This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky
Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield
Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE
Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE
Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:
Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation
Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League
Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory
Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC
The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
AG: Professor Chomsky, thanks for joining us.
NC: Glad to be with you.
AG: Alright, are you ready for some, hopefully good questions?
NC: Sure thing.
AG: Alright, so to start, we’ve noticed you’ve communicated your ideas in multiple mediums from the documentary you released back in August, to books, interviews, articles, speaking engagements and more. Do you have preference or any feelings on which is a more effective communication tool for an audience?
NC: What’s the best communication tool?
NC: Personal discussion, face to face.
AG: Face to Face. Did you kind of discover that throughout time or did you have to trial these different things to see if that fit better.
NC: I just think it’s a natural human characteristic to want to be with people directly, rather than through some alienating medium.
AG: Sort of like this conversation here, yes? So, you were involved in a truth out article recently, a couple weeks back and in a question that regarded political rhetoric, the core of your answer was not really for the speaker teacher to persuade others, but more to complete a path for the listener, reader or even student to come to an understanding on their own. Was there something that occurred in your career as a speaker that created this mindset. Or is that something you’ve always held as a belief.
NC: I’ve always held it as a belief that I can’t claim originality for that sentiment. It’s a paraphrase from The Nature of Education (by Wilhelm von Humboldt) early 19th century founder of, great humanist and the founder of the modern research university. He said, we should not think of education on the model of pouring water into a vessel, but rather laying out a sting along which the student can find his or her own course in developing their creative capacities and their capacity to inquire and create themselves. So, there is a structure, but the important thing is discovering.
AG: Okay. So, what do you believe is the purpose of your rhetorical activities and what do you really hope to accomplish with them?
NC: Well there’s an ideal, and there’s reality, which may not be the same. But, the ideal would be pretty much what I just said, to encourage people to be able to think for themselves and to explore the issues that are partially laid and outlined in the course of the process of interaction. The reality may be to be able to accept your own point of view and that tension is always there.
AG: Okay, and you mentioned that there was an ideal as well involved in that.
NC: The ideal is to stimulate and encourage our native curiosity from childhood on and interest in inquiring and creating. Once you’ve (_____) capacity then the world is open to you to come to understand if it’s bringing the model of pouring water into a vessel. Studying something, taking an exam, erotic experience, that’s not an educational achievement, that’s a very leaky vessel. You haven’t gained what’s really significant. The ability to inquire and create on your own.
AG: What are some of the hindrances that can sort of prevent an audience or people from getting to that point.
NC: The hindrance is Educational programs that are designed to teach and to test, for example. The kind that are in fact becoming standardized in American education, strikingly in recent years. Exactly the wrong way to teach.
AG: Now, in that article you pointed out, and I quote you, “The idea of neutral objectivity is at best misleading and fraudulent basically when it comes to politics and rhetoric. So, would you then agree that the ultimate when making scientific discoveries, is to eliminate bias to find fact?
NC: Well, what that means is whenever you approach any question, but with a point of view. The point of view should be recognized, should be evident to the people you are addressing. But it should not be (ironclad), it should be subject of change and modification. But, to claim that you are approaching something without any values, any preconceptions is an allusion. In fact, even our ordinary experience is determined by the nature of our internal capacities. Classic formulation, back to the 17th century is that experience conforms to the modes of cognition that’s necessary. That’s the basis for even the most elementary experiences, and when we talk about more complex matters, of course we are always coming with a background of assumptions, preconceptions, which we may not be aware of, which me might try to bring to awareness and to allow it to be subjected to critical analysis and possible modification and change. We can’t avoid that.
AG: So, is that part of the human nature, is that intrinsic to being human as well? Being unable to avoid that.
NC: The core property is not just human, but animal nature all together. Just the most elementary perceptions are automatically shaped by the nature of our cognitive and perceptual capacities, that’s inescapable. And beyond that, humans live in a rich world of created cultural experience, cultural wealth, much of it brought from history, which we accumulate and try to deal with but always recognizing its existence and we should be aware constantly that it can change. It is true whether you are doing work in quantum physics or in just human relations and social, political affairs.
AG: Now, last year, I also want to refer to a Salon article that you wrote, that basically claimed The New York Times was essentially propaganda. So, is it possible for current media to communicate in a way that allows the reader, viewer or even listener to come to conclusions on their own? Or is the current media now designed to sway an audience to their side?
