Questioning the World with Adam Conover

Adam Conover wants to spark your curiosity. And your doubt. As the host of truTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, Conover uses comedy as both a tool for entertainment and education, prompting viewers to doubt established cultural myths and norms. In each episode Conover cites studies, stories, and experts to help separate fact from fiction in topics that have ranged from hygiene to cars to death. “Experts are the heroes of our show,” Conover says. The comedian emphasized that viewers should use the show as a form of questioning rather than as one providing all of the answers. As the show enters its second season, I spoke with Conover about growing up on Long Island, creating a dialogue with critics, and trying to find certainty in uncertain fields.

You’re a fellow Long Island native. Was there any influence growing up there, in terms of both education and comedy?

I had the benefit of going to a really good high school on Long Island. I went to Shoreham-Wading River High School, which kind of started as an experimental public school back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It had a bunch of teachers there with a unique teaching philosophy. There were a lot of good, mindful, thoughtful teachers there who taught me to think a little bigger. There was one teacher in particular who I had, Dr. Len Dorfman, but we all called him Doc. He was a Buddhist. He taught programming. He taught me how to use the internet in like 1995 or something, like really early. [He] really treated us like adults. This wasn’t like a hippie school. Long Island is also a very conservative place, not in the political sense, but in terms of lifestyle – very suburban and set in its ways. It gave me a good matrix to compare my thoughts against. In terms of there being a way of life to question it provided a very tempting target.

Adam Ruins Everything is centered around the idea of doubting cultural norms. Do you think, had you grown up elsewhere, you would have a different perspective toward what you doubt?  

I don’t know if I would put so fine a point on it to say that I would have a different perspective on those issues if I were to grew up somewhere different. It’s a little hard for me to imagine. I think I’m actually a doubting person. I always have been. I think certain parts of my upbringing helped that. When we pitched the show around LA to different networks, something we heard over and over again, from the more small-minded network executives, was that they worried the show was too “coastal” and that it wouldn’t appeal to people in the Midwest or the west or other parts of the country. They were imagining a guy in blue jeans and a mustache and a plaid shirt. That’s their image of how to appeal to people not like them. And this was a British guy in LA saying this, the most coastal guy you can imagine. They literally were like, “Our audience is guys in Wrangler jeans who work on a farm. And how do we appeal to them?” That’s never been my approach or my belief – that what we were doing somehow wouldn’t appeal to people.

I think that what we’re presenting is a universal emotion and a universal quality that people want and crave. People are naturally curious, people love to learn, and people love to doubt the world around them. Those are natural human qualities. And I think we’ve been proven right because the show is successful all across the country. We went on tour last year. We went to Phoenix. We went to Detroit. We didn’t have the chance to go down south, but people tweeted at me, “Hey why aren’t you coming to Georgia or Florida?” We were selling out in all those places across the country. I think what we do on the show is appeal to a real universal human desire to learn and to be thoughtful and to question.

You’ve previously discussed educating people who are curious to learn.  Do you find the education you provide for viewers seems to stick with them? Have you seen this firsthand?

I think it does stick. People aren’t going to have a perfect recall for every single thing that we talk about, but we do tell people stories on the show. We usually put the information that we’re conveying in the form of a story, which makes it a lot more memorable. Coming up later in the season we do an act of on the “Backfire Effect,” which is this effect where when you tell someone information that conflicts with their beliefs they’re often going to believe their own beliefs stronger. It’s a problem with debunking. And one of the things you can do to overcome that, which we talk about on the show, is replace a bad story. You don’t just tell someone “Hey your story is wrong.” You tell them a story that’s even more interesting than what they originally thought. And so that can stick with them. We sort of give information as, “How can we tell this in a way that’s going to make someone want to repeat it to a friend at a cocktail party or dinner party?”

I think that with adults, when they hear the information we tell they often remember it but they’re like, “That’s cool, good to know.” It’s tough to tell how much it’s really integrated into their lives even if they’re entertained. Even with me, I’m an adult, I’m set in my ways, and sometimes I realize I’ve been doing something that contradicts the information I’ve told on the show. I don’t remember the information I’ve told. Sometimes I go to the open house and I’m like, “Hey maybe I should buy.” It’s like, “Wait a second, I did a whole episode of TV about this.” But with kids I think I can really tell that they’re taking it in. We never intended to be a show that kids would enjoy. The show’s on at 10:00pm, which is firmly in late night territory. But it turns out that kids have really gravitated toward the show and so a lot of the times what kids will tell me is, “I love learning all the information. I love telling other people about it. And I really like questioning things too.” They really like that way of engaging with the world. It inspires them to be more curious and ask more questions. Those are the parts of the audience where I can sense them taking it in.

In the weight loss episode from the new season you spoke with an expert who studied the long term effects of The Biggest Loser on its contestants. How do you choose who qualifies as an expert for the show?

