The Science, Philosophy, and Psychology of the Mind

Sponsored by the Hope & Optimism Initiative


Want to Be More Optimistic? Consider the Triumph of Human Reason

For once, an optimistic worldview is the one sparking controversy. Paul Bloom thinks humans are not prisoners to their emotions, but have great capacity for rationality and reason. This makes him an anomaly among his fellow psychologists, and philosophers and neuroscientists, who often argue that we’re fundamentally and profoundly irrational. Paul Bloom is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Paul Bloom's most recent book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

What It's Like to Be a Muslim-American Woman in the US Today

When she was nine years old, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh heard her first racial slur, from the mouth of one of her classmates. It was 2001, and 9/11 had just shocked and shattered the US's sense of safety. "I grew up through the worst forms of bullying, through an extremely low self-esteem, and it was very difficult for me to formulate who I was and what my identity meant to me," she says. So what was it like, 15 years later, being an American-Muslim woman in New York the day after President Trump was elected? Braced for the worst, Al-Khatahtbeh left her home and under the grey mood and matching skies of the day, was surprised by warm smiles and kind gestures from strangers in New York City. Even compliments on her headscarf. They were tiny exchanges that signified to her that there was a common understanding, and that hope was where it always has been — in other people.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh's book is Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.

America’s Next Moonshot: Cut Poverty 50% by 2030

Optimism, as defined by economist Jeffrey Sachs, is more than just a translucent, faraway wish. It means having bold goals and acting on them—even if you have no plan or existing knowledge of how you'll get there. The US was once good at this: In May 1961, President Kennedy stood before Congress and announced that the US would land a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the decade was out. In the summer of 1969, that mission was achieved. If American politicians, scientists, engineers and the public could unite for the space race, then the same is unquestionably possible for the urgent humanistic causes of poverty, inequality, and curbing global warming, which will create millions of climate refugees this century. Optimism doesn't just require vision and determination—it needs a deadline, as JFK showed. By 2030, let's mobilize our optimism to cut poverty in half in America, and make a decisive move to renewable energy.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Jeffrey Sachs is the author of Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable.

How Going Blind Showed One Man the Light

If Isaac Lidsky had not gone blind by the age of 25, would he have graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, or clerked for two Supreme Court Justices, or created a technology company worth hundreds of millions of dollars? It is impossible to say. But it is difficult to imagine his life being any better with the supposed gift of sight. Indeed Lidsky says losing his sight was the true gift he received in life. Why? Because it showed him how literally everyone creates their own reality — even seeing the world, says Lidsky, is an act of creation. Once you learn that reality is yours to create, you will only want to create a better one for yourself.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Isaac Lidsky is the author of Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can't See Clearly

Optimism Is the Engine That Moves Society Forward

The news certainly doesn't portray it this way, but every year the world becomes a better place, says Kevin Kelly. There is currently an imbalance in our optimism and pessimism levels, because we feel that things are catastrophic, despite most scientific evidence pointing the other direction. In this inspiring stream of thought, Kelly reminds us that society is constantly making progress, and that innovation is the direct result of optimism. Civilization is not a sweeping, heroic enterprise, he says, it’s a constant creep forward, and you only have to look behind you to see how far we've come.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Kevin Kelly's most recent book is The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

The Universe May Not Have a Purpose — But You Do, Thanks to Science

The universe doesn't care about you, and the future is miserable. So begins theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss' guide to optimism. Optimism? You heard us right. We may never find meaning or purpose in the universe, but to assume that our purpose is interlinked with that of the universe is what Krauss calls the height of solipsism. Life is beautiful precisely because it's so temporary, and if anything helps us to be optimistic in a morally neutral universe, it's science. Asking questions and understanding what something is helps us realize the consequences of our actions. Armed with knowledge, we can make decisions for the common good. If that's not hope, what is?


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Lawrence Krauss' most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?.

Whether You Believe You Can or Believe You Can't, You're Right!

Life advice is awesome under one condition only: when it's being given by someone who has truly lived. That's Kyle Maynard defined. At 26 years old, Maynard became the first quadruple amputee to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of prosthetics. He's an award-winning mixed martial arts athlete, best-selling author, and Arnold freakin' Schwarzenegger has described him as "the real deal." But Maynard didn't always believe he would have a life like this. He talks us through two key moments in his youth where he felt a sense of hopelessness, and shares how he shook fear and doubt, and found the mindset that has been his path to success.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Kyle Maynard is the author of No Excuses: The True Story of a Congenital Amputee Who Became a Champion in Wrestling and in Life.

