How Academics Can Rebuild Trust in Science

istock-491200976The tools for overcoming declining trust in science lie in science itself.

Ian Anderson, INSEAD PhD Student and Crisis Communications Specialist | November 13, 2017

Originally posted at

Science is currently experiencing a reputation crisis. In previous years it has emerged that many landmark studies are not replicable and some have even been exposed for questionable methodologies or simple data errors. The media has caught on and is adding fuel to the fire in the form of ridicule, feeding the public’s scepticism of institutions and intellectualism in general.

This is a trust-based crisis, which is among the most difficult of crises to solve, especially as the phenomenon is proliferating across government, business and media. But it is incumbent on the scientific community to regain this trust. The public is not only a beneficiary of scientific advancements. It elects members of parliament, senators and congresspeople who make decisions about funding studies and institutes. Businesses that fund research are also under unprecedented public scrutiny.

Public scepticism will be hard to overcome. While many have merely lost trust in the scientific community, others have become completely deaf to its self-correcting efforts, clinging to ideas that have been disproved by science itself at the expense of new research. Despite the fact that in 2010, The Lancet retracted the paper that first suggested a link between vaccines and autism and a mountain of evidence to the contrary, the anti-vax movement persists and even seems to be gaining momentum.

Fortunately, academia has an ace in the hole: science itself.

Turning the tide

By turning to well-established ideas that it has itself produced, the academic community has a solid base from which to respond. It begins with looking at why people react the way they do to information and what we can do about it.

In their paper, “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information”, Craig Anderson, Mark Lepper and Lee Ross found that even after the initial evidential basis for certain beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions to those beliefs. People’s theories survive virtually intact even when personal beliefs based on inconclusive data from everyday experiences are corrected.

Another study by Gregory Berns and colleagues examined what happens when an individual’s judgement conflicts with that of a group. It has previously been established that individuals will often conform to the group’s thinking because it is unpleasant to stand out. Berns et al. find that this conformity is associated with decreased activity in the part of the brain that controls reason, and increased activity in the regions of the brain where perceptions are formed. This makes it hard for anyone to stand up for science or even consciously believe in it when they conform to entire online communities of sceptics. An INSEAD study on Reddit showed that wild theories peddled by users with little credibility spread much better than credible information. The researchers also found that the polarising nature of debate on the platform made it very hard for people to remain neutral as they entered the fray. When people have a choice of being for or against an idea, many swing in the wrong direction.

Why fake news proliferates

The proliferation of fake news is being driven by customised social media news feeds that provide ideological echo chambers for their users. People often share fake news knowingly, maybe because they believe in it but also because they gain social approval in the form of likes and shares from the likeminded.

Fake news is also easier to understand. It is couched in simple ways and designed to provoke outrage. Science on the other hand, while thorough, presents people with uncertainty. People are not particularly likely to share information they do not think they understand, nor to spend time trying to understand it. Discomfort with the content and fear of standing out make people less likely to share scientific ideas or developments.

In their book Denying to the Grave, Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman, however, argue that people are more likely to share ideas if they feel they can grasp the key concepts. There is also some evidence that making people aware of their biases and the way in which they are processing persuasive messages can help them rethink their attitudes. In one experiment, researchers exposed subjects to a message from either a likeable or dislikeable source. Some subjects were specifically told not to let “non-message” factors affect their judgement of the message. When subjects were already being persuaded by such a factor (e.g. the authority of the speaker), being alerted to a possible bias resulted in more careful scrutiny of the message and less bias in interpreting it.

The opportunity for science

This presents science with a few key opportunities to start turning the tide. First, the scientific community needs to acknowledge that it has some problems. Honesty about the scientific method, why many studies produce flawed results and how science’s self-correcting mechanism works, would be a start.

Personal beliefs are persistent. If we want to influence them, we have to alter the way information itself is presented. Ways to do this could include distilling the information into shorter form and including more background. Explaining the reason a certain study was carried out can give the public more context, teach them the history of the issue and even show how the study of the subject has advanced over time. Crucially, it will also be important to be transparent about the limits of the study and where it should advance. This may sound like a mammoth task, which requires nothing short of an academic paper to explain it all, but there are new technologies that can enable this such as short animated videos or even gamification.

Methods like these can help people to reconsider ideas in a non-exhausted or non-loaded state, especially one in which self-esteem isn’t threatened: Those who lack confidence can’t be expected to contradict ideas of a group which comforts them. According to Gorman and Gorman, a person with low self-esteem will be resistant to overly technical scientific arguments that have the not-so-hidden message “Even though you are not smart enough to understand what we scientists are telling you, believe us anyway.”

