When Zeynep Tufekci penned a New York Times op-ed at the onset of the pandemic challenging the prevailing public health guidance that ordinary people should not wear masks, she thought it was the end of her public writing career. Instead, it helped provoke the CDC to reverse its guidance a few weeks later, and medical professionals privately thanked her for writing it. While relieved by the reception, she also saw it as a sign of a deeper dysfunction in the scientific establishment: why should she, a programmer and sociologist by training, have been the one to speak out rather than a credentialed expert? And yet realizing her outsider status and academic tenure allowed her to speak more freely than others, she continued writing and has become one of the leading public intellectuals covering the response to COVID-19.
Zeynep joined Tyler to discuss problems with the media and the scientific establishment, what made the lab-leak hypothesis unacceptable to talk about, how her background in sociology was key to getting so many things right about the pandemic, the pitfalls of academic contrarianism, what Max Weber understood about public health crises, the underrated aspects of Kemel Mustapha’s regime, how Game of Thrones interested her as a sociologist (until the final season), what Americans get wrong about Turkey, why internet-fueled movements like the Gezi protests fizzle out, whether Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Turkey, how she’d try to persuade a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, whether public health authorities should ever lie for the greater good, why she thinks America is actually less racist than Europe, how her background as a programmer affects her work as a sociologist, the subject of her next book, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Note: This conversation was recorded on July 14, 2021, before the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Conversations with Tyler. I’m going to introduce Zeynep, but actually, I’m not completely sure of the fully correct pronunciation of her last name. Zeynep, would you please say your name for us correctly?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: I will, but I have to let you know there’s no ground truth, so you can just make it up, and there would be nobody who knew what it was supposed to be. You could have gotten away with whatever you wanted it to be, but it is ZAY-nep too-FEK-chee.
COWEN: Thank you very much.
Zeynep is starting as a professor at Columbia University in a new job. She is the author of the renowned Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, a highly influential book. Over the course of the last two years, she has become one of the central American public intellectuals on the issue of COVID-19, having been right about virtually everything ahead of all the curves, correcting the public health authorities when they were wrong, confirming them when they were right. And she knows many, many other things as well.
Zeynep, welcome to Conversations with Tyler.
TUFEKCI: Thank you for that very kind introduction.
COWEN: My first question — the lab-leak debacle — that it became unacceptable in mass media to talk about the lab leak for a while. How, at its most fundamental level, would you explain how we came to make that mistake?
TUFEKCI: I think two things happened. One of them is the easiest one because it’s quite easy to see in other things too, which is, at the initial phase of the pandemic, with the Trump administration — to put it politely — bungling the response, and also occasionally adding overt racism to its bungling, there was a great reaction to anything they suggested that looked like they were just trying to deflect blame.
In fact, people have forgotten about it, but President Trump went through a period during which he denied the pandemic was a big deal and praised China’s president for a couple of months before it had exploded in the United States.
But when it came to the United States with its full exponential force, he switched to saying, “Well, it was China’s fault.” I think that created a big backlash among not just the scientists, but the public, because it really did seem like deflecting the blame in many ways. Plus, the attendant racism and calling the virus various racist names didn’t help the situation. That’s, I think, the one that’s most obvious.
The second one that’s not as obvious to people is that the world of virology is not that big. The Chinese lab in question, the Wuhan Institute of Virology — and there are a couple of other labs in Wuhan — they’re very much part of the scientific establishment globally. I know there’s been some speculations about the whole bioweapons thing. I have never been very interested in that because, if you’re going to do an actual bioweapon, a coronavirus is not your proper pathogen.
The kind of scientists who work on coronaviruses are genuine, normal scientists most of the time and deeply, deeply embedded with the Western scientific establishment, especially since SARS — the other near miss we had in 2003 that didn’t become a pandemic because of a lot of reasons — had created a lot of interest. So, you had this double whammy there, once there was the Trump angle.
But there was also this defensiveness around both the field because you’re asking a field . . . I’m an academic, and if somebody came to me and said, “Would you like to think about the fact that your field may have inadvertently, perhaps, even in the mildest potential case, sparked something that killed millions of people?” Of course, defensiveness is very human in that.
People sometimes see China versus US, but as I said, in reality, these scientific establishments that we’re talking about in this particular case is very, very much integrated with the Western scientific establishment, publishing in Nature, Science — all those big things. So I think there was a desire to protect their colleagues, which once again, these are human.
Plus, if a lab incident of some sort or a field incident of some sort could be implicated, that really would bring the push for much more strict regulation on the kind of research we do. I’m talking about even the more benign scenarios. Somebody screwed something up. They might not even have known about it.
For example, there’ve been a lot of calls for moving the high-risk pathogen labs outside of cities, outside of populated places. When I floated that with a couple of leading virologists, they were really aghast at the idea. They thought, “Well, how are we going to hire people if you put us in the middle of nowhere? Nobody wants to work there.”
As an academic who also likes to choose where she works, I sympathize with that, but that’s a big conflict of interest. The very field who has been quoted most in this is the most conflicted field because they both have colleagues and vested interest.
The people you don’t hear from a lot are the biosafety people, who are the actual experts in this. It’s them we should have been speaking to, or people who are perhaps independent in some ways from all of this.
As the defensiveness grew, it became really hard, from what I heard from a lot of people in the field, to say, if you thought it was a viable thing, it should be investigated. You didn’t even have to believe what had happened because there’s so much obfuscation. You don’t really know what happened because the people who are loud were in relatively powerful and gatekeeping positions.
Do you really want to — in the middle of a pandemic — do you want to go to work on the pandemic stuff and do your work and get future grants? Or do you want to raise your hand and say, “Yes, my field needs more regulation, [laughs] and perhaps some investigation into whether our research practices were implicated in something so horrendous”? That’s not going to make you very popular with your colleagues. I think that’s how it was set up.
