What’s Wrong with NPR’s “Hidden Brain”?

I listen to a lot of NPR shows, but one of the shows that I can’t stand is Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain. Advertisements for the show go like this: Some people choose to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. I prefer the lens of a social scientist. Great! I’m a social scientist too! So, what would I have to complain about?

Vendantam’s show illustrates a larger problem in American media. The so-called “experts” we rely upon are not actually experts at all; they’re Malcolm Gladwell–type characters, who combine a flimsy educational background with a knack for spinning academic studies into colorful but not so informative stories.

What about Vendantam’s educational training? If he really prefers the “lens of a social scientist,” surely he has some social science training, right? Perhaps at least a B.A. in sociology? No. Vendantam has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a Master’s degree in journalism. Fair enough; I’m no elitist and I certainly don’t claim that expertise requires formal credentials (as long as you’re running a radio show and nothing more).

But what Vendantam calls “social science” is the stuff of Psychology Today, or worse: the usual dross, the typical fare, the doesn’t-teach-me-anything-but-sounds-kinda-neat. In Hidden Brain, we hear stories about empathy, but we don’t learn about the massive decline in empathy scores among American college students over the last few decades; we hear about the ‘science’ of lying but we don’t hear about how acts of deceit are pattered by social class. What is “social” about this social science, anyway? Moreover, what is “scientific” about it?

As I said, I love public radio (owing to my boyfriend Rob Rankin—go visit his website!), and I even enjoy social science shows like Invisibilia. So what bothers me so much about Hidden Brain? I think it’s the promise of something good—”the lens of a social scientist”—coupled with an enormous letdown when we realize that (a) Shankar Vendantam is not a social scientist and (b) the show is about pop psychology, not social science.

Worst of all, consider the name of the show. “Hidden Brain.” This irks me like nothing else. First of all, it capitalizes on the recent interest in pseudo-neuroscientific findings, which merely reinforce an individualistic and neoliberal view of the world. (See the book Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds?, cowritten by a neuroscientist and a sociologist.) Second of all: what do any of these topics have to do with the brain? I mean, sure, everything can be reduced to neuroscience if we want it to be, but this is the kind of reductionist claptrap that Durkheim warned against. (Just as a molecule cannot be reduced to its constituent atoms, he argued, so a society cannot be reduced to its constituent members.) Why not go further and call the show Hidden Atom or Hidden Quark? We certainly don’t learn any neuroscience on the show.

The second problem with the title is the word “hidden.” Have we not seen enough of this trend? The hidden science of dating; the hidden science of success; the hidden science of wealth. Nothing appeals more to the American psyche than the idea that they’re about to be let in on a secret (see, ahem, The Secret). And not just a secret, but a secret validated by Science!

I realize this blog post may seem unfairly critical; surely Vendantam himself is not to blame. The problem is far larger than that of one person; it requires a sociological lens to understand. It requires—dare I say it?—the lens of a social scientist.

Perhaps Hidden Brain could try such a lens.

Individualism and Collectivism in Response to Social Breakdown

(crossposted at IU Sociology Quarantine Project)

On Friday’s episode of the PBS News Hour, David Brooks recalled the 1918 influenza epidemic and why it failed to leave a mark on the American public . According to Brooks, people were simply ashamed. The death toll in the United States alone topped 600,000, and Americans were embarrassed by their failure to help one another: their individualistic responses reflected selfishness rather than altruistic sacrifice. As a consequence, Brooks argued, the epidemic did not weigh heavily on the collective psyche once it was over; in fact, it was strategically forgotten.

Compare this scenario with the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Following the attacks, millions of Americans developed a powerful sense of social solidarity, a feeling of collective effervescence that can only come from shared tragedy.

What explains the disparity between the 1918 influenza epidemic and the attacks of September 11? And which of these two scenarios are we seeing now, with the coronavirus?

A key distinction between the 1918 epidemic and the terrorist attacks is the time horizon associated with those events. The attacks on September 11 occurred on just one day, and while the events of that morning led to a palpable fear and insecurity which lasted for many months, Americans were not aware of any immediate threat to their lives. With the 1918 epidemic—and with the coronavirus pandemic of 2020—the threat is ongoing, producing a sense of fear but also the opportunity to normalize that fear over the course of many weeks.

