More than ever, we have to rely on the explainers who can help us understand new achievements in science and technology. In this episode, we'll hear from one of the most prolific science and tech journalists of the last few decades, David Pogue, to help us make sense of it all.
We're bombarded daily with news about groundbreaking science or shiny new technologies. More than ever, we have to rely on the explainers who can help us understand why and how these achievements actually matter. Will they improve our lives, or more importantly the lives of the vulnerable, in meaningful ways? In this episode, we'll hear from one of the most prolific science and tech journalists of the last few decades to help us make sense of it all.
About Our Guest
David Pogue was the New York Times weekly tech columnist from 2000 to 2013. He’s a six-time Emmy winner for his stories on CBS Sunday Morning, a New York Times bestselling author, a five-time TED speaker, host of 20 NOVA science specials on PBS, and creator/host of the CBS News/Simon & Schuster podcast Unsung Science.
He’s written or cowritten more than 120 books, including his 2021 magnum opus, How to Prepare for Climate Change. After graduating summa cum laude from Yale in 1985 with distinction in music, Pogue spent ten years conducting and arranging Broadway musicals in New York.
The Unsung Science podcast: https://unsungscience.com/
How to Prepare for Climate Change: Amazon
David's Website: https://davidpogue.com/
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[00:00:00] David Pogue: For this semester's essays, I don't know how you're going to know if they were generated by ChatGPT or not.
[00:00:06] Aaron - Interview: Yeah, I won't. I mean, the ship has sailed. It's 10 short answer questions, is my final, and it, you know, it went live last week and it's due on Friday and...
[00:00:16] David Pogue: oh my God.
[00:00:17] Aaron - Interview: Yeah, I'll have no way to know. Other than the hope that if you cheat in an ethics class, then I don't know what to tell you.
[00:00:26] Aaron - Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode eight, Explaining Science for Everyone. This episode of How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.
[00:00:49] Thank you for all the ways that you support the podcast, especially for sharing it with others and for leaving positive reviews on Apple Podcasts. Those two things make the biggest difference in helping us to grow and to reach more people.
[00:01:04] Take a moment to consider with me all that's changed in science and technology over the last 20 or so years.
[00:01:10] It was nearly 20 years ago now that the human genome was fully sequenced, all 3.2 billion base pairs. Since that time, CRISPR technology has been developed to allow individual gene editing in living cells. Advances in medical science are saving many more lives than before. If you live in the US and get cancer, your chance of dying from it has declined by about 13% compared to 20 years ago. That might not seem like much, but it amounts to around 3.5 million extra cancer survivors since 2002. During that same time period, global child mortality has declined by almost half. Mostly thanks to improved treatments for diarrhea, malaria, measles, and respiratory infection. This means nearly 5 million more children per year are living beyond age five.
[00:01:59] Consider the smartphone that you might be using to listen to this podcast. 20 years ago, this thing that fits in your pocket would've made the list of the five fastest super computers in the world. And it can do things computer scientists used to only dream of. It can show you every picture that you have with a dog in it. You can even use it to ask ChatGPT to write everything from an apology email to the essays for your college applications. Not that you should, but more on that later.
[00:02:29] In the last 20 years, NASA has landed not one but four rovers on Mars, and has even flown a drone there despite an atmosphere that's a hundred times thinner than Earth's. Scientists also have detected for the first time gravitational waves formed billions of years ago, like echoes from the dawn of the universe.
[00:02:48] It's not all rosy, of course. The 10 warmest years in recorded history have all happened since 2010. The global Covid pandemic probably killed around 14 million people, even with a record setting development time for a vaccine to treat it. Fueled in part by social media that didn't exist 20 years ago, Democrats and Republicans are twice as likely to view the other party as very unfavorable. It's easy to think that science and technology are causing serious problems and not just solving them.
[00:03:20] My guest today is the veteran science and technology journalist, David Pogue. He's reported on all that I mentioned and more for over two decades. He wrote The New York Times tech column, has hosted over 20 Nova specials for PBS, and is a longtime journalist with the CBS Sunday Morning program, winning six Emmys along the way.
[00:03:38] Aaron - Interview: I also have to say, I feel a little self-conscious interviewing a seasoned journalist like yourself, and so, so if you're thinking in the back of your head like, oh man, what a dumb question that he just asked, um, feel free to point that out. I'm happy for any tips or pointers as we go.
[00:03:55] David Pogue: Okay.
[00:03:56] Aaron - Narration: Throw in five TED talks, around 120 books, including his most recent one, How to Prepare for Climate Change, and his new podcast Unsung Science, and his 1.2 million followers on Twitter, and you're hard pressed to find any science communicator with more reach or experience than David Pogue. He has seen, heard, and almost done it all.
