StarTalk Live! Sociology and the Human Condition

You Can Also Listen On

About This Episode

Join us at The Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Eugene Mirman investigate society and the human condition with the help of bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, sociologist Dr. Alondra Nelson and comedian Wyatt Cenac. Using Gladwell’s books Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath and The Tipping Point as background, Neil and our guests explore issues like sexism, class privilege and whether racism is an innate reflex or the result of socialization through religion, family and the media. You’ll hear how moving to blind auditions changed the gender mix in major orchestras overnight, and how your facial expressions indicate whether you’ll get divorced. Find out how the culture of NASA led to the Challenger disaster and whether institutional change is even possible. Learn why it takes 10,000 hours of work to turn talent into genius – with comparisons to Mozart and Beyoncé. Plus, Gladwell explains why the legend of David and Goliath, which plays into society’s love of underdogs, is really the story of an experienced warrior using superior firepower and technology to beat a blind man in a knife fight.

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: StarTalk Live! Sociology and the Human Condition.

In This Episode

Music in This Episode

Episode Topics

  • What a fantastic episode. Remarkably grounded explanation of the human condition and social systems. The diverse cast made this an absolute pleasure to listen to. This is my first episode, and what a great start. You have yourselves a new fan!

  • Lerkero

    Oddly enough, the human condition is one of the things people are least able to understand. The mixture of self-awareness combined with animalistic tendencies makes for an interesting study.

  • andreawey

    hilarious and enlightening!

  • Taxil Necrobane

    Mozart is the ‘Genius’? Maybe. I bet few knew of a better man than him. That is Turlough O’Carolan. He was originally was trained to be a blacksmith as was his family trade, then got sick and lost his whole family and his sight from disease at 18 years old (he stayed blind the rest of his life). Turlough got taken in and cared for by a caring and kind landed Lady who taught him how to play music while blind and basically relearn how to live life while blind. In three years later, he became highly skilled and talented in many musical instruments. He created tunes and songs right off the bat and went on for 47 years traveling every inch of Ireland. He literally made tunes right up till the day he died in his sleep. He was credited with making tens of thousands of songs in his life, but only a small fraction of them survived to this day. You have to understand he never even touched any musical instrument until after he lost his sight. I say HE was the true musical genius of his time (the 1670-1735).

    Neil, it’s not the land masses that makes humans violent, it’s our nature. That and ‘global warming’ isn’t going to reset the world, it will be the nuclear warfare across the planet will reset things. Well that or A.I. over lords….

    • msfrost

      Mozart, was 5.

      • Taxil Necrobane

        Mozart was raised in and around music. Turlough was not, he was trained to be a blacksmith. Mozart came from a wealthier family, Turlough came from a poor one. Mozart had his sight and other senses though out of his life. Turlough lost his sight when he was 18. Being blind at that age in those day when you where poor and have no family left was basically a death sentence. I say Turlough was a much better genius, bigger body of work, and far more amazing life story.

  • John

    Good episode – but why is the Q/A cut out? The interactions between the academics and the audience are very interesting to hear.

  • The full show at The Hammerstein Ballroom was longer than the podcast, John, and not everything made it into the episode.

    • John

      Well a suggestion would be to try to offer Q/A uploads perhaps separately for those who are interested – there is a lot of material available where we listen to the academics muse over these interesting topics, but their interactions with the laypeople are sparse. Disappointing, but thanks for the response.

      • Thanks for the suggestion, John. I’ll bring it up with our producers.

  • It would be the best show ever if you Got Abrahm Hicks to have a discussion on infinite intelligence!

  • Wonderful introduction to Mr. Gladwell and I’ll be checking out his wares toot sweet.
    Fab panel, fab episode!

  • anonymous

    While I do agree that a single cop on a beat is more likely to play it safe. I think the greater oversight and ability to maintain ones safety as a “buddy team” has far too many advantages in terms of both accountability and ability to maintain order to not be the norm. After all Ferguson may not have led to Brown’s death if there had been two cops in that squad car because they could have restrained him without the officer feeling he needed to use deadly force against a teenager the size of a linebacker. On the other hand whether you have two cops in a cop car driving up to a 12 year old who appears to be armed and shooting him without even getting out of the car may very well have happened whether there were two or one cops in that squad car. The sociological argument for the case you speak of like many breaks down when we get into smaller group individual psychological situations. Your using a large scale sociological finding to discuss situations that often relate to much more small case socialization situations. Cops usually know the people they police and have biases before they move into a situation.