Is Hope for Weak People? One Man's Journey through Life with MS

When Richard M. Cohen visited the Big Think studio, he came in carrying a quote by Virginia Woolf. It was printed in large font, which seems an odd choice unless you know that Cohen is legally blind, one of the many consequences of the multiple sclerosis he was diagnosed with at 25 years old. Another is his fluctuating voice, a neurological symptom of the disease. Unable to read the quote, we promised to place it here:


"...how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul…" — Virginia Woolf, 'On Being Ill' (1926)

For Cohen, there is an unspoken element to the somber terrains that Woolf describes: the country of hope, which he only recently came to fully understand. Richard M. Cohen's new book, Chasing Hope, which chronicles his personal relationship with hope and faith, will be released in early 2018.

This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

"Us vs. Them" Thinking Is Hardwired—But There’s Hope for Us Yet

Robert Sapolsky has a bone to pick with oxytocin, or rather the public's perception of oxytocin. It is the love hormone, we've surely all read by now. It helps us bond to our parents, then to our lovers and later to our own children. An extra dose can increase empathy, goodwill, and understanding. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows, here's the catch: those warm fuzzy feelings are only generated for people you already favor. Oxytocin, represented more honestly, is the hormone of love and violence. Its effect in the presence of people you consider "others" is preemptive aggression, and less social cooperation. It creates distance as often as it bonds love, and we are hardwired for those social dichotomies.


Humans invent "Us" and "Them" groups wherever they look, whether it's on the basis of sex, race, nationality, class, age, religion, hair color—there's nothing we won't discriminate against, and we do it within a twentieth of a second of seeing someone. Are they an "Us" or are they a "Them"? The flaw in this hardwired thinking reflex is also its silver lining: it is ridiculously easy to manipulate. A racial bias can be duped by something so simple as putting a cap with your favorite sports team's logo on someone's head, for example. You can overthrow your brain's most primal reactions in this way but, as history shows, other people can also get in your head and manipulate the Us versus Them reflex to tragic and catastrophic results.

Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

The Science of Optimism: How Your Outlook Predicts Your Lifespan

Optimistic people tend to live longer than pessimistic people. That's true whether you're rich or poor, young or old, and no matter your race, says sociologist William Magee. As part of a five-year study on hope and optimism—a collaboration between the Templeton Foundation and Notre Dame, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania—Magee looked at what personal characteristics overlap with having an optimistic worldview. Are the well-educated naturally more optimistic? What about those who have a financial advantage in life? As Magee explains, reverse causality can obscure the relationship between education, class and optimism (does good education produce optimism, or vice versa?), but more immutable factors such as age, race, and gender paint a more realistic picture.

The Truth About Optimism, and How to Manage Your Biases

Think you’re not an optimist? Neuroscience begs to differ. Dr. Tali Sharot explains that 80% of people globally present with the optimism bias—even if they describe themselves as pessimists or realists. In a nutshell, the optimism bias is the tendency to think that the future will be better than the past or present, and to underestimate negative experiences, and overestimate positive ones. This is neither a good nor bad thing, but rather it's both: we evolved to be optimistic because our primordial ancestors needed to think that there was something better out there, beyond the cave, in order to survive, migrate, and evolve. Optimism is a powerful motivator and has proven health benefits, but it also has downsides. Here, Sharot explains that delicate balance, and how understanding the nature of our cognitive biases can help us better protect ourselves against failure.


This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

Tali Sharot's newest book is available for pre-order: The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals about Our Power to Change Others.

Want the Benefits of Faith without Believing in God? Try Hope.

If faith is what bolsters the believers, could hope be a form of secular prayer? What is the difference between faith and hope, anyway? Philosophy professor Sam Newlands explains that while the two occupy the same categorical space, they are fundamentally different philosophical mindsets. Faith is fueled by a sense of certainty about an outcome, even if that conviction outstrips the evidence. Hope on the other hand can be cognitively inconsistent and still escape scrutiny: you can think something is highly improbable and still hope for it to be true. Here, Newlands discusses the intersection of hope and faith in a religious context: is religion without faith possible? Can hope manifest religious belief?


