Bishop Barron talks about the Rabbit Hole problem

barron video

As I went walking today, I checked my phone but didn’t see any really good NYT podcasts — as you know, there are several of those I generally enjoy — and just wasn’t in the mood to catch up on the latest news via NPR One. Then I had an idea.

Having not gone physically to Mass in more than a year, we’ve experimented around with different approaches via the web. We’ve joined our own church’s Masses via Facebook, and lately we’ve been checking out the ones from the National Shrine in Washington. Since the ones we’ve watched — from the “Crypt Church” at the basilica — are shorter than what we’re used to (under 30 minutes), we’ve added on the practice of listening to that week’s sermon from Bishop Robert Barron. And I’ve really been impressed by them. Here’s a recent one.

So today I thought, “Doesn’t HE have a podcast?” Yes, he does, I found it. And I listened to this recent one, headlined “Catholics, Media Mobs, and the Culture of Contempt.” It’s also available in video form.

It was good. Basically, it tied together my two most persistent recent obsessions: The political/cultural divide between Catholics, and the Rabbit Hole.

As for the Catholic part… the bishop talked about how back in the double-naughts, when the New Atheism was so active online, he got some pretty fierce comments from the followers of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, et al. He found some of it pretty rough going.

But that was nothing compared to the flak he’s received lately from both sides of the Catholic culture war. He said he’d take the atheists any time over these fellow Catholics. The atheists were way nicer.

Then he got into what was causing this, the Rabbit Hole problem, although he didn’t call it that. He mentioned The Social Dilemma, which I’ve mentioned recently in that context. And he explained how the algorithms — in the interest of keeping you on the sites and in reach of their advertising — are written to pull you into the hole, deeper and deeper.

Anyway, whether you’re Catholic or not, I recommend the podcast. (Actually, it’s really a recent recorded virtual speech he gave.) That’s because he goes beyond wringing his hands over the Rabbit Hole the way I do. He offers advice on what to do about it, how to free yourself from it, and stop being such an a__hole (my bleeped word, not his). Of course, his solutions are grounded in the faith. If you don’t like that because you’re an unbeliever, go yell at the bishop about it. He likes that better than hearing from us crazy Catholics.

OK, I was going to mention some of my favorite parts of the speech, but I’m too tired right now. I’ll just give you this quote that comes right at five minutes in: “I’m talking about this toxic, poisonous, fetid quality, to much of the social media dialogue — and I’m sorry to say it, but to a lot of Catholic social media in particular.”

He had me at “fetid.” Other really good bits are at 28 minutes, 35 minutes, 37 minutes and 40 minutes.

38 thoughts on “Bishop Barron talks about the Rabbit Hole problem

  1. bud

    Given the enormous problems within the Catholic Church I’d suggest the Bishop should devote his attention there rather than lash out at some esoteric rabbit hole “problem”. Currently the world’s fertility rate sits at 2.4. Which means population growth will continue for decades to come. This is mathematically unsustainable. Catholic tenants are a big part of the problem with the odious dogma regarding birth control. That’s disgusting. Thankfully most Catholics in developed countries ignore this crap. But in many parts of Africa Catholic proselytizing pressures women to refrain from using effective birth control. So whatever problems exist with social media that pales in comparison to the horrors caused by the Catholic Church.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “Currently the world’s fertility rate sits at 2.4. Which means population growth will continue for decades to come.”

      U.S. birth and fertility rates in 2020 dropped to another record low as births fell for the sixth consecutive year to the lowest levels since 1979, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

      The number of births in the U.S. declined last year by 4% from 2019, double the average annual rate of decline of 2% since 2014, the CDC said in preliminary birth data released Wednesday. Total fertility rates and general fertility rates also declined by 4% since 2019, reaching record lows. The U.S. birth rate is so low, the nation is “below replacement levels,” meaning more people die every day than are being born, the CDC said.

      1. bud

        Which is good news but misses my point. Third world fertility rates especially in Africa are keeping the overall world rate well above replacement. With global warming, poverty and ethnic strife rampant it’s imperative to achieve replacement rate or lower ASAP. Religious dogma is counter productive to this essential goal. It’s sort of like herd immunity for COVID. It’s not enough for the USA alone to reach the goal. The entire world has to hit the target.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Ah, Malthusian dreams…

          So, what… The answer is fewer Africans? Like “Black Lives Matter, but let’s have fewer of them?”

          And no, the drop in fertility rate in this country is not “good news.” You need to read up on the economic consequences. We don’t want to become Japan.