  • anonymous

    Geography and climate is related to how cultures form. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. The Middle East is the crossroads of civilizations so of course it is going to be at the center of culture wars. Because whatever cultures form on those land masses will come into conflict as they migrate from and to Central Asia. So Neil is actually right. What will change that is not climate change but changes to technology that allow for increased immigration and access to information between cultures that will make the Middle East more cosmopolitan and dependent upon relations with other cultures then their own. It was the Industrial Revolution that led to the end of slavery in both the West and the East even though it was strongly supported by religion in those societies that possessed slavery. The problem with sociology is you don’t do enough interdisciplinary study so many sociologists don’t come out of college with applied science degrees that they can actually use in the professional world versus the academic world. Not to insult anyone on the panel, but then you were the one to feature the poisoned Ivy League song. Which is why I like the statement about going to college versus those that don’t,

  • sebanoe

    Nice to see a panel with color, Malcolm Gladwell is my favorite author as well. This was a good one.

  • Denis

    I’m a big fan of StarTalk and have been listening to it for a while now. This particular episode was great for me because it touches on the subject that is at the very core of my belief which I have expressed many times and to hear Neil repeat it here as a last comment of the show, made it exceptional. This is why I live in New York today.
    We are individuals and all of us are different. These differences should be celebrated and respected, because that is what gives us richness in culture and what makes us great. That is what gives us the ability to constantly evolve and re-evaluate our own beliefs, views and better ourselves as we live our lives, hopefully in peace.

    Back in early 90′ country I was born in, Bosnia went through a 4 year war and I was unfortunately there with my family and we were under siege for 4 years in city of Sarajevo, with no electricity, food, water…etc. I was 15 years old when it started and all I heard was that we are @ war because some of the people are Muslims, others are Croats, and then others are Serbs. Apparently politicians took issue with that diversity and brainwashed people to think this is not OK, citing events that happened 100, 200 even 500 years ago and submitting those as evidence to the masses so that they are persuaded to start hating their neighbors…yes, I was floored by that too.
    As the war progressed and events unfolded, I came to realize the futility of that hatred and how incomprehensibly stupid these arguments are. When rest of the world is going forward, listening to CD’s, creating Art, making better, faster computers, launching Space Shuttles and discovering new frontiers of science and space…I’m in this god forsaken country waiting for 14 hours, in line to fill my 30x 5-liter canisters of water to take home so that we can have water to cook with and wash our clothes. And just a year ago I was normal High-School freshman studying to become Aircraft Technician. How did we come to this?

    Now political analysts and historians have a mouthful to say and explain why all this happened in ex Yugoslavia and some of them is true while other complete BS. But the truth from my perspective is, it all comes down to two facts. Geographical position (Risk reference) of the region in question, which usually means natural resources in the real world, and education of the population.
    The higher the education of the population the lower the chance of conflict based on religious, cultural or race diversity.

    Sorry for the long post and to team @startalkradio:disqus thank you for this great episode.

    • Denis, please don’t apologize for long posts… we love them! Have you seen some of the posts on our GMO episodes? Thanks for sharing your story.

  • I think this discussion forgets many of the benefits of bias, explicit or implicit. If bias is based on experience, and it is through experience that we gain knowledge, then the idea of eradicating bias from judgment is silly. Obviously the biases referred to here are very specific–biases on race and gender–and these can distort our perspectives and perceptions, but distortions and prejudices can be good things. An example the economist Walter Williams gives is the confrontation with a tiger. Should we not be biased against going up to the tiger and getting to know him or her, and instead favor avoiding the tiger? Or should we say that maybe this tiger doesn’t fit our experiences and therefore we shouldn’t pre-judge them? Prejudices under conditions of uncertainty can be invaluable tools to lead to correct decisions, even if sometimes they can lead to mistakes looked at from a perspective of perfect information.

    • Bharg

      Hmm. I am not sure about the example you’re giving. Prejudice is something that is assumed without concrete evidence. Tigers being dangerous is concrete enough to warrant running away from it.
      Prejudice and ‘assumptions based on logic’ are fundamentally different things. Although the line might be blurry when you lack information.
      Anyway, I am not sure I am convinced that there is ever a scenario where prejudice can be a good thing. It maybe a safer thing to the individual but to the society as a whole – probably not. (At least when it is concerns fellow humans)

      Please free to enlighten me if you think I am mistaken.

