Yale Sterling Professor Nicholas Christakis Speaks with TNH

Professor Nicholas Christakis. (Photo by TNH staff, file).

NEW YORK – Recently appointed Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, one of the foremost global thinkers of our time and named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, spoke with The National Herald about his research, the spread of “fake news” in the social media era, the exodus of Greece’s scholars, his relations with Greece and the Greek-American community, and his plans for the future.

The interview follows:

TNH: What does it mean to you to have been recently awarded Yale’s highest faculty honor, the Sterling Professorship?

NC: There are only 40 such professors at Yale at any one time, and it is an honor. I was grateful to receive it. I think it reflects Yale’s commitment to the kind of interdisciplinary science that my laboratory does. I was very honored by this appointment.

TNH: The book that attributed to your widespread fame was Connected, about the power of social networks. Can your theory be applied to “fake news” in the media and social media of today?

NC: Yes, of course. We are conducting some experiments at my laboratory exactly on this issue. How truth and lies spread. There is the expression: “a lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes.” The thing about falsehoods is that the truth is boring, but lies are often delicious. So, the spreading velocity, the speed with which false information can spread online, or even in person, is much faster than the speed with which true information can spread. And so whether in social networks, face-to-face networks or online networks, there is a competition between true and false information. In my laboratory, we call this a “duelling contagion.” Two different concepts are spreading and they compete with each other and it is not often clear which one will win, but, unfortunately, lies definitely have the advantage. Beyond veracity, there is the intensity of a story, whether good or bad. In American journalism, there is the saying: “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that anything bloody is front-page news.

TNH: Please tell us about the extent to which the crisis in Greece has resulted in a “brain drain.” Has there been an increase in the number of Greek student-researchers applying to universities abroad?

NC: It is amazing to me. In the last two years I have seen an enormous optic of brilliant Greek students seeking opportunities at American universities, and also contacting me. We have quite a little community now of young Greeks at Yale. I have a colleague, an electrical engineer, who is the chair of the electrical engineer department. His name is Leandros Tasioulas, and between Leandros and me have quite a group of Greeks. I had a very bright Greek student that just went to Ireland, Giorgos Iosifidis. We get so many inquiries; we can’t possibly even answer them all. Obviously the (bad) Greek economy and the unemployment among young people is enormous, so it is not surprising. Even 15 years ago, many, many young, bright Greeks were returning to Greece, but now I think the wave has reversed. What is happening in Greece is unbelievable to me now. Today’s Greece has nothing in common with what it was 10 years ago. I am optimistic about Greece, but it needs some progress to get there.

TNH: Please tell us about the free speech advocacy with which you are involved.

NC: At the core of any modern democracy is a tradition of free and open debate. If we are going to learn the truth and if we are going to act wisely on the truth, we have to be able to talk freely and openly. This commitment, especially in Europe after the Enlightenment, to free expression and speech is crucial to the functioning of any democracy and certainly crucial to any university seeking to pursue knowledge. In Greek universities as in American universities, unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are “taboo” to say. I don’t think that’s very helpful, I don’t think that is intellectually helpful and I also don’t think that’s it is morally helpful. I do not think righteousness is advanced by prohibiting conversation. If our ideas are strong and correct, they should be able to win the battle of ideas. We should not need to win by silencing our opponents. We should be able to win by persuading them.

TNH: Are you referring to the 2015 incident at Yale with some students, regarding Halloween costumes?

NC: That’s old news. I would rather be known for my science.

TNH: Please discuss your reaction to Time and Foreign Policy magazines included you on its list of top global thinkers. Did that give you a big sense of responsibility?

NC: It was not so much responsibility as surprise. I joked that I wish I could be influential over my children’s behavior.

TNH: What is your connection to Greece?

NC: Both of my parents are Greek. My Greek used to be fluent. Now that I am 56, I have a problem. I don’t visit Greece that often in order to practice my skills. I want to visit Greece once every two years. I have relatives there. I have cousins, and, of course, my father who lives on Crete and is now 80 years old. He returned there permanently from the United States.

TNH: What is your connection to the Greek community?

NC: I have many Greek friends, but no formal relationships with the Greek community. My Greek ethnicity is important to me, but it is not central to the way I organize my life. My wife is American; I feel 80-20 American.

TNH: You recently participated in the 7th Conference of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) on Philanthropy. What are your impressions from both the conference and the Foundation?

NC: Fantastic! It made a great impression on me! Not only the building and the conference, but also the speeches and the guests. It was a commendable effort.

TNH: What are your plans for the future?

NC: My lab is involved in many things. We have an artificial intelligence unit, we have a unit that is doing work on the biology of human social networks, the biology of interaction, why people fall in love, why people like each other, and how our genes play a role in that. About the bacteria inside of us. We also have projects in public health. We work in countries around the world: in Honduras, India, Uganda, doing large field trials supported by the Gates Foundation, trying to invent and test ways to change public health behavior in very large scales. My new book is coming out in March and it will be translated into Greek. Katopetro is the publisher. The title is Blueprint the Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. I will visit Greece again in July or August next year as part of a series of lectures I will give concerning that publication.