Jen Shannon: Just as much as early humans were predators, they were prey. Over millions of years, our ancestors were hunted by tigers, giant bears, poisonous snakes, and many other fearsome beasts.
Chip Colwell: The way early humans protected themselves from threat had to be instinctive. You hear a cat’s roar, you run. You see bear scat, you turn around. You hear rustling in the bush, you check for snakes.
Jen: But as we evolved, so did the threats facing us.
Chip: Nuclear weapons.
Jen: Climate change.
Chip: Artificial intelligence.
Jen: And our greatest threat now? A deadly virus we can’t even see.
Hugh Gusterson: It’s clear that thousands of years of evolution selected for certain kinds of risk perception. It was the ability to respond to very immediate threats in your environment or to learn about less visible threats by seeing other people perish to them. So, we’re sort of hardwired to be very good at perceiving immediate threats or learning from other people who don’t perceive them in time. Something like nuclear weapons, climate change, the coronavirus, these are a different order of threat because they are so abstract.
Jen: This is Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University. In a recent piece for SAPIENS.org, he drew on his experience researching nuclear weapons scientists and anti-nuclear activists to examine how humans perceive risks they can’t see … like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hugh: At first, it didn’t seem particularly interesting or relevant to me. It captured my attention when I noticed that they had completely closed down Wuhan: several million people locked indoors for several weeks. And I guess, somewhere in the back of my mind, the thought was creeping in: Can something like that really be contained in one part of one country, given that we live in this globally connected world and that millions of people are traveling by plane from one part of the world to another every week, including from China. But it was just this small, sort of niggling thought at that point. It wasn’t really until the virus popped up in Italy that I began to become much more nervous and feel it as something that was soon going to make its way to the United States. I also had a neighbor in Bethesda, Maryland, where I live, who reposted an account from a doctor in Milan of emergency rooms completely overflowing, doctors working 12-hour shifts or longer at their wits end, trying to figure out how to save the lives of these people who were just flooding into the emergency rooms. And that was when I realized that I was probably reading about the future of the part of America where I live.
I think the images of the doctors in protective clothing with masks on made me realize that the doctors themselves were afraid.
Jen: I was really captivated by your recent essay for SAPIENS.org, not just where you described your own personal experience, but the way you connected it to your research on nuclear weapons. I would love to hear more about your work and how it helped you make sense of what has been happening these last few months.
Hugh: So, in the 1980s, the early 1980s, I was involved in the anti-nuclear weapons movement, and then I went ahead to develop my own research program as an anthropologist. I was interested in how nuclear weapons scientists feel completely comfortable with nuclear weapons. They feel they have them under control. They feel the weapons keep them and our country safe. Whereas anti-nuclear activists are terrified by them and feel that we’re all going to be wiped out by them.
And I used to make a point when I interviewed nuclear weapons scientists asking if they’d ever had a nightmare about nuclear weapons. And I ask this because almost every nuclear anti-nuclear activist I ever interviewed had had nightmares about nuclear weapons. And it was experienced as this sort of eruption of something they’d been trying to repress into their consciousness, forcing them to look the danger in the eye.
And when I asked nuclear weapons scientists: “Have you ever had a nightmare about nuclear weapons?” They often looked at me cross-eyed and said, “Why on earth would you ask that? Of course, I haven’t. Why would I?” So, it was interesting that deep in the bones, right, they just felt very comfortable with the weapons. They felt that humans control the weapons and are not threatened by them. And that actually, they’re a way of protecting us. So, throughout my career as an anthropologist, I had been interested in how the same thing seems like a threat to some people and not to other people, why that might be. And I’d become interested in processes that make threats less visible and more real. So, I became interested in techniques that the anti-nuclear movement used to try and propagate an awareness of the threat that nuclear weapons represented.
Jen: And that’s where Robert Jay Lifton and his concept of imagining the real comes in, right? I know you wrote about it in your piece, but could you share a little more about him, his background and how his work could guide our thinking about the pandemic?