[00:04:23] Aaron - Interview: In a lot of your reporting, you've been a test subject or a Guinea pig, and I'm curious if you maybe had some moments that you, that had the biggest impact on you, for better or worse, that sort of felt most memorable.
[00:04:37] David Pogue: For both Nova and for CBS Sunday Morning, I've often served as the audience's stand in, you know, experiential television.
[00:04:45] I mean, for Nova, I joke that, you know, the basic formula for the shows we've done is they try to kill me on camera. I mean, I've been hang gliding. They sent me swimming with 13 foot sharks and handling them in The Bahamas. I mean, I rode in an Indie 500 race car with Mario Andrei.
[00:05:00] Aaron - Interview: Yeah.
[00:05:01] David Pogue: And at one point, they were studying a bizarre occurrence in the nineties where some Army Rangers were in training in Florida and it was 65 degrees out and five of them died of hypothermia. And the army couldn't figure out how you can die when it's 65 degrees out. So they built this amazing environmental chamber center in Natick, Massachusetts, where they can study the effect of wind, weather, cold, rain, you know, every, every different atmospheric effect on the human body, especially when it's tired or carrying gear.
[00:05:37] And they put me through the same thing. They sprayed me for 15 minutes with rain, 49 degree water. Then they chilled the chamber to 49 degrees. Then they turned on 15 mile an hour wind machines to make sure that I was truly cold. Then they put a hundred pound pack on my back. Then they put me on the treadmill for six hours.
[00:06:04] Then they put a rectal thermometer into me. By the way, the Army apparently can't afford wireless ones. These are corded, rectal thermometers. So you have this tail trailing out. I mean, it was so miserable. It was the worst, worst experience in my life, but it made very good television. That was pretty memorable.
[00:06:25] Aaron - Narration: The conversation about to unfold is going to cover a wide range of topics, but all around this idea of explaining the good that science and technology do in the world and where they're falling short. You've probably guessed that David is optimistic about what science can do to improve the world.
[00:06:43] Aaron - Interview: What do you think some of the ways are that science and technology are improving people's lives in a way that people aren't seeing? You know, telling Alexa to turn on your lights or changing your thermostat from around the world, those are cool but they're right in front of everybody and it feels like there are a lot of ways, and that you've reported on some of these, many of these, there are a lot of ways where science or technology are improving people's lives in a way that they don't actually see.
[00:07:06] David Pogue: Yeah, I mean, I mean, the answer is everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Every study, every experiment you know, every medicine you take, every you know app you run on your phone, the phone itself, all the transportation. We just learned last month that we can deflect an asteroid that might be heading our way to earth.
[00:07:29] I mean, everything. Food you eat, the clothes you wear, the internet. It's all science and technology. Every problem there is to solve boils down to science and tech. And, and it cracks me up that, no, it doesn't crack me up, it makes me sob that Americans have this sort of anti-science slant these days. They're, you know, people are terrified of 5G and, and vaccines and, you know, proven science. Everything you like in your life came from experimentation and study and science.
[00:08:04] Aaron - Narration: Looking around you, you'll see what David means. Much of the technology you rely on every day didn't exist even just 50 years ago. Our lives are constantly and immeasurably improved by the hard work of scientists and engineers.
[00:08:20] So why is so much of the public instinctively skeptical about their accomplishments? Part of it is that the work they do is complex, and the truth is nuanced. But it's also because science needs better communicators.
[00:08:36] Aaron - Interview: Can you talk about what it's like as a science reporter struggling with how you communicate that nuance, especially when you know better than anybody, how long you're gonna keep somebody's focus on, on the things that you're reporting?
[00:08:49] David Pogue: I mean, yes, nuance is a problem when you're communicating to the public. And fear is a problem. We naturally have a fear of the unknown, so any new technology that we don't understand, we condemn. This has gone back for, you know, centuries. People were afraid of the steam trains. People were afraid of airplanes. People were afraid of microwaves. Every new technology is terrifying because it's new and we don't understand it.
[00:09:15] On the nuance question, I very much feel that scientists, as opposed to science communicators like me, are too in love with nuance. They're too afraid to make bold statements. I feel like we, we cost ourselves decades of climate action because scientists have to couch everything and disclaimers and degrees of uncertainty and, and stuff like that.
[00:09:40] I mean, I get that you need to be careful and you can't make sweeping statements, but when pressed, you know, the scientists would probably say, I mean, yeah, what I said is true. Yes, of course there are footnotes, but what I said is mostly true. And right now I feel like that's not the way it goes. Right now, I feel like the, the certainty and the uncertainty are presented in equal-sized handfuls when, when new sciences presented.
[00:10:09] So it's, you know, it's tough because that's the way scientists are trained, is to make a big fuss over the possible exceptions to what they're reporting. But it does mean that action is slower to come.
