Month: <span>January 2022</span>

Eschatologist #13: Antifragility

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This newsletter is now a year old, and we spent much of that year working through the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is not merely because I think Taleb is the best guide to understanding the challenges of the modern world, he’s also the best guide to preparing for those challenges. 

This preparation is necessary because, as Taleb points out, our material progress has largely come at the expense of increased fragility. This does not necessarily mean that things are more likely to fail in the modern world, just that when they do, such failures come in the form of catastrophic black swans. The deaths and disruptions caused by the pandemic have provided us with an excellent example of just such a catastrophe.

If fragility is the problem, then what’s Taleb’s recommended solution? Antifragility. Upon hearing this word you may think, “Of course, antifragility is the solution to fragility, but what does antifragility even mean?” Fortunately Taleb has a formal definition, but let’s start with his informal definition:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy. 

Fragility is when we accept small, limited benefits now, in exchange for potential large, unbounded costs. In the quote it’s the benefit of getting a little extra money by going into debt, which presumably translates into a bigger house or a nicer car but running the risk of bankruptcy if you lose your job and are unable to pay those debts. 

Antifragility is when we accept small, limited costs in exchange for potential large, unbounded benefits. The time and discipline it costs to save money and stockpile spam in your basement—accompanied presumably by a smaller house and a more modest car—turns into a huge benefit when you are unscathed by disaster. As a graph it looks like this:

For fragility just flip the graph upside down. If we apply this to our current catastrophe the pandemic was preceded by thousands of small, fixed benefits, using the time and money we could have spent planning, preparing, and stockpiling, on other things. Things that presumably seemed more important at the time. But these small benefits turned into large costs when the pandemic arrived and revealed how fragile things really were.

The pandemic not only revealed the fragility of our preparations it also revealed the fragility of our logistics when it broke the global supply chain. Of course before the pandemic people didn’t talk about fragility, they talked about efficiency, the wonders of “just in time” manufacturing, the offshoring of production, and global consolidation. But when the black swan arrived all of those things ended up breaking, as fragile things tend to do.

Moving back a little farther in time, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 is an even better example. As Taleb describes it the entire financial system was focused on picking up pennies in front of a steamroller—limited benefits with eventually fatal consequences.

As you may have already surmised, antifragility is the opposite of all this. It consists of spending a certain amount of time and money on being prepared, some of which will be wasted. Of taking certain risks/costs in order to avoid catastrophic harm. It’s also, like many things, easier said than done. But as long as we’re talking about the pandemic it’s worth asking: what steps are being taken to prepare for the next pandemic?

So far, it’s not looking good, we’ve slashed the amount of money we’re spending on such preparedness, and rather than figuring out the origin of the pandemic (see my last essay) we’re still fighting about masks. I would have hoped that the pandemic would have led us, as a society, to focus more on preparedness, risk management, and above all antifragility, but perhaps not. That being the case, I hope all of my readers are lucky enough to have some gold bars in the basement, even if they’re metaphorical. 


All of my gold bars are metaphorical. If you’d like to help make them non-metaphorical consider donating. I understand that it takes a LOT of donations to equal one gold bar, but one has to start somewhere.


Pandemic: The End of the Beginning

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When people in the US think of World War II, they think of Pearl Harbor, or Normandy or Hiroshima. What most people don’t realize is that the war had been already going on for two years when Pearl Harbor happened. During that time, the UK stood alone against Germany, and the situation looked grim. Even once the US had entered the war things still mostly went badly for them. They were just barely holding their own in North Africa against Rommel, and on the other side of the world there was the disastrous fall of Singapore. But finally nearly a year after the US had entered the war, and three years after it had started, the British finally got their first decisive win at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. (AL-a-main)

Shortly after this victory Churchill was giving a speech, and in reference to this battle and the turning point it represented he said:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I bring this quote up because it feels like a decent description of where we are with COVID. It is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but I think once the omicron surge passes that it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning. As a consequence I thought it might be time to do a post about the beginning of the pandemic, both because I think we’re at the end of that beginning, but also because it’s an opportunity bring together some insights about the pandemic I recently gleaned from three books:

Nightmare Scenario by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Premonition by: Michael Lewis

Viral by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

But first, before I forget, back on the 8th I made a prediction about when omicron would peak. I said that it would peak on the 15th, at around 2,500 new daily cases per million people. So how’d I do? 

It did in fact peak on the 15th at 2,409 cases per million. How’s that for an accurate prediction? 

Hopefully now that I’ve verified my expertise you’re ready to listen to me on all the other things I have to say about COVID. Speaking of other things, I obviously can’t cover everything from three books, or even everything I think is important and interesting. Instead I’ve picked five subjects where I think I have something important and interesting to add. Let’s get started with:

I- Schools

With the latest surge there was a lot of pushback from teachers unions, and even students on the fact that schools were not closing this time around. But it wasn’t just right wing governors that refused to close schools, Biden and democratic politicians were also emphatic that schools should remain open. 

For my own part I think going back to remote learning for a week during the very peak of omicron (which, as you may remember, I called) is fine, particularly if it’s a staffing issue rather than overactive risk management. The big question we’re grappling with now is not whether we should continue doing it, but whether we should have ever done it. Increasingly the answer seems to be that, outside of those first few weeks when information was scarce, it was always a mistake, and a huge mistake at that.

Recently shots were fired on this subject by Nate Silver, the noted statistician, who tweeted:

Suppose you think that school closures were a disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision. Shouldn’t that merit some further reflection?

He later clarified that this was not merely a hypothetical, he did in fact think it was a mistake on the magnitude of invading Iraq. As you can imagine responses were all over the map, but I think Jonathan Haidt’s summation of the situation was on the money:

It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace… learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students…a million students functionally dropped out of school…caused a mental health “state of emergency,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage…will be irrecoverable.

 

It is nearly as clear that these measures did little to contain the pandemic… 

 

By the tail end of spring 2020, it was becoming reasonably clear both that remote education was failing badly and that schools could be reopened safely.

 

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions…

 

It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side. You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones.

For me it mostly boils down to that last bit. If we’re faced with the horrible task of apportioning harm, and unfortunately we are. Then it seems logical to not apportion a greater share of it to the young. And not only is it logical, but viscerally I, and I think most people, recoil from the idea of sacrificing the boundless potential of the young for the limited potential of the old. (Which is harsh to say but ultimately true.)

So how did we end up doing just that?

Here’s where I can add something to the discussion, to do that I need to take you back to 2005. President Bush had just read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry about the Spanish Flu and decided the government needed to pursue pandemic preparedness. This was the first big effort taken by the federal government and they had to develop a lot of stuff from scratch. One of the things they lacked was a good model. The Premonition has a whole cute story about how the best model was developed by a child for a science fair project, which only starts to make sense when you realize her dad worked at Sandia National Labs. I don’t have the space to go into that story, the key point is once they started messing with this model they realized that they could significantly reduce transmission through non-pharmaceutical measures. This was the birth of social distancing. And if distance mattered for transmission, then the first places the model said you needed to shut down were schools. Nobody gets packed in tighter than school children.

