterpillar who’s putting off his cocoon to grow into this new age, but growing into a new age and birthing a new age, if you will, can be about as bloody and traumatic as the real thing. I mean, I think those are the kinds of systemic questions that you can look at now and say, “If you wanted to try to figure out a way that we could have all kinds of problems, just imagine the pace of technological change doubling and tripling and then asking, “If we’re having these kinds of issues now with some of the more sensitive societies, what’s going to happen to some of the less sensitive societies if the pace of change gets even more in an increased level of speed and disruption?

[00:14:48] MB: Increased automation is a great example of that. Even from a psychological perspective, you can look at it and say things like Facebook's algorithm and the way that people are – There’s so much information out there that people are being filtered and fed only things that they already agree with and they want to hear and all of that, all of these things. When you look at where we are now, if you put that on an exponential curve forward, it starts to get pretty crazy and pretty scary when you think about, “Are we even evolved from a brain capacity standpoint to handle some of these massive changes that technology is going to be foisting upon us?”

[00:15:23] DC: Well, it’s got me thinking of political questions in our own country too. Obviously, as an American, I'm looking in a system where – Obviously, this is the mythologized role of the electric, but you're supposed to be part of an informed citizenry, right?

Well, what is an informed citizenry mean and what are the minimum standards we would expect to be an informed citizen? Does the minimum standard change over time? So, for example, there was a mythological Golden age when I was growing up that never really existed, and it was the mythological growing – It was the golden age, the truth in media could be trusted, right? So if you had the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the three TV networks that we have when I was a kid and they told you something, there was a general belief in the validity of the facts, especially if they agreed on the facts, right?

So if the Washington Post and the New York Times agreed on something with different reporters, you could kind of say to yourself, “Okay, this is a fact. We could debate things at work over the water cooler and we could cite the Washington Post and you'd have some fact you could use as part of being an informed citizen and having the sorts of political discussions,” but theoretically we inform citizens they’re supposed to make it a representative democracy.

But what if all of a sudden the fake facts that were never real to begin with in the past becomes so drowned out in see of information much of it the equivalent of the aluminum foil type stuff that they throw out of aircraft to confuse heat-seeking missiles, flash I think they call it, right? If you're trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of useful factual information 50 years ago, that's a lot easier to do than if you're trying to do it today in the era of fake news and click bait and all this other kind of stuff.

So if you ask yourself what the job of an informed citizen is 50 years ago, it would seem to me to be a lot simpler than that job today. So does that actually have ramifications for our ability to govern ourselves if it becomes remarkably difficult to be a discriminating informed person? If the speed of change is part of what's creating that problem, I mean, you could connect the dots a little bit and come up with the fall of the United States of America due to information overload if you were so inclined, I think.

[00:17:45] MB: Absolutely. The interesting piece, and I'm curious what your perspective is on this, but the interesting thing about trying to sift through all this information and figure out what's true, what's not, how should we create? If we’re striving to be an informed citizen, how should we think about consuming information? How should we think about learning? How should we think about issues and problems and challenges in our society?

One of the things that I’ve uncovered in my own quest for wisdom and knowledge is that almost everything is much more nuanced, much more subtle, much less black-and-white than you would see or understand it to be in the popular media, or you here talking heads on TV explaining it about. As somebody who spent a tremendous amount of time digging into some of the most dramatic and eventful historical things that have happened to our world, what's your perspective on how we often view things as being really black-and-white, but in reality there's so much nuance and complexity to it?

[00:18:44] DC: I couldn't agree with you more. That's my answer. Here is the thing. To me, this is what separates informed people from not informing people, because simply understanding that no matter what you're hearing, there's going to be multiple views, gray areas, nuance. I think some of us are born with a devil's advocate gene, and I have that certainly. It's almost a knee-jerk response to people who will say things to me. I'm not saying it’s necessarily a positive thing. I can't help it. But anybody that says anything that's too black or too white, I'm always sort of, “Well, you know, but there’s also this.”

I think also this idea that you could have one side of an issue be correct. I can even see the points of view sometimes, or at least I can find them valuable of some of the most wrong people you could ever see in history, right? Because you have to ask yourself why human beings would do something if they knew it was wrong? A lot of times you find out, “Well, in their own mind, they didn't think it was wrong.”

So then you start examining, “Well, why didn't they think it was wrong?” Even if you still at the end of the day come to the conclusion that these people were totally deluded, totally evil, totally wrong, you could start to say, “But I could see that if you believed A, B, C like they do, you could come to the conclusions C, D and E like they did.”

