By a coincidence, I bumped into gurometer and Decoding the Gurus podcast. It’s a much-needed project given the amount of quasi-scientific and quasi-spiritual teaching in the world today. Matt and Chris dissect “gurus” with poignancy and sarcasm rooted in their Australian/Irish temperament. Thought-provoking (non-American!) analysis is refreshing!
I find the term “gurometer” reminiscent of documentaries like Kumare, Marjoe, Religulous, etc. Being a social commentator and writer I actively search for eloquence and outspokenness, especially in combination with a unique outlook on contentious issues. I have my own BS detector and I’ll certainly be augmenting it with some points from the gurometer. All in all, Matt and Chris offer insightful resources.
And I must add that the gurometer has much room for improvement! I delved deep into it and jotted down notes instantaneously (in a document Nara’s Commentary on the Gurometer). In this article, I refine my analysis after listening to a number of podcasts and interviews. I am making both public, inviting Matt and Chris to respond.
I do my best not just to point the finger at logical fallacies, red herrings, syllogisms, and loaded concepts but also to point out ways to fine-tune, calibrate, concretize, and operationalize the gurometer to serve a positive function. I think too much room is given to ranting about the so-called “gurus,” implying that (to quote Chris), “In most cases, guru is used as a term of disparagement.”
Making the gurometer methodical and neutral can turn it into a practical tool both for the naive followers of “gurus” and the “gurus” themselves. Outlining the bad should be followed up by defining a desired, ideal, or at least better alternative. Matt and Chris seem to (intentionally or not) defend a postmodern position (postmodern in the sense of “opposition to epistemic certainty and the stability of meaning.”)
“Yes, but …” dynamic is strong in their analyses. They contend with the validity of some points that the “gurus’” raise but on the next step they will find something slightly flawed even in the points they contended with … and go on and on digging deeper for finer flaws. They state what needs correction but the alternative is not specified and made actionable.
Like in the conversation with Sam Harris (which most likely references this podcast about Sam). Chris keeps insisting on Sam’s tribalism no matter how eloquently Sam explains his position and qualifies it, explaining why he doesn’t agree with being labeled as tribal. Chris sometimes smirks in the background and interrupts Sam with “no, no, no, no, no…” as if to imply: “You don’t get what I actually mean.” I find Sam’s defense excellent; he’s saying: “You may have a specific point, but all in all you keep failing to prove me wrong.”
Towards the end, Sam outwits Chris: “So, you’re telling me you and I are in the same tribe, yet we’re spending all this time disagreeing? This is what it feels like to be in a tribe: three hours of non-stop disagreement? Getting shit on endlessly on your podcasts and getting sniped at on Twitter?”
Sam obviously lost patience with the amount of intellectual contortionism involved in “proving” the (one-sidedly) predetermined “truth.” It’s like debating a flat-earther or a vegan: forget about them ever admitting that their central idea is wrong, you can only debate the details around it. Basically: I miss intellectual humility in asserting essential “truths.” Still, I must congratulate Matt and Chris on doing so well debating Sam Harris, who is a legendary debater with decades of experience.
“Gurus” may be guilty of fragmenting and contorting the image of reality and thus causing actual harm. Still, they will invariably appeal to a significant subsection of society by offering alternative narratives and challenging the dominant mainstream narrative – and they often do this knowingly. The mainstream needs this opposition to save it from going stale and stinky. Someone needs to probe into both old and new all-pervasive practices. Mainstream needs to keep up the stamina by fighting back and winning arguments by proving to be right – authentically. It shouldn’t abuse its privilege and the power of the majority; it needs to admit mistakes and apologize when it turns out it was wrong.