I’m not sure how much this model drove school closures in the early days of the pandemic. I assume it had to have had some impact, but I don’t remember it ever getting mentioned. And of course even if the model was used to make this decision, it should have been updated as more information came in. Which is to say even if the model was used to justify closing schools I don’t think it could be used to justify keeping them closed.

As one final point as long as we’re on the subject of what sort of things were recommended in the years before the pandemic. When the group President Bush put together went to the CDC and recommended closing down things as per the model the CDC pushed back and said it would never work, people wouldn’t tolerate it. And to a certain extent that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Also the period the group recommended for shutting things down was relatively short. Which is also something we haven’t exactly done (particularly with schools).

II- Republicans vs. Democrats

I’m already a third of the way through the expected length of this post and I’ve only covered 1 of the 5 items on my list. I guess I’ll need to exercise more brevity going forward.

Like so many things COVID became a tribal issue with the blue tribe on the left and the red tribe on the right. And members of each tribe want to know that their tribe was the righteous one, while the other tribe was the wicked one.

Nightmare Scenario was written with the goal of proving that the Republicans, and particularly Trump were the wicked ones. Having also read Premonition as well as countless blog posts and tweets, I think this fixation blinded the authors of Scenario to the even greater failings of the FDA and CDC, institutions which are supposed to be the ones preparing for and dealing with emergencies like this. Which is to say while it would have been nice to have a President who’s great at handling a global pandemic, it shouldn’t be too surprising when we don’t. The president has countless jobs, the CDC only has a couple and the most important of those is handling a global pandemic, and on this count they were abject failures.

This discussion of tribalism and the CDC takes us to the story of Charity Dean, one of the three stars of The Premonition. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Charity was a public health official, a very talented and dedicated one, exactly the kind of person you wanted in charge during a pandemic. The book relates numerous stories about her, but two are germane here.

First, in the months immediately before the pandemic Charity had risen to be the number two  person in the state of California for public health, and when the top position, Director of the California Department of Public Health, opened up in 2019, Charity assumed she would be appointed. She was not, and she discovered later that as a white woman with blond hair she wasn’t even in the running, despite being the number two person. Instead Dr. Sonia Angell was given the job. Her primary qualification appeared to be the fact that she was Latina. In other words it was an affirmative action hire. Had it been a successful example of affirmative action, raising someone with the necessary skills who had previously been overlooked, then we wouldn’t be talking about Dr. Angell, but that was not the case. Lewis described her as being “monstrously incompetent”, so much so that she ended up abruptly resigning in August of 2020.

Republican ideology gave us Trump, and he obviously made some big mistakes (more on that later) but the presidency is not our primary line of defense. The public health bureaucracy is, and Democratic ideology undermined that, and not merely in the case of Dr. Angell. I think one of the biggest hits the public health authorities took was when they backpedaled all their guidance on gatherings when people started to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The second reason I wanted to bring up Charity Dean was to highlight her views on the CDC, since you might need further convincing. Lewis describes how Dean, through her connection with other characters in the book, was finally given the opportunity to put together a plan for how to deal with the pandemic. Someone, in an effort to help, added a small role for the CDC in her plan. Charity wrote back:

No…The single most important part of this plan is IT IS NOT RUN BY THE CDC… The entity/agency/figurehead leading this must be a Churchill not a Chamberlain.”

III- The FDA and CDC

So what made the FDA and CDC so bad? What did they do that they shouldn’t have and what should they have done that they didn’t? 

To explain that I’ll first need to take you on a brief aside. Back in 2014 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex decided to take on the effects of marijuana legalization, in a post titled, Marijuana Much More Than You Wanted to Know. As is usual with his “Much More Than You Wanted to Know” posts he went really deep, looking at the issue from every angle you could imagine. But despite pot affecting everything from IQ to organized crime, one consideration overwhelmed everything else: traffic fatalities. Does pot increase the number of traffic fatalities because more people drive under the influence? Or does it decrease the number of traffic fatalities because people substitute pot for alcohol and while driving under the influence of pot is bad, it’s vastly better than driving drunk? In the final analysis death is so bad, and traffic fatalities are such a big cause of death that even changing it by a tiny percentage one way or the other overwhelms every other consequence the legalization of marijuana has on society.

This is the position the FDA and CDC were in. They probably did a lot of things right. There are probably many criticisms which are unjustified. But in the final analysis the consequences of the few bad things they did were so bad they overwhelmed all the rest.

The reason these things were so bad is that when you’re talking about exponential growth, what happens at the very beginning of that curve has a far more dramatic impact than anything that happens later on, after the curve is established. I’ve seen evidence that they did lots of things wrong at pivotal points where speed was essential, but here are the two biggest examples in my opinion, one from each agency:

For the CDC it was obviously creating the initial test. If you haven’t heard this story Buzzfeed actually has a great investigative piece on it. But basically they refused to rely on tests that had already been created in other countries, they refused to let private companies market tests they had developed, the supply of their test was horribly limited and to top it all off it didn’t work! Certainly even with good testing there was no way for the US to avoid the pandemic, but we seeded it far more deeply and more broadly than necessary because in the very earliest days we couldn’t test for it.

For the FDA it was the vaccine, and in some respects this is less forgivable. The CDC might plausibly claim that, early on, it wasn’t really clear how important the test was going to be, the FDA had no such excuse when it came to the vaccine, everyone knew exactly how important it was. And yet the FDA’s Vaccine Advisory Committee seemed almost leisurely in their approval approach. The vaccine was ready for approval by November 20th, but they didn’t meet until December 10th, nearly three weeks later. What possible reason could there be for not meeting on November 21st or the evening of November 20th? 

As I said, I think these are the biggest mistakes, but they are by no means the only mistakes made by the FDA and CDC. In fact when it comes to the vaccines there may be an even bigger scandal, but for discussing that, let’s turn to: 

IV- Trump and the Vaccine

The same thing I said about the CDC and the FDA could be applied in reverse to Trump, and his team. However many mistakes they may have made, in the final analysis, the speed of vaccine development was going to be the measurement that mattered the most. And in this respect everyone basically agrees that Operation Warp Speed did an amazing job. The obvious objection for those not inclined to give Trump any credit is that he played only a very small part in the operation. That’s a fair point, but in considering it we should remember what Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs, “Victory has 100 fathers while defeat is an orphan.” Lots of people now want to take credit for starting or managing or having the idea for Operation Warp Speed, but if it had failed everyone would have blamed Trump. This being the case, should he not therefore get some of the credit?

Even Nightmare Scenario which was written specifically to savage Trump, admitted that this sort of “hail mary” approach was something the Trump administration was actually pretty good at. The book’s chief criticism of such efforts was not that they were ineffective, but rather that by routing around the normal procurement process, such efforts wasted money. This complaint about the government wasting money made me laugh, a lot.  Other more serious criticisms include duplication and a lack of focus, and there was certainly a lot of that, but in the end we got the vaccine months and months sooner than anyone thought possible. Though we could have gotten it even sooner and therein lies the potential scandal. 

