The Uncanny Valley: Medicines, Censorship & The Problem of Truth
This is Rebel Wisdom’s Third Newsletter, largely written by Ed Prideaux. We release one every two weeks — to get it sent directly to you, click on our website and add your email address: www.rebelwisdom.co.uk
In the age of COVID-19, the question of how to find truth can be a case of life and death. As we try to make sense of the different narratives at play, we inevitably encounter deep rooted problems within our information landscape.
Right now, the focus is on big tech censorship, and especially around the efficacy (or not) of the drug Ivermectin, as well as various concerns about the vaccines. Armed with warnings, strikes and demonetisations, YouTube and the tech firms — on the authority of the WHO and the CDC — have staged suppression and censorship on a number of alternative, Ivermectin-sympathetic channels, including the Dark Horse channel run by the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein. The conversation has fallen into an age-old binary: free speech versus censorship, with most uniting against the heavy hand of the tech monopolies.
In the third edition of the Rebel Wisdom newsletter, we’re going to complicate the picture (hopefully in a useful way). We believe that at a subtler level, what we’re seeing is the media’s version of the Uncanny Valley: the strange, fast-expanding space between the mainstream and the alternative. This Uncanny Valley is the reason why it is so hard to find and evaluate truth right now, and crossing it is of existential importance if we’re going to fix our sensemaking.
The Uncanny Valley
New truths very often begin as ‘heterodox’, or a challenge to the consensus. Setting aside for a moment their truth status, the concerns about Ivermectin and the vaccines currently occupy this heterodox space. The big tech platforms have opted to suppress a range of alternative perspectives, but they aren’t equipped to draw the distinction that matters: between ‘heterodox and wrong/dangerous’ and ‘heterodox and right/essential’.
As we saw, the theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab went from ‘conspiracy theory’ that would get your posts labelled as ‘misinformation’ to ‘likely scenario’, many started to question what else the mainstream was getting wrong.
The Uncanny Valley exists because the mainstream refuses to platform ‘heterodox’ opinions for fear of giving ‘fringe’ perspectives too much prominence and a false equivalence with medical consensus. But conspiracy theories tend to grow in the gaps left behind, filling the void of unanswered questions. Added to this, non-platforming often pushes people with ‘fringe perspectives’ to appear on alternative channels where their claims are rarely challenged.
The Uncanny Valley is a gap in truth seeking between a mainstream closed to fringe perspectives, and an alternative that racks up huge views for unchallenging interviews with marginal figures. It creates ecosystems of information that never meet, where what is ‘unchallenged truth’ in one ecosystem being ‘obviously discredited’ in another.
The marketplace of ideas only works when all ideas are challenged. For that to happen, the two sides of the valley need to be in dialogue with one another. But more than ever, the incentives for bridging that space — and achieving true collaborative sensemaking — are breaking down. It pays to stay on your side of the Valley, no matter what the truth is. In our newest interview with the doctor and medical communicator Zubin Damania, we dive into what this Uncanny Valley means for our ability to communicate and understand one another as we discuss issues surrounding the pandemic.
Setting the Stage
The current conflict is largely over the effectiveness or not of the anti-parasite drug Ivermectin in treating Covid. The big tech platforms have stated they will censor any content that claims it is hugely effective. The drug has been known to clinicians for decades to treat parasites in veterinary and human medicine, and was hailed by its discoverer as a “wonder drug” and the greatest medical breakthrough since penicillin.
And while the WHO and the NIH have deemed the drug’s evidence base “insufficient” and “inconclusive” — and good-faith actors have raised serious questions over the studies cited by ivermectin’s proponents — the alternative media space has broadcast a number of serious voices who claim ivermectin could be a game-changer for treating COVID-19. They cite studies suggesting it’s 75% effective at eradicating the virus. Bret Weinstein’s Dark Horse channel in particular has been perhaps its biggest host. COVID-19 sceptics like Julia Hartley-Brewer and Ivor Cummins have joined the storm, too.
In times gone by, perhaps most people would have sided with the mainstream in good conscience. But since the lab leak saga — covered in our last newsletter — the credibility and good-faith of our major public health institutions came under serious question. Simply put, the mainstream ‘expert consensus’ no longer commands an automatic currency. If ‘they’ were so wrong on ruling the lab leak hypothesis out of bounds, why trust them on Ivermectin?