September 11 was instant and cataclysmic: a shattering of the social order. The Spanish flu, meanwhile, was horrifying but easier to acclimate to, like the frog that fails to perceive its fate until the water is already boiling. This, I believe, is the situation we find ourselves in with respect to COVID-19: as we shut ourselves in our homes and self-quarantine, waiting for the virus to abate, we almost miss the unprecedented nature of what we are experiencing.

When change is slow, it is easier to cling to one’s habits of individualism and self-protection rather than collectivism and self-sacrifice. We have witnessed these habits over the last few weeks, as customers flood Costco and Amazon, buying up the last N95 respirator masks and the last bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant, products that the average American doesn’t need but healthcare providers desperately do. We feel the panic, but because the pandemic is slow-moving (or seems that way) and long-lasting (the peak is not expected for another six weeks), we grasp it as an individual problem to escape, rather than a social problem to mitigate.

We are all too happy to lend a hand in response to a short-term crisis, as Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg, and every billionaire in New York claims to have done following 9/11. We are less willing to sacrifice our own well-being when the danger is ongoing, and the resources finite. The “spirit of sacrifice and abnegation” that Durkheim praised over a century ago can only last so long—for hours and days, certainly, but not for weeks and months.

Perhaps I am being too cynical. After all, this week we saw hundreds of Italians singing together from the balconies of their quarantined buildings, a moving act of solidarity that has captured international attention. Chinese employees have been working around the clock to produce enough masks for the global demand, and millions were donated by foreign governments to China’s Hubei province just a few months prior. And of course, there are small acts of kindness that we fail to see—the delivery of groceries to elderly neighbors too scared to leave the house, the donation of free online resources to individuals who would normally be charged (I’m looking at you, Italian Pornhub).

Still, Americans at least, are only so willing to give of ourselves and to make sacrifices over the long term. That may change as the crisis becomes more severe and the need for collective action more pressing. So please, if you’re reading this: keep buying that toilet paper and those bottles of Purell, but give them to someone who really needs them. Consider donating to your local food shelter, or any other organization that helps the most vulnerable, because those needs are ongoing and will last even beyond the pandemic. 

Parasite: A Sociology

Much has been made of the Korean film Parasite, and rightly so: its trenchant social critique seems to perfectly capture this moment in history. Massive income inequality and the seeming callousness of elites—who, to quote the sociologist Rachel Sherman, have their own “anxieties of affluence” to deal with—have become dominant issues not only in Korea but also in the United States.

As this film makes history for becoming the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, it is worth asking what about the film is so compelling—what about its social critique is so resonant.

Parasite is rich with social commentary—the message goes far beyond “inequality is bad”; instead, the film seeks to tear down the justifications for inequality itself. The inciting incident of the film occurs when the main character, a teenage boy from an impoverished family, replaces his well-heeled college friend as the English tutor for a wealthy girl. In the conversation between the two men, the teenage boy explains that he has no credentials to serve as an English tutor, but his friend argues that he is extremely well qualified regardless of his degree. He accepts the offer and, with the help of his sister, who designs a fake diploma from a prestigious university, he gets the job. Already, the film rejects the credentialism so common in elite education: what confers value, the film reminds us, is skill, not pedigree. Not only is the boy a skillful tutor, but his sister is a masterful forger of documents. (Why can’t you get into art school?, her family jokingly asks.)

Later, the rest of the family has joined the ruse: the father serves as a valet for the wealthy family, while the mother serves as a housekeeper. Neither have the esteemed backgrounds they claim to possess (though the father did have some driving experience), but they perform their work admirably, earning praise from the family. The father’s driving is so smooth that his client’s coffee doesn’t even tremble as they round a corner.

Yet the employees in this house are not always treated well. Their cover is almost blown when the young master of the house remarks that all of them smell the same. We”ll have to use different soaps, the father suggests, to disguise the fact that all of the employees—allegedly unrelated to one another—in fact live in the same dwelling. No, the daughter replies, the soap won’t help. They all live in the same basement; the stench won’t come out. And indeed the wealthy father expresses to his wife that the driver has a nasty smell, the smell of people who ride the subway. Not the smell of the subway, but the smell of those people who ride it.

As each member of this poor family finds a job in the household—English tutor, art therapist, valet driver, and housekeeper—others are forced to leave their position. The valet driver and the housekeeper, in particular, are removed by some clever scheming involving a misplaced set of panties and an allergy to peaches. Does the wealthy family feel guilty for firing their loyal employees? Not as far as we can tell. But the poor family does feel a touch of guilt—yet they comfort themselves with the notion that, surely, these people must have even better jobs by now.