[00:10:23] Aaron - Narration: Part of the communication problem in science and technology is also that we've learned to be skeptical because big trumpeted advances don't always pan out as promised. Put another way, where are the fusion-powered, autonomous, flying cars that we've been expecting since we were kids?
[00:10:43] Aaron - Interview: Having observed firsthand all the things that you have, what lessons should we take from the fads that sometimes get built up around science versus the, the real hard day-to-day grind of incredible science that diverts asteroids?
[00:10:57] David Pogue: I mean, first of all, you have to question who's doing the reporting and why. Is there, is there a motive? You know, in, in my tech reporting days, we would hear overwhelming numbers of headlines about 3D printers that everyone would have a 3D printer next to the toaster. When the door needed a new hinge, we'd 3D printed it. When a button would fall off our sweater, we'd 3D print it. It just never happened. I mean, 3D printers are there and they have their uses, but as an everyday consumer item that is on every kitchen counter, no.
[00:11:32] I used to laugh at the smart home push. You know, for 30 years I went to those CES, consumer electronics show type things out in Las Vegas every year. And every year the theme would be: your home is gonna be smart and everything will be connected. And when you unlock the front door, the lights will come on and the AC will come on and the music will play. And you know, it just, it just never happened. Like decades... they promoted that stuff.
[00:11:58] Yeah, but sometimes it just takes time. You know, electric cars, everyone said, "Ah, they're dead. Range anxiety. Nothing, nothing's gonna happen." It just took time. And now you couldn't buy an electric car if you wanted one. It's the, the waiting list is like eight months long and sales tripled during the pandemic.
[00:12:15] Aaron - Narration: Another legitimate concern is whether or not scientists and engineers are working on the right problems. Being able to turn your lights on with your voice isn't a massive innovation, even if it's convenient. But thousands of smart people work on how to make this better. What if instead they were working on ideas that improved the lives of the most vulnerable?
[00:12:38] Aaron - Interview: Do you have thoughts around this idea, like how science and tech ought to be focused more on the problems of the most vulnerable people in the world?
[00:12:47] David Pogue: I mean, I'm, I'm not an expert on economics, but I'm, my gut tells me it's, it's just a matter of a capitalist society. Most people go into most businesses to make money, and you don't make money from poor countries.
[00:13:04] There are, you know, some really noble and amazing efforts. You know, there's those incredibly inexpensive solar panels that have been distributed in poor villages in Sub-Saharan Africa where they had been burning kerosene, which, you know, makes them sick and makes their small homes very filthy. And now you can get a small solar panel for, you know, a dollar and it'll power your light, and you're fan, and and so on.
[00:13:34] There are these incredible advances in medicine distribution. You know, o one thing you don't have when you live in a desperately poor country is glasses. There's no, there's no CVS, there's no LensCrafters, and they have just as many eye problems as wealthy people do. So, you know, these cool vans that drive from village to village and fit people with glasses, which changes lives all the time.
[00:13:59] There is, oh, this one makes me crazy. There's a blindness that affects millions upon millions of children's from a lack of, of a certain vitamin or mineral, and we found a way to grow rice--they call it golden rice--that includes that vitamin that would prevent millions of people from going blind. So far the countries that need it will not accept the rice because it came about through genetic modification, which is of course an entire podcast topic, or 50, unto itself.
[00:14:31] But basically in this country, all the corn we eat, all the uh, soy we eat has been genetically modified and it's safe. It's just, we just accelerated what nature does on its own. But it's not trustworthy because it's new and people don't understand it.
[00:14:46] So point is there are companies doing some good work, but there's not a profit motive to it, and so it's never going to get the same balance of attention.
[00:14:57] Aaron - Narration: David's podcast, Unsung Science, is one of the best places to turn if you're looking for the science stories of good that are not getting enough attention. One of my favorite episodes is the one called "Chainsaws, Women and the Cape Town Drought." It tells the story of how climate scientists and the Cape Town community in South Africa came together to rescue the city water sources from going completely dry. It's an awesome story, and I saw the lasting effects of it firsthand when I was in Cape Town this past November. The innovation there really worked.
[00:15:32] Speaking of climate change, this is an area where the financial incentives and scientific consensus are finally coming together. Improvements in climate technology have been accelerating, but it creates an interesting new challenge for science communicators like David who want to motivate the continued changes needed in our behavior and economy.
[00:15:54] David Pogue: There has been a complete turnaround in the last two years regarding hope for our climate future, and it's tricky as a reporter or an editor, or a magazine, or a website because if you broadcast this good news too much, you worry about decreasing the urgency that people feel about making change. So you have a counter incentive to publicizing the good news when it comes to climates, and I, I totally see that.