That right there is a recipe for creating, in my opinion, historical empathy, because you have to understand how even – I mean, I think the very first Hardcore History show we ever did was an amazingly short 20 minutes now that we look back on it. But the entire show was asking questions about the motivations of two people who killed a ton of people; Hitler and Alexander the Great, and asking about what they thought they were doing.

If they thought they were doing something good, even if they were involved in terribly evil stuff, does that make you think differently about them, right? The entire exercise was so blasphemous at its heart. But I think it's indicative of our need – I mean, I was reading something the other day that was talking about the human need to designate certain figures as particularly monstrous.

So we just mentioned Hitler. So let’s look at him for a minute. If you decide that Hitler is this terrible outlier figure, then the argument that I was reading the other day was saying that what you're essentially doing is letting all the other people off the hook that were part of Hitler's plans being carried out. I mean, you can't just call every single person in Nazi Germany an unwilling dragged into its sort of robot. If you suggest that Hitler's this great outlier, well then we lose track of maybe one of the important lessons of that whole affair, which is this can happen to otherwise good people in an otherwise – I’m using air quotes with my hands here, “civilized society”, right?

So I think exploring the gray area is how you get a more holistic view of the whole thing. If we can just blame things on bad leaders, for example, then we’re not examining the parts of the story that might help explain our current times even better, right? It's very easy to blame a president, or a prime minister, or a dictator.

But if we have to look in the mirror and realize that we play maybe a little role, but a role in this as well, then it becomes a much more interesting story to me rather than good and bad leaders. What we have are interesting human being in certain circumstances that are challenging and how we respond to those challenges. Well, that’s something. I mean, I think the whole book that I just put out is about that. How human beings respond to challenges?

I think being able to put the blame on certain outlier human figures takes away some of the nuance you were just talking about, right? We could say Hitler's an evil madman. When I was growing up, we’d say Hitler is an evil madman. What else do you need to know? It's a far more interesting story to talk about things like the Milgram Experiment and other things that were done after the war to try to examine every average person's ability to become a Nazi, or a killer, or a tool in some authoritarian society. Again, a very long-winded question to answer, but I hope that sort of answers what we were asking.

[00:22:53] MB: I think it underscores the importance of having a much more nuanced understanding of anything. I was actually going to bring up the Milgram Experiment. That’s a perfect example or a perfect instance of how anybody can, under the right context, completely change their behavior or do something that you may consider barbaric or outlandish.

(Video) Does Dan Carlin Write as well as he Podcasts? | Casual Historian

That brings me to a broader question, which I'm really curious about. How do you think about the role context and environment in the creation of great historical figures versus the role of personality in individuals?

[00:23:25] DC: Oh boy! We could go down the rabbit hole on this one. Anybody who studied history for five minutes knows that there're all different schools of thought of this, and it goes up and down the spectrum and the current view in vogue changes. On one end of the spectrum, you even get to the heavy-duty postmodernist school of thought, which when you finally get there – I mean, some of the mower really out there postmodernist in terms of being at the edge of the spectrum throw their hands up and say, “What's the point of history at all, right? You can’t know anything.”

When you ask me mine, I mean, I have a friend who believes in chaos theory. That would maybe be the other end of the spectrum. But in my mind there's an interplay, and I think it's obvious. I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground by suggesting that I'm one of those people who believes in many different things at the same time acting on each other. But I'm not somebody who rules out the human question, because even if you say, and I’m going to use Hitler, because he’s always my favorite. He’s so extreme that we play on the edges of reality and extremism with him.

I mean, you even say that you can't have a Hitler unless the economic and historical forces of the time period open the door to one arriving. I agree with that, by the way. But then I would counter by saying, yes, but they don't have to be like Hitler, right? Just because the door is open doesn't mean a particular person with his particular proclivities has to be the guy that walks through it.

Now sometimes the tenor of the times may mean that you got to have some extremist, because there are extreme times and the door has been open for an extremist, but does it have to be an extreme anti-Semite, for example? Not necessarily. So I do believe you have economic forces mixing with social forces, mixing with the technology and the challenges. We talked about systemic challenges that the pace of change puts on our society. Then you add the individuals.

I mean, for example, I would've been one of the people that was arguing that the United States was ripe for having an outsider president who was not one of the two main parties, who was denouncing the system and all these kinds of things. But that doesn't mean it has to be the particular guy that it is now with his particular proclivities.