Gusterson: Lifton is a famous social psychologist who’s very sympathetic to the anti-nuclear movement, and he strongly believes that nuclear weapons are a genocidal danger to all people on Earth and that anyone who doesn’t see that is sort of living under a cloud of repression, if you like. And so, he asks, “How do you get people to imagine the real threat?” And the weapons themselves are invisible. I mean, even though I’ve written about nuclear weapons, I’ve never seen one, right? I’ve seen mockups of them, but I’ve never actually seen a nuclear weapon. Almost no one has actually seen one. In the lifetimes of most people living on Earth, they’ve not been used. Even nuclear weapons designers themselves: Since 1963, the tests have been conducted underground. So most living designers who design the weapons have never seen a mushroom cloud. They’ve never seen one blow up. And the U.S. hasn’t tested one since 1992. So now they’re just simulations. They’re really abstract. So Lifton was asking, “How do you get people to imagine a threat that is so abstract?”
Jen: The anti-nuclear activists you mentioned earlier had their own techniques for getting people to imagine the threat of nuclear war. Are there any particularly effective ones we could learn from?
Hugh: They showed a lot of pictures of Hiroshima victims. So, they would show pictures of burned bodies, either survivors with burned bodies or dead bodies to try and say, “Look, this is you in the future if you don’t take action now.” They also had this exercise, which I found incredibly powerful. It was an auditory exercise, not a visual exercise. They would get a tin bucket, and they would drop a BB ball into it. And they would say that was the sound of one of America’s nuclear weapons. And they would invite people in the audience to shut their eyes, and they would say, I am now going to pour as many BB balls into this bucket as the U.S. has nuclear weapons. And so, you’re sitting there with your eyes shut. You have no idea how many BB balls are going to be dropped in there. And you think, OK, well, this will take 10 seconds or something. And it goes on and on and on. Because in the ’80s when they were doing it, it was 35,000 nuclear weapons. And so, you want to open your eyes, and you want the sound to stop. And it goes on and on and on.
Jen: We have seen such a wide range of responses to the pandemic in this country, and also all over the world. Do you think that reflects people’s different perceptions of abstract threats, or is it something else?
Hugh: It’s much harder to imagine the danger the virus represents than it is to feel the reality of the economic pain you’re in. And what’s much more real for most people is that they want to go out to a restaurant and they can’t, and they’ve lost their job because they’re locked down. You don’t have to try very hard to imagine that at all. And I think in terms of whether you’re comfortable with being locked down or not, I have to presume that it partly has to do with your economic relationship to that. I keep getting paid. I can work easily from home because my work mainly involves staring into a computer. So, it’s inconvenient not to be able to go out as much, but it’s not a huge sacrifice. If you relied on being a waitress or working in some other small store that’s been closed for your livelihood, and you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent. You have a very different attitude toward a risk that does seem abstract compared to the fact that you may be about to be evicted.
Jen: You also talk about the role of peer pressure in imagining the real. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Hugh: So, some of the reason that people do or don’t follow the protocol has to do with the cues they get from their reference group: their neighbors, coworkers, people like that. I think politicians can set an example. In Maryland, where I live, our Republican governor, Larry Hogan, started wearing a mask very, very early. He was almost the first governor in the country, I think, to do that. And it was really important, I think, in persuading people if the governor is going to wear it, then I should wear one too. You know, by contrast, when the president refuses to wear one, for his followers, that also sends a message.
If there are people out there telling you not to stay home and that the politicians you loathe and despise are plotting to make you stay home, it’s really hard to stay home and to imagine the danger that you’re creating. At the moment, I’m living in a very fractured neighborhood, and it’s clear that there are two opposed risk constructions living side by side in my neighborhood. So, one of the things that my wife and I did: We have a small weekend place that’s in a fairly remote part of southern Maryland. So, it feels a lot safer, but it’s a much more conservative locale. A lot of people work at a nearby military base. And so, when I walk around the neighborhood, the people that are known as weekenders, whose primary residence is somewhere else, a lot of whom, like us, relocated here, we all take it really seriously. Later today, I’m invited by another weekender to come and hang out on their lawn. I’ve been told: Bring my own drinks, bring my own snacks, bring my own chair, and be ready to sit 6 feet away from them. On the other hand, my immediate neighbor, he’s constantly having parties in his house. I constantly see pickup trucks parked in his driveway, and people are coming by and partying with him, right? And there are plenty of people in the neighborhood who behave that way. So, there are two different risk constructions.