The narrative from this side of the valley is that ‘they’ are going out of their way seemingly to silence the alternative voices. After Bret Weinstein’s Dark Horse podcast had several videos removed, podcasting king Joe Rogan even hosted him on an ‘emergency podcast’ with Ivermectin proponent Dr Pierre Kory last week to spread the word.
As alluded in the introduction, making this about ‘free speech’ captures only half the picture. The real question is what it means for our information ecology. Indeed, the Uncanny Valley between the alternative and mainstream now runs so deep that the latter has resorted to stifling the assembly rights of the former. This isn’t just a breakdown in dialogue, but narrative warfare.
Some feel this is simply part of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in which ideas clash and the truth eventually wins out. However, reality is more complex. In our recent interview with Dr Zubin Damania, who’s due to join our Digital Campfire for a Q&A on 14th July, he was keen to emphasise the uncertainty that surrounds any medical discourse. Purely scientific dialogue should be subtle and conflictual, but public health messaging needs to be black-and-white to encourage clear action.
Medicine is always troubled, Zubin adds, because there’s no clear boundary that separates treatment from non-treatment. Just as important as an actual drug, for example, is the placebo activation surrounding its administration: the authority, comfort, and trust lent by the white coats and the bleached walls and the bedside manner. Making hard-and-fast claims about anything as a treatment — let alone a cure-all — should therefore raise major red flags.
More importantly, a ‘marketplace of ideas’ relies on there being a shared marketplace to begin with. It needs a shared understanding of what constitutes truth and who’s authoritative. It needs good-faith dialogue and collective sensemaking.
To take the marketplace metaphor seriously, in the Uncanny Valley era it’s as if the mainstream is using dollars and the alternative runs on barter. They have completely different currencies. They’re not on the same page. They’re in different countries, maybe different planets. Those from the mainstream are ‘shills’ and the alternative are ‘cranks’.
Each of us has to eventually decide who to trust. Knowing how troubled the mainstream often is — something Rebel Wisdom has emphasised since its foundation in 2018 — it may seem an easy option to go with the alternative.
Indeed, truth often begins as a heterodox claim. The mainstream is always reluctant to elevate ‘marginal’ thinkers, and not least in a pandemic era where lives are at stake. In the first edition of this newsletter we discussed the role of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift. The mainstream vaunts its own superiority, but their paradigm runs on errors that build and swell until a tipping point, where the shift occurs. This happened with the lab leak hypothesis.
But the same underlying problem affects both sides. For any content creator, incentive structures can make telling the complete truth uneconomic. The better move is simply to say what your audience wants, so-called audience capture, because they’re the ones paying you, with their attention and with their actual dollars.
Let’s say you’ve started your own media platform. You want to hold the mainstream to account and tell stories nobody else is, while also sidestepping the obvious bullshit of alternatives. However well-intentioned you begin, you’ll always remain at the beck-and-call of an audience. They’re the ones paying you. And in the alternative space especially, the moment you stray from the prevailing perspective, you risk being labelled a ‘shill’ and buried with downvotes. You lose followers and cash. Rent and bills are stacking up — maybe, just this time, you’ll overlook your concerns about this interviewee. But the slope is slippery, and a vicious cycle can take effect fast.
That’s why much of the alternative’s treatment of Ivermectin has been so one-sided. There’s no incentive to push back. That the drug is safe and effective is effectively taken as read. The mainstream is corrupt, ‘we’re’ the real truth-seekers, and that’s that.
In his interview with Rebel Wisdom, Zubin emphasised how alarm bells rang around some of Ivermectin’s major proponents. They’re very keen to emphasise their credentials, he notes — ‘I’m a scientist’, ‘this is science’, ‘follow the science’ — and many (any journalist really, wherever they lie in the Valley) are unable to question their authority claims with depth (even if they wanted to).
And after the recent censorship controversy, the alternative is only likely to sink further into its echo chambers and enclaves. A righteous sense of persecution kicks in, supercharged by tribal signalling and social media rabbit-holes. For this reason, we’re likely to see a faster ‘race to the bottom’ on credibility.