This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Sam Newlands, head to samnewlands.com.

Cornel West: Hope Is an Action We Can All Take

Institutions—governmental, religious, financial, even revolution itself—have a way of turning stale and sour. "Thank God for the history of the heretics and the blasphemers. That's my crowd," says Dr. Cornel West. Quoting from some of history and literature's greatest thinkers and doers, West presents a poetic lecture on the role of hope in America's past and its future, and how to make your voice matter.


This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Dr. Cornel West, head to cornelwest.com.

Cornel West: Hope Is Spiritual Armor for Fighting Righteous Battles

There is a spiritual war happening in the United States, and to be silent is to be complicit, says Dr. Cornel West. He takes his starting point at the elimination of arts programs under Reagan in the 1980s, and traces how that lack of spiritual nourishment has created a society of solitary nomads where once there was community. It has created consumers where once there were citizens. What must fill that emptiness is hope, West suggests—and hope not as a wistful wish for a better future, but as an enactment of a better future through action. Quoting from some of philosophy and music's greatest thinkers and doers, West presents a lyrical lecture on the role of hope in the battle over the soul of Americans, and American democracy.


This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Dr. Cornel West, head to cornelwest.com.

What Hope Actually Meant to Martin Luther King Jr.

Here's an exercise: If there's someone near you right now, ask them to define hope. Quickly. What did they say: was it motivational? Did it deal with future ambition, expectation, and desire? Historically, hope has not always had such sugary connotations, and at one point—not so long ago, actually—it was more about confronting suffering in the present than mentally projecting yourself forward to a time where you have overcome your suffering. Drawing from an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts called 'Hope', which inspired Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1959 sermon 'Shattered Dreams', Andre C. Willis presents a view of deep hope, a method of facing adversity that is woven together from the African American Protestant tradition.


This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

Addressing Racism Means Educating Our Children Differently

There's no getting around it: we're all a little bit biased. But when do harmful implicit biases, like racial judgements, form? Developmental psychologist Lori Markson and her colleagues have identified racial bias in preschool children aged three to six years old. Despite learning that kids this age—both black and white—prefer white teachers, or that white kids trust black adults less, Markson is not pessimistic about the future of race relations—in fact she's the opposite. The more data we can collect on racial bias, the more information we have to develop strategies to close social divides. Based on the research she presents here, Markson outlines three strategies—diversity exposure, bias intervention, and cross-race friendships—that can help to end racist behavior in the next generation, and hopefully in the current one. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.


Prison Dehumanizes the Incarcerated—The Prison Project Brings Them Back

In the last 35 years, California has built approximately 22 new prisons, and the state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. The US's prison industrial complex has been called America's human rights crisis. So is it possible for prisoners have hope for their future? How do you retain your humanity in an inhumane system? Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actor's Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them the emotional tools needed to heal from the trauma of being incarcerated, and all the events of their lives before that. That was the start of the Prison Project, and a decade later it is operating in 10 prisons across California. How well has it worked? It has transformed prison yards. It has built bridges between gangs. Participants have just a 10% recidivism rate and in-prison infractions have dropped by 89%. Engaging in the safe and playful space of theatre is a way for incarcerated people to engage with their emotions, often for the very first time. The entire prison community is deeply interwoven and affected by each other, so the Prison Project is developing a program for correctional officers too, who are often highly traumatized by their experiences, and have highest suicide rate of any job. Sabra Williams runs us through the Prison Project, and introduces former-inmate and student Chris Bingley to share his personal story of reconnecting with his humanity while in prison. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.


Optimists Do It Longer: How a Positive Outlook Will Boost Your Longevity

It's not considered ultra-cool to be an optimist in today's culture. Too much pep comes off as naïveté and we're just one motivational poster away from self-implosion. But do you know what is cool? Living for a long time, with mobility, good circulation, and all your cognitive faculties. Numerous scientific, long-term studies have shown that this goes hand in hand with an optimistic outlook on life. The core difference for why optimists consistently outlive pessimists has to do with how each type copes with adversity. The former engages with their stress and takes action, while the later is less likely to seek positive change, and more likely to disengage with or deny problems. It's not just psychological either, your outlook on life is evident on a cellular level. In this talk for Hope & Optimism, Professor Michael Scheier describes some of these health-damaging and health-promoting behaviors, and provides a (frankly terrifying) list of ways pessimism can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. Optimism is something you can learn, and knowing it can keep you in good health for longer is all the motivation you need to break negative thinking patterns. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

A Philosophical Guide to Coping with Life, Death, and Sour Grapes

Life throws us curveballs that test our ability to cope, but perhaps none is more curvy than the end of life itself. Philosopher Luc Bovens examines the idea of secular hope, the forms it takes, and the function of it. He asks: what does it mean to live a meaningful life, and is it possible to die as well as you lived?

