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[UPCOMING] Lakeland Lectures Presents: Christopher Kavanagh

[UPCOMING] Lakeland Lectures Presents: Christopher Kavanagh


[UPCOMING] Lakeland Lectures Presents: Christopher Kavanagh

On Thursday, February 22, at 7pm, Christopher Kavanagh will be joining us here at LUJ as our guest speaker for our Lakeland Lectures series. His talk is titled "From Charisma to Conspiracy: Traits of Modern Secular Gurus." See the poster below for more information. 

Professor Kavanagh is a Psychology professor at Rikkyo University and co-host, along with Matthew Browne, of "Decoding the Gurus," a popular podcast that looks into, among other topics, the techniques modern online gurus use to gain influence. 

We asked Professor Kavanagh about his original interest in this field, the strategies of gurus, and his thoughts on the ever-growing influence of YouTube. His answers are below. 

1) What motivated you to delve into research about modern secular gurus? Was there a particular event that sparked your interest?

There was no specific event, just a growing awareness that there was a particular crop of self-styled intellectual renegades that seemed to be capturing a lot of attention. You had figures like Jordan Peterson and the Weinstein brothers in the US and more broadly the collective that Bari Weiss dubbed ’The Intellectual Dark Web’. This seemed an interesting phenomenon that at least initially tried to distance itself from other well-established anti-establishment niches. 

In terms of the podcast I co-host, the first episode covered was analyzing a conversation between two brothers, Bret and Eric Weinstein, for Eric’s podcast ’The Portal’. In that conversation, they alleged that within their immediate family there were as many as three Nobel worthy insights that had been repressed and went on to outline a rather convoluted story about how the younger brother, Bret, during his PhD, had made a huge breakthrough that was first suppressed then stolen by a Nobel laureate (without credit) and which undermined all drug safety testing in the US. The account was full of lurid details and conspiracies, but they also characterized mundane academic events, such as getting negative feedback or rejections from journals as massively significant events, so my co-host and I felt that, as academics, we could help put such events in context for non-academics.

2) In your talk, you'll be discussing "rhetorical strategies" and "manipulative techniques." We understand that you'll go into more depth on these ideas in your talk, but could you perhaps give us a few examples of these 'strategies' occurring around us?

Sure, a well-established one is the use of 'pseudo-profound bullshit’ - a technical term from the psychology literature - whereby statements are made in the style of communicating complex and profound statements are able to create the impression amongst an audience of genuine depth, even when communicating entirely trivial points or something entirely meaningless. This was conventionally targeted at verbose spiritual gurus, like Deepak Chopra, but it applies much more broadly to that. 

The social scientist Dan Sperber has talked about a similar phenomenon he dubbed ’the Guru effect’ in which intellectual obscurity is argued to inspire awe. Another example would be the tendency to present all mainstream authorities and institutions as corrupt and untrustworthy. Gurus establish themselves as alternative trustworthy epistemic sources for their audiences, cultivating the formation of intense parasocial bonds by praising their audience as brave freethinkers, willing to look beyond the obvious and ‘do their own research’. This also provides them a ready-made defense against any criticism, as this is taken as further evidence that they are correct and that their accuracy means that the authorities and mainstream media are threatened into trying to discredit them. No criticism of them can ever be valid or made in 'good faith'.

3) YouTube has become such an enormous presence in the lives of millions of people. Are the cons starting to outweigh the pros? Have we reached a saturation point and does the video website need to be regulated even more?

It’s hard to say. People interact with YouTube in a lot of different ways. Young people might get their news from there and if you want to build a table or learn how to install a hard drive then YouTube is a fantastic resource. It is also full of misinformation, polemical partisans, and celebrity gossip. Moderation and algorithmic recommendations are very important on YouTube and all social media platforms, but as to how far they can be effectively regulated by governments, it is a difficult question to answer. 

I think regulation that promotes social media sites to be transparent about moderation and to develop coherent policies is important, but YouTube is just one piece of a much larger jigsaw, such as streaming platforms, Elon Musk’s X/Twitter, and other messaging platforms. Relying on platforms to be responsible or governments to be effective in their social media strategies seems something of a fool's errand, so I would genuinely instead place an emphasis on the individual level of building up digital literacy and abilities to critically consume content. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle with social media or the internet, so we need to learn how to operate in these new ecosystems.