We see the show as really boosting the work of experts. Our primary mission is to take their work and spread it. The experts are the heroes of our show. Our real goal is that we really like to get the person who is the person on the topic. If you’re looking at the effect of diets on weight loss, Kevin Hall is the guy on the NIH (National Institute of Health). If you read an article about the topic of weight loss he’s very likely to be quoted in it. And he talks about the topic very clearly. He’s done the research himself, so he’s the guy who knows on the ground [about] the effect he’s seen.  

Another great example is Douglas Massey, who we had as an expert in our immigration episode talking about border migration. As he told me in the podcast interview I conducted, he has been studying since the ‘70s, going down to the border and doing straight-up field research. They go do interviews: “How many people are crossing the border? How did you get here? When did you cross the border?” So they have data going back to, I believe, the ‘70s, tracking the amount of border migration and he said, “The US government uses my dataset when they need extra information.” It’s a very well-regarded dataset. And it’s kind of hard to argue because he’s the one doing the research and you haven’t. So we like to get people who really really know the topic. It turns out that those people end up being incredibly fascinating to talk to. You don’t normally see those folks on TV.

There seems to be a desire from viewers to prove both you and the show wrong.

[laughs] It’s still something that happens. We did an immigration segment [where] some folks on the conservative side had some very strong opinions on that topic. We’ve had pushback or there’s been responses where people have a conservative point of view on immigration. But none of them have questioned the data that we show. We did a segment on electric cars last year. Electric cars have huge huge fan bases, and so a lot of electric car people took a lot of issues with our argument. Our data is all from scientists and environmentalist groups, and we made sure that [our argument] was rock solid. I think a lot of times people misunderstand the argument that we’re making. We did a segment that said, “The idea that video games are just for boys came from this marketing decision Nintendo made in the ‘80s. There’s really not much more sense to it than that. Girls like video games as much as boys do, it’s just this weird happenstance cultural trick.” People still tweet at me today they say, “How dare you say that gamers are sexist.” I never made that claim. They’re projecting some weird claim.

When you come across the pushback do you get an urge to respond?

Yeah, we have in the past. A writer from The Verge wrote an article about our piece on electric cars that we felt misunderstood our argument. We wrote an essay in response to it and posted it on Medium. I also like to engage with people on Twitter whenever I can, because I really think dialogue is best way to go. Whenever someone comes at me with a lot of heat and says, “You got this wrong and I’m never watching your show again,” which happens a fair amount, I like to respond and say, “I’m so sorry you felt we got something wrong. If we got something wrong I would like to know about it. Can you please let me know what it is and can we talk about it?” And that usually gets us 70% of the way towards assuaging the person’s issues, just to be treated respectfully and not in a heated way. This year we’re doing a segment, “Adam Ruins Adam Ruins Everything, where we go through a bunch of topics we feel like we didn’t quite do justice to in prior episodes.

Our point of the show is not that our show is 100% right all the time and that this is the pure and perfect truth. It’s a show about curiosity and doubting what you know. That process applies to our show as well. We are always checking our own assertions and our own assumptions, even after we’ve done the episode. We try to be upfront about our mistakes.

I think that’d be necessary for any show that’s trying to do something educational. There’s nothing absolute. There’s a lot of questioning and doubting.

That’s how knowledge works. That’s how science works. That’s how any academic field works. At any point, the sum total of human knowledge is not, “Here’s the world as it is perfectly,” it’s, “Here’s the best we know so far and we’re always willing to be proven wrong.” We treat our show the same way.

How often do you find an answer that is more certain than not?

We usually try to end our show on more of a moral point than a clear bit of knowledge. We always try to end on how you should think about the world differently. One of the reasons we do that is I can feel pretty confident about those conclusions. With the weight loss episode, I can’t tell you “Here’s how to lose weight” or “This will never make you lose weight.” What I can tell you is, “It is so much harder than we think it is and it’s almost impossible to do it reliably.” Almost nobody can give you advice that’s going to say, “Here’s the guaranteed way to lose weight.” Your weight is so much less under your control than society tells you it is. I hear all that and I’m like, “We have to take this burden off of ourselves.” We’re constantly judging each other and most importantly ourselves for what our weight is. We have to think about our health and we have to think about general self-improvements. I can’t tell you with 100% certainty what the scientific solution is to weight loss, but I am certain I can tell you we’re too cruel to ourselves about weight. We shift to that type of conclusion because we can have more certainty. In college I was philosophy major. In philosophy you’re never 100% sure. You’re always undermining what you think you know. That’s always been my philosophy and my intellectual ethos. I don’t need to be positive about these things. I need to challenge myself and to try to improve my knowledge. That’s my goal.

The second season of Adam Ruins Everything premieres on truTV tonight at 10:00pm.

Questioning the World with Adam Conover