There’s lots of evidence of people working to move the announcement of a successful vaccine from October to November, enough that the fact of it happening really isn’t in question, what’s in question is why?

The most benign explanation is these people were worried about anti-vaxxers and vaccine hesitancy, and they wanted to make sure the safety data was ironclad. 

However, lots of people (including the aforementioned Nate Silver) find the timing to be very suspicious. The fact that moving it from October to November happened to move it from before the election to after the election makes it look like it was largely motivated by a chance to hurt Trump’s reelection efforts.

Other people don’t care about the motivation, they just think that it was a bad trade off, that the delay was never going to have that much of an impact on vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers, but it was always going to have a huge effect on the number of people who died. Who cares what the motivation was, the decision to delay ended up killing thousands of people.

The problem with much of the discussion is that it ends up being broken into a binary. Either it was totally reasonable for the FDA to wait 60 days to see about side effects or it was monstrous and politically motivated. And what’s lacking in both the current discussion and the toolkit of bureaucratic capabilities is any capacity for nuance. Could we have authorized it for high risk old people in October? People who felt that the protection from not dying was worth the potential that there might be unknown side effects?

V- The True Beginnings of the Pandemic 

Here we arrive at the ultimate example of the “traffic fatality effect”. Despite everything that has been said so far, when it comes to the pandemic all other considerations are secondary to the question of where the virus came from, because if it didn’t happen in the first place every other issue is moot. Thus far I have mostly drawn from The Premonition and Nightmare Scenario. This section is going to draw almost entirely from Viral. With a few other quotes here and there. Speaking of which, here’s Matthew Yglesias to start us off with a quote saying essentially the same thing:

(Or not… I had this quote in my notes I thought it was from Yglesias but it wasn’t, and now I don’t know where I got it… That said I still think it’s 100% true.)

I’m not saying it was definitely a lab leak. I’m saying that answering that question is one of the most important tasks of the post-mortem, and anyone who says it definitely wasn’t a lab leak is not trying to answer it they’re engaged in the culture war.

Before we get to a discussion of the actual evidence, this is a perfect example of what I talk about over and over again in this space. You might think that in a situation where something only has a 5% chance of happening that you should act as if it won’t or if it didn’t. But my argument has always been if the consequences of it happening are bad enough, you should act as if it will or that it did. Applying this the lab leak hypothesis they should have never been conducting coronavirus research in a biosafety level 2 lab (4 is the highest) and going forward we should probably stop such research all together, certainly anything that involves gain of function. But that’s precisely what we’re NOT doing. To quote from Yglesias again:

By contrast, on something like Covid-19’s origins, we’ve had a decent amount of coverage of the lab leak controversy but essentially no coverage of what is being done to prevent future lab leaks (basically nothing) or to prevent future zoonotic crossover events (again, nothing). But the reason these are our two contenders is that as far as we know, these are the routes through which new viruses emerge…either way, we’re not doing anything to counter either route for transmission, and that (shocking! alarming! insane!) fact gets way less attention than the latest round of “who’s yelling at whom about masks?”

We should be taking all of these measures even if the chance is only 5%, but having read Viral I would argue that the chance is far higher than 5%. In fact it might be the inverse of that, I might put the odds at 95% lab leak, 5% zoonotic origin. I’m sure you’re interested in the evidence backing up that assertion. As this post is already running long I’m going to steal Scott Aaronson’s list, and briefly offer my own commentary. And if you’re interested in going deeper you should read his whole review. But this is his list of things Viral proved beyond reasonable doubt, a list I entirely agree with:

Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work. 

This gets to the point I was making previously. We were already taking risks we shouldn’t have been. Lab leaks happen all the time, and rather than focusing on the huge negative black swan of potentially creating and releasing a viral pandemic, they were focused on the small gains of having a better viral database. The claim was it would help us fight future pandemics, but:

Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to… useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.

Another point I make all the time, the benefits of technology are almost always oversold while the potential harms are generally entirely invisible. Particularly once we have done all the obviously beneficial things (modern sanitation) and we’re moving on to things of more dubious value (harvesting exotic viruses and studying them).

There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

I had to quote this point in full. It really elegantly encapsulates the whole argument. And what about the wet market?

The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.

My sense is that those who hold on to the zoonotic origin idea, imagine that the wet market was this crazy lawless area where anything could have happened. Actually it was closely monitored, and because of other diseases they were carefully tracking what was sold and when, and as Aaronsson says, none of the potential carriers were even sold at that market.

Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists… They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. 

If that database had been taken offline in November of 2019, this would be the smoking gun, but even September seems very, very strange. But of course the most inexplicable thing is why it has never been made available since the pandemic started. The whole point of the database was to assist people in fighting pandemics, and when an actual pandemic comes along it’s permanently made unavailable. The list of other strange oversights and evasions is nearly as baffling. And of course on top of it all:

The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine.

Sometimes people imagine coverups where there probably aren’t any. Or there is a coverup, but they’re covering for something different than what you imagine. Consequently I try to be somewhat skeptical when an organization or a person is accused of acting in bad faith. The world is complicated, and incompetence is ubiquitious, but for this particular issue there are so many obvious good faiths steps would could be taken but haven’t been:

  • WIV could restore access to the database.
  • China could allow an international team to investigate the cave.
  • Daszak could confirm and explain facts that are already out there.
  • They could stop any remotely dangerous viral research now that it’s been shown that it may have caused significant harm, and it didn’t provide any significant help.

Of course this lack of good faith engagement illustrates the entire problem, not just with finding the actual source of the pandemic, but with everything about the pandemic, and indeed everything about the modern world. We have turned everything into tribal warfare, and the only thing that’s important is that our tribe wins.


Speaking of fracturing into tribes, sometimes I feel like Treebeard, from the Lord of the Rings, when he was asked by Pippin whose side he was on, “Side? I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on my side…” If you’d like to be on my side with things like the pandemic, and the fragility of modernity more broadly. Consider donating


The Tricky Business of Reality Construction

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I.

I was recently at a meetup with some Slate Star Codex readers, and I decided to bring up my impressions of The Deep Places by Ross Douthat, which I had recently read and reviewed. For those who may have missed the review, the book was a chronicle of Douthat’s struggles with chronic Lyme disease (CLD). The problem, both in the wider world and at the meetup, is that there are serious questions about the reality of this condition. Or as Wikipedia says:

Despite numerous studies, there is no evidence that symptoms associated with CLD are caused by any persistent infection…

From this we might say that in “reality”, at least as constructed by most doctors and at least some of the people attending the aforementioned meetup, CLD does not exist. According to them, Douthat was not suffering because he still had Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria (the cause of Lyme disease) in his body. On the other hand, the “reality” Douthat constructed asserts the exact opposite.

Recently this business of reality construction, or more formally, the discipline of epistemology, has become a lot more complicated, and for me the primary appeal of Douthat’s book was that he explained the minutia of his reality construction project—down to the studs as they say. His own journey from CLD doubter to CLD believer, and all the empirical evidence he collected which supported this transition.

