Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and a recent Lecturer in Ethics at Harvard Extension School. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan. He has taught philosophy at Colgate University (where he won the Fraternity and Sorority Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching Philosophy), Boston University, Tufts Experimental College, Simmons College, and Harvard Extension School (where he received the Dean’s Letter of Commendation for Distinguished Teaching). Formerly Executive Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, he has also served as a policy advisor to the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and as Associate Editor in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
McIntyre’s popular essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Nature, Newsweek, Scientific American, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Deseret Magazine, New Statesman, the Times Higher Education Supplement, the Humanist, and numerous other venues. He has appeared on CNN International on Amanpour and Company—and several other programs on PBS, NPR and the BBC—and has spoken at the United Nations, NASA, and the Vatican.
His work has been translated into seventeen languages.
Q & A
What was it that first got you interested in philosophy?
As a boy I was fascinated by weird questions that no one else could answer–and for all I knew no one else had ever considered–such as what was beyond the end of space and why I had consciousness as a particular person, rather than some other person. These questions continued to bother me for several years, but they never really led me to philosophy until many years later in college when I discovered that these are precisely the sorts of things that philosophers worry about.
Why are you now interested in writing philosophy for the general public?
You have to understand that I did academic scholarship for many years. In fact my first book, Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences, is a scholarly book (though I hope it is written in a way that can be appreciated by the general public). Eventually I grew frustrated with the idea that even if I was making progress as an academic, only a few hundred people would ever read what I had written. I remember reading a depressing statistic somewhere about how only ten people or so read the average academic article. How could I hope to have any influence that way? Meanwhile the world is crying out for solutions to real social problems. But where are the scholars? Doing their linguistic crossword puzzles. To me it felt like fiddling while the world burned.
That’s when I decided I had to try to make a real contribution to the intellectual debate going on about the state of the modern world and what we could do about it. I wrote Dark Ages as a result. At the time, I was on sabbatical in my academic job, so I kept it a secret. It wouldn’t have done me much good anyway, since it isn’t a piece of scholarship. But I trust that it has had much more influence. In Respecting Truth, I took this one step further and tried to engage what I saw as one of the most troubling questions of the previous decade, which was why so many people felt free to reject facts that they didn’t like. In Post-Truth, I followed up on this as the problem of facts and truth developed into a crisis for our nation. In The Scientific Attitude, I develop a theory of what I think is distinctive about science and explain how it can be used to push back against science denial and pseudoscience. I’m so much happier now that I have the chance to reach a wider audience. I feel that in some ways I’m still teaching philosophy, just on a larger stage.
You grew up in a working class family and were in the first generation in your family to go to college. How does that effect your values and your writing?
I grew up in an economically depressed neighborhood not far from the airport in Portland, Oregon. There were strip clubs and tattoo parlors and a motorcycle club that had its headquarters in the duplex right across the street from our house. But my family always had it better than others in the neighborhood. For one thing, my parents believed in education, so we always had a lot of books in the house. I still remember the joy I got as a kid from reading the World Book Encyclopedia. Somewhere along the line when I was about eight years old—at the height of the Vietnam War—I started wondering why the world was such an awful place. I remember asking my mother about this and she gave me a great answer. She said “I don’t know the answer to that question, but somewhere at the great universities right now, I’ll bet there are scholars who are studying that very question.” How could I not want to become a professor after that? In my imagination, academe became a noble profession. These were the people with the time and the intelligence to devote themselves to solving the world’s problems. When I actually got into academics, and saw some of the petty politics and lack of ambition in most scholarship, I guess I was pretty disappointed. But I never lost the sense that academic scholarship should justify itself by being useful to humanity. Even if it’s number theory or conceptual art, I think that the search for truth can be relevant to the human experience. And I’ve never lost the feeling that it’s a noble thing to work on something that can improve the quality of people’s lives, maybe even back in my old neighborhood.
Even as a philosopher?
Pretty wild idea, huh? It just goes to show that the dreams we have as kids never really leave us. I read in the encyclopedia about all of the great philosophers and scientists throughout history, and before long I decided that I wanted to try to be like them. The kings and generals you forget. The writers have a better shot at longevity. But the thinkers and scientists, they remain important throughout the ages. Socrates, Galileo, Newton, Hume, Thoreau, those are my great heroes.