Jen: Do you think people can change their risk constructions?
Hugh: I’ve become profoundly convinced that you cannot talk someone rationally into sharing your risk construction. If you read the literature on risk analysis, many academics are committed to the idea that you can educate people to see a risk in a particular way. They can change. It’s not that it’s impossible to change it. I think the other thing that sometimes I saw changed people’s mind was just the emotion of a speaker. You know, through their own conviction, they were able to convey to other people the urgency that they felt. And around the coronavirus, I’ve seen some doctors and epidemiologists speak with that kind of urgency. It’s interesting to me that Fauci does not do that.
Anthony Fauci: Whenever you make a vaccine, what you rely on is the ability of the body to make an adequate response to natural infection. So, we know that …
Hugh: Fauci is very reserved, right? And I think people of different political persuasions trust him precisely because he’s so reserved and seems so matter of fact. So, that’s a very different strategy for communicating risk. It’s a strategy of being very sort of factual. I think his age and his gender help, the positions that he’s held. So, a younger woman, for example, might not be able to pull that off the way that he does. He deliberately avoids emotive language. He chooses his words very carefully. So, the people are sort of listening, trying to read between the words. So that can be another way.
Jen: Why do you think this concept of imaging the real is so important to think about and to share right now?
Hugh: We’re asking people to make enormous sacrifices, right? And we’re asking people to make sacrifices not only for themselves, but for strangers. I think of the saying in the Czech Republic: My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. So, you’re asking people to wear a mask, not to protect themselves, because it’s not so good at that, apparently, but to protect other people. And it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to wear a mask. And it’s painful to stay at home, and it’s painful to lose your job. So, if you’re going to ask people to do all those things, there has to be a really, really, really good reason.
I think about my mother’s experience of World War II. My mother lived through the blitz. She lived in a British city that was regularly bombed, and it was no difficulty for her to imagine the real. Bombs were falling. She knew people who were killed by German bombs. And so, when people came around and said, “It’s really important to have blackout curtains and turn all your lights out when the air raid sirens go,” that’s easy, right? You don’t want your house to be bombed, and you’ve seen the damage the bombs do. This is very, very different from that. You may not know anyone who’s caught the virus. You may hear pundits and politicians saying that it’s a Democratic plot to stop Trump from being reelected and they’re exaggerating the danger.
So, it’s important to be able to visualize how dangerous the virus is so that people feel motivated to make those kinds of sacrifices that they have to make. Now, if it’s impossible for them to imagine the virus, there are still other reasons why people might do it. And it’s because of peer pressure. It’s just because everyone else is doing it. They think the threat is exaggerated, but they don’t want their neighbors to judge them for not wearing a mask. And so, they’ll go along. And in the end, maybe it doesn’t matter how people get to the behavior, it’s the behavior that matters in the end.
Chip: So, how do we get to that behavior? How do we make COVID-19 more real? Tragically, we’ve faced this problem before. Back in the 1980s, this was precisely the issue Kristen Hedges faced as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Kristin Hedges: My homestay mother told me one time, she said, “I’ve had other Peace Corps volunteers, so I know how to cook American food. Tonight, I’m going to make you spaghetti.”
Chip: She and her team found a way to not only fight the epidemic, but also make it more real. Unfortunately, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, in places like the United States, this tool was not widely available. As a result, the coronavirus was not effectively tracked. We also lost the chance to make the pandemic seem more real to a lot more people.
Hedges is an assistant professor of anthropology at Grand Valley State University of Michigan and recently wrote about her experiences for SAPIENS.