One assumes that when the doctors and the participants of the meetup take issue with the existence of CLD that they are taking issue with this journey, and the manner in which Douthat has gone about constructing this reality. These issues presumably extend to other sufferers, and of course the rogue doctors who do believe in the existence of CLD.

We’ll get to the conflict within the healthcare establishment in a bit, but first I want to consider the pushback I got at the meetup. I’ll confess I was surprised by the certainty that was exhibited. First I would think that someone’s priors on the assertion “mainstream medicine never makes mistakes” would have taken a significant hit during the pandemic. Second, the people pushing back weren’t dogmatically committed to all of the claims of mainstream medicine. More than one fringe idea had already been asserted as being true by the people pushing back.

For example, one of the most vociferous anti-CLD arguments came from someone who had already claimed that soap doesn’t work. So in the reality he had constructed, CLD was all in one’s head, but so were the benefits of using soap when showering. Of course both things may be true in some objective sense, but I’m interested in how he arrived at each of them given that one—his rejection of CLD—is totally in line with constructing reality using the “lumber” of medical authorities, while the other—his rejection of soap—is the exact opposite. But of course these days one has all sorts of material to choose from when constructing a reality, and perhaps his technique for getting at “truth” involves using different material depending on the seriousness of the subject (is this a load bearing wall?) and the quality of the evidence. And perhaps one can construct a perfectly secure foundation upon which both facts can rest.

The point is not to criticize his particular construction methodology, but to point out how many methodologies the modern world has given us, and the difficulty of determining which of them to use, particularly since combining different ones may in fact produce the best results.

To use Douthat as an example of how things have changed. In the not too distant past he would have had a handful of doctors available to consult, who had a handful of medicines to recommend, and that was it. These days the number of specialized doctors has multiplied, and some of them might have a podcast or a blog. The number of medicines has also vastly increased. To this can be added a nearly infinite variety of supplements. Douthat could also exchange info with sufferers from all over the world on social media. And even if he’s trying to be exceptionally rigorous and go straight to scientific papers, there are hundreds of those as well. Beyond all this, perhaps the biggest change is that Lyme disease only became endemic over the last 50 years.

On the other hand, it could be argued that having so many methodologies and materials to choose from has been, on net, a bad thing. That having wide agreement on something that’s 80% true may be better for society than having the ability for a small number of people to get to 99% truth.

Before moving on, I should hasten to add that while I used this one person as an example, I’m not in any sense trying to make him look bad or prove him wrong. In fact part of my point is that without coming to a consensus on a decision making framework it might not even be possible to “prove” him wrong. Also I like this guy, he’s obviously smart, probably smarter than me. And interestingly enough he wasn’t even the only “anti-soaper” at the meetup. What I’m mostly interested in is how the construction of reality and the pursuit of truth has become so fractured recently. 

II.

Obviously Douthat is not the only person trying to get down to the “studs” of reality, and I thought his book was interesting and useful not only because of its detail, but because of its subject matter. Discussing the “reality” of a disease would appear to be more tractable than a discussion of the “reality” of racism. While we might someday discover a way of detecting lingering Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria in sufferers of CLD, we are unlikely to come up with some similar methodology for detecting racial animus in the human soul. Also, everyone is currently involved in their own, similar reality construction project with respect to COVID, and many of the questions Douthat was asking about CLD are being asked in various forms by billions of people and thousands of organizations.

As interesting as it might be to wade into that mess, it might be more productive to look at how reality was constructed during the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Obviously the tools available to doctors in 1918 were much more limited than the tools we have available now. Vaccination was still in its infancy, and the first flu vaccine was still 20 years away. But they did have some drugs available. In particular, people tried using aspirin and quinine to combat the disease. Hydroxychloroquine is a synthetic version of quinine, which provides one of the many fascinating parallels between the two pandemics. In both cases, the best science says that they were/are ineffective. The story of aspirin, however, is where it gets interesting.

Aspirin had not been around for very long at this point, and it truly was (and still is) kind of a wonder drug, but there was also a lot that wasn’t understood about it. Doctors, unable to do much of anything else, recommended that people take a lot of aspirin—as in an amount that these days is considered dangerous. Meaning that overuse of aspirin may have contributed to the death rate. This idea was first proposed in a 2009 paper, and it’s worth quoting the abstract of that paper in full:

The high case-fatality rate—especially among young adults—during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic is incompletely understood. Although late deaths showed bacterial pneumonia, early deaths exhibited extremely “wet,” sometimes hemorrhagic lungs. The hypothesis presented herein is that aspirin contributed to the incidence and severity of viral pathology, bacterial infection, and death, because physicians of the day were unaware that the regimens (8.0–31.2 g per day) produce levels associated with hyperventilation and pulmonary edema in 33% and 3% of recipients, respectively. Recently, pulmonary edema was found at autopsy in 46% of 26 salicylate-intoxicated adults. Experimentally, salicylates increase lung fluid and protein levels and impair mucociliary clearance. In 1918, the US Surgeon General, the US Navy, and the Journal of the American Medical Association recommended use of aspirin just before the October death spike. If these recommendations were followed, and if pulmonary edema occurred in 3% of persons, a significant proportion of the deaths may be attributable to aspirin.

I only uncovered this fascinating bit of information in the course of writing this post. Which was surprising, I would have thought that it would be one of the major pieces of evidence brought forward by the anti-medical establishment crowd. (And maybe it is and I just missed it.) I am not interested in using it in this fashion. I’m more interested in using it to illustrate the differences between now and then. Back then there were conspiracy theories about aspirin killing people, but they all revolved around the idea that aspirin was made by Bayer and Bayer was a German company. And, when the Spanish Flu emerged, and during that October death spike, we were still at war with Germany. We know now that they were right to be cautious about aspirin (though for the wrong reasons), but it took until 2009 for us to figure out the “reality” of the situation.

Not only is this example more productive because it avoids current, unresolved controversies, it’s productive because it provides a contrast between the reality construction materials available in 1918 and those available today. The primary difference being of course the scarcity of our metaphorical construction materials back then as compared to the abundance we currently possess. In 1918, authority and science were far more monolithic. The number of potential treatments was far smaller. To the extent people were looking for nefarious schemes the narrative of these schemes was simpler. “We’re at war with Germany! They must be behind it!” But of all the differences perhaps the most consequential is that there was far, far, far less data.

Had the same thing played out during the current pandemic (and it has though perhaps in reverse with ivermectin) there might still be people blaming the Germans, but they would also be blaming the Chinese and the Russians, Big Pharma, and Bill Gates. There would also be people pointing out the results of past studies about the harms of aspirin; new studies would be conducted,and huge debates would erupt over the methodology of all of these studies and their statistical significance. Some people would start refusing to take any aspirin for any reason and some would make it a point of pride to take exactly the recommended dosage. There would be pro- and anti- aspirin blogs, and subreddits and message boards and personalities dedicated to each side. 

