"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.