He puts his own unique stamp on the tenor of our times, and had it been another person who was an outsider lambasting the political system, they might've had their own little idiosyncrasies that they brought to the table. So like I said, I'm hardly breaking any new ground by saying it's all sorts of forces interacting with each other. Maybe if I understand it correctly, I come around to my friend’s chaos theory position after a while.

[00:25:56] MB: Once you start to think about that too hard, you start to dip into some trippy physics and science.

[00:25:59] DC: Absolutely, and the postmodernist stuff where you throw your hands up and go, “Why are we even having this discussion? Let's go get a steak.”

[00:26:07] MB: It's so crazy, because even if you look at any moment in history, any event in history, any great figure or even in your everyday lives, that this comes back to what we're talking about a minute ago. The importance of understanding that there’s so many competing factors and events and influences and forces that are all pulling and pushing and impacting everything to even have a true understanding of even one instance, one event, one person is a tremendous amount of work and research and subtlety to truly form a perspective.

[00:26:38] DC: I wish it was as simple as you just laid it out, but let's also remember that you also have all the different people’s individual viewpoints. There's a Rashomon kind of effect, or the other way I always describe it in case people didn't know what that meant, because not everybody had seen that. There was a Gilligan's Island episode that anybody who grew up watching Gilligan's Island would remember where the whole episode was focused around crying. Then the rest of the episode showed you every person on the island’s different interpretation of what they think they saw. It sort of a lesson in how – I was just reading something by a historian named Carr who would write about the process of writing history. He was explaining why history is different than many of the hard sciences. He says because it is human beings as the thing that’s being observed, but the observers studying them are also human beings, which makes it particularly weird, because you can only study things from your own perspective from your own times with your own biases.

So I would suggest that everything you just mentioned is playing on reality, all those forces. But at the same time we also have different people’s impression of what they're seeing. So we had mentioned some of the problems facing Iran in terms of them trying to exert some sort of social control in an era where social media and all that stuff has made it so difficult.

Well, we here in the states are going to have one interpretation of what that looks like to us. You're going to have people in Iran who may be would love to see the government go away and love to have more freedom that are going to have another impression. Then you're going to have hardliners in Iran who don't want more freedom and think things are fine the way they are and maybe even would like it more impressive who have another way of viewing this problem.

I mean, add all that into it and throw in the fact that facts are very hard to come by in this particular era of fake news everywhere. Again, you can see why the postmodernist just say, “What are we doing even analyzing this? It's too complicated. We’re going to need supercomputers just to figure it all out.”

[00:28:37] MB: It's funny. We also start to even dabble a little bit and overlap with things like quantum physics when you're talking about the observer effect and how even in something as hard as physics, the observer has an effect on the research and the results and you cannot have an objective measurement. It's always subjective.

[00:28:54] DC: History has been wrestling with this for a long time. I always feel like it's one of the freedoms I have not being a historian that I can actually tell narrative history’s storytelling a little bit like we used to because I don't have to sit and endlessly point out the inconsistencies in things like – I mean, I try to give the sense of the Rashomon idea and everything is a mosaic, but you could see how something like this would be remarkably constraining for anybody trying to make sense of it first to themselves and then trying to explain it in a way that's fair and genuine and that illuminates all this lack of ability to get your hands on what's going on, and yet at the same time leave them with something of value, right? I would not want to be a history teacher in this particular time and place, because I think they have a very hard job.

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[00:31:24] MB: How do you think about navigating these waters in the sense of being an informed citizen forming a coherent opinion about, let alone, history, but even just current events in the midst of all of these chaos and the midst of all of these competing perspectives and facts and forces? How do you personally start to create some kind of clarity and form a perspective in all of that?

[00:31:51] DC: It's a personal crisis actually right now to be honest, and that’s why I'm not doing the podcast that we always did on current events, because I think we're living in interesting times. It's caused me to back up and have to maybe examine some of my foundational beliefs, which might have been true when I was growing up. But because of all the things you and I have already been discussing, the challenges facing us in relatively early 21st-century world. Are those foundational beliefs still relevant? Were they wrong initially or were they right then and they’re no longer right, or are they timeless?

I'm trying to figure some of these out for myself. I mean, the perfect example is the informed citizenry question. I've been a professional observer of current affairs and news since I got into news in 1989. So I'm a person who used – Before there was an Internet, my job was to read five newspapers every day. You get very good at teasing out nuance and bias and all those kinds of things.