Donald Trump is interfering with the dominant narrative, and others are doing it too, in their own way, be it Robert Malone, David Icke, Eric Weinstein, John McWorther, Joe Rogan, etc. They do it in so many ways, some like a tank, some like a scalpel, some flashy, some dumbly. They often play out as rogue, or martyr archetypes, their massive personas standing above pale, non-controversial academics who purport everything with dry data. That’s why you hear more about Alex Joneses of this world, but almost nothing about meticulous analysts of their BS. In order to gain attention, I had to learn to be at least somewhat outspoken and theatrical, just like these people are. And as Matt and Chris are. That’s how we, the analysts, can have the attention of a wider audience, and that’s how we risk becoming like the people we criticize.
Gurometer has the potential to measure the level of scam/quackery, but to do that fairly I suggest it needs a scale that extends to the positive side, too. I doubt it can achieve anything constructive unless smirky sarcasm gets sufficiently grounded in hardheaded realism, objectivity, and basic human courtesy. I find sarcasm a lot more powerful without smirking. Balancing manners in the critique can make all the difference. I find Chris’s smirking depreciative and offputting, as opposed to, for example, the lighthearted laughs by Dr. Vinay Prasad and Dr. Zubin Damania.
Please, note that mainstream is full of BS too. When I began analyzing mainstream from an extracultural perspective 20 years ago, I wasn’t sure where that would take me. I had an aversion to being an armchair philosopher and I took an extremely pragmatic approach to my analysis. There’s so much that our culture sweeps under the rug – looking at is painful. Our cultural conventions are a jumble of ancient traditions and many generations of quick fixes that fail to amend dumb and unquestioned collective manners. We tend to safeguard a substantial part of our everyday life from scrutiny and reformation.
The “gurus,” who Decoding the Gurus podcast probes into, usually did something significant, rebellious, daring. Somehow or other they brought value to many people’s lives, attracting attention and following. A balanced analysis would recognize and assess the positives of their contribution first and it would point the negative against the backdrop of the positive and against a calibrated scale. I’ll come back to the scale later.
I did a self-assessment with the gurometer. I found myself guilty of both attention-seeking and tribalism to quite a degree. I am guilty of so many other sins, such as writing and selling books, inventing neologisms, being a jack of all trades, etc. When I look around through the prism of the gurometer all of a sudden everyone is somehow or other a “guru,” lurking at me to hoodwink me! Including Matt and Chris. This is hardly an objective tool. It’s two armchair opinionators subjectively assessing other armchair opinionators, committing a lot of guruish BS themselves while exposing it. This cannot lead to much more than a cynical ping pong between the so-called “tribes” (whatever that is, anyway).
The “meter” needs to have a scale with clear qualifiers and definitions of states that are somehow discernable from other states. But I’m rushing ahead … my analysis of the gurometer must begin with the term guru.
Beware! The analysis is long …
Guru in gurometer is deceiving
The term “gurometer” first led me to expect Chris and Matt would scrutinize Rajneesh, Maheshvarananda, Aurobindo, Sai Baba, Sadhguru, Babaji, Dadaji, and similar Indian gurus. I searched for their coverage only to find mentions of a few of them in their coverages of secular “gurus,” (I write “gurus” in quotation marks when I refer to Chris and Matt’s specific meaning, and without quotation marks when I refer to a broader, dictionary meaning).
They contend in the very first episode that the title of the podcast “Decoding the Gurus” might not be final. I found a pretty positive coverage of Anthony De Mello (who I share the fancy of with Chris), but mostly, the center of the target evolves, loosely, from the IDW (Intellectual Dark Web) gang, around which other influential secular “gurus” are strung in concentric circles, some closer some further away from the center.
I listened to the explanation of why Matt and Chris find the term suitable but for me, it still seems like a bad choice. As someone who studied Sanskrit for a number of years, I have a bit of an allergic reaction when I see Sanskrit terms twisted. Chris and Matt use the term “guru” almost exclusively in a negative, diminutive, and even derogatory sense. Look at any dictionary or encyclopedia and you won’t find it described as a “disparaging term to describe secular gurus” (as Chris frames it here).
