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Gad Saad: ‘Parasitic’ Ideas and Why Rational People Fall for Them

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“What I call idea pathogens, these dreadful ideas… parasitize our minds, leading us to quietly go into the abyss of infinite lunacy,” says Gad Saad, a Lebanese-Canadian professor of marketing at Concordia University and author of, “The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense.”

From woke ideology to COVID dogma to postmodernism, we discuss the worst kinds of “idea pathogens” he sees in society today and why people fall for them.

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Jan Jekielek:

Gad Saad, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Gad Saad:

Thank you so much for having me. A pleasure to be with you.

Mr. Jekielek:

Gad, I’ve picked up you book,  “The Parasitic Mind.” It’s been on my reading list for quite some time, but what really caused me to pull the trigger was your commentary about this Sam Harris Trigonometry Podcast. And basically, 48 hours later, I’ve taken in a lot of really, really interesting material from you. So, thank you for that.

Mr. Saad:

Thank you. I appreciate your kind words.

Mr. Jekielek:

We’re going to talk about Sam Harris’s commentary, and we’ll get to that in a moment. How did you get to the current role you’re playing as this culture wars commentator? You’re a professor of marketing Concordia University in Montreal, which is kind of unexpected. Why don’t you give me a sense of your background, all the way from the beginning? You actually come from Lebanon and you left there at almost the last minute it was possible for you to do so.

Mr. Saad:

Right. I’ll start with my personal trajectory, and then I’ll maybe talk a bit about my academic background to give people a sense of where I’m coming from. I was born in Lebanon in 1964. We were part of the last group of Lebanese Jews that had steadfastly refused to leave Lebanon. Historically, in Lebanon, there was a small Jewish community, but during the 20th century, as things flared up in the Middle East, it became a bit more tenuous to be Jewish throughout the Middle East. Most of my extended family had already left Lebanon by the time the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. At that time I was 11-years-old. I was born and grew up in Lebanon. Arabic is my mother tongue. We’re very much Lebanese, but it became terribly dangerous to be Jewish in Lebanon. We saw some things that people shouldn’t see in a hundred lifetimes, and that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

Luckily, after the first year of the civil war, we were able to leave and come to Montreal. The reason why I mentioned my personal history in chapter 1 of The Parasitic Mind is because I want people to understand that a culture that is organized along identity politics lines is exactly what happens in Lebanon, in Iraq, or in Rwanda. In the case of Lebanon, your tribal allegiance in part depends on which religion you belong to. It doesn’t lead to good places. That’s why I thought it was really important to discuss my personal history in writing that book.

In terms of my academic background, I’ve had a long trajectory. I started off in a very technical field. I was a mathematics and computer science student. Later I did an MBA with a thesis in operations research, which again, is an applied mathematics field. This was at McGill University. Then I went to Cornell where I trained in the psychology of decision making. During my training, I was exposed to evolutionary psychology, which at the time was a fledgling field where people were applying evolutionary biological principles to understand human behavior. That’s when I had my epiphany. When I later decided that I would focus on studying consumer behavior and consumer decision making, I married the two together. How do you apply evolutionary thinking to study human behavior in general, and consumer behavior in particular? That’s why I am housed in the business school, because a lot of what I study is linked to consumer behavior or economic behavior.

Mr. Jekielek:

But also, isn’t it actually how to manipulate people?

Mr. Saad:

Well, hat’s a rather pessimistic view of marketing. Marketing can be used for very laudable causes and it can be used for nefarious causes. Actually, one of the next books that I’m thinking of writing is tentatively titled, Life is Marketing and Marketing is Life, because everything that we do is marketing. When we go into the mating market, we are marketing ourselves. We become the product. When we are in the labor market, we are marketing ourselves. When we network with other friends, we are putting our best foot forward, and we’re marketing ourselves. Animals market themselves in all sorts of ways. The peacock, when he’s showing off his tail, is engaging in advertising. So, marketing is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous in the natural world. By the way, I love what I do, because I’m really drawing bridges between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the business school. So, yes, you’re right. Marketing can be used to cause harm and to manipulate and to propagandize, but it can also be used to promote good ideas, and I hope that I’m doing that.

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Well, you certainly are, from what I’ve been reading. But the reason I mention this is because one of the reasons why we have this parasitized thinking as you describe it, and I’m going to get you to explain to me in a moment what that actually means, is because of the incredibly effective marketing of really bad ideas. So, I’m not surprised that you would actually be in a marketing school, come to think of it. Because you’re thinking of things through this type of lens. But it’s a case in point in some ways when you have these very powerful tools of social media and mass media and control focusing on really bad ideas.

Mr. Saad:

Yes. Beautifully said. That’s exactly right. In 1976, Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of a meme in his phenomenal book, “The Selfish Gene.” He states not only do genes propagate—of course they do, we’re a biological creature—but since we are also a cultural animal, memes propagate. What are memes? They are packets of information that spread from one mind to another. A jingle could be a meme. A marketing ad could be a meme. A library is a collection of memes stored in books. But my parasitic framework, if I can jump to my book, is somewhat different. Yes, of course the concept of a meme matters to me, but memes could be positively valenced, neutral, or negatively valenced. In other words, it could just be something as innocuous as a jingle. I start singing it and then it spreads to your brain. Whereas, the parasitological model that I use is only negative.

I delved into the neuro-parasitological literature of the animal kingdom. Let me explain what that is. Parasites can wreak havoc to animals in all sorts of different areas. A tapeworm enters your intestinal tract. Neuroparasites are parasites that go to a host’s brain, altering its neuronal circuitry, causing the host to behave in maladaptive ways, but it benefits the parasite. I had my aha moment because I wanted to argue in the book that what I call idea pathogens, these dreadful ideas that just like an actual physical pathogen, can cause us harm. They are idea pathogens that can parasitize our minds, leading us to quietly go into the abyss of infinite lunacy. That’s why I really like to use the parasitological framework in explaining how these ideas can become so sticky.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to jump in here. This is a good time to talk about your Sam Harris commentary.

