Category: <span>Science</span>

Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Review of Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

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For those who read my last post, you know what’s coming, a review of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier. I debated whether I should follow my standard review format, and after much back and forth, I decided to not only follow it, but add a section, so let’s start there:

Briefly, what is this book about?

Shrier is arguing that there has been a huge increase in the number of female teens identifying as transgender, and that this increase is not a result of long standing gender dysphoria, but rather the typical confusion and discomfort associated with puberty combined with a culture that celebrates transgender individuals. That in essence going through puberty is tough and being trans allows them to put that out of their mind while also being cool. Or in words of one of the teenagers she interviewed:

I don’t know exactly that I want to be a guy. I just know I don’t want to be a girl.

Who should read this book?

At the top of my list would be those people who instinctively recoil from Shrier’s argument, And who feel that all, or at least the vast majority of female teens who come out as trans are doing so for good and healthy reasons. BUT who are intellectually rigorous enough to want to be able to steelman the arguments of those on the other side. In saying this, I’m not saying that this book represents a perfectly crafted treatise, free from shortcomings, the book has many. But at the moment it’s the only book length treatment of the argument I’m aware of, and if you want to craft an understanding of the strongest argument being made, this is a critical piece of that. Also I think whatever imperfections it does have are magnified by how contentious the issue is. In my opinion, its mix of data and anecdotes is well ahead of the average Malcom Gladwell book, but he’s saying things people mostly want to hear. The same can not be said for this book, which because of how contentious it is, get’s held to a much higher standard, with any flaws serving as an excuse for dismissing the entire book.  I would urge you not to do that, but to approach the materially charitably. Someone, rather than spewing out 280 character “hot takes” on Twitter, has gone to the trouble of putting together 264 pages of material in support of their point. Isn’t that what we all say we want these days?

Beyond that, I would actually say that everyone should read this book. And yes the people I talked about in the last paragraph are included in the set of everyone, but I don’t know that just saying “everyone” would have been an effective persuasion technique for the aforementioned group. But for those who aren’t in that previous group, who may be wondering, “Why should I read it?” My argument would be that anytime a consensus starts hardening around a simple narrative, that it’s the duty of everyone in a healthy society to make sure that this narrative isn’t too simple, that important complexities and second order effects are not being overlooked and above all that the consensus itself is not mistaken. Because as I have pointed out it’s always worse when everyone makes a mistake than when only a few people make a mistake. And this seems like a situation where the consensus is wrong, and a large mistake is being abetted by this incorrect understanding. And the more people we have thinking about the problem the more likely we are to catch and arrest the mistake, if one is in fact being made.

General Thoughts

That, of course, is the key question, who in all of this is making a mistake? Is Shrier making a mistake? Or are doctors, transgender influencers, psychiatrists, the teenage girls claiming to be trans, and the culture at large making a mistake? Stated that way, Occam’s Razor would suggest that Shrier is making the mistake. But clearly, the fact that I’m devoting a whole post to the issue, would suggest that I don’t think that’s the case. Why is that? What makes me think that all of those groups might be making a mistake? What is it that suggests to me that Shrier might be right and all of those other people might be wrong?

Let’s start with Shrier. First, it’s important to note that her focus is very narrow. I think that many people, myself included, thought that the book would be a general indictment of all people identifying as transgender, but instead Shrier goes out of her way to make it clear that there are people who genuinely suffer from gender dysphoria, and for those people it’s possible that surgical transition might be the right choice. Her focus is not on those people, but rather the book seeks only to examine teenage and college age girls who identify as transgender, and whether they may be under the influence of a peer contagion effect, i.e. the obvious fact that teenage behavior can be influenced by the attitude of their peers. And Shrier’s not even arguing that all girls who “come out” as transgender are suffering from this peer contagion effect, only that many of them probably are, and that if we can identify that segment, we can end up with a better outcomes overall both for those girls and for society as a whole.

(Side note: In this post when I’m speaking of teenagers or teenage girls, I’m also including people in their early 20’s, but it seems cumbersome to have to write out “teenage and college age individuals” every time. Also while the phenomena Shrier is describing continues into the early 20’s it start’s much younger, and if policies, procedures and attitudes need to change that would probably be the place for it to happen.)

Beyond the narrowness of her focus, the other thing Shrier brings to the table is her own set of groups. The labels for the groups on her side of the issue are a little more convoluted, and they lack expert credentialing, but it’s an important list nonetheless. It includes the parents of transgender teens, detransitioners, and even some well known trasgender activists. And yes, also in that mix are some doctors, psychiatrists and a significant, though at this point, not dominant part of the culture.

