Year: <span>2021</span>

The 9 Books I Finished in March

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  1. Secular Cycles by: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov
  2. Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past by: J. Storrs Hall
  3. A Short Stay in Hell by: Steven L. Peck
  4. Cibola Burns by: James S. A. Corey
  5. Nemesis Games by: James S. A. Corey
  6. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1 by: Peter Adamson
  7. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games by: Jon Peterson
  8. Earth Abides by: George R. Stewart
  9. The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel by: Eliyah Goldratt

I keep a daily journal, as many writers do. In addition to that habit, every day I am also in the habit of re-reading the entries from a year ago, and five years ago, etc. Which means I spent this month re-reading my journal entries from March of 2020, when everything was shutting down.

As always the exercise was both thought-provoking and cautionary. Reading the March 2020 entries was an experience rich in dramatic irony. But really that’s the case when I read nearly any past journal entry. I know what’s going to happen, the person writing the entry doesn’t. The person writing is frequently wrong. I am that person. It gives one a certain humility. 

There were lots of things I didn’t suspect a year ago. I didn’t imagine that the pandemic and wearing masks would become so politicized. I should have. I didn’t think we’d have vaccines so quickly, that mistake was probably more forgivable.

In other areas I was more prescient. I could already sense in my gut by the end of last March that the Rhine River Cruise my wife and I had booked for July (in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary) was going to get cancelled. We have rebooked it for June of this year, and my gut is once again telling me (as I look at the climbing numbers in Europe) that it’s not going to happen. On the other hand my head is telling me that there’s no way Europe is going to miss another tourist season. Let’s hope my head is right.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Secular Cycles 

By: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov

350 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The repeated historical cycles of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression experienced by all nations, with two examples each from England, France, Rome and Russia.

Who should read this book?

I’ve wanted to dive into Turchin for a while, and I couldn’t get any clear sense on where to start. Of all his books I already owned this one, so eventually I decided to start with it. So far I think that may have been a mistake. Not that it’s a bad book, I just get the sense that it’s not a good starting point. But I’ll know more once I read some of his other books. Which I intend to do. All of which is to say at the moment I’m not sure who should read this book.

General Thoughts

The idea of historical cycles has been around for a long time. I’m no expert on this particular area (nor really any particular area) but as far back as the Greeks there was the idea of Kyklos, which I think just literally means cycle. Though they seemed to mostly use this term to describe the transition between the various systems of government, not quite using it so expansively as to describe the broad sweep of societal boom and bust we’re interested in.

In more modern times, my sense is that Oswald Spengler is the person most associated with applying the idea of cycles to Europe and the West. Asserting not merely that the West was caught in the same historical cycles which affected all civilizations, but that we were also nearing the end of that cycle. That our best days were behind us. The idea of cycles was also a big part of Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12 volume, A Study of History, which was enormously popular in the 40’s and 50s. But after this surge of popularity, Toynbee’s books and the idea of cycles fell out of favor, particularly once the Cold War ended. At least that’s how it appears to me.

As you might imagine, with the increasing unrest we’ve been seeing since at least 2016 interest in the subject of cycles has been rekindled. And Turchin is clearly at the head of the pack here, particularly since he started talking about it long before 2016. He’s been predicting worldwide civil unrest during the 2020’s since at least 2010. Which may not seem like much, but for a prediction that’s pretty good.

This book is not about the current day, or even the United States, it’s about him laying out, in meticulous detail, the historical case for cycles. This is not precisely what I was looking for and it’s probably not what you’re looking for either, but building out the foundation of his theory might be a good place to start. But as I already said in the previous section the jury’s out on that for now. 

The key problem with any theory like Turchin’s which attempts to predict the future by drawing on what happened in the past — deriving trends or cycles or general rules — is that it’s very difficult to make it even approach science. You have no control group to compare against. There’s no way to account for the effects of new technology. And your sample size is tiny. Turchin’s sample size is eight, or four if you only count the nations, and it was the work of hundreds of people and decades of research to compile the information necessary for even this small sample. So you’re faced with a situation where making a case is fantastically difficult and the case you can make isn’t very scientific even if you do go to the effort. 

Within the context of these limitations, I don’t think it’s possible to do a better job of making a case than Turchin has. He has pulled in data from several different angles. It’s full of charts, statistics and comparisons. He’s applied his theory successfully to multiple nations, in multiple different settings and historical periods. So, If you’re willing to at least entertain the idea that it’s possible to predict the future by looking at the past, then Turchin has done everything that might be expected towards making such a prediction. I understand he still may be wrong, that he has “proved” nothing, but it’s hard to imagine a more serious attempt than Turchin’s.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, making this case, and assembling all of the data proves to be a very dry read. Which is another reason why I’m not sure who to recommend it to. It probably serves better as a work of reference than something you just sit down and read from cover to cover.

Eschatological Implications

At a high level the eschatological implications of Turchin’s theory of cycles should be reasonably obvious. Unfortunately this book doesn’t give much guidance on where we are at in our own cycle and how that might play out. Though even without being familiar with anything else he’s said this book would lead you to the conclusion that we’re on the downhill side of the cycle and more chaos should be expected. 

One draws this conclusion from the many similarities our situation shares with the situations Turchin documents. A few are worth discussing briefly.

First, his analysis and theory owe a lot to Malthusian thinking. Good times lead to an increase in population which eventually outstrips the carrying capacity of the land leading to a stagnant and eventually collapsing population. We don’t seem to be having any problems with food, at least not yet, but we are suffering from a collapsing population. Is this a new thing or is food only the most visible example of “carrying capacity”? Have we reached other less obvious limits to our capacities?

A more obvious commonality is Turchin’s idea of “elite overproduction”. Most people who study civil unrest agree that generally the lower classes don’t spontaneously organize and revolt on their own, they have to be harnessed to that end by disaffected elites who have been excluded from wielding power more directly. Diving into how elite overproduction is playing out currently is beyond the scope of this review, but there are few two word phrases that are more evocative of our current condition. 

Finally, plagues play a major role in most of his examples of civilizational crisis, but what’s strange is they aren’t the instigating factor. Generally the crisis and decline has already begun and then a plague comes along. Turchin doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why that might be. (Rural overpopulation leads to increasing urbanization, leads to ghettoization, leads to poor sanitation, leads to disease, maybe?) But reading this in light of the recent pandemic was frankly a little bit eerie.

It’s interesting to draw such parallels, but not particularly useful. What we really want is to be able to translate Turchin’s theory into a course of action for our country or our politicians or even just ourselves. Which is not to say I have no ideas, I actually have lots of advice on this subject, I just don’t think reading Turchin’s book has added much to my store of practical wisdom on this topic. It’s added a huge amount of data, and I think the idea of elite overproduction is worth a deeper dive, but beyond that it doesn’t offer much solace for someone observing the end times.


Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past 

By: J. Storrs Hall

627 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very detailed examination of why we don’t have flying cars, which ends up pulling in all of the technology we might have had but don’t. Beyond the subject of flying cars this book also includes in depth discussions of nanotechnology, nuclear energy and even cold fusion. 

Who should read this book?

In the last post before this one I talked about the metaphorical knobs of society. If you want someone to paint a picture of what it would look like if the knob of “technological progress” was turned up to 11, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

I should state up front that while I try to limit discussion of individual books to my review posts that this book deserves and is going to get it’s own post, which will be the next one after this one. Why is that? Because this book has enormous bearing on the discussion of technocracies, and the pandemic, and just about everything else I’ve been talking about. As such it deserves a deeper discussion than what I have room for here. 

That discussion will be both theoretical and hypothetical, so I’m going to use this space to make sure I cover the practical side of the book. In particular Hall leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the issue of flying cars, going so far as to get his pilot’s license so that he has first hand experience on the difficulties of flying. He also goes into detail about engineering challenges, the disadvantages of helicopters, the unfulfilled promise of the autogyro, and every attempt, no matter how small, at making a commercial flying car.

Obviously one of the big things people think of when they consider the flying car are the numerous times futurists and science fiction authors confidently predicted their imminent arrival, and how wrong all of these predictions were. Less discussed is why these predictions were wrong. Most of the time when I see them offered up, the assumption is just that prediction is hard and the people making these predictions were not as far-sighted as they thought. Storrs went into things with basically this attitude, but ended up concluding that we really should have had flying cars and on the timeline people predicted, but there are four reasons why we don’t:

  1. Flying is harder than driving.
  2. The transition from driving to flying (i.e. taking off and landing) is a difficult technical problem. Airplanes require lots of room, and don’t like flying low and slow. Helicopters are exceptionally difficult to fly and don’t go very fast once they are flying and autogyros never received widespread support.
  3. Flying is expensive, especially for what you get. The amount of additional travel one gets for each additional dollar spent goes down as costs rise. For example helicopters cost easily 10x what a car costs, but only travel at best 3x as fast.
  4. But sitting behind all of the previous points there is the legal and regulatory landscape. Which according to Hall was “insanely overdone”.

In other words the reason those predictions were wrong is only a tiny bit reasons 1-3, and mostly reason 4. And 1-3 would be straightforward to fix, without 4 looming over everything, disincentivizing investment and innovation. Thus, the biggest blindspot of futurists, was the evolution of the regulatory state, and the product liability revolution.

Eschatological Implications

I’ll use my next post to really get into the eschatological implications of this book, including a discussion of the regulatory state, but I thought it was important to point out that unlike most of the books I review in this section, this book puts forth a positive eschatology. It’s all about the wonderful things we can do with technology, and presumably will do with technology once we can get past our current period of stagnation.

This book paints a picture of Jetson like flying cars powered by small nuclear reactors, super abundant food grown with nearly unlimited energy in massive greenhouses, incredibly precise nanotechnology, and trivial control of global warming and the weather. In that last item you may recognize another link to my last post, and hints at interventions which scare a lot of people. Of course as Hall will point out we are already messing with global warming, we’re just doing it in a very unconstructive and damaging fashion.

My overall reception of this book reminds me of a scene from the New Testament. In the book of Acts, chapter 26, Paul is brought before King Agrippa and asked to defend Christianity. Agrippa is obviously hostile towards the faith, but Paul’s defense of it is so stirring that by the end Agrippa says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” As you may have noticed from the last few posts, I’m somewhat hostile to technocracy, but having read Hall’s defense, I’m inclined to say the same thing, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a technocrat.” 

Now to be fair to me, what Hall is describing bears very little resemblance to what we’re actually doing, and we’ll spend the next post disentangling that.


II- Capsule Reviews

A Short Stay in Hell 

By: Steven L. Peck

108 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Mormon, who upon dying, discovers that Zoroastrianism was the true religion. As penance for not holding the correct beliefs during his life he must spend the afterlife in a library with all possible books, searching for his life story.

Who should read this book?

There is a genre of science fiction novellas, which prioritize M. Night Shyamalan-esque plots over character development. Another apt comparison for such novellas might be the Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone.  If you’re familiar with novellas of this style or if this otherwise sounds appealing this book is just the thing to scratch that itch.

General Thoughts

One might almost think that I would put this in the religious reviews section given the subject matter. (And also I have nothing for that section this month.) Though, if it does have a religious message it seems like it would be ‘You better hope the Zoroastrians aren’t right!” Beyond that I liked what Peck did with his initial premise, in particular the book has an unflinching quality which I appreciated.

The book is based on the short story The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges which imagines a library containing all possible books. These have been divided into 410 page chunks. And by all possible books he means not that it collects books that have actually been written but that it contains all possible characters combined in all the possible ways they could be combined over the length of 410 pages. 

As is often the case with ideas like this, someone actually implemented it. If we go there and take an example book at random the first 20 characters are:

m.eygvh rbzefwss,ctj

This implementation only includes lowercase letters, periods, commas and spaces, but beyond that, somewhere in its vast virtual bowels there is any book which has ever been written and any book you could imagine being written. Soren Johansson, the main character of the book is tasked with finding the book that tells the story of his life, I don’t want to give anything away, but as you can imagine that is an essentially impossible task. And it’s this impossibility which makes the book strangely compelling.


Cibola Burns (The Expanse #4)

By: James S. A. Corey

624 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the eternal story of poor squatters vs. an avaricious corporation. Only in this telling the squatters and the corporation are fighting over a planet which was once inhabited by a super advanced alien civilization, which adds all kinds of interesting chaos to the equation.

Who should read this book?

I have quite enjoyed the Expanse series. If you’re considering starting it I would. If you’re considering whether to continue past book 3, I would also do that. 

General Thoughts

This book somewhat reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Aurora which I brought up in a previous post, specifically the dangers of an alien biosphere, a theme which features prominently in both books. These dangers certainly add an exciting layer to an inflammatory human conflict that is already pretty exciting.

As with all of The Expanse books, this book also engages in the completely ridiculous conceit of having a small group of people end up in the center of all of the action. And the equally ridiculous conceit of that action always being of the super-exciting, nail biting, cinematic sort. The kind you’re lucky to survive once, but these guys have survived similar circumstances over and over and over again.

But if you can ignore how implausible that all is (and I think you should) they’re great books.


Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

By: James S. A. Corey

576 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four individual stories, one for each of the four main characters, which come together in spectacular fashion.

Who should read this book?

The same people who fit my recommendation for the last book.

General Thoughts

I mentioned the extreme implausibility of these books in my previous review, and it was during this book that I switched from treating them as an attempt to describe the future to viewing them as the log of a role-playing campaign. Unlike most campaigns this one isn’t set in a world of tolkien-esque fantasy, but in the near future, with the crew of the Rocinante obviously being the “player characters” or “party” as they say. You would think that splitting them up would be proof that this is not what’s happening (“Don’t Split the Party” as they say) but in actuality the opposite happened. It could not have been more clear that this book was the retelling of the four side quests created by the Gamemaster to flesh out the character’s back story, a common trope in role-playing games.

Yes I know that this comparison won’t make sense to some of you, but for those for whom it does make sense I think it’s the clearest way of describing the book. Though before I move on two other quick notes.

First other than the implausibility of all the characters being intimately involved in every exciting thing that’s ever happened, the series itself is pretty hard sci-fi. In fact it kind of has an old-school Heinlein vibe to it, particularly since AI and cybernetic enhancements are basically MIA in The Expanse.

Second, it’s tough to talk about this series without referencing the TV show. I watched the first season, and I might, some day, watch the rest. I found all of the actors to be spot on, with the exception of the guy they got to play James Holden, the main, main character. I’m sure he’s a fine person, but he’s not a great actor, IMHO. 


Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1

By: Peter Adamson

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Western philosophy from the very beginning (there are 12 chapters on the pre-socratics) up through Aristotle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a general overview of ancient greek philosophy, this provides that in an easily digestible form. I’m not sure if it’s worth reading on it’s own, and I’m about to discover if it’s useful for providing the background one needs before reading the actual works of those ancient greek philosophers. 

General Thoughts

This book went down easy. In fact I got the feeling that it went down too easy, and I’m not sure why. Possibly I have that feeling because I’ve been conditioned to expect that reading philosophy is supposed to be hard and if it’s not hard then you’re not doing it right. Possibly it’s because in covering such a large number of people and ideas Adamson doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and in consequence, the book is superficial. 

I’m expecting to be able to answer this question once I start actually reading Plato. He is up next in my “great books of the western world project”. If this book makes Plato easier to understand and particularly if it helps place him in context, then it will have been a success. I’ll make sure to report back.


Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games

By: Jon Peterson

698 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An encyclopedic history of tabletop strategy games as they evolved towards Dungeons and Dragons. 

Who should read this book?

The feeling I had while reading this is the same feeling I imagine a rabbi might have while reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. Most other people reading this book will probably have a very different feeling, that of anyone other than a Rabbi reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. 

General Thoughts

Earlier in this post I said that I’m not really an expert in any particular area. Well Dungeons and Dragons may be the exception to that statement. I’ve been playing it almost continuously since 1980. In fact in addition to the books I read in March I also attended a virtual D&D convention (GaryCon). Which was quite a bit of fun, though a pale imitation of attending in person. 

As I alluded to, this book is something of the Torah for role-playing nerds, and any details I could go into would be of limited interest to anyone outside of that group. In spite of that I will go into one part of the early history of D&D because I think I can extract a larger lesson from it.

D&D was initially created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Later Arneson was fired, written out of things and denied royalties. These actions have always been held against Gygax, and while opinions vary on how big of a role Arneson did play, the consensus seems to be that Gygax was selfish and greedy. Having read this book I’m much more on Gygax’s side. Yes, it’s possible it could have been handled better, but the key fact in my opinion is this. TSR, the company producing D&D, was a startup. This makes Arneson basically a co-founder with Gygax, and while Gygax was busting his ass putting out book after book, and tens of thousands of words beyond that in the form of magazine articles and correspondence, Arneson produced basically nothing

I know people think ideas are worth something, and they are, but not nearly as much as people think. But particularly when it comes to starting a business hard work is vastly more important. If you aren’t willing or able to do the work, then you don’t deserve the money. And to be clear Arneson sued and did get the money. So, after hearing all the details, from my perspective Arneson got more than he deserved out of things rather than less. 