          And of course, this ties to immigration. Because of this drop in fertility, we need more immigrants, not fewer. We just need to get a better, more organized handle on the process.

          1. bud

            I’m all for immigration. Of course Malthus has to be correct. That’s just a mathematical certainty. Regardless of technological advances any fixed percentage annual increase in population WILL ultimately overwhelm the earths resources. So there are two choices. 1. Death will reign supreme as famine, war, runaway global warming events and other afflictions destroy mankind as we know it. Or 2. We achieve a population size that is sustainable with the aid of effective birth control measures. Much progress has been achieved since the advent of hormonal birth control in the 1960s. So we can do the responsible thing and make international family planning an international goal. Or we can follow the odious doctrine of vilifying birth control and risk dystopia.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              You might want to read this, from Scientific American: “Why Malthus Is Still Wrong.”

              An excerpt:

              On the negative side of the ledger are the policies derived from the belief in the inevitability of a Malthusian collapse. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” Malthus gloomily predicted. His scenario influenced policy makers to embrace social Darwinism and eugenics, resulting in draconian measures to restrict particular populations’ family size, including forced sterilizations.

              In his book The Evolution of Everything (Harper, 2015), evolutionary biologist and journalist Matt Ridley sums up the policy succinctly: “Better to be cruel to be kind.” The belief that “those in power knew best what was good for the vulnerable and weak” led directly to legal actions based on questionable Malthusian science. For example, the English Poor Law implemented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 to provide food to the poor was severely curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty. The British government had a similar Malthusian attitude during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ridley notes, reasoning that famine, in the words of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” A few decades later Francis Galton advocated marriage between the fittest individuals (“What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly man may do providently, quickly and kindly”), followed by a number of prominent socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells, who openly championed eugenics as a tool of social engineering.

              We think of eugenics and forced sterilization as a right-wing Nazi program implemented in 1930s Germany. Yet as Princeton University economist Thomas Leonard documents in his book Illiberal Reformers (Princeton University Press, 2016) and former New York Times editor Adam Cohen reminds us in his book Imbeciles (Penguin, 2016), eugenics fever swept America in the early 20th century, culminating in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which the justices legalized sterilization of “undesirable” citizens. The court included prominent progressives Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the latter of whom famously ruled, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The result: sterilization of some 70,000 Americans….

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Another interesting piece I just ran across, from way back in 1977, in The New York Times Book Review.

                It’s so old the text isn’t digitized — it’s just pictures of the page. So I can’t copy and paste. But I can tell you the headline is, “The Legacy of Malthus,” and the subhed is, “The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism.”

                There’s often a crossing of paths between population controllers and eugenicists. I suppose you’ve seen how Planned Parenthood folks have been disassociating themselves from their famous founder…

              2. bud

                Eugenics? Why are you going there? You’re completely missing the central point made by Malthus. Perhaps before the 1960s birth control revolution government intervention including forced sterilization might have been a necessary evil to get the fertility rate below 2.1. But that isn’t necessary. All we need is sensible, voluntary family planning. It’s something that works. There is no need to consult experts or refer to non sequiturs like eugenics. It boils down to math. Period. A 1% annual growth rate in the worlds population is unsustainable. Again, period. I set up a spread sheet to calculate how much the human population would weigh if a 1% growth rate continued indefinitely. In about 400 year the people would outweigh planet earth.

                My solution is simple. Promote birth control techniques in third world countries the way we have in the developed world. People would quickly appreciate the benefits of smaller families and humanity would benefit. Religious groups need to come on board. The evil of condemning birth control from the pulpit needs to stop. And soon.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Yeah, because THAT’S the problem. OK…

                  If you consider having fewer children to be a good thing — and you do; you’ve made that quite plain — then the way to achieve it is not promoting birth control among the poor. It’s helping the poor rise out of poverty.

                  Who are the people who have fewer children? The privileged people who live in plenty. I look upon that phenomenon differently from the way you do, but the wealthy countries are the ones “blessed,” as you might put it, by deficits in fertility that threaten that very affluence. Give people enough to eat and economic security, and they start wanting to have another car or a vacation home rather than children.