Beyond all of this, having read the book, I think she has science and data on her side. For some people the idea that doctors and psychiatrists are driven by fads is obvious, to say nothing of how fad-driven the culture at large is. For others the burden is on those questioning the “experts”. I’m unlikely to sway the people in this latter category in the course of a single blog post, let alone in the course of a few paragraphs, but perhaps an example might help. 

In one of my previous posts (a few years back at this point) I talked about the opioid epidemic. I had just read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones (still highly recommended by the way), and the misuse of science in service of prescribing opioids documented by that book was insane. From that previous post: 

[T]he misuse of science, hinged on placing far too much weight on a one paragraph letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 which claimed that opiates only ended up causing addiction in 1% of people. Getting past the fact that the author never intended it to be used in the way it was, to base decades of pain management on one paragraph is staggeringly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible, when the pharmaceutical companies got around to trying to confirm the result they found that it didn’t hold up (to no one’s surprise) and they ended up burying and twisting the results they did get. The number of people that died of accidental overdoses directly or indirectly from this misuse of science is easily six figures, possibly seven, particularly since people are still dying. Of course in addition to the misuse of science there was the over reliance on science. I assume that on some level the pharmaceutical companies knew that they were not being scientific, but countless doctors, who were either naive or blinded by the gifts provided by the pharmaceutical company chose to at least pretend that they were doing what they were doing because science backed them up.

From this there would seem to be no question that doctors can screw up in a fashion which is both enormous and coordinated. As far as psychiatrists and therapists, it would appear safe to lump them into this same category of “medical professionals”, particularly given that the litany of their mistakes is just as long if not longer than the doctor’s. From our original list of people opposed to Shrier’s interpretation we still have to address the teenage girls claiming to be trans, transgender influencers, and the culture at large. We’ll come back to those claiming to be trans in a moment. Transgender influencers are probably the least objective actors in all of this, and anyone looking for evidence from that quarter is going to have a very hard separating the facts from the bias. Which leaves only the culture at large, and while their record of failure might be more forgivable than that of the doctors (who are expected to know better) it’s probably more extensive. Also isn’t this what we’re here to discuss? Whether current culture might be wrong on this topic?

It’s entirely possible that you’re still skeptical that all those people could be wrong, if so, let’s try approaching it from a different direction. The one thing we do have a pretty good handle on is the enormous increase of people identifying as trans and seeking treatment. Some statistics from the book to chew on:

  • Previous to the last five years the accepted statistic for the prevalence of gender dysphoria was 0.01 percent.
  • The prevalence of those identifying as transgender has increased by over 1,000 percent.
  • In Britain the increase is 4,000 percent.
  • 2% of highschool students now identify as trans.
  • Between 2016 and 2017 gender surgeries for natal females quadrupled. 
  • As of 2018 there had been a 4,400% rise over the previous decade in teenage girls seeking gender treatment.
  • “Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all.”

Taken together, even if you don’t agree with every point, or the conclusions Shrier draws from this data, the fact that there has been a significant increase in the number of people identifying as transgender and that this increase has been particularly notable among teenage and college age girls is hard to deny. (Nor do I think that many people do.) Something has changed dramatically over the last few years, and it’s worth identifying what that something is. I myself took a stab at this a couple of years ago in a two part post (1, 2) and at the time I came up with seven possible explanations, if you’re curious what they were I would direct you to those earlier posts. (Shrier’s explanation is a combination of my 5th and 7th explanations.) My point this time around is more narrow: If you don’t accept Shrier’s explanation for the increase what explanation are you willing to offer in its stead? And does this explanation fit the available data better? 

Here we return to considering the evidence provided by all of the girls who identify as transgender. One of the chief arguments against the idea that it’s some sort of crazy fad is that no one would go to all the trouble of binding their breasts, or taking hormones, to say nothing of actual surgery, if they weren’t serious. On its face, this argument seems reasonable, but on the other hand it’s important to remember that these are teenagers we’re talking about. A group not known for being exceptionally far-sighted or clear-thinking. A group who has no problem modifying their bodies with tattoos or piercings, which from a long term perspective seems very similar to binding, and at first glance binding probably appears less permanent.

As far as hormones, there seems to be every reason to suspect that teens view them similarly to other drugs they might consider ingesting, with if anything a bias to view them as less harmful than average because they are perceived to be both natural and corrective. Given that teenagers frequently make irresponsible decisions about drugs which are perceived as being neither of those things, anyone who argues that we can count on them to make responsible, well-informed decisions about trans specific drugs like puberty-blockers and hormones has got to be joking. 