Earth Abides

By: George R. Stewart

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The handful of people who survive a global pandemic, and what life is like in the ruins of civilization.

Who should read this book?

This book was published in 1949, before science fiction had really congealed, and it’s a great early example of the form. It’s particularly interesting in light of recent events. If you enjoy either disaster stories or old sci-fi, you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this came out before some of the tropes of science fiction had congealed and as such it’s a different take on how people would react to the apocalypse and the story also takes place over a longer period of time. These differences took a little bit of getting used to, but eventually I really came to appreciate them.

Also while it’s clear that there are lots of things he got wrong — for example he made the same mistake nearly everyone does, gas does not remain good for years — he mentioned a lot of things which I haven’t seen anywhere else, but which seem likely to happen in some form. Most of these involve a rebalancing of animal species after the disappearance of humans, with the additional factor of suddenly abundant food, i.e. human corpses, though Stewart mostly avoids the more morbid facts of the apocalypse. 

All of which is to say that if you want to know what the apocalypse will really look like I think Earth Abides has a lot to contribute. And it’s a great story beyond that.


The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel

By: Eliyah Goldratt

143 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a graphic novelization of The Goal, a business book originally published in 1984. Both are about the theory of constraints

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. This book was recommended to me, and these days my book buying is so reflexive that I had purchased the graphic novel version without really realizing it. But if you’re interested in learning more about the theory of constraints, doing it in graphic novel format is actually kind of cool.

General Thoughts

Having read the graphic novel version I’m not sure if I’m going to go on to read the actual book. In large part this is because I have already read the The Phoenix Project, which is basically the IT version of The Goal. The Goal deals with manufacturing, and if that’s what you’re doing then I would probably read the actual book rather than the graphic novel. But if you’re in software like me then I would just skip straight to The Phoenix Project. 

From a conceptual standpoint the theory of constraints is very interesting. And I can see it applied to a wide variety of undertakings (as demonstrated by The Phoenix Project) but within the confines of a graphic novel things have to be kept fairly focused. So I’ll probably look into these ideas some more but don’t expect a review of the full book anytime soon.

My average book length for the year is up 13% over last year. That may not seem like much but under the old average I would have read three additional books. If you like the fact that I read long books so you don’t have to (or more likely so you can know if they’re worth reading) consider donating.


Eschatologist #3: Turning the Knobs of Society

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When I ended my last newsletter, I promised to name the hurricane of change and disruption which is currently sitting just off the coast gathering strength. Indeed “Change” and “Disruption” could both serve as names for this hurricane. But I want to dig deeper. 

This change and disruption haven’t arisen from nowhere, it’s clearly driven by the ever accelerating pace of technology and progress. Which is to say this isn’t a natural hurricane. It’s something new, something we have created.

This is in part why naming it is so difficult. New phenomena require new words, new ways of thinking. 

Perhaps a metaphor would help. I want you to imagine that we’re explorers, that we’re somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, or in a remote Siberian valley. In the course of our exploration we come across an ancient temple, barely recognizable after the passage of the centuries. As we clear away the vegetation we uncover some symbols. They are related to a language we know, but are otherwise very ancient. We can’t be entirely sure, but after consulting the experts in our group we think the symbols identify it as a place where one can control the weather. This seems unbelievable, but when we finally clear enough of the vegetation and rubble away to enter the building, we discover a wall covered in simple knobs. Each of these knobs can be turned to the right or the left, and each is labeled with another set of faded symbols.

An overeager graduate student sees the symbol for “rain” above one of the knobs. He runs over and turns it slightly to the right. Almost immediately, through the still open portal, you see rain drops begin to fall. The grad student turns it back to the left, and the rain stops. He then turns it as far as he can to the right, and suddenly water pours from the sky and thunder crashes in the distance.

Technology and progress are like finding that abandoned temple with its wall full of knobs, but instead of allowing us to control the weather, the temple of progress and technology seems to contain knobs for nearly anything we can imagine. It allows us to control the weather of civilization. But just like our imaginary explorers the symbols are unclear. Sometimes we have an idea, sometimes we just have to turn the knob and see what happens.

One of the first knobs we found was labeled with the symbol for energy. Or at least that was our hope. We immediately turned it to the right, and we’ve been turning it to the right ever since. As we did so, coal was mined, and oil gushed out of the ground. It was only later we realized that the knob also spewed CO2 into the air, and pollution into the skies. 

More recently we’ve translated the symbol for social connectivity. Mark Zuckerberg and other overeager graduate students turned that knob all the way to the right, giving us a worldwide community, but also echo chambers of misinformation and anger. 

As time goes on, we interpret more symbols, and uncover more knobs. And if the knob seems good we always start by turning it all the way to the right. And if the knob seems bad we always turn it all the way to the left. Why wouldn’t we want to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad? But very few things are either all good or all bad, and perhaps the knobs were set in the position we found them in for a reason.

One thing is clear, no one has the patience to wait until we completely understand the function of the knobs and the meaning of the mysterious symbols, least of all overeager grad students.

Both civilization and weather are complicated and chaotic things. It has been said that a butterfly flapping its wings in Indonesia might cause a hurricane in the Atlantic. If that’s what a butterfly can do, what do you think the effect of turning hundreds of knobs in a weather control temple will be?

Essentially that’s what we’ve done. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve generated a hurricane. And perhaps the simplest name for this hurricane is hubris.


It might surprise you to find out that extended metaphors aren’t cheap. Sure they may seem essentially free, but there’s a lot of hidden costs, not the least of which is the ongoing pension to the widows left behind by those who go too deep into a metaphor and never return. If you’d like to help support those left behind by these tragedies consider donating.


Epistemology as Revealed by “Murder Among the Mormons”

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I.

In the course of the last few essays I’ve been discussing the weaknesses of technocracies. That discussion began with the idea that one of the things they think is a strength, that they have a firm epistemological basis (i.e. technocracies are based on truth as uncovered by science) turns out to be a weakness. Because the important thing isn’t the epistemology per se it’s how it gets translated into a form which is not only palatable to the masses but which can be clearly understood and followed. A major theme of the ensuing posts was that science-based technocracy is bad at these important steps of palatability and simplicity, and that some part of our current crisis is due to the fact that many people believe the exact opposite. That the solution to all of our problems, both epistemological and otherwise, is simple, we just need to, as they say, “follow the science”.

This advice only works if science produces easily digestible, straightforward guidance. Rather than provisional probabilities which invariably involve numerous tradeoffs. And to be clear I’m glad we have some way of quantifying these tradeoffs, even if it’s through the use of muddled probabilities. But such knowledge, at best, only represents what is, it cannot give us our ought. What we ought to do, or ought to be. All of which is to say science is one part of any epistemological framework, but not a totalizing solution. Crafting a civilizational epistemology is and always will be a fantastically difficult problem, but rather than spend another post at the same well of epistemology through the lens of politics I thought it was time for a little break. Both to keep things fresh, but also because looking at epistemology from a different angle might help clarify some of the issues.

As you may have noticed, I was already a little bit in the headspace of religion, and then Netflix released the series, Murder Among the Mormons. Initially I wasn’t going to watch the series, because I felt I already knew the story. (This was true, though some of the details were surprising.) My dismissive familiarity derived not only from it happening where I grew up, but when I grew up. (I was in junior high at the time.) As a result I thought I had more productive things to do with my time, but then my wife watched it and told me that I would enjoy it just from a nostalgic angle. So I changed my mind. She was right, I did enjoy it and it was very nostalgic. In particular it was surreal to see footage of all the old news anchors who I had grown up watching, back when the evening news was a thing. But once I got past the nostalgia, I also realized that the series brought up some very interesting epistemological issues, and that these would be worth exploring, particularly in light of my latest blog posts.  

First, for those who haven’t seen the series, a brief summary: Mark Hoffman was a dealer in antique documents. In particular documents written by people involved in the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons). His specialty was uncovering documents long thought lost, or revelatory documents no one ever suspected the existence of. He accomplished this mostly not by being a great detective, but by being one of history’s all time greatest forgers (that we know of, we’ll get to that can of worms in a moment). As you might imagine, no one knew he was a forger, and if he had been a little bit less greedy, or a little bit more frugal, perhaps we never would have known. But apparently despite making lots of money off of his various forgeries he spent it even faster, always assuming that whatever debts he racked up could be paid off by an even more spectacular, future forgery. This pseudo-ponzi scheme meant that by 1985 he was in deep financial trouble. His solution to this crisis was to make some bombs. I don’t think it’s ever been entirely clear how these bombs would solve his problems, in particular what his endgame was. Initially I thought that perhaps it was just me, but Jared Hess who directed the documentary (and also Napoleon Dynamite…) Came to the same conclusion:

I’m curious what was going through [Hoffman’s] head leading up to the decision to kill people. Truthfully, what did he plan to accomplish if he had gotten away with it? What would have been his next steps? What was his long-term game plan? Truthfully, it doesn’t seem like he ever thought that far ahead because he obviously got in so much trouble with the Ponzi scheme that he had created and was just in over his head with debt and owing people money. He maybe didn’t think that far ahead, but I’d be curious to hear it from him now, after being in prison this long, how he puts that all together.

His first bomb killed a document collector he had been working with, Steve Christiansen, and presumably this death took some of the pressure off of Hoffman. The second bomb was targeted at Christiansen’s business associate, Gary Sheets, though it ended up killing his wife instead. (And they have a recording of Hoffman saying he didn’t care who it killed, even if it was a kid.) Apparently this second bomb was designed to make the murders seem related to a failing business both Christiansen and Sheets were involved in, and at this point I guess it was going according to plan, though as I said it’s not clear what that plan was. But then the third bomb went off accidentally in Hoffman’s car, seriously wounding him. This and a few other things turned him into the prime suspect, which led them to raid his house, which in turn led them to uncovering proof he was forging historical documents.

II.

Out of all this we actually end up with three different areas of epistemology:

First there’s the epistemological madness one gets when you consider the idea of undetected frauds. By definition the greatest forgery would be the one that was never revealed as such. It seems clear that if Hoffman had just been a little bit less greedy, and maybe a little bit less crazy, that his frauds might have remained forever undetected. Had this happened, parts of history we considered true and verified by the evidence would have in fact been false. Science is based on examining the evidence but if some percentage of evidence is flawed or fabricated, then using science as a basis for our epistemology will be similarly flawed.

Second, there’s the task of historical epistemology which concerns itself with reconstructing what actually happened. Why did Mark Hoffman plant the bombs, what was his endgame? How many historical documents were forged by Hoffman?  More controversially, how much pressure did the LDS church exert on the investigations? Did they hide any of their dealings with Hoffman? As I’ve looked into things a little bit more there seem to be disagreements about the answers to all of these questions. Meaning that the version of the story as told by Murder Among the Mormons, may not be entirely truthful. Or it may be perfectly truthful, and other versions of the story may be the false ones. I don’t know that much hinges on getting the facts perfect for this event, but there are many events where quite a bit hinges on which interpretation you accept.

Finally, there is the question of religious epistemology. This is an enormously broad and complicated topic, so we’re just going to examine the small niche where it intersects with the bombings. The biggest part of the Mark Hoffman story outside of the murders was a document called the Salamander Letter. This was a document purportedly written by Martin Harris, who, when Joseph Smith first started translating the golden plates, acted as Smith’s scribe. (He was also one of the Three Witnesses.) If you’re familiar with the golden statues on top of most LDS temples, those are statues of the Angel Moroni who revealed the location of the plates to Smith. The “Salamander Letter” had Harris’ description of this event, and in it rather than being an angel it was a “spirit [that] transfigured himself from a white salamander”. The LDS Church purchased the letter. There are various theories as to why (see my point on reconstructing history) but presumably one reason was they thought it was genuine. And here’s where the angle of religious epistemology enters the picture, if the LDS Church is led by a prophet who can communicate with God, why did he not know the Salamander Letter was a forgery?

Having identified the different flavors of epistemology touched on by the series, let’s take a deeper dive into each one.

III.

It’s easy to imagine the epistemological distortions created by actual forgeries. We need look no farther than the Donation of Constantine (a forgery granting the Pope authority over the Western Roman Empire) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (A fabricated plan describing Jewish plans for world domination) to see the way such fictions can warp the world’s understanding. And, of course, these are fabrications which were revealed as such. I’m sure that if we are ever able to view the whole scope of history—say as one of the benefits of the afterlife, or if we finally crack the simulation we’re all living in—that we will be amazed by the number of things that were accepted as true but which were actually fraudulent.

As it turns out science is actually pretty good at detecting frauds, particularly within science itself. In fact one of its primary tasks is to combat the uncertainty and epistemological madness caused by undetected frauds and errors. Because of how successful it’s been at this task, the sort of mendacity that occurs in the cause of overt fraud should probably not be our primary concern, at least not at the moment. No, currently we’re facing a far more pernicious problem, a problem eating away at the foundation of science itself.

This problem has been labeled the replication crisis, and this is not the first time I have blogged about it, though it’s been a few years. This is a crisis arising out of incentives and biases, rather than overt attempts to deceive (though that also happens more often than it should). Among these biases is one for experiments that reveal something new rather than confirming or disconfirming something old; another is for exciting, unexpected results, rather than modest, common results; still others involve more general issues of respectability, and influence. These are the biases of the person publishing the results and they go on to distort the incentives of those generating the results. (Though these people are also biased.) The ultimate consequence of all this has been that in some fields less than half of studies can be reproduced and in some areas it’s less than 15%

As I’m still basically in the mindset of talking about how epistemology affects politics, it’s interesting to examine how the broader replication crisis plays out when viewed through this lens. On the low end of things, some of the stuff that hasn’t replicated just seems vaguely silly. Like the idea of power poses, ego depletion and priming (for example seeing old people makes you walk more slowly). But when you move up to things like the implicit association test (which claims to be able to measure innate racism), pandemic triggered school closures, and interpreting the recent increase in murders, suddenly you’re dealing with questions that could have a profound effect on society, particularly given the current climate. 

If the replication crisis had left us with one bucket of definitely provable things, and one bucket of definitely disproved things, and it was just a matter of using the first bucket when it came time to act or make policy, then there would be very little to be concerned about. But the number of things in those two buckets is very small. Instead the vast majority of findings end up in the “We’re still arguing about this” bucket. To take one of the silliest examples, in 2017 various studies appeared to debunk the idea of power poses, but then in 2018 Amy Cuddy, the chief advocate for the idea, came out with meta-study which appeared to support it. Now whatever rigor Cuddy applied to this meta-examination, no one could argue that she’s unbiased. Her reputation was built on the idea of power poses.

If we’re still fighting over power poses, you can imagine the kind of fights we’re having over important stuff, and the broader implications when it comes time to translate “science” into actual policy. Of course because of the hyper-partisanship of the moment, just about everything has policy implications and everyone wants to claim that facts are on their side. All of this serves to illustrate the claim I made at the start: following the science is easier said than done. Particularly when so much science has been exiled from the “definitely provable” bucket into the “we’re still arguing about this” bucket. Add to this the biases of those conducting the science (like Cuddy) and then add to that the biases of the general public, which have only been strengthened in the echo chambers of social media. That’s a pretty murky situation, meaning, as an individual matter, “following the science” becomes non-trivial even for stuff like vaccines and mask-wearing, and difficult bordering on impossible for just about everything else.

So, while the current world is not dealing with an epidemic of deliberate fraud—as least not yet, see the next section—we are dealing with very similar issues of uncertainty. The modern form of fraud currently happening in science is both subtle and mostly unintentional and the forgeries are inadvertent, but all the more difficult to detect because of that. That said as contentious as science has gotten, outside of science things are even worse. 

IV.

On August 9, 2014, 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. That’s the part pretty much everyone agrees on. But immediately the shooting became one of the precipitating events of the Black Lives Matter movement, and when that happened it became difficult to get people to agree about anything else related to the event. Initially numerous people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting, further claimed that Brown’s hands were up when he was shot by Wilson. This led to the phrase Hands up, don’t shoot! becoming one of the mantras of BLM activists. The problem with this mantra is that it’s not what happened.

Because upon questioning, to quote from St. Louis Public Radio:

 

DOJ investigators found the accounts of all 22 witnesses to be unreliable because other parts of those witnesses’ stories conflicted with physical or forensic evidence or with the accounts of credible witnesses.

Many of these witnesses denied incontrovertible evidence that Brown reached into the police car, struck Wilson in the face, was wounded by a gunshot inside the car, fled 180 feet, suffered no wounds in the back and then moved back at Wilson immediately before the fatal shots.

In many instances, the discounted witnesses repeated what they had heard from neighbors or on the news. Some witnesses admitted they made up stories so they could be part of a big event in their community.