      • Well, I guess this could be a quibble over definitions, However, I take prejudice or bias to be pre-judging without any concrete evidence pertaining to the particular instance at hand. Again, I do not know anything about this particular tiger, as I’ve never encountered it before. However, through my own experiences, whether it be encounters with other tigers, or what knowledge about tigers generally I think I’ve gained throughout my life, I’ll exhibit some bias toward the tiger by avoiding it. Of course, I can be wrong–maybe this tiger has been trained and had his teeth and claws removed–since I do not actually have any information about this particular tiger, but it is the nature of human experience that we have to act on whatever limited information we have, even if it leads us to make errors in hindsight once we actually gather information about the particular tiger. The point being that acting on the basis of limited information can be beneficial, and is part of daily life. I agree that with your first point that “Tigers being dangerous is concrete enough to warrant running away from it,” but it is again acting on the basis of experience, creating some bias, that may or may not hold for any particular tiger. My general point is that anything tending toward assuming perfect information or ignoring what knowledge we think we have–to eradicate bias–is problematic if it is carelessly applied.

        • andreawey

          dictionary definition of prejudice: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience, looked at several online dictionaries that had nearly identical definitions, bias:prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair….. words also associated with these definitions: unfair, unreasonable, illogical, etc. I can’t imagine anyone would characterize fear of a tiger unreasonable because that is based on experience, maybe not first hand, but also on widely accepted and undisputed common knowledge that a tiger could very likely be dangerous, of course there is always a chance that the tiger could be tame and friendly or a person in a tiger suit but those scenarios would be very unlikely. This reminds me of that old black swan theory; the discovery of the black swan will indeed disprove the theory that all swans are white, but since all but one of the swans that have been observed are white, it would still be reasonable to expect that the next random swan you see would be white. That’s not prejudice, that is a reasonable assumption based on logic. Of course we have to make assumptions about the world thousands of times a day, if we didn’t we’d be like babies every day, not knowing what to expect. Some of those assumptions are wrong but usually harmless and hopefully we adjust our thinking for the next time but some assumptions can be very harmful, like assuming that black men are dangerous, or women are too emotional or blondes are dumb. These kinds of assumptions not only harm the objects of our prejudice, but they harm us as a society by putting up roadblocks and limiting our ability to work together to find solutions to our problems. I hesitate to use the following phrase because it has become such a cliche lately but I can’t think of another way to put it: It is only when we truly value and try to understand the different points of view, opinions and experiences of our fellow humans will we be able to truly collaborate without (well mostly) prejudice.
          Thanks for the thought provoking episode and it’s so nice to have intelligent discussions in a comment section!

          • You’re welcome, but in all honesty, the credit for intelligent discussions in the comments section goes to you and the rest of our fans that are willing to contribute their time and brains to create those discussions. I have said it before and I will say it again: StarTalk has amazing fans.

          • andreawey

            well, you’re right, we are awesome but thanks for the forum and inspiration

          • Taxil Necrobane

            When it’s not about religion or politics, we can be awesome.

          • Even when it is about those things, Taxil, you guys are awesome. We’ve had some pretty serious discussions here about religion, politics, GMOs, evolution, etc. and, while there has been spirited disagreement, the conversations have tended to stay civil and respectful, with the occasional personal insult or two sprinkled in for flavor, of course.

          • Well, to be honest I think all the examples fit the definition of prejudice that you found, which is compatible with my own. Even for the tiger, it’s not necessarily based on actual experience , i.e., any knowledge of the actual behavior of this particular tiger; and whatever ‘reason’ you have for this fear, it is still derived from some danger experienced by someone else. It’s not as if we can a priori deduce the danger of tigers without anyone experiencing the dangers of tigers in the first place. Whatever ‘logic’ is involved comes from first establishing the dangers of tigers from experience, whether yours or someone else’s.

            While I share your point that “some assumptions can be very harmful, like assuming that black men are dangerous, or women are too emotional or blondes are very dumb,” I think the whole concept of reasonableness in deciding whether something is a prejudice or bias involves defining these terms with a normative element, that is, that prejudice and bias have to refer to “negative” things, in the sense that they must be “unreasonable” opinions–unreasonable to whom, I don’t know. I guess I don’t agree with the idea that bias or prejudice has to be something negative. And to repeat, I think that to the extent that these sorts of discussions create a tendency for thinking we should ignore any information or knowledge we have that wasn’t derived from our own personal experience because to do so means succumbing to bias or prejudice, and that instead we should ignore the imperfect information of which we are in possession, is not fruitful. In essence, the solution is to move towards perfect information, not ignore the information we possess. Otherwise, I agreed with most of what you said.b

  • I’m a bit concerned by the commercial for “Oxy Bump” that was later in the show. The ingredient list for their product says “HPUS active ingredients” (Homœopathic Pharmacopœia of the United States).