Scientists also need to market themselves better. They should aim to become more relatable. Putting a face to studies can increase people’s receptivity to them. An exemplar in this regard is Neil deGrasse Tyson who attracts 10 million followers on Twitter. He makes science easy to understand, while putting the advances of science in context. His awe for study rubs off on others. So do his disarming jokes.

Stephen Hawking isn’t on Twitter, but his book, A Brief History of Time, does an admirable job of explaining the origin of the universe, space and time, as well as the search for a unifying theory that can describe the universe in a coherent way. He also boasts in the opening pages that he has “sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex”.To many academics, this might seem an effort they have little time for. But whether we like it or not, we are engaged in an information war. It will be crucial to better position our work and ourselves in order to disarm doubters and give us a better share of voice.

Ian Anderson is a PhD student in Marketing at INSEAD and a Crisis Communications Strategist.

Follow INSEAD Knowledge on Twitter and Facebook.



this was expected, floor knots of stomach in the bed, witching hour watching the flames eat the living, scorching and keeping the dread cresting into night hours, ravishing & craving pages of white screen & the arms of mothers lopped from hope, from one more told hysterics & hysteria & that she was false. Story of witches for our times, story without magic, story in which toxicity took over town & woman was burned in livestream while town became ash & became itself & restored what it called order but was really web cast over the streets, molasses into the eyes of children & brains of cats forming walkers in the streets at night, the curse upon the village, the scarecrow alive & high-stepping on the cobbles, shrieking about the evil of the witches while crunching on her bones, disorder in the cold heat, disorder in the witch-minds, hysteria on the walls, blood on the walls, blood in the air & floors whispering with the creaking of feet, leaking into the streets, leaking out into the vastness of her sobs, lost in the trees, molding into the scratches in the walls, screams into pillows and silence, stealing into the forest alone


it was a sound & something unseen, whispers waking in the lip underneath the dark corner now have speech, voice and arms & walk into living room in daylight, hanging jowls and threat-mouth always been here, always been around and been the one i saw in school & talk down and keep me in line with expectation, keep in line with all the children in system, in test room for money and apple like temptation sits on table, apple falling in the garden, apple of knowledge & bible in the class room bible on floor & hand over heart and stand up for football anthem, requirements of children, they lurking in the scrawl on the bathroom, in boy branded feminine crying in bathroom, in feminine fleeing boy crying in bathroom to flee, opening door to girls’ restroom & tears & support & scared & i watched this story but it is not mine to tell & the unseen sound was in the summer air, thick with flies & the plagues on a country already sick, already plagued with apathy & pressure & how thin the line can be between freedom and disaster, how simply and suddenly the once-invisible boot-politik is felt on neck, how quickly we started to eat ourselves, how fast the fingers move towards false protection and repair-narrative, how fast noise materialized out of the ether, becoming the strongarm, becoming red hats in dustbowl stadiums of rotten minds, coming into its own malice, loud & as far as eyesight can carry.

New Article



Responding to “Fake News” in a Post-Truth Era

Accusations that have no basis in reality can be surprisingly damaging. But there are some ways to weaken them.

There is little debate that we are entering a new era in crisis communications. The proliferation of algorithmically-driven social media platforms allows erroneous claims and “fake news” reports to propagate with unprecedented speed. This is being made all the more worrying by Donald Trump’s White House, which not only lends credence to questionable information to further its narrative but is, in many cases, an instigator of fake news.

Not long after Trump became president, his counsellor Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase “alternative facts” when defending inflated claims about attendance numbers at his inauguration by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Trump’s recent assertion that Sweden was having “problems like they never thought possible” because “they took in large numbers” of refugees went viral and was largely disputed. But what makes the spread of this information particularly dangerous is that, according to research, misinformation takes hold more rapidly and more easily in populations that perceive themselves to be in an insecure position. Trump’s base, therefore, ran to his support.

Given that fake news instigators thrive on stoking their followers’ confirmatory bias, the tendency to favour information that confirms existing beliefs, they present serious challenges to the reputations of those they attack. In his book, On Rumours: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, and What Can Be Done, Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard and formerly President Barack Obama’s administrator of information and regulatory affairs, suggests corrections or counter-information to false rumours, lies, or “alternative facts” are very difficult, and should be a matter of public concern. In many cases, therefore attenuating them may be the only hope.