When we finally extend this into the category of actual surgery, one would hope that there would be lots of safeguards in place before doing something so potentially life altering, but there are certainly many examples of people who had surgery and later regretted it, including the case of Keira Bell which was recently adjudicated in Britain. We’ll discuss Bell more later, but if we accept the “between 2016 and 2017 gender surgeries for natal females quadrupled” statistic mentioned above, unless we can come up with a better explanation for the increase than the one offered by Shrier it seems like we’re forced to assume that upwards of 75% of surgeries were conducted as part of this trend rather than being conducted on people with actual dysphoria. And that assumes that the 2016 numbers represent a floor, if the trend was already in motion at this point then it may be more than 75%. Finally is there anyone out there that thinks the number of surgeries has gone down since 2017? I wouldn’t bet on it.

You might be willing to grant my general point that teens are dumb, but still not be convinced that they would be dumb in precisely this way, which is certainly a reasonable objection. Out of all the ways for them to misbehave how does it come to pass that they choose this one? At first glance it seems uniquely harmful and misguided, but as it turns out, for reasons still very much in debate, teenage girls seem particularly susceptible to engaging in harmful trends. In modern times we’ve seen significant problems with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and cutting. Go just a little ways back in time and there was a huge fuss around repressed memories, particularly in conjunction with satanic ritual abuse and as far back as the late 1800’s we see this same group suffering from an epidemic of neurasthenia (essentially fainting and weakness). While we don’t have the space for a deep examination of the similarities between all of these conditions and Shrier’s hypothesis, it does seem clear that it’s not unheard of for a large number of teenage girls to engage in irrational and damaging behavior, that there is a precedent.

As I mentioned the debate is still raging on many of these issues, but we do have some pretty good theories for how a trend like this manages to spread. First, the term we’ve already encountered, the idea of peer contagion. If the massive increase was due just culture becoming more tolerant, if peers had nothing to do with it, we would expect the distribution of transgender teens to be fairly random and uniform. Instead we find, according to the book, that the prevalence of transgender identification within groups of friends is more than 70x the rate you would expect.

Also, while the idea that teenage behavior can be influenced by the attitude of their peers is almost the definition of teenage behavior, the modern world has introduced at least a few other things which contribute to and exacerbate the problem. The first, and most obvious is social media. Shrier provides the statistic that 65% of adolescent girls who decide they’re trans do so after a period of prolonged social media immersion. I understand that this is definitely a statistic which is subject to interpretation, for example what qualifies as “prolonged” and “immersion”? But it’s easy to see many different ways in which social media might contribute, first it makes the contagion part of the peer contagion effect worse. Social media does a great job of connecting people who feel different and marginalized. Everyone can easily imagine how this might be a force for good, but it’s clearly also something which can cause a lot of harm, by seeming to pathologize and amplify uncertainty that might otherwise be just a phase. Stepping into this highly connected environment are transgender influencers, who Shrier spends a lot of time discussing. These individuals have all the incentives in the world to make transitioning seem like a wonderful experience that solved all of their problems.

Finally social media allows people to compare themselves with the whole world, amplifying the peer part of the peer contagion phenomena. Currently, if a teenage girl is wondering if she’s “girly” enough, she can compare herself to the top 0.01% of all the girls in the world through the medium of things like Instagram. A situation where it is vastly easier to make comparisons and decide that you don’t measure up.

Related to this, but at the extremes, there is also the ubiquity of pornography to contend with. Shrier theorizes, and I think it’s a theory deserving consideration, that most pornography has the effect of making sexual activity as a hetrosexual female seem pretty unappealing. Not only is there an enormous amount of porn focused on various forms of humiliation, I also imagine there’s a perception that intimate moments are very likely to be recorded, leading to the very real fear that they will be added to the ranks of women being humiliated. Also a greater and greater majority of teenagers have no experience with sex outside of pornography. This quote from the book is too good not to include:

Many of the adolescent girls who adopt a transgender identity have never had a single sexual or romantic experience. They have never been kissed by a boy or a girl. What they lack in life experience, they make up for with a sex-studded vocabulary and avant-garde gender theory.

Finally, the general point I keep returning to over and over in this space, 100 years ago this issue, to the extent that it existed, was entirely different. Most of the things which are now central to people’s perception of what it means to transition hadn’t even been developed. There was no testosterone, no puberty blockers, and definitely no surgeries. If a significant and growing number of people now feel that they need these things which 100 years ago didn’t even exist, it would seem to say a lot more about the current age than some deep biological truth.

If at this point you are at least willing to entertain the idea that Shrier might be right, that some teenage girls are going to decide that they’re transgender for reasons other than actual gender dysphoria, and consequently any transition is going to end up being a mistake, and that the less these girls transition the better. If you’re willing to consider all of this what do you do now?