The turning point, probably — probably not as visible to people outside — is the WHO investigation. I wrote a New York Times article about the origins of COVID. I didn’t really go into the WHO investigation. It is a debacle. It’s going to go in history books into how bad it is. It is essentially just typing up what the Chinese officials told them, almost uncritically.
I realize they were limited in what they could do because, in the origins investigation, you can’t do it if the Chinese government isn’t cooperating, but it wasn’t that. That would have been an understandable limitation. The WHO report we got was almost a PR exercise in how it phrased things, what it was certain about, how it repeated assertions, what it didn’t question. It could have done things like, “Well, we’ve been told this, but we couldn’t verify.” Or it could have questioned the few things in the report.
But the final report — written after the scientists had left the country, too — in my view was disgraceful that it was allowed to go out like that, instead of saying, “You know what, we can’t really do a great investigation. Here’s the limitations.”
I think that really got a lot of scientists who had been just waiting and thinking this is not that big of a deal, in terms of the actual pandemic to worry about, to think, “You know what, if we do this and let this be what’s going to stand for science, it’s just going to actually damage science because letting that kind of report appear as the voice of science, and if we do find something out, or — as we do at the moment — we keep finding cover-up from the Chinese side, which is not at all reflected in what’s going on in that report, it makes science itself look bad.”
That’s how we got to the March letter in the scientific journal Science, where 18 very prominent people signed something saying, “You know what? We need an actual investigation, whatever it can do. The report was too certain, and both hypotheses are viable.”
I will say, the way they think about it would be that the existing evidence base, such as it is, is very limited and full of contradictions and a huge cover-up. It’s compatible with almost everything. Almost anything you can imagine, the existing evidence base is compatible with. You can think what’s more likely or less likely, based on your own personal preferences, but there’s no evidence base to rule anything out almost. I think that’s the turning point.
COWEN: If that’s a fundamental mistake we made back then, what’s a fundamental mistake we’re making now? What are the political economy roots of that mistake?
TUFEKCI: I think one fundamental mistake we’re still making right now is letting this be Republican versus Democrat, China versus not China, instead of a fundamental problem of biosafety.
It’s a little bit like nuclear weapons and nuclear physics and nuclear reactors. They can be really powerful and useful. They might be very crucial for fighting climate change with the new kinds of energy you can use. But if you don’t have it as a safe thing, if you have questions about its safety, people are not going to want to use it. Countries are going to say, “No, not in my backyard.” We see this. I think Germany recently essentially stopped. It’s not going to have any nuclear reactors. That’s partly because of Chernobyl. It scared the living lights out of people, and for good reason.
I think the fundamental mistake we’re making is not treating this like a biosafety crisis because we had one pandemic in 1977 that was indeed triggered because of a vaccine trial gone wrong. That was essentially covered up at the time, too. The scientists knew that it had to involve something like a vaccine trial, but you got almost no public discussion of it till 2008, almost 30 years later, partly because the scientists were thinking now’s not the time to create a suspicion around vaccines or any of that. In 1977, you’re at the height of the smallpox campaign.
Then we have this one, which is unclear. If we have one more incident of any kind, it’s just going to be horrific, both for our research project and what we can do with it. I think what ended up happening is that there’s a few people who keep getting quoted in media who are, actually, a small number of vocal people. There’s a climate still where you can’t have a sensible conversation. That means that it’s gotten Republicans versus Democrats, or crazy scenarios versus a sensible oversight and investigation.
I don’t think that’s good because our medical technology is really powerful. It’s got all these great things. Look at our vaccines. If you have a really powerful technology and a really powerful science, you have to figure out, does this power come with risks? It’s very similar to nuclear physics, I think, in that way. If you don’t figure out the risks and the downside, it’s going to come bite you anyway without you knowing it.
Even if this one had nothing to do with the lab, it would have been a good time to say, just the fact that we can’t be sure should make us act and make sure that we never find ourselves in this position again.
COWEN: What can we do to make mainstream media less risk-averse? If you think back to last March, Dr. Fauci — he’s criticizing masks, right? He’s even telling people it’s fine to go ahead and take your cruise. You’re editor of the New York Times. Should you just come out and contradict the nation’s leading public health authority when we’re relying on that same person to correct some possibly larger mistakes of President Trump? What’s the right role for the media in this? And how do we align their incentives in a superior way? Because we screwed it up, didn’t we?
TUFEKCI: Yes, this is a really difficult question because I ended up writing an op-ed essentially criticizing CDC and the WHO on masks in March 2020. At the time, people were still saying masks could infect you, make things worse. Never in a million years I thought I’d start my own personal pandemic, criticizing global health authorities or the CDC. That was a really weird situation.
I have to say, I did not like it one bit. I knew they were wrong around early March. I have links to Hong Kong. I was researching the field. There’s a lot of infectious disease specialists in Southeast Asia who are way ahead of us, partly because they’ve been through SARS and partly because they really are way ahead of us. I started tweeting out the argument on why they were wrong, just on the science side of the virus, the science side of masks — all of that.
I just twiddled my thumbs after tweeting out the whole argument, hoping somebody would write it. Not me because it shouldn’t be. It’s really terrible to undermine, as you say, a nation’s leading health authorities. I hoped it would come from — I don’t know — the ex-director of CDC, somebody like that, somebody with really high stature, so it didn’t look like a random challenger. Because how are you going to distinguish that from an anti-vaxxer or a quack? That is a real problem, but it didn’t happen.
I think the real question you’re asking isn’t what should the New York Times have done. In some sense, I think, what should have our scientific establishment have done? Why didn’t they create a consortium? Why didn’t the universities create their own advisory body, even if our own authorities weren’t functioning very well, partly because of Trump’s not great — I mean really negative influence.
We didn’t step up as academics to say, “Here’s another consortium of lots of experts.” Not just one person saying, “Oh, by the way . . .” Because that’s really corrosive, at some point, to have individuals be ahead of the health authorities.
COWEN: Isn’t the scientific establishment part of the problem? There’s a kind of religion of purity, the cult of the randomized control trial. You want to maximize status. Everything has to be perfectly safe when, in fact, during a crisis, we want them thinking in terms of expected value and expected number of lives saved. What can we do to reform them, to get them to think more in terms of expected value? Because they failed us most of all, right?
TUFEKCI: I would say that there are many things for which you do randomize trust, for good reason. What we didn’t get was the flexibility necessary to match the question to the method. With something like masking up, the precautionary principle, plus the mechanistic science, plus the South Asian experience — to me, it was more than clear where things were.
With other things, like vaccines, I’m on the side that there would have been problems with — and we can discuss it — with things like human challenge trials for a bunch of complicated reasons. What you needed was flexibility in what’s the right method, given the risk you’re taking. For masks, I think it was clear.
COWEN: Even if you reject human challenge trials — so the vaccine information is presented, and then it’s three weeks to schedule a meeting at the FDA and have a final decision. The offices are all locked in cold over a four-day Thanksgiving weekend.
I asked many people who are experts in the area. They all assured me it could be done in less time than three weeks. Yet it took three weeks, because what is it? It just takes that long to schedule the meeting? Or there’s too much status maximization in the bureaucracy? How do we fix that problem, which seemed to recur at many different stages?
TUFEKCI: I don’t know the details of that particular one, but with something like vaccines — the reason I’m cautious is that, once again, there’s a thing — it’s not vaccines but vaccination that saves lives. The slightest screw-up in vaccines can undermine confidence, and even if they’re approved and they’re scientifically solid, if you overlook something or if there are some unexpected things, that can be dramatic and terrible.
I’ll give you an example that I can’t figure out right now, which is, why haven’t we gotten the full authorization? Right now, they’re still functioning as EUA [emergency use authorization].
That is both causing people to think it’s experimental because it’s still emergency, and it is holding back some of the necessary things, like mandates, because which employer is supposed to say, “It’s an emergency thing, and it’s not fully approved, but I’m forcing you to do it”? That doesn’t seem to make sense.
I’m just looking at it and thinking, we’ve vaccinated in this country no more than 100 million people. We’ve vaccinated a billion around the world. We have a very good idea of the safety profile, and it’s better than most vaccines that are approved. So why are we waiting for the full approval? I have no answer to that one.
I tried to do the most charitable reading: maybe with the approval — the initial emergency one — maybe it could have been 10 days instead of three weeks, maybe a week difference. I don’t really know. I don’t have background information, but I’m just looking at the full approval, and I don’t understand.
I think there’s something that Trump’s presence has obscured, which is, there’s a malaise in the Western scientific, public health, economic governing our institutions. There’s something not functioning very well, but because we are fairly wealthy nations with an enormous amount of inheritance, we can get by.
We have a lot of science. We have a lot of scientists. We have excellent universities. We have a lot, but I feel like we’re almost the second generation or even the third generation that’s still spending the inheritance. Since we started so rich, it’s hiding the deeper problems.
Trump’s year made it look like it was all Trump, but I’m looking at Western Europe, and they didn’t do that great either. In fact, they’ve done terrible, relatively speaking. I feel we haven’t really gotten our heads wrapped around how we do risk assessment, how we move, as you say, fast when we need to move fast, especially for things like masking, of which downsides are very little. If you found out they were useless, you can change it next month, and you didn’t lose anything.
But we don’t do it. There’s something we haven’t completely come to grips with, and the pandemic’s urgency has, perhaps, acted like a stress test. It’s shown us the problems, but it’s still ongoing, so we haven’t sat down and said, “Let’s think about it because this is not good.”
I think that’s job number one. After the pandemic gets calmer, which will happen pretty soon — it’s going so fast that it’s going to end relatively soon — we should sit down and say, “This wasn’t just Trump. We screwed up a lot of things, and we also have revealed a lot of cracks in our institutions, and it’s time to try to fix that.”
COWEN: If I look at some of the other people who got many key questions right early — Nate Silver, Alex Tabarrok — they tend to have a background in expected-value thinking and statistical thinking. You’re a sociologist. How does your background in sociology inform your having been right about most or all things COVID?
TUFEKCI: For one thing, the sociology of the situation is always very important. For example, one of the reasons that they were saying you don’t need to wear masks early on, where they were saying something like, “You should only wear a mask if you’re sick” — you don’t need a sociology degree to understand stigma. If you have a deadly pandemic with an unknown disease, there’s no way you’re going to go out wearing a mask if only sick people are wearing masks.
If they had anybody with any social science background or any common sense in that group, they’d say, “Wait a minute. How are sick people supposed to wear a mask?” That is just not humanly feasible for them to paint a target on themselves like that. That’s one of the ways that it helps.
The other way it helps — I used to teach things like groupthink and institutional inertia, and all those things that we’ve seen. One of my friends, who’s an immunologist and a medical doctor at Harvard, Michael Mina, who’s done a lot of work on rapid tests — one of the things he keeps joking about is how basic our virus is. The virus that has caused our pandemic is a coronavirus. It’s SARS-2, essentially, with a minor twist. There’s not much we need to figure out about it.
Yes, of course, figuring out things like vaccines is important, but in terms of its basics, it’s not a retrovirus like HIV, which forced us to write the textbook. The virology part of it wasn’t very complicated, in some ways, to a competent virologist or something. Michael jokes first-year students can handle most of it. It’s a very simple, straightforward virus.
But the things like the groupthink in parts of the scientific establishment, or the silencing. Right after I wrote about masks in March 2020, honestly, I thought that’s it. I’m going to get canceled. That’s the end of my public writing career. I just contradicted the CDC and the WHO at the beginning of a pandemic. I don’t have a medical degree whatsoever. I just thought, “I have to do it. I’m a tenured academic. If I’m not going to do this now, what is the point of tenure if I’m not going to take this risk?”
TUFEKCI: I thought, I did my job, now I’m going to get canceled. Instead, what I got was a lot of emails from people in the medical professions thanking me, saying, “Thank you for writing it.” I thought, “You’re welcome.” But part of me was thinking, “Why didn’t you guys write this?” [laughs] Don’t thank me. I would like to have somebody with more credibility to have written this. What I realized was they were just either silent, or parts of them had convinced themselves of really illogical things, like a mask might be harmful. There’s no logic to it. There’s nothing. It’s just groupthink.
The sociology of the moment made me realize after that incident — I thought, you know what, sometimes being an outsider and not having my grants or my feelings or my professional career or my friendships be affected by this, gives me freedom to confront things. I know what the scientific underground is speaking about. I don’t have a medical degree, but I can read a good deal of the papers just at a basic level. I know statistics, and I can read some of the basics.
And I have a lot of friends, especially junior people. Some of them are aghast but cannot speak up, and because I don’t have as much to lose, I can write things, in a way, that sometimes they can’t. That’s really made me think we need a mechanism for that to be possible for the scientists in the field. Medical fields are very hierarchical, and there’s some positives to that. You don’t want quackery there, but when they need to be challenged, there’s no mechanism to challenge them.
COWEN: So we can have a better sense of how you think, talk us through a mistake you once made in reasoning, and how that happened. What were your bad trades, so to speak?
TUFEKCI: I know. This is the job interview question where you say “I work too hard, and I’m a perfectionist.”
TUFEKCI: It’s just very, very hard. Like in the pandemic? Or you’re asking generally?
COWEN: No, anything. Anything in all of life. A mistake you made in practical reasoning, and how it happened.
TUFEKCI: Oh, my goodness, I made so many mistakes. Now I’m wondering what I should reveal, given this is going to be a podcast, because the list is quite long. [laughs] Let me try to find a useful example that I can share.
I don’t know what I would call a mistake, but I have learned a lot more over the years about that line where you know enough about something to try to reason what you should be thinking about. It’s gotten better. I’m not saying I’m all done there, but I have the same academic disease that any academic will understand, that I get focused on the interesting because that’s appealing to me. Most of the time, most answers are boring. “It’s a respiratory disease. Wear a mask.” That’s a boring example.
Trying to be too clever, too smart, almost too contrarian sometimes — I would say that is something that I fight in myself because, like a lot of academics and a lot of intellectual people, I like the answers that surprise me. I like an example that’s a pure counterintuitive, but in reality, they’re almost never true. There are very few things in the world that I think are big and important, where they’re counterintuitive, and the surprising thing’s actually revealing.
That’s my reasoning — not error as much as attraction — that I believe I have gotten a better handle on. In fact, what I’ve done throughout the pandemic — and what some of the people you’ve named — is just say a lot of basic stuff. Respiratory disease — you need masks. Vaccination — you need wider coverage as soon as possible. Outdoors is safer. Those very simple things. If you’re having super-spreading events at a distance, it’s probably airborne. Every time I do that, I do better.
COWEN: Let me try an example where I disagree with you and see if we can work that out. You’ve been very critical of stock buybacks. From my point of view, they’re just like stock dividends. They don’t matter. They don’t harm the economy any more than paying interest on bonds harms the economy. It just recycles funds. There’s not a real resource cost. They hardly increase the value of stocks. The academic literature, essentially, would agree they’re not a big deal. So, why be upset about stock buybacks?
TUFEKCI: Have I said something about stock buybacks?
TUFEKCI: I might’ve said that, okay. What did I exactly say?
TUFEKCI: Probably was something specific. Let me find out what I got wrong. I’m waiting to hear.
COWEN: Quote: “Major US airlines have spent nearly all its extra cash on stock buybacks for the past decade, thereby inflating its stock price — and thus executive pay, which is often tied to the stock price — and the stock market.” Again, stock buybacks — there may be a modest signaling value, how much the farm is worth, but Modigliani-Miller — it won’t change the value of the firm very much.
TUFEKCI: I have said that. Honestly, I’m going to concede right away that I don’t have a huge opinion on stock buybacks in general. That sentence was in the context of they can use the stock buybacks with their extra cash, and then they get bailed out with taxpayer money. That’s my criticism, that I don’t think these companies should be like, whenever they get in trouble, they get bailed out.
I’m not against occasional bailouts, but I think it’s extra problematic when you have the executive pay be that high, and then at the first sign of stress, they’re like, “Taxpayers, bail us out.” I don’t think it’s healthy for the economy or the competition either, and that’s the extent of my opinion on stock buybacks [laughs] before I get in more trouble on this.
COWEN: What’s your current view on how much YouTube radicalizes people? It seemed that way for like a year under Trump. Now they’ve changed the algorithm. The government we have — whether you like it or not — it seems pretty boring, right? Mayor of New York — mainstream candidate. Radical left didn’t do that well.
TUFEKCI: I know. I don’t think so, and I don’t think the — what I call the radicalization — there might be a bit of a misunderstanding in that it’s not about Trump. In fact, even my first article about it, it is — what’s the right word for “it’s been a bit difficult”? Because we sometimes say extremism, but that’s not the right word either. It’s pulling you to the edges because it goes back to my own reasoning temptation — the edges are more exciting.
It’s not necessarily pulling you to Trump. It’s not necessarily pulling you to this or that. It’s pulling you away from boring. What is not boring is exciting to watch. Who the heck wants to watch a movie of functioning bureaucracies and institutions?
It would be great in a pandemic, but it wouldn’t make a good movie. If you want to watch something, what you watch is the thing that’s exciting. It’s the “10 biggest sinkholes in Florida” and “Watch the alligator almost eat the baby.” What you’re getting is pulled to the edge, and that’s true for politics. That’s true for anything you want.
COWEN: It keeps on showing me chess videos. Maybe the Sicilian defense pops up.
When I read you on lab-leak, it’s all about agnosticism, expected value, wisdom, multiple perspectives, but when I read you on social media, YouTube, it seems very hardcore. “Here’s the right answer. It’s bad for people. It radicalizes them. It’s all about the ad.” It’s like these two Zeyneps, and why not apply the lab-leak approach to social media?
TUFEKCI: No, no, no, I’m going to push back. Well, here’s the thing, though. I’m going to push back a little bit because my book is all about how great social media is, in some sense, for dissidents as well, but it’s not an unalloyed good. It’s complicated. I’m from Turkey. It would be hard for me to deny that Facebook is now the public sphere there, and Twitter. That’s where you break a lot of the censorship. I’m acutely aware of a lot of those things.
But in terms of the algorithm pulling you to the edges, I do think it’s still true. It doesn’t really mean it’s pulling you to only one side. That’s the misunderstanding. One of the few pages that does really great on Facebook on the left is something called Occupy Democrats. It’s just nonstop outrage and barely tied to truth, so it’s not just a right-wing thing. The fact that it is very friendly to authoritarians for some reason, but the fact that it was more right in the United States, is more about the United States’ political structure.
My criticism isn’t that it’s great for us to have these large platforms, in some sense, that greatly expanded speech, but the way they keep people on the site by keeping them interested is a bit like keeping people in a cafeteria by giving them constant chips and ice cream. I like chips. I like ice cream, but I wouldn’t want a cafeteria whose business model is to keep me sitting in that table as long as possible.
Because we know this. We know in cities where there’s the infrastructure for walking, people walk. When you change the menu in cafeterias, people eat different things. When you put stuff in different places, people watch different things.
I think the papers that you cite — one of the problems here is, it’s a little bit like China in that we have no data. The YouTube stuff that we have tried to do — we’re literally looking at very, very, very broad data because what we need is YouTube’s internal data, perhaps linked to a panel. Think not the GSS [General Social Survey], but something like a couple-of-thousand-people panel that is linked to data.
It’s 20 years into the internet explosion, and we don’t have a single good study. Most of the data is locked up in the companies, and there’s not a good research thing. I’m agnostic in the sense that I don’t really know exactly the extent to which the algorithm works, but that’s similar to lab leak, where I don’t know what to say because whatever data there is, it’s in China, and we don’t have access to it.
COWEN: In all of these dialogues, there’s a middle segment called underrated versus overrated. I toss out some names, ideas. You tell me if you think they’re underrated or overrated.
TUFEKCI: I’m going to orthogonal. [laughs]
COWEN: Tarkan, the Turkish singer — overrated or underrated?
TUFEKCI: In which country? [laughs] It’s difficult. I know him. I would say he’s just about right because he’s past his peak.
COWEN: Max Weber — overrated or underrated as a sociologist?
TUFEKCI: Part of the reason he’s underrated is because he writes in that very hard-to-read early 19th-century writing, but if you read Max Weber, 90 percent of what you want to understand about the current public health crisis is there in his sociology. Not just him, but sociology organizations and how that works. He’s good at that. I would say underrated, partly because it’s very hard to read. It’s like Shakespeare. You need the modern English version, conceptually, for more people to read it.
I would say almost all of sociology is underrated in how dramatically useful it is. Just ask me any time. Early on, I knew we were going to have a pandemic, completely based on sociology of the moment in early January, before I knew anything about the virus because they weren’t telling us, but you could just use sociological concepts to put things together. Max Weber is great at most of them and underrated.
COWEN: Kemal Mustafa — overrated or underrated?
TUFEKCI: Why? My grandmother — she was 12 or 13 when she was in the Mediterranean region — Central Asia, but Mediterranean region, very close to the Mediterranean. She was born the year the Turkish Republic had been founded, 1923, and she was 13 or so. She was just about to be married off, but the republic was a little over a decade — same age as her. They created a national exam to pick talented girls like her. The ones that won the exam got taken to Istanbul to this elite, one of the very few boarding high schools for girls.
The underrated part isn’t just that such a mechanism existed. The underrated part is that the country changed so much in 13 years that her teacher was able to prevail upon the family to let her go. To have a 13-year-old be sent off to Istanbul, completely opposite side of the country, to a boarding school for education — that kind of flourishing of liberation.
I’m not going to deny it was an authoritarian period, and minorities, like Kurds, during that period were brutally suppressed. I can’t make it sound like there was nothing else going on, but in terms of creating a republic out of the ashes of a crumbling empire — I think it’s one of the very striking stories of national transformation, globally, within one generation, so underrated.
COWEN: TV show Game of Thrones — why does it interest you as a sociologist?
TUFEKCI: It interested me until the last season and a half —
TUFEKCI: — because before that, it was a very, very sociological thing. Here’s the thing. Here’s the difference between a sociological story and a psychological story.
In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil characters and good people, where you just identify with the good ones — which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one — it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.
In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil characters and good people, where you just identify with the good ones — which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one — it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.
The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institution sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological.
Here comes season — whichever the last season is — and all of a sudden, Arya can walk through fiery dragons and nothing happens. It just misses her by an inch. I’m like, “All right, you lost the plot here.” Plot armor essentially means you no longer have a solid sociological story.
I watched it with great interest until the end, and in the end, I’m like, “What just happened?” I wasn’t really very clear with the novel world. I learned that the novelist had run out of material, and the Hollywood showrunners were now writing the script. I’m like, “Ah, that’s what happened. They switched to the good-versus-evil story.”
They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.
COWEN: As a sociologist coming from Turkey, do the Star Wars prequels make sense to you?
COWEN: Why not? It’s about power corrupting.
TUFEKCI: Jar Jar Binks.
TUFEKCI: No movie with Jar Jar Binks makes sense to me. I refuse to have it make sense. Yes, it’s like the Star Wars sequels have the same — power corrupting is a very important sociological story, but you can tell it badly. It happening overnight, or you have something evil in you just take over — that’s the ridiculous version of it.
What happens is, every moment you’re thinking, “I’m doing the right thing.” You almost never think, “Let me go do evil things.” You convince yourself you’re doing the right thing until you lose your mind in it. And you have people around you who are saying, “Yes, yes, you’re doing the right thing.” That’s a classic story of power. I love movies like that, but Jar Jar Binks — just nope.
COWEN: If you were speaking to an educated American who was somewhat informed about Turkey but not well informed, what is it they’re least likely to understand about the current leadership of Erdoğan and the current regime that you could illuminate for them? What are we missing?
TUFEKCI: What I would like to first say — now that I have this opportunity — we do not have camels. Everybody asks me about this. I know this has nothing to do with Erdoğan. The camels only exist in tourist areas because everybody is convinced Turkey has camels. I need to first correct that misunderstanding before I correct any —
COWEN: I’ve never seen any camel in Turkey. I can verify this.
TUFEKCI: It’s just insane. Everybody always asks me about that, and I’m like, “What?”
Now that has been corrected, Erdoğan is a complicated figure, for sure. One of the things I think is less understood is that, for a long time, he had — and he still has — a genuine support base. It’s a very complicated, long story why that is. Right now, after 20 years in power, it’s got more of a centralization-of-power story. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, when people want to understand Erdoğan, sometimes they compare him to, say, I don’t know, leaders of Iran. I’m like, you want to look at Putin. You want to look at Hungary. You want to look at Brazil. The similarity there isn’t necessarily, I think, which religion or the strength of the religious beliefs as much as, once again, a strong, popular, populist, authoritarian-leaning person getting elected and then staying in power and making sure he stays in power for a very, very long time.
Actually, if anything, I would say it’s a very Western story. We have many examples of it around the world. It is not a particularly Middle Eastern version of the story, of which there are many, but that’s, I think, a different version. I think that’s largely misunderstood.
COWEN: Why did the Gezi protests fizzle out? They seemed promising, right? You were optimistic at one point, but something happened.
TUFEKCI: I was both optimistic and realistic at that point. This is something I write about in my book because, by the time the Gezi protests had happened in 2013, I’d already been through — as a researcher — the Arab Spring, so I knew the up and down wave. One of the things that I think — and this is not necessarily a criticism or not criticism of social media — this just explains the reality of what happened.
In the past, if you wanted to have a movement, you necessarily had to build a lot of tools because you were out of power. You had to build a lot of tools. If you wanted to organize, let’s say, the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and ’60s, during that time, or the March on Washington, you had to spend a lot of time. The March on Washington took, I think, six months just to do the logistics. You don’t have Excel spreadsheets and things like that. From an idea to a march was about 10 years.
That kind of preparation work — arduous — and it kept these movements weak because you had to build that before you could do anything. But if you did build it, you had something to stand on. Whereas right now, with social media, you can overcome censorship like this, especially if the government is not really very up on it, which at the time they weren’t, but you’re not ready for what’s coming. I feel like it’s coming into a curve, going from 0 to 100 miles an hour, and you’re coming into a curve, but you haven’t built the car. You don’t have a steering wheel. You just know how to speed up.
You see this in many other aspects of society as well, where digital technology lets people scale up very quickly. If you’re Instagram, and you go from zero to a million users or 10 million users, well, Facebook can come buy you, and you’re great. That kind of speedy exponential growth is not a problem in many other areas. Whereas if you’re a movement, that kind of speedy exponential growth, without having built other parts of the infrastructure, means that when the government does come for you, you don’t have even a decision-making system. You don’t even know, “How do I respond to it?”
When the Gezi Park movement started, I went there. I went there as a participant-observer. I did hundreds of formal interviews. I stayed in the park. I spent the whole time, essentially, living there with everybody else and just observing. Even then, when people asked me, “How is this going to end?” Because they realized I was a researcher because I’m doing interviews, and they would ask, and I already knew, in each of my friends who were in jail. I was already demurring, saying, “I don’t.” You’re a researcher, you’re not going to make predictions there.
I think the fizzling out of social media field movements — it’s not that they aren’t impactful. They’re just on a different trajectory. They start big, and if they’re in an oppressive, repressive environment, they can get crushed, whereas if they’re in a different kind of country, they could have time to build something. I think we’re seeing some of that in Western nations, like Black Lives Matter. Whatever else you want to say, it is a sustained movement that has changed a lot of things in the country. Unlike, say, Turkey or Egypt, they’re not going to face a government that’s coming for them in the same degree, say, to what happens in Egypt.
COWEN: Why does Islamic fundamentalism at least seem to be on the rise in Turkey? If you go to Konya, it feels quite prevalent in a way it might not have 30 years ago.
TUFEKCI: It’s actually also on the downside. I don’t know when you’ve last been there, but I was looking at the polls, and the current under-30s are saying they’re much less religious, so I wouldn’t really be completely sure. If and when this government changes, I think we’ll have a better sense of it. When you have a religious government in power for 20 years, and if you’re 30, that’s all you’ve ever known. It can actually create the opposite effect.
I think it’s a little early to say the fundamentalism part is on the rise or not. We have a more religious government, so there’s more religious official stuff and more encouraged and more rules about it and allowances. Alcohol is more expensive, for example, and more restricted. Are people drinking less alcohol? I’m not so sure. I think it’s a little too early to figure out what the long-term trajectory will be.
COWEN: Two final questions. First, let’s say you’re designing a trip to Turkey for us. Put aside COVID. Obviously, we’re visiting Istanbul, but two weeks — where do you send us other than Istanbul?
TUFEKCI: I have never been to Mardin. It’s in the southeast region. It’s Syrian Kurdish and Armenian and Turkish in history. Amazing and beautiful architecture, and I’ve never been there. I would like to take us all on a trip that I’m coming along for Mardin, which is a place I’ve heard a lot about.
Everybody knows Aegean, and I don’t really need to explain it. It’s the other side of the Greek Islands. It’s just the most beautiful place, but you know about it already. Another place that’s, I think, less known is the Black Sea region, where you have dramatic green hills meet the sea, not like San Francisco because the hills are very steep, and then you have a fairly little strip. Very different climate and visuals.
There’s a lot of historic stuff there, too, because obviously, it was the Ottoman Empire for a long time, but before that, it was the last bit of the Greek, East Roman empires and countries too. There’s a lot of history there as well. Two interesting places outside the usual tourist places.
COWEN: Before we turn to the audience, last question from me: what will you be doing next?
COWEN: Writing. No. Your career. Your public presence. Anything. Going to Turkey — that’s fine. Any answer. Unpacking your boxes.
TUFEKCI: Besides unpacking boxes, I have moved to New York, which is wonderful. I really miss living in a city. I’m from Istanbul, and I haven’t lived in a city for a while full-time, especially the pandemic’s last phase — that’s interesting.
I am pondering to finally write a book. During the first phase of the Arab Spring in 2011, I was there the whole time; I kept going. I was in Tahrir Square. I went to Tunisia. I went all over the region. There are a lot of books that came out quickly at the time, and I just resisted writing a book just then.
I’m from the Middle East. I felt like this is not over yet, and a lot of books were quite triumphant. It was only after the Gezi protests and how they played out, I felt like I’m going to write a book, and I feel like it’s a more durable and balanced book. It’s not for or against social media. It’s also not saying the movements were triumphant or not, but I had the gift — I gave myself time to let it play out.
I feel the same way about the pandemic now. I feel like it was a stress test, and I think there’s going to be a first crop of books that put most of the blame on Trump’s lap, which is not unjustified. That administration has a lot to answer for, but I think the things that it has shown us are much bigger than one administration’s admittedly very real failings. I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, there is space for a book that looks at some of the things you were talking about, which is, we have to revitalize how our society works. We haven’t come to grips with this.
I’m thinking I might be writing a book. It will come out after the first crop of the post-pandemic. There’ll be probably dozens of books in the next year, but mine will come after all those are over.
COWEN: Zeynep, thank you very much.
COWEN: I will take questions from the audience and from the iPad, so I’ll start with the audience. Questions?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: For those few people in the room who have never read Weber, what’s the right way to get started?
TUFEKCI: I think the best way is to not read Weber because you do not want to start there. Seriously, the language is so complicated, but I have a colleague — I’ve never been in his department, but George Ritzer was a sociologist. He wrote a lot of theory books, and they’re really good. I believe he has one called McDonaldization of Society that’s very much a Weberian rationalization, but he has many other things as well. I would read someone like George Ritzer to read about Weber because his books are a lot more accessible. You might like reading Ritzer.
I learned probability theory from a book in Turkish. It only exists in Turkish. It’s written by someone from Turkey. The premise of the book is, there’s a little girl who wants to win at a game of dice, and she loses because she’s betting the wrong way. Then she meets someone who says, “I can teach you how to win this game.” Then the book — it’s just a novel; I still have the book; it’s amazing — walks you through probability theory, including, I think, the binomial theorem. It’s something you can read when you’re in the third grade and understand.
At the end of the book, the little girl discovers that there are textbooks, and she says, “That’s probability. I hate it. My older sister reads it and hates it.” The person in the neighborhood who has been teaching her says, “That’s because you have this preconception that theory is something boring and dry. Probability is something boring and dry and complicated instead of, as we were talking, something really exciting. Understanding a bit better about probability and probabilistic thinking is really empowering and fascinating.”
That’s the way I feel about sociology — that it’s actually, conceptually, really powerful, but the theory part can be really dry. If you read it from an early 19th-century person, that person is talking about early 19th century. That’s boring and dry and crazy to you. Whereas, what you need is somebody to do it now.
Ritzer does it for the 20th century, and it’s really good. All his books are good. I’m not sure if somebody’s updated it because, with the internet and stuff, we have 21st-century stuff to bring in, but they’re still equally valid, like institutions and the way they work. Humans are remarkably human.
COWEN: Question from the iPad — how would you convince a COVID vaccine skeptic?
TUFEKCI: It depends who they are, obviously.
COWEN: Someone from Staten Island, and they walk into the room, and they say, “I don’t trust the vaccine. I don’t trust those authorities. I’m going to wait.”
TUFEKCI: I’m going to go back to the sociology fallback, which is that people don’t exist as independent atoms. The person to convince that person is a friend, an acquaintance, or somebody else from Staten Island. The way you want to deploy these convincing is — and we have this from so much sociology. If I come to you and say, “Your field is terrible, and you’re wrong about everything,” you’re not going to all of a sudden like me, right?
If we want to convince people, we need to deploy the people on the ground that we have, wherever it is, who’s closest to those people. If you want to convince people on Staten Island, you’ve got to send people who live on Staten Island who can work for this, or whatever community it is.
Instead, we’re lecturing at them. Nobody likes being lectured. Even if the lecturing is all correct, it just doesn’t work. I would try to say, “Hold on, my Staten Island friend, I’m going to find you somebody that you relate to, who’s going to tell you why you should get vaccinated.”
COWEN: But there are still inroads we make on people getting vaccinated. If it all relied on peers, it would be a kind of circularity. There must be some peers who start before the other peers do, and what convinces them? That’s what you should say to the person from Staten Island.
TUFEKCI: Of course. You could say, “You could be first.” But I will not necessarily have a lot of authority. The peer networks — they don’t have to be your sibling. They’re heterogeneous. They just have to be somebody socially similar to you. That’s clearly one thing. The one argument that I make to people a lot — my most strong abstract argument that I think I can make is that you’re going to encounter this virus, either through infection or vaccination. There’s no not encountering this virus.
I’ve written this so many times. You’re going to eventually encounter it. You either encounter it in its full form, where anything can happen, or you encounter what we have, which is just a spike, which will make you fine if you do encounter the full form. There’s no avoiding the virus. It’s just a question of, do you want to fight it with your hands tied or do you want the defenses? That’s all I can say to people to whom I have no other relationship to.
COWEN: From the iPad: are there situations where public health and transparency are in tension? And in those cases, should the public health authorities either lie to people or simply deliberately not tell them the full truth?
TUFEKCI: I just cannot imagine where we should not tell people the truth. Sometimes it gets complicated. For example, I do agree, for the most part, that the vaccinated are back at baseline risk, but that’s not the same as saying we should not have any indoor mask mandates for now. There’s been a crisis over that because people are taking it to mean the vaccinated are not safe, but that’s not true.
What you’re saying is that you can’t expect a business to differentially police. “Are you vaccinated? Are you not vaccinated?” We’re still vaccinating people, and we have the compromised people, and we have children under 12 who are not even eligible.
While we work through this for a couple more months, perhaps, it makes sense — especially if it’s in less ventilated space — just to keep it up. At that point, I wouldn’t say you should wear a mask if you’re vaccinated because you’re at risk. I would just say, “I think you’re fine, but the business can’t check your vaccination card. We don’t have something like that. This is how it’s got to be.”
Even this is not very complicated. Even if you did lie and get away with it, it would eventually come out. It’s 2021. There’s internet. There’s social media. The stuff would come out, and all you end up doing is creating less trust.
COWEN: Tell us about vaccinating your 11-year-old. That to me is clearly a public good. We don’t lie to people, but we don’t quite hit them over the head with just how safe your 11-year-old really is unvaccinated. We slant the distribution of information to get more people to vaccinate their 11-year-olds. Is that right or wrong?
TUFEKCI: I don’t think we even have to do that because people are very risk averse with their kids, generally speaking. I think it’s fair to say that your 11-year-old is almost certainly fine, but I still want them not to risk the sequelae because when you have an unknown virus — the post-viral syndrome that people talk about, “long COVID” — it’s probably not as bad as some of the reporting, but it’s real, and it’s real for other viruses. It’s something we’ve long ignored. It’s not just that. At 11, you’re still close to a risky age. It might be a small risk, but I feel like we can tell people the truth. “It’s not likely that your kid is going to die from this. It’s really baseline risk for your kid. But if you could spare your kid even the anxiety because they occasionally hear, ‘You could just be the unlucky person.’”
I think we could just tell people that. “Really low odds, but here’s a free vaccine.” Why wouldn’t you take advantage of it? The argument against vaccinating 11-year-olds now, for me, is that healthcare workers around the world are vaccinated. That seems the wrong order of things, but once you take the supply part out of the question, if you’re 11, I’d be like, “Why risk the low but real side effects of the infection?” Because they’re going to get infected. There’s no getting around encountering this virus. I think that still leans towards vaccinating young ones.
COWEN: From the iPad: what is your most controversial opinion?
TUFEKCI: Controversial to whom? [laughs]
COWEN: To those people whom you respect? Not to anti-vaxxers, not to crazy people, but to plenty of people in the world you most respect.
TUFEKCI: I understand. I’m just going to say something different now, but I think it’s an interesting thing to expand on, that most of what I’ve said in the past year that appears to be controversial or contrarian is actually very straightforward and boring. A lot of accidents and screw-ups happen. Biomedical research has potential risks, especially if we can manipulate the viruses. We should wear a mask for respiratory pathogens. Widespread coverage first. These are genuinely —
COWEN: What’s the area where you’re a dissenter? Like you think the best döner kebab is in Paris, or some crazy view like that, which is clearly false. Anything.
TUFEKCI: Okay. For example, I think the US is a less racist society than most of Europe because I’ve lived in Europe, and I have a feeling this is where I sometimes differ from my own intellectual circles. They think of Europe as — because they tend to see the social democrat side of it. Compared to the US, Europe is a lot more government-oriented in some ways, for good or bad, but it can be suffocated sometimes.
It’s actually a much more — in some ways — racist society, in my experience, than the United States. That sometimes I differ on. Another thing I differ on is that GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation], the digital regulation — I think it was just at the wrong level. If anything, it backfired. I think you can’t just regulate something by wagging your finger across the pond sometimes. That just isn’t going to work. I differ in some of those ways, the way I look at Europe.
I think that’s partly because I have an immigrant’s view of the United States, which is, in some ways, more realistic. But I’ve lived in Europe, too, so I have, I think, a lot more positive feelings about certain things that might not be as apparent to somebody who’s looking at Europe from this side of the Atlantic because some things look good if you’re an American, but are not necessarily great if you’re living in Europe.
COWEN: Question from the iPad: how does your background in programming affect your work as a sociologist and public intellectual?
TUFEKCI: Oh, it’s a great question. The thing is, it’s not just the technological side. For example, I did a lot of trying to understand. I was going to write a book about that before the pandemic. I’m super fascinated by machine learning, and I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings around it. One of the reasons that I think I can do some of what I do is that I can read the papers.
I’m not a machine learning researcher. I’m not going to develop advanced science or anything like that, but I understand what’s going on in a way that someone who’s just looking at the sociology of impacts might not because of my background. I had the same thing happen with the pandemic. I actually used to teach sociology of pandemics because I thought it was really fascinating sociologically, but I was always interested in the science side too.
I didn’t start knowing nothing. I started knowing — yes, as a layperson, but a professor, an educated layperson, and somebody who taught some of the stuff. I had some level of reading, and whenever possible, I just deepen it. I read textbooks. I read primary papers in a lot of fields that I’m trying to do sociological analysis in. I think that’s something we don’t do enough of in the academy because we’re so siloed. We treat it like dabbling. It’s not dabbling if you do it right. Yes, you can do it in a bad way, but it’s not dabbling to get some level of understanding of a field.
You need to be careful. You need to be humble about what you’re doing and then apply your own field, sociology, to that base. If you don’t have any of the other, you can get things wrong quite easily. If you’re overconfident, yes, it can get into that heavily criticized dabbling where you’re just completely out of your depth.
But I think there’s great value to be added. It’s not really interdisciplinary. You’re rooted in one discipline, but you’re going and learning stuff, and you’re interacting with the field directly as much as you can. I think that’s how it’s been broadly beneficial.
COWEN: Zeynep, a real pleasure chatting with you. Thank you very much.
TUFEKCI: Thank you.
Header photo credit: James Duncan Davidson/TED Thumbnail photo credit: Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society