In this episode of the Thunk Tank Podcast, we decided to talk about the Intellectual Dark Web, or IDW. Politics is a mess in our country right now, and we think that there are hopeful noises coming from the people in this IDW movement. Not only is the movement creating a space to reasonably stand in the center of politics, it is also beginning to function as a more reasonable voice for the left. Wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum, I think you will enjoy this episode, and I hope you can approach it with an open mind.
In the episode, we addressed issues such as:
- The “members” of the IDW, it’s goals, and an explanation of its silly name
- The “members” of the IDW, it’s goals, and an explanation of its silly name
- The backdrop of political confusion in this country that makes this movement so important.
- The power and importance of the scientific viewpoint
- The “New Left” and its ridiculous behavior (especially on college campuses recently) vs the reasonable/classical/liberal left
- The importance of the kilogram (in that we need to get back/agree on a shared narrative as a country)
- Oh yeah and craft beer as usual
Enjoy the episode below (it's in two parts) and read on further for a few more thoughts about the IDW and why I think it's important. -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast
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What is the IDW?
The IDW, or Intellectual Dark Web, has only been around as a term for around ten months. I would say that it has been building as a concept/movement for much longer, but the term was first introduced by Eric Weinstein during a live Sam Harris podcast. Sam titled that podcast episode, which came out in January 2018, “The Intellectual Dark Web” (check it out here), and after that the term started to gain some traction. A few months later, the term really caught on in the mainstream media after Bari Weiss wrote a New York Times article titled “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web”.
So what the heck is this thing? Well I think the most zoomed out definition would be that it is a movement (not so much a group) that is encouraging intellectual honesty and mature good faith conversation. These features are hard to find in todays political climate (with blame from all sides of politics), and people seem to be grabbing onto the honesty and good faith intellectualism coming from the IDW. Eric Weinstein has called it “an alternative sense making network” to distinguish it from the narrative of the mainstream media.
It has also received a lot of criticism, and this has come almost entirely from the left. I really scoured the internet to try and find some honest push back against members of the IDW, but I have yet to see any criticism that seems honest or based in good faith (if you find any please send our way). Most often the criticism was clearly dishonest and misleading. If I had a large Youtube channel, I couldn’t imagine myself presenting an extremely confident and dissenting opinion on something for which I had done almost no research. But that is exactly what happened in this Sam Seder video which arrogantly attacked the IDW without any substantive claims (not that I really expect high quality intellectualism from this channel). But even really respectable and intelligent people that I used to enjoy as a reasonable voice on the left, like David Packman, committed a similar straw man. He began his video by criticising the IDW for being comprised of pseudo-intellectuals, even though the majority of the IDW’s core members are textbook definitions of intellectual people (Phd’s, professors, experts in their fields etc). And he didn’t engage with any of their actual ideas in his criticism. What is happening on the left that this kind of lazy thinking is rewarded and is passing as real journalism?
So if anything the left proved the IDW’s point for them by reacting with smear tactics and dishonesty. There is no shortage of misinformation like those sources above, so I would not be surprised if you have only heard bad things about the IDW. And fair enough because it takes hours and hours to sort through everything and actually find some truth. If you lean strongly to the left and have only heard negative things about the IDW, I hope you can do your own research and approach the topic with an open mind. We are living in a time where even highly credible sources can get stories completely wrong, and we as citizens have to be extremely vigilant in our consumption of news. I am certainly not comfortable with every opinion of every person in the IDW, but I strongly support the energy of intellectual honesty that this movement is embracing and spreading.
What’s with the stupid name?
Obviously on the surface the name sounds silly and stupid, and the name itself became a point of attack used by left leaning media. But the name was designed to be attacked, and the mainstream media attacked it in exactly the way that was expected. You can check out the full video of Eric Weinstein explaining the name here, but essentially the name was a kind of trojan horse strategy. Since their movement focuses on promoting intellectually honest conversations (something greatly lacking in the mainstream media), it was natural for the media to attack this “alternative sense making network”. It has long been the case that there are sketchy clickbait media sources, but we are now starting to see ideologically driven behavior creep into more reliable organizations like the New York Times or NPR. Although not as bad as some others, these sources have become less grounded in evidence and objective thinking, and more driven by ideology and narrative thinking. There has been plenty of small lies, but even without lying, selectively choosing what to report on can create a misleading narrative.