How do you decide what you are going to write about?
The ideas for my books just come. I don’t know from where. To tell you the truth, I’m afraid to think about that too much. But once I get an idea the process is quite straightforward. I spend about a year, sometimes two, reading and clipping things, which I tend to see everywhere once I have an idea that frames the context. This process usually goes on in concert with whatever book I’m currently writing, so the effort is quite low key and casual at this point, strictly on the back burner. I’m always writing one book while I’m researching another. But when the current book is finished, I swing into high gear on the next one, outlining, planning my strategy, and wondering how I can have a fresh take on what may be a very old question. After that, it’s just a matter of writing in a way that constantly keeps the reader in mind. When I worked at the Federal Reserve I was a magazine editor, and I had to try to distill complex economic ideas into prose that was digestible by the general public. I had a very good editor there and she was really the one who taught me how to write for a general audience.
So here’s the question that writers always hate: what is your writing process like?
Some people love to say that writing is agony, but for me it’s really not. I like writing. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Sometimes it’s true that the best part of writing is “to have written,” so I get that. When you’re actually writing there is always some base-level anxiety about losing the thread. But most days–at least when it’s going well–it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to think on paper, which is what writing philosophy is all about. Depending on the material or the format, though, writing can be quite technically challenging. Writing philosophy for other academics is like building a brick wall. You want to construct a fortress because you know that someone is going to attack it. But for the kind of writing I do now, I’ve had to convince myself that it is acceptable to rely on my instinct a bit more. To trust that I know a live philosophical idea when I see one. I think that my writing has improved as I’ve gotten less defensive. But I will say that fiction is the hardest writing of all, at least for me. To have a philosophical idea is one thing. To express that idea within the format of a story, that is high art. Leonard Rosen and Rebecca Goldstein, I take my hat off to you.
You are one of those people who write both fiction and non-fiction. What’s that like?
It’s a challenge! I enjoy both and find that it allows me to tap into different parts of my brain. There’s a different voice for fiction, that’s for sure. In non-fiction, you’re trying to convince someone; you’re making an argument. In fiction, you’re telling a story, which can still have an idea behind it, but it’s got to be entertaining too. The interesting thing to me, though, was to discover that learning to write fiction helped me with my non-fiction. Sometimes the best way to convince someone is through a story. So now I find myself thinking more and more about dramatic tension, pacing, and the old literary saw “show, don’t tell.” All of these things have helped me to write non-fiction. But it’s still two different parts of the brain. I love to have two projects going at once. Sometimes I’ll get burnt out on one, then pick up another and feel refreshed. It’s a good way to keep productivity going too. If one thing isn’t going well, there’s always something else to do.
Do you have any quirks about writing? Any superstitions or rituals to get the juices flowing?
I find that it’s helpful to read what I’ve written the day before, as a warm up. So I always start with some editing, and then just plunge into whatever comes next. But no, I don’t have any rituals or that type of thing. I absolutely cannot stand to have any music playing while I’m writing. It just breaks my flow completely. But writing is pretty solitary, so I love to have some company, which these days consists of two newly adopted rescue dogs: a German Shepherd / Husky mix named Dante and another German Shepherd named Gigi. (My previous dogs were named Homer, Juno, and Hector…what can I say, I’m a writer). I take the dogs out for a long walk in the morning, then come back to the house to work. We go upstairs to my study, where they fall asleep next to my desk. It’s a pretty good way to get work done actually. Sometimes I sit there and write an extra hour, or delay lunch, because I don’t want to disturb them. It’s a nice vibe. Then it’s time to walk again. And we walk in the evening too. Dante thinks he has two jobs in life: keeping the mailman from slitting my throat (German Shepherd) and training for the Iditarod (Husky). Good job on the first one so far, and we’re still negotiating on the second. Gigi just loves everybody.
You are a dedicated student of the martial arts. Have you ever thought of writing about karate?