Mr. Saad:

Sure.

Mr. Jekielek:

What you’re describing applies to so many areas, and this is one of the reasons why I found your book so compelling. In a nutshell, Sam Harris, for those of you that might not be aware, I’m just speaking to the audience briefly here, Sam Harris is a remarkably rational individual. He’s known for this. He has talked very eruditely on numerous topics including wokeism. In that Trigonometry episode he actually calls it a woke apocalypse. So, he sees it as a big threat to society. At the same time, in this one area concerning former President Trump, he seems to have some pretty extreme views. And this is where your commentary comes in.

Mr. Saad:

Right. Thanks for that nice setup. What the Sam Harris story demonstrates, and I’ll get into the details of it, is that supremely intelligent and rational people are not inoculated from parasitic thinking. As a matter of fact, as I explained in the book, all of the idea pathogens that have parasitized the West originally stem from the university ecosystem. It takes professors to come up with some of the dumbest ideas. The fact that you are educated doesn’t mean that you have properly administered the mind vaccine against all of these idea pathogens.

Let’s drill down on Sam Harris. By the way, not that I need to preface this with what I’m about to say, but my commentary is not meant as a personal attack on Sam. Sam and I used to be friends. I have been on his show. We have been to dinner together. But he encapsulates and he instantiates an exemplar of this kind of parasitic thinking. So what is it? In Chapter 2 of “The Parasitic Mind,” I talk about the distinction between thinking and feeling. I basically say that it’s a false dichotomy. It’s not that humans are thinking animals or feeling animals. We are both. We have evolved to be able to trigger both systems. The challenge is to know when to trigger what systems.

For example, if I’m taking a shortcut in the dark alley and I see four young men loitering, I will have an emotional response, which is perfectly adaptive. My heart rate will go up. My blood pressure will go up. I might start perspiring. I might start hyperventilating. All of these emotional mechanisms are perfectly adaptive in that context. On the other hand, if I were trying to do well on a calculus exam, triggering my emotional system is not going to help me much. I need to trigger my cognitive system.

Now, let’s link it to Sam Harris and all the other hysterical intelligentsia folks. When it comes to Donald Trump, what should be triggered is your cognitive system. What are the policies of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama that you either agree with or disagree with? When we’re choosing a president or a prime minister, we should be triggering our cognitive system. On the other hand, when you look at all of the reasons that people use to justify why the noble prophet  Barack Obama is so beautiful, and why Donald Trump is such an existential threat, it’s only based on emotional responses. People will say, “He disgusts me. He’s grotesque. He’s cantankerous. He speaks like an 8th-grader from Queens.”

All of the things they are reviling in Donald Trump have nothing to do with his views on monetary policy or immigration policy. It only has to do with the fact that Trump somehow threatens their status. Let me speak now as Sam Harris and the Ivory Tower folks who say, “He is an aesthetic injury to me. He is a rejection of what makes me part of the anointed Malibu class. If such a grotesque, gauche monster could ascend to the highest echelons of power, then how can I take my ivory tower degree seriously?

I want to draw an analogy here, and I’m going to use a prop, Jan. Let’s assume for a second that this memory stick is the cork of a wine bottle. In a second, you’re going to see why it’s relevant. There is an Arabic expression, “To get drunk by the cork of the wine bottle.” What does that mean? I might smell the cork and say, “Now I’m getting drunk on the mellifluous voice of Barack Obama. He is so lanky and he’s got such a radiant smile.” I haven’t said that I agree with his substantive policies, but I’ve simply used peripheral cosmetics to say why I love him so much.

Now, let me whiff the cork of Donald Trump. “He’s disgusting. He has a disgusting odor. He’s a grotesque monster.” So again, what’s happening here is I am of such weak cognitive constitution that I don’t need to bother about cognitively justifying why I hate Donald Trump. I just do, because he’s disgusting. The first problem with the “parasitic thinking” of Sam Harris, is that he is succumbing to the triggering of the wrong system, the emotional system instead of than the cognitive system. The second excruciatingly important thing that he is violating is the distinction that I talk about in the book between deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics.

Deontological ethics are absolute statements of truth. For example, if I say to you, “Jan, it is never okay to lie,” that would be a deontological statement. If I were to say, “It’s okay to lie when your spouse asks you, ‘Do I look fat in these jeans?’” In this case, I would be putting on my consequentialist hat. I say to that I’d like to remain married. I say that I don’t want to hurt the feelings of my spouse. Therefore I say, “No, you’re beautiful. You’ve never looked as beautiful and lovely as you do today.”

Most of us, as we navigate through life, we’ll put on our consequentialist hats for many different things. But when it comes to the fundamental principles on which Western society is built, it should be based on deontological ethics. Meaning, when it comes to presumption of innocence, that cannot be a consequentialist bent. You never violate the presumption of innocence. Yet, when it came to Brett Kavanaugh, Sam Harris and all his friends said, “Well, it doesn’t matter if we really don’t have proof that he’s guilty or not of being a gang rapist going up and down the Eastern seaboard. Since this is just an interview, there is enough there to presume that he is guilty.” No, you can’t.

When Sam Harris said, “I’m applauding the fact that Jack Dorsey finally removed the Orange Himmler from Twitter, because freedom of speech is important, but not for an ogre like Donald Trump,” he was violating a deontological principle. When he said on the Trigonometry Podcast, which he shouldn’t have said out loud, but luckily for us he did, when he said, “Sure, the media should be honest and fully report all stories. But when it comes to reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop story, it was perfectly okay for them to suppress that, because otherwise Donald Trump could have won, and that would not have been good.” In each of those instances, he was taking a deontological principle and he was violating it for consequentialist goals. That’s morally grotesque.