Certainly one of your first impulses would be to attempt to identify those individuals who won’t benefit from transition, who are using transition to avoid their problems rather than solve them. In these cases you wouldn’t “affirm” their new gender, or call them by different pronouns. You would take steps to keep them from binding, and definitely do everything in your power to prevent them from taking any drugs which might cause, as the title of the book suggests, irreversible damage. 

If you could be sure that you had accurately identified them then such steps would hopefully be uncontroversial. (I’m not sure that this would be the case, but one could hope). No most of the controversy comes over that first step. Even if we are convinced that there are people in this group, how do we identify them? From what was discussed above, and in other places in the book it sounds like there are a few attributes that set this segment apart:

  1. The transgender identification seems to come out of nowhere.
  2. It follows a period of intense social media consumption.
  3. It is closely associated with not fitting in, discomfort with the changes brought on by puberty, or outright depression.
  4. Friends or other peers of the teen have also recently announced that they’re transgender.

Those markers all seem pretty suspicious by themselves, but if all of them manifested together, it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t want to exercise caution. The problem is how do we accurately gauge which of these things might be true in any given case? Particularly if we’ve already decided that the teens themselves are confused and motivated to conceal things? For me the best resource would be the parents, and as a parent myself I am entirely aware of all the things I don’t know about my kids, but most of the things mentioned above should be reasonably obvious to any parent actually paying attention, particularly the first one. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with how things currently work. Even if teachers, therapists and doctors were inclined to push back, which they’re apparently not, parents still appear to be the last to get consulted on how to handle their child’s issues.

Irreversible Damage is as much a book about the parents of these teens as it is the teens themselves, and given that many (though not all) of these teens were unwilling to talk to Shrier she spends a lot of space on interviews with the parents. And while this does leave her open to charges of bias, there does seem to be a pretty consistent pattern:

Teen decides they’re transgender. They start going by a new name and new pronouns at school. This is not communicated to the parents. Parents eventually find out. None of the parents Shrier included (perhaps for obvious reasons) are hardcore conservatives who kick their kid out of the house, they’re generally the kind of people who vote Democrat and volunteer for Planned Parenthood. The parents are unsure how to react, but decide that they should call in outside help in the form a therapist or psychologist. They expect that this person will “get to the bottom of it” but instead they immediately start affirming the new gender identity and discussing drugs like puberty blockers or testosterone. Again without really involving the parent. Beyond all of this, Shrier points out that much of transgender advocacy has an anti-bullying element to it, following from this parents are oftentimes identified as the biggest bully of all. Which is to say, you’re taking the best resource for identifying that segment that might not benefit from transition and, at best sidelining them, and at worse demonizing them.

Now, as I mentioned this description of things probably has some baises: from the sources, the author and my own attempts to abbreviate it for impact and space, but Shrier did base much of this on responses to a survey of 256 parents of transgender teens, conducted by Dr. Lisa Littman, of Brown University. Here are some of the results:

  • Over 80% female
  • Mean age 16.4
  • Most lived at home
  • Vast majority had ZERO of the DSM-5 indicators of childhood gender dysphoria (six is necessary to qualify)
  • 1/3 had no indications of gender dysphoria even immediately beforehand
  • Majority had a diagnosed psychiatric condition, almost half were engaged in self-harm
  • 41% had expressed a non-hetrosexual sexual orientation before identifying as trans
  • 47.4% had been formally assessed as gifted
  • 70% belonged to a peer group where at least one friend was trans, in some the majority of friends were trans
  • 60% said it brought a popularity boost
  • 90% of parents were white
  • 70% of parents had bachelor’s or higher
  • 85% of parents supported same sex marriage
  • 64% of parents were labeled transphobic for asking the child to take more time to figure it out, etc.
  • Less than 13% believed that their child’s mental health had improved 47% said that it had worsened.

Littman conducted this survey as part of an attempt to quantify what she’s taken to labeling Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD, and I’m realizing I should have introduced that term much earlier in the post, but it’s too late now). Littman is one of the many researchers interviewed by Shrier, and her story might be a whole post on it’s own, but whatever else you may say the book is not composed of data-free rants from the fringe, people have done some actual legwork here.  Nor does the main recommendation of greater parental involvement in decisions of this magnitude seem like too much to ask.