The big advantage of all the data, of all the methodologies, of all the reality construction materials available to us, is that unlike the doctors of 1918 we would almost certainly uncover the truth. We would also uncover 99 other explanations for things that weren’t the truth, and some people, perhaps many, would have a hard time deciding which of the 100 explanations to believe. Now to be fair, I’m probably exaggerating the uncertainty. Our science is powerful enough that we would reach consensus on the harmful effects of taking 31 grams of aspirin (31 grams!! I still can’t get over that) pretty quickly. But here we arrive at another difference between today and 1918. We have plucked all the low hanging fruit. In those places where reality was straightforward to construct it has already been built. The questions we need to form opinions on today are far more subtle. 

III. 

As I was writing this post I finished reading Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen. (You can find my review here.) As is so often the case, after coming across a new idea, you’re tempted to think it explains everything. It almost certainly doesn’t, it’s just the idea is recent, but while that’s the case I’m going to dig into what it explains about this problem. Deneen makes a particular point of talking about the bifurcation of liberalism, that there is a massive increase in individualism coupled with a massive increase in government authority. While this split manifests in lots of different ways, I think the problems Deneen describes mostly stem from how this results in two different levels of reality construction. We have pushed it to the very highest levels as well as to the deepest recesses of the soul.

The promise of science is that if we devote enough resources toward answering a particular question we can arrive at the Truth, or at least an answer with a high probability of being true. When the question is “What are the effects of taking 31 grams of aspirin every day?” our methodology works pretty well. But what about the effects of taking less than 100 milligrams a day? Since 2007 doctors have recommended that people over 40 with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease take a small daily dose of aspirin, generally in the 75 mg to 100 mg range. But now 15 years later they have backed off of the recommendation somewhat, particularly for older individuals, recommending that people over 70 avoid it entirely. 

I and others have written about the difficulties of creating a broad scientific consensus, so I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing that, but the presence and difficulty of such efforts should be kept in mind as we continue our exploration of how people construct the reality of their own lives, of what happens in the “deepest recesses of the soul”. Here again disease, and more broadly health and wellness in general, provide a great arena for this investigation.

The internet has empowered individual reality construction to a remarkable degree, but when considering health and wellness what’s striking is the degree to which it has also legitimated these individualized efforts. If you tell someone that you found some advice online or a technique or some other wisdom and you tried it out and it made you feel better, most people would, at minimum, applaud you for being proactive and responsible. Beyond that, even if they had doubts about whether a particular bit of wisdom was actually backed by science, a majority would nevertheless congratulate you on your improved sense of well-being. The assumption being that however bizarre your beliefs, how could they ever be more of an authority on your health than you are?

This is the other big thing about individual health and wellness: the empiricism is individual as well. To return to the anti-soapers, this appears to be what happened. They discovered some advice on the internet that recommended showering without soap. Something that would never have happened 30 years ago. They then tried it out, did their own n=1 experiment and decided that it produced a better outcome as far as health, and moved to make it part of their lifestyle. And as I mentioned it’s weird that at least one of them (maybe both, I don’t recall) objected to Douthat’s description of CLD, because that’s precisely what he did as well, only he spent much more time and went much deeper with his efforts.

In my review of Douthat’s book I ended with some questions for those who doubted his assessment. I’m going to end this section and begin the next by revisiting them.

First, the question I’m most curious about: what do these people (the doubters) imagine they would do if they were in Douthat’s shoes? If they had the same symptoms and those symptoms all responded in the same way to the same things? Would they still not believe in CLD? Or do they imagine that it couldn’t happen to them and thus the question is irrelevant? (Asserting their own immunity seems to be something of a matter of faith so we should probably set it aside.) Finally, what do they think is going on? Even if you believe that it’s all in someone’s head, which I think is what the guy from the meetup was claiming, you’re still unlikely to think that the right argument or the right set of facts will make someone go from experiencing symptoms to not experiencing them. (“This brochure cured me!”) Particularly given that the person suffering from the disease is probably, as illustrated by Douthat, actually open to any argument if it will just bring them relief

Still, I would be interested in taking a closer look at any advice the person might have on alternative reality construction methods Douthat should have used instead of the one he did. Because I think he tried most of them, which is another thing that made the book so impactful for me. Douthat starts with the mainstream view of CLD, he really wants to believe there’s no such thing, it’s only when his symptoms persist that he is eventually convinced. Which is why I’m so curious what doubters imagine they would do if they were in Douthat’s shoes.

It’s time to finally jump from diseases to a broader discussion of the problems of reality construction. Which takes us to the next question from my review. What is your position on fringe diseases and other fringe beliefs? Do your views entirely conform to those held by the mainstream medical establishment? 

To come at it from a different angle, we can imagine that there are some problems that are basically part of everyone’s reality: flu, cancer or broken bones as diagnosed by an x-ray. And then there are health issues almost no one thinks are real, like electromagnetic hypersensitivity (If you’ve seen the TV show Better Call Saul it’s what his brother Chuck suffers from.) But then there is clearly a large gray area between these two extremes. 

Where does one draw the line between real problems and fake problems? Your first impulse might be to make an argument around evidence and data. Or if either of those is insufficient, to gather more. To draw the line by referring to science or conducting more of it. If you really wanted to go the extra mile you could assign probabilities, perhaps as some sort of Bayesian exercise. This brings me to another question from my review: When someone says they don’t believe in CLD or for that matter electromagnetic hypersensitivity, what certainty level does this equate to? 51%? 90%? 100%? How certain are they that it’s made up? It might be said that my chief argument for this post is that modernity rather than delivering certainty has ended up burning it under a mountain of data subject to endless revisions. And it might be said that my chief argument with respect to Douthat’s book is that it should be impossible for someone to read it and reach the end possessing the same certainty they had going in.

What does one do with this large area in the middle? With diseases that are neither completely understood, nor obviously in someone’s head? Or to expand it out, most people obviously believe that COVID is real, but there’s still a huge debate over how dangerous it is, how best to deal with it, and whether such measures have unintended consequences, debates which I won’t rehash here. Beyond that is a whole universe of issues unrelated to disease where the science isn’t clear. 

We have long imagined that the tools of modernity, most especially science, would allow us to increase our certainty and end these debates. That they would make us better at the business of reality construction. But it seems increasingly clear that the opposite has happened. Why is that? 

I’ll conclude by trying to gather together the elements I have already discussed, while also introducing a couple of new ones:

  1. All of the problems we have left are subtle ones: We have picked all the low-hanging fruit and now all that’s left are issues where the data is messy and hard to collect.
  2. People recognize the power of science and so it’s become a weapon: This can range from researchers trying to make a name for themselves with exciting results to science being twisted to political ends.
  3. The bifurcation: We have individuals who feel empowered to collect and disseminate their own “science” on the one hand, and the government trying to generalize all data into something they can recommend universally. The former generates too much nuance, the latter too little.
  4. The flood of data: Closely related to the above, we have an enormous quantity and variety of reality construction tools available to us. Not only are there the standard observations about the internet, but we’re also doing far more science. There are dozens of studies just on the effectiveness of ivermectin. 
  5. What’s possible: Something I haven’t seen mentioned a lot, and perhaps it deserves its own post: modernity has increased the number of possible realities. In 1918 you could imagine that the flu was a disease or you could imagine that Bayer was doing something to aspirin tablets, and really only the first withstood scrutiny. These days you can imagine that COVID is natural, that it’s a natural virus which leaked from a lab, that it’s an artificial virus which was created using gain of function research which then leaked from a lab, or possibly something else, and find plenty of data to support any conclusion. Beyond that because we have DNA-sequencing and can identify how different omicron is, it’s possible to have an entirely different set of answers for this variant vs. the alpha variant. And I’m just scratching the surface.

