Today many people are wrong about important facts, and they need to be corrected. But they need to be corrected in a manner that leads to acceptance, not resistance. This is a hard task we all need help with. Luckily, one show is providing a blueprint for success.
In every episode of the ever-more-popular show Adam Ruins Everything, the titular host, Adam Conover, appears seemingly out of thin air to correct a character who has a misconception on a social, health, tech, historical, business or other topic.
What it is important to glean from this show is that while Adam arrives to correct or “ruin,” what he is really arriving to do is help others learn and grow. And, in every episode, the corrected person grows.
That is an incredibly important point that it is worth repeating: the person who is corrected actually changes. While so many other shows in modern times demonize and make fun of those who are wrong, this show makes those who are wrong the positive protagonists of the story. Because on this show, what is presented as most wrong is the belief that one is always right. And, what is presented as most right is knowing how to recognize when you are wrong and move forward.
So, while each episode of Adam has educational facts about different topics, the show as a whole is a thesis statement on the process of learning. In this way, the show can teach us all how to better correct others, whether we are scientists, activists, or someone just having Thanksgiving dinner with the family.
Everyone’s wrong on the show—especially the host
In early 2018, Adam Ruins Everything devoted an entire episode to correcting itself. Nothing could have made the “everyone is wrong, and everyone needs to move forward” ethos of the show any clearer.
In this special episode, actress and writer Emily Axford corrects host Adam Conover in a boxing scene where every punch Emily lands on Adam’s face comes with a scientific citation on the screen.
One punch comes with the citation of an article written by my colleague and me here at Scientific American about “flight from facts.” Adam defends a claim by saying, “It just feels right,” and Emily explains, “When a fact contradict our beliefs, we often hide behind emotional arguments that cannot be disproven.”
The takeaway for correctors: if you are going to correct, also show others you also are willing to be corrected.
It goes straight to your biggest insecurities
Often, TV education does not teach us how to learn about emotional and threatening topics. For instance, learning about math tricks, filmmaking or just how awesome outer space is, does not produce strong identity or competence threats that strike at our insecurities. However, Adam Ruins Everything charges into insecurity territory and does so occasionally by modeling through the host.
Emily corrects Adam about his eyeglasses, which Adam describes as “50 percent of my personality,” questions his ability to be rational, and generally attacks his show, his greatest professional achievement so far in life. These corrections strike at Adam’s identity and competence, two items research has identified as strong motivators for resistance and denial.
Thus, as the host is asking people to face their most uncomfortable thoughts, he himself is constantly doing the same. He’s walking the walk. And, more importantly, he is struggling at the walk.
Adam’s character resists correction. He is not presented as an all-powerful logical person who can immediately recognize he is wrong and pivot. Instead, Adam is an emotional and flawed person who is imperfectly fighting his biases and weaknesses to get better.
By spending time in the “being corrected” zone, he models that people should feel proud to spend time there. In other words, Adam gets at that elusive idea of “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
The takeaway: embrace rather than shame the struggle of belief change.
Activists often fail to influence the public as a result of what researchers call “moral reproach.” This is the belief that the activist or scientist strongly and negatively morally judges a person in the public for their unhealthiness, their incorrect belief or past behaviors. Adam nearly completely removes this.
In general, this very activist and science-based show lacks the elitism that is often part of anything that celebrates science on TV. On this show, when the many scientists and experts do appear, they appear as willing players in comedic bits and do things such as falling out a window or riding on a giant eagle. These scientists show up to educate, clarify and play along, not to “talk down.”
The scientists and Adam play more of an Obi-Wan role than hero. Instead, the people being corrected are the protagonist. The villains of the show are not people who are wrong but evil people who deceive and hide truth— often greedy backroom-dealing corporations and politicians.
The take away: the greatest sins are resisting facts and hiding facts, so downplay the sin of simply not knowing, and show scientific elites as there to help and celebrate others who choose the path of learning.
Adam Ruins Everything is an imperfect show, but it knows that. This attitude makes it the anti-Trumpian and anti–virtue signaling era show. It loves facts, and it openly admits that that is often wrong. In doing so, it achieves it influential magic of reinforcing the seriousness of being right, but at the same time takes the debilitating sting out of being wrong.
Sometimes improvement can be achieved through an approach that “stings,” such as fiery protests and angry finger pointing at the public. However, often improvement requires people to voluntarily choose to engage with uncomfortable facts and choose the path of learning. Adam Ruins Everything is a show that imparts wisdom for this strategy of social change and scientific thinking.