What You Think You Know Is Wrong

Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything on engagement rings, the TSA, and bathing every day


Adam Conover
Matthias Clamer

"I want to do stories that are about the bits of cultural furniture that are sitting there that we're like, 'Oh, yeah, that's been there for years! What could possibly be weird about it?'" says Adam Conover, host of Adam Ruins Everything. "And then we're going to lift that piece of furniture and look at all the bugs scurry away."

Adam Ruins Everything started as a Web series for the video site College Humor. As the eponymous host of the show, Conover "ruins" widely held beliefs that just so happen to be wrong. His targets have ranged from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to forensic science to car dealerships. One typical episode tackled the topic of engagement rings, arguing that the supposed cultural tradition of spending two months' salary on a diamond was actually a marketing ploy started by the DeBeers corporation during the Great Depression. The cable network TruTV picked up the series in September 2015.

In December, Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Conover to discuss his approach to debunking and why false cultural beliefs persist in the age of nearly unlimited access to information. For video of the interview, go to reason.com.

reason: One of the early episodes of Adam Ruins Everything looks at the TSA. Could you ruin the TSA a little bit for us right now?

Adam Conover: A lot of people already suspect this, but the TSA has never stopped a terrorist attack-or at least we don't know that they've ever stopped a terrorist attack, because they've never claimed to have stopped a terrorist attack. When the FBI or the CIA stop one, they hold a big press conference. But the only instances we know of are where the TSA let someone through. The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber—those guys got through security.

The reason for that is that the TSA's security is totally static. All they do is screen items for discrete things and then scan your body in this specific way. It's very easy for terrorists to figure, "All right, what aren't they scanning for right now?" and go around it.

On top of which, if a terrorist really wanted to hurt people—to kill people and scare everybody—he's just going to go where the least security is. There's a lot of security at airports. There's not a ton of security on trains, on subways, on buses, on the highway system, in tunnels, etc. Creating a blockade in this one specific spot doesn't really do much to keep us safer.

What the TSA actually does is security theater, a concept we learned about from the writer Bruce Schneier. Security theater is the idea of putting on a big show of security in order to make people feel safe. That's why the TSA screens everything and takes your stuff away. The TSA has these items that are not actually dangerous but you'll be stopped if you take them through—stuff that is not a weapon but kind of looks like a weapon. They post on their Instagram feed the stuff they confiscate. They posted a plaque with a fake grenade on it that said, "In case of complaint, pull pin." It's a novelty thing! It's made of wood! No one could ever mistake it for a grenade, but the TSA says novelty grenades are not permitted. By taking things away they give the impression of doing something, but they don't actually do anything.

reason: The TSA is something that everyone kind of feels discomfort with. But you also take on cherished beliefs. Have you ever taken on a topic that you ruined for yourself, something that you thought, "I really wish this were true"?

Conover: For the most part, the show is stuff that I think already. But there's a few topics in our sex episode that I genuinely didn't know at all that the writers brought to me. I won't spoil what they are, but there're two very commonly held beliefs about the human body that I wasn't aware that I was wrong about. It was a very wonderful sensation to feel that "holy crap" myself, this feeling we're trying to give the audience.

Beyond that, a lot of the topics on the show are things that we feel a cultural need to do even though they're pointless. And even after you learn the truth about them, it's very difficult to stop doing them. In our hygiene episode, we talk about why you don't really need to shower every day. There's no medical reason. A dermatologist will say if you shower every day you can over-dry your skin. Really, you just need to wash your armpits and crotch, and doing it a couple of days a week is fine. But soap companies advertised and sort of instilled this cultural habit of "you must shower every day and if you don't, you're gross." I still shower every day, despite knowing that, because I feel disgusting if I don't.

Part of the thesis of the show is that you can't escape culture. You can learn about it. You can criticize it. You can try to move it slowly. But at the end of the day, you can't opt out of the culture that you're in.

reason: We're in an age where everything is a Google search away. All the information is out there, yet these misconceptions that you're taking down persist. Why is that?

Conover: Information's right at our fingertips, but so is what you want to believe. It's the classic thing of someone Googling "autism vaccines"—they'll find what they're looking for, depending on what they think. You'll find lots of people who are just bolstering what they already think, bolstering their cultural attitude.

People will watch our show and go Google "first engagement ring," and they'll say, "Wait a second, the first engagement ring was given by a Bavarian prince in 1524." Now, that little bit of story is part of the DeBeers advertising campaign. That was a thing that they put in newspapers and magazines and stuff to make it seem like an older tradition. It's not false that that happened, but that was just one example of a guy who gave a ring one time. DeBeers says that was the beginning of the trend. It wasn't.