Modernity has given us far more tools and far more materials with which to construct our individual realities. Some have taken these tools and materials and done great things with them. But some have taken them and used them in unintended and strange ways. By and large because reality construction has become so tricky, we’ve mostly gotten a lot worse at it, both individually and collectively. And if we can’t build a secure and consensual “reality”, well… we’re not going to be doing much of anything else either.


COVID spelt backwards is DIVOC and as our own battle against COVID seems to be traveling that direction it’s worth asking what DIVOC going on. Thank you folks, I’m here every week. If you appreciate that, consider donating.


The 7 Books I Finished in December

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  1. Why Liberalism Failed by: Patrick J. Deneen
  2. Leviathan Falls by: James S. A. Corey
  3. Termination Shock by: Neal Stephenson
  4. The Histories of Herodotus by: Herodotus 
  5. The Golden Transcendence by: John C. Wright
  6. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by: Charlie MacKesy
  7. Doctrine and Covenants

I had hoped to finish at least 104 books this year. There are a couple of reasons for this: First, it’s what I did last year. Second, it would mean I had averaged two books a week. Unfortunately I only ended up with 102. I was very close to finishing two other books, but between the holidays, the big extended family trip we take every year between Christmas and New Years, and, most of all, getting COVID. (Yes, for those following along at home, my PCR test was positive.) I eventually decided it would be better to start 2022 a little bit ahead, than try to fit in a bunch of feverish reading on the last day of the year.

You may have guessed that there was a connection between COVID, and the “big extended family trip”. Indeed there was. But in retrospect, even knowing that I, and many others, would end up with COVID, I’m not sure what we would have done differently. When you’re doing a vacation that involves over 30 people it’s kind of a juggernaut, with spending well into the five figures. Also Omicron really only spiked a few days before we were set to leave, so we didn’t have the information necessary to make the decision to cancel the trip in time even if it had made sense to. On top of all of the foregoing, it’s not as if we were ignoring the problem. We did a bunch of rapid tests immediately before the trip and they all came up negative. And basically everyone was vaccinated and most people (including myself) were boosted on top of that.

I suspect that there will be a lot of stories similar to mine of holiday gatherings that acted as super spreader events . One can already see a huge recent spike in cases, which appears to be almost vertical. It’s interesting to compare this spike to last year’s holiday spike. Last year the spike started in mid-October. This year, in mid-October, cases were still declining from a September peak, and it wasn’t until the end of November that they started turning up, and then there was a weird plateau between the 3rd and the 17th of December before they shot up like a rocket. 

I guess what I’m curious about is when we’ll hit the daily case peak and how high will that peak be? Last year we peaked on the 12th of January, but that’s the peak of a trend that started in mid-October, but also grew more slowly. This year’s started later, but is growing much faster. So based on that and eyeballing things I think it’s going to peak and start it’s decline around January 15th. As far as what that peak will be, I’m going to say 2,500 daily cases per million people as per the ourworldindata.org site. Should anyone want to make their own predictions on this I’d be very interested in seeing them. You can email me or leave them in the comments.

A lot of things could affect this number, in particular attitudes around and availability of testing. I had to wait in line for two hours in order to get my PCR test on the 31st, and my kids had to wait four hours on the 3rd despite getting in line several hours earlier. 

Of course, what we’re really interested in is confirmed deaths and so far that hasn’t spiked, and hopefully it won’t.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Why Liberalism Failed

by: Patrick J. Deneen

248 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

It’s difficult to condense it into a single point, but perhaps it can be boiled down into the conflict between liberalism and democracy. The former pulls everything to the opposite extremes of individualism or globalism, while the latter requires strong civic engagement in the middle (communities, states, organizations, etc.)

Who should read this book?

I’ve read many books about the collapse of Western liberal ideology. I would say that this is the densest. So you should either read it after you’ve established a broad foundation with other books. Or if you’re in a hurry, only read this one since it contains most of what’s said elsewhere.

General Thoughts

As I have already said, there’s a lot going on in the book. Deneen covers a huge amount of territory, in a comparatively tiny number of pages. So I’m going to focus on just one thing, his claim that liberalism pushes everything to the ends of the spectrum—it is an ideology that simultaneously pushes politics towards maximum individualism and maximum statism.

I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t come across this description of the bifurcated nature of liberalism before and at first glance it seems obviously contradictory. How can an ideology simultaneously encourage individuation and absolutism? As it turns out, despite the fact that I hadn’t encountered the idea it’s not new. Alexis de Tocqueville, that famous chronicler of Democracy in America, wrote the following all the way back in 1835:

So … no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must be neither seen quite separately nor confused, give the citizen of a democracy extremely contradictory instincts. He is full of confidence and pride in his independence among his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold. In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity [the tutelary state] which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement. His needs, and even more his longings, continually put him in mind of that entity, and he ends by regarding it as the sole and necessary support of his individual weakness

To put it in different terms, if you want maximum liberty some entity has to guarantee that liberty. And as we have decided against individuals ensuring their own liberty, (i.e. armed anarchy) that entity is the state. Here’s Deneen going into greater detail.

Ironically, the more completely the sphere of autonomy is secured, the more comprehensive the state must become. Liberty, so defined, requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms. These controls were largely cultural, not political—law was less extensive and existed largely as a continuation of cultural norms, the informal expectations of behavior learned through family, church, and community. With the liberation of individuals from these associations, there is more need to regulate behavior through the imposition of positive law. At the same time, as the authority of social norms dissipates, they are increasingly felt to be residual, arbitrary, and oppressive, motivating calls for the state to actively work toward their eradication.

This creates a tension between liberalism and democracy, because in essence liberalism hinges on changing what “liberty” has historically meant:

“Liberty” is a word of ancient lineage, yet liberalism has a more recent pedigree, being arguably only a few hundred years old. It arises from a redefinition of the nature of liberty to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. By ancient and Christian understandings, liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by the individual or by a political community. Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty— requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites—the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice.

Democracy, in fact, cannot ultimately function in a liberal regime. Democracy requires extensive social forms that liberalism aims to deconstruct, particularly shared social practices and commitments that arise from thick communities, not a random collection of unconnected selves entering and exiting an election booth.

“Thick communities” is a great term, and it’s precisely what we don’t have any more. We have carved out the middle so that there will be no restrictions on individual choice, and created Hobbes’ Leviathan in order to have a weapon equal to the task.

I can only pretend to have the smallest amount of understanding of this subject, but I definitely got a strong sense of that former definition of liberty, a liberty of self-discipline, while reading Plato. And what I have read beyond that would seem to support this idea. And of course it was this virtue, these associations, religions, communities, and norms which represent the “thickness” we no longer have.