Let me give you two examples of deontological principles that are truly vivid. Number one, I’m Jewish. I escaped execution in Lebanon. And yet, I support the right of Holocaust deniers to spew their most grotesquely offensive statements. There is nothing more offensive than someone denying the most historically documented event where you had industrial scale genocide of an entire people. Nothing could be more offensive. Yet, as a free speech absolutist, I apply my deontological hat and say they have a right to speak.

Here’s a second example. When the Mossad, after the formation of Israel in 1948, were going out hunting Nazis, they located Adolf Eichmann, one of the worst Nazis of all, in Argentina. In 1961, they sent a team to Argentina. They were faced with a dilemma, “Do we put a bullet in his head in the darkness of night without anybody noticing, and then return to Israel? Or do we abide by our deontological ethics?” They didn’t use those fancy words, but that’s what they were asking. Whereas, with potentially great personal cost to themselves, and great diplomatic cost to Israel, the Mossad agents asked, “Should we smuggle him out of Argentina to give him his due date in court?” Well, what did they do? They did the latter. They brought him back to Israel. They tried him and then they executed him. If we can grant the courtesy of deontological principles to Adolf Eichmann, then Sam Harris might want to ask whether Donald Trump should be afforded the same courtesy.

Mr. Jekielek:

A lot of people focused on those comments that Sam made. Shockingly, he says, “Hunter could have had corpses of children in the basement.” It was really wild stuff. Later in the podcast he says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “All bad things are a matter of people’s minds being out of control.” He goes on to mention that so much of daily conflict and misery is born of people being captured by their own thoughts and unable to be skeptical of their own opinions. I thought, “My goodness, you are so right about this, but what just happened 10 minutes ago?” 

Mr. Saad:

It is parasitic thinking. Incidentally, on a personal level, I’d like to discuss something that I was tortured by. I was trying to decide whether to weigh in on Sam Harris or not, and I was stuck between two principle codes of conduct. On the one hand, I have my own personal code of conduct, a unique combination of genes that constitutes my personhood. But I also have the Middle Eastern culture of hospitality and friendship and loyalty. I have a code of conduct where I try to not go after people I know. And I don’t just mean personally, but even not go after their ideas, just out of loyalty and friendship. So, for about four or five years, as Sam was becoming utterly hysterical and unhinged about Donald Trump, I laid low and kept quiet. But that was being pitted against my deontological love for truth. Should I be loyal to someone I know, or should that be superseded by defending the truth at all costs? I’m happy to report that truth won.

A lot of people thought that I had a personal animus against Sam Harris. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you are walking around positioning yourself as this great mediator, this great dispassionate pursuer of rationality and reason, and then you become the exemplar of the most hysterical and unhinged, I’m going to call you out on your hypocrisy.

Mr. Jekielek:

I’m sure you’re familiar with Herbert Marcuse’s principle of repressive tolerance.

Mr. Saad:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s almost like there is this intolerable that you can never tolerate. And that gives you this quasi-ethical exemption to basically put away, as you call it, your deontological thinking.

Mr. Saad:

That’s beautifully said, Jan, because that’s what every dictator has done. Now, let me speak as Hitler who may have said it this way, “Of course, I love all people and I want everybody to live with full dignity, but not the Jews. Come on. They’re parasites. Our societies are the way they are because of these vermin. If we eradicate them, it’s okay.”  This gave Hitler an excuse to violate the deontological principle. Capitulating to that type of thinking where you decide in this one case it’s okay to violate deontological principles, is what every single dictator and miscreant has done throughout all of human history. That’s why this is so extraordinarily baffling, whether it be Sam Harris, or all of academia, which is full of folks like Sam Harris. They’re all hysterical about Donald Trump. Do you know the reason why I began this series that I have on my show, Jan?

Mr. Jekielek:

I do. I know what you’re going to say.

Mr. Saad:

What is the reason? Go ahead. Let me see if you can guess it. 

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, it’s the Hiding Under the Table Series, of course.

Mr. Saad:

Exactly. Part of being a good satirist is to mock things in very, very poignant ways. I started hiding under the desk, because that is literally what people were doing. When Donald Trump was inaugurated, I would go to my personal Facebook page where I am friends with many academics, and they would be posting things like, “I’m a woman of color. Will I still be able to go to university to teach my classes?” What did they think was going to happen when Donald Trump was inaugurated? He’s going to set up roadblocks where he veers off women of color off the road? As a grown adult, what kind of stupidity is it to be hysterical in this way?

This speaks the power of satire, which is something that I discuss in “The Parasitic Mind.” A lot of my super highfalutin academic colleagues will say, “You’re such an austere professor, Gad. Why do you do all this comedy stuff?” Well, because dictators are the most afraid of satirists. When dictators come to power, the first group of people they get rid of are the intellectuals who also have a very sharp tongue. They’re not worried about the guys with the big muscles. They say, “We can get rid of those people easily. But the guy who could mock me to death, that’s the one that I want to get rid of.” So, I use satire and mockery, not because I’m a buffoon who likes to act like a joker, but because it is a terribly powerful and persuasive way to get your message across.

Mr. Jekielek:

I feel like we owe Sam Harris a debt of gratitude for this kind of thinking that was revealed which might be prevalent among certain groups of people. To some extent, it helps us understand this craziness or even why this type of contradiction can exist. The flip side of it is, when you have someone as brilliant as Sam taking a position like this, you realize this is deeply disturbing. He can’t see the contradiction. And how many people are like that? So, that’s part one.

The second part goes back to something I mentioned earlier, which is marketing is manipulation. I am absolutely certain of this after having watched since 2015 the way our mainstream media portrayed candidate Trump at the time. I’m sure there were a lot of people who didn’t have this mind virus prior to being  blasted with all this stuff for a year, and then onwards. Did people actually get programmed through propaganda/marketing/people who already had this mind virus themselves?

