Jonathan Haidt & Francis Collins | Technology, Mental Health, & the

Jonathan Haidt discusses the mental health epidemic in children with guest host Francis Collins, including the role of faith communities.


There’s a podcast? I guess I wasn’t paying attention, but I just discovered there’s a podcast.

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Yep, been around a while. Mostly interview format, but some really good ones.

I saw where Haidt also did a podcast with Russell Moore that should be out soon.

Wow, great topic! I was hoping you could bring Dr Haidt on the podcast-though I didn’t even think of this branch.

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Just finished listening to this myself. Makes me feel really proud of my private school’s present administration which made our school phone-free for all students (not just during class time - but from beginning of day to last bell - phones not to be on their person, but in the office!) And they made this rule against much hue and cry about it - but now, virtually everyone - including the student body - is so glad they did it!


Oh - and maybe you can help me with a particular phrase I heard repeated by Collins and Haidt in this interview: … knowing of your “priors”? At least that’s what I think I heard. At one point in their playful reparte, Collins joked to Haidt that probably many of the listeners might be praying for Haidt and “his priors”. Is that some new way to refer to somebody’s body of presuppositions … or their up-to-this-point-developed and entrenched ways of thinking? Or was I just mishearing something and got the word wrong entirely?

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Hm, that’s a great question! I think that people were praying for Hitchens, and there was some concern it was only for his salvation, and not for his healing from cancer–but the net was that he and Collins were friends and Collins really cared for his health. I’ll have to look back. It was a good one! My wife and I were talking about the phone use–I have heard of real cases where taking the phones away helped. I need to be a better example with my kids with that, too! I’m grateful for Haidt’s and Collins’ concerns.

I have to say, though, I no longer feel safe sending a 6 year old to the playground on their own.

I hear you. And any actual safety concerns aside - you for sure would not be socially safe among your peers for doing so. You would get police and/or social services called on you. So we are compelled to feel this way whether it is good or not. And context is everything here too. Growing up in a rural Kansas farming community - my parents knew all their neighbors well enough that they didn’t fret much over letting me play unsupervised (at ages even younger than 6, I think). At least it felt gloriously unsupervised - though I suppose mom may have been hovering near enough even if I didn’t know it. But the four acres we lived on afforded plenty of exploratory room where I could be out between the chicken house and the grainery having fun along with some neighborhood kid among the broken glass of one of the old cars up on blocks in the tall grass out there. And I know there was no adult within eyeshot or immediate earshot.

Well-said. Haidt focuses nearly all his concern on the effects these things are having on kids, and rightly so. But we so-called “digital immigrants” who turn out to be no-so-immune to device attachments ourselves should be wary of all the same sorts of stuff. Maybe we get a helpfully protective layer of psychological insulation from the fact that we’ve lived most of our lives already without these - but I can still be just as hooked into screen time as a substitute for real-life, physical social interaction as anybody else. And I’ve seen adult peers of mine go into full panic-attack terror when they thought they might have misplaced or lost their phone. And while I took somewhat judgemental note of that as it happened to somebody else - I am forced to reflect now, that I am much closer to being that same sort of person myself now.


Thanks for your discussion. I was a bit taken aback by Haidt’s bold faced admonishment to Collins that those governing should not “lie or suppress dissent.” While I understand some of John Stuart Mills’ rules, there were discussions as well about whether this was more equivalent to a war, with thousands dying/day, to suppress the most pernicious lies. I don’t think Collins lied; the presentation that the science of the time was the qualifier, is a good one. It’s a bit ironic that Haidt follows this up with strict restrictions on phones for children up to 16, and banning all smart phones in the school (which I agree with).
I like Haidt’s kind approach in general, but think that this was not typical for his understanding approach.

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I heard and noted that too. And I agree with you that I don’t think Collins was engaged in anything like what his malicious critics attributed to him. But I can totally see a wise and more-knowledgable official or teacher deliberately choosing to portray more confidence in some public-service bulletin situation than what the science will strictly own as they interact with their own peers.

One doesn’t indulge in balancing caveats when one is trying to exhort a friend to leave a building that you know good and well is on fire. That isn’t the time. And yet, … not being 100% forthcoming about every last caveat does come with a later cost of trust. And Collins freely acknowledged that - and that he made mistakes and would do some things differently if he could go back. Something I don’t think I’ve ever heard from any of his critics. Which may be how they can end up being so unwaveringly wrong about nearly everything while Collins - ironically - continues to be right about so much; precisely because he knows (and admits) how wrong he and any of us can be. I hope Haidt saw that - and I think he probably does.


I think this is a very good observation. Thank you

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Finally got around to listening- great conversation. I think Haidt’s comment about suppressing dissent was a bit over-reactive as I saw little suppression, and in fact, the loudest voices that sought to overshadow all others was from the conspiracy theorist crowd. Still, Collins showed grace in his statement that the level of uncertainty should have been expressed more often.

Haidt’s comments about how the suicide rates and mental health problems began in the 2010 -2019 range prior to Covid was important to note. I also enjoyed and agree with his comments about play and children. Having grown up on a farm like Collins, I can relate to growing up walking out the door and being told to be home before supper at a young age, although I did get into trouble when I took my BB gun and the dog and went hunting rabbits in the nearby field at age 5. Different world.

The use of “priors” was interesting, and seemed to be shorthand for prior experiences and suppositions. We are all defined by them to some extent.