So people will send that to me and be like, "See, look, it is an older tradition." Unless you have a habit of undermining your own beliefs and of being curious about these things-which is a habit that I feel thankful my education and my upbringing instilled in me—you won't look into those things more deeply. Part of the mission of the show is to help instill that habit in people.

reason: Your background gave you a skeptical mind-set?

Conover: I was brought up in an academic family. I'm the only member of the family without a Ph.D. My dad's a marine biologist, my mom's a botanist, my sister's a nuclear physicist, and I'm here doing this. As far as they're concerned, when I got a bachelor's degree, I dropped out.

I went to Bard College, which was a really interesting synthesis of a hippie school and a serious academic institution. It was really the perfect spot for me. I studied philosophy there, and the project of philosophy is, at root, this constant undermining of what you think you know. Philosophy is always asking, "How do I know this?" I think every person who does it reaches what they believe to be the bedrock roots, but they still have that question of, "Can I keep undermining it?"

I wanted to go to grad school, and no one was like, "You should." [laughs] They were like, "Yeahhhh, maybe." So I got the hint. I started doing comedy instead.

Comedy has a very similar project of questioning and doing. Both deal with taking ideas and pulling them apart and holding them up and looking at them, just in different ways. Comedy is the art-form version of that. So that's what I did for about 10 years, and then I finally sort of figured out how to synthesize the two.

reason: How did you synthesize them?

Conover: I'd been reading about topics like the ones we talk about on the show, just in my spare time. The engagement rings topic was just one that I'd read in a magazine. I think there was a Slate article, and it all goes back to this famous article written in The Atlantic by Edward James Epstein in the '80s. Ever since, different writers will exhume it and go, "Did you know this?" It just stuck with me. It's like if you found out that the Fourth of July was invented by Macy's. You'd be like, "What? This is a bedrock cultural American tradition."

So I just started doing it at stand-up shows, telling that story about DeBeers, and it would get a laugh. It sort of became the centerpiece of my act. But I noticed that on top of people laughing, the audience would kind of like lean forward a little bit. They'd be like, "Wait, wait, really?" And then they'd come to my next show and go, "Oh, I looked, that's true. That's crazy." They would have a reaction that was more than just a laugh.

I was also doing sketch comedy. I was in a sketch group called Old English. So I was like, "All right, that's one of my best bits. Let me write that as a video." And then we were off to the races.

reason: When you watch the show, you see these little citations pop up for every fact that you're putting there.

Conover: If you watch John Oliver's show, they use the techniques of journalism. When they're showing that something happened, they'll take a piece of the New York Times article and then they'll do a rise pull of the text with the date on the bottom, and that's how you know that this is being pulled from the real world.

Now, we're kind of doing the same thing, but on our show, we could be wrong about these things. We don't have a huge research staff. We do have one, but they're not enormous. We're a bunch of comedy writers and journalists putting together what the truth is to the best of our knowledge. Us showing our sources is saying: Here's the work that we did. If you have better work, please show it to us. If one of our sources is bad, here's how you know. Here is the material you can use yourself to question our show, because this is the work that we did. If we quote from this World Health Organization study, you can say, "Hey, actually this study had a bad sample size." I hope that people do that. If we get any that are credible, I would like to do a corrections episode.

reason: Adam ruins Adam Ruins Everything.

Conover: Exactly.

reason: The underlying mission of the show is to promote skepticism, free inquiry, and questioning your own beliefs. Do you feel you're accomplishing that? Which direction do you think the culture is heading?

Conover: To me, it's not so much the culture changing. It's that people always wanted this stuff. So much of the media is a little patronizing to people and assumes that they're not curious.

The premise of the show is that people are interested in these topics and that—it's dumb, but it's that learning is fun. The reason our original videos did well on the Web is because people like to learn a fact and then they wanted to share it with other people. I think the media is slowly starting to figure out that that's what people want.

The other cultural change is that comedy has been starting to be taken much more seriously in recent years. The Daily Show was really a turning point, where people started to realize that comedy can have a true cultural impact and can have something to say that is serious.

John Oliver's show came out as we were in production on this show. And I love that show so much. It really showed that there is an audience for what we were about to do.

reason: I also see a comparison to shows like Penn & Teller's Bullshit! or MythBusters. Are there any other shows besides John Oliver that had an influence on how you're approaching this and bringing it to television?

