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Latif Nasser, Harvard Ph.D., on the Rewards of Being Dumb


Latif Nasser’s new Netflix series, “Connected,” was only two days old when he and his wife headed to the hospital to have a baby. Add a pandemic to the mix and you have what Nasser calls “the weirdest time on top of the weirdest time.”

But Nasser is used to weird. In fact, he thrives in it.

“That’s sort of my compass,” he said last week from Los Angeles. “Surprise and delight and wonder. Those are the things that I gravitate toward.”

It’s the approach he has taken at “Radiolab,” the popular WNYC audio program for which he is the director of research, and now with “Connected,” a six-part documentary series that connects the dots on some of the biggest questions facing science and humanity today. That includes looking at the power of surveillance through the lens of migratory birds in Newark, Del.; the complex history of human excrement in Minde, Portugal; and a literal fishing expedition through the Sahara.

Nasser’s storytelling is known for helping “Radiolab” listeners make sense of the chaos of the world — and maybe even find a little comfort and joy in it. With a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard, Nasser sits at an uncommon vantage point to play guide to the world’s deepest curiosities.

“Connected” debuted on Aug. 2, and since then Nasser has been splitting his time between work and child care, which often involves checking Twitter in the middle of the night while pacing back and forth with his newborn.

Nasser took a moment from his garage home studio to hop on a Google Hangout, where he talked about his new project, what made him fall in love with science and the gravitational pull of true-crime shows. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You had two babies — an actual child and “Connected” — in the span of a week. How are you holding up?

The baby thinks day is night and night is day, and then we have a 3-year-old who is certain that day is day and night is night, so between the two of them, this house is abuzz 24 hours a day.

Is it strange for you, being a media guy, to be on the other side of this all of a sudden?

On the one hand, the swap from radio to TV is totally normal; I’m just doing the same job I’ve been doing, but there’s a camera involved. But I didn’t realize I was so dumb! I would watch a documentary and see a host walking through the desert alone. But now I’m the host in the desert and wait a second — there’s an enormous camera crew, cooks, security, fixers, producers and sound people.

It was such a trip because I should know this stuff! I feel like I just learned to use my eyes. It’s so weird.

Were you self-conscious going from behind the mic to in front of the camera?

I hate listening to myself. I hate watching myself. All I see is my crooked teeth and bad posture and ask, “Why are you nodding so much?” But I realized it’s so much more fun than mortifying for me to talk to people. I’m really excited and curious and want to learn about the amazing things they’re finding. That outpaces the mortification factor. As much as I hate seeing my own face in the interview, I love watching the other person’s face light up. Being able to transfer that to the viewer is something you can’t do in radio. That’s really priceless.

Did you have an “ah-ha” moment when you first fell in love with science?

When I was in high school, it felt like someone handed you a big fact textbook and said, “Here are a bunch of answers to questions that you didn’t even ask.” That’s how we teach science. I realized in college, and then more so in grad school, that oh no, no no, they’re not the answers. There are shockingly simple questions that we don’t know the answer to, and we’re still figuring it out.

I can vividly remember when I tried to be an archaeologist. I was like, “Oh my God, archaeology, this is going to be like ‘Indiana Jones’-type stuff.” They brought me in, sat me down and gave me a bucket of what felt to me like rocks — and a toothbrush to clean them. I hated it so much. But once you put it in a big picture, that we’re trying to answer this dynamic question about human history or fundamentals of our universe, and there are these dramatic stories of individuals trying to figure it out … once you click that in, tooth-brushing those rocks seems like the most dynamic, interesting thing in the whole world. But you need to have that other information.

We can’t be experts at everything, but you do have a Ph.D. in the history of science. Has that helped you shape your reporting?

Paradoxically, I think my fancy Harvard Ph.D. has given me the license to be dumb. I feel like I can walk into a room and I can just ask the actual question that is actually on my mind without fear of people thinking I’m an idiot. Because often I am! That’s why I love this job.

Playing dumb is often one of the best journalistic tools we have.

Oh, I feel that so hard! That’s my default crouch: I’m an idiot. Explain it to me. That’s how I jump into every interview.

People seem to have this attraction to curiosity over authority. What do you make of that?

I find this time we live in as a very cynical time and maybe for a good reason — people are out there lying to us all the time and spinning things and selling us stuff. People are quite hesitant to believe you or go on a story with you. I never pretend to be an authority. I would much rather be the dumbest guy in the room than the smartest because I think that’s more intellectually honest. There are honest to god authorities out there that we should be listening to, but on the other hand, let’s just be open minded and listen and think critically and have our own questions. To me, that’s a really important shift, and I think it’s a valuable one. Intellectual humility is a core value for me.

So in a way, you’re setting up a new way of learning about the world.

I hope so. I’m not alone, but I do think the trick is to lead with the question, not the answer.

People want to be awakened to a question they didn’t even realize they had. And then all of a sudden they’re totally possessed by that question and need to know the answer. There something deeply satisfying about that, going all the way back to the riddle of the Sphinx.

It’s about creating a little black hole inside peoples’ minds so it has this gravitational pull — it wants the information, it’s seeking out the information. This is a weird analogy, but it’s the same thing with cop shows. They always start with the murder. It’s a problem: I need to know how they solved this. The moral order of the universe is off: I need some resolution. The hard part is building the question in such a way that you need to know the answer.

Do you think about your children when you approach the world through that lens?

I haven’t been a dad for a long time, but when you boil it down, what’s the thing I want this kid to know? In a way, I hope this show is like a letter to pass on to them. We say we’re all connected, but it’s in a scary way now. Hopefully, this is in a beautiful and poetic way that will make kids’ jaws drop, and adults’ too, and serve as a way to remind us this is the way we’re fingerprinting on each others’ lives.

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