If I can't figure out without a lot of work and evening with a lot of work, the reality of what's going on. How could we expect your average observer who doesn't do this for a living, who hasn't done this for 30 years, who has a life and other things they have to worry about? How can they play their role of informed citizenry? I keep trying to figure out if it's any harder to play that role now than it used to be. I mean, what if we said this – This is another rabbit hole, but I was trying to figure out the minimum standards, right? I don't believe in IQ as a measure of intelligence, but I have nothing else to play with right now. So let me use that and we’ll just disclaim it intensely right now.

But let's pretend that if you had an IQ of let's say 95. That was enough 100 years ago to be an informed citizen and to do your job and to figure out the facts through all of the misinformation and all the other things that we require, right? To make sense of your world at a minimum standard, you’d have to have a 95.

Okay. If you had a 95 today, is that enough, or is the world and its increasing complexity mean that you’ve got to be a 105 on the IQ scale to do as well as a person with a 95 100 years ago could do? If that were true, what does that mean for society? I don't have any answers, but I'm examining my foundational beliefs enough right now even such beliefs as my utopian belief at a Jeffersonian agrarian society and whether or not something like that is still viable.

Now, I haven't come up with any answers, because if I did I think I’d talk about them on a podcast. But I think the sheer fact that I'm forced to re-examine my beliefs at such a foundational level is in my opinion an example of what unusual and may be revolutionary times we live in right now. There's that old line, wisdom requires a flexible mind is how I describe it. But I like the economist when Keynes was asked famously by a reporter, I think it was, and I always disclaim this, because sometimes I'll give quotes that I think are true and then you find out, “Well, that actually was really said.”

But supposedly Keynes answered a reporter who accused him of what we would call today flip-flopping on a position and Keynes is supposed to have answered, “When the facts change, I change my mind. Pray tell, good sir, what do you do?” I feel like that’s the position I find myself in right now. I think the assumptions that I would base my political opinions and beliefs on 25 years ago upended by modern society. So what do I do in reaction to that?

So an answer to your question, I feel like I'm reassessing thing right now and I can’t imagine anybody would be completely comfortable in their old beliefs without at least some self-examination based on current events. They’re so unprecedented.

[00:35:37] MB: The thing that scares me the most is not people that are uncertain. It's the people who are dead certain and are locked in so believe that they see everything perfectly that they are right, that their viewpoint, their perspective is the truth. I think it's healthy to have a level of uncertainty and to step back and question any belief or any perspective, because to me the people who seem the most committed and locked into their beliefs are – I almost view that as a direct contra indicator of what's actually true.

[00:36:05] DC: If you don't challenge your own beliefs – I mean, to me that’s a basic sign of intelligence. Not that you have to come up to any different conclusions, but you should be thinking about. I know a lot of people who don't even think about this stuff, and more power to them. They may have figured out the secret for a happy life.

But if you think about this stuff and if you take it seriously, maybe you talk about it if you debate it with people, well, then I think you are required by your own consciousness of these matters to continually examine them and hold them up against evidence. Because otherwise all you have is an ideology, a rote ideology that you basically believe like a religion, and no amount of facts will get you to change your mind, like [inaudible 00:36:46] was talking about. Instead of changing your mind, you will simply decide to find other facts so that you can keep the position you would always had and find something to justify.

I would add a different adjective than the one you added. I would add dangerous. I think that's dangerous, and I think if enough people believe something that if they examined it might have to actually conclude wasn't true. So they don't examine it. I think that's dangerous, especially with society where were all supposed to be informed citizens. To me, being an informed citizen requires you to change your mind as the facts change assuming that a person like me with maybe a 95 IQ could assert or determine what a fact was.

[00:37:26] MB: I agree that it's dangerous, and in many ways this podcast itself is a project to try and help people develop the thinking tools necessary to make sense of the world to form coherent opinions in an environment that we've already shown and discussed is increasingly more difficult to do that.

[00:37:44] DC: There’s an old line that the people who would seek someone like your show out, or someone like you out, because they're curious about these sorts of things, that they're not the problem. These aren’t the people you have to worry about. They wouldn’t be listening to you if they weren't looking for some nuance or some deeper explanations or whatnot. I tend to think – Listen, I speak from a guy who used to be in the business.

I think part of our problem in this society that we have right now is we have propaganda on our airwaves disguised as intellectual discussion, because I have no problem with intellectual discussion and free speech, but I think we have to remember that in this society, let’s just say the radio, or the television. So we have news stations that give political positions, or we have talk shows that advocate political points of view.