For a more modern example of what he’s talking about, Deneen brings up the example of Julia. If you were paying attention during the 2012 election then perhaps you remember Julia. 

Julia appeared briefly toward the beginning of Obama’s campaign as a series of internet slides in which it was demonstrated that she had achieved her dreams through a series of government programs that, throughout her life, had enabled various milestones… In Julia’s world there are only Julia and the government, with the very brief exception of a young child who appears in one slide—with no evident father—and is quickly whisked away by a government-sponsored yellow bus, never to be seen again. Otherwise, Julia has achieved a life of perfect autonomy, courtesy of a massive, sometimes intrusive, always solicitous, ever-present government.

You may get the impression from the examples given so far and my generally traditional bent that this is all a problem originating from progressive liberalism. And indeed it’s hard to think of a better example of massive government intrusion in the service of individual autonomy than the current battle over transgender rights. But Deneen heaps just as much criticism on classical liberalism and their valorization of corporations and markets. I’m probably not the guy to steelman that particular argument, but it is worth including an excerpt on how left and right are two sides of the same coin:

These ends have been achieved through the depersonalization and abstraction advanced via two main entities— the state and the market. Yet while they have worked together in a pincer movement to render us ever more naked as individuals, our political debates mask this alliance by claiming that allegiance to one of these forces will save us from the depredations of the other. Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism will purportedly advance our freedom and security—the space of the market, which collects our billions upon billions of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding from us any specific thought or intention about the wants and needs of others; or the liberal state, which establishes depersonalized procedures and mechanisms for the wants and needs of others that remain insufficiently addressed by the market.

When he goes on to identify the “key features of liberalism” as the “conquest of nature”, “timelessness”, “placelessness”, and “borderlessness”, this list of attributes is mostly associated with classical liberalism, rather than it’s progressive brother.

I need to wrap up this section. I understand that the review has been heavy on quotes and excerpts. In part this is because, as I write this, I’m still recovering from COVID, and copying is easier than composing. In part it’s because there are so many passages worthy of excerpting. With that in mind I would like to close out the section with one final excerpt:

Today’s widespread yearning for a strong leader, one with the will to take back popular control over liberalism’s forms of bureaucratized government and globalized economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance. The breakdown of family, community, and religious norms and institutions, especially among those benefiting least from liberalism’s advance, has not led liberalism’s discontents to seek a restoration of those norms. That would take effort and sacrifice in a culture that now diminishes the value of both. Rather, many now look to deploy the statist powers of liberalism against its own ruling class. Meanwhile, huge energies are spent in mass protest rather than in self-legislation and deliberation, reflecting less a renewal of democratic governance than political fury and despair. Liberalism created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.

Eschatological Implications

It is commonly pointed out, both by this book, and others, that at the beginning of the 20th century there were three competing political ideologies: fascism, communism, and liberalism. Fascism was eliminated as a competitor by World War II (unless you think that’s what’s happening in China) and communism was eliminated by the end of the Cold War (again, depending on what you think is happening in China.) In an ideal world this would mean we now live in an era of international cooperation and peace between liberal nations, where the protection and celebration of individual autonomy has led to unprecedented happiness within those nations. The first part would appear to be mostly true, whether it will remain true is a subject for another time. But whatever the state of the world at the international level, no one would say that we are experiencing unprecedented happiness. The question: why not? Is an interesting one, but in the context of this book I’d rather ask: why now?

Deneen explanations for liberalism’s failures go all the way back to the founding, and beyond to people like Locke, Hobbes, Burke and Mill. If the seeds of liberalism’s failure have been in the ground for so long, why are they only sprouting now? In one sense a large percentage of this blog’s content has been dedicated to answering that question. But if we restrict ourselves to the themes outlined in the book I’d like to consider two specific explanations:

The first, and the one Deneen emphasizes the most is that liberalism’s recent failure is a result of its recent victory. That all of our current problems are due to liberalism essentially winning the race and crossing the finish line.

A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.

We have recently achieved near perfect bifurcation. People have basically no limits on their choices, except those which have been imposed by nine judges operating at the very highest level of government oversight, and then such laws are backed by the force of trillions of dollars and millions of enforcers. We have achieved the absolute leviathan and the perfectly autonomous individual. 

Or rather we are getting very close to this achievement, certainly far closer than anyone ever dreamed of and the means of doing that bring up the second explanation for “why now?” As is so often the case, technology has played a role.

Liberalism was premised upon the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control. But growing numbers of citizens regard the government as an entity separate from their own will and control, not their creature and creation as promised by liberal philosophy. The “limited government” of liberalism today would provoke jealousy and amazement from tyrants of old, who could only dream of such extensive capacities for surveillance and control of movement, finances, and even deeds and thoughts. The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect—individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech, and self-governance—are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet this expansion continues, largely as a response to people’s felt loss of power over the trajectory of their lives in so many distinct spheres—economic and otherwise—leading to demands for further intervention by the one entity even nominally under their control. Our government readily complies, moving like a ratchet wrench, always in one direction, enlarging and expanding in response to civic grievances, ironically leading in turn to citizens’ further experience of distance and powerlessness. (emphasis mine)

The big theme of both of these explanations and of Deneen’s quotes in general is that liberalism has reached a dead end, and going forward will only make things worse. Unfortunately there’s no easy way of backing up either. Perhaps, to strain the metaphor somewhat, we need to climb some nearby wall, and find a new road. But it’s unclear which wall to climb or what that road might look like. Deneen thinks we need a completely new ideology, an “epic theory”.

When the book was first published he believed that such a project would take a very long time, events since then have changed his mind. From a preface attached to the new edition:

I now believe I was wrong to think that this project would take generations. Even in the months since the book’s publication, the fragility of the liberal order has become evident, now threatened by both right-wing nationalist movements and left-wing socialism. Instead of imagining a far-off and nearly inconceivable era when the slow emergence of liberalism’s alternatives might become fully visible from its long-burning embers, we find ourselves in a moment when “epic theory” becomes necessary. The long era in which we could be content with “normal theory,” working within the existing paradigm to explore the outermost reaches and distant implications of liberalism while also signaling its solidity and permanence, has ended. Epic theory becomes necessary when that paradigm loses its explanatory power, and events call forth a new departure in political thinking. When I was writing the conclusion of my book, I believed we were in a long phase of preparation for postliberal epic theory. But in mere months—having seen the American political order assaulted by two parties that are in a death grip but each lacking the ability to eliminate the other, and observing the accelerating demolition of the liberal order in Europe—I now think that the moment for “epic theory” has come upon us more suddenly than we could have anticipated. Such moments probably always arrive before we think we are ready. Augustine’s City of God was made necessary by the sudden and unexpected overturning of the “eternal” Roman order in A.D. 410. It seems more apparent every day that a comparable epoch-defining book must arise from our age, and I hope some young reader of this book will be the person to write it.