Still even were this to happen it’s clear that debate would continue to rage over how best to tackle the problem. And many people would continue to insist that even if a person has only started identifying as transgender because of peer contagion, that there isn’t any harm in expecting people to switch to a new name and a new set of pronouns. This argument might have some merit, but many people go on to make this same argument about puberty blockers. Similarly arguing that there’s very little downside; that it’s just a way of hitting a pause button while the teenager in question makes up their mind. But here we get to another one of the book’s significant assertions: puberty blockers are not a way of buying time in order to make a decision, they are a decision. Shrier asserts that nearly 100% of teens who are put on puberty blockers go on to transition further. Now compare this to the old methodology which did not affirm the new gender or use any drugs. The methodology used on people who suffered dysphoria from a very young age, those cases which don’t appear to be ROGD, i.e. which didn’t come as a surprise to the child’s parents. Under this methodology 70% of people grew out of their dysphoria, which was not only longer lasting, but arguably more deeply entrenched!

While reading this book I discussed it’s conclusions with several of my friends. Most were open to the idea that Shrier (and Littman and the rest) might have identified a real problem, but they questioned its impact, in particular they felt that the number of teens who engaged in transitional steps beyond just a change of names and pronouns, and perhaps binding was relatively small. And to be clear I too very much wish there was more data on how common these things actually are, but let’s go through each step of transition and see what can be said about it.

Change in pronouns: The friends who I talked to were willing to accept the argument that puberty blockers are probably bad, but see changing names and pronouns as just common politeness, with no chance of doing any lasting harm. Similar to giving the kid a nickname. Well according to Shrier even just doing a “social transition” can be remarkably sticky. I, for one, think this makes sense, what kid is going to want to publicly back down and admit that they were wrong? Even if it wasn’t a matter of great cultural controversy, which teen voluntarily chooses to look foolish about even small things? And this is a great big thing! Plus it’s a well documented psychological phenomenon that once you make a decision various biases kick in to confirm and strengthen it. Accordingly, I think even this step requires serious consideration. Certainly it shouldn’t be taken on a whim.

Binding: This is another place where I really wish there was better data. I got the impression from the book that most teenage girls who decide to identify as transgender go on to bind their breasts. Perhaps this impression is based on the further impression that teens view it as being relatively harmless. But impressions all the way down is not the way to construct a compelling argument. In any case regardless of its prevalence, it’s not harmless, and can cause: “Fractured or bruised ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, shortness of breath, back pain, and deformation of breast tissue.” Though again I don’t have any data on how often these complications occur.

Puberty Blockers: I’ve already mentioned Shrier’s worry with respect to puberty blockers, that they’re not working in the way people expect. Here side effects (other than the gigantic one of stopping normal development) are not very well documented, but appear to include loss of bone density, and interference with brain development which may affect intelligence. But here, at least, I did manage to find somewhat better data on how many of the teens in question end up taking them. An article in The Economist claims that half of all children referred to a gender-identity clinic ended up starting puberty blockers, and that such referrals have increased 30-fold over the last decade. 

Testosterone: Again good data on how many trans people are taking testosterone is hard to come by, but it’s yet another drug where there are clearly some pretty serious side effects. “Heightened rates of diabetes, stroke, blood clots, cancer, and… heart disease.” Because of the side effects to reproduction many women end up having “prophylactic hysterectomies”. And lest people think they can try it for awhile, and then change their mind, even a couple of months can produce permanent changes to facial hair, voice and genitals. 

Surgery: It seems both obvious that this is the rarest step taken by those who are transitioning, particularly phalloplasty or “bottom surgery”, but also that this is where the potential for causing “irreversible damage” is the greatest. Particularly since, as demand has increased it has outstripped the supply of skilled surgeons, leading to even worse outcomes. And certainly there are stories of people who have gone this far, and decided that it was all a horrible mistake. For example Keira Bell, who we’ll get to in a minute.

Doing nothing: I left this for last because after everything that was just mentioned including the 70% of people who grow out of dysphoria under this course of action. It may seem inconceivable that this isn’t the recommended course of action for all teenagers claiming to suffer from gender dysphoria. But there’s one big reason why it’s not. Everyone, but particularly the parents, are terrified that their teenager will commit suicide if they don’t allow them to start transitioning or take puberty blockers. Here Shrier makes perhaps the most important claim of all:

There are no good long-term studies indicating that either gender dysphoria or suicidality diminishes after medical transition.

Lest you think that this claim is unforgivably tainted by Shrier’s biases, in the review of the book which appeared in The Economist, they said the same thing: the research does not back up the claim that failing to affirm increases the risk of suicide. I understand The Economist is not completely free from biases either, but it’s as close as you’re likely to get in this day and age.