Brown’s companion, Dorian Johnson, and friends quickly spread the word that Wilson had killed Brown execution style. An iPad recording and videos that captured conversations among the gathering crowd document the development of the false narrative.

Despite the DOJ investigation (and recall at the time of the investigation that Obama was still president) and articles by the Washington Post and New York Times pointing out that Brown did not have his hands up, the slogan still seems to be in fairly common usage. It was definitely still being used during the protests which happened last summer, and was the title of a book published in 2019, long after the investigation. Occasionally the phrase is accompanied by the claim that eyewitnesses reported that his hands were in the air at the time of the shooting, without going on to mention the results of the investigations into the credibility of those eyewitnesses.  As if hinting at the report for those who are aware of the problems without conceding any ground.

The slogan’s ongoing use is an extreme example of the epistemological rabbit hole posed by our second area of inquiry: the difficulties of historical epistemology. Here we have an extensively documented event, from the recent past, but when asked in a poll “Did the Obama administration’s investigation of the Ferguson shooting find merit in claims that Michael Brown held up his hands in surrender before he was shot by police officer Darren Wilson?” 63% of all voters and 81% of all democrats answered in the affirmative. That they had found merit. Now this poll was taken in 2016, by what appears to be a partisan polling organization, and I would guess that mentioning Obama prejudiced the answers. But generally the passage of time only makes correct information harder to come by. I’m not sure there are any completely independent polling organizations left. And if mentioning Obama did prejudice the answers I’m not sure in what direction that prejudice operates.

There is a similar controversy in Murder Among the Mormons. In this case people on both sides have a lot at stake over what role the LDS leaders played in the whole affair. With faithful members obviously interested in putting the best light on things, while those people who are opposed to the church want to make it seem as if LDS leaders were applying inappropriate pressure at various stages.

Here I confess that I have not delved deeply enough into the minutia of things to know which of the supposed damning facts are true and which have been exaggerated or fabricated. I did however come across a podcast shortly after watching the series which featured a presentation given by George Throckmorton, one of the people who was finally able to conclusively establish that the Salamander Letter had been forged. He mentioned one incident which was featured in the book The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit and Death. (I believe, it wasn’t 100% clear if it was this book or another.) The book described leaders of the Church visiting Throckmorton and his associate, and while they asked a lot of questions they never, to the astonishment of Throckmorton, asked whether the documents were genuine. In the podcast Throckmorton pointed out that this incident had never happened. 

Going farther back there are similar controversies over the events surrounding the founding of the LDS Church. And how could there not be? You have the combination of some extraordinary claims about, from a historical perspective, some very recent events. (Everything happened no earlier than 1820.) 

The question is why? Why is it so important to get to the bottom of what happened to Michael Brown? Or to discover whether LDS leaders were inappropriately influencing things? Or to uncover what Joseph Smith was really up to in 1820?

I would contend that, as I pointed out at some length in a previous post, we have a mania for justice, and the only way to make sure we achieve justice is by knowing exactly what happened. This requires collecting facts and evidence, but as I have pointed out already there is nothing connecting the “is” of those assembled facts to the “ought” of just outcomes. In a sense we’re like Grand Moff Tarkin, the more we squeeze the more things slip through our fingers. We are never going to be able to perfectly reconstruct past events in some way that’s universally persuasive. (I haven’t even touched on the potential carnage of deep fakes.) And the more we try the more uncertainty we introduce which paradoxically means the more facts and evidence we assemble the harder it becomes to achieve the appearance of justice.

V.

Like most epistemologies, religious epistemologies come in two parts. There’s the part concerning how truth is arrived at, and then there’s the process of adapting that truth to people’s actions and behaviors. Murder Among the Mormons touches quite a bit on that first part. Doctrinally, the LDS Church asserts that its leaders receive revelation from God, that they are in a sense directly communicating with Him. Now there’s a whole other discussion to be had about what form that communication might take, how it operates, and how specific it is. But as you might imagine many people thought that, at a minimum, regardless of the exact mechanism, that it should have been sufficient to enable the leaders to determine that the Salamander Letter was fake.

Of course this also touches on historical epistemology, because there is also a debate over what they believed at the time. Were they convinced of its authenticity? Or were they on the fence about it? I have no problem accepting that they did in fact believe it was genuine, nor does this idea particularly bother me from a religious perspective either. Because, should He exist, I don’t think acting as a perfect fact checker, or as some infinitely comprehensive version of snopes.com plays much of a role in God’s plan. I have talked at some length about what I feel the best model is for understanding God’s plan, but if you’re not up for 10,000 words on the subject, the tl;dr of it is that God treats us the same way someone worried about AI Risk would treat a newly created AI. And this treatment does not include correcting every potential mistake in judgement that we or an AI might make. 

One doesn’t have to get that deep into the theological weeds or even necessarily be a believer to accept that God’s failure to reveal a forgery is insufficient grounds to falsify His existence. Just the concept of faith should be enough to explain why it didn’t happen. And it’s this same concept of faith that then goes on to be the primary tool for making religious epistemology actionable. If there’s a certain amount of trust involved in deciding what is true, and beyond that only completely trusting in God, that would seem to lead to a certain amount of epistemic humility.

Of course you can make the point that this humility was not always present in all times and in all places, that in fact it’s less a concrete universal rule and more an aspirational guideline which is generally only applied to other christians and even then, inconsistently. But having noted all of these exceptions, it’s hard to imagine that you get the idea of mercy without this foundation. Without believing that your judgment might be wrong and that the perfecting of justice is something you can leave to God. In contrast to this, as I mentioned in my previous post about our mania for justice, we now feel that we can arrive at perfect justice. That if we just assemble all of the evidence that there will be no need for mercy, and thus we have largely abandoned it as a principle.

I mentioned the nostalgia that came with watching Murder Among the Mormons. Of seeing 80s era local TV personalities and coverage from back when I was still in junior high. While not featured in the documentary, one bit of TV that was in constant rotation back then were commercials for Mr. Mac. Mr. Mac was a suit store specializing in cheap suits targeted at LDS Missionaries. It was owned by Mac Christensen, the eponymous Mr. Mac, who also acted as the spokesperson on all of these commercials. Mac Christensen was the father of Steve Christensen, one of the two people murdered by Hoffman. I had not made this connection until my wife pointed it out to me. After mentioning it she went on to tell me about an event she had attended where Mac Christensen was speaking. As part of his speech he related how difficult and time consuming it had been to forgive Hoffman, but how he had eventually done so. Nothing in the process of forgiveness involved figuring out which documents Hoffman had forged or trying to reconstruct the minutiae of October 15, 1985, the day his son was murdered. Nor did it involve figuring out the theological implications of divine communication. 

None of this is to say that delving into theological minutiae is pointless, or that uncovering facts and evidence isn’t valuable. It’s just to say that for Christensen personally, none of it was as valuable is the peace he found through mercy and forgiveness.


The last couple of posts took longer than I expected. I ended up suffering from a little bit of writer’s block. You know what’s a sure fire cure for that? New donors


Radical Reform and the Three Kinds of Complexity

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I.

The debate I’ve been engaged in over the last several posts continues. The latest salvo is a post from Scott Alexander titled: The Consequences Of Radical Reform. It opens as follows:

The thread that runs from Edmund Burke to James Scott and Seeing Like A State goes: systems that evolve organically are well-adapted to their purpose. Cultures, ancient traditions, and long-lasting institutions contain irreplaceable wisdom. If some reformer or technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room sweeps them aside and replaces them with some clever theory he just came up with, he’ll make everything much worse. That’s why collective farming, Brasilia, and Robert Moses worked worse than ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Alexander then goes on to disagree with this narrative, and in support of this disagreement he offers up a new piece of evidence, a study from 2009 (which he only recently came across) which compares the European territories where the Napoleonic Code was imposed vs. those where it was not. Basically those territories conquered by Napoleon vs. the one’s a little bit farther along his line of advance which weren’t. The study shows that, in terms of economic growth, urbanization, etc. The former did better. If we then go on to define imposition of the Napoleonic Code to be an example of radical reform, then we have the answer to our perennial question. This is proof that, to adapt Alexander’s original statement:

[A] technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room [can] sweep [traditional laws] aside and replace them with some clever theory he just came up with [and] he’ll make everything much… Better!

Now to be clear I don’t think Alexander is offering this up as some sort of “game, set, match” for the whole debate. But increasingly he has been taking the position that technocrats, on balance, make things better not worse. This study is evidence of that, and it appears to push him farther in that direction. Of course, if you’ve been following along, my contention has been the opposite: that on balance technocrats do make things worse. Though once again, this is on balance, I have never claimed that technocrats never get anything right or have any successes, and in the course of this post we’ll get to some of those successes. But first…

II.

Let’s establish what we’re talking about. Get a sense of what we’re debating and what the stakes are. In essence this is a discussion about societies, cultures, and civilizations at the highest level. We’re evaluating their success when everything is taken into account, not merely as a snapshot of a single point in time but their success over decades and centuries. Civilizations are enormously complex, and essentially this is a debate about how to manage that complexity. On the one side of our debate we have cultural evolution. (Alexander puts forth  Seeing Like a State, but for me the more pertinent corpus is Henrich’s books, Secret of our Success and WEIRDEST People in the World.) On the other side of the debate we have technocrats and rational planning. (Represented by? Enlightenment Now? Anything else?)

Of course, reducing it to two sides overlooks the possibility of other civilizational-level organizing principles, as well as a blending of technocracy and cultural evolution, both options which are outside the scope of this post. Though the latter is an interesting idea, and worth exploring, particularly if technocrats were content to stick with the things they’re good at, and refrain from interfering in areas where they’re less successful. But I have seen little evidence of such a willingness to forebear particularly recently. 

Having identified the two sides of the debate the next step is to define them. How do we distinguish between the two? While initially this might seem straightforward, once you dig in, the line dividing them is not as bright as one might think. Under cultural evolution a person comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other people, eventually becoming part of the cultural package.

Under technocracy an expert comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other governments eventually becoming part of the toolkit of “best practices”.

Stated that way the difference doesn’t seem all that great. I just swapped out a few words, and is there really that much difference between “person” and “expert” or “other people” and “government”? As a matter of fact I would argue that there is, that within these slightly different words lies the entire debate. Let’s start with “government”.

There is of course the standard libertarian argument that governments are different because they use force to get you to do things, whereas cultural evolution is presumably voluntary, or at least more voluntary than a modern state. This may be true, but I don’t think it’s a difference worth spending much time on. Particularly historically, cultures also carried a huge amount of weight. And, for the person experiencing it, the difference between being shunned by an entire community vs. policemen showing up at your door is probably not all that great. 

No, I think the primary difference between how technocracies implement new programs and the way that cultures evolve is a difference of scale and speed. Historically cultural evolution took place in small groups—extended families or tribes—and thus whatever the innovation was, at best it would be adopted by a few hundred people. The success of the innovation would be reflected, in part, by a greater number of offspring, which also provides a mechanism for spreading the innovation. Eventually this gets to the point where the successful culture starts displacing, absorbing or eliminating less successful ones. Beyond the foregoing other things might make the innovation spread more quickly, but at best the whole thing scales up over the course of years if not decades.

On the other hand, with a technocracy, change can be implemented across millions of people conceivably overnight—a speed and scale which is vastly greater. As an example, consider prohibition—a very progressive idea, in a very progressive age. One day booze was legal for 100 million people and the next day it wasn’t. Now there were plenty of scofflaws, but in some respects the battle it created between bootleggers and the police was the bigger story than the fact that alcohol was illegal, and equally a consequence of the technocratic implementation, which came at the stroke of a pen. Now yes, this stroke was preceded by a 394 day ratification process, and that was preceded by decades of effort by the temperance movement, but this is precisely my point. The 394 days the government spent on it accomplished something at a speed and on a scale that decades of attempts to change the culture couldn’t duplicate.

It should also be noted that scale and speed work in both directions. The government is pretty good at changing things, but it’s even better at preventing things from changing. And here we turn back to Alexander’s post, and the way people imagine technocracy will work—when it’s working well. In particular its superiority to vetocracy 

[E]ntrenched interests are constantly blocking necessary change. If only there were some centralized authority powerful enough to sweep them away and do all the changes we know we need, everything would be great.

Vetocracies block the necessary changes. While technocracies presumably don’t allow such vetoes, and are consequently able to make “all the changes we know we need”. Even if we grant that this is a practical description of how technocracies work, rather than just an aspirational one, those words “we know” are doing a lot of work. Who are “we”? And how do we “know”? Which takes us to…

III.

The other key difference between the definitions of cultural evolution and technocracy was replacing “people” with “experts”. This switch presumably comes because most of our problems are problems of complexity. If the world is complicated then it seems logical that we need experts to understand it. But is this in fact the case? I will certainly grant the first part—the world is complicated—it’s the second part I’m not sure about. To put it another way, we’re not debating the existence of complexity we’re debating how best to deal with it. 

Part of the problem is that complexity comes in many different flavors. There is complexity which has existed for as long as humans have (and perhaps longer), like what to do in a given environment so you don’t die. There is complexity which is brand new, like how best to manage social media. And then there is presumably lots of complexity in between that. The kind of complexity that came with nuclear weapons, the invention of the printing press or even the neolithic revolution. So when someone claims that experts are better at dealing with complexity, which sort of complexity are they talking about? All of the above? Just recent complexity? Or some other combination? 

Let’s return to the paper referenced by Alexander. Here’s the abstract:

The French Revolution of 1789 had a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those ‘designed’; that institutions must be ‘appropriate’ and cannot be ‘transplanted’; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.

(I kept thinking I could get away with only quoting part of the abstract, but in the end it was apparent that I was going to end up referencing it all.)

First we can clearly see the speed and scale mentioned in part II. But what about complexity? While not mentioned directly, the complexity referred to by this paper is clearly that brought on by the industrial revolution, so very recent complexity. (If you just do a google search for industrial revolution time period the info box says 1760-1840.) So best case, of the three types of complexity there are, this study represents one point of data for radical reform being better at dealing with new complexity. But there are numerous caveats even to this conclusion.

First it’s pretty straightforward to see that “nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies” are the people most likely to object to anything with the word “revolution” in the title, since they’re almost certainly the one’s benefiting from the status quo. Second it didn’t require visionary reformers or rarified experts to see that the industrial revolution would result in economic growth and urbanization, any unbiased observer could see it. Britain had already shown it could be done, so I’m not sure how radical these reforms really were. In other words, the bits that radical reform got right were not that complicated. This is not to say that the industrial revolution wasn’t complicated. It was horribly complicated. It introduced the complications of child labor, pollution, job losses for skilled workers and all manner of social unrest. (Note the widespread revolutions of 1848.)  

It’s therefore worth asking which institutions did better with the true complications brought on by the industrial revolution. The institutions these countries got from cultural evolution: monogamy, christianity, literacy? (At least according to WEIRDest People in the World) Or the things they got from technocracy: accelerated growth, elite destruction and equality before the law? I would lean towards the former, but at a minimum this question would seem to be a least as important as the one the paper actually addressed.

It might be useful to examine a current situation with several parallels to the industrial revolution, moving jobs over sea and automation. Once again this is something that the experts/technocrats/globalists have been almost universally in favor of. And again the benefits to doing so were obvious, lower labor costs, cheaper goods, etc. While the associated complexities were mostly ignored until they got too big to be ignored. I think there’s a good case to be made that one of the biggest of these complexities is the opioid epidemic which rages among the people who used to do the jobs that got moved out of the country. Admittedly this is probably a third order effect of the initial outsourcing, but it’s precisely second and third order effects that experts are bad at dealing with. Further, rather than helping mitigate the problem of opioids, there’s a strong case to be made that the experts were one of the key factors in exacerbating it. (For the full story on that see the previous post I did on that subject.) 

None of the foregoing is meant to represent my own “game, set, match” in this debate, but rather to remind people that it’s not enough to compare two things on a few selected issues, we have to compare them in their entirety. I’m sympathetic to arguments that cheap goods might help those displaced by offshoring more than they were harmed by the job losses associated with that same offshoring. But it seems apparent that what technocracies and “experts” are really good at is noticing obvious benefits, and implementing changes to capture those benefits rapidly and at scale, of plucking low hanging fruit from the Tree of Recent Technological Progress, but ignoring the pesticides necessary to grow that tree.

Or to use another analogy I heard once, they may be picking up nickels in front of steamrollers…

IV.

We’ve talked quite a bit about recent complexity, which I’m using to cover those things which have shown up in the last several decades or so, but not much about complexity which has been around for longer than that. Earlier, I divided complexity up into three categories, but the divisions are obviously pretty arbitrary, and it might be useful to split them into different buckets, but let’s see where we get with the three buckets I started with.