[00:16:25] But on the other hand, the goal here is to decarbonize our species, to stop pumping carbon into the air from transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and so on. And power generation is a big one. And in 2022, we got 28% of our power from solar. And I mean, we used to, if you ask the average American, they're like, "Oh yeah, solar power. That's this fringe 1% thing." No, it's almost a third. And of all the new electrical capacity installed this year, 72% of it was solar and wind, and 0% was coal. This year we generated more power from just wind, just wind, than coal or nuclear. And that's, that's a first in history.
[00:17:18] Gigantic progress being made on decarbonizing and you just, you just don't hear about it. Of crouse, It doesn't mean we don't have more to go. That doesn't mean we're gonna meet the deadline.
[00:17:29] And it certainly doesn't mean we're ever going to go back to the weather of the eighties. You know, those days are gone. You know, most of the heat, 93% of the new heat trapped by the greenhouse layer is stored in the ocean. And the oceans take decades or generations to heat up or cool down. So basically in our lifetimes, our children's lifetimes, we will not see a return to the old, the old weather patterns. But the question is, can we stop the weather patterns from making it unlivable in most parts of the earth, and there is still some hope.
[00:18:07] Aaron - Interview: What should the typical consumer be doing? Because I've read different perspectives on this and one of them is that it should be an all-hands-on-deck kind of approach, and then others more skeptically have said that the average consumer actually has very little influence other than making sure they support policies that have the capacity for bigger change. So we're putting the right people in charge, but beyond that, the things I do in my day-to-day life have such a tiny effect on the climate that, you know, whatever I were to do wouldn't really move the needle in any way that's worth all the effort.
[00:18:41] David Pogue: Well, in one way that's true. If you change your light bulbs to LEDs or start taking the subway instead of driving, you will not save the planet by yourself. IN another way, taking those steps does have an effect, and it's this notion of social pressure. People will see what you're doing and people will suddenly consider, "Wait. That guy, Professor Miller does, does it this way. So clearly it's normalized. Clearly it's, it's possible to live a good life doing it the way he does. Maybe I should try that."
[00:19:17] Imagine a cafeteria where everybody's having lunch, and then on queue, 70% of the people in that room look up and to the left. What are you gonna do? You're gonna look up and to the left. You do what other people do, and that's, that's the effect that we'll have when a lot of people start making lifestyle changes.
[00:19:37] But in the larger sense, yes, your efforts are best spent affecting your institutions and your government and the companies you buy from. That kind of pressure will have a much bigger impact than any single thing that you do.
[00:19:54] And it doesn't mean you need to run for president. I mean, it can be your church or your temple, it can be your school board, it can be the local Chamber of Commerce, it can be the company you work for. You can make changes within organizations and institutions that have a big effect. Much bigger than a solo effect.
[00:20:15] Aaron - Narration: But, as individuals we do need to take some of our focus in trying to prevent climate change and instead start preparing for it. On this topic, David has literally written the book.
[00:20:28] David Pogue: And I should also say that, you know, as a guy who spent two years working on a book called How to Prepare for Climate Change, the other thing most people are not doing is preparing for climate change. That again, used to be a controversial stance, like should we tell people to accept what has changed and make changes to prepare changes in their insurance, and how they talk to their children, in what they grow in their gardens, and how they make their investments, and how they renovate their homes, or is that admitting defeat and getting people less excited about trying to mitigate the emissions.
[00:21:07] And I think now most experts agree that we need to do both. We need to mitigate the emissions and adapt for what has changed and will continue to change. So that's the other thing I think most people are not doing enough is preparing for what is now inevitable.
[00:21:25] Aaron - Interview: I think this illustrates: these problems are complex, the solutions are never one size fits all, they require people to have a sophisticated understanding of things. And that's not how the message typically gets out into the world. I think of like health reporting, for example, and how it feels like every year there's some newfad diet that likes to oversimplify the secret to weight loss or avoiding cancer or whatever. If you just eat eight cucumbers a day, you're gonna be, you know, much healthier. Whatever it is.
[00:21:57] David Pogue: That one works, actually.
[00:21:58] Aaron - Interview: Oh yeah. Well, my wife would agree with you actually. She's a very healthy eater.
[00:22:04] Aaron - Narration: Listening to David, you might assume that his science expertise started with something like a degree in biochemistry from MIT. This part of the episode will probably surprise you, because David's first career wasn't in the lab, but on Broadway.
[00:22:20] David Pogue: Yeah. I have the very definition of an unconventional career path. I grew up obsessed with magic. I loved I Dream of Jeannie and _Bewitched _and the $6 Million Man. And I just, I wanted to be magic. I became a magician. I did 400 birthday parties growing up as a teenager. I just, I wanted there to be magic, basically.