In fact, for those who don’t feel like reading the entirety of Irreversible Damage the two Economist articles I already mentioned represent a pretty good summary. In particular their article on the Keira Bell case has some startling quotes, and since it’s already far too late to keep this post from being gigantic and further as a way of reducing the potential bias of relying on a single book, I figured I might as well include some of them:

In 2018 Andrea Davidson’s 12-year-old daughter, Meghan, announced she was “definitely a boy”. Ms Davidson says her child was never a tomboy but the family doctor congratulated her and asked what pronouns she had chosen, before writing a referral to the British Columbia Children’s Hospital (BCCH). “We thought we were going to see a psychologist, but it was a nurse and a social worker,” says Ms Davidson (both her and her daughter’s names have been changed). “Within ten minutes they had offered our child Lupron”—a puberty-blocking drug.

…other transitioners come to see such procedures as a mistake. Claire (not her real name), now a 19-year-old student in Florida, started on testosterone aged 14 because of a loathing for her body. (She was also deeply depressed.) “I felt it was the only option, especially with the insistence that having dysphoria meant you are irrevocably trans and thus you will probably kill yourself if you don’t transition.” Obtaining hormones was easy, she says. “They pretty much gold-stamped me through.” Then, aged 17, her dysphoria disappeared. “I felt extremely lost. I had never heard of this happening.” She came off testosterone, embraced her identity as a lesbian, and is furious. “It is the medical industry and the general social attitude towards dysphoric people that failed me.”

The court concluded that blockers almost always lead on to hormones…

In America intervention was boosted by the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which banned health insurers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In effect, they were thus obliged to cover hormones for people who say they are trans just as they provide contraceptive hormones for women.

In 2018 the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) said that all medical evidence supports the “affirmative” approach. But according to a detailed rebuttal by James Cantor, a Canadian sexual-behaviour scientist, none of the 11 academic studies of the subject reaches that conclusion.

I could go on, but I think it’s past time to wrap this up. I will include one final thing, some predictions:

  1. The number of angry detransitioners will continue to grow, and they’ll be in the news more.
  2. We’ll see more court cases similar to the Keira Bell one, and courts will start imposing age restrictions for various treatments.
  3. Possibly as early as 2021 the doctors, in an attempt to keep the courts from over-reaching will start changing their standards
  4. 20 years from now, and possibly a lot sooner, this phenomenon will be viewed as a cautionary tale of putting ideology before data.
  5. And beyond that this whole thing will be viewed by transgender activists as having ultimately harmed the cause.

I need some feedback here. This went on for a lot longer than most of my posts, was that good or bad? Should I add the “what this book was about” section to all of my reviews? I’m making a few tweaks in 2021 (details to come) and your feedback will help me with that.

Feel free to email me at We Are Not Saved (all one word) at gmail.


Justice, Mercy, Data, Evidence, BLM and QAnon

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On occasion, if you read blogs written by rationalists, you’ll come across posts that start with a notice about their epistemic status. This is particularly the case when such status is still fluid, i.e. the post is highly speculative. Given that this might be the most speculative post I’ve ever done, perhaps I should follow suit:

[Epistemic status: wildly speculative, mixes religion, science, and neurology in a way that is almost certainly overly simplistic, and furthermore advances a “this explains everything” argument which obviously overlooks much of the subtlety and complexity of our moment. All that aside I think there’s something to it….]

Many things came together to create the theory I’m about to expound. And I’m hoping that if I lay these things out as sort of a foundation, that you might see the same connections I did. So let’s start with that.

I.

I just barely mentioned religion, and we might as well get that out of the way. For the non-religious out there who might be worried, I assure you that the religious element is not necessary for the rest of the argument, but there’s a specific parable I heard long ago that encapsulates what I think is one of the central insights. This parable was given in a speech all the way back in 1977, by Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon). It went something like this:

There once was a man who wanted something very much, and went into debt to get it. Under the terms of the debt, payment was due in its entirety many years later. And while the debtor didn’t entirely ignore the debt, when it eventually came due he had paid off only a small faction of it. And it was only then he realized that if he couldn’t pay the debt in full that the creditor would send him to prison. In deathly fear of being imprisoned, he pleads for mercy. In response the creditor demands justice. Both justice and mercy are important principles, but it’s clear that in this case you can’t have both, if the creditor forgives the debt, that’s merciful, but it would ignore the justice of his claim, on the other hand if the creditor throws the debtor into prison this would be just, but no one would say that it is also merciful. 

Fortunately a friend of the debtor intervenes. He pays off the creditor, thus fulfilling the demands of justice, while also rescuing the debtor from prison, and thus also fulfilling the demands of mercy. In the process he restructures the debt into something the debtor can conceivably pay. (This being a religious parable the friend represents Jesus, and his paying off the debt is analogous to the way in which Jesus paid for our sins.) For our purposes I want to take away three things:

  1. The conflicting demands of justice and mercy.
  2. The need for a third party to resolve this conflict.
  3. The idea that mercy doesn’t eliminate the debt, but it does restructure it into something that can be paid.