This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. For more on Luc Bovens, go here.


What Psychiatric Wards Teach Us About the Nature of Reality

Novelist and author Yiyun Li tells deeply felt stories from her stay in a psychiatric hospital, after two suicide attempts. The patients Li shared space with taught her a great deal about living in a world that is sometimes lacking in apparent meaning, and how close reality and unreality truly are. For anyone who has ever felt that "patients running the asylum" is an apt analogy for human society, Li shares the stories behind individuals too readily dismissed or forgotten about. Whether in the field of psychology or politics, tension between orthodoxy and imagination will continue to exist. But if we can find ways to keep our imagination alive, we can thrive in a world that is calling out for answers. Yiyun Li's newest book is Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life


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How to increase your will power? Make a Ulysses pact with yourself

The only thing between you and your better self is your brain. Programmed to maximize short term reward, we often find ourselves struggling between what we want in the moment and what we'll gain in the long term if we forgo immediate gratification. As neuroscientist David Eagleman reveals, the ancient wisdom of Ulysses remains useful today as a way to contextualize current scientific research. Before temptation strikes, it pays to have a plan for when it arrives. By making a contract with your future self—as Ulysses did with his crew—you can avoid occasions of indulgence. And when you do give into immediate satisfaction, you can build in supports to keep it from wreaking havoc on your life.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Hope and Despair Exist on a Spectrum—Here's How to Move Toward Hope

Hope's reputation is so good, it's bad. People hear the word and dismiss it as Hallmark, doe-eyed, emotional fluff. But hoping is not the same as dreaming or wishing: it is constrained by rationality, and unlike fantasy the possibility has to exist, even if the odds are slim. As Professor Andrew Chignell explains: you can wish the weather had been nicer yesterday, but you can't hope it. Hope is a spectrum of how you react to possibility, and it runs all the way to despair. Here, Chignell explains his latest research in philosophy, mindfulness, and uses The Shawshank Redemption to illustrate how closely hope and despair are related. This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which has supported interdisciplinary academic research into under-explored aspects of hope and optimism. Discover more at hopeoptimism.com.

Stop Negative Emotions from Defining You: Welcome to The Actors' Gang

Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors' Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them emotional training to recover from the trauma of incarceration, and the events of their lives that landed them there in the first place. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams' experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors' Gang student Wendy Stag. Wendy recently shared her personal story of learning to cope with trauma and negative emotion at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.

More playlists
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
  • Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
  • Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.


Imagine everyday citizens engaging in the democratic process. What images spring to mind? Maybe you thought of town hall meetings where constituents address their representatives. Maybe you imagined mass sit-ins or marches in the streets to protest unpopular legislation. Maybe it's grassroot organizations gathering signatures for a popular referendum. Though they vary in means and intensity, all these have one thing in common: participation.

Participatory democracy is a democratic model that emphasizes civic engagement as paramount for a robust government. For many, it's both the "hallmark of social movements" and the gold standard of democracy.

But all that glitters may not be gold. While we can all point to historical moments in which participatory democracy was critical to necessary change, such activism can have deleterious effects on the health of a democracy, too. One such byproduct, political psychologist Diana Mutz argues, can be the lessening political tolerance.

Participation or deliberation?

In her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy, Mutz argues that participatory democracy is best supported by close-knit groups of like-minded people. Political activism requires fervor to rouse people to action. To support such passions, people surround themselves with others who believe in the cause and view it as unassailable.

Alternative voices and ideologies — what Mutz calls "cross-cutting exposures" — are counterproductive to participation because they don't reinforce the group's beliefs and may soften the image of the opposing side. This can dampen political zeal and discourage participation, particularly among those averse to conflict. To prevent this from happening, groups can become increasingly intolerant of the other side.