In Sanskrit (and Hindi and other languages on the Indian subcontinent), the term guru conveys a sense of weight, importance, value, veneer, respect … It can be used to describe elders (such as parents), chiefs, and (spiritual) teachers. I put spiritual in parentheses because teachers were expected to embody high morals alongside the skill they taught, which could be pottery, archery, cooking, farming, rhetorics, philosophy, politics, arts, linguistics, etc. Dronacharya, for example, was a famed teacher of military arts from Mahabharata. The term “acharya” in his name denotes that he taught by his example, not only by his words.
Gurus were highly respected because they kept and passed on knowledge that their society depended upon. They were not necessarily the best in a particular skill, but they were the best in teaching it. To be gurus they were expected to be detached from material goods and fame. For subsistence, they usually depended on alms. A “rich guru,” possessing a lot of stuff and living a posh lifestyle is a contradiction in itself.
Gurus’ reputation increased by winning debates against other experts in their field. In such debates, fake gurus would be exposed and their reputations damaged or lost. If they were thus knocked from a high moral position or fell down by being dishonest, disingenuous, etc. they were shunned and outcasted. All this, of course, depended on people’s ability to see through them.
Gurometer focuses on flaws of character and behavior instead of focusing on the reader’s discernment (or at least including it). Giving people a list of negative personal characteristics can have adverse results. Teaching people the skills of seeing through all this would mean guiding them through the flaws in their inner processing of information, jumping to conclusions, looking at the world through colored glasses, etc. If you don’t deal with the colored glasses and just give them the list of the “gurus” flaws that might only add another color film to the glasses.
Regardless of the time when gurus were around: prior to modern science or recently, the moment of seeing through quackery is shocking for the follower. The most ardent follower will often deny the evidence that her or his guru is fake. There are ample examples of this phenomenon. As some in the Hare Krishna movement used to say: “Right or wrong, my guru is always right.”
Sadly, science hasn’t flooded the entire society with enlightenment and critical thinking. At least not deeply enough. Enlightenment remains relatively small pockets and is far from being homogenous. Folklore, superstition, popular culture, peer pressure, cultural and religious indoctrination, etc. condition people’s basic social instincts, desirable affiliations, information processing, logic, and reason … and make them vulnerable to quackery. The social media fragmentation only makes things worse.
Quackery happens everywhere and will continue to be a problem in many forms, including random people posing as trustworthy moral authorities, or “gurus” and some of them gaining large followings. I don’t know what’s worse: when fake “gurus” do it knowing they’re fake or when they’re actually convinced they are genuine gurus — in either case followers worship them the same and even a sharp observer will have a hard time discerning fake from real.
During my studies in India, I was lucky to be exposed to (what I would consider) authentic gurus (who no one ever heard of in the West). One of them spoke seventeen languages and wrote poetry in nine. He was an epitome of modesty, light-heartedness, humor, and self-scrutiny. He never claimed access to specific knowledge. I imagine him scrutinizing the gurometer and laughing, noticing characteristics in himself and being entertained by it. (Especially the neologisms since in Sanskrit, it is very common to make up new terms and concepts.) He played along with what his society accepted from a guru, but without pomp.
I also met many murky gurus who’d score high on the gurometer. I dedicated my two travels to India some 20 years ago to assess the authenticity of the guru figures known in the West (Sai Baba, Osho, Brahma Kumaris, various Vaishnava ashrams). I went there with a list of questions (my version of a gurometer) and tested the gurus and their adjacents. On those trips, I realized many meanings of the saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (Here, I’ll just keep it at that.)
I am aware that the perceived meaning of the term guru has degraded since the 1960s (some would say even since the 1920s) thanks to the influx of charismatic figures from India who presented themselves (or were interpreted by their followers) as gurus. Jiddu Krishnamurti famously denounced the concept of a guru already some 100 years ago (while, paradoxically, still being seen and followed as a guru). On the other hand, being a business guru meant something positive, describing a business expert with influence and integrity in their field. In any case, my point is that the appropriation of the term guru in the Western world had both positive and negative connotations. Guru is not a disparaging term.
in the gurometer definition, I frowned at the lowest point that the meaning of “guru” has reached: “Someone who spouts pseudo-profound bullshit (with bullshit being speech that is persuasive without any regard for the truth).”