Plastic Skin and Fake Certainty
The collapse of complexity into rigid certainties is a major factor of the Uncanny Valley of truth-seeking. Some readers will have heard this term in another context. It was first drawn from robotics, coined by the Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori, to describe the strange, uncomfortable feeling of wrongness we get when we see something that’s meant to be human but isn’t quite. They are both real and completely false at the same time.
Something similar is happening in our media landscape. When the talking heads claim to be purveyors of truth, there’s a distinct sense of unease to people paying attention. We know they’re captured, beset by complex financial interests, tribalism and ideological bias, and yet they still claim ownership of ‘the facts’. Indeed, in recent rulings, both FOX’s Tucker Carlson and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow admitted in court that their programmes aren’t ‘news’, but rather ‘infotainment’: mixtures of muddied information, some reality, and a lot of colourful semi-fiction.
Like the plastic-skinned robots we reel from, then, The Guardian, CNN, London Real and Infowars are all mere simulations of truth-seeking. It looks like truth, especially given the certainty with which they sermonise, but anyone taking a serious look is left feeling very queasy.
All in all, the Ivermectin story can’t be a binary of free speech and censorship. It’s about the decisions that each content creator — wherever they lie in the Valley — makes about balancing clicks and capture with the pursuit of unvarnished truth. I explored these issues in earnest on the Triggernometry podcast, who got a million views platforming an anti-vaxxer who wasn’t pushed to answer any challenging questions.
The capture problem is made worse by the alternative’s lack of established journalistic ethics. However much it’s been degraded in recent years, journalism as a method of truth-seeking rests on certain structures — double-sourcing, the right-of-reply, fact-checking — that the alternative has never been invested with.
How can the two sides come together? They could go on each other’s channels, but that often makes the problem worse. Less an exercise in dialogue and collaboration, doing so is more like crossing enemy lines — a kind of boxing match with the ‘cranks’/’rebels’ in one corner, the ‘experts’/’shills’ in the other, and deeply-tribalised comment threads screaming in the wings.
What’s the answer? Nothing is guaranteed, but playing the game that made the Valley in the first place isn’t gonna work. Importantly, we urgently need a new metric for success in navigating conversations. Over certainty, victory, and reinforcement, we need a common sense of purpose that prizes intellectual humility, collaboration, and real sensemaking.
Peter Limberg of The Stoa has been invaluable in this regard. His notion of the ‘Hippocratic Oath of the Culture War’ — a common pledge that content creators, journalists, editors, activists, talking heads — would make a real difference if it was adopted en masse. Likewise, Peter’s ‘memetic mediators’ — people standing in the Valley with enough skin in the game to mediate conversations between both sides — may prove crucial for bridging the gap. And new kinds of psychotechnology like the Anti-Debate, where participants are scored for their ability to listen and process the other side, are keystones that need to catch on.
Daniel Schmachtenberger is more radical. In his recent appearance on the channel, Daniel suggests that a new kind of Mutually Assured Destruction may be our only hope. Just as the US and the USSR avoided nuking each other because the costs would be too high, it could be that our ‘wicked problems’ and sensemaking fractures combine to reach a critical point where even the hardiest tribalist takes a step back from the brink.
The Bias Game
More than anything, it’s worth asking why audience capture works at all. We just aren’t wired-well to challenge our own thinking. Motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, groupthink, tribalism: deep-rooted factors drive us to seek out information that confirms our conclusions and demotes the other side. We’re driven to seek certainty, and not least in a social media age where unwarranted conviction is an attractor for likes and retweets.
The responsibilities aren’t just on content-creators, then. As audience members, we need to take stock and ask how we build our information diets.
Are we in a filter bubble? Are we listening to a variety of sources? Do we follow only accounts we agree with? Are there particular conclusions that we want to draw? Where do you feel yourself getting reactive? Are there certain statements you hear that ‘trigger’ you, and provoke far more emotion than you’re used to? It’s probably not the politics.
You’ve just finished reading Rebel Wisdom’s Third Newsletter. We release one every second week — to get it sent directly to you, click on our website and add your email address: www.rebelwisdom.co.uk
And we’re just about to start our latest, groundbreaking ‘Sensemaking 101’ course, with guest faculty including Daniel Schmachtenberger, John Vervaeke and others. Join a fascinating group journey to better sensemaking here.
