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“Science tells you that your opinion is worthless. That’s difficult”

The NS Interview: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, physicists

The NS Interview: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, physicists

You've co-authored a book called The Quantum Universe. Why should we value quantum physics research?
Brian Cox:
Exploring the way that nature works is a good idea - given that we are part of it and living in it and manipulating it. Every big particle accelerator that's been built has discovered something other than the thing it was supposed to discover. That's the point of exploration: you don't know what you're going to find.
Jeff Forshaw: Solar panels, that's quantum physics. The laser is a direct exploitation of quantum physics: we wouldn't have discovered it if we didn't know quantum mechanics.

Is Britain punching above its weight in terms of scientific research?
BC:
Way above. We are second only to the US by any measure. Some 14.7 per cent of the highest scientific papers in the world come from the UK and we have 3 per cent of the research-spend and 1 per cent of the population. We are the most efficient scientific nation in the world.

What do you make of neutrinos apparently being measured moving faster than the speed of light - which would overturn Einstein?
BC:
Science should be really honest - the experimenters don't believe the result, I don't think, because it does require a big revision of our understanding of physics. But they check it, they can't find anything wrong, so the correct thing to do is publish. You shouldn't sit on results just because they're surprising.
JF: There are loads of apparent discoveries in physics - we've found the Higgs Boson a dozen times already! There's nothing wrong with that. The false alarms get weeded out.
BC: You can think of areas where that's problematic: medical research, for example, where the behaviour of people depends on the research - I'm thinking of disasters like the MMR scare. But in general science should be really naive; there shouldn't be PR spin or politics.
JF: If people are interested in science, part of the journey they'll get to enjoy is seeing false alarms and how evidence mounts until we can make a very strong statement.

How much of a responsibility do you feel to be an advocate for science generally?
BC:
A lot. I think the peer-review process is the best way we have of giving our best view on how nature works. There are no absolute truths in science. Take a so-called controversy such as climate change: the correct thing to say is that we make measurements of the climate, we look at the data, we model it and here are a range of predictions. While it's easy to point out the flaws, in general it's unarguable that science works. . . because we're not in fucking caves!

What motivates climate sceptics and the rest?
BC:
Carl Sagan pointed out that "Science challenges". And the natural human response from people who are educated, who have a title or position, is to assume their opinion is worth something. And science tells you that your opinion is worthless when confronted with the evidence. That's a difficult thing to learn. When you look back at the Greeks or Romans and think, "Why didn't they get science?", maybe it was that.
JF: As a theoretical physicist, most of my time is spent doing calculations that are wrong. It's a humbling exercise, a massive dose of humility.

How can we teach that process?
BC:
Quantum mechanics is interesting, because it's a theory that is absolutely shocking in its implications and yet not technically difficult. I think it should be taught in schools for that reason. Measurements of the world suggested something very odd - that particles can be in multiple places at once - so we developed a theory and it works. It's that process of saying: "Your preconceptions about reality are not right, because the evidence says so."
JF: Look through a window - how can you see through it? The answer is what a little kid might think: because there is virtually nothing there, it's an illusion of solidity. That's why the entire universe could fit into a pinhead, because it's empty.

One of the book's messages is not to trust your intuition. So how do you distinguish between a bonkers idea - and a bonkers idea that's right?
BC:
Experiment! Make predictions.
JF: Put a number on it. People like me calculate what we expect to see, and people like Brian are involved in experiments.

Was there a plan for your career?
BC:
No, other than I wanted to do physics.
JF: In the third year of my PhD I thought I wanted to become a schoolteacher.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
JF:
The haircut I had in 1984 - I had one of those Chris Waddle cuts, permed at the back.

Are we all doomed?
JF:
The only thing that will save us is fundamental physics, because we have to escape to a distant part of the universe.
BC: On the human timescale, the adoption of the scientific method - making rational decisions based on evidence - that's the important thing. Look at public policy, health policy, economics: there's a reluctance to be humble.

Defining moments

1989 Forshaw graduates from Oxford with a First; gains PhD from Manchester in 1992
1993 While an undergraduate student at Manchester, Cox joins the band D:Ream
1997 Cox awarded PhD at Manchester
1999 Forshaw wins the Maxwell Medal
2010 Cox presents the BBC programme Wonders of the Solar System
2010 Cox and Forshaw co-author the popular science book Why Does E=mc2?
2011 Reunited for The Quantum Universe

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Ernest Duffoo via Flickr / New Statesman
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Spitting out the Red Pill: Former misogynists reveal how they were radicalised online

Subscribers of Reddit's most notoriously sexist subreddit explain what happens when you change your mind.

João describes swallowing the Red Pill as a feeling greater than winning the lottery.