[00:22:46] That's my own self-analysis. That's how this whole tech thing began. You know, you could really argue that opening your phone right now and resetting your thermostat 3000 miles away is kind of magic. Or, you know, speaking aloud in your house to turn the lights off and having it happen is, is magic.
[00:23:06] But I was also really into music, so I, I wrote and played the piano for children's musicals growing up in Cleveland. And then I went to college and wrote musicals all through college. And then when I got out of college, I was, I was a music major and I went to New York and became, uh, a Broadway conductor for 10 years. I played in orchestra pits and conducted and did vocal arrangements.
[00:23:31] And that's really the key to my story because in 1986 or so, the, the Mac had just come out in 1984 and there was this music software that... for the first time since the monks started writing music on paper as notation, there was a new way to input music and it was a software program called Finale.
[00:23:58] And basically you just play on your midi keyboard, your synthesizer, and it would write out the notes for you. It's, you know, it's sort of the musical sheet music equivalent of Siri where you dictate, and it just changed everything. I mean, people did not have to write out every note by hand for the first time in human history.
[00:24:18] So I really wanted this program, but it was a thousand dollars and I was a struggling musician, couldn't afford it. So I was a, a member of a computer club, the New York Mac Users Group, and we had a newsletter and the editor said, "Why don't you write this company and tell them that you're a reviewer and they'll have to send you a free copy?"
[00:24:42] It was a great idea. Great idea. And so I did. And they did. And suddenly I had Finale for free and I wrote a review. And then I'm like, well, heck, I could do that for Photoshop. And then I did the same thing and I could do that for Microsoft stuff and I did the same thing. So that's how we started writing about tech is to get free apps.
[00:25:02] Aaron - Interview: That's so great. I love that.
[00:25:03] David Pogue: Yeah. And then eventually I started doing the same thing and getting paid for it with, I wrote for MacWorld magazine for 13 years and then the New York Times needed a new tech columnist in the year 2000. So I joined them and did that for 13 years, slowly phasing out of musical theater. But you know, it's never really gone from my blood.
[00:25:25] And then once the New York Times byline was there, then all kinds of doors opened. You know, Nova, the PBS science show, asked me to host one of their shows, and that led to a long career of hosting Nova specials. 20 of them. Also, CBS Sunday morning came a-calling 2002 and asked if I would do one story on what was then the hot new invention called the Digital Camera. And so I demonstrated that for, for the viewers. They asked me to come back and do another story, and another. And you know, 21 years later I'm still doing CBS Sunday Morning stories.
[00:26:04] Anyway, overall, the overarching themes have been, you know, science, tech, music, entertainment, showmanship, and explaining. I guess that's, that's ultimately what I do is I'm an explainer.
[00:26:18] Aaron - Narration: When you know this backstory, David's reporting makes sense, because he specialized for years in how to capture people's attention. Once you have that, they'll listen to what you have to say.
[00:26:30] His distinctive quality as a science explainer is how he can simplify complex ideas for non-experts to understand. For example, if you know that mRNA vaccines are a big deal, but you don't get the science of why they're a big deal, listen to episode two of his podcast. In it, David explains how these vaccines work by comparing them to ordering food at a restaurant, something we can all understand. He described this a bit in our interview.
[00:26:59] David Pogue: In the podcast episode I did about it, somebody made the analogy of there's a restaurant in every one of your cells and your dna in the nucleus. In the middle is the chef, and they send instructions to this little messenger chemical called Messenger RNA or mRNA that runs out to the dining room, which is the outer part of the cell, and gives instructions to your protein making apparatus to make things that fight disease. And so the idea is we are reprogramming the messenger from the DNA to the outer part of the cell to carry new instructions to tell the proteins to make defenses against these diseases.
[00:27:41] Aaron - Narration: I've benefited personally from David's abilities. Just after finishing law school, I was running a small blog about iMovie software, just as a hobby. David had written a New York Times tech piece about the new version of the software and I sent him links to my site. And he replied! After a few exchanges, he invited me to tech edit his next iMovie book, part of his long-running Missing Manual series.
[00:28:06] That turned into three subsequent books about iMovie that we co-authored, which was an awesome and empowering experience. David is an exceptionally clear and entertaining writer, and he taught me a lot. In fact, the experience writing with him led me to co-authoring The Business Ethics Field Guide with my friends Brad Agle and Bill O'Rourke. I credit much of its success to all that I learned by working with David.
[00:28:32] His talent for explaining things so well has opened door after door for David, too. It turns out that work as a science explainer can lead to a pretty adventurous life.
[00:28:43] Aaron - Interview: Are there moments that still blow your mind when you reflect on them, where it's like, I can't believe I'm here experiencing this incredible thing?