NC: It’s a mixture, actually I never really said that The New York Times is a propaganda institution, I said that there is a propaganda function that is intrinsic to the nature of the media. There is plenty of very fine reporting and analysis from which one can learn a great deal. And, even the propaganda stick exercises one can learn a lot from. Propaganda is a complicated things, I mean, let’s take the major that humans face today, an important question that’s arisen in the roughly 200,000 year history of the species. The shall we survive in an organized form? Or shall we destroy the environment in which organized human life disposable? That is a very serious question, now let’s consider something which is not regarded as propaganda. There is a huge media coverage in recent years, of the discovery of new technology, which have allowed used extraction of fossil fuels, like deep water drilling so on and so forth. Which have greatly expanded the availability of fossil fuels, that’s leading to what’s often called the prospects of energy and dependance, for maybe 100 years. THe huge literature on this, an interesting study would, what the answer will be, to take this massive literature and ask how often have the reports, the euphoric reports, added that by doing so we’ll be destroying the possibilities for organized human life. (___) an aspect of this, but it’s virtually never mentioned, just ignored. Well is that propaganda? [37:36] It certainly is a way of affecting people’s’ perception and interpretation, in this particular case in ways which are highly harmful even to the decent survival of the species. So that is a kind of propaganda function, but not what we usually call propaganda. It’s not lying about things for example. So if framing issues so that certain things come out, others suppress, as I said before, we can’t avoid doing this, but we should be conscious and aware of it. Now those who are engaged in this activity and those who are consumers of it, should recognize the deep significance of distorting these critical events in such a development in such a way as to lead to literally possible destruction of the possibility of organized life.
AG: Do you feel that recognition is not happening in our current times?
NC: That is obvious. Take say the example is striking illustration, but take another one. We have just been through a primary campaign. Parties had a primary which is massively covered of course. There was one very striking element of it. Every single candidate literally without exception, said that climate change is taking place. There was one exception actually, John Kasich. He said, yeah it’s taking place, but we shouldn’t do anything about it, which is even worse. So that means that every single candidate is denying the facts about our current world, which are of critical significance for survival, every single one. Ask yourself how much discussion there was of this topic.
AG: How much? So I actually want to get one more quick question then, let’s go on the topic of climate change. So, if the common person does not believe in climate change is the end of the world merely a communication problem then, at that point?
NC: Well, if you want it’s a communication problem, but it is a problem that goes well beyond communication. It has to do with institutional structures in our society, which are designed in such a way as to lead to disaster unless there modified. Take say, markets, were suppose to admire markets. They exist to some extent, they are of course shaped and modified by all kind of governmental and other kind of interventions, but definitely we do have to a large extent market societies. Well, one property of markets is that when you enter into a transaction in a market, you consider your welfare. So, if I sell you a car and we are both paying attention, we both try to make each of us the best deals for ourselves. We do not ask the question, what is the effect of this transaction on that guy over there, and there is an effect. If I sell you a car, there is another car on the road, that means more pollution, more chance of accident, all kinds of other effects. Now for each individual, may be a small increment, but overall it could a huge increment. Those are what are called negative externalities in economic theory. They are a built in inefficiency of markets. Now, sometimes they may seem small, sometimes that are cosmic. One of them is destruction of the environment, that’s an externality.
AG: I want to get a little bit, just ask a quick question about your role as an activist. Is there a relationship between your theories about language and that role as an activist?
NC: There is kind of an abstract connections, not a logical connection. Language, possession of languages, the fundamental human capacity, it is the crucial capacity that distinguishes humans from every other organism, of others but is the essential one. It’s a species character. All humans share, these human groups do not differ in capacity for language, they’re the same. No other organism is anything remotely like it. It is the source of the unusual accomplishments and achievements of this peculiar species, and one of the things that we discover about language is that it does have a, language use, normal language use has a fundamentally creative character that was recognized centuries ago. We somehow are able to produce an unbounded number of expressions which are appropriate to situations. In traditional terms we are incited and inclined but not compelled to act in certain ways. These conceptions enable others to comprehend was is in our minds. What is regarded by Galileo and his contemporaries is one of the most amazing facts about the universe. That with a few symbols we are able to convey to others the contents of their minds, their souls. They said without others having access to them, and we can do it in a creative innovative manner. Well, that tells you something about human nature. [44:02] That is true of other aspects of their life and activities. is it fundamental to humans that they should be in an array of institutional structures in which their creative capacities can flourish. If you think that through, it leads to the conclusion that any structure of authority and domination which constrains human freedom and individuality is already suspect, and that we should be asking ourselves constantly about any structure of hierarchy and domination, whether it is legitimate. And if it is not, dismantle it, and that takes us into direct questions of social and political significance.
AG: So, then what are your thoughts on how current graduate students, at the beginning of their career, how can they approach communicating their work to both the public and even their peers in order for it to have the impact that they are seeking?
NC: Well I think it is up to people who happen to have substantial degree of privilege , privilege automatically confers responsibility, it means you can do things others can’t. Part of that responsibility is to create a public environment in which people are offered the opportunity and encouraged to pursue their interests and concerns without distortions and other kinds of constraints. In the educational system that means in the classroom. (*Large area of distortion. Resumed at 46:12) it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover, that is the purpose of education and that extends to other aspects of social life as well.
(audio cut out here, as online connection dropped; still another version that is the full interview that can be transcribed but only Noam Chomsky’s speaking parts; interview ended immediately after the connection dropped and then came back in later)