The oldest source of complexity is the natural world, and human’s relationship to it. One would put things like diet, reproduction, and really anything that impacts evolutionary fitness into this bucket. So what is the best way to deal with this complexity? Well, one imagines that given how long these things have been challenges for humans, we have probably developed genetic adaptations for dealing with this complexity, and it’s probably just best to stand back and let these adaptations do their thing. It’d be nice if it were so simple, and to a certain extent it is, but it’s clear more recent complexity has made the adaptations we’ve built for dealing with long term complexity less effective. 

Diet is a great example of all these factors in action. One assumes that there is a diet we’re adapted to. (Though there is a lot of argument over what that diet might be, an argument I’m not qualified to weigh in on.) But then along comes the USDA (read experts/technocrats) with the food pyramid, which provides an authoritative answer to what diet is appropriate. But I think it’s become clear that this is one of those complex areas where experts were not better, and recently the food pyramid has come in for all sorts of criticism, some probably justified some not. 

Then as an even more extreme example, there’s the story from a few years back about how in the 60’s the sugar industry paid scientists to demonize fat, instead of sugar, a mistake we’re still grappling with. Which is not to say that this is an easy problem, that’s precisely the point, it’s a devilish complicated one which modernity has exacerbated. For example, it’s clear that evolution has all sorts of tools to draw on in cases of food scarcity, but that never having had to grapple with long term food abundance and variety, it’s terrible at protecting us from that. This particular phenomenon has been labeled supernormal stimuli, and I wrote a whole post on it if you want more details, but I could certainly see an argument that this is an area where evolution and even tradition is fairly useless, because the situation is entirely novel. But of course that is the debate: are experts, through the medium of radical reform, better at this sort of thing or not?

Even with something as novel as supernormal stimuli, tradition is not entirely powerless. Fasting is very traditional and there’s good evidence that it helps with this issue. Also I’ve seen very little evidence that top-down interventions have made any impact on obesity. While diets that involve individuals listening to the evolutionary adaptations they were born with seem to work pretty well.

The upshot of all this is that it’s possible radical reform might help with some of the recent complexity which has been introduced. Even in areas where for a long time we were able to just rely on the adaptations evolution had provided us with, but… I haven’t seem much evidence of radical reform being applied in this fashion, and even less evidence of such a reform working.

Next there’s all the complexity which isn’t recent, but also hasn’t been around so long that we expect a solution to have been encoded in our genes. The area where if there have been adaptations they would have been cultural adaptations, and consequently where you would expect cultural evolution to have the most impact. But also the area where it’s possible that semi-random cultural evolution did not come up with a solution as good as what a team of modern experts could come up with. 

Most people have no problem accepting the utility of understanding what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They may have different answers when asked what food that actually was, but they’re united in thinking that the answer is beneficial. As in there’s quite a bit of consensus that genetic adaptations are generally beneficial. As we get closer to the present day this unity disappears. As in there’s not nearly as much consensus that cultural adaptations are beneficial. Thus the fact that the Catholic Church and indeed most religions have been pushing the idea of sexual abstinence outside of marriage for thousands of years carries very little weight. That all it took was the sexual revolution to decide that was a dumb idea.

I’m not sure why people are willing to give so much weight to one kind of evolution, and so little weight to the other kind. It seems naive on its face, even if there weren’t books like the recently reviewed WEIRDest People in the World which spends hundreds of pages contradicting the idea. But of course some of this thinking seems to operate on separate tracks. People will view the forced imposition of the Napoleonic Code as a successful experiment with technocracy, but not view the sexual revolution as a similar technocratic experiment. And certainly it seems more technocratic to impose something from the top down, but once you account for the policies, legal rulings, and general sympathies of the technocratic class. It’s hard to argue that they are not conducting a similar experiment with modern sexual mores.  

To be fair I’m sure it doesn’t look like they’re imposing something. I’m sure it looks like they’re allowing something, and the distinction is an important one, though the difference between the two is not as great as you might think, particularly if technocrats use the power of government and the speed and scale we mentioned earlier to force other people to allow it. 

V.

Pulling all of the above together, what sort of conclusions can we draw? It would seem to me that the most difficult complexity to deal with is recent complexity, in that it generally disrupts the methods already in place to deal with long term complexity. That said even though recent complexity is where we should be focusing our attention, and where normal evolution and cultural evolution have done the least to prepare us, it’s still not clear that technocracy is obviously better at dealing with these new challenges. 

I’ve already given two examples where this might be the case. First, with the underlying complexities of the industrial revolution and second the way the opioid epidemic connects to the process of sending jobs to other countries. Let’s look at one more that’s probably closer to home for most of my readers. The problems associated with social media, a huge unforeseen complexity brought on by the internet. What have the experts/technocrats done to rein in this problem? What do they propose to do? How will that help the teenagers who suffer from social-media linked depression? The grandmas who fall into echo-chambers of extremism? Or help us restore civility to the public sphere? 

So far if you’re anything like me you’ve been unimpressed with governmental efforts to deal with the complexities brought on by social media. And you may think, given how recent of a phenomenon it is, that traditional adaptations and institutions would be equally powerless to deal with it. But my sense is this is not the case. That having two supportive parents helps out a great deal. That regular church attendance lowers the risk of depression. And that many “primitive” things like sunlight, physical activity, and seeing people face to face (something which has taken a big hit over the last year) work quite well in dealing with negative effects of social media. They also probably increase the chances that social media will be a positive thing. 

My conclusion would be that radical reform might be superior at dealing with recent complexity in certain narrow cases. That occasionally technology opens a new path to some obvious improvement, and in those cases experts/technocrats may be better at hastening the implementation of that improvement. But I think such wins are infrequent. Far more often the improvements brought on by technology are obvious and straight forward but the downsides are complex and opaque, and in focusing on the improvements the experts do nothing to mitigate the downsides. That in these cases—and in cases where we are dealing with long standing complexities—evolutionary adaptations, both natural and cultural, generally perform better. 

As one final thought, I want you to conduct a civilization pre-mortem. A pre-mortem is a tactic frequently used by businesses which asks people, at the start of a project, to imagine that it has failed, and then imagine why that might be, so that failure points obvious enough to be summoned up before the project has even started can be mitigated in advance. I want you to take this same methodology and apply it to civilization. If it ends up failing, what will have caused it? Will it have failed because we were too cautious about implementing radical reform? Or will it have failed because we were too aggressive in that endeavor? To look at it from the other side, are long standing adaptations more likely to cause the failure of society or are they more likely to prevent it? 


Asking for patronage is actually a very old adaptation to the problem of supporting writers you like, or at least those whose work you think is important. If you like the idea of solving complex problems with long standing adaptations you should like donating to my patreon


The 8 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by: Joseph Henrich
  2. Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition by: Stephen R. Bown
  3. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by: Thomas Frank
  4. Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt by: Clay Moyle
  5. The Landmark Thucydides by: Thucydides Edited by Robert B. Strassler
  6. The Abolition of Man by: C. S. Lewis
  7. Orthodoxy by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by: Bart D. Ehrman

My wife was a big Star Trek: Voyager fan, so I ended up watching a fair bit of it myself back in the day. Out of all the episodes I saw, one in particular keeps coming back to me, probably because it seems to speak to the situation we’re in. And more specifically the situation I found myself in last month.

The episode was titled The Voyager Conspiracy and in it Seven of Nine “decides to increase the amount of information she receives from the ship’s database by directly assimilating as much of Voyager’s data as possible”. After doing so she starts to see conspiracies everywhere, eventually deciding that the whole “being lost in the Delta Quadrant” is an intricate plan to capture a borg drone, i.e. her. This causes her to flee the ship. Eventually they convince her that she’s sick and the episode resolves in the usual semi-artificial way. 

This is not a subtle way of saying that I’ve descended into conspiracy theories. What resonated with me is the danger of seeing connections where none exist. I feel like lately I’ve been making a lot more connections between disparate bodies of material and I’m ever so slightly worried that rather than elegantly integrating various strands of knowledge into a brilliant thesis, I’m in the situation of Seven of Nine. The doctor’s diagnosis of her could apply equally well to me:

Seven has downloaded more information than she can handle…

I guess we’ll have to see.

Of course, beyond my own situation, the parallels between that episode of Star Trek: Voyager and the current state of the country are probably too obvious to be worth belaboring. But comparing social media to an out of control Borg implant would not be far from the truth.

Oh, also I turned 50 in February… It’s been a little bit surreal.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

by: Joseph Henrich

682 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democractic. Combine that with the subtitle and you actually have a pretty good summary, though it neglects to foreshadow the enormous amount of time Henrich spends talking about the importance of Western Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a powerful counter narrative for much of what people believe about the world. Though it’s written in such a way that I don’t think most people realize how radical of a book it is. As such I think just about everybody should read it. Certainly if you’ve ever considered reading a nearly 700 page non-fiction book by a Harvard professor, you should read this one.

General Thoughts

This is Henrich’s follow up to The Secret of Our Success, which I reviewed last month, so obviously, of the many connections I made this month, one was the connection between those two. Though it is certainly not necessary to have read that book in order to understand this one. In fact Henrich doesn’t pull in cultural evolution (the main subject in Secret) until the end of WEIRDest. Probably because in this book he’s going in a different direction. In Secret he was going from the general idea of the importance of cultural evolution, to the specific examples of it in action. While in WEIRDest he’s going from the specific, a detailed history of the development of Western/WEIRD culture, and then only later tying it in to the general subject of how cultures evolve. 

I mentioned in the last post how this ends up being very similar to what Charles Taylor did in A Secular Age, only Taylor approached it from an historical perspective, while Henrich was looking at it from more of a sociological perspective. The other book WEIRDest connected to for me was The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist which I did an extensive writeup of back in August

McGilchrist’s book is all about the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere and WEIRDest starts with a prelude titled,“Your Brain has Been Modified”. It then goes on to list seven changes to the brain which might have been pulled straight from McGilchrist. In particular #7 is almost precisely McGilchrist’s thesis:

Your default tendency toward holistic visual processing [has been reduced] in favor of more analytical processing. You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns. 

You could shorthand all of this to The West = WEIRD = Post-Christianity = Left hemisphere dominance, and there are other connections beyond that. In fact, WEIRDest could act as supporting documentation for the majority of the contentions I’ve made over the last five years. 

Henrich has his own list of contentions which understandably have a different focus from mine. Another way in which we’re different is that he mostly shys away from making strong connections between these contentions and the cultural debates which are currently raging. Which is to say, the books stop short of making any recommendations. I consider this a weakness of his books, though perhaps from Henrich’s perspective it’s a strength. Certainly it’s probably better for him if his books don’t get swallowed into the blood-soaked trenches of the culture war. As evidence of this, while there are connections he doesn’t make, if there are any particularly inflammatory connections which could be made, he does point those out, and makes sure to disavow them. 

So let’s look at the sort of recommendations one might infer from this book, the kind of things Henrich himself might suggest if he were as foolish as me. Though even I’m not foolish enough to cover everything one might infer from the book. In any case, let’s talk about the book’s…

Eschatological Implications

Even though Henrich points out the connection between WEIRDness and prosperity (it’s right there in the title) he doesn’t spend much time advocating for more WEIRDness. This is all part of the lack of recommendations I mentioned, and perhaps it’s just him exercising scientific distance. But not everyone reading this book will be a scientist. What are you supposed to do with this book if you’re a policy maker?

This is not a book for cultural relativists. The strong implication of both of Henrich’s books is that some cultures are better than others at doing certain things. This is the point where Henrich generally stops, but if you’re a policy maker and you want to encourage “certain things” then a logical path to get those things would be to evangelize the culture which is the best at those things. Perhaps this is difficult to determine so, as a policy maker, you have an excuse for not doing it. But then along comes Henrich who writes a 700 page book claiming that Western Culture equals prosperity. He even places a big emphasis on monogamy, and the critical role of religion. So what is one supposed to do with this information? I mean you’re not anti-prosperity are you? In fact if you’re a technocrat of the Steven Pinker school, prosperity is kind of your core metric. So what do you do?

There are lots of things you might do, but let’s start with one of the more obvious areas: immigration. Here you are taking people with very different cultures, cultures which, according to Henrich, are worse at doing all the things we associate with modernity. Do you make them conform to the WEIRD culture? Do you leave them alone? Do you celebrate their culture and disparage WEIRD culture? The answer to these questions are well beyond the scope of this review, but that last option, celebrating other cultures and disparaging the WEIRD culture as being the height of evil seems the very least likely to end up being the right one.  

And then there’s all the religious ideas which are out of fashion like monogamy and the associated sexual continence, to say nothing of religious prohibitions against things like same sex marriage. How important are these things? Can we continue without them? How important is the basis of Christianity to the modern world? Japan and Korea have imported the modern world without Christianity and both have ended up with legendarily low birth rates. Is this a coincidence? 

I’m aware of the criticism of taking the WEIRD/left-brained stuff too far. I wrote a whole post on it, but how do we determine what to keep and what to abandon? My sense is that we’ve largely abandoned the important things and kept the things that seemed nice in the short term. That we have essentially used the stability, progress and prosperity given us by the WEIRD package (i.e. Christianity) and used it as an excuse to do whatever we want.

That we got going so fast we didn’t realize we’d driven off the edge of a cliff, and for the moment the view is amazing, but the bottom is coming up fast.


II- Capsule Reviews

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition

by: Stephen R. Bown

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Two expeditions which were sent out by Russia to explore Siberia, and the northern Pacific. Both expeditions were initiated by Peter the Great and prominently featured Vitus Bering. 

Who should read this book?

If you enjoy other stories of exploration and survival, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s also very interesting as a history of Siberia, and the “discovery” of Alaska.

General Thoughts

As I already mentioned in my first post on technocracies, this book was very interesting as an example of the kind of top down governmental efforts popular during the Age of Enlightenment. And while it’s clearly an overgeneralization to claim that Europeans thought they could will into existence whatever they imagined, neither is such a generalization entirely inaccurate. This includes things like exploring the world, cataloging all the species of the Earth, as well as colonizing and civilizing “primitive” people. Of course, one of the ways they imagined this would happen was just by throwing sheer manpower at the problem. And while there are many differences between such efforts then, and such efforts now, it’s the scale of these efforts that keeps jumping out at me as I read about them.

To illustrate what I mean let’s bring in another, very similar book I read back in November, The Man Who Ate His Boots. In Boots it was the British trying to find the Northwest Passage, in Island of the Blue Foxes it was Russia trying to claim the North Pacific, explore Siberia and connect it’s far flung empire. In both cases it wasn’t small groups travelling light, but rather massive expeditions with huge resources, and an enormous number of people. In Bering’s case it ended up being three thousand people journeying across the length of Siberia, in what almost looked like an invasion, except (as I said when I brought it up before) it was an invasion of interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia.

I say it was an invasion, and in some senses it was, in other senses it would have been more effective had it been planned as invasion, since then they would have expected nothing from the people already in Siberia. By contrast the rulers in Moscow expected those people to do all manner of impossible things, like assemble vast quantities of food and construct housing for thousands of people, and they expected it to be done just because they had ordered it. 

In the case of Boots, it was only after decades of failed expeditions by ships with hundreds of people that the Europeans abandoned the idea of using the large ships to explore, and instead turned to using the ships as a base from which to send out small sled teams. And of course, this culminated in the most famous polar explorer of all, Roald Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole with a team of only five people. 

Of course Amundsen made his journey in 1911, while the massive expedition Bering was in charge of, stretched from 1733 to 1741. So even if it could be argued that people eventually learned it took an awfully long time. Beyond this the case could be made that they still hadn’t entirely learned, since Robert Falcon Scott attempted to reach the South Pole at the same time as Amundsen (only to have Amundsen beat him by 30 days) and ended up perishing. This was due both to bad luck and the fact that his plans were more complicated than Amundsen’s, and included not only more men, but motorized sleds, dogs and horses. As it turns out Bering also perished while returning from America.

I wonder if this is a lesson we’re still learning, not in the realm of exploration, but in the realm of getting things done in general. Even today we often end up throwing more men and resources at things, assuming that that’s what’s lacking. Or we imagine that just by declaring something to be the case that reality will conform to our wishes, similar to how the rulers in Moscow dealt with the inhabitants of Siberia. 


The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism 

by: Thomas Frank

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of populism, mostly assembled by clarifying the origins of populism, and how it operated historically.

Who should read this book?

If you like the idea of populism, but don’t like Trump, this book is for you. Yes, you might in fact say that this is aimed at supporters of Bernie Sanders. 

General Thoughts

This book, as you might have guessed, has very interesting things to say on the subject of technocracies, and since they’ve dominated my thoughts as well over the last month it was good to get this perspective on things. 