The next piece in my foundation is the play Fences by August Wilson. I first saw it at the nearby Pioneer Theater a few years ago, and I remember, at the time, expecting it to be about a noble black father and his family who had been thwarted by 1950s racism. And to a certain degree it was, but the main character, Troy, was also a deeply flawed individual, and at the time I left with mixed feelings. It was hard to take the side of someone who *spoiler alert* had cheated on his utterly faithful wife, Rose, only admitted to the affair when his mistress got pregnant, refused to stop seeing his mistress even then, and finally, when his mistress died in childbirth, asked his wife to help raise a child that wasn’t hers. But then, a few weeks ago, I watched the movie adaptation with Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose (btw I cannot praise the acting highly enough, they were both beyond amazing) and I finally realized that rather than marring the play, Troy’s “sins” were what made the play a masterpiece.

This realization had an interesting impact on the way I view the current BLM protests, and while I understand trying to make this connection might get me in trouble, I think it nevertheless might be an important one. That first time around I wanted Fences to be a straightforward tale of injustice, of a black family and a black father that could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. In a similar fashion I think the people protesting also see things as a straightforward case of injustice, of black families who could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. Not only is that narrative attractive, it’s simple, probably too simple, because just like the story of Troy in Fences, the story of race and racism is a complicated mix of justice and mercy, of things that should have been done much better, and other things where people did the best they could. In the play Rose knew that despite all the wrongs which had been done to her, that it was still important to keep her family together, and that justice for Troy would have meant injustice for the daughter, and so she raised the daughter of her husband’s mistress, but in the process declared to Troy, that “you’re a womanless man.” Thus mercy and justice were both served but it took the sacrifice of a third person.

Unfortunately, no straightforward policy recommendations fall out of this observation. Though I think the need for more mercy among all the parties to the current unrest is self-evident. I also admit that it’s not entirely clear who the third party is that needs to make a sacrifice so that both justice and mercy can be served in this situation. But despite that it does serve as another point towards my claim that perfect justice is not only unattainable, but in conflict with many other important values, especially mercy. 

The final piece of the foundation is a book I’m reading, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. It’s a book about hemispheric differences within the brain, and it’s yet another one of these very dense, massive books, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and as I alluded to I’m not done, but for the purposes of this subject McGIlchrist makes two very important points. First that hemispheric differences are real, though much more nuanced than popular culture has led us to believe. And that the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere is responsible for much of what makes Western culture unique, but also responsible for much of what ails it as well.

As I said it’s a massive and densely argued book, and I’ll get into it more in my month end round-up, but for our purposes the key difference between the two hemispheres is that the left is the half that focuses in on something, and breaks it down into parts, while the right is the half that assembles discrete things into a coherent whole. The title of the book comes from a story Nietzsche told about a spiritual master who manages a large domain, and while his concerns must be for the whole domain, and everything associated with it, he does occasionally need to focus on specific places, and urgent issues. To do this he appoints an emissary who can act in his name and go forth to deal with localized problems, or perhaps gather the knowledge the master needs. In this analogy the right brain is the master, and the left brain is the emissary, but McGilchrist contends that the emissary has usurped the authority of the master, and it’s this imbalance, this perversion of the way things should work that’s causing many of our modern problems. 

It’s at this point, in an attempt to ground my theory in actual neurology, that I make my biggest conceptual leap. And believe me I’m aware that I’m doing it, but I’m hoping that you’ll at least stick with me to the end of the post before you pass judgement. That plea in place, my core observation is that we are currently suffering from an overactive drive for justice, and that at a larger level this overactive drive for justice is part of a dangerously ascendant left hemisphere. That to a certain extent we have a neurological problem. More controversially, I’m going to make the claim that it is useful to equate left hemisphere attributes to the concept of justice and right hemisphere attributes to the concept of mercy. 

It’s not my intention to give a full review of McGilchrist’s book at this point. For the moment I just want to bring him in as a buttress for my theory, but in order to do that, some additional context would be helpful. McGilchrist places the start of this trend of leftward ascendence at the start of Western civilization and philosophy, especially Plato, and in bringing his book to bear, I’m not willing to go that far, but we don’t have to in order for this theory to have some predictive power. You can even imagine that the left and the right hemisphere’s are in perfect harmony up until the end of the last century, all you have to accept is that the left hemisphere is all about the specific. It’s the half of the brain that reaches out to grasp something. And my argument is that even if this “grasping” nature is unchanged since our first ancestors descended out of the trees, that modern technology, and social media in particular has led to a sky-rocketing in the number of things available to grasp. That a profusion of stories, and anecdotes, and data, and hypotheses and accusations rather than being our salvation is proving to be our doom.