"You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well."

As the book's title suggests, deliberative democracy fosters a different outlook for those who practice it. This model looks toward deliberation, communication, compromise, and consensus as the signs of a resilient democracy. While official deliberation is the purview of politicians and members of the court, it's worth noting that deliberative democracy doesn't mean inactivity from constituents. It's a philosophy we can use in our daily lives, from community memberships to interactions on social media.

"The idea is that people learn from one another," Mutz tells Big Think. "They learn arguments from the other side as well as learn more about the reasons behind their own views. [In turn], they develop a respect for the other side as well as moderate their own views."

Mutz's analysis leads her to support deliberation over activism in U.S. politics. She notes that the homogeneous networks required for activism can lead to positive changes — again, there are many historical examples to choose from. But such networks also risk developing intolerance and extremism within their ranks, examples of which are also readily available on both the right and left.

Meanwhile, the cross-cutting networks required for deliberative democracy offer a bounty of benefits, with the only risk being lowered levels of participation.

As Mutz writes: "Hearing the other side is also important for its indirect contributions to political tolerance. The capacity to see that there is more than one side to an issue, that political conflict is, in fact, a legitimate controversy with rationales on both sides, translates to greater willingness to extend civil liberties to even those groups whose political views one dislikes a great deal."

Of politics and summer camp

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Take that! A boxing bout between two members of a schoolboys' summer camp at Pendine, South Wales, takes place in a field within a ring of cheering campmates.

Of course, listening openly and honestly to the other side doesn't come naturally. Red versus blue. Religious versus secular. Rural versus cosmopolitan. We divide ourselves into polarized groups that seek to silence cross-cutting communication in the pursuit of political victory.

"The separation of the country into two teams discourages compromise and encourages an escalation of conflict," Lilliana Mason, assistant professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, writes in her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. "The cooperation and compromise required by democracy grow less attainable as partisan isolation and conflict increase."

Mason likens the current situation to Muzafer Sherif's famous Robbers Cave Experiment.

In the early 1950s, Sherif gathered a group of boys for a fun summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. At least, that was the pretense. In reality, Sherif and his counselors were performing an experiment in intergroup conflict that would now be considered unethical.

The 20 boys were divided into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles. For a while, the counselors kept the groups separate, allowing the boys to bond only with their assigned teammates. Then the two groups were introduced to participate in a tournament. They played competitive games, such as baseball and tug-o-war, with the winning team promised the summer camp trophy.

Almost immediately, the boys identified members of the other team as intruders. As the tournament continued, the conflict escalated beyond sport. The Eagles burned a Rattlers flag. The Rattlers raided the Eagles' cabin. When asked to describe the other side, both groups showed in-group favoritism and out-group aggression.

Most troubling, the boys wholly assumed the identity of an Eagle or Rattler despite having never been either before that very summer.

"We, as modern Americans, probably like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and tolerant than a group of fifth-grade boys from 1954. In many ways, of course, we are," Mason writes. "But the Rattlers and the Eagles have a lot more in common with today's Democrats and Republicans than we would like to believe."

Like at Robbers Cave, signs of incendiary conflict are easy to spot in U.S. politics today.

"Political Polarization in the American Public", Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 12, 2014)

A 2014 Pew survey found that the ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans is much more distant than in the past. More Republicans lie further right of moderate Democrats than before and vice versa. The survey also found that partisan animosity had doubled since 1994.

In her book, Mason points to research that shows an "increasing number of partisans don't want party leaders to compromise," blame "the other party for all incivility in government," and abhor the idea of dating someone from outside their ideological group.

And let's not forget Congress, which has grown increasingly divided along ideological lines over the past 60 years.

A dose of daily deliberation

Painting by Charles Francois Jalabert (1819-1901) 1846. Beaux-Arts museum, Nimes, France. Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images.

Horace, Virgil and Varius at the house of Maecenas.

A zero-sum mindset may be inevitable in a summer camp tournament, but it's detrimental if taken into wider society and politics. Yet if participatory democracy leads to the silencing of oppositional voices, a zero-sum mindset is exactly what we get. Conversely, creating networks that tolerate and support differing opinions offers non-zero benefits, like tolerance and an improvement of one's understanding of complicated issues.