[00:28:51] David Pogue: I mean, I will say swimming with the sharks is pretty memorable. They had a shark wrangler, and an underwater cameraman, and an assistant. All of us did the dive. They all had full body chain mail suits, and I didn't. I was, I was just in a wetsuit. I'm like, "Can someone explain to me why I'm the only one who didn't get chainmail?"
[00:29:17] And the story was about why nothing grows on sharks like bacteria, barnacles, algae. Nothing grows on sharks like they do on, for example, ships. And it turns out it's because they have this wild, very fine micro groove pattern in their skin. They have like tiny, tiny microscopic scales called denticles. And if you pet a shark head to tail, you don't feel, it just feels like vinyl. But if you pet the shark, the other direction, you, you feel how it's rough and that's, that's those little grooves you're feeling. And that's why we needed to actually go down and touch them and wrangle them.
[00:29:59] And I remember when we were still on the ship, the shark expert said, "Now I'm going to wave these bloody fish guts in the water to attract the sharks to us. So I would advise that you, David, keep your arms by your sides. Don't wave them because the shark's gonna think you've got food and come at you."
[00:30:21] So if you see, if you see the finished, finished footage, like my arms are crossed under my armpits, I'm like,
[00:30:28] Aaron - Interview: As tight to your body as you can get them.
[00:30:30] David Pogue: Exactly. Like a stone.
[00:30:32] And it didn't work anyway. Like the shark came and got the chum and then saw me with these dead eyes and swam straight at my face like, "Do you have any?!?" It was just the scariest thing. I mean, if it had decided to eat me, there was just nothing I could do.
[00:30:50] Aaron - Interview: So is there something you haven't done yet or experienced yet that you hope to someday?
[00:30:55] David Pogue: I mean, someday I'd like to experience zero gravity. I, I don't know if I'm ready to ride on one of those experimental rockets, which seems still super dangerous. But at the very least, maybe on my 60th birthday, I'll sign up for the vomit comet. You know that airplane that right flies in a steep arc so that you experience 30 seconds at a time of zero gravity and floating in the air.
[00:31:17] I think that'd be really fun.
[00:31:18] Aaron - Narration: And now for a word from our sponsor.
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[00:32:16] Now that we know more about David and his decades of expertise, I wanted to ask him about a range of topics. So let's dig into them.
[00:32:24] Aaron - Interview: Let's start with this one: social media. Has it been, do you think, net positive or net negative as far as its technological usefulness?
[00:32:33] David Pogue: Yes.
[00:32:36] I mean, yeah. I mean, most of the focus is on the negative, which is, I mean, gigantic negative effects, polarization and depression and so on, but, you know, also wonderful effects. You know, uprisings against totalitarianism, and organizing events to fight for climate, or celebration of good deeds. I mean, just an immense amount of stuff that it doesn't get a lot of press.
[00:33:02] I've been assigned a story for Christmas Day for CBS Sunday Morning about the good news of 2022, and believe it or not, there was some. In fact, there was a lot, but it doesn't get press, and I think it's because bad news breaks, right? It, bad news tends to strike suddenly, but good news is just this constant river that's, that's more quiet and it's going on all the time everywhere. So it doesn't make headlines, but it's, it's happening.
[00:33:31] So, yeah, you know, I think the same social media, it's been a giant change with huge, positive and negative effects.
[00:33:40] Aaron - Interview: What about crypto and blockchain? Are there things about those technologies that most people just don't understand enough?
[00:33:49] David Pogue: I don't think most people understand it at all. I think, you know, the whole thing was this, it was supposed to be unregulated. There weren't going to be middlemen. There weren't going to be banks. There was gonna be nobody charging fees. And I think that, you know, the irony is that already in its early days, we have most of that. There are middlemen. There are exchanges. You pay fees when you do transactions. There isn't regulation much, but it will be regulated. There's no question. I mean, it's just, yeah, it's just a free for all right now. So I, you know, I think most people don't understand that.
[00:34:26] Aaron - Interview: Are there any advancements on the horizon in health that are especially exciting or interesting to you?
[00:34:34] David Pogue: mRNA vaccines. It's a whole realm. It's not just the Covid vaccine. It's a new way of programming your own body to fight disease. And Covid is only the beginning of it. I mean, they're looking at diabetes and cancer and all kinds of diseases. HIV, Lyme disease, all kinds of things could be fixed, and some are already in trials, you know? So I think the mRNA vaccine revolution is just... we've just seen the tip of the iceberg. It's really thrilling.
[00:35:06] Aaron - Interview: As you look at all the fields you reported on. Are there fields where you think, "Man, we need more people in this one"?
[00:35:13] David Pogue: It's a weird time, right? Because it used to be that, you know, programmers would never be in short supply, and now of course you have these massive layoffs by all the tech companies and now you're, you're sort of crazy if you go major in computer science. But this, this could just be a, a glitch.