Some of the things Frank says are exactly what you would expect. He’s not a fan of technocracies, particularly insofar as they are frameworks for the elites to keep the masses away from the levers of power. He further argues that one of the chief tools technocracy uses to accomplish this has been to turn the term “populist” into a pejorative and use it to reject everything non-elites do that elites don’t like. These are the bits that are unsurprising, the bit that is unexpected is that he argues populist movements throughout history beat the experts when it comes to policy details. That their recommendations are universally better than those made by the elites. What most people would also find surprising is he argues that populist movements were historically not xenophobic or racist. 

There’s a lot going on, and the whole book is delivered in a pretty student tone (I listened to the audiobook which was read by the author) but I’ll try and divide it up into three themes.

First, I would say that the bulk of this book is dedicated to trying to rehabilitate the word “populist” by showing how great historical populists were. How their positions were eventually proven to be correct (particularly with stuff like abandoning the gold standard and fiat currency). And how most of the things populists get accused of these days were not part of the historical platform of populism, and were in fact the opposite of what the populists stood for. As you can imagine he talks a lot about William Jennings Bryan but he also applies the populist label to FDR, mostly on the basis of how united the elites were in the opposition to him in 1936.

He also claims Martin Luther King, Jr under this banner. I’m sure there’s lots of evidence for this, but what stuck in my memory is a speech where MLK argues that populists were trying to unite the southern whites and blacks, but that in an effort to stop populism, the Democrats implemented Jim Crow laws which created special privileges for the poor whites, so while they were still poor at least they could take comfort in the fact they weren’t black.

The second part of the book is showing where things changed. Frank argues that the left’s rejection of populism started as a reaction to Mccarthyism (the book is almost entirely directed at the left, the right is presumably beyond hope). This percolated into academia where it became the perceived wisdom that populism was the problem. The 60s might have been able to reverse that, but most of the campus activists abandoned the American working class in favor of a global proletariat, which was easy to do while the Vietnam war raged. Accordingly by the time the Clintons, and even Obama came along this attitude had hardened to the point we find it today, where Trump could come along and steal white working class voters and win elections because the left had a built in negative opinion of them as irrational xenophobes. (See Obama’s “cling to their guns” remark and Hillary using the phrase “basket of deplorables”. Both examples Frank brings up.) They had in effect abandoned them, a statement which could serve as the book’s thesis.

All of this takes us to the third part. Which was noticeable more by its lack. Certainly you could make an argument that maximum democracy yields the best outcomes if the elites are just smart enough to get out of it’s way. And that, to the extent you think Trump was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake which originated from voters, but one which originated from the elites. But most people would expect that the person making this argument would have the burden of proof. They would expect you to provide lots of evidence. This book is not completely devoid of such evidence, but the impression I got was less of a carefully reasoned argument and more a variant of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. That every time the vast masses of people go awry (Trump, French Revolution, Fascism) it’s not really populism but everytime the masses are correct it is.

In short I really expected a lot more effort to identify what separates mass movements with bad outcomes from mass movements with good outcomes.


Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt

by: Clay Moyle

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Billy Miske, a boxer from the early 1900s whose promising career was cut short by Bright’s disease

Who should read this book?

There is a fantastic story in this book, the kind of story that should be made into a movie, but I’m going to tell it to you in this review. If after hearing it you want more details you should read this book. You should also read this book if you’re into early 19th century boxing, but I imagine the overlap between that fanbase and mine is pretty small.

General Thoughts

Billy Miske was a fantastic boxer and an all-around great guy. He was considered one of the toughest boxers of the era, though he never held the heavyweight championship. He was, however, a contender, he just happened to not be able to get past Jack Dempsey, who was the dominant boxer of the day. In Billy’s defense it seems pretty clear (though not certain) that he was not at full strength at the time of his fight because of the Bright’s disease. 

As an aside you’ve probably heard the name Jack Dempsey, even if you couldn’t have said where you’d heard it. As long as we’re on the subject of Dempsey. I will mention, despite him being from my hometown, he doesn’t come across as a particularly admirable guy. It’s not horrible, but his tactic of standing over opponents who were trying to get up and immediately hitting them again before they were even back on their feet (which was legal, but frowned on at the time) left a bad taste in my mouth.

So in any case the story. Billy’s illness had progressed to the point where he had stopped fighting, and it was clear that the end was near, but because of some bad business decisions he was, in his own words, “flat broke”. It was coming up on Christmas and he really wanted the last one his family would ever have with him to be a special one. So he told his manager to set up a fight for him. His manager refused, saying another fight would kill him. Billy persisted. The manager offered to get him a fight if he could get back into shape. Billy said that was impossible, but he was going to fight anyway, and he needed the manager’s help. Finally his manager gave in.

A newspaper reporter found out and was going to expose the manager as a despicable lowlife who was only interested in money. So the manager and Billy visited the reporter, the reporter also strenuously objected, but eventually he acquiesced to the plan saying, “I’ll keep your secret. For one fight. And God help us all.”

The fight was on November 7, 1923. And… Billy knocked out his opponent in the fourth round. He took the money, used it to give his family a fantastic Christmas, including buying a baby grand piano for his wife which she had for the rest of her life. 

The day after Christmas Billy woke up in excruciating pain, and after it became clear it wasn’t going away he was taken to the hospital. His health continued to decline swiftly and he died on New Year’s Day. I think it’s fair to say that he was hanging on for that last Christmas, and when it was over, he couldn’t hold on any longer.


The Landmark Thucydides

By: Thucydides

Edited by: Robert B. Strassler

714 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which was waged between Sparta and Athens between 431 and 404 BC. A history written by someone who was there. You may have heard of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition which is the most notable event in the book. 

Who should read this book?

This book is part of my project to read the foundational books of Western culture. If you have a similar project, this book should definitely be on the list. I would highly recommend this edition of the book as well. In between the appendices, the numerous footnotes, and the ubiquitous maps (probably 1 every half dozen pages) it has all the supplementary material you need to jump right in.

General Thoughts

I just spent a couple of posts talking about religion in general and civic religion in particular. And of course this book has a lot of interesting things to say about both of those things, given that Sparta and Athens had the same religion, but different forms of government. Athens was of course a democracy and Sparta was an oligarchy. What I didn’t realize is that Athens abandoned democracy near the end of the war in an effort to curry favor with the Persian Empire. This was after the Sicilian Expedition and the Athenians needed all the help they could get. What was even more interesting is that most of Sparta’s victories came by fomenting revolution among cities dominated by the Athenian Empire with a promise of “Freedom!” Not the playbook you would normally expect out of an oligarchy.

These two forms of government largely resulted in very different civic religions, but these civic religions were not what the war was about. Athens wasn’t trying to make the world safe for democracy and Sparta wasn’t defending slavery (which was extensive in Sparta). And in fact the discussions and disagreements about the different governments seemed to be remarkably civil. Today we can’t even maintain civility when discussing the difference between mail-in and in person voting. I’m not sure if this counts as progress or not. I’m mostly just pointing it out.

As far as the actual religion. You get the feeling it might have contributed to this civility. To offer a couple of examples: After every battle it was just given that you would grant a truce to the other side so they could come retrieve the bodies of the fallen. And then when (*spoiler alert*) the Spartans finally won the war, there was a call by the allies of Sparta to destroy Athens (think of what a loss that would have been) and to enslave all of the citizens. “However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece.”

After a very acrimonious 27 year war, Sparta still recognized that they were both still Greek. That’s pretty impressive. I would hope we might make a similar realization should this situation come for us. I fear that it already has and we didn’t.


III- Religious Reviews

The Abolition of Man 

by: C. S. Lewis

116 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book is a defense of objective value.

Who should read this book?

If you like Lewis at all this is as good as anything he’s written, and short to boot. Why wouldn’t you read it?

General Thoughts

I’ve already told you it’s a book about objective value by C. S. Lewis. I think you have a pretty good idea of what Lewis is going to say and what I’m going to say, but the way Lewis says it, is as always, magnificent. With that in mind I’ll content myself with giving you one quote from the book as representative of my own thoughts as well:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.


Orthodoxy 

by: G. K. Chesterton

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Chesterton’s defense of how he came to believe in Christian Orthodoxy, it is more “measured argument” than Road to Damascus

Who should read this book?

I am not a Chesterton expert, but this is a companion to his book Heretics, and having read both they seem like an excellent place to start with Chesterton. And really everyone should have read some Chesterton! 

General Thoughts

First, as a logistical matter, I would recommend that you not read Lewis and Chesterton at the same time. Their styles and subject matter are very similar, and while, as I’ve been pointing out, connections are good, the connections here were too close, to the point of temporarily confusing me everytime I started reading one or the other.

Second as long as we’re on the subject of objective values it’s interesting to tie things back to The WEIRDest People In the World. Because in a sense Henrich is arguing both sides of this. First he’s arguing that what we used to think were objective values are really just Western values, but on the other hand he’s arguing that these values are objectively better at accomplishing certain things, that together the values form a cultural package which has led to nearly everything we associate with modernity. In a sense Lewis and Chesterton are arguing the same thing, the three are even united in recognizing the importance of Christianity. 

But having spent a lot of time on the values part I’d like to turn to look at the package part of things, because Chesterton has something very interesting to say about that. Most Christian writers express their dismay at the vices which have been let loose, but Chesterton points out:

[T]he virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. 

One of the things I keep coming back to in this space, is that many people will acknowledge that there is some good in religion, but then go on to think they can easily identify which parts are good and which parts are bad, and thereby excise the latter, and keep the former. But it’s really the whole package that got us to where we are. 


Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife 

by: Bart D. Ehrman

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The historical evolution of our concept of the afterlife. That initially there was no afterlife, no heaven, and no hell in Judaism or Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

This book tries to do two things. First, it’s a historical overview of the evolution of concepts like resurrection, heaven and hell. Second, it’s sort of an anti-apologetic book, attempting to show that modern Christians don’t know what they’re talking about. If you’re interested in the former it’s fascinating. If you’re interested in the latter I would skip it.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case this review post is pretty long, so I’ll just end with two final connections:

Ehrman, like so many working in the anti-apologetic space (I just made up the word “anti-apologetic”, there’s probably a better one) seems to feel that uncovering the evolution of religious doctrine acts as something of a slam dunk for refuting that religion. But here’s Chesterton writing on exactly that subject from Orthodoxy:

It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods. We must have a long historical experience in supernatural phenomena—in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I find the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins, quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told that the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any research to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important, just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only slowly that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite.  

One of Ehrman’s claims is that hell is something evil men made up as a form of religious abuse, but then we read in The WEIRDest People In the World:

Based on global data from 1965 to 1995, statistical analyses indicate that the higher the percentage of people in a country who believe in hell and heaven (not just heaven), the faster the rate of economic growth in the subsequent decade. The effect is big: if the percentage of people who believe in hell (and heaven) increases by roughly 20 percentile points, going from, say, 40 percent to 60 percent, a country’s economy will grow by an extra 10 percent over the next decade… believing in just heaven (but not hell) doesn’t increase growth… Since many people seem keen to believe in heaven, it’s really adding hell that does the economic work…

As I keep saying it’s all part of the package…

The theme of this post was tenuous connections. But that’s always the theme of this bit at the end, the tenuous connection between writing and asking for money.  So now I’m making a tenuous connection between tenuous connections. If making ever slighter connections appeals to you, consider donating


Eschatologist #2 – Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988?

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We can’t talk about things ending without wandering into the domain of prediction. Even if we deem something “very unlikely”, we’re still making a prediction. We’re predicting that it’s possible, or perhaps more importantly, not impossible.

Eschatology encompasses a lot of things, but if we’re making it simple it’s just the study of how big, important things end. This immediately presents a difficulty—big, important things rarely end. 

Things don’t get to be big and important if they’re ephemeral. But rare is not the same as never, and when big, important things do end, the impact, either for good or ill, is huge. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, these endings are difficult to prepare for. Though I know that the pandemic feels more like a big, important thing beginning. I think most of the difficulties arise from what it ended: normality. 

Normality may not seem like much, but it’s one of the biggest and most important things of all. It would be nice if we could have had some warning, but the whole point is that predicting when big, important things are going to end is basically impossible.

How then should we prepare for these rare, impactful events? Should we just prepare for the worst? Is the lesson of the pandemic that we should all have a bunker with guns and canned goods? Or at least a six month supply of toilet paper? Perhaps. Certainly it is costly to prepare for the worst, but historically there are always situations where such preparation is more than worth it.

For example, imagine if you were a Jew in Poland in 1937. However inconvenient it might have been to take your family to America, it would have been far better than any outcome which involved staying in Poland. Yes, you may not have spoken the language. Yes, immigration might have been costly and difficult. Yes, you may have left friends and family and your home. But anything would have been better than what did happen.

Some people will argue that while all of this is obvious in hindsight, could you really expect the Polish Jews to foresee all that was coming in 1937? Well certainly some of the signs were there. Hitler had already been in power for four years. And if you had waited to be sure you would have waited too long. We can never be sure what the future holds. Our hypothetical Jew could have fled Poland in 1937 only to have Hitler assassinated in November of 1939 by Johann Georg Elser, setting history on an entirely different, and possibly better path.

In other words, it could have very easily ended up being a bad idea to make huge sacrifices in order to flee Poland. As an actual example of this, two brothers crafted a daring plan to rescue their remaining brother from East Berlin in May of 1989, risking possible death, when all they had to do was wait six months for the wall to come down.

In many respects this is the question we’re all faced with. Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988? Are the bad times about to end or are they just beginning? Will normality ever return? These are difficult questions, but their difficulty is precisely what makes them important.

After reading the title, I’m sure most of you are expecting an answer. Is 2021 more like 1937 or 1988? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But there are always signs. This newsletter is about identifying and interpreting those signs—of pointing out which way the wind is blowing.

So which way is the wind blowing? Well I’m forecasting a hurricane, but naming that hurricane will have to wait till next month.

If that sounds interesting…


Then check back in March—same time, same place. Or subscribe to the newsletter. There’s a link at the top of the page.


The Missing Piece of the Present Moment Is Religion (But Not in the Way You Think)

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I.

This post is a continuation of the last post, but it’s okay if you came straight here without reading my previous post. When you’re writing you always have a destination in mind, and sometimes that destination seems pretty close, and you figure you have time to take a detour, so when you pass a sign that says, “World’s Largest Ball of Twine! 25 miles!” You think, “Sure we have time to go see that,” but the next thing you know you’ve not only spent hours traveling back roads, but you’re deep into the competing claims over which ball of twine really is the biggest, and you decide to travel to all of them, and… Well you get the picture. 

With that introduction, if you understandably decide not to go back and read the last post, here is a distillation of the three claims I made: 

  1. Uniting large groups of people is very difficult, and it’s a project that ultimately comes down to your foundational epistemology. How does a system construct the truth which goes on to inform its policies?
  2. When looking at these foundational epistemologies technocrats would seem to have an edge because in theory they arrive at the truth, they don’t construct it. But not only does their method have some notable blind spots, it’s also not very good at uniting the masses. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. 
  3. Religion is something that is both very good at constructing a truth framework and uniting people, and that is what we used to have in this country in the form of a patriotic civic religion, but that recently we had abandoned it, and the hole left by its absence is large contributing factor in the current unrest. 

To give you an example of what I mean here, let’s take something smaller than an entire theory of government. The above is also essentially the point I’ve been making when it comes to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the alternative macroeconomic theory that’s been much discussed recently. It may be that the MMTers have genuinely figured out some more accurate model for how government debt works. (Though I doubt it, even Krugman has referred to it as Calvinball.) But more important than the accuracy of the idea, is how it ends up getting translated when it filters down to citizens/voters. The average voter has no interest in the actual wonky policy debate. They have no understanding of monetary supply or inflation or the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Consequently they’re either going to ignore the whole debate, or it’s going to get translated into something they can understand. The most likely candidate for the latter is a conviction that deficits don’t matter and the government can spend whatever it wants, and so what possible reason could there be for not spending money? Particularly if people are in need.

Now of course it’s going too far to say that this conviction would be equivalent to a religion. It may be easier at this stage of things to view such an idea as a myth. A myth which is a distortion of MMT, but which arises out of it in a fairly natural fashion. And even if we imagined that people could understand all of the ins and outs of Modern Monetary Theory, you can see how the myth is much more appealing. Not merely is it simple and straightforward, but it appeals to their self-interest. When given a choice between doing the hard work of understanding the in-and-outs of things, listening to the experts, or believing a simple and compelling myth. Most people are going to go with the myth. Technocracy imagined that most people even even if they’re reluctant to do the hard work, will still go with believing the experts, but that’s simply not the case, 

What’s actually happening is that people are choosing between two myths. The other myth is a myth about debt. It is also simple and compelling. It says that debt is bad. As it turns out that’s not the case, governments need to be able to borrow. This is what makes it a myth, but it’s nevertheless a simple and straightforward idea that people can organize around. Experts, such as they are, may direct people towards one or the other myths, but essentially they’re a side show. 

II.