Mr. Saad:

It is easy to infect people with bad ideas, partly because those bad ideas can be alluring. One of the things that we could talk about is why do some of these bad ideas become so infectious? That is something that I discussed in “The Parasitic Mind.” The second thing which even makes it a more serious problem is that most people are cognitive misers. A cognitive miser is someone who doesn’t make the necessary cognitive effort to come to a decision. For example, “If I hear that Barack Obama or George Bush has said that Islam is a religion of peace, then it’s case closed. I’m done. That’s good enough for me. The president has said it, therefore it’s good.”

They didn’t go out and expend the necessary effort to test the veracity of that statement. As we discuss in Chapter 7, they didn’t build the nomological network to demonstrate whether Islam is truly peaceful or not. So, first you take very infectious parasitic ideas that are easy for people to fall prey to, and then you combine that with the fact that people don’t have the cognitive discipline to expend the necessary mental effort to study a position, and then you have a perfect storm.

Mr. Jekielek:

You mentioned Salman Rushdie in your book. He was recently attacked and almost killed due to a 30-year-old fatwa on his life. And this actually happened in the United States. All these years, there essentially were people hunting for the man.

Mr. Saad:

It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that it is happening in the 20th century. The fatwa was issued in 1989, so in the 20th century you can have Mullahs in Iran decide that someone living in another country should have a death fatwa on them. It behooves one to think such a reality can still exist. Blasphemy is still alive and well in the 20th and 21st century. But what makes me just as angry as the fact that someone could issue such a fatwa, is the apathy of most people in responding to Salman Rushdie’s plight. Many years ago, Christopher Hitchens had pointed that out, how tepid most people could be.

Now, I’m going to push the issue longitudinally to the present when there was this attempted murder on his life. I didn’t see tons of people or certainly any people within my university ecosystem taking a strong position in defense of Salman Rushdie. In part that could be apathy, but in part it’s cowardice, because most professors are too busy within the narrow lanes of their hyper-specializations, and therefore never deviate outside that narrow lane. But what kind of cowardice, what kind of castrated personhood must you have to ignore something as egregious as the attempted murder of someone in New York state, because he dared express his fundamental right to free speech? If that doesn’t draw your ire, then you’re lobotomized. I’m equally upset both with the fact that such a fatwa could be issued, and also at the West’s lack in responding with incredible anger and ire at such an event.

Mr. Jekielek:

You talk about a nomological network of cumulative evidence. You actually use Islam as an example in the book, and look through a whole series of evidence around the faith. Let’s discuss this concept.

Mr. Saad:

Simply put, a nomological network of cumulative evidence is as follows. Suppose I wish to convince you, Jan, of a particular position. I’ll use an example from a more academic setting, and this framework could also be applied to deciding whether Islam is peaceful or not. Say I want to demonstrate to you that toy preferences have sex-specificity. Boys prefer certain toys and girls prefer certain toys, and those preferences are not due to social construction. It’s not because mama and daddy are evil members of the patriarchy, and they are imposing these gender norms on you. But rather there are certain biological and evolutionary reasons why such sex-specific toy preferences would exist. How would I go about convincing you of that? I’m going to build a network of evidence called a nomological network of cumulative evidence. I’m going to give you data from across cultures, across time periods, across species, across methodologies, all of which are going to triangulate regarding the veracity of my position.

Let me give you specifics. I won’t build the whole network, but I’ll give you a few distinct lines of evidence. I can give you data from developmental psychology that shows that children who by definition are too young to be socialized, and who couldn’t yet be socialized to prefer those toy preferences, already exhibit those sex specific toy preferences. In other words, I am ruling out the social constructivist argument. So that’s one line of evidence. I can also give you data from across species. I can give you vervet monkeys, I can give you rhesus monkeys, I can give you our closest animal cousins, chimpanzees, showing you that they exhibit the same sex-specific toy preferences. Unless you want to argue that vervet monkeys have parents who are a member of the evil patriarchy, it’s going to become difficult for you to hold to that position.

I can give you data from ancient Greece and ancient Rome 2,500 years ago showing you that on the funerary mausoleums where children are depicted playing, little boys are shown playing with balls and hammers, and little girls are shown with playing with dolls. I’ll do one more, but you get the general idea. I can give you data from pediatric endocrinology where little girls who suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a endocrinological disorder that masculinizes the behavior of little girls, have a reversal of what toy they normally like. Their toy preferences become like those of boys. So, look what I’ve done. I have given you the data. By the way, I can also give you data from completely different cultures. The sub-Saharan nomadic cultures have the same toy preferences.

Basically, what I have done, metaphorically speaking, is put the epistemological noose around your neck. Why? Because I have given you so much across-time, across-space, across-culture, and across-animal data which all demonstrates the veracity of my position. So, I don’t have to be hysterical. I don’t have to emote louder than you. I simply have to have the cognitive acuity and discipline to build that network with confidence. Then, I watch you cower in silence as I win my argument.

The beauty of this methodology is that it allows me to go into places where I know a priori the crowd is going to be very hostile, and yet I walk with the full self-assuredness and swagger of someone who’s already built that nomological network. So, good luck to you if you wish to debate me on such an issue.

On the other hand, that allows me to have epistemic humility. What does that mean? I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. Jan, if you were to ask me, “Hey Gad, Canada was one of the first countries to legalize marijuana. What have been the societal, economic, and  political repercussions of that?” I would say, “Frankly, I haven’t built the requisite nomological network to offer you the proper intelligent answer. Therefore, I withhold an opinion until I do so.” It really is the way that people should be adjudicating all of these important societal issues. But again, the difficulty in administering this mind vaccine is that it takes effort. If people are going to go, “La, la, la, la. I don’t want to hear what you have to say,” then all of the nomological networks in the world are not going to convince you. The only way that my mechanism works is if my interlocutor is sufficiently intellectually honest to at least hear my nomological network. And if so, I have a good chance of swaying their opinion.