Conover: It was pointed out to me recently that there was a golden age of children's programming in the early '90s because the government said that television stations had to have a certain amount of educational content. I can't remember where I read this, but it was really fascinating. Because of that, the stations were incentivized to create all-science commercial half-hour shows. Bill Nye, the Science Guy and Beakman's World were two big ones, and there were a couple of others, that were straight-up science educational shows on Saturday morning with commercials running, which when you think about it is very rare.

Our show is Beakman's World or Bill Nye, the Science Guy for adults, in a way. It's very visual, and we have these comedy characters slide in and do their demo of whatever the topic is.

I think MythBusters is very cool, but it's a totally different angle. We don't do demos. We do one thing in the hygiene episode where we show that flushable wipes don't break down in a stand mixer. That's about it. And our topic is totally different.

And I loved Penn & Teller's Bullshit! when I was in college. I did have an experience, though, with it, where they did an episode on secondhand smoke in their first season. I was a smoker at the time, and Michael Bloomberg's smoking ban was going on in New York. I watched that episode, and I told my friends, "Yeah, look, second-hand smoke doesn't cause cancer. Smoking does, second-hand smoke doesn't. It's all a phantasm."

I felt very betrayed by the show in a real way, because I had this show's back and I went and told people that this was true, and it wasn't. I don't know if it was they didn't do their homework or what. I wouldn't even mention it if they hadn't themselves retracted it, but when we did this show, I was like, I don't want to give anybody that feeling. I want to make sure that we don't fall into that pitfall, which is very, very easy to do.

It's very easy to make the facts of the show fit the narrative that you have in your head. We've had a couple of topics where we were like, "OK, there was this cultural thing and then probably some corporation had a big advertising campaign and that's why we all do it today, right?" And there were a couple of times where it even looked like we were going to find that, like someone somewhere was pushing that narrative, and then we looked into it and it wasn't true.

If we do the show for 10 seasons, we will get one thing wrong, just by the probability of numbers. That's why we try to have an open system where you can question the show and look at the citations so that we can get out in front of that and take responsibility for it.

It's like the project of science in general. People who are anti-science will go, "Ah, you were wrong about that. See, science is wrong." And then science should come back and say, "The fact that we get things wrong and that we find out that we were wrong, that's part of the scientific project. That's how science makes progress. That's part of the system. The bug is a feature." I'm hopeful that our show will work the same way.

reason: In the engagement ring episode, you make the case that this whole phenomenon of spending two months' salary on an engagement ring was started by the DeBeers Corporation. It was a marketing campaign, and now we take it as this cultural given.

But is that a problem? Culture ultimately always starts with something. If it starts with a corporation, is that a bad thing?

Conover: I don't necessarily pass moral judgment. I think it's a little bit deceptive, and I think you're justified in saying, "Hey guys, that's a bit of a dick move."

That's a little bit of the angle of the show. In our hygiene episode, we talk about Listerine and the history of hygiene companies exploiting people's fears and insecurities and making them feel bad about themselves through advertising. Or how "flushable wipes" are not flushable. They're damaging our sewers. They're sold under the false pretenses that they are flushable, and the company's advertising campaign is all based on, "Hey, you're not really clean unless you use those. You're a dirty person and unless you use our product, you have a dirty butt." People have a deep-rooted fear of their butt being dirty. People have real issues with poop.

That's straight-up nefarious, in my opinion. I think that's mean to people to do that to them. I think that's bad marketing and I don't approve of it, and I feel on pretty firm ground saying that.

With DeBeers, you could make the argument that it's a large portion of people's salaries. Two months' salary. They were doing this during the Depression, so that's a lot to ask of people. That is DeBeers capturing a large portion of people's incomes and putting it in their coffers for a product that doesn't frankly provide much value.

Diamonds have a huge mark-up. They don't have a resale value because there is no secondary market for diamonds, because DeBeers controls the market. They lose something like 70 percent of their value as soon as you buy them new. There's no resale market. No one's going to buy your used diamond. I think you can make the argument that that's a little bit nefarious as well.

reason: That example caught on and spread so quickly and so easily that it almost seems as if the culture was hungry for this symbolic sacrifice that people could make. Is that possible?

Conover: That's definitely possible. I think, though, that a corporation—a company like DeBeers—is a social entity that exists to get money for itself. That's the purpose of it. That's what it'll do. It is going to try to influence people whatever way they can. I think that what we need more of in society is corrective institutions that try to influence people in the opposite direction. I hope that's what the show is.

NEXT: Jeb Bush Is Dropping Out of the GOP Race. Here's Why I'll Miss His Campaign.

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