My reaction was: “Haven’t you heard the saying that when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you?” In other words: with such a slandering definition of “guru,” do Chris and Matt believe that demanding, academic readers and listeners will take seriously their claims of their academic bona fides (which they put in opposition to those that they disparage as “gurus”)? How is that not spouting pseudo-profound bullshit?
I contend that many guruish figures from both East and West are indeed guilty of what is described in the above definition. I don’t think it justifies the contortion of the term guru even more towards meaning: “narcissistic, arrogant charlatans.” Should we bury the original meaning of “wise elders who deserve reverence for their knowledge, skill, and moral integrity,” and replace it with the disparaging one? As critical as I am of both religious and secular gurus (and “gurus”), I think such linguistic contortions are neither wise nor needed.
I know I might be treading on the edge of the etymological fallacy and I wish to stress that I’m by no means advocating for linguistic purism. Maybe Matt and Chris are right and the traditional meaning of the term “guru” is forever lost and irredeemable, at least in the West. Regardless of this, it would behoove academics to contextualize their subject matter very carefully and not assume that the audience shares the same (negative) interpretation of the key term that their entire project relies upon.
It would be fun to make an academometer and rigorously analyze Chris and Matt’s academic integrity. Would they agree with the term “academic” being used in an exclusively negative sense? Would they appreciate me describing them as dry, cynical armchair opinionators and podcasters, caught up in circular thinking, feeding on criticizing their subjects? It would be fun, but I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think this would offer a fair and accurate depiction. Real academics would shun me, rightfully so.
There is too much valuable knowledge and perspective in what Matt and Chris offer; slandering it would be unfair. Even this analysis of mine, because it is about correction, may misguide the reader into thinking that it’s all bad. It’s not! Go and listen to Decoding the Gurus! But know that it won’t really be about the gurus and it won’t be decoding either.
I am probably too late to suggest a correction of the name as the branded product has been around for a while and has caught quite some attention. “Charlatanometer,” “Quackmeter,” “Decoding the Quacks,” don’t sound so cool. Despite Matt and Chris stating that they think covering Deepak Chopra would be like shooting ducks in a barrel, I would say that would actually be a very good test of the metrics.
It would be good to qualify the use of the term “guru” better to avoid coming across as those they criticize: as populist attention seekers, pretending their shallow criticism is rigorous scrutiny. “Gurometer” sounds exotic and fancy, which raises unease in the listener. I think that’s unnecessary. BTW, when I am invited to apply critical thinking I have a habit of applying it to those inviting me first, particularly when an academic background is quoted as proof of their credibility. Unless, of course, Chris and Matt disparage the term “academic” in the same way they do “guru.”
Although I am not Indian myself and I don’t see the false “appropriation” of the term “guru” as desecrating Indian culture, I appreciate the bright side of Indian culture and I hope my critique will land well. I’d gladly engage in a conversation with Matt and Chris to explore the dialectic of guruism in the East and the West and see where the meaning is actually going and what is a wise response to that.
Is it “decoding” or “recoding” the gurus?
Decoding is “converting (a coded message) into intelligible language.” If the decoder doesn’t consciously leave out judgments and interpretations, he has not decoded but instead recoded: replaced the original code with a new one.
I studied translation theory and worked as an interpreter for some years between a few different languages. The foundational rule was to translate the meaning of words and leave it up to the audience to make moral judgments and interpretations. In the case of an obvious lapsus, it was normal to correct the speaker, but in regards to moral and scientific “correctness,” I had to hold back my internal comments and simply translate the meaning of words. If I had a chance to talk to the speaker after the presentation, I would point out problems I noticed and invite correction (so she or he could avoid embarrassment in the future). I would do the same if I found their “code” hermetic and/or unintelligible.