Aged 17 and a self-described “late bloomer virgin”, he was growing apprehensive about going to college when he stumbled across an online community that seemed to hold all the answers. “I believed in it so much,” the now 24-year-old tells me via Skype from his home in Portugal, “It was such a fantastic thing to me… Back then I used to say that I was so happy about finding out about the Red Pill and pick up artists that I would rather be with them than win the lottery.

“I don't know why I believed so deeply because it really makes no sense.”

Though João experienced two happy years with fellow Red Pillers, his opinions have now drastically changed.  During the course of our half hour conversation, he uses one word exactly twenty times: “cult”.

***

The Red Pill is a philosophy, and reddit.com/r/TheRedPill is its home. The nearly 200,000 subscriber strong subreddit describes itself as a place for the “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” In itself, perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad.

In practice, to “swallow the Red Pill” is to accept the uncomfortable truth about reality. The phrase comes from 1999’s hit film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo must choose between the Red Pill – which would allow him to escape the Matrix but see the real, darker world – and the Blue Pill – continued existence in his comfortable, but ultimately fake, life.

In r/TheRedPill’s instance, the “dark truths” that the subreddit’s subscribers have swallowed are these: feminism is toxic, sexism is fake, men have it harder than women, and everything the media teaches about relationships is a lie. In reality (the argument goes) women don’t want soft-centred men/chocolates; they want to be dominated, controlled, and manipulated. The most extreme Red Pillers even believe that women want to be raped.

“Rejection is not rejection,” reads an extract from the subreddit’s most popular post. “When a woman insults you, belittles you, mocks you, or says something provocative to get a reaction — these are all examples of active tests.” By following the subreddit’s advice, its subscribers are promised a life of successful sexual encounters. If they ignore the Red Pill, they will undoubtedly be rejected, cheated on, and dumped.

“They have theories that are not easy to prove or disprove, they are based on beliefs like all women cheat, they like cheating, and all women are not loyal,” explains João. “There’s this whole conspiracy thing where women are against you, they are this imagined enemy… as well as there's a whole conspiracy that society is against men, that society is anti-male so to speak, that liberals are fucking up society, that feminism is fucking up society.

“I believed everything, everything. And if you didn't believe everything… if you go on Red Pill Reddit and you disagree with someone they either delete your comments or they try to make fun of you and shame you. You can't criticise anything because people will quickly try to diminish you. So I really believed every little thing.”

***

Beliefs such as “all women are evil” and “all women cheat” are what are known as conspiracy stereotypes. Like traditional conspiracy theories, they often rely on cherry-picked evidence. The Red Pill in particular exploits evolutionary psychology to argue that women are wired to want men with a strong “frame”. Much of the subreddit’s misogyny is justified by one of their favourite acronyms, AWALT: “all women are like that”. 

“The movement’s use of evolutionary psychology convinced my rational mind that everything I read was a scientific fact supressed by feminists,” explains Jack, a British 24-year-old former r/TheRedPill subscriber.

“I began to see male victimhood throughout society,” he tells me over Reddit’s messaging service. “It fed the confirmation biases that society was built around men catering to women in return for sex.”

Mike Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester and an expert on the psychology behind conspiracy theories, explains that people who believe in conspiracy stereotypes such as AWALT tend to have what is known as a “Manichean” worldview.

“They feel the world is divided into absolute good and absolute evil, and the people behind the conspiracies are of course the absolute evil ones," he said.

Psychologists have a concept, entitativity, which describes the extent to which a group of people are perceived as a single entity. "If you think that a group is entitative, it’s like a swarm of bees or ants," Wood explained. "They’re not just a collection of individuals, they’re actually that a single organism that moves with singular purpose. I think that’s probably likely to be true for groups like the Red Pill, that look at women and see just a flock of harpies.”

Subscribers' experiences in the real world can reinforce their misogynistic views. Trevor*, a 34-year-old former Red Piller, explains how the subreddit led him to towards more extreme views of women.

“When I was 30, I broke up with a woman who just not a very good person,” he tells me over Skype. “I broke up with her one the phone…20, 30 minutes later she shows up [to my apartment] completely hysterical. I remember I had a large metal tin bowl with potatoes on the counter which I was going to cook for dinner or something, and she grabs it, chucks the potatoes all through the apartment… her shirt catches on a corner of a countertop and then she proceeds to tear the rest of it off like Hulk Hogan.”

When Trevor decided to call the police, it was he that ended up arrested. “I went from being in my home peacefully to being in a jail cell all because I’m a man and she's a woman.

“Now that was a very immoral human being who I was dealing with, certainly not all women are like that but that’s another brainwashing technique of the Red Pill, they say that all women are the same…

“It kind of tricks you so you're agreeing about one thing and the next thing you know you're agreeing about all these other things.”