                  Which of course makes having another car or a vacation home kind of pointless in my book, but that’s me. Obviously, your mileage varies…

                  1. Norm Ivey

                    I’m following this discussion with casual interest. I agree with Bud that population growth has the planet on a collision course with tragic human suffering, but so do many of the things we do as a species. The idea that the entire planet is going to get on board with a coherent family planning goal seems unlikely. I believe we will likely have widespread suffering long before we reach the point of resource depletion due to population. See: Climate Change

                    Anyone else ever have to do that group activity where there are only a dozen survivors after a global catastrophe? There are only enough resources to keep 6 alive, and you have to choose the 6 that should survive. I pissed off my group by selecting the infirm and infertile, thereby ensuring the end of the species. I was accused of “playing God”. Well, yeah. That’s the point.

                    Nature always wins in the end, and she always gets last at-bats.

                    1. bud

                      Norm I’m not as pessimistic as you. A majority of the world’s countries are at or below the critical 2.1 fertility rate. It’s achievable but it’s made much more difficult when so many religions scorn birth control. It really is fascinating how so many Catholics reject that nonsense yet it remains official church doctrine. But the Catholic Church and others proselytize in the world by rendering humanitarian aid but indoctrinating poor people into the diabolical anti birth control dogma. Perhaps more enlightened spiritual organizations like the Unitarians can counter these horrible teachings by reaching out to the needs of the third world as an alternative to backward thinking religious sects.

                  2. bud

                    Sigh. I guess you’re suggesting wealthy people are less horny.

                    Wealthy people have greater access to family planning. Smaller families tend to be wealthier. They’re also better educated and reject the religious doctrine against birth control. But religions could be of great service by promoting birth control to the poor rather that vilifying the practice.

                  3. Ken

                    “deficits in fertility … threaten … affluence.”

                    Science indicates that is not so clear cut. As one study put it:

                    “Although low fertility will indeed challenge government programs and very low fertility undermines living standards, we find that moderately low fertility and population decline favor the broader material standard of living.”

  2. Doug Ross

    Interesting use of censorship on this blog. Personal attacks from anonymous trolls are allowed but a “hits too close to home” joke with no profanity — one with that would have no issue on late night TV, SNL weekend update, etc. gets deleted.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You bet.

      And if I had time today, I’d explain it to you in some detail. But I don’t. So I deleted it along with others I’ve deleted today that were apparently animated by nothing more than a desire to offend….

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    This post demonstrates the problem that podcasts pose to a blogger.

    One of the points of blogging is to share things with people, so that one might discuss the thing that is shared. This works moderately well with news stories and columns, and with video clips. People follow the links and read or watch, and come back, and we all have a good discussion.

    Not so much with podcasts. I’ve been getting a lot out of podcasts lately. They’re a unique form that provide something that you only get out of the longer forms of journalism. You get a deep dive into a subject. The discussions get into many aspects of a subject, so that you get an almost holistic understanding of it.

    And when I listen to a really good one on one of my walks, I come back eager to share them with y’all, so we can talk about them.

    But that’s a lot to ask of anybody — a 30- or 40-minute commitment of time, and sometimes much more. For instance, to really get what I got out of the Rabbit Hole series, you really have to listen to several of the episodes, if not all eight of them, to fully understand what I’ve been yammering about since January.

    And I know that’s a lot to ask, probably too much. But I offer these items hopefully. I keep hoping one or two people can find the time, so that we might explore this interesting thing together. We can argue over the premise, and you might point out things I missed, and so forth.

    But it doesn’t really work that way. I think back to some of the better podcasts I’ve written about — the two-part NYT podcast on what happened to Breonna Taylor, or the one about the veteran black cop in Flint, Mich., who worries who will replace him when he retires — and I’m not sure ANYONE has ever listened to one of these as a result of my posting about it. (If you have, I both thank you and apologize for having imposed on your time to that extent.)

    Which means we don’t get to have the discussion I had hoped for.

    This one, about Bishop Barron’s talk dealing with the nastiness of social media, is a good example. There are 19 comments at this point, not one about the subject he talked about.

    Which is natural, I suppose. I just wish I could figure out a way for us to discuss these good subjects when they come up. But figuring out how to present them so as to help that happen eludes me.

    I could write about them in a way that I convey pretty much everything I got out of them — that’s doable. But those would be some pretty long posts for y’all to wade through. And of course, it would take me several times as much time, which I can ill afford these days.

    It’s a puzzle… Anyway, as I get ready to go for a walk in a little while and listen to another one, this is what I’m thinking about… But first, I’ve got to finish some work I didn’t finish yesterday…

    1. Ken

      I listened to a couple of those podcasts. But didn’t come away really persuaded that, as it claims at the outset, the internet is “changing who we are.”