The next level is to acknowledge that there is always a context in which a speaker or a writer nest the message. Anthony De Mello speaking to a hall full of Christians requires clear nesting of messages to “code” them appropriately and make them intelligible to the audience in question. Sam Harris talking about meditation to an audience interested in meditation is another example where following a “code” facilitates understanding. If Sam were standing in front of a Christian audience, I am sure he’d choose a somewhat different “code” to present the same ideas – depending on the receptiveness of the audience, of course. (I am not very enthusiastic about Sam-style meditation since he acquired a new-agey chest voice. I loved and still love when he speaks in his razor-sharp deep voice on divisive issues, especially religion – I love the later tone of his even when I disagree with him.)
I salute Matt and Chris for taking on Sam Harris, Bret and Eric Weinstein, James Lindsay, Joe Rogan, Robert Malone, etc. I am all in favor of putting these influential figures under a microscope. I salute the effort to wake those around these figures from passive consumption of their opinions and falling into any kind of echo chamber. I am in favor of “decoding” misleading and deceptive messages, but I lose trust in this work when I see recoding. When having fun turns to ridicule; when sarcasm is hitting below the belt. When academic and moral incentives get mixed up it’s highly unlikely that the picture presented is accurate and morally sound.
I heard once that a good writer reveals the truth about his characters while a bad writer reveals the truth about himself. The same could be said about a bad critic telling more about himself than about those he criticizes. Trying to expose someone’s (hidden) agenda sloppily, may cause the critic to expose his own agenda instead (like three fingers pointing back at you when you point a finger at someone). I see their “decoding” as repackaging a product from one box to another, not actually taking it out of the box and presenting it as it is.
Chris might remember De Mello’s words:
When you say of someone, “He’s a communist,” understanding has stopped at that moment. You slapped a label on him. “She’s a capitalist.” Understanding has stopped at that moment. You slapped a label on her, and if the label carries undertones of approval or disapproval, so much the worse! How are you going to understand what you disapprove of, or what you approve of, for that matter? All of this sounds like a new world, doesn’t it? No judgment, no commentary, no attitude: one simply observes, one studies, one watches, without the desire to change what is. Because if you desire to change what is into what you think should be, you no longer understand. A dog trainer attempts to understand a dog so that he can train the dog to perform certain tricks. A scientist observes the behavior of ants with no further end in view than to study ants, to learn as much as possible about them. He has no other aim. He’s not attempting to train them or get anything out of them. He’s interested in ants, he wants to learn as much as possible about them. That’s his attitude. The day you attain a posture like that, you will experience a miracle. You will change—effortlessly, correctly. Change will happen, you will not have to bring it about. As the life of awareness settles on your darkness, whatever is evil will disappear. Whatever is good will be fostered. You will have to experience that for yourself.
Yes, De Mello’s words are New Agey, spiritual, guruish, religious, sentimental, poetic … many labels could be used to describe them. But they do the job of telling us something about our colored eyeglasses. Throughout history, philosophers and poets alike relied on analogies and stories to bring attention to what’s most difficult to see: ourselves. We may look the other way and call this unscientific, but one fact remains: poetic analogies and stories will touch people’s hearts and change their perspectives. Dissecting them with scientific rigor will kill the beauty, especially if you push the analysis too far.
Criticizing doers is very easy, creating viable alternatives is difficult
In the last decade, I worked with teams from more than 100 countries doing nationwide cleanups. Going out there, getting our hands dirty picking trash. In my country, Slovenia, 14% of the population went out to pick trash on April 17, 2010. We collected 20,000 tons of trash on that day. There’s even a documentary about it. For being at the core of this work I was praised – but also criticized.
I had a first-hand experience of how difficult is to manage massive projects: mistakes happen all the time when thousands of people are involved – and criticizing them is, oh, so easy.