***

These “tricks” aren’t accidental, according to João in Portugal, who now firmly believes that the Red Pill is akin to a cult.

“If you go to Red Pill and you say something that those guys don't really like then they will just delete your comments or just say that you are a ‘mangina’ or a ‘feminist’ or a ‘cuck’," he told me. "They have this social influence mechanism where they pre-emptively invalidate all criticism by criticising people back… and it is typical of cults to do this.” Other Red Pillers I spoke to also mentioned the threat of harassment. 

João also believes the Red Pill preys on those who are easily manipulated – be they young, nerdy, insecure, virgins, or simply going through a difficult time in life. Most of the ex-Red Pillers I spoke to were teenagers when they became involved in the subreddit, and most say they were exceptionally lonely at the time.

Callum*, a 29-year-old from Western Pennsylvania, has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome and speculates that “a great many” people on the Red Pill are likely on the spectrum. He became involved with the Red Pill at 19. Though he had spent much of his time at school not caring about girls, he became insecure when he started college.

“I worried that I wasn't thin enough, I wasn't tall enough, I wasn't endowed enough,” he tells me over Reddit. “I started getting very bitter about relationships in general. At no point was I ever actually angry or bitter towards women, but I was frustrated with the established societal rules, that men had to put on the show and be the best they could and that women got to pick and choose without trying much themselves, and I wasn't being picked.

“When I turned to the Red Pill subreddit I immediately felt like I figured it out. Like a cult, they give you a few obvious truths (men should be more confident, work towards physical fitness, women aren't divine perfect beings to be worshipped but flawed people, etc.). I definitely think that this enabled me to slide into accepting the more toxic beliefs of the subreddit.

“Any time someone said something outright sexist or alarming, too much for me, others would interject and say that those are just being angry and we should let them vent.”

***

Over the last year, the Red Pill subreddit has become a home for other hateful beliefs. A year ago, the alt-right’s most vocal figurehead, Milo Yiannopoulous, did an AMA (“ask me anything”) on the sub. It is now commonly accepted that the alt-right recruited men from the Red Pill and attempted to radicalise them. In fact, the alt-right has become so conflated with the Red Pill that this month a brand new subreddit – the Red Pill Right – had to be made. “My focus with this new sub is to keep us from diluting the discussion of sexual strategy on our main sub,” wrote its creator.

But how has a place designed for discussions about sex and women become so radically political?

“That is the power of the ideology,” explains Jack, the British Red Piller. “It gives you a lens that brings out the most cynical explanation of social activities…  For a while, it seemed as if a blindfold was lifted and I saw manipulation everywhere.”

Jack became involved with the Red Pill when he was 23, and had been single for a “long” time. “I was numb, lonely and desperate,” he says. “It was a terrible time in my life.”

Though Jack only spent two months on the subreddit, he quickly fell in with anti-feminist and libertarian rhetoric. “An uncomfortable misogynistic streak grew within me,” he says. “At one point [I] thought that Donald Trump was a good candidate for President.”

Like many of the places we frequent online, the Red Pill has become an echo chamber. The psychologist I spoke to, Mike Wood, told me this can lead to people adopting more and more extreme views. "If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time," he says. "Individuals will try to conform to what the group mandates.” This is true of not just the Red Pill, but its opponents. While radical feminists on Tumblr, for example, become more extreme in their views, so too does the subreddit. In many ways, the extremes of each group justify one another's existence in their minds. 

“People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group,” Wood continues. “So they’ll play to that standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then people will take it further because they reason ‘If I’m more extreme about this then I will get more approval’, so the norms of the group shift over time.”

Jack’s story aligns with this. “Trump represented everything that the Red Pill told me to value at the time in a mainstream political candidate: anti-PC, anti-feminist and social Darwinist policy,” he says. Those aspects of Trump that he still found unpalatable, or racist, he accepted as "a price to pay for the other stuff".

***

There exists another misogynistic subreddit which is, in fact, deeper and darker than the Red Pill. Reddit.com/r/Incels is a place for “involuntary celibates” – people who are struggling to lose their virginity – to talk. In theory, once again, this is not terrible. In practice, however, the nearly 10,000 subscriber strong group breeds bitterness towards women, and a hatred of “Chads” – men who are romantically successful. Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara student who killed six people in 2014, considered himself an incel.

For Callum, the Red Piller from Western Pennsylvania, this subreddit spoke more specifically to his own situation. “The feelings of inferiority and utter hopelessness are indescribable and the worst things I have ever felt in my life,” he says. “I think that outsiders looking in just deem these people very bitter and angry and don't understand the long process it takes to get there… It takes a long and drawn out battle with yourself that those people have lost.

“It's listening to the voices in your head, telling you how shit you are, telling you that you will never be wanted, never be normal, all your friends and family are laughing at you behind your back at failing at the easy task of finding a girlfriend. You are a walking shame to your gender. Nothing you can do can overshadow such laughable inferiority. You are nothing.”