Kristin: I had always known I wanted to join Peace Corps. That was something that had been on my mind since, I think, 15, 16 years old. I found a book of old Peace Corps stories and would read it at night and thinking, Oh, that’s what I want to do when I grow up is be a Peace Corps volunteer. So, I actually applied to Peace Corps. And back then, it took quite a while, the application process. After an entire eight months of waiting, I got a letter that said, “You’re invited to serve in Kenya, and it would be leaving in five weeks.” And then off I went. And so, our whole group of 50 volunteers were on the same flights over to Nairobi. And I remember all the way up until the last plane landing, feeling really excited, and then seeing the monitor. If, you know, when you’re on the airplane, and they’ve got the monitor where it tracks a little plane and where it’s landing, and the monitor had then the airplane icon with the arrow pointing to Nairobi. And all of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was like, what? What have I done? What am I doing? Am I really strong enough to do this? I’m not so sure. And feeling a lot of anxiety in those last minutes of the plane landing.
So, my actual invitation letter actually, I was invited as a water sanitation volunteer. But I arrived there and was told, you know, you’re gonna be a public health volunteer to work on HIV/AIDS. They said the HIV rate and the AIDS epidemic was so high that they were converting all of the water sanitation volunteers to be public health volunteers and to work specifically on HIV and AIDS. The rates were close to about 15 percent in the country. And I started doing HIV education, kind of lectures to the kids and to the school children. And I was surprised how many people, especially for the kids, they, you know, I was really giving a basic lecture like: What is HIV and how is it transmitted and how do you prevent it? And what is this virus? And most of them knew; they had heard about HIV. They knew it was around. They knew it was increasing. They knew it could be transmitted by sex or by blood. And so, I found in the schools, you know, the kids were getting lessons and education about what HIV was from the teachers and from the school system and in the education system. And then there was a whole other section of the population, so, women that were sitting in the markets that would ask me questions, and they weren’t, they never had a chance to go to school, and they didn’t get that education. And so, I started doing presentations for women in the markets.
At that time, the way we were trained in Peace Corps and what was really the predominant method in the early 2000s was called the ABC approach, which means: OK, you want to prevent it? A, B, or C. And so, I got to A, B, or C. And A: abstain. I was talking to all women that were married and had children. So, that didn’t really work. So, we get to B. And I said, OK, well, if you don’t abstain, then let’s move on to B-be faithful. And one of the women raised her hand, looks to me, and says, OK, so who should I be faithful to? Should I be faithful to my husband or my boyfriends? And my husband has four wives. So, who should he be faithful to? So, I can’t remember what my answer was. I think I bumbled around and then spent a lot of time thinking about it afterward. But then I got to C, and I said, OK. And then if you can’t do that, use a condom. And another woman raised her hand. She said, “I can’t use a condom. My husband will beat me.”
And it was this poignant moment, really, for me, and even for my career, because my undergraduate wasn’t in anthropology. And it was this moment of going, What a minute, I’ve been teaching this, you know, what I would call now this cookie-cutter approach. And then realizing, Wow, this isn’t relevant. And they don’t feel like they can enact any of these steps. And then the result is, it’s everywhere, and you’re just going to die if you don’t do these options. It wasn’t empowering at all.
Actually, when I finished my Peace Corps service in 2003, I went on to get my master’s degree in applied anthropology and came back, went back to Kenya one year later. And specifically, I collected ethnographic interviews with Maasai adolescent girls. And at that time, they were telling me, oh, they actually had a phrase which translates to “AIDS is a fever.” And I would say, “Why are you saying that?”
“That’s what we say these days. What can we say?”
“But why are you saying that?”
“Because it’s everywhere. Death is everywhere.”
And “if it’s everywhere, then what’s the point? We’re all going to get it just like we get a fever. So why should we even try?”
Then the more I thought about it and then thought back to like the ABC approach, it’s like, oh, wow, that cookie-cutter approach, not only is it not helpful, it’s harmful.
And after years of teaching about HIV in this very kind of faraway topic of, oh, there’s HIV out there, there is this virus, and you have to, there’s a risk, and you have to prevent it. And this is how it’s transmitted. And it never felt like it was really real to everybody. We were just talking about this topic that was just out there, and people knew, you know? By 2003, there was enough deaths in the area and enough funerals, and you could hear funeral chants at night on a pretty regular basis. And so, more and more people were scared thinking, It’s everywhere, and I can’t prevent it.