With his comments on right-wing nationalism and left-wing socialism, he alludes to the idea that perhaps we’ll return to liberalism’s vanquished alternatives: fascism and communism. But it’s hard to imagine that our salvation lies in either of those directions. Deneen suggests as much with his call for an epic theory, but it’s hard to imagine salvation coming from that corner either. More likely we’ve reached the end of history and instead of discovering a durable paradise we’ve uncovered a tumultuous hell.


II- Capsule Reviews

Leviathan Falls

by: James S. A. Corey

528 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book concludes The Expanse series, finally dealing with the issue of the malevolent elder gods who destroyed the ring builders. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve made it through the first eight books in this series I can’t imagine that you would be reluctant to read one more book to see how it all ends. For those who have read only some of the previous eight books, or who perhaps haven’t read any of them, and are hesitating because they want to know if the series as a whole has a satisfying arc. I would say that it does. 

General Thoughts

Ending things is tough, and there are many works of art—books, TV shows, series of all kinds—which succeed right up until that point, only to fail when it comes time to tie up all the loose ends. Art whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. So how does Corey do with the job of ending The Expanse? I would give it a 7 out of 10. So not perfect, but better than average. It was solid, but not extraordinary.

In order to explain my mild dissatisfaction I’m going to go into mild spoiler territory. So if you’d rather avoid that sort of thing skip the next paragraph.

I came away with the strong feeling that when the ring builders and their destruction were introduced at the end of the third book, that Corey (who is actually two people btw…) had not quite figured out the nature of the ring builders or the nature of their enemies. So when it comes time to conclude things, some of the things they had already established no longer made sense. I understand this is being kind of picky, but a really great ending is all about revealing the grand plan you’ve had from the very beginning. And in this case those disparities made the plan less grand, or at least less elegant. It left one with the feeling that perhaps they were making it up as they went along.

Still as somewhat pulpy science fiction goes, this was a great series, and if you’ve been thinking about either picking it up or continuing it. I would recommend that you do so. 


Termination Shock: A Novel

by: Neal Stephenson

720 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A hard headed Texas businessman, the Dutch Queen, and other assorted characters decide to solve global warming through geoengineering.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes Stephenson already. If you have no strong opinion or haven’t read anything he’s written this book is not a bad place to start. 

General Thoughts

The last time I reviewed a Stephenson novel I paid special recognition to a horribly awkward sex scene he had included. There is more of that in this book, though he’s managed to move things in the direction of humorous double entendres, making things both less explicit and less cringe-worthy, but for me it was still a false note. Perhaps the only one, because other than that I quite enjoyed the book, particularly the characters of T.R. and Rufus. After being somewhat disappointed in his last two books (Seveneves and Fall) this felt like a return to form.


The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

by: Herodotus 

1024 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s the founding book of western history, which describes the rise of the Persian empire and the Greco-Persian war, among other things.

Who should read this book?

If you have any interest in ancient history or the genesis of the West, this book is not only important, but eminently accessible.

General Thoughts

This is the third time I’ve read Herodotus. I picked it up again because I couldn’t resist this new edition which has all kinds of maps and appendices. The hardback is pretty expensive but you can pick up the paperback for $15. In it you’ll find all sorts of great stories, including the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Creosus of Lydia (call no man happy until he’s dead), and Herodotus’ great attempt at explaining why the Nile floods.

On this third reading I spent a lot of time wondering how much the Greco-Persian war contributed to the whole idea of the “Western World”. As a foundational myth, the story of the tiny city states of Greece taking on the million man army of Xerxes of Persia, and miraculously, winning, is hard to beat. Now, of course, modern historians doubt that Xerxes had anywhere close to the numbers Herodotus claims, but one assumes that most of the people reading the account in the thousands of years since it was first written didn’t know this. 


The Golden Transcendence: Or, The Last of the Masquerade 

by: John C. Wright

414 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The final book in The Golden Age Trilogy, which kind of ends in the way you would expect a series like this to end, with a bunch of philosophy added in for good measure.

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. It’s a weird mix of metaphysics, Victorian adventure story, transhumanism, love story and AI ethics. Which, yes, could be awesome, but it requires all of them to be subtly intertwined, and one thing this trilogy is not, is subtle. 

General Thoughts

I’m glad I read the trilogy. If nothing else, the world-building was great. In particular Wright did a great job of describing a full spectrum of transhuman possibilities. One that was far larger than what you find in most futuristic science fiction. But now that I’m done I think it’s another series where the author’s ambition exceeded his ability to execute. But if you’re just looking for a whole mess of interesting ideas, this series has that in spades.


The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

by: Charlie MacKesy

128 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s not so much what the book is about, but what it looks like. It’s more a work of visual art than it is a story.

Who should read this book?

Everywhere I turned I was hearing about this book. So I read it to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a beautiful book with a sweet message. But it might be one of those things that’s famous for being famous…

General Thoughts

It’s probably going to take me longer to write this review than it did to read the book. (It took me about 20 minutes to read the book.) And I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s a typical children’s book, and I’m not sure I’ve read enough of those recently to be qualified to pass judgment. It struck me as being pretty saccharine. Here are three consecutive pages:

“Life is difficult — but you are loved.”

“So you know all about me?” asked the boy. “Yes.” Said the horse. “And you still love me?” “We love you all the more.”

“Sometimes I think you believe in me more than I do.” Said the boy. “You’ll catch up.” Said the horse.

It’s entirely possible that I am too jaded to give an objective opinion.


III- Religious Review

Doctrine and Covenants

296 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is part of the scriptural canon of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). It consists of modern day revelations received by Joseph Smith, mostly in the 1830’s, along with a few additional revelations received by subsequent prophets.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the Church, then I would suggest reading the Book of Mormon first, but the Doctrine and Covenants also has some really great stuff.

General Thoughts

Within the Church last year was dedicated to studying Church history and the Doctrine and Covenants, which is how this ended up as one of the books I read. Obviously you can cover a lot of territory in a full year, and I can only cover a tiny portion of that in a single review. So I figured I’d just provide my two favorite passages. The first is from Doctrine and Covenants Section 58, verses 26-28:

26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

This first one came to me with particular impact many years ago when I was unemployed and fighting a lawsuit. At the time I was praying every day for guidance, and it wasn’t coming. And then I came across those verses, which I had heard many times (particularly verse 26) but they had never hit me before like they hit me that day. And I realized that it was up to me. That I needed to do what I thought was best, and that in a sense the whole thing was a test. Phrasing it like this, probably trivializes it, but perhaps if I move onto the other verse it will make more sense. This one is from Section 93, verse 30:

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

Existence and intelligence are about making choices, and acting for ourselves. If you’re familiar with my extensive writings on the relationship between LDS cosmology and the AI alignment problem then you might be able to see some connection between that and this verse. 

One of the reasons why I continue to be a very devout member of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints is that this model (which I have only touched on in the most superficial way) continues to make sense to me, and explains the world at least as well if not better than anything else I’ve come across in my reading and searching.

I’ve seen a lot of things recently that would seem to indicate that anyone who reads as much as I do is a pseudo-intellectual who’s just trying to run up the score, not really engaging with what they read. If you disagree with that. If you happen to like how much I read and the reviews it generates, consider donating.