[00:35:30] I'd say obviously AI is just exploding right now and ethicists in AI, obviously. AI experts are getting massive, lucrative offers right now as they get out of grad school. In medicine, I'm probably not the guy to say, but obviously mRNA is a hot field and personalized medicine is a hot field.
[00:35:50] And you know, the world also needs attention. I, I don't know how we're gonna solve the rare disease problem, but there are no, no pharmaceutical company's gonna develop a drug for a horrible disease that affects only 150 people and we have no real way of solving that problem. But man, if you ever have an option of what you want to work on, there's gonna be a rewarding field for you if you can, if you can afford it.
[00:36:18] Aaron - Narration: David and I also found ourselves in a lengthy conversation about machine learning and AI. This past year has brought a dizzying array of technologies that can make art or write poetry at a level that's almost human.
[00:36:32] David Pogue: Right now, what's really hot on my mind are two gigantic innovations from this company, OpenAI, which is a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence company. A lot of your listeners have probably heard of Dall-E, which is across between Wall-E, the Pixar movie, and Dali, the artist. This is this website where you can type in a description of any kind of art. You want like a panda made of Legos, hula dancing on the rings of Mars, painted in the style of Monet , and in seconds it'll produce that piece of finished art.
[00:37:09] It can be a painting, a cartoon, a pencil sketch, a sculpture, a a knit something, photorealistic, CGI generated. You can make it look whatever you want in the style of whoever you want. And that's very thrilling and very terrifying because of course it instantly means who would ever hire an artist again.
[00:37:29] But then something even more radical came out, which is, it has the awful name ChatGPT. Basically, it's an artificial intelligence writer, so it's exactly the same thing, but for prose. So you can type in, you know, write a limerick about,you know, being an economics professor. Or write an apology letter to my wife for being late to her birthday dinner. Or this is the code I've written and it has a bug that I can't find. Solve the code. Or write the instructions for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, written in the style of the King James Bible.
[00:38:08] Aaron - Narration: You've almost certainly played around with these tools in the past year or maybe even used them for work. And if you haven't, then you really should. In fact, we all need to understand what they can do because the ground is shifting for all kinds of careers because of this technology, including mine as a college professor.
[00:38:26] This was a fun, if somewhat troubling, part of our interview.
[00:38:31] David Pogue: It's terrifying. It's the absolute end of the college entrance essay. It's the end of homework. It's the end of letter writing. My son is applying to colleges. He's, he happens to be a Scrabble champion and so he won the the Nationals twice a couple years ago.
[00:38:51] Aaron - Interview: That's amazing.
[00:38:51] David Pogue: So that's what he wrote his college essay. So I, to compare, I said to this thing, write a college essay about being a Scrabble champion. And it, it basically wrote the same essay. You know, "I've been fascinated by the construction of words since I was a little boy." You know, like, incredible. And so I'm trying to not freak out because my whole career has been observing that freak out. Things tend not to destroy the world after all. But I have a hard time seeing.
[00:39:23] When I was in fourth grade, calculators came out and I remember the same kind of hysteria. "Kids are gonna forget, they're gonna lose the skill of doing arithmetic in their head." And the answer today we would say is, "Yeah. So? Yeah, like that's exactly what happened."
[00:39:40] And I think that's probably what'll happen with this. Like kids aren't gonna learn how to write an essay anymore. They're not gonna be able to write a letter, they're not gonna be able to structure their thoughts. Like now we have this tool, people will use it. That's what I'm trying to, to do is my rationalization without getting upset. But I've shown this to a couple of other professors, Aaron, and they are absolutely terrified.
[00:40:07] Aaron - Interview: Well, and you know, it's so funny to think about that because I teach an ethics class. Right?
[00:40:16] Aaron - Narration: David and I tested how well ChatGPT could answer one of my exam questions for my business ethics class. Without giving away the question--it was about the history of the challenger shuttle disaster--I read the question to David and he read back the reply that ChatGPT generated in just a few seconds.
[00:40:35] Aaron - Interview: Yeah, I would not spot that as not being written by the student.
[00:40:39] David Pogue: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:40:40] Aaron - Interview: Wow.
[00:40:41] Aaron - Narration: Thinking through everything that we've discussed in this interview, I've gained a much deeper appreciation for the explainers of science and tech, not just for the people engineering or inventing it. It just so happens that my niece is heading into this exact profession, and I thought it would be fun to ask David to give her some advice.
[00:41:01] Aaron - Interview: I have a niece who just graduated with her bachelor's in aerospace from Cal Tech. She was at JPL and had those incredible experiences, but she's actually decided to, to pivot into science communication.
[00:41:13] David Pogue: Wow!
[00:41:14] Aaron - Interview: And so that's what she's doing for her master's degree right now. I, I wanted to ask what advice you have for her.