There’s educating about this virus, but there’s people already infected. So, what are we doing to try to support those people? And that’s when my counterpart, Joseph Kapila, who, he’s the one who put in the first request for a volunteer, we sat down and said, “OK, if we could focus on supporting people who are living with HIV, there’s a lot of education happening, but the stigma is so high, there’s not a lot of support for those who are infected.” And so, we actually worked then to open the first voluntary counseling and testing center in the town. And the whole goal of the organization was to try to get to that second level of supporting those who were infected.
The way it was setup was you do pre-counseling, the rapid test, and then post-counseling. And so, you would spend, you know, almost 30 minutes with the pre-counseling, kind of walking through the client and talking about where they think they may have a risk for HIV and what are the factors that brought them in today? And then you do the rapid test that only takes 15 minutes and then the post-counseling is kind of, “What are your next steps, and what are you going to do next?”
And so, when we’d look at the results and, you know, it was a quick test, those two lines—very similar to a pregnancy test, like two lines you’re pregnant and one, you’re not. You know, those two lines, it was positive and one was negative. And so, we would look at it together, so they could look at it themselves, this physical object. And so, many times people would look at it and go, “What, you know, I’m negative. I can’t believe I’m negative. Oh, my gosh. Now that I know I’m negative, I’ve got to change everything. I’m going to make sure I stay this way, like I’m going to change this and this and this.” And it was the most empowering process that I saw, this hands-on dedication for changing behavior and reducing risk once they knew their test result.
It made it tangible and right in front of them. And they could see. But without that concrete knowledge, it seemed like they couldn’t really plan. It was just too abstract and out there.
And that’s the same thing now, you know, with the coronavirus. We have to know where it is, and you’re not going to be able to know where it is unless there’s testing. But I think also beyond even just the epidemiology, going back to the idea of making this a real thing for people, where they can get a result and have, you know, an actual object that can tell them, now this is a test and here’s your result, because it’s either, you know, positive or negative, it’s either, the virus is there or it’s not. Testing is what makes it real. And if you don’t test, it doesn’t make it real for people. With something that is as hard for people to see as this, we need as many of those symbolic markers that we can get.
Chip: If you’ve been following this season, you’ve heard a few times from Steve Nash, an archaeologist, museum curator, and SAPIENS columnist. I wanted to reach out to Steve again because in doing this episode, it struck me that archaeological research itself involves working in the unreal. Most basically, archaeologists must wrap their minds around one of the biggest, most real yet unreal concepts of all: time. Steve, how are you doing today?
Steve Nash: I’m doing fine, Chip. Thanks for asking.
Chip: Glad to hear it. So, does the pandemic feel real to you yet?
Steve: It’s achieved a degree of normalcy, I guess. Whether or not that’s reality is a different thing, but it has kind of affected my understandings of time and my relationship to time.
Chip: In what sense?
Steve: Well, the in pre-COVID times, we were all bounded by our calendars, and we were running from meeting to meeting to meeting. And especially in those few first weeks, we were in a situation in which the precision of time didn’t matter so much. It was much more fluid, in a sense. It didn’t really matter if you made it to the Zoom meeting on time or not. And I think there’s a learning there for us.
Chip: Yeah. I definitely experienced some of that myself. And so, in this episode, we explored how humans have a hard time grappling with really big, abstract ideas like nuclear holocaust and climate change. As an archaeologist, in a way, your profession is built around the unreal because archaeologists must master and make sense of time. How do archaeologists do that?
Steve: Well, at the most basic level, Chip, an archaeologist can assume that material that’s at the bottom of a site is older than the material that’s at the top of the site simply because of the law of superposition. Everything drops down to the ground, it gets buried, and then it gets buried sequentially through time, just like in your wastepaper basket in the office, you might have some garbage from breakfast at the bottom and then garbage from the afternoon snack at the top. It’s the law of superposition. That’s the easy one.
Chip: So most basically, archaeologists make time, which is so huge and abstract, they make it real through different scientific techniques. And it strikes me, though, archaeologists also have to make sense of time in another way. They need to imagine huge sweeps of history. For example, if you’re writing about the history of our species over millions of years or the migrations of people across continents over millennia, that’s hugely abstract. And yet archaeologists do that pretty well. How exactly do they do that?
