Matthew Syed looks at how kids’ TV got smart, and what we can learn about the developing mind from the program makers who led the way. I discuss the role of cultural evolution in this phenomenon.
Boston, Massachusetts. 1970. A group of mothers and young children assembles outside the offices of the local TV station. It’s the first phase of a fight to improve kids’ TV that would go all the way to the United States Senate. In the late 1960s, children’s television in the US was dominated by cheap cartoons and adverts for sugary snacks. Peggy Charren had something to say about it. She formed a grassroots activism group in her living room with other concerned mothers – Action for Children’s Television. It would become one of the most influential broadcast lobbying groups in history. Peggy was part of a wave of people who were starting to take kids’ TV seriously. From the creators of Sesame Street to psychological researchers like Professor Daniel Anderson who brought science into children’s program-making, Matthew draws out what we can learn from these innovators who know how to create a hit show.
So many great points included from the other guests:
Debbie Charren, Peggy’s daughter, and former schoolteacher and reading specialist;
Robert Krock, Action for Children’s Television’s former development director;
Daniel Anderson, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst;
and Andrew Davenport, creator, writer and composer of In the Night Garden, Moon and Me, and Teletubbies.
In an age of social media ’cancel culture’ might be defined as an orchestrated campaign that seeks to silence or end the careers of people whose thoughts or opinions deviate from a new set of political norms. So if this threat exists for anyone expressing an opinion online in 2021, what’s it like for scientists working in academia and publishing findings that might be deemed controversial?
In this edition of Analysis, I assess the impact of modern social justice movements on scientific research and development.
Is fear of personal or professional harm strengthening conformism or eviscerating robust intellectual debate? Can open-mindedness on controversial issues really exist in the scientific community? Or is rigorous public assessment of scientific findings helping to achieve better, more equitable and socially just outcomes?
So many great points I wish could have all been included from the interviewees who have found themselves in the firing line of current public discourse or who question the severity of this phenomenon and its political motives (in order of appearance):
Today’s episode is a conversation with Dr. Michael Muthukrishna, an Associate Professor of Economic Psychology at the London School of Economics.
Michael’s research takes on a suite of topics that all start from a single big question: Why are we so different from other animals? Part of the answer has to do with our neural hardware. There’s no question we’ve got big brains—and Michael has some cool things to say about why they may have gotten so big. But Michael is just as focused on our cultural software—the tools and ideas we develop, tweak, share, and accumulate over time. You might say he’s more impressed by our collective brains than by our individual brains. To study all this, Michael builds formal theories and computational models; he runs experiments; and he constructs and analyzes huge databases.
We cover a lot of ground in this episode. We talk about the finding that the size and interconnectedness of a social group affects the cultural skills that group can develop and maintain. We consider what actually powers innovation (hint: it’s not lone geniuses). We discuss how diversity is a bit double-edged and why psychology needs to become a historical science. And that, my friends, is hardly all—we also touch on cetaceans, religious history, and spinning plates.
I’ve been hoping to have Michael on the show for months now. His work is deeply theoretical, advancing the basic science of what it means to be human. But it’s also engaged with important practical issues—issues like corruption and cultural diversity. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Michael Muthukrishna. Enjoy!
PBS has a new 4-part documentary series on First Civilizations; a sequel to their successful series First Peoples. The new series charts the rise of civilization clustered around 4 topics: War, Religion, Cities, and Trade. I’m the key contributor for episode 3 on Cities, which premieres tonight. I travel through Tokyo, Japan discussing innovation, inequality, sociality, and collective brains. A short clip from the episode below:
You can read more about the research behind this episodes in these review papers (written to be accessible to the general reader):
Introduction to Cultural Evolution
Chudek, M., Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2015) Cultural Evolution. In Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition. Edited by D. M. Buss. [Download]
I was recently interviewed by Focus Magazine, a popular magazine in the Russian-speaking world. It was a wide-ranging interview, where we discussed my research on cultural evolution and the implications for some of the events taking place in the world today, including the Migration Crisis, climate change, and the rise of populist politicians.
I was invited by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to elaborate on the vision and achievements of the Database of Religious History, complementing the winning video, which you can watch below:
The panel of 4 judges included Shari Graydon, author, journalist and founder of Informed Opinions; Antonia Maioni, president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences; Pierre Normand, Vice-President, External Relations and Communications at the Canada Foundation for Innovation; and Bruce Wallace, editor of Policy Options magazine and former foreign editor for the Los Angeles Times.