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.