Steve: One of the reasons why I love the study of Time with a capital T is that everybody knows what time is, but they can’t define it, right? There was a science fiction writer back in the 1930s who said that “time is that which keeps everything from happening all at once.” And that’s not a definition at all. That’s a truism. It’s like saying, “Space is that which keeps everything from happening in the same place.” It’s circular reasoning. And so, it’s not really, it makes sense to us, but it’s not yet a definition. So, we don’t really know what time is. And then we start thinking about what is normal for us in 2020. And yet the technologies that we’re using today are incredibly recent in human history. And so, what I want to do for you real quickly is sketch out a way of thinking about time and the human experience to give you an idea of just how unusual the current moment is that we’re living in.
Our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has recently been dated to about as old as 300,000 years. Now we can say that number, but we don’t really know what it means. So, in order to think about this, what I like to do is take that 300,000 years and overlay it on a single calendar year, January through December, 365 days, 12 months. If we do that, what we see is that our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, lives in Africa using only a stone tool technology until 100,000 years ago. So, 200,000 years. That is two-thirds of the year has gone by before our species even leaves Africa. So, that’s September 1st on this calendar year, from January 1st to September 1st, we’re in Africa with a stone tool technology, and then anything that we think of as recent, it can be the Industrial Revolution or the Scientific Revolution, both of those things, events, happen in the late afternoon on New Year’s Eve. And then the iPhone that I’m talking into right now to record this interview wasn’t invented until 2007. Where is 2007 on our calendar year scale, it’s after 11:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. That should make us think twice about what is normal about our place on Earth right now.
Chip: That’s totally fascinating, Steve. And I especially like your use of the calendar, which itself is a technology, right, to order and make sense of time.
Chip: So, could you share with us some other technologies, some other ways humans around the world have recorded and made sense of time?
Steve: One of the examples that I published in my SAPIENS column on linear time versus cyclical time is when the first calendar of any kind is found in the archaeological record, and it’s in Sumeria, between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, so in the Middle East, in the Fertile Crescent there. More than 5,000 years ago; we’ve got Stonehenge in Europe, which you may have seen, they broadcast the solstice sunrise on Facebook live from Stonehenge a couple of days ago. Isn’t that a fascinating conjunction of 4,000-year-old technology with modern technology?
Chip: So, you mean that Stonehenge itself was a mechanism to track time and the arrival of the solstice?
Steve: Yeah, it was. It had astronomical components to track the seasons, track the solstices, equinoxes, and things like that, so, yes.
At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where I work, we have something called a Lakota Winter Count in our collections. And this is a piece of deer hide with a series of images on it. Roughly 131 separate images in a clockwise spiral coming out from the center. And what the Lakota did, the people who were responsible for recording their history, they would use one image for each calendar year. And so, this Lakota Winter Count has 131 images on it. It records events from 131 years. Most specifically is 1834, which is after a major meteor shower that was recorded all over the world, is recorded on the Winter Count by an image of some stars falling. It’s clear what’s going on: There’s a series of stars with lines behind them. So, what I ask people to think about now is how you would record a given year in a single image. In 2016, when I published that article, the Cubs had just won the World Series. So, as a Cubs fan, I could have recorded 2016 with an icon for the Chicago Cubs. But if I was Lakota, I probably would have put an icon for the Dakota access pipeline; the demonstrations and protests and attempts to block that pipeline were going full bore in 2016. So, there is a lot to work with, but the very individual choices. But then there are culturally derived choices as well.
Chip: Steve, thanks so much for sharing your stories. I really appreciate it. And look forward to our next conversation in good time.
Steve: Me too, Chip, thank you so much.
Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi and Juliette Luini. It was mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. It was hosted by me, Chip Colwell.
Jen: And me, Jen Shannon. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with contributions from Executive Producer Cat Jaffee.
Chip: SAPIENS is an editorially independent magazine funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published in partnership with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and all the staff at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS.org.
Jen: Special thanks this time to Hugh Gusterson, Kristen Hedges, and Steve Nash. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. Until next time, we wish you well, fellow sapiens.