Mutz wrote her book in 2006, but as she told us in our interview, the intervening years have only strengthened her resolve that deliberation improves democratic health:

"Right now, I'm definitely on the side of greater deliberation rather than just do whatever we can to maximize levels of participation. You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well. Democracy [must be] able to absorb differences in opinion and funnel them into a means of governing that people were okay with, even when their side didn't win."

Unfortunately, elected officials and media personalities play up incivility and the sense of national crisis for ratings and attention, respectively. That certainly doesn't help promote deliberation, but as Mutz reminded us, people perceive political polarization to be much higher than it actually is. In our daily lives, deliberative democracy is more commonplace than we realize and something we can promote in our communities and social groups.

Remember that 2014 Pew survey that found increased levels of partisan animosity? Its results showed the divide to be strongest among those most engaged and active in politics. The majority of those surveyed did not hold uniform left or right views, did not see the opposing party as an existential threat, and believed in the deliberative process in government. In other words, the extremes were pulling hard at the poles.

Then there's social media. The popular narrative is that social media is a morass of political hatred and clashing identities. But most social media posts have nothing to do with politics. An analysis of Facebook posts from September 2016, the middle of an election year, found the most popular topics centered on football, Halloween, Labor Day, country music, and slow cookers.

And what of political partisanship and prejudice? In an analysis of polarization and ideological identity, Mason found that labels like "liberal" and "conservative" had less to do with values and policy attitudes – as the majority of Americans agree on a substantial number of issues – and more to do with social group identification.

Yes, we all know those maps that media personalities dust off every election year, the ones that show the U.S. carved up into competing camps of red and blue. The reality is far more intricate and complex, and Americans' intolerance for the other side varies substantially from place to place and across demographics.

So while participation has its place, a healthy democracy requires deliberation, a recognition of the other side's point of view, and the willingness to compromise. Tolerance may not make for good TV or catchy political slogans, but it's something we all can foster in our own social groups.

Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America

  • The comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) was spotted by an amateur astronomer.
  • The object is moving so fast, it likely originated outside our solar system.
  • The comet should be observable for another year.


A comet that may coming from outside our solar system has been discovered. If confirmed, this would be second interstellar object ever identified, with the first one being 'Oumuamua, found in 2017.

The new comet, dubbed C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), was discovered by the Ukrainian amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Nauchnij, Crimea on August 30th, 2019. Since the find, the origins of the unusual space rock, which doesn't seem to have a circular or elliptical orbit, have been debated by the astronomers.

The object's so-called eccentricity, one of its key orbital parameters, has been measured by the Minor Planet Center to be more than three, which means it has an arc-shaped trajectory.

Composite image by Travis Rector. Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA

Gemini Observatory two-color composite image of C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). Blue and red dashes show background stars which seem to streak due to the motion of the comet.

One other eye-popping indicator that serves as the clue to the comet's interstellar origins is its high velocity of about 93,000 miles per hour (or 150,000 kph). That's too fast to be pulled in by the sun's gravity and also means that the object is probably just passing through.

Davide Farnocchia of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL says the velocity is significantly above other objects that orbit the Sun this far away. "The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space," pointed out Farnocchia.

Borisov's comet is not likely to come close to Earth, currently about 260 million miles away from our Sun. At its closest point to Earth (or perihelion), it's still projected to stay as far as 190 million miles, farther than the orbit of Mars.

How do we know this is even a comet? From the coma – its fuzzy looks, which are indicative of the object having a central icy body with a cloud of dust and particles surrounding it on approach to the Sun, which is heating it up, reports NASA's press release. The nucleus of the comet is estimated to be between 1.2 and 10 miles (2 and 16 kilometers) in diameter.

For about another year, you too can take a peek at the unusual space body if you have a professional telescope. "The object will peak in brightness in mid-December and continue to be observable with moderate-size telescopes until April 2020," explained Farnocchia. "After that, it will only be observable with larger professional telescopes through October 2020."




"A conversation is like a tunnel dug under the prison floor that you—patiently and painstakingly—scoop out with a spoon. It has one purpose: to get you away from where you are right now."