Correcting fake news

These alternative facts can also be durable. In a paper, “The Continued Influence of Misinformation in Memory”, Colleen Seifert at the University of Michigan noted that there is a “continued influence effect”, where misinformation continues to influence judgments even if that information has already been corrected by the accused.

This is one reason why conventional communications tactics of responding to fake news or false claims with condemnation and retort have so far proven inadequate in the post-truth era. Responding with outrage has also fallen short, making the accused appear to be “crying wolf” and easily painted as hypocritical or over-reactive, as Hillary Clinton learned in the presidential debates. Successful correction, Seifert goes on to state, “appears to require assisting the reader in resolving this contradiction.”

Ways to respond

These powerful “barrage” tactics, therefore, require a new kind of response, suggestions for which I have listed below. These are not exhaustive, nor are they a process to follow, but considerations for responding when under attack. In many cases, however, responding can only go so far so there are limits to the effectiveness of these counter strategies. Your counter information may never make it past the biases of the hardened followers of the accuser, no matter how clear the message or pure the intentions. Your aims should be to target those in the middle who are either undecided or interested in furthering rational debate.

1. Condemn and turn the argument on the accuser. While condemnation may be necessary, be careful not to repeat the instigator’s claims lest your outrage become fodder for their followers’ entertainment. Turn the argument around by making strong points or asking pointed questions to demonstrate that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Trump’s recent claims that something happened “last night in Sweden” elicited a very calm yet pointed response. The Swedish embassy in the U.S. tweeted in response, “we look forward to informing the U.S. administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies.” Even to those not following developments, it served as a stand-alone statement that might simply be construed as an act of friendly information sharing, staying well clear of the original claims. Even Trump, the accuser, was forced to admit the source of his claim, which turned out to be a widely debunked Fox News report.

2. Communicate your values. Research by INSEAD Professor of Organisational Behaviour Charles Galunic found that when companies differentiated their espoused values from their peers and updated them over time, they outperformed their peers.

The response of U.S. CEOs to Trump’s first proposed immigration ban on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries both produced a memorable response that loomed larger than claims that immigrants were bad for America, but also drew a line in the sand when it came to values. This also builds on the traditional crisis communications strategy of taking the moral high ground, especially if you have it. If you engage in the same sort of pettiness, you’ll end up with the dirt on you too.

3. Be funny. It may be tempting when responding to fight fire with fire, but in the increasingly divisive nature of fake news, this often reinforces the accuser’s narrative, confirming stereotypes or negative beliefs that their followers already have about you. Refusing to play the “enemy” role makes it more difficult for the instigator to pin you down and demonise you to stoke more support for their ideas.

One very effective way to respond is with humour. Research on humour shows that when people in a conflict situation are exposed to humour and given pause to laugh, convergent thinking (the tendency to believe in only one solution) gives way to divergent thinking, which unveils other possible outcomes for the conflict. This is also reflected in other research on schools and offices showing humour as an efficient aid for creativity.

4. Or consider not responding at all. There is also such a thing as engaging too much. Depending on the ludicrousness of the claim, it could be better to wait it out. McDonald’s learned this lesson when a series of fake stories spread online that it was using worms as filler in its burgers. Eventually it stopped responding and let the story run out of steam. It was subsequently found to be false. It will be important to pick your battles and set a cut-off point for making further counter claims. Consider whether it is something that is likely to die out in the news cycle or something you need to kill.

All aboard the fake train

Preparing for the day of a fake news attack will be challenging as it will be difficult to anticipate exactly what form it will take and where it will come from. But a good start for companies will be forming a holistic perspective on what their reputation looks like, especially to their biggest detractors. This will also reveal the kind of “alternative facts” already circulating among the audience so they can start readying counter arguments. A crucial part of such an exercise should be to unearth the saliency of your messages. In essence, question if people listen to or believe in your narrative.

Used wisely, humour is often a good response to fake news attacks, which can involve seeding funny content to fans that will come to your aid in the event of an affront. It may not always be necessary to respond. In the event of a barrage of negative attacks, it is wise to pick your battles, remaining pointed in the narrative framework of the accuser and building memorable responses. Hitting back could be necessary, but not with a direct attack. This redirects a potential vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle for your reputation.

Ian Anderson is a PhD Candidate in Marketing at INSEAD.

Follow INSEAD Knowledge on Twitter and Facebook.