A key moment in the film occurs when a rainstorm sweeps through the city, flooding the basement of the poor family with sewage water. The next day, we see the wealthy mother in the backseat of the car, chatting about how lovely the sunshine is after the rain, and how grateful she is for the rain. Any minor hassles, she says, were worth it: we made lemons into lemonade. Her son had a lovely time camping outdoors, in his sturdy American-made teepee, a symbol of the joys of untamed wilderness. What fun to battle the elements!

The climax of the film occurs when the employees of the house discover that they are not alone. Someone has been living with them. It is perhaps this character, a man who lays in hiding from murderous loan sharks, who is the titular parasite of the film. But in fact, we learn, his wife has been taking care of him; he has stolen not a penny from the wealthy family. Indeed, he is the victim, the victim of an exploitative financial transaction that may cost him his life. Still, he is grateful to Nathan Park, the patriarch of the household, for making his survival possible. Perhaps this is a form of Stockholm syndrome, or perhaps a metaphor for hegemony—the kind of oppression so complete that it is accepted even by the oppressed.

Perhaps this is reading too much into the story. But that is precisely what the film asks us to do. It is, as the protagonist constantly reminds us, “so metaphorical.” So metaphorical, indeed, that the gift the protagonist receives from his predecessor, a precious “scholar’s stone,” gives him the good luck to serve as the new English tutor but also serves as the object with which he is literally struck down toward the end of the film. He cannot let go of this rock; it has trapped him in his position—he is, as Pierre Bourdieu once wrote, “inherited by his inheritance.”

One of the most interesting moments in Parasite occurs toward the end of the film. The mother of the wealthy family decides to hold an impromptu gathering to celebrate her son’s “trauma recovery.” His trauma is intriguing: in first grade, he saw a ghost, and he has been plagued by the vision ever since. Do you believe in ghosts?, the mother asks the new housekeeper in hushed tones. Clearly, she herself does. A ghost has visited her son, and she is celebrating because—with the help of the new art therapist (the daughter of the poor household), he is well on the way to recovery.

But who is this ghost? It is the man living in the basement of the house, the titular parasite, who sneaks upstairs one night to find that the kitchen is not empty, as he had hoped—the young son is staring back at him, eating his birthday cake. It is the face of the basement dweller who has caused the boy so much trauma.

What, then, is this “trauma”? It is the trauma of witnessing others’ suffering. It is the trauma of seeing a starving man, trapped for years in a basement because he fears for his life, emerging in the dead of night to grab a bite to eat. This is the trauma from which the young boy must recover—the trauma that sent him into a seizure when it first occurred, and a trauma that repeats itself in one of the final scenes of the film.

This trauma, ultimately, lies at the core of the film. It is the conceit of a brilliant relational sociology which understands that suffering is double-edged: the son’s trauma is made possible only because of the trauma of the man in the basement, who must forever live in fear because of a financial arrangement gone wrong, an arrangement that was itself the product of income inequality.

As the son is rushed to the hospital in the final scenes, he relives his trauma as the man in the basement emerges again, this time to seek vengeance against the family that destroyed his wife’s life and livelihood. Three families are enmeshed in a circle of violence, a circle whose every step is enabled by poverty and those who seek to escape or exploit it. “So metaphorical,” indeed.

Parasite is not the first to blend psychological thriller with social critique: the movie Get Out, which was also nominated for Best Picture, broaches similar themes, but with a focus on white supremacy rather than income inequality. (In this sense, it is probably the appropriate American companion to Parasite, because the original sin of slavery constitutes a unique form of American horror, both in the film and in our nation’s history.) What makes Get Out and Parasite so effective is that the deep-seated sense of unease we feel in watching the mistreatment of the characters—made safe by a touch of distance, a touch of fantastical absurdity—blends seamlessly into a kind of real-life horror, the horror of social recognition. This frisson of fear and anguish is felt not so much on behalf of the characters, but on behalf of a structural circumstance that is far from fantasy. It is this doubling of terror, structural terror superimposed on the situational, from which the viewer cannot escape even as the credits roll. This feeling you have, both films seem to say, this is what you should be feeling all of the time, because the horror is happening right now.