Mr. Jekielek:

When I was reading about the nomological network, which by the way is something beyond meta-analysis from what I can see, it made me think of public health policy. Through conversations with people who I consider to be world experts on this issue, over the last couple of years we’ve killed public health policy. The reason that we’ve killed public health policy is because we have stopped looking at the body of evidence, the body of information, and the different consequences that come as a result of enacting certain policies. In this case, we basically fixated on COVID. Everything had to be based on COVID. Let the consequences of our policy of trying to eradicate COVID be damned. Let those things be damned. Effectively, that’s what has happened. In fact, there’s even a recent article out of the UK where we have people essentially admitting that’s what happened in terms of the policy development. I didn’t expect anyone to admit that, but that’s what is happening.

Mr. Saad:

I’m glad you linked it to a contemporary issue, because the COVID public policy manifestations are the exact the opposite of building a nomological network. Charitably, one could say, “Well, people were just kind of going along in an ad-hoc, seat-of-the-pants kind of way. How else could you explain why it’s a 6 foot distance, rather than an 8 foot distance? Show me the data. They don’t have it. Why is it that when I would go to a dollar store, one aisle you weren’t allowed to go down because it was non-essential, but another aisle you were allowed to? What is the epidemiological virologist fact that justifies such a policy?

To be charitable, a lot of these errors in public policy were due to the fact there’s a fog of war going on, and people were just trying to respond in any way they could. And that, of course, would create all sorts of inconsistencies in public policy. But my non-charitable hat suggests that in many cases the policies enacted were willfully diabolical. As you may remember, Jan, there were hundreds of health professionals with PhD and MD after their names who wrote a letter saying, “From a public health perspective, holding a gathering of 50,000 people because it supports BLM, the pros and cons of the health effects downstream are such that we should hold the gathering.”

Going to see grandma as she’s dying with stage-4 pancreatic cancer cannot be allowed, because of the virus. But having 50,000 people march because of the George Floyd-BLM thing is justified from a public policy perspective. If I put on my charitable hat, it’s the fog of war that caused people to enact all sorts of idiotic policies. If I put my non-charitable hat, it’s a manifestation of how politics could even parasitize something as noble as public health policy.

Mr. Jekielek:

That letter was signed by 1,200 health professionals. I remember, because I actually looked it up. This letter that you’re describing is titled “Open Letter Advocating for an Anti-Racist Public Health Response to Demonstrations Against Systemic Injustice Occurring During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” That’s the title of the letter. I had to read it to you to get your response, but you’ve already got me started here. Now when that happened, so many people that loosely describe themselves as disaffected liberals got shaken up by this. Your thoughts?

Mr. Saad:

Well, I’m glad those people are waking up, because at the very least, what they’re demonstrating is that they have the intellectual humility to revise their opinions in light of incoming evidence. Oftentimes people will tell me, “It’s hard to say what your political orientation is.” The reason that is the case is not because I try to be coy and be mysterious on what my positions are. It is because I am an ideas man. On some issues, you would think I’m very conservative. On other things, you would think that I’m the most liberal guy in the world.

Let me give you examples of each. When it comes to immigration policy, you would think that I’m conservative, because I do believe that countries, sovereign nations should have borders. It is not the intrinsic right of every human being to go wherever they wish. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a country? This may or may not surprise you, but when it comes to the death penalty, I tend to lean much more conservative. If we find your DNA in the body cavities of five children, then you forgo your right to live. If the argument is, “Well, what if he’s innocent?” Then, we could set the bar anywhere that makes you feel comfortable. You have to have had your DNA in five children before we execute you. I see no moral problem with executing you if you engage in such egregious acts. On the other hand, when it comes to trans issues and LGBTQ, I couldn’t give a damn about what you do. I don’t care how you identify yourself. You would think I’m the most socially liberal person in the world.

To  those people who might be revising their opinions, take each issue on its own merits. Don’t be part of a political tribe. However, most people simply can’t extricate themselves from their need to belong. “I am a liberal, therefore I have to agree wholesale with every single platform issue that Joe Biden says or that the other guy says.” No, you have a brain, and you have neural circuitry. Why don’t you pick and choose the issues and then enunciate why you support them or don’t support them? One of the reasons why my platform grew the way that it has is precisely because I come across as someone who is truthful. I defend my positions in the best way that I can. And I would like to think that I’m not in the least bit tribal.

Mr. Jekielek:

Since we were talking about the pandemic, I noticed that you were giving Dr. Fauci a warm send off.

Mr. Saad:

Yes. I recently posted a satirical piece, although I don’t break character. I do make it seem as though I’m being genuine. I said, “There really is no point for me or any other academic to continue as an academic, because since Dr. Fauci not only is the embodiment of science, he is science. Since he’s retiring, there is really no trajectory by which I can go on in my academic career, because he was the light that was illuminating my scientific trajectory.” Of course, I was being facetious, because whatever you may think of some of his policies, to exhibit that level of delusion of grandeur and megalomania and narcissism struck me as rather off-putting. I think this is what you’re referring to in terms of that video clip.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to bring together a few of our topics. One of the things I really enjoyed about “The Parasitic Mind” is the theme of dehumanization. For example, during the pandemic, it became the pandemic of the unvaccinated, irrespective of how insane that actual position was from a biological perspective. Somehow, it turned into that. Again, not to harp on Sam Harris specifically, but he and a lot of people think the Trump supporters are some kind of weird tribe that is completely captivated and unable to think for themselves, and probably really nasty people. As you mentioned earlier, the Holocaust is the quintessential example of this kind of thinking. And we see the same kind of dehumanization with different religious and spiritual groups in China. In a weird way, it’s a common trait of humanity, and it’s also harnessed by demagogues.