& war comes here

& war comes here
“& war comes here”
’twas brilling / in the swamp-minds & milkskin-sunken planets of eyes / as it has always been / boogeymen six-times-salt from shoulder-backing, paranoia like alien abductor TV-screen madness in the black and whites / paranoia like a crawling on the skin / paranoia like the bowl-cut & backpack holding bullied kid isn’t the one you should be watching / paranoia like / paranoia / different looking / paranoia like bends on the knees and prays towards mecca paranoia, paranoia / spreading gas over the bees and they die as my hometown sinks into FOX induced hypnosis & / perfectly okay when surrounded by white & picketed faces / picket signs on white lawns like lone men standing / like the ones they are afraid of with the brown legs / like a prison of safety, prison of own invention, prison of own death-borne anxiety / because we seem to have deep-lake need for it like water, full up of it until drowning in hate-mud, / mind-killing like death of conscience, death of refugee / death of neighbor / death by numbness & apathy / slow death & choking death, familiar death & all so rotten, knell-death with the blood of enemies on our doors / & I know when they come knocking for me / it will be late / late in the night of their terrors / terrors like what they become when perceived-threat looks like uncaged-tiger springing from bully-pulpit vocal cords, springing into their midst / mauling without discrimination / & dragging bodies in chain-snake formation across white house lawn / across streets and the tongues of all who refused to move, refused to stand in fight-paralysis in front of the spitting creature & shout furiously back at it / to grow large enough, waving arms to make beast turn tail / make it shrink back into man / into child / into weak & recognizable worms of insecurity /
stomp it into dust & purge it
from America’s moulding veins

On The Violence of White Apathy

“Even with videotaped evidence of police destroying black people, many freedom-loving Americans remain unconvinced of a systemic problem. Maybe some day the perfect tape will be released, one in which the dead or maimed African American has just the right wardrobe, complexion, size and diction to warrant empathy.”

-Jesse Williams

Again, today, a black man has been shot by the police.

Again, I watched [white] friends obsess over everything but the video — the next party, or similarly defined frivolous, escapist distraction. From them, I saw a singular sympathetic, unexpected Facebook post. Then deafening silence.

Again, I watched black friends and public figures grieve in expressions of horror and felt a different kind of deafening silence.

Again, I seethe, watching three white men with brooding faces in their profile photos make excuses for the cops, on the post.

I seethe, and I write.

This pattern has unfolded for me many times in a multitude of ways. I hesitate to even take up this emotional space in this moment, to believe that this think piece will even reach anyone who doesn’t think the same way as I do.

That words can light a fire or move oceans, or be more than blood on pavement — that I have any power at all to change a [white] mind, even if I am one.

I struggle with doubt and wonder, and consider whether this think piece I’ve written four different times is seeking justification for my feelings of rage or seeking justice. Am I here writing to alleviate the feeling that I think I should slap everyone I see in the Equinox for not being glued to locker room TV screens, computers, or their home, crying in pillows? Or am I here writing because it is useful and necessary for others to read this?

Into the evening, FOX News keeps up Donald Trump coverage while people share videos of the shooting without warnings, on autoplay, probably on our timelines 6 times in the morning, seen, seen, seen. You know that everyone [probably] saw it.

If they didn’t, they probably used social media’s algorithms to become apolitical because they have the privilege not to care about politics.

I ask myself — does it always take something like this to get [white] people to care?

How many bodies is it going to take before we admit that we have problems? Alton Sterling’s death was essentially an execution, and we’re all still waiting for the man in charge in Baton Rouge to come out and tell us what excuse he’s come up with to make sure these officers are not charged with killing a man in cold blood.

Waiting to move on with our lives, get back to our comfortable, safe homes and walk down streets at night without fear for our very lives.

That’s some bullshit.

I understand that America is “based on personal freedom” [white proverb], but when it’s clear that the system is failing, when we have failed, and failed by being entitled to comfort, failed by being entitled to not fearing police, failed by having faith that a former slaveholding nation did not have issues of systemic racism — we should CARE. We should be giving a lot of fucks. But we don’t, because we literally have no skin in the game. This is enraging.

[and I promise, I’m not the only one feeling enraged today]

Emotionally, I am enraged by the apathy of the privileged. The entitlement of people whose action or inaction suggest that white feelings and comfort should be valued above black lives. I am enraged by the violent suggestion that these issues are not rooted in race [that is tacit consent to the killings of black men by police]. Because this is exactly what you are implying by not caring about them, by being apolitical, by engaging in escapism, and indulging selfish, privileged, petty desires. I am enraged for the families of the victims, and enraged for everyone in this country who cannot feel safe walking down the street because of the color of their skin.

