Month: <span>March 2021</span>

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

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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