Mr. Saad:

Yes. That’s perfectly stated, and that’s precisely why I found Sam’s position so galling. In his most recent Trigonometry chat, to which you have referred several times, he said, “Of all Trump voters,” I don’t know how many, let’s call it 80 million, “79,999,999 are complete degenerates who sleep with their sisters.” If you remember, he did give a pass to a single individual, and that’s his friend Peter Thiel. So, Sam Harris was sufficiently generous as to grant one pass to a single Trump voter. I’m speaking now as Sam, “I know Peter Thiel, and I know that he’s smart. So, I’m sure he may have some valid reasons why he did the unthinkable in supporting Trump, but for those other 79 million-plus cretins who sleep with their sisters, there’s absolutely no possible rational way they could have voted for such a monster.”

Now in 2016, Jan, before Trump was elected, I had appeared on Sam’s show and I had explained to him using principles from the psychology of decision making, how perfectly rational human beings could have voted for Trump. I’ll give one example here, if I may. There is a decision making rule called the Lexicographic Rule, which basically works as follows. Let’s suppose I’m choosing between cars. The  Lexicographic Rule would be that I only look at my most important attribute. Let’s say for me, it’s price. I choose the car which scores better on that attribute. What does that mean? I didn’t look at the other 18, 20 attributes that define a car, I only looked at my most important attribute. Let’s say I’m choosing between toothpaste. I only look at whichever one is on sale, and that’s the one I buy.

So now let’s apply the Lexicographic Rule to Trump versus Hillary Clinton. Let’s suppose I am a Lexicographic Rule user, and I only care about immigration. That is my one issue, the that I vote on. Rightly or wrongly, if I think that Trump scores better on immigration policy than Hillary Clinton, then it would be perfectly rational for me to choose Donald Trump, despite the 50 other attributes Hillary Clinton might have scored better on. I could give you 50 other decision rules that can explain why perfectly rational people could have voted for Trump. Apparently, Sam didn’t learn from my lecture that I offered for free on his show, and for the next five years he continued dehumanizing 79 million people. Ultimately, that’s why I decided to speak out against his positions. Not because I hold any animus against him, but for precisely what you said—the mechanism that he is using to denigrate and reject half of America is exactly what the Holocaust is.

Mr. Jekielek:

I read a book recently and interviewed a man named Mattias Desmet. I was told that you’re not familiar with his body of work.

Mr. Saad:

I’m not.

Mr. Jekielek:

His book is The Psychology of Totalitarianism. I’m actually having him in person here in the studio tomorrow to discuss his book further. I won’t go into the details, but dehumanization is a critical element of enacting totalitarian policy in society.

Mr. Saad:

100 per cent.

Mr. Jekielek:

And this is deeply disturbing to me.

Mr. Saad:

To link it to my evolutionary work, coalitional thinking, which is us versus them, is an indelible part of the human brain’s architecture. I can’t remember the reference for the study. I had first heard of it as a doctoral student in an advanced social psychology course, so forgive me if I don’t give the proper reference. But there was a study that I remember our professor at the time had talked about, and it’s a brilliant study. So you bring people into the lab and you put a sticker on them, let’s say a blue sticker or a red sticker. Then you say, “Oh, sorry, I’ll come back into the room in a few minutes and then we’ll do part two.” And of course, ostensibly, what you’re trying to do is see how people now will interact with one another in the waiting room.

What happens, as you might expect, is the blue dot people start talking to each other, and the red dot people start talking to each other. So at that point, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or Muslim, it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, it doesn’t matter whether you’re tall or short or black or white. Somehow, through the introduction of an irrelevant, nonsensical cue of belongingness, a blue dot or a red dot, you can get people to band together accordingly.

What is brilliant about such a study is it shows exactly how we create these delineations. When a totalitarian thug comes in, he has to place down those lines using hyper-steroids. “Look at those bad guys over there.” There is a fundamental principle in psychology called Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is necessary for humans socializing. It’s when I can put myself in your mind, Jan, to know what you’re thinking. By the way, one of the ways that you diagnose autistic children early is precisely because they don’t have the capacity for Theory of Mind. They don’t have that acuity. They don’t have that ability.

So, when Sam Harris and his friends are completely having no theory of mind when it comes to putting themselves in the position of a likely rational Trump voter, they’re being, metaphorically speaking, grotesquely autistic. Because they’re saying, “There is no means by which I could explain how those degenerates could ever do such a thing.” And so, combine our coalitional thinking with our inability to have theory of mind for the other, and you get the fertile ground for totalitarianism.

Mr. Jekielek:

Something that’s been on my mind since I was reading “The Parasitic Mind” is this idea of woke ideology. The methodology is something like you take the thing that’s the exception, you pretend it’s the rule, and then you apply it to everyone. I don’t know if I’ve quite seen this described this way in the past, but does this ring true to you? I see this kind of thing replicated not just in woke ideology, but in all sorts of realms, and perhaps in public health as well. I’m wondering whether it is because of an infusion of this ideology into society more broadly. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Mr. Saad:

There are several things at play here in what you’re saying. Even irrespective of the parasitic woke ideology pathogens, people have certain cognitive traps that they succumb to that hold true even outside the context of woke ideology. For example, when I lecture on evolutionary psychology and I say that human beings are a sexually dimorphic species in physical size— which is a fancy way of saying that there are sex-specific differences—men are taller and heavier than women. That is an undeniable scientific fact. Someone will raise their hand and say, “But Dr. Saad, my aunt Julie is taller than my uncle Bob.” Then, I say, “Oh, no! Darwinian Theory is dead. Back to the drawing board we go.” So they use an exemplar, a singular example, to falsify a statement that holds true at the population level.

Men are taller than women, even though the women who play in the WNBA are taller than most men. One doesn’t invalidate the other. So, those type of cognitive breakdowns occur independently of woke ideology. If you’d like, they are blind spots in the architecture of the human mind. In a sense, that made Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky the incredible psychologists that they are. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for that work. Tversky had already passed away, so he can’t win it posthumously. But they demonstrated that we actually violate many of the principles of so-called rational decision making. We’re not nearly as cognitively rational as classical economists think we are.