Intellectually, I am enraged by the systemic disregard for justice and fairness of any sort in this country, despite the fact that these are staples in philosophical discussion and should be understood far more widely. Their implications for selflessness are not only intellectually justified, but also account for emotion, and I firmly stand for this and against continued collective ignorance on these important topics. I am horrified by the elimination of emotion from discourse, and further horrified by those who would distract themselves from issues of politics by saying that they are not important or stimulating, because this is a form of privilege too. I am disgusted by those who distract or troll with lazy ideas like ‘what about black on black violence in Chicago’, or those who make weak and lazy excuses about white self-care, those who indulge white feelings above all things (like Trump or Clinton).

The time has long passed for excuses.

It is abundantly clear that a great segment of white people in this countryactually think that they’re getting the short end of the stick, or unaware that they have the long end. This is mind-bogglingly frustrating, depressing, and incredibly dangerous. In case you haven’t been paying attention, we [white people] have gotten so riled up about it that this election is focused almost entirely on white issues. [Because if whiteness isn’t the center of attention, they’re missing out!]

In 2016.

In spite of #BlackLivesMatter.

In spite of police violence.

In spite of re-electing the first black president.

The irony is so deep that the ones complaining or ignoring the election are often the same people that prattle on about the modern generation’s entitlement or our sense of millennial privilege, when they are the ones who cannot handle, even for a moment, a serious discussion (much less a President) focused on concerns that are not their own. If recent events are not clear proof of white supremacy in this country, I don’t know what is.

In fact, on days like today, I’m not truly sure which is worse: the people who are violent in their bigotry, or violent in their apathy.

Both groups are responsible for the continuation of these deaths. Both groups are responsible for not holding the elected officials and officers accountable for their actions. Both groups are complicit in upholding white supremacy and complicit in the deaths of black and brown americans. I see this as a self-evident truth.

2016 seems to be the year in which a lot of shit has hit the fan. Hopefully, reckoning with this shit — our collective awfulness and privilege — will produce a positive reaction, one of collective education, strength, and understanding. But we might also choose to bury our heads in the sand and be comfortable with our selfishness and privilege [as we seem quite pleased doing thus far].

Understand that choosing the latter means you have no interest in equal rights for black and brown people in the United States. This is violent, racist, and unacceptable. If you choose this, I have no time for you. I have nothing more to say to you.

Rest in Power Alton. I hope that this time, we see some form of justice served.

Seeking Gods In the Modern Age:

Seeking Gods In the Modern Age:
 A Response to Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death” & A Short Essay On The Many Vehicles for Meaning, Transference, and the Transcendence of the Ephemeral in a Highly Ephemeral World
Source: WIRED

People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.

—Ernest Becker, Denial of Death, Pp. 158

Let me begin this piece with a definition, because the word “god” in the title is a very loaded one.

When I use it, I simply mean a higher power, sometimes manifested as a deity or being, but mostly a thing we measure as greater than ourselves or humanity at large. A god is an object or pursuit we perceive as our subjective version of perfection, something infinite, and immortal or absolute. We all define our “god” or “gods” in different ways.

I would hypothesize that this human pluralism — the modern ‘pantheon of gods’ — has never been more readily visible than it is today in the information age, even if it is only seen in a simplistic, reductive, and self-curated way.

Ideological Pluralism and the Ephemeral nature of [Post-Post?] Modernity

“Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man”

Ibid, Pp. 190.

Christoph Niemann

The ephemeral dominates our culture. Events occur so quickly and in such multitudes that it seems difficult to catch up. I feel this viscerally as someone both working in Social Media (and exposed to this rushing cascade of information) and living in New York City (sometimes it really feels like it doesn’t sleep — Brooklyn especially).

Being attached physically and mentally to this nexus of the fleeting, it often feels that even being a substantive dilettante isinsufficient. It is simply impossible for the human brain to keep up with all of the information we’re being bombarded with on a day to day basis.

Thinkers on all sides of the ideological spectrum have mourned the death offacts-based thinking, substance, and reasonableness both on- and offline. But are we really in a crisis of deep thinking? Or, is social media merely shining light on how we’ve always operated? Do we truly lack substance, depth, and reason, or are the alarmists just not looking in the right place? Perception may be trumping reality in this case (or even feeding it), but I would suggest that the real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Online, ideological pluralism is becoming very apparent, if you manage to thwart the algorithmic lenses given to us by social networking and search sites.