As I mentioned in that last post there are lots of books that speak to the importance of religion, but since we’re starting with myths and working our way up to religions, let’s start with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In yet another stab at explaining the uniqueness of humans Harari puts forth the idea that our uniqueness comes from our ability to craft these myths. That through myth-making we can create imagined orders and frameworks, which allow us to exceed the limits set by the natural order. You might notice that this is very similar to the other candidate for “human uniqueness” I recently mentioned in my review of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. For Henrich it was culture, for Harari it’s myths, but as you can imagine the two end up having substantial overlap.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s been awhile since I read Sapiens, and my note taking back then had not reached its current heights. Fortunately I did come across a blog post where someone had summarized the book. Accordingly, for convenience, I’ll be referencing that rather than Harari’s book. 

In doing so let’s review what we’re trying to do. Our overarching question is how do we beneficially unite large groups of people. Well setting aside the “beneficial” bit for the moment. Historically, uniting people above the level of a tribe has always begun with the application of force, or at least a form of power which was ultimately backed up by such force. I’ve talked about this before at some length, but as it turns out, even though in that last discussion I peeled away the veneer of democracy, I didn’t go deep enough. There was at least one more layer. From the Sapiens summary:

A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion.

To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

To maintain an imagined order, we need people who believe in it – the military, the elites, and the peasants.

In other words behind the threat of force is a myth that makes the force cohere into something useful, and beyond that myths are ultimately responsible for all cohering even if you’re not talking about the military—as our recent myth-induced chaos bears testament to. But if all power structures are ultimately built on a foundation of belief in some myth, then what myth forms the foundation of a modern technocracy? I suspect the answer is that there isn’t one, and as I concluded in my last post, this lack represents its fundamental weakness. But it’s only fair that we consider some possibilities before definitely concluding that.

III.

A technocracy is rule by technical experts. So perhaps the foundational myth is in the power of experts. Like all good myths this would be one with quite a bit of truth behind it. But is that all that’s required for a good myth? That it be a simplification of some more complicated truth, designed for easy ingestion by the masses? Probably not, at least as I consider examples of unifying myths, the amount of truth they contain seems mostly incidental to their success. What really seems to determine how successful they are is the emotional appeal of their core idea. To return to the other two frameworks I talked about in my last post: national greatness and Trumpism. The former’s emotional appeal is right there in the name. The powerful idea that the United States is a nation with a destiny! While the latter both borrows the appeal of the former—Make America Great Again—and the age-old appeal of unifying around a single, charismatic figure. In this case the idea that Trump is a transformative figure in his own right, something of a Moses who will set his people free. Do you see any similar appeal around the idea of “listen to the experts”? I don’t. It sounds more hectoring than inspiring, as I think recent events have shown.

What if we take it back a step and make our unifying myth the myth of science. Well we’re immediately faced with an oxymoron, since science is all about puncturing myths, or at least getting to the bottom of them. Which is to say the great strength of science, that it is self-critical, is exactly what we don’t want in this situation. It prioritizes doubt, but unity requires at least some degree of certainty. You can neither imagine someone storming the Capitol in the name of science nor facing down such a mob in the name of science either. You can imagine both happening in the name of justice or duty, but not science. 

Perhaps technocracy can unify people using the myth of progress? This seems like the best candidate, and to the extent that technocracy has been successful this is probably the unifying myth it has drawn on. But I think there are several reasons to think that this myth isn’t really capable of “going the distance” as they say. First off, while progress doesn’t come embedded with quite the same level of doubt as science it still invites a certain amount of criticism and reflection. All of which is to say that people feel they should be able to measure progress, and that, because it’s “progress” every time they measure it, there should be more of it. This gives progress a certain fragility. As long as progress is obvious it makes a great unifying myth, but if it stalls or reverses or takes a form that’s difficult to quantify, it’s utility as a myth quickly disappears. Also what if you end up with progress in some areas, but not in others? And what if some groups are doing great while things are getting worse for other groups? Suddenly progress isn’t unifying, it’s divisive. Which, once again is something we’ve seen play out in recent events. 

Perhaps the key problem with all of these myths is that in order for a myth to be useful it has to inspire people during both the good times and the bad. It has to not merely unify people when things are going great—nearly anything will work for that. No, it’s when times are tough that a unifying myth is put to the test. Does it continue to function when unity is both important and difficult? In order to do this there has to be something about the myth which encourages sacrifice, or at the minimum naturally assembles people into teams. One could argue that a great nation shouldn’t have to sacrifice, but at least that myth encourages everyone to want their nation to win, and from there the necessity of making sacrifices becomes pretty obvious.

In the final analysis technocracy may be antithetical to both unity and sacrifice. Under the idea of national greatness we’re all citizens, all part of the vast arc of destiny that has carried the United States from a hall in Philadelphia, through numerous wars against evils like slavery and facism, all the way up to walking on the Moon. Trumpism is not nearly so majestic, but it nevertheless formed people up into teams and gave them a goal to strive for. Even democracy at its most vanilla puts forth the idea that every voter has a part to play in government. But a technocracy contains none of these elements. The average citizen isn’t part of something grand they’re just a piece in a puzzle the technical experts are trying to solve. Through their behavior they may make the puzzle easier or more difficult to solve, they are not the prime movers in the story. They’re not the people playing the game of chess, they’re the pieces on the board. (I can’t decide if using the word “pieces” in two different contexts is clever or confusing…)

There is one other important point to be made in this discussion: unity can either be something which is cultivated internally or it can be imposed externally. I’m not going to spend a lot of time going down this path since I covered it in a previous post, but I would argue that the long period we’ve experienced without any wars has also contributed to our lack of unity. War’s have rarely been truly existential threats for the United States, but even so, knowing that great harm will befall you unless you pull together with the rest of the country is a powerful motivation to do just that. And as I mentioned in the last post, it is during such times as war, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the feeling of national greatness always reached its peak. 

At this point you may agree that myths are useful, you may even agree that technocracies are bad at cultivating unifying myths, but you might still think that they’re more effective, by virtue of the fact that they’re based on science, evidence and data rather than conspiracies (Trumpism) or a history which has been white-washed of all the bad things (national greatness). That in the long run technocracies will be a better framework for beneficially unifying people than any framework which relies on simplifying myths. This would appear to be the contention of a lot of people, and one of the great debates of the age. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.

IV.

To start with I’m going to jump ahead somewhat. I’m going to go straight from talking about myths to talking about religion. Ideally I would carefully build that progression, but I think it’s pretty obvious that religions are collections of myths. Myths which happen to be based on eternal truths if you’re a believer, or myths which may nevertheless be useful even if you’re not. But clearly everything I said above about myths—that they are coherent, easy to understand, and inspiring during both good times and bad—also applies to religious beliefs. It might even be useful to think of religions as mythplexes—aggregations of useful myths. 

If we accept that religions are the preferred framework for managing people via myths, then that’s what we should be measuring technocracies against. And unless I’ve completely missed the point, its supporters make the fundamental claim that technocracies are better than religions at unifying large groups of people. Regardless of whether we’re comparing it against traditional religions like Hinduism or Christiantiy. Or comparing them against civic religions, like the ideology of patriotic national greatness which held sway in the US until very recently. Though calling this a “fundamental claim” may give an inaccurate impression of how much attention technocrats pay to this comparison. I think most of them consider this superiority so blindingly obvious as to be unworthy of discussion, not something people are still fighting over. If this is the case, where are technocracies superior? What standards are we using for our comparison, and how does one even make the comparison? If we have a modern Scandanavian technocracy on one side, and, say, Christianity on the other, what are we looking for?

Obviously this is a big subject with a lot of potential areas where one could focus. Also it’s one where my opinion by itself isn’t worth very much. Fortunately, as I mentioned in the last post there are numerous books that have weighed in on this subject. Though before I dive in, it’s obvious I’m biased on this subject, and it’s almost certain that this bias extends to the selection of books I’ve read. So the fact that I can come up with far more books making the case for religion, than making the case for secular technocracies, may say more about me than about the state of scholarship on the subject. Accordingly if you know of any books making the case for technocracies which I haven’t read please let me know. The chief one I’m aware of is Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, and I’m not going to spend any time with it, because I already did a whole post on it, and this post is focused on the religious side of the debate. 

With those biases noted, let’s take a look at what we’ve got. I’ll be covering a lot of books, so by necessity I’m going to be brief, but in nearly all cases I’ve reviewed these books already and I’ll link back to those, more extended discussions. And in the one case where I haven’t discussed the book I’m about to so you’ll just have to tune back in at the beginning of March. 

Let’s start with the book in this last category, a book I just finished The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich. This one has a particularly interesting contribution to make on the topic. First off it makes the claim that just about everything you might think of as attributes of a modern technocracy is the result of Western Christianity’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). That this MFP produced WEIRD people, an acronym which stands for:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

These five words are also among the first words someone might think of when describing a technocracy, which would mean that technocracies aren’t in competition with religions; they are in fact only possible after hundreds of years of religious influence! Now this still leaves open the argument that technocracies are the stage of evolution past religion, that they are an improvement, which we will get to in a minute, but at a minimum I think anyone making this sort of argument would carry the burden of proof.

Beyond this WEIRDest People also spends a lot of time pointing out the enormous changes religion was able to make through the MFP, taking thousands if not tens of thousands of years of kin based organizational structures and remaking them into structures capable of much greater cooperation across a much larger number of people. Exactly the sort of beneficial organization I keep referring to.

As long as we’re on the subject of Henrich, his other book, Secret of Our Success, makes the strong case for the power of cultural evolution to organize societies as opposed to the method of rationally arriving at solutions and policies. Does not the former essentially describe the development of religion? While the latter is nearly an exact description of the technocratic mindset?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, makes much the same point as WEIRDest People, though from a very different angle. In Taylor’s case he spends 900 pages disproving the idea that secularization is a story of subtracting the bad bits of religion (for our purposes, if we equated “bits” to “myths” that’s pretty close to the mark). In place of this he argues that secularization has been an additive process, that everything associated with it was built on a vast foundation of progress that was driven by religion in all of its aspects. 

Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, makes the comprehensive claim that civilization is impossible in the absence of religion. That all civilizations have to be built around the framework of a common system of myths and beliefs. 

That’s four books, to these we could easily add four more: Marriage and Civilization by William Tucker, together with Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin which (along with WEIRDest People) all make the point that monogamous marriage is critical to civilization as we understand it. Perhaps technocracies share religion’s dedication to this subject, if so I’ve yet to come across any evidence of it. There’s also Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, which is yet another indictment of technocracy’s ability to plan and manage complex societies, with illustrations of how long it takes for such failures to manifest. Finally there’s Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which speaks to the deep dissatisfaction and the lack of unity so many people experience while living in modern technocracies. 

To these eight I could add still more, but that’s enough for now, and as I said, my own studies of this subject may be biased, and if so I welcome correction. But, as far as I can tell, religion has been absolutely critical to developing the society we currently have and we abandon it in favor of a secular technocracy at our peril. Though as I said perhaps technocracy is a natural evolution from where we were. Either an advancement which eliminates the need for religion or one which ushers in some new quasi religion which will fill the hole left by traditional religions.

V.

Even the most cursory review of the state of the world would have to conclude that technocracies are not doing well. This is not their moment, and it’s hard to discern any sense in which they have allowed us to transcend the need for myths and religions. They have not demonstrated any permanent and unshakable advantage over previous forms of government. In fact, at the moment they seem very shaken. But even more than their current distress, we get the best evidence in favor of my thesis when we look at what has shaken them. 

Obviously, I am most familiar with the US, and here, when you dig into what’s happening to shake the foundations of the technocratic order, it’s myths as far as the eye can see. There’s the myths underlying Trumpism, which were powerful enough to rally 74 million voters. There’s the myths of police violence against minorities, but particularly blacks, which were powerful enough to give us a whole summer of protests. There’s the myths of a socialist revolution sweeping away late-stage capitalism in an environmentally friendly way, which have provided enduring support for Bernie Sanders and The Squad. And somewhere in there, there is still the myth of national greatness, and American exceptionalism.

Like all good myths these are all based on a significant body of truth, but that’s not what makes them powerful. Technocrats who come along and point out Trump’s flaws, or that the circumstances of some of the police shootings were not quite as egregious as has been claimed, make very little headway against these myths. More facts are not what the people crave. They obviously crave something the technocrats have a difficult time providing. 

To these observations we should add the point that technocracies have not been around for very long, and while perhaps this means we should give them more time—that they have not been given a fair chance. I view it in the opposite fashion. Whatever success they have had, has been during a brief period of exceptional peace and stability. This has provided the illusion that they work, when, as I already pointed out, in good times nearly every system works. 

Taken together it seems pretty clear that technocracies are not an advancement which have allowed us to abandon myths and religion, that we still need them as much as ever and technocracies cannot fill that hole. So what about the idea that we might be transitioning to a new civic religion? 

I first encountered this idea in the Slate Star Codex post, Gay Rites Are Civil Rites, which right off the bat is a very clever title, particularly given the subject matter. In the post he argued that the old civic religion of national greatness and patriotism, which I’ve spent so much time talking about with its emphasis on patriotism, American History, and a parade on the 4th of July might be getting replaced by a new civic religion which emphasizes tolerance, progress towards the future, and a parade celebrating Gay Pride. For a label you might call it Wokeism, or the Religion of Progress, but regardless of what you call it or what you think about it’s chances for success, it’s a fascinating idea. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts I would urge you to read that post, because I’ve only scratched the surface. But I do see several issues with the idea:

  1. As I keep pointing out, one of the key features of a religion is that it works during good times and bad. How does wokeism encourage sacrifice? And not just the sacrifice of advantaged groups for those that have been disadvantaged but the sacrifice of all of its adherents in exchange for something they believe to be the greater good?
  2. And while it’s possible I could have made this clearer, it’s not that we need a religion, it’s that we need a religion that can unify us all, in the way that national greatness used to unify the nation or the way Christianity unified the West. At least so far whatever Wokeism is, it’s been pretty divisive.
  3. Even if we grant that it’s a new and better religion which has arrived just in time to replace the old and make us an even better nation. Transitioning to a new religion is not something to be undertaken lightly. Look at everything that went into the creation of the civic religion of patriotism: a revolution, a war, the creation of a new nation built exclusively around the religion, not to mention the extraordinary people. Just George Washington’s contribution as the first president was a huge factor. One that would be difficult to replicate. 

Put all of this together and the best case scenario is a tumultuous and contentious transition to a new set of myths with unknown efficacy, and it could end up being something far worse than that. The American Revolution was the best case scenario for transitioning to a new religion. If you want the worst check out the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Still it’s fair to ask what our actual options are.

That’s a tough question. I still think it might be easiest to retreat back to a religion of national greatness, but I’m worried that Trump has rendered that idea permanently toxic to at least half the country. There are of course traditional religions, and perhaps that’s a closer destination, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the path to that destination has been lost for a long time.

I wish there was a simple answer. But I think the overarching lesson here is that, in our hubris, in our certainty that we could just sit down and invent the perfect system, we ended casting aside the only thing that really could have saved us. 


People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge. (No, really!) And I’d probably do something both silly and petty. Like make everyone sign-up for my patreon. Click here if you want to get in on it before it’s mandatory. 


Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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I.

I was on a Discord chat the other day and someone exclaimed, “man substack is like too much content”. When he said that I knew exactly what he meant. At the moment when I’m writing this I have three substack newsletters waiting to be read in my inbox. Two are 4500 words and the “short” one is 3900 words. They all arrived today. Given that the average page of a book is 250 words, that’s over 50 pages of material which has arrived just today. 

(Before we get any farther, let me be clear. I realize that I often publish stuff which is that long, and I am infinitely grateful that anyone reads it. But you will notice that my newsletter is always less than 750 words and only comes out once a month. So while I am a hypocrite about many things, this hypocrisy does not extend to newsletters.)

The newsletters are not merely “too much content” they might also be “too much” to digest. Recently the value of technocracies seemed to be having their moment in my corner of the zeitgeist, and these same newsletters were holding forth on the value of that construct. One writer, somewhat in contradiction of previous comments he had made, was saying they were good. Another writer was also arguing that they’re good, but only so long as their policies are legible. And yet a third was saying that the first two have merely defined technocracies as governments that implement policies they like without describing what principles unite those policies. 

As if that weren’t enough I’m reading or have recently finished several books which would appear to weigh in on the topic. There’s: Seeing Like a State, which seems to be on the anti side of the technocracy debate. Secret of Our Success, also anti. The follow up to that book, WEIRDest People in the World, which so far also seems anti. (Representative quote, “What doesn’t happen is that rational parties sit down, put their heads together, and hash out effective institutional design.”) Island of the Blue Foxes, the story of mid-18th century Russia spending 1/6th of their annual budget on the ill-conceived mission of sending three thousand interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia. (Though with that many people invasion may be a more appropriate term than expedition.) Reviews for the latter two books will be coming soon, but once again both seem to make a powerful argument against big top down programs of the sort we imagine coming out of a technocracy. 