So by making the name so easy to attack, it caused the name to gain more traction and attention. And the left more or less fell for the bait, because without really looking into the movement or the people behind it, they assumed it to be an enemy of the left and attacked it as such. To paraphrase Eric on the name:
The commentariate (the people who regularly give their “take” on what’s going on in the world) was going to hate this counter-movement and hence any name attached to it. Why would they hate it? Because the ideas are terrible? The people are terrible? No it is because the IDW is an alternative sense making network who’s analysis is typically very different from that of the news outlets that people on the left are used to depending on
So the group is really a movement of people who are trying to analyze our current political times through a different lense than we are used to seeing through. This “alternative sense making network” is not the racist or sexist movement that it has been attacked as (we should know by now that the new left overuses these terms to the point of meaning nothing). For me and many others who have followed this movement, it has been a way to wake up to just how much our reality is shaped by the mainstream media. We do not just get facts about the news from our media sources, we are also getting interpretations of those facts as well as long form narratives for those facts to fit into. Those narratives are in large part shaped by what the media decides is important for us to know. So the claim of the IDW is essentially that our major news organizations have shown themselves to be unreliable, and we have to demand better. The IDW is not fighting against journalism generally, it is fighting against what is largely considered journalism right now. As Eric Weinstein says, we currently have the type of journalism where “they clearly have their finger on the scale” of seeking truth.
Who is in the IDW?
As I mentioned, this is more of a movement than anything else, and there is no official group with meetings or anything like that. The IDW is basically a loose collective of people who have all agreed on the primacy of proper conversations rooted in intellectual honesty. They have appeared on various podcasts like Joe Rogan’s or on shows like the Rubin Report (check out Eric Weinstein’s appearance here). I do, however, want to list what I consider to be the core members of this group. This is because one of the tactics that the left has used to attack the IDW is to align it with much more abhorrent people. As a side note, to even use the word “tactic” in this sense is to showcase exactly what is wrong with this “finger on the scale” style of news reporting. And grouping ridiculous and abhorrent people into the IDW provided an easy way to straw man the idea of the group as a whole. For example people like Candace Owens or Stephen Molyneux have gained popularity on a similar wavelength but I do not think that they are part of the group. So I will list the people that I think are more firmly in this circle and the people who I personally have followed and grown to appreciate for their intellectual ability and honesty. They are:
- Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein, Heather Heying, Ben Shapiro, Douglas Murray, Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hersi Ali, Christina Hoff Sommers, Dave Rubin, Michael Shermer
These are people that come from various sides of the political spectrum and often disagree on political issues as well as deeper moral claims. But these disagreements can be flushed out in amazing ways when the people involved are committed to intellectual honesty and proper conversations. One such example that I think showcases the success of the IDW is this two night debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. They have had some uncomfortable arguments in the past, but agreed to get together to try and debate and understand each other on the topic of religion and morality. One of my favorite parts was to watch what two adults can accomplish when they enter into a conversation properly. The IDW has really encouraged the idea of steel-maning (the opposite of a straw man) your opponent in a debate, and in the second night (check it out here) they began by each person giving their strongest account of what the other was trying to say on the previous night. Both people seemed to shift their starting positions and arrive in a new intellectual space (I know I did). They did this not through tactics or dishonesty or the desire to win, but through an honest and ego-limited pursuing of the truth. It was utterly refreshing to see that people can disagree in this way while maintaining intellectual honesty. I was able to see in real time that so often our disagreements with other people hinge on the fact that we actually do not understand the other person’s opinion. I think those videos, although long, are worth watching because it is a great example of the power of conversation and the importance of intellectual honesty.
The Progressive Left vs Regressive Left
So the state of politics in this country definitely seems to be in a dysfunctional place. I am someone who is generally on the left of most issues, and as such I’ve noticed a lot of anti-intellectualism from the right side of politics. But I think there is a different flavor of anti-intellectualism that has creeped into the left side of politics. I talked a lot in a previous blog post about the problems on the left and the importance of good faith conversation, so I won’t repeat those claims here. I want to instead give an update to the left’s problems and hopefully show how the IDW movement might lead the left to be more reasonable and effective.
The left likes to think of itself as having a type of monopoly on intelligence in political life. There is an underlying arrogance from many on the left that by virtue of an idea coming from the left, it must therefore be intellectually superior and intelligent. I understand this feeling, and it is true that the majority of intellectuals at universities across the country lean to the left. But universities have become a central component to the problems on the left because there are academic departments and administrative policies in which ideology has clearly replaced logic, critical thinking, and genuine openness. As shown in great detail by Jonathan Haidt and the Heterodox Academy, the left bias of universities has gotten much worse and has led to an inadequate amount of viewpoint diversity on campus.
“When campuses don’t include ideologically diverse voices and don’t engage seriously with dissenting ideas, students and scholars miss the opportunity for their thinking to be challenged. They don’t get the chance to ﬁgure out which ideas hold up within the crucible of open inquiry. Biases go unchecked. Critical thinking is abandoned.” -Heterodox Academy
Some academic departments and journals, referred to by some as “grievance studies”, have clearly let ideology trump honest intellectual methods of truth seeking. You can read about the Sokal squared hoax here, in which three people got seven hoax papers accepted to top academic journals in fields such as women’s studies, identity studies, or critical theory. It was designed as a way to expose the ideologically driven and unscientific thinking that has infiltrated parts of academia. I am not sure exactly how successful that hoax was at accomplishing its goal and I have heard many mixed opinions on it. But I have personally witnessed enough interactions/debates/speeches by particular academics (students and professors) that support the claim of an undesirable and problematic leftist bias existing in academia.