I think people lose somewhere along the line the underlying reality that none of those things are really the free speech that we pretend they are. They are instead entertainment, and they’re done for money. So when you have people, I like to call them the professional dividers. They divide people for money. They divide people for ratings. Their interest is not truth or illuminating facts.

I used to get off the air and I used to do talk radio five days a week, three hours a day, and the reason that I migrated to podcasting when it first arose so willingly and so enthusiastically is that I would fight with my program directors, and I mean almost fistfights, on a regular basis, because I would get off the air and we would always have the same argument about my need to create more. The word they used was heat. The reason they liked heat was because it got callers going, it got people interested. You do not have to be all that deep. You did not have to have intricate discussions, and you couldn't have intricate discussions and talk radio, because the assumption always was that you had listeners getting in and out of their cars all the time. You had new people every 15 minutes. So you couldn't get too deep into a discussion because you were obviously going to be talking to new people all the time.

So how could you get people excited, enthusiastic, willing to tune in the next day, willing to buy the products that you’re advertising? Heat, right? Everybody can understand anger and outrage. But if anger and outrage and creating anger and outrage is how you do a good job, and if doing a good job means getting more people to listen to the station so that they can buy the things that are being advertised, then what you have is an outrage and anger and heat machine for cash.

I think if anybody goes and studies something like the genocide that happened in Rwanda in the early to mid-1990s, they will recalled the role played by propagandistic radio broadcasts. This is stuff that we need to be careful about. Now, I would say if we’re talking about real free speech, well, then I take that very seriously. My general attitude is I'm pro-free speech across the board. But I think we make a mistake when we think about something as free speech.

Pick your favorite radio talk show host, for example, and what you really have now is a moneymaking outrage machine instead. It has nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with keeping people at a pitch level of anger and often focusing that anger like the Rwandan radio did at some other segment of society, right? We've gone from intellectual discussions, theoretical intellectual discussions, to blaming your fellow countrymen for everything that's wrong.

That doesn't end well long-term, and I think we talked about nuance earlier and the ability to step away maybe and examine things with sort of preconditions and the biases sort of stripped away. I think if we look at this heat creating, anger creating machine that we do for money that we’ve created under the guise of free speech and open political conversation, I think we would realize that we’ve created something that’s tearing us apart. Again, for money, and for profit, for – Not to sound like I’m anti-corporate, because I’m not, but for big, multi-billion-dollar corporations. I think it would be relatively important to understanding how things got to where they are now to include this angle in the debate.

But it's farther than most people who enjoy this sort of stuff examine it. That gets me back to the question of what sort of an IQ? How intelligent do you have to be today to play your role as an informed citizen? Do you have to be able to tease out the propaganda and the dividing us for profit, or do you just have to be able to listen to the arguments those people who were dividing us for profit make intelligently? I don't know. This is what I meant about me sitting back and sort of re-examining my foundational beliefs. I can just tell you that if you look down the road though where all this is heading, it doesn't look to be a very good destination, does it?

[00:42:36] MB: Definitely, not and I love the image of the news as an outrage machine that's just grabbing cash essentially. You're totally right. It brings us back to what we are talking about at the very beginning of our conversation, this idea that technological progress in a broader sense, the news, media, and now even more so with social media and algorithms feeding us, feeding that heat machine even more so. Our basic evolutionary instincts are being hijacked and turned against us. It's a scary road when you look down it.

[00:43:07] DC: What I tried to explain to somebody once is if you think of patriotism as creating a better long-term outcome for your country, then I don't see how demonizing the other half of the political spectrum can in any way shape or form get you anywhere near that goal and probably get you farther away.

So if you equate patriotism with creating a stronger country, and that in my mind would mean Americans – Obviously, you have an international show, but I think people can relate to this all over the world. I think if you talk about creating a country that is stronger and more unified – Well, look. I mean, we have people – Go read the comments that people make after news stories. We have people that are ready and willing and would look forward to some sort of Civil War type activities.

I like to say that I feel like we’re in a cold Civil War now. How is that good? It's so fascinating to me that we haven't spent very much time stepping back and examining how we got to that place, right? Rather than blame the Democrats, or the Republicans, or the politicians, or this, or that. I mean, how about we take a hard look at the entities that are ginning up the level of anger and aggression and heat understand their motivation?

(Video) Confronting Dan Carlin on the Death of Democracy | Ep. 560

I mean, the dirty little secret in talk radio that only people in talk radio used to know is that a great many of these so-called political figures in talk radio don't believe any of that stuff, that they have a completely different attitude on their own time, but that that's a persona. It’s acting. Again, it plays into the whole lack of reality and the whole thing, but that's not to say that it isn't full of real things that can hurt the country. Does that mean you should have no free speech on the airwaves? Absolutely not. But in my opinion, it should be genuine. It shouldn't be set up deliberately to create anger and outrage directed at your countrymen.

If you did that as an individual, you might be arrested for incitement to riot. But if we do it as part of an entertainment program, no problem, it's interesting. If riots are what you get in the end, then what do you say? I always think that if we don't manage to police ourselves, them when bad things happen, those things will get policed in ways we don't like. Nobody wants to curtail free speech, but if free speech ends up creating violence and death and anger and riots and all that other stuff. Let's not pretend it can't happen, the late 1960s, early 1970s in the United States and all over the world was a lot more disruptive than most people realize.

But, I mean, if you found out that it was let's just say the media that took us to that place, you're going to have calls to limit those kinds of things in ways that might be much farther than what you would ever do today in cold rationality saying, “How do we deal with this creating anger for money problem?” I always say that if you think about it now, you'll avoid worst-case situations down the road when everything hits the fan.

[00:46:09] MB: I wanted to dig into that a little more, because I asked you a different variation of that question earlier. But how are you thinking about changing your own thinking and behaviors as a result of this? Do you see a path forward or a path beyond this?

[00:46:22] DC: Well, what it has done is it's – I always retreated to my books. That’s what I do. We all do things differently, and I'm retreating into two things lately. One is I’ve gone back to the founding fathers of the United States quite a bit to get different impressions, because we always think of those people as being of one mind. But if you spend five minutes into it and you realize, “Well, there’s Hamilton, there's Jefferson. They're very different.” You start to –

So I've been rereading people that in my youth I sort of sneered at more, people like John Adams and stuff. People who didn't have as much regard for like an open democracy as a guy like Jefferson might have. I'm starting to see his point more and more, which bothers me actually. So that's what I mean about it. This is a process for me. Then I’ve gone back and I've been rereading critiques by the ancient authors. So you go back and you read Roman and Greek critiques on different systems of government.

So one of the biases that we have to account for is that you and I are both raised in an environment where democracy ruled by the people, all that stuff is something that is so a part of our lives that it's hard for us to think of any governmental system that isn't like this as being moral, or functional, or right, or defensible.

But if you go back to time periods where people are raised in a different reality, will then they see it differently. So you can read these ancient Greeks talk about the relative merits, the pros and cons of all kinds of different governments, right? Autocracies, monarchies, democracies, and they do so with less bias than we do, and it's fascinating to read their critiques of representative societies, because when you read them now you kind of go, “Hmm. Well, they kind of have a point. We do see a little of that.”

So it's hard to get out of your own time and your own place. I think an intelligent informed individual begins by realizing that, right? That it's hard to get out of your own time and your own place. So how could you do that? Are there methods or ways to do that? Well, read from somebody who’s in a different time and a different place and see how they view things like democratic government, and see if you can learn anything from that, or see if you get any ideas.

Between reading the Ancient Greeks and Romans, which the people who wrote the United States Constitution and the earlier articles of Confederation, they were all reading those guys too, and then read them. I'm having some interesting thoughts. Let’s put it that way. I haven't come up to any conclusions. But if you ask where all this is going, this is from a guy who writes a very pessimistic book. But to me when you look at where this is going, I don't think we’re going to have much of a choice in the matter. I think we’re on a path right now where things are going to happen and then we’re all going to have to figure out how to respond.

That's not going to give us the level of flexibility that we pretend we have now when you and I are discussing it in a podcast. But in answer to your question about how this is affecting me, I'm thinking about it a lot and I'm re-examining some ideas I had for a long time about the ability of people to adequately govern themselves.

When I say that, I include myself, because I spoke at Harvard a while back and there was a Q&A at the end of it. An 18-year-old woman got up and asked me a question that has really stuck with me. She said, “Look, I’ve only become aware of the world around me and everything that's happened before over the last year or two, and I’m very interested in catching up. I want to read things that make me more informed, and I want to find out facts, and I want to know what's going on. Can you please give me some suggestions of websites, or newspapers, or outlets that I should be paying attention to to become more informed?”

In other words, this is what you hope renews your country every generation, right? The people that come up and want to sincerely play their role as informed citizens that are asking you as an older informed citizen how they go about it, and I could not answer her question, because I didn't know what she should be reading, and I don't know what she should be listening to, and I don't know how to teach her to tease out the facts from the falsehoods, because I'm having a devil of a time doing it myself, and I have tons of experience, and I’m 54, right? To me, that's the crux of the problem.

Now, listen. I’m a proud capitalist and I tend to believe in the better mousetrap theory of things. So there's a part of me that says that the more we devalue facts and the more we devalue whatever passes for truth in a world where different people see truth differently and probably quite correctly so. Is there a better mousetrap for somebody who comes along and actually brands themselves as a news and information outlet that you can absolutely trust?

In other words, their profit motive is dependent upon their truth being factual and something that if you check you’re going to find out, this is the one outlet you can trust. Their record is 9,000 times better than anyone else. Have we opened up the door to a vacuum being filled? Maybe. I would call that a best case scenario outlet. I would still suggest that our inability to come up with a view of reality, because you see the world through your eyes, and I see the world through my eyes, is always going to inhibit that.

But my goodness! At this point, if I could tell that 18-year-old Harvard student, “Well, you know, nothing’s perfect. But go to this website. They're pretty good.” I would look at that as an improvement over the current situation.

[00:51:30] MB: I totally agree with that, and even coming back to the strategy you shared a minute ago, the idea of getting out of your own time, your own culture, all of the biases that you have and reading things from way back in the past. It's such a great idea. When I try to cultivate and build my own toolkit of knowledge, my own mental models, I try to study things that are more timeless that change very slowly over time as supposed to studying current events, because if I can build a mental framework on these bigger pillars of slowly moving or unchanging knowledge, my hope is that I can start to see things with more clarity in the present day.

[00:52:10] DC: There’s a line. I think it was Cicero who said it, and I’m going to butcher it for memory. But the line is that he knows only his own time remains always a child. I’ve always thought that that has a huge amount of validity to try when first started talking about context. That's what that quote really refers to, right? How do we get to where we are now?

If you study context, then that provides an answer to many of the other things you brought up; nuance, gray area, because contexts helps you understand gray area better, right? Like I said, when I was a kid, when you studied the second world war, we love to just talk about Hitler, the crazy, mad man. But that didn't explain why people followed him, and it's understanding years before the Great Depression hitting the United States, what the Great Depression did to Germany. What the losing of the first world war did to Germania.

I mean, you go down the list of all these things and all of a sudden you start to understand people's psyche, the average German psyche a little better. Now the story becomes less black-and-white, less easy to write off as just some loon who took over and all of a sudden we’re off on this historical joyride because this one guy wants us to be.

But once you understand the nuance, well, then you have to sort of go, “Well, I could see how those people might feel this way if I'd gone through this same thing, and now you're getting empathetic, and it might make you feel bad because you're getting empathetic with people who might've supported a Nazi.

History and humankind, it’s so messy, but that messiness is the true reality. It’s satisfying on a human level to dispense with that and just get into the black-and-white stuff and, “These people are the problem, and if we could just do this and do that, they’re right and they’re wrong.” It’s very satisfying, but it's also totally incorrect.

As you pointed out earlier in this discussion, it's only through delving into these things a little bit more deeply that you get a chance to see how messy and nuanced and how much is really going on beneath the surface. I always say, if you could read a history book about our times now, from 500 years from now or whatever passes for a history book in that time period. You're going to see our own time distilled into something that you wouldn't even recognize, because only the largest things are going to make it into the history book.

All the little subtleties that you would notice in your own time will disappear as time turns into like an accordion, right? 500 years from now it’s going to look like the first and second world war happened practically yesterday, and time compresses, and all of the little gray areas just gets sort of weeded out through a lack of importance or a lack of an ability to discern it, although I keep thinking that podcasts and social media and all these things are going to be a wonderful way for future historians to see the wide, complex diversity of our society now in a way that would have been apparent if we had the same sorts of mechanisms. If you could've studied ancient Egypt through their podcasts, think about how much of a rich complex, much less black-and-white version of their society we would understand them to be than what the history books make them out to be.

[00:55:12] MB: It's an amazing thought exercise to think about. What would our century look like if it was compressed into a paragraph? It's crazy when you think about it.

[00:55:20] DC: Or even if you said, describe the last hundred years in an 8.5 x 11 page. What it really is, is just a wonderful lesson in what we've done to the past and through no fault of anybody. I mean, there're a bazillion books on the rise of Hitler, for example, and if you want to read them all, you will have a very nuanced, gray area, Rashomon Gilligan's Island sort of you, right? A mosaic.