That is from the very, very weird tale Car Concentrate from Israeli writer Etgar Keret's wonderful new collection of short stories called FLY ALREADY. It's not a bad description of the situation most of Keret's characters find themselves in—wriggling like butterflies stuck on the pins of their own minds or circumstances, trying by any means necessary to get free. It's maybe not too much even to say that this is the human condition as Keret sees it and the reason he writes stories—to open up magical escape hatches in the midst of suffocating realities like divorce or religious hatred. His stories are strange, beautiful, funny, and poignant—somehow emotionally connected even though they're full of people who struggle to make sense to (and of) one another. Like all great art, they defy description, so ignore everything I've just said and go read them…but first, stick around for a bit to see what kind of escape tunnel this conversation might turn into.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

Michio Kaku on uploading your consciousness and traveling to other planets

  • Robotic automation may one day make slavery economically inefficient, but automation does not spring forth fully formed.
  • An interim period of piecemeal coverage may leave many at-risk, low-skilled workers in danger of exploitation.
  • Nor can automation sate the political and social motives for slavery found in some societies.


An estimated 40.3 million people suffer today in slavery. Living a shadowed existence between lawful states, victims yield their captors $150 billion in illegal profits every year. This most wretched of facts is made even more haunting when you consider that 1 in 4 victims are children.

"We know that if there are 40 million people in modern slavery, only tens of thousands of victims are being helped, assisted and supported, whether through the criminal justices system or through victim support systems," Fiona David, Walk Free Foundation's executive director of global research, told CNN. "It's a massive gap that we have to close."

Thanks to the efforts of governments and NGOs, that gap is closing.

There are fewer slaves in the world today, per capita, than at any other point in history. Chattel slavery, the kind that lead to the Atlantic slave trade, was once a human universal. Today, it is abolished and morally condemned. Other forms of slavery, such as child labor and forced marriage, are in decline. And the United Nations has set a target to end modern slavery by 2025.

We are closer to ending this morally bankrupt practice than at any point in our history. Will the final push come in the form of robotic automation?

Robots to end slavery?

(Photo: Global Slavery Index)

A map showing the estimated prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 people) according to the Global Slavery Index's 2018 findings. The 10 countries with the highest prevalence are noted.

The idea is simple enough. Slavery is an economic crime. Its perpetrators lure desperate and disenfranchised peoples with the promise of a livelihood. They then force their victims to do repetitive, physically demanding, and often dangerous work while cutting them off from any physical, social, and lawful means of escape.

By design, machines perform repetitive tasks without concerns for the dangers or physical demands. In richer countries, they are already employed in industries associated with chattel slavery abroad, such as mining, farming, and textiles. As the thinking goes: if automation were to become widespread and cost effective enough, it would eradicate the need for cheap human labor and render slavery economically inefficient.

At End Slavery Now, Cazzie Reyes details how such a future might play out. Currently, China's factories are losing their traditional source of cheap labor as worker wages and education levels rise. To address this labor gap, the country purchased 56,000 robots in 2014 and plans to rapidly increase factory automation.

As this shift continues, low-skilled workers may "be moved from completing routine to more value-added tasks" or even new jobs in robot manufacturing.

Robots may also challenge another form of slavery: sexual exploitation. In the Netherlands alone about 4,000 people are coerced into the sex trade every year. Worldwide 4.8 million people are sexually exploited with no means of escape, the vast majority young women and children.

But brothels have emerged in Europe and Japan that provide companionship with realistic sex dolls. In the U.S., Houston almost became the first city to open a robot brothel, but its city council banned renting sex dolls in October of last year (though businesses can still sell them for home use).

In Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy argues that such institutions can reduce prostitution rates. As the dolls become more lifelike, he sees the world's oldest profession going the way of match girls and lamp lighters.

Futurists Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars divine a similar future in their paper "Robots, men, and sex tourism." By 2050, they write, Amsterdam's famed red-light district will be dominated by hyper-realistic sex androids. The androids would not only allow the sex industry to grow but also curb the spread of STIs and improve the government's ability to regulate human trafficking.

Sold down the river

Photo credit: Francesco Paroni Sterbini / Flickr

Many manufacturing jobs, like this silk factory near Dalat, Vietnam, are at risk as automation enters the ASEAN-5 countries.

As automation spreads into new territories and industries, it may make slavery less economically efficient in the long run. In the short term, however, slavery will remain expedient, and economic expedience, not efficiency, has been a main driver of slavery throughout history.