There is no other choice but to ignore the insistent critics as the energy is needed elsewhere. When critics are also doers, not merely armchair opinionators, I strive to make alliances with them since their and my contrasting perspectives can be complementary. When they point at my shortcomings there is a lot of truth in their critique. They help me get better – I need their feedback to strive. But engaging with critics who bitterly yammer about this and that and keep looking for finer and finer flaws in my actions and words – that’s a waste of my time. Nowadays there are too many opinionators, posing as smartass “gurus” online and fighting for a piece of cake in this new attention economy. I think we need more people growing healthy food and, yes, picking up trash, and fewer people engaged in endless ping pong with trash being thrown between the so-called new “cultures.”
Every ambitious enterprise has flaws. It will be criticized. The recurring themes of the last decade are narcissistic hypersensitivity and infantile tantrums. They remind me of one of my favorite quotes by Duško Radović: “Let’s fight for dignity and a high level of our dissatisfaction. It is a shame what people can get dissatisfied with.”
I am grateful to everyone who points out my flaws when I sense in their words that they genuinely wish me to make progress. If their words signal a negative bias (even by how they choose to label me), I doubt that engaging with them can have a positive outcome for either of us (or anyone else, for that matter).
My position is peculiar, as I am a doer but I am also a critic. I can be emphatic in both roles. Having been an object of harsh criticism changed my style of criticizing others. In my role as an essayist/journalist, I keep in mind how challenging it is to be a changemaker. If I choose to criticize, I make an effort to be gentle, firm, and constructive. I don’t attempt to not offend. Instead, I remind myself of a witty rule of thumb: “A gentleman is someone who never offends anyone unintentionally.” (Which needs to be taken with a grain of salt, of course.)
Influential people who gained a following add some kind of value to people’s lives. They can be absolutely crooked and still be idolized by many. That’s because something is inherently crooked in our mainstream culture, not because these people are such good swindlers. The Catholic church holds immense authority despite its deluge of atrocities. Similarly, “gurus” (spiritual and secular) will be widely followed no matter how much their nefarious deeds get “decoded.” Decoding should be a means to something more than that. You don’t measure things for no reason; you do it so they would fit better together.
I’d like to mention a relevant book, written by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol. The title of the book is Alamut. It’s a literary, historical depiction of an Islamic sect from the 11th century and it raises a moral dilemma: since masses only change by manipulation isn’t a good leader justified to manipulate them because if he doesn’t, other (crooked) leaders will? The idea is that you cannot “decode” the society and thus guide it to a truthful state. The only option is swapping “codes” – but if you take responsibility for doing that you are also responsible for all the (bad!) consequences. The religious leader in the book justifies his actions with the slogan “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” (That’s one of the reasons why literary analysts tie the novel to postmodernism.)
I love Anthony De Mello!
I really enjoyed Chris and Matt’s podcast on Anthony De Mello! De Mello was one of my deprogramming influences when I was leaving the Hare Krishna movement. I’ve listened to De Mello’s entire “Wake Up to Life” seminar many, many times – of which the book Awareness is almost a direct transcript.
Today I can see the naivety in De Mello’s teachings but I take that charitably. He has brought and will probably keep bringing value to more people’s lives than I ever will. Various “manipulations” De Mello relies upon are common in all religions, it’s what priests do every day in thousands of churches much more radically. To a mind constrained by a narrow religious bias, De Mello’s arguments can be liberating. De Mello synthesized eastern and western religious wisdom just like Alan Watts did. De Mello had actually read Watt’s books and listened to his talks and thought highly of him.
De Mello uses the language of his audience: pious Christians. That has to be taken into account. I don’t know would he be able to use any other language, other code, but still, that was his domain, and relative to that background his teaching is full of innovation. I listen to De Mello as I read Krishnamurti or Kant or Marx or Varoufakis or Ian Rand – in the context of their time and social reality. I think context should always inform the boundary within which we understand, analyze and criticize such impactful individuals.