Finally on top of all of this, there’s the position I’ve taken on this subject already in my various posts. How do these newsletters (Presumably written by people whose opinion I admire, otherwise why would I subscribe?) and these books serve to update my old beliefs? Is anything I’ve read strong enough to overturn one of my beliefs in its entirety? To make me recant one of my previous posts. Unlikely, though I should be careful not to rule that out. But short of reversing my position I still should be updating my beliefs based on this new evidence, but that requires understanding what all of these multitudinous claims are evidence of. I’m sympathetic to the argument presented by the third newsletter that they don’t really represent arguments for or against technocracy, because no seems quite able to agree on exactly what technocracy is. Still the arguments are probably evidence of something, but already it’s obvious that we’re travelling through a complex intellectual landscape.

Furthermore, if this is the situation I’m in, as a bona fide pseudo-intellectual, imagine the situation of someone without such mastery of facts and reasoning? What are they to make of these various arguments? You may accurately assert that most people, even if they’re familiar with the word “technocracy” have very little interest in debates over its efficacy as a system. But the argument I’ve been describing is taking place as part of a larger discussion, one which they are interested in. A discussion that has been front and center since November 3rd: 

How do we come together as a people and enact long term, beneficial policies?

II.

Years ago, a very wise friend of mine made the assertion that the crisis of modern politics was a crisis of epistemology. His politics are very different from mine (though they appear to be converging in weird ways recently) and I suspect that my bias against those politics made me overlook the prophetic character of his words. But I’m paying attention now because everything he has foretold has come to pass. But before we go any further, we should define epistemology for those few who are unfamiliar with the term. This is not the first time I’ve brought up the topic. The last time around I defined it as: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Which is a pretty good definition (and one I stole from Wikipedia). But recently, I encountered the idea that epistemology can be broken up into three questions. And this may be an easier jumping off point for the discussion I want to have. These three questions are:

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. Can we have knowledge?
  3. How do we get knowledge?

It is assumed that if we can identify knowledge and acquire it, that we can then go on to apply that knowledge to our various problems in the form of policies, and all epistemological frameworks are designed to bridge that gap. But as we’ll see the chasm between facts and policies is wider than people realize, and this even if we assume that we actually can reliably acquire facts, which is by no means certain. 

This is clearly a place where some examples are in order. My first example is from a previous post on the topic. While I included it there as something of an aside—an idea that occurred to me while I was writing, but which I hadn’t given much thought to—it has since grown to seem more and more germane. This is the epistemological framework of national greatness. 

For this example I want you to picture old school patriotism. The kind one would have experienced during World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But also the lower intensity form that was ubiquitous in the 50’s. This is the framework that prevailed in my primary education up at least though High School. It was a civic religion where the Revolutionary War was the creation myth, the Constitution the tablets of Sinai and the Founding Fathers its prophets. With that picture in your mind let’s return to our questions and see how this framework treats them.

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the principles that went into the foundation of this country. The way those principles were used to do good things and improve the world.
  2. Can we have knowledge? We can not only have this knowledge, it is our duty as good citizens to acquire a good civic education. To understand the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
  3. How do we get knowledge? By studying the history of the country. Noting the throughline of principles from the pilgrims to the founders through to the present day. And how all of this makes the United States unique and special.

When it came time to translate this knowledge into policies, that was relatively easy. Not because specific policies are obvious but because it acted as a religion, and in so doing encouraged belief and unity. This provided a foundation for agreement between various policy makers and had the power of creating a united front out of the entire country, for example the one presented to Russia during the Cold War. The benefits of this framework are less about getting everything right than in acting together. 

Our second example is more recent, it’s the epistemological framework of all the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen. While this isn’t entirely accurate, for the moment let’s label this framework as Trumpism. Being more nascent, it’s contours have not quite come into focus, but you have the same process going on:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the things those in power don’t want us to know—the methods the elites use to retain power, and oppress the common man.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but not by listening to the mainstream media. We have to actively seek out the truth, which is only available through people on the fringe, who are constantly being censored.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By diligent search; by looking at the facts behind the scenes; by putting together the pieces of the conspiracy.

When people use this framework, the knowledge thus acquired translates into knowing “what needs to be done”. These are policies but they are necessarily of a desperate and radical nature because this epistemology encodes the idea that we are already at war. Or that in any case if we’re not at war with the elites they are already at war with us. That this is a life or death struggle, an existential crisis, requiring extraordinary measures.

The final example is of course a technocracy, which at least as I understand it, looks something like this:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of things we have uncovered using the scientific method.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but “we” should be construed fairly narrowly. This is not populism. We’re not aggregating the knowledge of the masses. We’re relying on the knowledge of experts.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By funding research; by collecting sociological data; by studying what other countries do. 

Advocates of technocracy assume that their methodology results in purer knowledge than the other two examples, and that the purer the knowledge the better the policies which derive from that knowledge. I think this often leads its advocates to be lazy, to assume that pure knowledge will naturally lead to good policies without much in the way of additional effort, which leads them to emphasize some things and neglect others. But of course the other frameworks do the same thing, each choses something different to focus on. 

III.

Technocracies seem to focus on the input. If we just make sure that we have truth going in the one side, then good policies will automatically come out the other side. This is why I was so impressed when Matthew Yglesias pointed out that policy has to be legible. Impressed enough that I wrote a whole post on it. Because this is one of the key weaknesses of a technocracy, it’s not enough to just work on the inputs into the system you have to polish the outputs as well. Implementation matters. And while I say this is a key weakness it’s not the only weakness or even the biggest weakness, it may just be the most obvious. No, the fatal weaknesses of technocracy are far more subtle, and often in the areas that look like strengths to its practitioners. As the first example of this, they emphasize measurement and accuracy, but by limiting themselves to what can be easily measured it fatally undermines both the inputs and the outputs. But as they emphasize inputs, let’s start there.

It would be nice to imagine that by using the epistemological framework of science that we can extract pure Truth and that having done that we can filter it through the medium of experts, generating perfect policies on the other end. But of course for all it’s strengths science does generate pure Truth, it generates a collection of insights with various levels of confidence, and these insights are only those which can be gathered using certain methodologies, in narrow domains while working under obvious limitations. 

As an example of how this operates we need merely look at how the pandemic was handled. We can measure the number of deaths, hospital capacity, and the rate at which the disease spreads, but we can’t measure the psychological toll of isolation, non-standard schooling, and a hundred other second order effects which will only manifest years later. So we focus on what we can measure, deaths. This is good and proper, but no one should pretend it’s perfect or that we have somehow arrived at an optimal solution to the problem. And of course it’s worse than that. Because as it turns out the technocrats have not even been particularly good at managing the problems they’re supposedly good at. You can blame Trump all you want, but it was technocrats who told people that masks weren’t effective, that travel bans were a bad idea, and possibly the least technocratic state in the country, West Virginia, is doing the best on vaccines (Wait, scratch that, my own home state of Utah apparently passed them recently… But WV is still second.) And don’t even get me started about the slow vaccination rate in Europe

This problem becomes even more difficult when you move from hard sciences like epidemiology to the social sciences. At least with the pandemic you had deaths to track and a virus to sequence. Tracking polarization is significantly more difficult and error prone, and there is no gene we can sequence which will allow us to target the source of the despair and anger which has been on display recently.

All of the foregoing is indisputably true, but proponents of technocracy will still argue that it’s better than Trumpism at solving this despair and anger. But is it? First there’s an argument that technocracy created those problems in the first place. Under a very narrow definition of technocracy it may be possible to argue that it didn’t, but expand it out a little bit and it’s hard not to see a correlation (even if causation is difficult to prove). Perhaps you remain unconvinced, but one still has to ask, “Better in whose estimation?” It would be unsurprising if the technocrats thought it was better, but what about the people actually experiencing the despair and anger?

If we take the people who stormed the Capitol as a representative sample, 60% of them, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, had prior financial troubles. Why would they blame technocrats for these troubles? Well let’s look at other data, this time from the RAND Corporation who found that if the income trends which existed from 1945 to 1974 had just continued to the present day that the bottom 90% would have ended up with $47 trillion dollars more in aggregate taxable income. Instead that money ended up with the top 10%. If you were going to apply a label to the top 10%, “technocrats” is as good a description as anything else. Certainly the voting pattern of the top 10% would skew heavily technocratic.

Interestingly technocracies are very good at taking numbers like this and inputting them into their system. We hear all about rising inequality, but under technocracy how do those inputs turn into outputs which actually end up reducing despair and anger? So far there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that they do.

All of this is not an argument to switch from technocracy to Trumpism. I’m making a point about the blind spots of both frameworks. The blindspots of Trumpism are easy to spot. The blindspots of technocracy are less obvious, but they are even more consequential. Trumpism has really never been the law of the land, even while Trump was president. The same can not be said of technocracies, which are in power all over the world, including the US.

Having covered the problems with the inputs, what about the outputs?

IV.

It’s easy to imagine that if you just have all the information about an issue that the policies for dealing with that issue will be obvious. But it’s also possible that there is no connection between facts and policies. In one sense this is just the old saw that correlation does not equal causation. In a larger sense we’re talking about making a connection between how things are and how things ought to be, what’s often referred to as the Is-ought problem, or Hume’s guillotine. It’s called that because Hume was the first to point out the impossibility of logically deriving a morale system from a starting point completely lacking in morality, for example, raw facts. That no matter how good the inputs into a framework, if they didn’t come with some morality attached, no morality will emerge out the other side. 

Now this is not to say the technocracies have zero embedded morality but, if you think back to the epistemologies of the three different frameworks, it’s clear that it has the least built in morality of any of them and the morality it does have is pretty sterile. On the other hand Trumpism is essentially a moral crusade. I think it’s pretty embryonic and poorly considered, and while Trump himself was able to get it started, and in fact proved fairly adept at it. He seemed unable to hammer it into anything effective. Which is to say, it doesn’t appear that either technocracy or Trumpism has a great plan for getting unity back. This leaves our third framework, national greatness. Thus far I haven’t spent much time talking about it, but it also has quite a bit of embedded morality, which provides interesting lessons for our current crisis, and those lessons are even more pertinent when we contrast it with a technocracy.

It might be most useful to start with a discussion of why we largely abandoned the framework of national greatness. After 200 or so years of using this framework as our default what made us decide that it was inadequate? As far as I can tell it was because of the morality embedded in its epistemology. In putting together its knowledge base it was decided it would be better (i.e. more moral) to overlook some inconvenient facts. For example the treatment of Native Americans; the restriction of suffrage to white, land-owning men; and most of all slavery, including the fact that most of the founders were slave owners. But that was part of the point, whereas technocracy emphasizes increasing the accuracy of the inputs, national greatness emphasized the efficacy of the outputs. This framework sacrificed accuracy for unity. But by embedding moral decisions in the inputs they were able to more easily output morality on the other side. Put more simply they created a civic religion, this is more important than it seems, since historically religions have always been the best place to put moral content.  

Contrast that with a technocracy which mostly eschews morality, and the morality it does put forth is limited to material issues, issues which are unavoidably competitive. (As much as self help gurus might preach otherwise, most people still have a zero sum mindset.) Accordingly not only is it a weaker morality than that put forth by a framework of national greatness, what morality it does contain serves to divide rather than unite. 

This finally takes us to the biggest weakness of a technocracy, it is not a religion. This is obviously a controversial assertion. Particularly since its supporters view this as one of it’s greatest strengths, but it is nevertheless true. 

V.

Even if you accept that some form of religion is the only way out of this mess—even if it’s an ersatz one like the civic religion of national greatness. We’re still a long ways away from anything approaching a concrete solution. And I’m already a couple of days past my self imposed deadline for this post, so we’ll have to explore what that might mean in our next post. But obviously I can’t just leave it here. So allow me to briefly toss out some thoughts to give you a sense of where I’m headed.

I imagine that some of you are still a long way away from believing that religion is the answer, so any post on this subject is going to have to spend at least some time creating that foundation. But I think there are plenty of books that make this exact argument. Just drawing on books I’ve reviewed there’s Clash of Civilizations, A Secular Age, Marriage and Civilization, Sex and Culture, Secret of our Success and the one I’m currently working on The WEIRDest people in the World. 

A quote from that last book seems particularly appropriate at this moment:

…throughout human history, rulers needed religions much more than religions needed rulers.

However important some sort of religion might be, our options are limited:

  • It seems difficult to imagine that we could go back to a unifying ideology of national greatness, and arguably that’s what Trump was trying to do. It’s possible to imagine that someone other than Trump might have been able to pull it off, but now that we’ve had Trump I think he might have burned that bridge.
  • It seems equally difficult to imagine some large scale return to an existing religion, however much some believers might wish for this. 
  • If we can’t retrace our steps is there some new religion we’re travelling towards? This is an interesting idea and one I’ve covered already in this space, and which I’ll certainly return to in the next post. But for now let’s just say that even if we can make such a transition it’s likely to involve serious upheaval if not actual bloodshed. (And perhaps this is what’s already happening.)

Everyone agrees that the country is sick. This might seem like a radical (not to mention underdeveloped) proposal for its cure, and in some respects it clearly is, but on the other hand I’m merely suggesting that we should look another look at what worked for thousands of years. 


I have a framework as well, I input books on one end of things and spit out posts on the other. This is just one of many possible frameworks. Other people input sanctimoniousness and spit out judgement. Still others input hot takes and spit out even hotter takes. If you think my framework is better than those and worth supporting consider donating


The 7 Books I Finished in January

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  1. Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts by: Ilya Shapiro
  2. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by: Joseph Henrich
  3. Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) by: Brandon Sanderson
  4. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by: Margaret MacMillan
  5. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by: Steven Pressfield
  6. The Minuteman by: Greg Donahue
  7. There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days by: Hyrum Lewis

January started off with a bang, and I was worried that there would be more bangs in between the 6th and the 20th, but fortunately things were pretty quiet. Also, as far as that subject goes I think I’ve already said quite a bit, and other people have said quite a bit more than that, so I thought I’d talk about something lighter. Since this is my book review post it always feels appropriate to talk about books and reading, so let’s do that.

January is a weird month for me when it comes to reading. Every year I have a big annual goal, plus I’m motivated to beat the previous year’s page count (last year it was 37,215, a new record). What this means is that I generally push to finish any book I’m in the middle of by December 31st, so when January dawns I’m not in the middle of any books I’m starting fresh with everything. Since some books may take me several months to finish, I end up doing a significant amount of reading in January I don’t get credit for, i.e. it’s not reflected in the books that show up as being finished that month, it shows up in subsequent months.

At this point you’re all thinking that this is exceptionally boring, and more than you wanted to know, but I do have a point, and as is so often the case that point is that I screwed up. Knowing that this is how January always goes, instead of focusing on some shorter books, I decided to read the latest 1200 page monstrosity from Brandon Sanderson. Which was so huge and started off so slowly, that there was a small chance that when it came time to do this, that would be the only book I would be reviewing. Fortunately, I was incredibly disciplined in January, and I managed to finish just slightly less than my average number of books. Though I will say that as of the 28th of last month, I had only finished three of them, the other four books were all finished during the last three days of the month…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts 

by: Ilya Shapiro

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Supreme Court confirmation battles throughout history, with some additional emphasis on the more recent battles (This was written after Kavanaugh but before Barrett.)

Who should read this book?

People who want historical context for the current battles over nominations. Or people who want a deeper dive on what happened during those battles, along with opinion on the same from a moderate libertarian perspective.

General Thoughts

The look back through history was very interesting, and I recommend the book just for that part. Obviously contentious politics was not invented in 2016, or in 1987. It’s been around for a lot longer than that, and that goes just as much for the Supreme Court as for anything else. But it is clear that the post war years were unusually calm, and when we compare something happening today to how it’s “always been done” we’re comparing today to that post war period, if you go farther back most of the things that are happening now happened at some point historically. That said, though the fights look similar, Shapiro argues, and I agree, that the stakes are different, but before we get to that some random notes I made while reading the book:

  • Early on in the country’s history they were less concerned with the ideological balance of the court and more concerned with regional balance. It was felt that one member needed to be from Virginia, and one member had to be from New England, etc. So that regional concerns were properly protected. Interesting to think about this in the context of how balanced the current Supreme Court is on specific dimensions, for example: Ivy League vs. Non-Ivy League. (Spoiler: It’s currently 9-0. And arguably worse than that, all current justices went to law school at either Harvard or Yale.)
  • Shapiro puts forth the theory that if Reagan had nominated Bork first, and then Scalia, rather than the other way around, that he probably would have gotten both nominations through. Scalia was charming and would have gotten through regardless, and Bork, who was frank to the point of being combative, would have had an easier time if he hadn’t been the second conservative nominee.
  • Shapiro spent a lot of time praising Clarence Thomas, particularly his work ethic. (I myself have often thought that Thomas is unfairly maligned.)
  • With that partiality in mind, his take on Anita Hill and the nomination of Thomas to the bench was interesting. I had always had the impression that it came down to his word against hers, and they went with him. But Shapiro seems to indicate that there was almost no evidence to support Hill’s accusations and significant evidence contradicting it. That at best she was exaggerating incidents, and at worst she was outright lying.
  • As you might imagine, after the controversy over Merrick Garland not receiving a hearing, Shapiro spends quite a bit of time talking about nominations near the end of a President’s term. He calls it the Thurmond Rule, after it’s first invocation in 1968. And it turns out that not a lot of justices have been nominated and confirmed near the end of a President’s term. Of course having been written between Garland and Barrett he doesn’t cover the full impact of its presence in modern times. But overall the book gives an interesting history of the idea without either dismissing it or advocating for it.

Eschatological Implications

I have often talked in this space about the way in which the Supreme Court has increasingly become the de facto rulers in America, and even the way that this transition somewhat mirrors the end of the Roman Republic. This is increasingly why presidential elections are often decided by what sort of justices the president will nominate. (Would Trump have won in 2016 without this consideration?) A President’s later success is judged by what justices they did nominate. And the nomination of those justices have become far more contentious than any potential legislation because the Supreme Court will be the ones who ultimately decide whether that legislation will take effect. 

Various ideas have been offered for how to reverse this trend including getting rid of lifetime tenure, giving each president a set number of nominations, expanding the number of seats, etc. Shapiro reviews several such proposals in the book, but in the end he contends that none of the proposals is going to work as long as the Supreme Court continues to wield such enormous power. That there is no way for the nominations to become less contentious if you’re fighting over the ultimate power to decide the course of the country. Now obviously, as a well known libertarian, Shapiro is going to make this argument, but at the same time it seems self-evident to the point of being tautological. People are going to fight for power, and if ultimate power is vested with the Supreme Court, that’s what they’re going to fight over. 

The historical stuff in the book is all important because it illustrates that the Supreme Court didn’t always wield such power, and so perhaps they can return to that state. In this endeavor Shapiro praises the idea of textualism, and in particular Scalia’s championing of it. And he is very critical of Roe v. Wade, pointing to it as the point when things went off the rails. Now it is not my intent to relitigate Roe v. Wade, I have said that I don’t think it will be entirely reversed, even after Barrett’s nomination. (Though certainly if it were ever going to happen this would be the time.) Also it’s worth pointing out that even the Ginsburg thought it was a bad ruling from a legal standpoint.  All that aside, I think there’s a credible argument to be made (which is what Shapiro does) that this is when the court took a decisive turn in the direction of absolute power.

I see some similarities here to how the Gracchi brothers used their near absolute power as Tribune of the Plebs to implement their reforms. Reforms which were sorely needed. (This is what the pro choice crowd also argues.) However in the end the only response to such absolute power was for one of the brothers to be clubbed to death (the first such political violence in 400 years) and the other to commit suicide before he could be clubbed to death.

I keep bringing Rome into things because I feel like there’s this similar process happening where loopholes and legalistic interpretations are being invoked more and more rather than relying on the initial understanding of how things are expected to work. The Tribune of the Plebs was not supposed to threaten to veto everything. The Supreme Court was not supposed to invent rights from “penumbras and emanations”, the minority party in the Senate was not supposed to filibuster everything, and the Vice President is not supposed to have the power to change the counting of the Electoral Votes in such a way that it reverses the election. And yet all these things have been attempted. It’s interesting that only the last one failed.


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

by: Joseph Henrich

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another answer to the age old question of what separates humans from animals. Our contender this time is the human ability to transmit knowledge in the form of culture. That we don’t just adapt to our environments through genetic mutations but through cultural mutations as well.

Who should read this book?

Similar to Seeing Like a State, a book I reviewed last month, this book was also the subject of a Slate Star Codex review. Both reviews were so good they just about obviate the need to read the actual books. The one for Secret was thorough enough that I used it as the basis for a podcast episode of my own which, even after having read the book, I still stand by. That comparison aside if you felt the need to read one of the two books I would recommend this one over Seeing Like a State.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I already wrote a blog post about this book. In preparation for this review I re-read that post and I think it still mostly covers my thoughts on the subject of cultural evolution. But, as not all of you will read it, and as it is pretty long. I’ll summarize my previous point.

Cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution in that it can lead to things which take up a lot of resources, but which don’t actually provide a survival advantage. The classic example from biological evolution is peacock feathers. They may be useful for convincing peahens to mate with you, but they don’t do much to help you get away from predators, i.e. it’s an adaptation which is good for the genes but bad for the individual carrying those genes. From the standpoint of cultural evolution you can imagine funny memes occupying a similar position. Being funny helps the meme to propagate, but spending all of your time on reddit consuming memes may have a negative impact on the survival of the person engaged in the behavior. As memes, and culture more broadly, can be created with less time and effort then developing six foot long feathers, one expects that maladaptive examples of the former should be more common. Accordingly, anytime we examine things that have evolved culturally whether they be traditions, taboos, flourishes, art or what have you, we are faced with two questions. Was this bit of culture useful? That is, did it help people with that cultural package survive? And is it still useful? That is, could it help us survive?

At one point the knowledge of how to make stone weapons was fantastically useful, but these days even if you could somehow acquire it, it would have no value other than as an object of curiosity. To see how we might apply it to the debates of our own day: historically there has been a strong tradition of monogamous heterosexual marriage (MHM) among nearly all cultures, especially larger ones. When we ask our two questions about stone tools the answers are obvious, “yes, it was useful” and “no, it’s not still useful” respectively. When we ask our two questions about MHM, the answers are not nearly so clear. In my previous post I gave some standards for how to answer the first question, and concluded that MHM probably had been useful, but it’s possible that it’s not still useful.

Eschatological Implications

While there is and will continue to be lots of debate over whether a particular bit of culture was useful in the past, there are vast implications for the future of any culture in figuring out what traditions and practices are still useful. I think people want to imagine that the forward march of technology has changed everything, but I strongly suspect it has changed far less than people think. While Henrich doesn’t directly address MHM, or, probably wisely for him and his career, really any of the hot button cultural issues of the day, he does address, and at significant length, how difficult it can be to determine what utility a particular cultural practice has. Things that seem clearly to be nothing more than primitive superstitions like reading animal remains to determine where to hunt, turn out to play a critical role. And as both this book and Seeing Like a State point out the negative effects of abandoning a particular tradition or practice can take decades or even centuries to manifest. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) 

by: Brandon Sanderson

1232 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The fourth book of a planned 10 (supposedly two five book series) in Sanderson’s epic saga of the world of Roshar, and the return of the Knights Radiant. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first three and enjoyed them you’ll probably enjoy this one, though it was my least favorite of the four.

General Thoughts

Sanderson has the life I dreamed of when I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’m bitter about that, but I might be, so you should take that into account with this review. With that potential bitterness in mind let’s start with the bad stuff:

  • As already mentioned this was my least favorite of the four books.
  • Sanderson is great at writing action and there just wasn’t very much of it in this book.
  • I’ve had the impression since book two, but particularly after book three, that whatever character progress was made in the last book gets undone at the beginning of the next book. This is particularly true with Kaladin and Shallan.
  • I don’t have any problems with characters dying, but in high fantasy you expect characters to die in a noble fashion. Sanderson seems to do the opposite of that. (I’m thinking in particular of a specific death at the end of the previous book, but a similar thing happens in this book.)
  • There’s some big developments right at the end that feel like they came out of left fied.
  • There had to be some way to make this book shorter.

And now for the good:

  • While I can’t stand Moash and cringe every time he shows up, some of the other bad guys were really good in this one.
  • Adolin continues to be one of my favorite characters and I really liked his arc in this one.
  • Despite what I said above, this book’s resolution of Shallan and Kaladin’s arc was more satisfying than I expected. Though I fear in book five we’ll be back to square one or at least several squares behind where we ended in this book.
  • As usual Sanderson’s world-building is top notch and the way in which he expanded on the “physics” of the world in this book was both cool and interesting.

If you’re interested in having a spoiler filled discussion feel free to email me. In particular if you’ve also finished the book. I’m curious what other people think.


The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 

by: Margaret MacMillan

744 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Events in Europe leading up to the start of World War I

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned I have read a lot of books about World War I recently. I think I would put this at the bottom of the list. Even if your interest was specifically the pre-war years I would read Dreadnought by Robert Massie before this one, despite Massie’s narrower focus. 

General Thoughts

This was the final book of my year long dive into World War I. From the previous section you may come away with the impression that I thought that it was bad. This is untrue. It’s more that the other books were all so good. This book did have lots of details about the various crises leading up to the war, particularly those centered in Austria-Hungary’s relationship to the Balkans. This included the Bosnian Crisis and the Balkan Wars.

I’m sure these events were mentioned in the other books I read, but it wasn’t until this book that I quite realized how close in time they were to the actual war. The Bosnian Crisis was 1908-1909 and the Balken Wars happened from 1912-1913. Despite this 1914 started relatively peacefully.

From this sequence I think we can draw three potential lessons:

First, each crisis depleted the “crisis handling reserves” each nation possessed. Everytime they backed down they looked weak. Everytime they peacefully resolved a crisis only to have a new one erupt a couple of years later, the tactic of peaceful resolution suffered. And after each crisis their views inevitably shifted from, “we avoided war” to, “we should have ended up in a better position or gotten more concessions”. Essentially the whole idea that peace was better gradually eroded, and it had been so long since the last war that the idea was never that strong to begin with.

Second and somehow working in the opposite direction, with each crisis that didn’t end in war, it seemed more obvious that such crises would always be peacefully resolved. And therefore (following the above) we can demand more and be more intransigent. (See the demands Austria-Hungary made of Serbia right before the war started.)  

Finally, and perhaps most troubling. In the end it would have been better for Germany to have started the war sooner. Had they begun things in 1908 Russia’s position would have been much worse, and even France would have not been quite as prepared as they were in 1914.

And of course there’s the lesson one takes away from all books on World War I. The Kaiser really made things much worse. 

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to draw parallels between all of the above and our own time, but there are a lot of them.


Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t 

by: Steven Pressfield

210 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How to write well, with a particular look at the various genres of writing (Advertising, screenplays, novels, etc.)

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who wants to be a better writer could benefit from this book. It’s short, dense with information, and entertaining to boot. 

General Thoughts

There are many self-help books out there, though sometimes they’re disguised as autobiographies. And there are many examples, particularly in that latter category of people who claim to give you the secret to success, but what their story really boils down to is, don’t be lazy and get lucky. “I worked really hard while I was at Harvard and had the good fortune to meet <Fill in name of famous person>.” The idea being that the numerous things which had to happen in order to get admitted to Harvard were not the lucky bits, it was developing a relationship with the professor while you were there.

On the other hand, occasionally you come across a book by someone who really struggled, who spent decades failing before they finally started to get a little bit of success. Who really did have to figure out how to do something, they weren’t just handed it. Steven Pressfield is in this latter category. And I find books written by such people to be both far more enjoyable, and far more useful. 

If you have any interest at all in writing I would recommend this book.


The Minuteman

by: Greg Donahue 

Only available on Audible 1 hr 54 minutes

Briefly, what is this book about?

Domestic Nazis and the Jewish gangsters who beat the crap out of them in the years before World War II.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a domestic predecessor for Antifa, or you really like stories of Nazis getting punched. This is your book.

General Thoughts

During prohibition Sidney Abramowitz, aka Nat Arno was an enforcer for the Jewish mob. When prohibition ended that job largely ended as well. Fortunately for Arno shortly thereafter Hitler came to power and with that came the rise of Nazism in America. This book is the gleeful recounting of how Arno organized former enforcers like himself and other New Jersey Jews into a band of vigilantes dedicated to disrupting American Nazi rallies by throwing in stink bombs and then ambushing the attendees as they ran away—beating them with baseball bats and brass knuckles.

At least it came across as gleeful, also vigilante is my term. I don’t recall it ever being used in the book.

Everyone who reads this book understands how bad Nazis are. And I admit there is a certain pleasure at hearing how Jews “fought back” in America. But before lionizing Arno it’s important to remember that this is pre World War II. Most of the evidence we draw on for how horrible Nazis are is based on what happened during World War II, so the people beating the crap out of German Americans couldn’t use that as justification. Also Arno did it in opposition to the police, and to many leaders of the Jewish community, who thought he was making things worse. Also it’s not clear how much of this was actually fighting back. The stories of the Nazis beating up Jews are relatively sparse, but this book has lots of stories of the reverse.

All of which is to say that I think, particularly based on what was known at the time, that Arno was the bad guy. And I’m not even sure his actions are defensible even in retrospect. Certainly I don’t think Arno should be used as a role model for anyone operating today. And this book rather than dealing with any of these issues, mostly came across as a celebration of vigilantism.


III- Religious Reviews

There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days 

by: Hyrum Lewis

162 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re expecting to have a debate soon with a New Atheist this is a great book to help you prepare for that debate. Similarly if you’re wondering what sort of arguments you might make against a New Atheist even if you never plans to ever use them, you might also want to read this book.

General Thoughts

This book is a pretty good collection of arguments against New Atheism. I keep qualifying that we’re talking about New Atheism and not atheism in general, because as we saw in the book The Seven Types of Atheism, which I reviewed back in October, New Atheism is only one of several types of atheism. And even John Grey who felt compelled to write a whole book on the many different types of atheism doesn’t think much of it. Which is to say the book is focused on only a narrow slice of atheism, and not a well regarded one at that. The book’s utility grows more narrow still when you consider that there is much more to winning an argument than logic and reason. It’s entirely possible that Lewis’ arguments are all but ironclad. (And indeed, particularly when paired with Grey’s, they do seem pretty solid.) Despite this I still very much doubt that if I gave this book to someone who was deeply atheist that reading it would turn him into a Christian. 

This outcome is what we would expect no matter how carefully crafted the book, but I still think that Lewis could have done better. His tone is pretty combative. A weakness he admits to in the introduction. Beyond that the book is long on argument and short on persuasive rhetoric. My own son considers himself to be an atheist, and while there were moments when I thought about trying to get him to read this book, by the end I felt that the experience would be counterproductive. 

None of this is to claim that writing such a book would be easy, merely that knowing he was being too combative it should have been possible for Lewis to tone it down more than he did.


A better writer would have taken Pressfield’s book, used the tactics therein to combine the themes of combativeness, preemptive action and Germans into some wisdom for the ages. Unfortunately I am not such a writer, if you want to help me become such a writer, consider donating.


The Eschatologist #1: Two Paths Forward

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It’s the end of the month, so it’s once again time to talk about the end of the world…

When I was a boy I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the year 2000. I’m not sure how much of it was due to the perceived importance of a new millennium, how much of it was due to the difficulties of extrapolation, and how much of it was due to my religious upbringing. (Let’s get that out of the way up front. I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or what most people call Mormons.) 

I think, even had I been able to imagine something past the year 2000, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. It seems not enough has changed. The common complaint is, “Where’s my flying car?” Because instead, we’ve ended up with something very different, as this observation I came across on Reddit illustrates:

I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.

I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.

People still talk about the wondrous technology that awaits us, things like artificial superintelligence, fusion reactors, and an end to aging—any one of which would dramatically change the world. But none of that is the stuff we did get. Instead, we got things like social media, which has gone a long way towards enabling those “arguments with strangers”. 

Technology has always had the capability of causing huge harms as well as bringing huge benefits. But in the past these harms were obvious, things like nuclear weapons or pollution, but increasingly the harms are more subtle. People talk seriously of a second civil war, and if such a calamity comes to pass social media will have played a large role. This is not the role people expected social media to play when it first entered the scene. Most expected it would be a way to connect the world and bring us all together—not tear us apart.

From all of this we can draw three conclusions:

  1. Certain technologies, like fusion power or immortality are so great that when they arrive we will pass into “The Future”—the end of the old world and the beginning of the new.
  2. Other technologies like nuclear weapons or fossil fuel extraction could be so bad that we also pass into “The Future”, but rather than a utopia it’s an apocalypse.
  3. It may not be obvious which category a technology falls into until significant time has passed, enough time that it may be difficult to undo the harmful effects.

I mentioned my religious background and in religion they have a whole discipline around discussing the end of the world. It’s called eschatology, and I’ve decided to be an eschatologist. But rather than view things through strictly a religious lens, I intend to engage with the entire universe of potential endings, some good, most bad, many subtle—with a focus on the subtle, bad ones.

Technology allows us to move with greater and greater speed, but it’s not always clear where we’re headed in such a hurry, and the road ahead is treacherous. When I first started writing on this topic, back in 2016, I was inspired by a verse in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

My hope is that none of those three things are true. My worry is that all of them are.


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