But most of us don't do that, and for obvious reasons, right? But we still have very hard-core political opinions maybe. We still base our view of, in this case, Hitler and Nazi Germany based on what we do know. I mean, I feel like it's all combining. We’re going to wrap this whole conversation up in this wonderful bowtie, where simply trying to get a handle on what's real is a huge challenge right now. If you can't get a handle on what's real, then how can you functionally operate well?

I mean, I just feel like the old line about garbage-in, garbage-out is never been more real. We are all, including people who are really savvy at teasing out reality from unreality, we’re all in this boat. But if it weren't so serious, it's a fascinating human laboratory experiment.

[00:56:29] MB: You've essentially shared this already, but I always like to ask for somebody who’s been listening to our conversation, what would be one action item or step that they could take to take action on something that we’ve discussed today?

[00:56:43] DC: I don't have any answer to that. If I had any answer to that, it would be because I had figured out an answer to some of the things we were talking about earlier. I think we’re all a little stymied. There were a lot of problems with having the old media landscape that we used to have, and there was always people that critiqued that old media landscape. But the good part of having several major newspapers, three major TV networks, that you could somewhat pretend that you could count on, is that it gave you a shared foundation of facts from which to have meaningful discussions on.

Now, somebody might argue that if those facts are incorrect, the meaningless discussions aren’t really meaningful. But as a person who lived through that time period, it was meaningful compared to what you could have now where the first thing that happens in a meaningful discussion is you reject the facts of the person on the other side of the argument and they reject yours.

At that point, the informed citizenry is incapable of doing their job, because you can have discussions anymore. What does that do for a country like ours? I would say that nobody knows. That's why we live in such interesting times. We’re getting a chance to see how this all plays out in real-time, and I honestly don't know what that means. It's fascinating to think of a world that could actually be divided.

I did an interview a couple of times, but once I remember with a science historian, James Burke, who’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever talked to, and he denied that he thinks that you even are going to have to have countries based on national boundaries at some point that were going to be able to join with people of like minds, people who see the world the same way we do into like virtual countries, right?

So we would be connected online rather than by geographical boundaries. On one low level, that sounds remarkably liberating and wonderful? But on another level, isn't that just codifying the way we already are, and aren’t we living right now with the problems associated with – I mean, listen. Let’s not pretend there haven't always been different realities. But having views on different realities is not ever in my lifetime been as problematic as it is now.

So I wouldn't tell anyone necessarily to get out and try to do anything with this information. I think we’re at the phase of trying to digest the information. Then once we move past this phase, we can talk about what sort of actionable things you can do based on the conclusions you come up with. I would, and you said this earlier in the discussion. I think I'd be suspicious of anybody who says they figured it all out.

[00:59:15] MB: For listeners who want to find out more about you, about Hardcore History, about the new book, where can people find you online?

[00:59:21] DC: Well, we have a website. It’s just my name, cancarlin.com. You can get shows. We keep them free for a long time up there. If you’ve never heard one, they’re long as hell. Some people seem to like them, so you might like them. Otherwise, there're other things on the website, old shows. The book is available from there. In a World War I virtual reality experience you might want to see when it comes to a town near you.

So just go to dancarlin.com. Hopefully, that's worth your time. I'm not even able to judge that right now. So I do feel that we’re going to have this conversation, you and I, in a couple of years maybe, and we’ll rehash some of these stuff and maybe we'll have some actionable information by that time that we can use.

[00:59:58] MB: Well, Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show, for wrestling with all of these complex issues and sharing your perspective I think it's really refreshing and honest to even have the point of view of admitting that it's an unprecedented time and you're not sure what to do about it.

[01:00:14] DC: Thank you for being willing to wrestle with me on them. I do feel like this is – We talked about the ancient Greeks stuff. I think a willingness to wrestle with all this nuance and all these gray areas and all these tough decisions is one of the potential ways we get out of all this trouble.

Thank you for the time. I appreciate it. I hope your listeners enjoy it.

[01:00:33] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We created this show to help you, our listeners, master evidence-based growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story, or just say hi, shoot me an e-mail. My e-mail is matt@successpodcast.com. That’s M-A-T-T@successpodcast.com. I’d love to hear from you and I read and respond to every single listener e-mail.

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Thanks again, and we'll see you on the next episode of the Science of Success.


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