A meme from r/Incels

It is easy to see how the inferiority complex of Incels and the superiority complex of Red Pillers both in turn breed hatred and contempt. However, some subscribers to the subreddits manage to avoid being radicalised. From those I spoke to, it seems this is more likely if they have pre-existing political beliefs or circumstances that contradict the theories of the group. 

Tim*, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, believes that r/Incels didn’t lead him to become a misogynist because he was already interested in progressive and feminist politics. He found the sub when he was 16, after growing frustrated with the advice on Red Pill and other sites. As a self-described “nerdy” young man, Tim felt anxious about how relationships worked.

“I'm not very good at following my nose in those sorts of situations,” he says. “I can't dance for instance, because I have no idea what specifically to do, so anything without a ‘rulebook’ is pretty much impossible for me.

“I spent so long searching for my ‘rulebook’ until I realised that it's doesn't exist, no one seems to have any clue what makes a relationship happen. It kinda drives you mad thinking like that, that you're the only person in the world who doesn't ‘get it’. That's where places like r/Incels come in.”

Tim says that the fact he has always been friends with women might have meant he wasn’t convinced by the group’s misogyny. “It's possible to accept that you'll be alone forever, and accept that you're very unhappy about that, without becoming hateful or misogynistic. But it seems like everyone kind of forgets that,” he says.

Louis*, a 19-year-old from Albany, New York, joined r/Incels aged 16, and does feel that it made him more bitter and misanthropic. “You feel the world actively hates you so you need to hate it back,” he says. Nonetheless, he stopped frequenting the subreddit when, like the Red Pill, it began spreading extreme right-wing beliefs. “The alt-right is how I broke from incels as the racism sort of woke me up to the reality of it,” explains Louis, who is black.

***

Each of the Redditors I spoke to has a different reason for leaving the Red Pill.

João and Jack were both influenced by Mark Manson, author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty. “Most of what he talks about is the mind-set to care for oneself and strive to improve. Hate is energy better spent finding and enjoying activities you love,” says Jack, who also began reading about feminism.

João says he left the Red Pill because he was attracting girls that were “emotionally damaged” and not “mentally healthy”. He also felt like its advice didn’t really work. “I was going out to bars to talk to women and I would have to talk with like literally like 100 girls just to pick up one, so the whole thing is a numbers game, a probability thing,” he says. He now considers himself a feminist and has a “fantastic girlfriend” who he has been with for nearly three years.

For Callum, it took “a series of psychedelic trips” to begin getting out of both the Red Pill and Incels. “The very idea of gender was alien to me when tripping hard enough,” he says. When I ask him how he feels about women now, he says: “I still hold on to the belief that women enjoy a major advantage in the dating world even though they suffer disadvantages in other parts of life." Nevertheless he now sees women as "scared, flawed, imperfect humans just like I am".

***

Not everyone who has left the Red Pill, then, did so because of some feminist revelation. Trevor, the man who ended up in a police cell after a confrontation with his ex, still holds many of the subreddit’s beliefs.

“Look, a lot of what they say is true unfortunately,” he says. “So it isn’t really a question of I don’t believe any of that any more, it's just I don’t believe it’s useful to continuously expose myself to that sort of stuff.” Although Trevor says the Red Pill helped him to “bed an unusually high number of women”, he now desires deeper relationships and hopes one day to start a family.  

Trevor has only been out of the subreddit for a few months, and it isn’t apparent whether his views will slowly change. As it stands, however, he believes that both women and men are destroying society, that the Red Pill and feminism are equally toxic, and that women who sleep around are "indirectly contributing to the depopulation of the white race".  

“I’m roommates with some Muslim people here, some Algerians, two girls and a guy, and these people take themselves more seriously," he says. "They kind of understand the importance of the tribe and community and family."

There is one Red Pill belief, however, that Trevor has completely shunned. “One thing I do believe is you can show a little vulnerability to your significant other,” he says. “A little, a little.”

***

No one still active on the Red Pill would admit that they are simply lonely, young, or vulnerable. The group is exceptionally hostile to outsiders, and the toxic beliefs on the subreddit easily inspire revulsion and hatred on first sight. But we are perhaps as guilty of considering Red Pillers a complete entity as they are considering all women to be joined together in some evil mission. In reality, there are many complex stories behind the subreddit, with some ex-users even claiming that they were struggling to come to terms with the fact they were gay or trans. 

Every man on the Red Pill has a different story. However, each of them do have striking similarities. The main one is anger. Like the name of the subreddit itself, it is blazing red. We must understand the psychology behind the philosophy not to condone it, but to better tackle the poisonous spider slowly infecting those across the web. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.