You were also alluding to is something that I talk about in Chapter 6 of “The Parasitic Mind,” a collective malady which I call Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome. This is where you deny reality in ways that are truly hallucinatory.  Of course, the metaphor is the ostrich buries its head in the sand to ignore reality. Even though the ostrich doesn’t actually do that, that metaphor has now become apt. We understand what it means.

I give many examples of that malady in that chapter, Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome, for short, OPS. So for example, when it comes to Islamic terrorism, I listed in the book, not satirically or being facetious or playful, I listed a list of “causes” that super smart, progressive professors have offered for why Islamic terrorism exists. The list certainly had nothing to do with Islamic doctrines, even though in the 37,000 plus terror attacks since 9/11 alone, the terrorist will say that, “We are doing it for the particular doctrine in our faith” and they will quote it from the Koran or the Hadith. Let me give you some examples. Again, I am not being facetious here; It’s due to beard bullying. It’s due to lack of art exposure.

If only Ahmed Mohammed Hussain had been exposed to Marc Chagall and Modigliani, then he wouldn’t have joined ISIS. It’s due to climate change, as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, explained on air. I have the quote in The Parasitic Mind. He said, “It’s perfectly reasonable to think that climate change was the downstream cause of why the terrorist did the Bataclan attack.” For those of you who don’t remember, it’s when they walked in Paris into a concert hall and mowed everybody down. It was actually due to carbon emissions and solar panels. When you see people be so parasitized by lunacy, is there room to be optimistic about the state of the world? Yet, I remain optimistic.

Mr. Jekielek:

There was a video clip that was circulating around the internet. It was basically titled something like, “The moment we lost Afghanistan,” or something like this. I don’t know if you remember. The clip is a very educated, state department-type person explaining very, very sincerely to a group of Afghan women what the Duchamp urinal is. It’s up on a screen and she’s kind of explaining that this is art, and these people that are watching are asking, “What is this?” That’s what you see in their eyes. Which is what I am wondering too, actually.

Mr. Saad:

Having the Afghan women stare at a urinal and being perplexed that it’s art is really them demonstrating, unbeknownst to them, that they disdain postmodernism. Postmodernism, as I explain in The Parasitic Mind, is an idea pathogen. Examples of idea pathogens would be postmodernism, social constructivism, and biophobia, the fear of using biology to explain human phenomena. Another would be cultural relativism, which says, “Who are we to judge other cultures, if they want to do it this way?” Militant feminism is another idea pathogen. All of these and many others that I describe in the book are forms of idea pathogens. I argue that the most insidious, and the worst of all idea pathogens is postmodernism, because it fundamentally attacks the epistemology of truth. It’s not simply that you’re spreading specific falsehoods.

When Donald Trump says, “There’s never been a president that’s been more loved and revered than I am,” he may be promulgating a falsehood, but that’s a singular falsehood. Postmodernism rejects the possibility of seeking truth. It’s the ultimate epistemological falsehood, because it basically says that we are always constrained by our subjectivity, by our personal biases. So, to speak of a truth with a capital T, there could not be such a thing, because there is no such truth.

I famously give an example in my book, and I’ll link it back in a second to the Afghani ladies with the urinals. I give the example in the book where this happened in 2002. One of my doctoral students had just defended his dissertation and we were going out to dinner to celebrate. It was my doctoral student, myself, my wife, and he was bringing a date along. And so he calls me before we head out to a restaurant and says, “I just wanted to tell you that the lady that I’m bringing tonight for dinner is a graduate student in postmodernism, women’s studies, and cultural anthropology.” And I answered, “Ah, okay, so the Holy Trinity of crap.” The reason why he was saying this is because he was warning me, “Let’s be on our best behavior possible.”

Mr. Jekielek:

“Don’t embarrass me, Gad. Gad, please don’t embarrass me.”

Mr. Saad:

“Don’t embarrass me, Gad.” Exactly. “Let’s just celebrate my great PhD achievement.” I said, “Oh, I got you. No problem. Mum’s the word, I’m on my best behavior.” Of course, that was an utter lie, because about halfway through the evening, very politely, but inquisitively, I turned to the lady in question. I said, “Oh, I hear you’re a postmodernist.” She goes, “Yes.” I said, “There are no universal truths. Correct?” She goes, “Yes.” I said, “Well, I think that there are some universal truths. Could I maybe propose some, and then you could tell me how I’m going wrong?” She said, “Yes, go for it.” Now, this is 2002, Jan, remember? So I’m predating the thinking that men can be pregnant, and that we now have transgender activism. So it was truly prophetic. 2002. I say, “Is it not true that within homo sapiens, humans, it is only women that bear children? Is that not a universal fact?”

So she looks at me, scoffs at my simpleton mind and my inherent sexism and says, “Absolutely not true.” I said, “How is it not true?” She said, “Well, because there is a Japanese tribe on a Japanese island whereby within the folkloric, mythological realm, it is the men who bear children. So, by you restricting this the biological realm, that’s how you keep us barefoot and pregnant.” After I recovered from the mini-stroke that I experienced facing such stupidity, I said, “Okay, let me not give an example that is so corrosive and contentious that only women bear children. How about we use a cosmological example? Is it not true that within the Earth’s vantage point, that sailors have since time immemorial relied on the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west?” There she used something, an offshoot of the postmodernism called deconstruction theory, originated by Jacques Derrida, that language creates reality.

She said, “What do you mean by east and west? Those are arbitrary labels. What do you mean by the sun? That, which you call the sun, I might call dancing hyena.” Those literally were her words. I said, “Well fine, the dancing hyena rises in the east and sets in the west.” She said, “I don’t play those label games.” So, when I couldn’t create a Venn diagram, an intersection where she and I could meet and agree that only women bear children and there is such a thing as the sun and it rises in the east and sets in the west, if we couldn’t agree on that, then you could only conclude that postmodernism, as I explained in “The Parasitic Mind,” is literally a form of intellectual terrorism.