    • WTH

      More than a bit concerned. Haven’t seen the product before, but the ad and website had all the redflags for bogus claims. I’d like to see a follow on star talk supporting the claims of the product.

    • Fox Rafael Melo

      They have probably different people doing the commercial and content sides of the show. But it is VERY concerning when not even our Science popularizers can’t do it right.

    • Concerned Allergy Researcher

      Yep, I have the same concern. And it was Chuck Nice who was promoting it, so someone who is an intergral part of the show.

    • MH

      *obligatory “I am not a chemist” warning*

      The ingredients listed are specifically “purified water,” “pH balanced sodium chloride (saline),” and “stabilized oxygen solution.”

      The phrase “pH balanced sodium chloride” is meaningless to me, since sodium chloride is salt, and consists of equal parts sodium and chlorine atoms. Saline is a mixture of water and salt, and during the manufacture of saline, carbon dioxide typically dissolves into the water, turning the water slightly acidic. pH balanced saline would be a more accurate term to use, I think.

      As for “stabilized oxygen solution,” I had no clue what that was. It sounded like one of those pseudo-chemistry terms that companies come up with to not have to list an actual ingredient. Wouldn’t oxygen gas be “stabilized oxygen?” In any case, a quick Google search lead me to believe that it’s an alternative medicine rebranding of hydrogen peroxide. Apparently, in alternative medicine circles, hydrogen peroxide is thought to be helpful to the healing process because the body naturally produces it when fighting off infection. The problem with this concept is that, sure the body produces it… but it produces it in a much more targeted, specific manner. It’s similar to how a soldier “produces” a bullet when engaged in combat. That bullet is aimed at a target. No commander worth his saline would look at a battlefield and think, “I know, we just need to flood the area with bullets!”

      That’s one of the things that drives me absolutely nuts about product advertising nowadays. Someone publishes a research paper describing how a particular substance is used in some biological process, and the next week there are a dozen products all containing that substance, in different forms, to be applied in different arbitrary ways. It’s like saying “swimming may help you breathe,” because water is really just oxygen and a couple hydrogen. I’m looking at you, shampoos with vitamin D. The rinse and repeat cycle is not long enough to evolutionarily develop the ability to absorb vitamin D through the hair. Fun fact: many birds produce vitamin D in the oily secretions that coat their feathers, and self-grooming is the primary way that they ingest it.

      In any case, saline absorbs some of the water from mucous, which can potentially be helpful for people with stuffy noses. it looks like Oxy Bump, while sounding like some sort of futuristic drug, is really just a typical saline nasal irrigator with a touch or hydrogen peroxide added.

    • dmf
  • Darky

    Around 45 mins: Dr. Alondra Nelson is wrong. Neil is right! Geography is everything. Where you’re located geographically can give you options and special privileges. For example Switzerland, since it was surrounded by the Alps. It had the option of remaining a neutral state through a large portion of history and bloody wars. Road of Ohain 1815(another geography location) changed the course of history -battle of Waterloo. So there is a high chance that middle east is fked up because of its geography -as Neil discovered by playing the game of risk.

  • lilian saiegh

    my first episode !
    I’m so excited..!
    it’s a big plesure for me to listen to an episode which Neil Degrasse Tyson JOINING *.*

    • Welcome aboard, Lilian.

      • lilian saiegh

        Thank you ^.^

      • lilian saiegh

        thank you ^.^

      • lilian saiegh

        thank you ^.^

  • A Man And His Pan

    Hi guys,
    I would love to see a show about the future of AI, is it the end of mankind. Raymond Kurzweil vs Elon Musk.

  • Giancarlo Rotunno

    I am very disappointed that you have a commercial about a quack product in your podcast. Neil Being one of my heroes in science is promoting pseudoscience in a science podcast

  • George Tedrick

    FYI: Detective (Dirty) Harry Callahan had a different partner in each film. The partner usually would get shot. I think it was a thing… Some died, some didn’t. In the “The Gauntlet” his partner was a civilian.

  • Alpha666

    So in love with @startalkradio:disqus! It’s been a couple of weeks since i have been listening to you guys and you have made a fan out of me! Brilliant discussions and so informative while being entertaining – way to go guys!

You Can Also Listen On

Music in This Episode