I would say that if you’re an academic and you have let ideology become more important than scientifically minded truth seeking, than you are a pseudo-intellectual. The style of speech from these types of individuals is often emotionally fuelled and filled with academic lingo but missing coherent thoughts. These hoax papers were ridiculous, but they are also only slightly more ridiculous than a lot of the papers being published by actual scholars in these fields. Check out New Real Peer Review on twitter to read some examples. I do not necessarily think these academic fields are entirely bad or that they are without value. But I do think they have been corrupted with ideology and unscientific thinking and that it risks tainting the status and integrity of other academic departments. It also risks tainting our countries sense of what experts are and why we should trust them.
This Youtube video breaks down one such example, from this years Monk Debate which involved Jordan Peterson (in the IDW) and Michael Dyson. If you have the time, I highly recommend that you watch the full debate which was about political correctness. Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, at one point attacked Peterson as a “mean mad white man” and then gave a long word salad explanation which seems impossible to decode. Seriously, watch that video and see if you can make sense of any of his sentences. People seem to forgive the lack of sense making in these circumstances because the content appears to be compassionate and righteous. But it doesn’t change the fact that an academic should be able to speak in intelligable sentences. This debating technique of obfuscation has become very common on the regressive left. They assume that there are no reasonable voices on the conservative side and don’t know how to engage with them. Academics should be about calmly convincing others through evidence of a certain position or theory. But now (maybe because universities lean too far left) dissenting opinions on campus often get attacked as racist or sexist. This is not how we will build a unified country in which the best ideas (wherever they come from) rise to the top.
So the IDW has largely been gaining traction for calling out this kind of anti-intellectualism on the left. Most of its members consider themselves part of the left, but distinguish themselves from the “new left” or “regressive left” which I think separates the liberal left from the anti-intellectual left. This new anti-intellectual left also has an authoritarian aspect to it because underneath social justice claims are often aims to get power and control others. Underneath equity proposals (like that at Evergreen State College) are often philosophies that wish to not only end racism but actually reverse racism and turn the tables. If you have not read about or watched videos of the Evergreen State College controversy, I highly recommend that you research that. Evergreen was not an anomaly, but followed logically from the ideologies that the students are being taught. Other disturbing examples of the left going too far which I hope you’ll research are:
- SPLC against Sam Harris and Maajid Nawez, Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfrid Laurier University, Dean Mary Spellman from Claremont McKenna, Yale Halloween costume controversy, Charles Murray at Middlebury College, countless Jordan Peterson protests, Ben Affllack vs Sam Harris on Bill Maher
And even though I still believe that leaning to the left will generally provide a more intelligent and compassionate political stance, I have also grown to understand the value of conservatism as a philosophy. Of course there are bad actors to be found on all sides of politics, but I think people on the left fail to contend with the serious and intelligent thinkers on the right. I like the simple and zoomed out model for thinking about the left and the right that Brett Weinstein talks about in his video “The Phenomenon of the Left Right”. His claim is that if a liberal desires change for the better, and a conservative wishes to maintain things that are working, there can be a healthy tension between these two philosophies.
“I am a liberal who wishes to live in a world so good that I can be a conservative.”
-Brett Weinstein (from The Phenomenon of the Left and Right)
Conclusion: Let’s agree on the Kilogram
I think that the IDW is approaching most topics at a much more zoomed out level than their critics realize or care to realize. They are usually speaking about grand philosophies of how to structure society while their critics constantly try to pull them back into the simpler realm of political legos. Eric Weinstein has especially done a great job of showing that a mind can find a healthy balance between emotions and logic. Being too far right runs the risk of becoming emotionally cold and sticking too firmly to your categories and rules. Being too far left runs the risk of becoming too emotionally fuelled (not all emotions are desirable) and failing to conserve structures, systems, and categories that work. Finding a healthy balance between these two ways of approaching the world seems to be the healthy path forward. I think in this way the IDW is helping to push against the extreme voices on the left in order to make room for the more reasonable voices.
We came to a conclusion in our episode with an analogy to the kilogram. As a society we can disagree about many things, as long as we share some common assumptions. Imagine how dysfunctional it would be if everyone tried to assert there own definition of a kilogram. It would render the entire concept useless. We have to live together, and political polarization is clearly not helping us find a shared narrative. The mainstream media, in it’s aim for more profits, is taking advantage of and promoting our political polarization. Basic decency and adult level conversation are disappearing. There is a Bedouin saying: “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” The left attacks the right but it also eats itself with this kind of chaotic thinking. The opposite would be the type of thinking that promotes what we have in common with others and makes compromises in order to live together peacefully.
We need to bring back our sense of the kilogram as a country, our agreed upon sense of base reality grounded in what we all stand for. It is a zoomed out and deep morality that we can fall back on together even when disagreements about specific issues get extremely heated. I think the IDW and the conversations happening around it are helping to do this, and I’m hopeful to see where it can lead.
Thanks for reading/listening.
-Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast