Though he’s primarily known as a UFC commentator and comedian, Joe Rogan is also an outspoken advocate of science. In his new show, which is set to premiere on Syfy later this month, he critically investigates a series of strange and unexplained phenomenon. We recently caught up with him to learn more.
If you follow mixed martial arts you definitely know Joe Rogan. But you may also remember him from his days with News Radio and Fear Factor. He’s got a wildly popular podcast and his Twitter account boasts over a million followers.
A polarizing figure who’s frequently criticized for his political incorrectness, Rogan is always outspoken and completely unafraid to drop an f-bomb at the most inopportune of times.
But he’s quickly becoming an important popularizer of science and futurism. His audience, a group consisting primarily of jocks and stoners, wouldn’t normally be exposed to many of the ideas tossed around on his show. Though he could be easily dismissed as a major contributor to “bro science” culture, the fact of the matter is that his message is getting through: Science is interesting. What’s more, he’s showing that it’s cool to be smart and knowledgeable. And as his new show suggests, it’s also important to be critical.
I recently bumped into to Rogan at the recently concluded GF2045 Congress held in New York City where we talked about these issues. He agreed to do an interview for io9 which we conducted earlier this week.
Can you tell us a bit about the new show? How did it come about?
Remember Jesse Ventura’s show, Conspiracy Theory? Well, I’ve been friends with the producers of that show for quite some time. We had been talking about doing something and they thought up of having someone replace Jesse Ventura. I immediately thought — Oh my God, I am so not interested in that, and I’m so not the right guy for that — because I think most conspiracy theories are bullshit. Most of these “mysteries” can be solved fairly easily. And most of this shit really starts to depress me, particularly when you get into things like government schemes and efforts to control the population — that shit kind of freaks me out and I’m really not interested in that. But I am interested in the really stupid shit — like UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, and psychics. And I’m also fascinated with the psychology of the believer — and that’s what this show has really turned into being a lot about.
So we got together and came up with a show where we discuss these subjects with a completely open mind — where I talk to people, get their take on it — regardless of whether they’re a proponent, or a critic, or whatever their particular take on it might be — and we try to figure it all out.
It’s interesting that you bring up the psychology of the believer. What have you discovered?
Well, for one thing, it’s way more fun to think that there are aliens than that people are full of shit.
When I talk to all these people, and we talk about the evidence, they tell me the strangest things. One of the guys I talked to recently, when I asked him what evidence he had, said he had a signed and written affidavit.
I stopped him right there and said, “That’s not evidence.” But he argued and said the document would hold up in a court of law — and that it could even have the power to convict someone. I said to him, “But we’re not in a court of law — we’re talking about scientific evidence — what you’ve got there is a story. You just asked some people who agreed with your story to put their names to it. That’s not how you do science, and that's not evidence.”
As for UFO claims, when you sit down and talk to these people who say that UFOs are visiting us on a daily basis, that the government has been in regular contact, and that they’ve been back-engineering this-and-that, I respond by saying that what they’ve got is interesting and fascinating...but where’s the evidence?
To be fair, some of their ideas are certainly plausible — like the idea that there’s intelligent life somewhere out there in the Universe. In fact, it’s a conjecture that’s being supported by science. We’re constantly finding new planets — many of them in goldilocks zones that can support life. And we’re constantly re-evaluating the potential for life. We’re finding it where we didn’t think it could exist, such as volcanic vents and other extreme conditions like under arctic ice. We’re finding life in these incredibly harsh and dynamic conditions, so we’re having to re-evaluate our own ideas of what’s possible on this planet alone. So, in the Universe, could there be life? Fuck yeah, there could be life. Absolutely. However, we haven’t found it. And to say that we’ve found it would be a massive disservice to what we have found.
But when these people start talking about UFOs, there’s nothing. There’s nothing we can weigh, nothing we can measure. There’s not one thing we can put on a scale and say, “Hey, this is something we simply do not understand,” or “We really don’t know where this thing came from.” Or, something more than just a blurry video showing a ship landing on a field. There’s nothing that makes me believe. Now, I don’t disbelieve. But there’s nothing I’ve seen that seems real to me.
Terence McKenna had a really beautiful thing to say about UFOs. He said that when someone tells you about UFOs, don’t ask them about UFOs. Instead, ask them about how they feel about psychics. Ask them what their opinion is on ghosts. Ask them if they believe in Bigfoot. You’ll find a pattern. And this is one of the things that I’m finding on this show.
You see, they’re not just looking to find out if UFOs are real. What they’re looking for is something magical and something mysterious that hasn’t been discovered yet. They’re looking for some excitement in their boring lives. One of the ways that I describe these people — and it’s really quite unfortunate — is that they’re a bunch of unfuckable white dudes. I haven’t found a single black guy looking for Bigfoot. I’ve look high and large, and it’s all white dudes in their late forties and fifties. It’s all midlife crisis people. They’re not the happiest people in the world — and no disrespect — but they’re looking for things to be real that aren’t necessarily real.
I think it’s awesome that you’re approaching these claims with a healthy degree of skepticism.
Well, to be fair, I do try to come in with an open mind. But unfortunately, with all these subjects, you kind of have to be skeptical after a while. The more you talk to people about UFOs or Bigfoot or psychic phenomenon, the more you start to realize that the same sort of thinking exists almost across the board. And it almost stops being about the subject — it’s more about the idea of mystery than anything else — this recurring theme of someone trying to figure something out, and trying to find something that makes their otherwise mundane life more interesting.
And it’s because of this that the show has proven to be a hell of a lot of work — it’s been a total grind — even a bit annoying. The networks are not used to putting on truly skeptical shows, or truly honest shows. They want to promote drama — that’s what they like to do. They’re more about, “OH MY GOD, what’s going to happen right after this commercial!?” So we’ve been struggling to avoid doing that sort of thing.
You must be a fan of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit.
Yeah, I love that show. But the problem with that show was that they were always trying to call bullshit, and that is in my opinion is just as bad as trying to prove that all things are a conspiracy.
For example, one of the things that Penn and Teller tried to disprove was yoga. And they tried to make it out as being nothing more than stretching — and that’s ridiculous. As a longtime practitioner of yoga and a person who’s been involved in physical fitness my whole life, I can tell you, yoga helps you achieve altered states of consciousness. It is not just stretching. The only way you can say that it’s stretching is if you haven’t done it, or that you haven’t done it rigorously for a long period of time. You can achieve a state of calmness and of euphoria when you do yoga — and it’s not unlike a drug. I mean, it’s not like taking an incredibly potent psychedelic. But unquestioningly — without a doubt — yoga can do that to you. And this is based on my personal experience and the personal experience of many people who have done it.
So when I saw this episode, I was like, ‘Ah, c’mon, guys.’ I love Penn and Teller, but they missed out on something in that episode.
You’re primarily known for your work as a UFC commentator and comedian. But your podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, tackles a bunch of heady subjects. In a way, you’ve become a bit of a science popularizer — and for an audience who normally wouldn’t be interested in that kind of subject matter.
Well, I like to think of myself as the bridge between the meat heads and the pot heads. But really, we’re not that far apart — we’re just human beings. We vary by our physical appearances, we vary by our interests, and we vary based on our personal experiences — but the reality is that interesting things are interesting.
And what’s interesting about science is that we’re constantly discovering new things about the universe, about ourselves, about our bodies, about diseases, about the possibilities of the future. It’s amazing. Science is one of the coolest things about being a human being — without a doubt.
The problem, however, is how science gets introduced to people at school. There’s a real issue with education in this country. And part of the problem has to do — at least in my experience — with incredibly unenthusiastic teachers who are compensated extremely meagrely in a world where their job is not treated with the respect it deserves. They’re not being viewed as the important tools for human development that they are. And because they’re not getting this respect, what we’re now dealing with is a bunch of poorly paid babysitters that are telling kids about things they don’t really care about.
On top of that, students have to sit down for far too many hours. Traditional schooling is not engaging, it doesn’t allow students to find things out on their own, driven by their own enthusiasm, time, and pace. So you force people to fit into a mould, and people tend to resist these things.
Look, subjects like math, physics, and history are not boring at all — they’re just being presented in a really boring manner.
But fortunately today, we live in the era of the internet and social networking. The ability to share interesting items with each other has really changed the way people come into contact with these subjects.
For example, George, you could send me a link to an interesting article, and then I’d tweet it out to all my twitter followers and say, “Hey, this is badass.” In that instant, hundreds of thousands of people are exposed to something you just sent me. And that’s amazing. It’s engaging, exciting, and easy to absorb — especially for people who might only have a passing interest in this stuff.
But I also think that it’s been my enthusiasm for these things that’s helped other people catch onto them as well.
Sure, but we’ve still got this prevailing attitude of anti-intellectualism in the US. A lot of people still think it’s not cool to be smart. This is highly problematic — and it leads to a dismissal of science and a lack of critical thinking.
Yeah, it can lead to a whole host of problems. But what I choose to focus on is how interesting it is. It’s not my job to try to prevent people from becoming dumb. There’s nothing you can do to spark someone’s curiosity or a joy of learning other than to express your own.
You’re dealing with a very complex issue in anti-intellectualism. You have to consider the environment these people grew up in, what kind of despair they may have in their community, who their role models are — there are so many different variables when you’re trying to figure out why someone would embrace anti-intellectualism.
But in my own experience it’s becoming less and less of a factor than it ever has before. We are experiencing, through all these incredible new channels and tools of exchanging information, an age of enlightenment that has never existed before. We’re in the midst of it, so it’s hard for us to realize what’s happening while it’s happening. But it is happening — and over the course of decades rather than centuries.
There’s also the role of religion to consider in all of this, including the Creationist agenda.
I think that the form of creationism that’s being promoted by fundamentalists today is incredibly simplistic, and it’s coming from a very simplistic mindset. These people, along with their ideas, get bogged down through control, through ideology, through fear, and all the different aspects of religion that are so unsavoury.
But at the very root of it, when you’re reading the bible or any religious text, you’re reading the work of people who lived thousands of years ago who were simply trying to piece together the universe and life. Some of their ideas are unfounded, some are ridiculous, or require total belief — they reek of human insecurity.
At the same time, many of their teachings still apply today — they’re guidelines to live your life in a harmonious way, like treating others like we’d like them to treat us.
But when it comes to religion today, what we’re having a really hard time accepting is the idea that a single person can have any of the answers to some of life’s ultimate questions. Like, what happens when you die, where do you go, what is God, and what does God actually want? And the fact of the matter is that many of these questions haven’t been vetted out. No one has answered these questions.
As for those involved in fundamentalist religions, many of them are simply not being exposed to enough alternative information or interesting science. They need to learn and accept that there’s still a lot of mystery to this world.
Faith itself is a horrible mechanism that stunts the growth of ideas. It also stunts the act of questioning, and it does this by pushing the idea that you have to have faith — and that nothing has to be proven.
Look, one of the most beautiful things about science is that it doesn’t require faith. What it requires is huge attention to the work that’s been done and to understand all the various aspects to that work. And in that, you can see the very building blocks of matter. You can see the very mechanism in which cells become a person, the very mechanism with which a seed absorbs water and becomes a plant, and how it uses photosynthesis to grow.
All this is beautiful and magical. And it's scientific.