That's the future predicted by Verisk Maplecroft's "Human Rights Outlook 2018" report.

The report estimates that over the next two decades, 56 percent of workers in ASEAN-5 manufacturing industries will lose their jobs to automation. With few skills and fewer options, displaced workers can become targets of the exploitative practices that lead people into slavery and human trafficking.

The ASEAN-5 countries already rank high on the Modern Slavery Index, and the report forecasts further deterioration. It is estimated that Vietnam alone could see 36 million people seeking new jobs in the coming decades, creating ample opportunities for human traffickers.

"Displaced workers without the skills to adapt or the cushion of social security will have to compete for a diminishing supply of low-paid, low-skilled work in what will likely be an increasingly exploitative environment," Alexandra Channer, Verisk Maplecroft's human rights strategy lead, said in a release. "Without concrete measures from governments to adapt and educate future generations to function alongside machines, it could be a race to the bottom for many workers."

Similarly, the belief that robotic sex workers will significantly reduce demand for sexual exploitation, let alone drive it to zero, is hardly universal. Opponents argue that sexual exploitation is as much about degradation as sex, that humans will always prefer other humans, and that there are lines that robotic sex peddlers won't cross but human traffickers will (i.e., the exploitation of children).

"So we're not just having a conversation here about objects that people rub on their genitals. This is not what this is about," Kathleen Richardson, director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, told Feminist Current. "[Sex robots are] piggybacking off on those real lived experiences of real human women being dehumanized by the commercial sex trade."

Social and political death

Nor is slavery only an economic crime. It has many social and political causes that automation cannot address.

For example, North Korea has instituted a system of state-sanctioned force labor. Its government has arrested tens of thousands of people, typically for crimes against the state, and sentenced to work in labor camps. These prisoners work dangerous, long hours in mines, factories, and logging camps and may even be exported to places like China and Russia, where they yield North Korean leaders between $1.2 and $2.3 billion dollars annually.

While automation may, one day, reduce demand for North Korea's macabre exports, it is unlikely the totalitarian regime would do away with this system in the name of economic efficiency.

That's because this form of slavery is as much political as it is profitable. It removes dissidents from political life and places them in a type of social purgatory. Citizens who are tired, hungry, weak, and enslaved in a strange land make for poor revolutionaries.

Additionally, our modern definition of slavery has expanded to practices beyond chattel slavery. It now includes any practice that reduces a person to the statues of property and deprives them of their right to choose, such as forced marriage. However, forced marriage is as much a social and cultural transaction as it is an economic one. In countries that value such institutions, no machine could replace that form of social control.

Will automation be part of the solution?

Truth is, we don't know. As Pauline Oosterhoff, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, writes: "The fact is that we do not have a sure-fire way to eradicate slavery in the existing economy. We are not really sure what role previous rounds of automation have played in either eliminating or encouraging modern-day slavery, and we do not know what effects new developments in automation and artificial intelligence will have."

Automation may make reducing chattel slavery easier in some states, but it can't inoculate societies from the social and political ills that create opportunities for exploitation. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, contemporary abolitionists focus their efforts on these strategies:

Better law enforcement. Governments can better provide law enforcement with the tools to combat human trafficking and streamline the court processes and laws to make legal efforts more consistent and effective.

Transparent supply chains. Modern businesses have complex international supply chains that may intersect with slavery — some even argue it's impossible to make a smartphone that doesn't rely on child labor. In addition to transparency laws, abolitionist call for mandating supply chain investigations and making ethical sourcing a central business practice.

More comprehensive and widespread reporting. Reports that name governments, businesses, and individuals complicit in slavery help lessen demand as such public shaming leads to social opprobrium and economic consequences.

Public education. Exposing abuses to the public educates them on modern slavery practices. This can help at-risk communities from falling prey to exploitation, and move constituents to support funding rehabilitation and prevention programs.

Will these efforts close the slavery gap? It will be difficult, especially by 2025, but at no other point in history has the will and the means to do so existed in such abundance. And we have 40.3 million reasons to make sure we do.

  • Conventional schooling was largely designed with an industrial-revolution mindset.
  • However, this factory model of education doesn't hold up today. Our access to technology allows learning to happen beyond the conventional classroom.
  • Unschooling serves as a reinvention of education that invites students to indulge in their natural curiosity on their individual path to knowledge.