[00:41:20] David Pogue: Well, I'd say study the psychology of the public before you start communicating, because messages have to be phrased in a way that's reassuring. I mean, my whole thing about the unknown is that it's a hundred percent natural to be afraid of the unknown. We were evolved that way, right? Like our our ancestors survived by not going into the dark cave where there might be bears.
[00:41:49] And so what we need to do as new technologies come along is make them not unfamiliar. Make them familiar. So repetition, analogy, examples, explaining in terms that we are already comfortable with. In other words, the things people are afraid of, self-driving cars, 5G, mRNA vaccines, are only things they're afraid of because they didn't grow up with them.
[00:42:18] There's no such thing as a movement of photosynthesis deniers, right? There's no, there's no movement of people who say that baby humans do not come out of wombs. I mean, there's certain... that that ice does not come from water, right? There's certain things that everybody accepts as as scientific givens, and that's because we grew up with them.
[00:42:38] It's only technologies that are new, since we became adults, that people fear and mistrust. So that kind of thing. I, I'd say she needs to appreciate that before she starts just saying, this new AI program can write your letters for you. You know, you need, you need context, you need framing, you need an understanding of the terror.
[00:43:00] Aaron - Narration: No matter how well the explainers do their jobs, there's surely some of the responsibility that needs to be laid at our feet, the listeners. We have to be both open and discerning and that can be hard to do. David has some great advice for all of us as well.
[00:43:19] Aaron - Interview: What advice do you have for the public as they learn about new science, as they think about, you know, ways that science and technology can help or hurt them? Like are there big lessons that they should be taking away as they process the information tsunami that hits them every day?
[00:43:35] David Pogue: I think the main thing is to consider the source and what they have to gain with the announcement. So is it a commercial company that stands to make a lot of money from this? And in that case, you can afford to be a little skeptical about, you know, have, uh, have they covered all the potential downsides? Have they done the proper testing? Does it work as well as they say?
[00:44:00] On the other hand, if there is no particular beneficiary... For example, as we record this today, it was announced that the National Ignition Facility, this multi-billion dollar experimental lab in California that's been trying to get nuclear fusion to work. This would mean infinite, completely clean, non weaponizable, nuclear energy from fusion. They've been working for years and years and years and years, consuming billions and millions and millions of dollars to attain ignition, which means getting more energy out of this laser collision than they've required to produce the lasers themselves. I hope that makes sense.
[00:44:44] In other words, the first step in getting fusion to work is to get a reaction that generates more power than you put into it. And they haven't even been able to do that for decades. So they finally achieved that and that news just came out this week.
[00:45:01] So, alright, so do we mistrust that information there? There's lots of caveats. That doesn't mean we can immediately build power plants using it. There's a long way to go. But, is there a corporation who's going to profit from this? No, because it's a government facility. Who stands to gain? Well in this case it's the world. I mean, it would be free clean energy forever. So is there a reason to be skeptical that it really happened the way they say they happened?
[00:45:29] Mm, not really.
[00:45:32] Aaron - Narration: We're at this point in history when it feels like every day comes with news of some amazing human achievement: an invention that treats a previously tenacious disease, a promising next step in unlimited clean power, or an actual asteroid being diverted from its original course. But the news is also rife with announcements about a shiny new smartphone that's 3% better than the one that's already in our pocket.
[00:46:01] We're lucky to have the explainers to make sense of all these things, and we ought to make sure that we pay attention to the good ones who can help us see the new gadgets and discoveries for what they really are. I hope we can appreciate the important work that they do.
[00:46:19] I am so grateful to David Pogue for sparing his time and sharing his stories and insights. This episode, as you can imagine, has been a particularly gratifying opportunity for me. If you want to hear his podcast, Unsung Science, or read his book, How to Prepare for Climate Change, we have links to those in the show notes. You can also stay up to date with him by joining his 1.2 million followers on Twitter or by visiting DavidPogue.com.
[00:46:51] Next episode, I'll be talking with my dear friend and mentor, Todd Manwaring. Todd is the founding director of the Ballard Center for Social Impact at BYU. It's the largest center of its kind at any university in the world. We're celebrating its 20th anniversary right now, and the 25,000 student experiences that it's created over the years. We'll talk about how to pick good charities, how to empower young people, and how to find your own path in making a positive impact on the world.
[00:47:25] If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review on your podcast app. It really helps us to reach more listeners. And if you have a favorite episode, I hope you'll share it on social media or with your friends. It means a lot to us.
[00:47:40] If you want to stay up to date with the podcast and with my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I occasionally share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at How-to-help.com.
[00:47:58] This episode was written and recorded by me. Our production team for this season has included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.
[00:48:19] Finally, as always, thank you so much for listen. I am Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.