I did Shotokan karate for 13 years, then injured myself and had to stop training. But I still think of myself as a martial artist and find meaning in its teachings. But no, I haven’t written anything about it. If you look at most karate books, they’re really pretty bad, so I guess that hasn’t been very inspiring. What I mean is that the writing is bad. But karate books aren’t really written to be beautiful prose. Yet I find plenty of beauty in karate itself. In some ways there is a disconnect any time someone tries to write about something that is mostly physical or even spiritual. The martial arts really cannot be intellectualized to be understood, they have to be practiced. In fact, I think that philosophy could learn a lot from the martial arts in this way. It wasn’t always true, of course, but these days philosophy is almost all theory and no practice. Thoreau once said that we have professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. That was over a hundred years ago and I think he’s still right. Today we have academics who teach philosophy, but very few practitioners of philosophy. Imagine if law schools turned out only law professors, but there were no lawyers. I think that philosophy should learn to have practice, as well as theory, like they do in the martial arts. But that isn’t really a book, I suppose. That’s a way of life.
What are you working on next?
My next book is On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy. It’s a short, pocket-sized book—literally a manifesto—that deals with perhaps the most important topic of our times: the way that the attack on truth and facts has led us to the brink of losing American democracy. This is the book that in some ways I’ve been preparing to write for years now, yet I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
My last few books have been something of an arc, from Post-Truth to The Scientific Attitude to How to Talk to a Science Denier and now to On Disinformation. In Post-Truth, I grappled with the question that grabbed everyone’s attention back in 2016. Why was Trump lying so much and why was there suddenly such a wide-spread societal assault on facts and truth? Of course this wasn’t really new. Science denial has been around for centuries and used to attack anything and everything that threatened people’s economic, political, or ideological interests. On topics like evolution, climate change, and vaccines, people deny what clashes with their sacred convictions. But what happened in the post-truth era is that these tactics jumped from science to politics; the blueprint for science denial paved the way for reality denial, as politicians and others found that they could question the facts not only about science but literally anything at all.
Post-Truth was a warning cry, about a problem we still need to solve. In The Scientific Attitude and How to Talk to a Science Denier, I wanted to make some headway on this by exploring some of the remedies that had proven useful in fighting science denial, with an eye toward how they might be adapted for larger use. The scientific attitude is literally the opposite of post-truth. I define post-truth as the political subordination of reality. By contrast, the scientific attitude is when you care about evidence and are willing to change your mind based on new evidence. To embrace the scientific attitude is to reject post-truth. So what is it that science deniers are missing? The idea that evidence reigns supreme, and that this rather than ideology is how you should shape your views of reality.
But while I was writing these books, new threats emerged both to science (via false information about Covid vaccines during the pandemic) and to our larger grasp of reality (via election denial, based on Trump’s evidence-free claim that the 2020 election was stolen). At this point I realized that there were no longer two problems but only one; denialism could occur on any empirical subject. But what causes it? Here I wanted to say more about the crucial role of disinformation.
Denialism is not a mistake, it’s a lie. It is a corruption that grows out of special interests who discover that reality poses a threat to one of their cherished beliefs, so they engage in a strategic campaign to manufacture doubt and distrust. And one of their prime tools is disinformation. The goal of disinformation is not merely to get you to doubt the facts about some particular topic—it is to polarize you into thinking that those on the other side are your enemy, so that you will distrust anything they say. Once this happens, it’s game over for rational thought. To me, this seems so dangerous that it might lead not just to the downfall of science, but democracy itself.
In On Disinformation I take on this problem directly. In some ways this book is the culmination of what I’ve been thinking about for the last seven years, but I still hadn’t put all the pieces together. Once I saw how they all fit, though, it didn’t take many more pages to finish the story. The mystery of how post-truth started is now solved. It’s the result of a deliberate campaign of deception and fragmentation created by those who seek to subordinate reality to their political agenda, which can extend all the way to authoritarianism and even fascism. Why did January 6th occur? In some ways it was the inevitable result of an obscure meeting of tobacco executives at the Plaza Hotel on December 15, 1953, in which they sought a way to respond to a forthcoming study which showed that smoking caused lung cancer. And what did they decide? That their best bet was to “fight the science”—which they did for the next forty years—and modern science denial was born.
And now 70 years later we’re in a war for reality itself.
There are several things we can do to fight back, but we’re running out of time. This is why On Disinformation is so short. It’s a call to action. I want you to read it, pass it on to a friend, and then get busy.
Some will imagine that On Disinformation is a sequel to Post-Truth, but that’s not really right. Post-Truth was the diagnosis; On Disinformation is the prescription.