Below you can find links and resources from our friends and other platforms that have been inspiring us. It’s a pretty exhaustive list, and we encourage you to bite off more than you can chew:
Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe has published a fresh piece for his Bad Guru Substack about the spirituality of emojis.
Daniel Schmachtenberger appeared on Lex Fridman’s podcast to discuss civilisational risk, a new Rebel Wisdom video on sensemaking the current pandemic era, and the Center for Humane Technology’s Your Undivided Attention podcast to flesh out the meta-crisis. His Consilience Project has begun a weekly publishing schedule, with two editions out (one on the nature of educational crisis, the other on how the way we argue is being distorted by special interests).
Jonathan Pageau hosted a number of intriguing videos on his channel (now on 125k subscribers): a June Q&A, a deep-dive on the medieval mind, bridging science and symbolism, and the archetypal meaning of ‘The Flood’.
Georgia Iacovou of Moral Imaginations published a new essay on ‘beyond thinking’: the power of imagination, Batesonian ‘warm data’, and complex systems to navigate-well through life.
Doug Rushkoff published three new essays with his Team Human platform on Medium. He covers why we’re always “diplomats for something”, asks us to stop treating “the internet” as something other than us, and the prospects for community in a time of atomism. Doug also featured the spiritual comedian Duncan Trussell on his Team Human podcast.
Jonathan Rowson and Perspectiva have confirmed the publication of five books on metamodernism and beyond.
Chloe Valdary featured on Simon Sinek’s popular podcast to discuss the reasons for optimism in a time of identity politics. Her Theory of Enchantment process has published a new class that promises to be the future of sensible antiracism training. Also worth reviewing is her instructive thread on dealing with the divisions within oneself before extrapolating to a whole culture.
John Vervaeke and Gregg Henriques have continued their dialogos on ‘The Elusive I’, developing a model of the self and consciousness that satisfies our search for meaning with the demands of cognitive science. A dialogue on the self was also hosted on The Stoa, with an additional feature from Christopher Mastropietro.
John Vervaeke featured on Jordan Peterson’s podcast in a “conversation so deep it may as well be psychedelic”. He also hosted dialogos sessions with Zevi Slavin on science and mysticism, and the founder of circling Guy Sengstock about tuning into reason itself.
Ken Wilber’s Integral Life hosted a sit-down with Paul Marshall, who’s published a new book on ‘Complex Integral Realism’ and its possibilities for a new axial age. See Integral Life’s list of upcoming events here.
The Science and Medical Network is hosting its weekly group meditation with founder Peter Fenwick tomorrow on July 2nd. Other events include talks on ‘why we’re all so tired’ with Dr Sarah Myhill, and Professor Sarah Schneider on the ‘Artificial You’.
The Stoa’s Peter Limberg published a piece on the culture war around vaccines. The channel hit a new peak with a guest appearance from Noam Chomsky on the future of the left. Peter’s session with Daniel Kazandjian for Rebel Wisdom’s Live Playing course on Mental Models play was also published. You can see their upcoming events here.
Jordan Hall published a new piece for his Deep Code substack about his take on spirituality. He argues for a holistic interpretation, where anything that conforms to an interconnected goal and enhances life’s intensity can be ranked as ‘spiritual’: not just meditating, lighting incense, and saying funny words in Sanskrit.
Mad In America’s Robert Whitaker had a couple of cracking podcasts. First, Ilana Mountian on the cultural ecstasy of drug use and its intersection with classical psychiatry. Second, the WHO’s Michelle Funk on the global sea change in how we view mental health.
Hanzi Freinacht, one of the creators of contemporary Metamodernism, published compelling essays on the ‘totalitarian potential’ of New Age spirituality, and the possible role of comedy in furnishing our next dictatorship.
Alyssa Polizzi and Arran Rogerson hosted a dialogue with Jason Smith on The Golden Shadow podcast about living a ‘symbolic life’, and another with Bret Alderman on the importance of ‘the other’ in our language.
Tyson Yunkaporta’s The Other Others hosted Dr David Reser on ‘Memory Wars’, Dr John Davis of the Stronger Smarter Institute, Yin Paradies on the true nature of structural inequality, and Maya Ward on the comfort of water.