Now, let me come back to the Afghani women. In the book I explain that postmodernism has found its way into every possible discipline that you could think of, including art. Even much more embarrassing than arguing that a urinal is art, how about this? I’m not being satirical or facetious here. How about invisible art? There was a curated art exhibit in a real museum where the art was invisible. You could put your own meaning into what you were seeing. So, I had written in the margins in my book’s first draft, “Well, for my next book, I have already found the topic. I’ll have a front cover, a back cover, and it will be empty, and then I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what is in it.” And then my editor wrote me saying that book has already been written. Michael Knowles has already written a book called, “Reasons Why You Should Vote for Democrats,” or something like that. And of course, it was an empty book.

All of this is to show that when people can genuinely go to an art exhibit and stand and wonder while looking at nothing, those are parasitized minds.

Mr. Jekielek:

Gad, we’re coming up to the end of our program here. I could talk to you for hours and hours. We’re going to have to invite you back in the not too distant future to speak further. I’m just absolutely fascinated by the book, “The Parasitic Mind,” and by your thinking and by your intellectual honesty. There are two things I want to cover. Have you faced any personal repercussions? There’s something called cancellation out there.

Mr. Saad:

Right. I certainly have. I can give you a range of downstream effects. In 2017, the number of death threats that I was receiving were so outlandish, both in terms of what was going to be done to me, and the number that I was receiving that when I would go to the university, I had to be accompanied by security. They would lock the classroom where I was lecturing. If students wanted to come back in, the door had to be unlocked. There would be a security guy waiting for me when I finished class who would then come with me as I would walk out for my wife to pick me up. I had to go with a representative of my university to the Montreal police, not the campus police, but to the the Montreal police and file a report.

I’m a very calm guy. I can handle everything that comes my way. I don’t care. I truly am a honey badger. But I started experiencing symptoms of anxiety attacks and panic attacks, because I literally didn’t know when they were going to come at me, or whether the next minute would be my last minute, the Salman Rushdie stuff. Luckily, knock on wood, nothing’s ever happened, and may it continue forever more. That would be the most egregious downstream effect. To those people who would say things like, “But professor, it’s not hard for you to be courageous. You have tenure.” Well, let me send the death threats to them and then they can tell me how much tenure protects you. So, that’s number one.

Number two, I’ve had to bear a professional cost. I know many universities that wanted to extend me offers because of my academic dossier were stopped, because when other faculty members would hear that Gad Saad might be hired here, they would start a mutiny and then I would lose that opportunity. This happened even within my own university. I held a chaired professorship, the most prestigious professorship that can be given by the university. It’s a university-wide chair. I held one for 10 years. It would be a cinch for me to hold it for many more years, because my dossier has only increased since then. But I’ve been denied four years in a row, and I can guarantee you that I will never come close to holding such a chair again.

For all sorts of reasons, in all sorts of ways, I have had many, many costs to bear. Many people won’t invite me to the cool kids party, but that’s okay. The reality is the benefits outweigh the cost on two fronts. Number one, I have a very exacting code of personal conduct. Meaning that when I go to bed at night and I lay my head on my pillow, I need to feel that I never walked away from telling the truth. Because if I equivocated, that means I’m a charlatan and that would cause me to have insomnia. In order for me to feel comfortable with my personhood, I have to speak as I am. I am authentic to a fault.

Secondly, my truth telling has allowed me to probably be more influential than all of those professors combined over 30 lifetimes. Even looking at extrinsic reasons for why one should be a truth seeker, it ultimately pays. The world is shaped not by equivocating fence sitters. It is shaped by people who make bold and courageous decisions. I’m not trying to toot my horn, because there are endless people who are more courageous than me. The people who speak truth while they are sitting in the Middle East, those are the heroes, like Raif Badawi who languished for 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia. I am personal friends with their family, his children and his wife. That’s a hero. Salman Rushdie, who was willing to put his life on the line, that’s a hero. Both of them deserve Nobel prizes. I tell people, “Stop worrying about being canceled at your job. Stop worrying about being unfriended on Facebook. Truth is more important than you being canceled.”

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s finish with this. There is a moral courage that you’re describing, and it’s a very real thing. People have told me that I’m courageous for what I do. I looked at myself and thought, “I don’t know if that’s exactly the right word.” It’s something else that’s not quite courage. It’s different. It’s a feeling where you couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t do the right thing or be as honest as you could. I sense that you have this too. I don’t think it’s the same thing as courage. What do you think?

Mr. Saad:

I completely agree. I call it existential authenticity. Actually, in my next book I talk about the good life and about how to seek happiness. You might say, “There’s already been 10,000 books written about that.” Well, they haven’t been written from the perspective of my personal anecdotes and backed up by the science that I use. I’d like to think there are many unique things I say in the book. One of the ways you can truly achieve existential happiness is to be pathologically authentic.

Authenticity can be broken down into two parts. There’s authenticity in the sense of you are a real person. When you meet me, I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I don’t equivocate. I’m authentic in that way. But there’s also an existential authenticity in the following sense. Someone may say, “I always wanted to be a dancer, but I became an accountant because my father and grandfather were accountants. Therefore, I pursued their dream. I suddenly woke up at 60 and said, ‘You know what? I truly regret that I never instantiated the true self that I wanted to be’.”

So, authenticity is really something at the micro level in our unique daily interactions, “Are you authentic or not?” But it also guides our existential happiness, because if you wake up at the end of your life and you look back at your life with little regret, it’s probably because you were authentic to a fault. You really lived by that internal compass that had driven your life. That is the reason for the pillow story that I told you about. When I lay on my pillow, I need to feel that I was true to truth. I never equivocated. I was never a coward. So, you’re spot on, Jan. Authenticity is the way to happiness and liberation.

Mr. Jekielek:

Dr. Gad Saad, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show, and we’ll have you back again soon.

Mr. Saad:

Thank you. What a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Dr. Gad Saad and I on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

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