There are so many things happening simultaneously that even the best multi-taskers would struggle to grapple with them all at once in a way that is truly substantive. My job forces me to attempt to do this on a regular basis, and I find myself feeling like I always fail. This has me consistently anxious about the next thing, the next big idea, the next cultural moment or phenomenon, and it has been impossible to avoid the underlying question: what does this all mean, if it means anything at all?

The Role of Fear (of Death):

GIF via bleakface

Ernest Becker hypothesized that human beings are united by a singular underlying fear: we do not wish to die. He is not the first to believe this, nor will he believe the last.

He suggests that many of us are consumed by this death-anxiety, even if it is only present as root of other anxieties. We are all, directly or indirectly, trying to reckon with our own mortality.

Some of us, myself included, reconcile ourselves with this simple truth about our mortality by creating statements like:

“I will be satisfied in life if….”

“I could die happy if…”

Followed by a list of things we’d like to accomplish.

Even if we do not do this exactly, many of us still create goals and set expectations for ourselves that stem from the things we believe are valuable or worthy of our time.

Alternatively, we distract ourselves and deny our own mortality (subtly or overtly) through words or our actions.

We fill in the blank space with something that would make us feel happy in the moment, or comfortable in the long run — like we’ve lived a full and complete life — one we would be okay with having end today because we pursued what we see as a greater purpose or reason for being. These can be as simple as our own day to day survival.

In Becker’s view — one I agree with — we’re all coping with our mortality in some way. The stories we tell ourselves all resemble one another because of this single unifying fact. Whether we worship at the metaphorical altar of Einstein, Jill Stein, Elizabeth Warren, Yahweh, Allah, God, Michael Jordan, Pele, Muhammad Ali, Isaac Newton, Jesus, Mohammed, Shakespeare, Picasso, Robert Frost, Ronald Reagan, Malcolm X, MLK, Tupac, Biggie, Superman, Wonder Woman, Shinji Ikari (get in your f****** robot), or any of other flawed human or human-invented hero/heroine, we are all fleeing from death, chasing meaning, and building our own “immortality projects.”

We are able to transcend the problem of mortality by focusing our attention mainly on self-oriented heroism. Becker says this symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual’s “immortality project” (orcausa sui). By successfully living out the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and part of something eternal; something that will never die (unlike their physical body). This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.

I will now discuss a range of these so-called ‘projects’.

Examining The Many Gods:

Science, Religion, Love, Art/Beauty, Money, Power, Prestige

Image from Mirai Nikki


The pursuit of science can be an explicit pursuit of immortality — a literal immortality project. But it can also be work that brings fame and prestige, and the sense that one is uncovering the ‘truth’ and becoming part of something much greater than themselves.

The most obvious examples of scientific “immortality projects” work toward advancements in technology that could extend an individual life indefinitely, or those that seek to help us understand the mysteries of the universe and life itself. This endless search for wisdom reflects our fear of death very completely, and Becker says this about the possibility of immortality (something scientists might achieve sooner that we think) and the search for extension of human life:

“…Choron offers a caution on this vision that gets right to heart of it and demolishes it: that the ‘postponement of death is not a solution to the problem of the fear of death….there still will remain the fear of dying prematurely.’ The smallest virus or the stupidest accident would deprive a man not of 90 years but of 900 — and would be then 10 times more absurd.”

Ibid, Pp. 267

Science is a project that creates a sense of true achievement for many. It may one day inform us of where we came from exactly, and where we are headed in the future. Describing it as an immortality project is not to say that it does not hold philosophical value or deep interest and even necessity. Death anxiety makes us seek out truth and understanding, and despite Becker’s concerns about immortality, it is clear that he valued scientific inquiry for its own sake.

I would additionally posit that because truth-seeking seems to be a human coping mechanism for the traumatic state of our reality, science is doubly valuable.

It may, one day soon, save us from ourselves — or not.


Religion is also a way that people seek truth and understanding. It is easy to see how a religion and devotion to religious principles makes us feel that we are part of something larger, something necessary, and something that gives us implicit or explicit comfort about our own physical mortality.

Becker was fascinated by Otto Rank, and discussed him with respect to religion and the idea that we use religion as a coping mechanism. Becker juxtaposed this with Nietzsche’s famous critique of Judaeo-Christian morality and his desire to dismantle it:

“Nietzsche railed at the Judaeo-Christian renunciatory morality; but as Rank said, he “Overlooked the deep need in the human being for just that kind of morality..” Rank goes so far as to say that “the need for a truly religious inherent in human nature and its fulfillment.””