      First of all, the phenomenon of the “algorithmic echo chamber” isn’t really all that novel. At least not to people who work in or even just read about marketing and advertising. Actually, it may be just another example of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” which goes way back to the early 1960s, where modern advertising techniques have their roots.

      As far as the issue of political polarization/identity, etc is concerned., if you read up on the rise of the modern right in the US in the late 50s and early 60s, culminating in the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, it’s clear that, even back then, some people were already living in echo chambers. They subscribed to right-wing newsletters, they devoured right-wing books like Conscience of a Conservative or None Dare Call It Treason, they joined right-wing groups like Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society, they believed in conspiracies (including that Dwight Eisenhower was really a closet Communist), they nursed and pushed cultural grievances and even “cancelled” those who failed to adequately toe the ideological line.

      Internet technology doesn’t so much create something new, instead it exacerbates, through its reach and penetration, things that long predate it – in particular free-floating disappointments and resentments. Like the guy I ran into during my latest walk. He was wearing a bright red t-shirt that read, in Constitution-styled writing, “We the People are pissed off.” Probably most folks like him aren’t exactly sure what they’re pissed off about, but there are plenty of others ready to exploit his displeasure and focus it on something or someone.

        1. Ken

          Just seemed to me that rather than point to the algorithms as THE cause of the problem, one might just as easily focus on the person, Caleb, whose browsing history serves as the backbone of the whole podcast series and ask: Why was he attracted to those various Youtube presentations? He seemed like a frustrated young man who possesses intelligence and curiosity but lacks the requisite critical discrimination to adequately deal with the arguments he’s watching. So he ends up drifting somewhat haphazardly from one side of the political spectrum to the other, drawn in at least as much by the “edgy” styling of the respective Youtuber as by their arguments.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Well, of course, no one who is pulled into such a maelstrom is likely to be the wisest, most careful thinker you’ve ever met. I’m just grateful to Caleb that he was so willing to let the NYT delve into his long seduction into insanity. You seldom get a glimpse into this process as extensive as what he provided when he let the reporters have access to his viewing history. The podcast series wouldn’t have been nearly as helpful and informative as it was once they went through that, and watched it happen to him, step by step.

            Without that, I doubt I would have reached the conclusion that I did, which is that this technology represents not just an incremental increase in a trend that we had all been watching for decades (as you say), but an exponential jump, a quantum leap if you will. It took this radicalization process from being a pesky problem on the political fringes to being something that leads to things like Charlottesville and the Jan. 6 uprising.

            For some time, I’d been wondering why we went from the old problems on the fringe to this dangerous situation — with bizarre ideas taking center stage — with such rapidity. There are a lot of causes, of course. But this technological catalyst played an essential role. What happened the last few years — and keeps happening now, as we can see with a glance and the way the Republican Party is devouring itself — simply couldn’t have landed in our laps this way without it.

            For years, I tried to understand what had changed us from a country that would never have elected a grossly unfit character such as Trump to one that did so, and came close to doing it again. I had watched the growth of, for instance, anti-immigrant passions from a fringe phenomenon — I used to hear from these angry folks in the 90s, but there were very few of them, and they tended to be the same people over and over — to something of a tidal wave, starting in about 2005 or 2006 (as I wrote at the time).

            For decades, and certainly in the years since I moved to editorial in 1994, I had been in a position to see these things happening, although usually on on a much smaller scale. Sometimes it was bigger and affected the real world, such as the “Angry White Male” election of 1994. (I could go into what had happened in the few years before — Lee Atwater stuff — that helped make that happen, but I don’t want to get into too many digressions.) Of course, there was more than that going on in 1994. Newt and his gang came in riding on several phenomena. We saw Jim DeMint replace religious conservative Bob Inglis, although Bob came back in 2004, only to be ousted again in the Tea Party year of 2010. We also saw pure economic libertarian Mark Sanford emerge in ’94. So there were a lot of things swirling around that year, including the usual factor that we had a Democratic president and this was the off-year election after he took office.

            But as I said, I was able to watch things on a quieter, less visible level than those changes. I regularly received the anonymous emails and phone calls from, for instance, vehement racists. But these people operated in the shadows. They lived in a country that didn’t approve of them, so they festered and grumbled in a dark underground. They needed something that would help them break out — help them make contact with enough other haters to feel like they could come out of those shadows.

            And of course, there was the long American undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that has always plagued us, and I suppose is bound to be a problem for any democracy, representative or otherwise.

            What was the gasoline that was poured on these sputtering fires that made them break out the way they did when they did? I found the answers offered to that question in the years since 2016 — such as the “Hillbilly Elegy” thesis — completely unsatisfactory.