Acknowledging their subjectivity due to their context helps us be more objective. When a critic presents himself as coming from an objective, scientific point of view as opposed to a “guru” who holds a subjective, limited position – including De Mello – the critic is imposing a dubious hierarchy on the audience. Not everyone is able to see through it and only take the good.
My writing taught me that the best way to keep a moral high ground is by carefully including myself in the criticism. I respect people who can smile and admit: “I was wrong.” And then actually take steps to correct their mistakes. I learned that from De Mello. He quotes someone saying:
“The three most difficult things for a human being are not physical feats or intellectual achievements. They are, first, returning love for hate; second, including the excluded; third, admitting that you are wrong.”
I was surprised by how often I agreed with Chris (less so with Matt) in the critiques he had of De Mello. I know De Mello’s teachings intricately and I am used to both defending and criticizing him in conversations with my friends. So, were I ever to “decode” Chris and Matt, I’d base the friendly decoding on their podcast about De Mello. 😉
Let’s not make science even more serious and hermetic than it already is
I’m fed up with scientists (and “scientists”) pointing fingers at each other and not really listening (what to speak of understanding the complexity). Chris and Matt bring up the label of “anti-waxer,” for example, and it seems to be in the same category as “guru” – disparate by definition.
Only the most narrow-minded commentators of the pandemic hold a categoric position on the COVID vaccination: either unreservedly supporting it (for all ages at all times and with as many boosters as the pharmaceutic companies will come up with) or rejecting it (seeing it as very harmful, linking it to conspiracies, inflating side effects, etc.). The well-informed and thoughtful commentators are critical of carefully framed aspects of the measures taken at the time of the pandemic, public reactions to these measures and they ask a lot of questions. They are careful not to make any absolute statements. I agree that some go too far, aligning closely with cooky theories, but I wouldn’t brush everything they say off the table because some of it is weird or insufficiently substantiated. I’ve swallowed my pride enough in my life to hold absolute opinions about (almost) anything.
The same is true in the case of Social Justice. I have a grudge against but I can see it in a context. Last year I got burnt by putting my hand onto the hot plate of wokism. That’s actually how I discovered the whole Twitter/Youtube universe of left/right, heterodox/orthodox tensions (recently, that included the gurometer.) There was a Social Justice activist in our network and she started imposing some “truths” (essentially, that we have to decolonize the male racist white supremacist culture inherent in all western institutions). I reacted bluntly – only to be called out bluntly with all the typical labels that are evoked in such cases. I tried to fight back against this, but the core of the team didn’t agree with my assessment of the situation, so I made sure to state my position clearly, ask all the necessary questions, offer full collaboration in a fair process – and since it didn’t take place, I left. That’s how I discovered Bret Weinstein and Evergreen and the whole anti-woke universe.
I was astounded to see the extent of the cultural ping pong in cyberspace. I read books by Douglas Murray, Helen Pluckrose, Andrew Doyle, Peter Boghosian, Jonathan Heidt, and others to make sense of what’s going on. I also read the books and listened to talks of authors they criticize (including Ibram X Kendy, Robin DiAngelo …). Finally, Jonathan Heidt and Jonathan Rauch somehow calmed me down in my specific position at the margin of all this mess unfolding around me.
Finding my way through the new culture with tons of neologisms was tiring. The battle over what is true science seems bizarre. At the age of almost fifty, I find the current debates on science asinine. The inability to sit down and come to an agreement in civil discourse is ridiculous. It’s antiscientific indeed. But since I know that mainstream is inherently crooked, I expect that to be a norm rather than an exception.
I am at peace with the fact that the masses are never going to follow science uncompromisingly. In their everyday lives, they will choose superstition, folklore, tradition, and repetition. Science will be secondary for most; they will demand that the science fits within their biases, not vice versa. That’s why we have so few Dawkinses and Sagans and so many close-minded followers of authority figures.
Science will move on regardless of what you think and in two, or three centuries maybe Chris and Matt will be seen as the prophets of this age or maybe Deepak Chopra. Given how popular Jesus still is and how popular are Dennis Bray and Allen Bard, I think I would bet on Deepak.
I understand the argument that it can be deceiving when “gurus” comment on topics that are completely outside their expertise. They risk misguiding people with their incomplete knowledge and high moral authority. But it is just as dangerous to forbid any comments from non-experts on everyday issues. I don’t need to be a veterinarian to distinguish a male cat from a female cat, but I will hold back from commenting on genetic specifics that define a Siamese cat. I will look into contentious issues and sometimes comment on them — carefully and focusing on the perspective, helping others change their perspective too.
Gurometer is often more about the issue than about the perspective. Yes, Chris and Matt should point out when “gurus” make assertions that stem from incomplete knowledge – especially when they insist on these assertions even after they have been proven wrong. That’s a red flag for sure. But interpreting open questions and doubts as fixed positions and then criticizing them, I would consider that a fallacy.
Let’s decode the loaded terms “guru,” “conspiracy theorist,” “anti-waxer,” etc.
I think it is cheap and lazy to weaponize terms (even more than they already are) to dismiss dissenting voices. Among these voices, there are blatant conspiracy theorists, but there are also disagreeable voices of reason. Gurometer should help us draw the line between voices of reason and those of stubborn, irrational resistance.
Decoding various terms would mean presenting them in all their diverse aspects and showing how they are being abused. “Anti-waxer,” for example, has been thrown around so much that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Everyone slightly disagreeable with the current dominant position can be labeled as such. This empowers cynical pro-waxers (anti-anti-waxers?) to wreak havoc.
BTW, the gurometer would have a greater impact if it decoded itself first.
Of all the current commentators (in English-speaking countries) that I know of, Jonathan Haidt strikes me as a scientist who doesn’t get swayed by the expressive, emotionally burdened terms, adopted by the current mainstream to smear dissenters, nor the similar term coming from the opposition.
Calibrating the gurometer
It would help if the gurometer explicitly specified a scale, at whichever level of measurement its authors choose. They mention a way to assign points at the end of their notes but they don’t explain how to actually do that. A user’s manual would be helpful.
Measuring “gurus” based on subjective criteria with a stretchable “measuring tape” is hardly a scientific process. To be scientific, it would need to be so designed to be a widely adoptable methodology whereby people can understand how to apply it accurately.
Calibrating the gurometer would mean defining empirically testable laws about each attribute and adding some kind of nominal and ordinal scale. I know there is no way to position the gurometer against something as material as length, weight, etc. but I can imagine a scale on which “gurus” score in various categories and can be compared. It can be a tool that everyone can use more or less reliably, not only Matt and Chris.
I’m looking forward to Chris and Matt’s response!
One of the main triggers for me to write this critique is when Matt and Chris criticized the “gurus” because they don’t engage with their critics. Since it took me a lot of time to write this, I hope I will hear back from them.
When I had this text already written, I looked around some more to see what other people had to say about Decoding the Gurus and I encountered David Fuller’s reflection: Decoding the Gurus and the Necessity of Criticism. I listened to David’s conversation with Chris too. I’m linking David’s text here because I think it complements my thinking and offers some additional resources and names. (I’d also like to thank David for engaging with Chris gentlemanly.)
To wrap up my analysis let me congratulate Matt and Chris for what they’ve accomplished thus far! It’s an important project that brings much-needed conversations to the public forum. If they are interested, I would be happy to offer additional feedback and suggestions to enhance the gurometer (or whatever better name might ensue).
Finally: I probably represent the 0.1% of the most demanding audience out here and I am aware that my critique may not be easy to swallow. I extend it together with my open hand hoping to build bridges.
Ultimately, I hope our shared wisdom will prevail.