I really enjoyed this podcast. IPhones and social media have become a severe problem as Mr. Haidt points out. I like his proposed solutions to a very complex problem. The podcast also goes into a couple other areas that are important in their own right. It was nice to hear from a social psychologist on the subject of reason and emotion. His comments on language also are very relevant. Unfortunately they didn’t go into great depth on the subjects since that was not the main theme of the podcast. It was nice at least to hear some discussion of the functioning of the bodily organ that controls us 24/7 - I am talking about the brain. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in the science of brain functions on this page. That may be footnote in history since AI is already more intelligent than most humans. In case anyone is interested in brain functioning as it relates to science and religion, I highly recommend The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. A long read but well worth it.

At one point I was reminded of when I was a lifeguard and swim instructor and there was a huge community uproar when eight kids drowned one summer. One loud faction was pushing to have all access to rivers and ponds and lakes shut down unless there were lifeguards present, which would have really just made things worse because kids will just find new places to swim. The head of the aquatics center where I worked got together with some teachers and put together a different proposal, that every year in grades one through six one month of physical education would be swimming lessons with water safety included, and also in grades eight and ten. The proposal got passed with the amendment that in grades ten through twelve lessons would be mandatory as well but the focus would be on safety and rescue skills.

It was tough at first because there weren’t enough of us qualified swim instructors, but within two years that had been fixed while something else happened: before that summer with eight drownings there had been about two or three every summer in different locations, but the first year after the program started there was just one and the next year there were none – but in that second year there were two close calls that were avoided because several high schools kids put their training to use and made rescues.

Meanwhile at a small community not far away when there was an accident from a not-too-wise high school student breaking his neck on the bottom of a swimming hole as the result of doing a handstand on the end of a rope swing and diving straight down. The reaction was to cut down all the trees around that swimming hole that were large enough to support a rope swing; this backfired in several ways, one being that kids just hunted down other swimming holes where they could put up rope swings – places adults didn’t know about, which meant no supervision at all, which resulted in injuries that otherwise would have happened where vehicles could carry the injured off to a hospital taking place where there was no vehicle access at all so injuries were made worse because kids had no skills in how to carry inured people without making things worse.

I give these to illustrate how just forbidding things usually doesn’t work, but giving kids the resources/skills to deal with an issue can.


Our property was right up against a state forest, so we roamed the woods a lot. The one rule we were given was to never get so far away we couldn’t hear cars going by on the highway. We got systematic about it because there were times when minutes would go by with no cars on the highway, which meant we could tell if we were too far or not: we established a line of marker trees from which we could hear cars and beyond which it got sketchy (we even put what today would be a geocache on the farthest tree from anyone’s house, with a little notebook for anyone who found it to sign their name(s) – boy were we surprised one day to find a set of names we didn’t recognize).
Of course the flip side of the rule was what our parents were after: if we could hear the cars on the highway, they could hear our yells from the woods; thus if we got ourselves into trouble we’d be able to yell for help.

No one in our neighborhood was allowed a BB gun until age 10 – and the older kids were expected to enforce that, and then to provide safety training when someone got one. We were also not to harm wildlife, but since there were plenty of other things to shoot at that wasn’t much of a problem.


This was a fascinating podcast. And more than a little disturbing.

I think we all have to recognize that we humans are not completely rational beings. We all have priors, based on our bodies and experiences (nature and nurture). I like the analogy of an elephant and rider, used in the podcast to describe our emotional and rational natures. Perhaps part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to help the rider to control the elephant according to God’s will. Maybe I will say more later when I collect my thoughts.

I can say something about the term “priors”. Yes, it is about prior assumptions. In the world of statistics, this refers to something called “Bayesian inference” (Bayes' theorem - Wikipedia). This is where you assign a probability to something based on limited knowledge (your prior probability, or “prior”), and you collect and analyze data and use mathematical techniques to update your probability (your posterior probability). It is often used in an iterative process to refine your probability estimates as you collect more data. Nate Silver (Nate Silver - Wikipedia), of political polling fame, has a nice exposition in his book “The Signal and the Noise”.

That being said, we can think of prior assumptions on an intuitive level. For example, on both an intuitive and a mathematical level, if a person has a 0% prior probability of the earth being ancient [edit], no amount of data will turn that into a posterior probability of anything other than 0% :slight_smile:.


Great explanation of priors and posteriors. I skipped some of the lectures on probabilities and statistics, and see now I probably should not have done so. In my defense, my priors indicated they were boring and unlikely to be of much value, but now I see my priors were near 0%, much like the young earther you described.

And that explains a lot of what we see today in science and faith.

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Thank you. I find the mathematical foundations of statistics interesting. Then there is applied statistics, about which there is a famous quote: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics” :slight_smile:. But scientists do need to know how to properly apply statistical methods to their research. And, we especially need medical doctors that don’t care so much about statistics, but can heal the sick with grace and empathy.

I once tried to get that across to some ivory-tower type Libertarians. It’s amazing sometimes how obtuse some people with IQs around 140 can be about their fellow humans.

I took a crash summer course in statistics one year, a full year’s sequence in twelve weeks. One thing I remember is just how hard it was for some students to do the above. They felt it was like pulling numbers out of thin air; in fact one student was a YEC type who was taking the course to be able to argue statistics, and he pounced on the fact that sometimes you just have to guess – and he treated it as though all statistics is just guessing.

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My stats prof wrote that along the top of the main blackboard in the big lecture hall the first day of the course. Once we’d covered a third of the course (one regular term’s worth) he started showing us one simple and common error each week – and anyone who could find examples of that error in a newspaper or magazine article got extra credit.
Amazingly to me some of those errors were made by science writers, people who should have known better.