Ibid, Pp. 174

I actually disagree with Becker’s take on Nietzsche slightly. I think Nietzsche saw that innate human need for religion (or at least a belief system), but believed the existing morality to be inherently warped and at odds with his own or at least what he saw as the proper way to reckon with our own mortality. Thus, he critiques and deconstructs it, and offers something new in its place. Nietzsche’s work in Thus Spoke Zarathustra shows him creating a new, secular belief system, based around Zarathustra — arguably a kind of Christ-figure.

Nietzsche saw that he couldn’t just deconstruct Christianity and leave us with nothing to believe in. He left us with his own form of doctrine — which seems, in some ways, hypocritical given his critique of religion, but it also shows that he felt the same pull as the rest of us do — to reconcile with our own mortality and ascribe to a belief system that can help us do that.

Some would likely argue that religion (particularly organized religion) is harmful, or does not seek truth in the same way as science. However, even science itself is a form of religion. It is often equally guilty of dogma and can also lead us towards harm. Just because religion and religious extremism has some groups and practices that must be condemned does not mean that there are parts of it that are just as necessary as the greatest scientific discovery.

Those who do not ascribe to a religion should be treated with respect. Those who do are equally deserving of respect. I will discuss conflicting ideologies and immortality projects in a later section, in which I hope to go further in bridging these deep ideological divides.

Art and Artistry:

Artists pursue their own immortality in a very visceral way. Their projects are direct manifestations of their intent to leave a mark on this world, and it could be said that art is a deep form of self-worship, transferring the “god” into the self and manifesting it in the creation of pieces that reflect the artist’s deeper self in order to gain recognition, and affirm their life, ideology and their way of being.

As a poet, I can see and understand this in my own work. In some ways, art is therapeutic. In others, it is an endless exercise in narcissism and the excavation of the self in service of something higher. It is both selfish and selfless. But it also can connect us with others, and that deeply human connection and the affirmation we derive from those bonds as artists is enough to keep us creating, surviving, and reconciling ourselves with our deepest fears.

Human Relationships & Love:

What about your classmates that got married instead of pursuing a career? People in serious relationships? Inseparable best friends? Young mothers? Couples with children? This is another form of reconciliation with the physical realities of life that is rooted in the fear of death and mortality. The creation of a child is also the continuation of your self and your family line into the future.

Some also push this kind of love and meaning onto their relationships and partners in life. I find Becker’s meditation on relationships very poignant:

“How can a human being be a god-like ‘everything’ to another? No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood, and the attempt has to take its toll in some way on both parties. The reasons are not far to seek. The thing that makes got the perfect spiritual object is precisely that he is abstract — as Hegel saw. He is not a concrete individuality, and so He does not limit our development by His own personal will and needs. When we look for the ‘perfect’ human object we are looking for someone who allows us to express our will completely, without and frustration or false notes. We want an object that reflects a truly ideal image of ourselves. But no human object can do this; humans have wills and counter wills of their own, in a thousand ways they can move against us, their very appetites offend us. God’s greatness and power is something that we can nourish ourselves in, without its being compromised in anyway by the happenings of this world. No human partner can offer this assurance because the partner is real. However much we may idealize and idolize him, he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is your ‘all’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you. If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn’t have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did, or loses her intellectual sharpness, or falls short of our own peculiar needs in any of a thousand ways, then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it — death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. “She lessens” = “I die.” this is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings….

…In this sense, the deflation of the over invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it.

Ibid, Pp. 167.

Creating a “god” from another person is a survival strategy born from necessity. But sometimes it does not work, and it cannot truly complete us. It can be fulfilling, but is ultimately not the solution to our reconciliation with death. We will all (likely) die some day, and investing in someone to share that life with is a constant source of comfort and a way to cope with death’s inevitability.

If calling it a survival strategy seems a little reductive — it is. But this is not meant in a negative way. All of these ‘gods’ are flawed in some way, but this does not mean that we should stop pursuing them — but we should ask ourselves why we do so, and how they impact us and others around us.

Money, Power, & Prestige

Many are also caught up by these three pursuits. These are also “gods” of sorts. We seek them both out of distraction and a way to leave our mark upon the world — to gain immortality for ourselves through our deeds and through the recognition of them. However, the pursuit of our immortality projects, particularly these three, often leads us to prey upon others and trample upon their lives in the pursuit of greatness. This is, Becker warned, the root of conflict, and is an unacceptable form of violence against other human beings.

[Social] Justice:

or “Reconciling My Chosen Gods with Others, & Wrongness”

I understand that this part of the essay represents a manifesto for my own form of ‘immortality project’, my own form of dogma, if you will. That being said, I must be prepared to be completely wrong about all of this. We all must be prepared for wrongness, and be understanding that this is merely a part of learning — not an inherently good or bad thing. This being said, I would like do delve into my own beliefs a little here — particularly regarding human rights and where I believe there are some definite positions to be taken on right and wrong.

There are ideologies and “gods” mentioned above that trample upon others and their basic human rights. These are the kind that must be fiercely condemned, though properly and thoroughly understood and taught, and hopefully eradicated from practice (though not from discourse entirely) and from becoming anyone’s causa-sui. This might include Nazism or other forms of fascism, racism, oppression, or other ideas that attack fundamental human rights.

These are also among those laced with a distinct lack of empathy for those less fortunate or those we can easily ‘other’. It is imperative that we all work to dismantle our biases that reinforce this ideology because it lacks proper concern for others’ beliefs, principles, and lives. Some are more complex than the few I listed above, but all of these are something to be understood and changed, not hated and eradicated entirely from discourse thoughtlessly. We cannot forget that there is always something worse for the oppressed that could take their place.

Justice — my personal ‘god’ — is tied to the fact that at the most fundamental level, we must recognize that each person has a right to life — and by extension to their own personal ‘gods’.

This thesis stems from Amatrya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, which sets forth that: we are born, by simple virtue of growth in our mother’s womb, into a system of rights and duties — a human society that knows no borders — and we have an obligation to care for one another. We can shirk this obligation or violate it in deep ways (murder, slavery, exploitation of others), but these violations must be condemned and argued against. Insofar as we have the ability and means to provide it, a just and fair society will support everyone’s basic rights.

This is my personal ideology — one I believe is built on empathy and understanding each other person as a discrete individual and as part of a collective. It is inherently inconsistent with some other ideologies, but it is also one that attempts to accept them as part of a diverse world and necessary to properly understand what real empathy and respect are.

Despite condemning ideologies that lack this, I cannot do this not without empathy and care for those who firmly hold these beliefs, but I will argue against them fiercely. This, to myself and others who hold this ideology dear, is fundamentally a fight for the very core of humanity and the human spirit. A fight to help us reconcile ourselves with the fear of death that plagues all of us and unites us on the deepest level.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

-Desmond Tutu

The Empathy Condition, Education and How to Deal with Our Ideological Pluralism

Animation by The Gif Connoisseur

Ideological pluralism is a given in a world full of people from diverse backgrounds. The altars at which we worship in order to fill our lives with meaning are very dear to us, and one must be able to understand how deeply tied to each individual’s reason for being their personal beliefs and ideologies are.

Empathy can help us understand one another to a greater degree. We must teach it, because it can absolutely be learned. Many people have an inherent sensitivity to others, but somehave more difficulty fostering this sensitivity.

Empathy is often misunderstood. Real empathy has substance, depth, and true consideration for other ideologies. It is useful, efficient, and can help bring meaning into our lives through care for others.

The practice of empathy is not about protecting feelings alone, but protecting the things that give our lives meaning. Feelings will get hurt, and disagreements will be had. Even very strong ones. But we cannot sit idly by and watch the world continue on a destructive path. This is necessary and vital as we seek to understand one another and have difficult conversations about our values and why we hold them.

Social media and advances in communication seem to have made the world more contentious — but I think that it has always been this way, we just have shone a light into the darkest places. We have revealed monsters in our midst, but that does not mean we cannot beat them, tame them, and understand them so that we do not create more.

So, my proposal is: let us not be our own worst enemies.

Let us learn real, substantive empathy for the sake of our friends, family, and every single other human being on this planet. We must use it to own up to our failures, the worst things that we have done to ourselves and to others. Learn it for both selfish and selfless reasons. We need to seek to understand each other deeply in order to push ourselves into the future, because we are all de-facto stakeholders in that future, with the ability to shape it into something better for us all. If we cannot do this, we may destroy ourselves and our planet through a failure to tackle the problems that we have created for ourselves — we may simply survive, or fizzle out, and our entire species will be just a small speck in the grand scheme of the universe. Even if my time here is finite, I would like to think that I tried hard to make us all matter more to one another, and through this, to make the most of our fantastic human potential, regardless of what we believe to be true.