            The first remotely helpful explanation I’ve run across is the Rabbit Hole one. In a world in which we no longer have a vibrant mainstream media to at least give us a consensus about what reality is, the thing that replaced it — that made every deluded lunatic on the planet more capable of spreading his message than any newspaper publisher in history — is the problem.

            And remember, the evidence in “Rabbit Hole” comes not only from Caleb, as compelling as his story is. You also have the testimony of former YouTube programmer Guillaume Chaslot, looking with horror upon what he had wrought with that medium’s recommendation function. That message was greatly expanded upon in the film “The Social Dilemma.” Chaslot appears in that, but so do many other people who played key roles in shaping social media and what it could do. And one after another, they expressed their great concern at the huge problem with these wonderful new technologies.

            Anyway, Ken, thanks for engaging. Even though you disagree with my conclusions, I’m glad to see a serious person take the time…

            1. Ken

              The only new element is that internet makes everything available to everybody. But the algorithms don’t direct people interested in cat videos to videos of Jarod Taylor expounding on race. They take people to things it concludes they’re interested in and related stuff. Again, the problem is finding out why people are drawn to Taylor,or to conspiracy theories, or to Trump, to the fringe generally.

  4. Ken

    As for the Catholic Church, it could do well to find a way out of its own rabbit holes.
    A good start would be to heed the appeals of the “Maria 2.0” movement made up of practicing Catholics:

    “We call upon the Catholic Church, in accordance with many before us…

    to deny office to those that have harmed others or have tolerated or covered up such wrongdoings
    to surrender all offenders to secular courts and to cooperate in all prosecutions without restrictions
    to allow women access to all church functions
    to abolish mandatory celibacy
    to align churchly sexual morals realistically with the reality of life.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ah, the German movement… did you run across that in Germany, or did you just read about it from over here? Although those are all things people talk about, I wasn’t aware of a movement by that name until you brought it up…

  5. bud

    Jim Crow segregation was hardly on the fringe. After all George Wallace did pretty well in1968. Just not buying this Rabbit Hole theory at all.

    1. bud

      Besides I remember the 90s when Brad went down this rathole of handwringing over some nonsensical “accountability problem” in state government. We ended up with the worst piece of legislation since 1860. Just keep in mind that identifying a “problem” is the first step in creating a “solution”. Beware that the solution could be worse than the problem. Much worse.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, Bud, we know. You’re the guy who to this day opposes Power Failure. You’ve made that point once or twice before. 🙂

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Maybe I typed the date wrong or something. I was talking about racism being on the fringe in the ’90s. Not, you know, three decades earlier…

      1. bud

        The entire thrust of this rabbit hole theory is that it’s driven by social media. I’m merely pointing out that extremism has been mainstream long before the internet.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Nope. It was there, but it couldn’t elect an idiot president — someone whose entire worldview was built on believing in alternative worlds, on conspiracy theories. People like that were laughed off the public stage in the past, because we had a shared sense of reality.

          As I said way back when I first wrote about this (in the headline), we now have the technology for causing millions of people to believe in alternative realities. That did not exist before, in any way that could shift society to this extent…

          1. Ken

            It seems to me a mistake to conclude that simply because something — in this case, junk on the internet — is made more easily available (through the use of algorithms), people will believe it. It seems you’re saying that people need a filter – old-fashioned (print) media — to protect them from themselves, a sort of priesthood, which includes trained journalists and editorialists like yourself, to keep them on the true and righteous path. But maybe, like the breakdown of the old order in religion, where the “one true church” gave way to many churches as each became his own soul’s salvation, the media is now undergoing a kind of reformation of its own and we will simply have to learn how to deal with the result rather than yearn for old sureties of anciens régimes.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              And the first step to living with the result is to understand the problem, and only then can you address it effectively.

              And it must be addressed. I can’t live in a country that keeps electing someone like Donald Trump to be president. Nor can we have any kind of a livable country where there is no agreement on what a fact is. You can’t make effective, rational political decisions that way.

              Oh, and before someone says, “Go live somewhere else, then!,” let me suggest that maybe you should. I happen to love this country, and I understand what its about. If you’re one of the people who prefer to embrace alternative realities, maybe you should do so elsewhere…

              1. bud

                Long before the internet a plurality of American believed the universe was created within the last 10,000 years so Trump was long overdue with or without the web. I really hope this phantom “problem” doesn’t wind up in a disastrous “solution”. That is the misguided thinking that led to prohibition.

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