II.

While the three things above proved to be the theoretical foundation of my hypothesis, the practical expression of it hit me while I was putting together my last post. For those who may have missed it, I spent nearly 5000 words examining just one tiny set of data: police officers killed since 1965 by left or right wing extremists as reported by the Anti-defamation League. It is possible that I exhausted what could be said about those numbers, but I suspect not, and even if I did, I reached no unassailable conclusion. At best I demonstrated that the ADL had incorrectly interpreted the numbers to emphasize right-wing extremism, but that was about the extent of it. So I spent 5000 words on a very focused examination of a small set of data, and ended up without much to show for it, and as I went through this laborious exercise, it hit me, data isn’t the solution, it’s the problem

That’s a pretty bold statement, and many people are going to start by questioning not the last half of that statement but the first half, the idea that the bulk of people have an ideology driven by evidence and facts, so let’s start by tackling that. Obviously the scientific revolution happened centuries ago, but I would argue that it didn’t percolate down to the “masses” until after World War II. As just one data point, the number of people graduating from high school doubled between 1940 and 1970 going from around 40% to around 80%. As a consequence of this and other trends just about everyone absorbed some part of the scientific method, with all of its associated recommendations: backing up arguments with data, the way in which biases can influence data, etc. And not only was the importance of the scientific method impressed upon the minds of nearly everyone, more importantly, they also had revealed to them the great reward this methodology could provide. If it were followed it would spit out the (blog) Truth. And once you had the (blog) Truth, you could use it to pursue (blog) Justice! Furthermore, and most distressingly, if your Justice was based on objective, data-driven, verifiable (blog) Truth, there would be no need for mercy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This state of things was already pretty well developed when the internet, and later social media arrived on the scene, and their advent only served to make things worse. First by creating an even greater emphasis on data and evidence. (I know that the internet seems like a cesspool of biases and baseless insults, but it’s also equally full of people challenging and/or providing evidence for every assertion.) And second by vastly increasing the amount of data available. 

This is the world we live in. For what still seem like very good reasons, we have spent decades emphasizing the values of science, testing, experimentation, data, etc. And we expected this sanctification of data to lead us to an evidence based progressive and technological utopia. But it hasn’t happened and for the longest time the feeling has been that we’ve just needed to push harder. Place an even greater emphasis on evidence and rationality, but I would say that among the many “gifts” 2020 has brought us, one would have to be a realization that this approach is definitely not working. Why? 

Well after reading McGilchrist, one theory would be that this whole drive is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of it. That an emphasis on evidence, and discrete bits of data has not come about because we’re all committed scientists, but because it’s the perfect tool for an out of control left hemisphere trapped in a positive feedback loop. In other words, and I want to be very clear about this, what we’re seeing is not a failure of science but a perversion of it. Certainly the behavior we’re seeing is exactly how McGilchist describes what happens when the emissary usurps the master. From the book we read that:

  • The left hemisphere offers simple answers.
  • The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.
  • The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.
  • The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 
  • The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.
  • And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I assume that at this point most people would like to see these points applied to something specific. Something that’s happening right now. So let’s take that most infamous of all current conspiracy theories: QAnon

III.

It’s possible that you are entirely unfamiliar with the QAnon theory, or that you only recently heard about it after Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the theory, won the Republican primary for Georgia’s 14th Congressional district, putting her on a probable path to win the election in November in heavily Republican Georgia. And to be clear I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert but I think I know enough about it and have interacted with enough people who believe it to explain how it fits into the framework I laid out above. 

To begin with I need to start by clearing up some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. The most common being that the conspiracy is baseless. And before you unleash on me, allow me to explain what I mean by that. When talking about QAnon people will mention that it’s fringe, or crazy, or something else essentially synonymous with the sentence immediately following the initial description in the Wikipedia article, “No part of the theory has been shown to be based in fact.”

I fully agree with all of these statements, but the problem is that this leads people to misunderstand the phenomenon, to assume that QAnon supporters are ignoring data and evidence, when in fact it’s the opposite they’re fixated on the data and evidence. This is not to say that the evidence and data would not be more properly characterized as a collection of anecdotes, or that it fits into anything resembling a broader model of the world, or that it’s not entirely circumstantial or that the evidence doesn’t follow from the theory rather than the theory following from the evidence. But rather to say they’re fixated on data and evidence in exactly the fashion you would expect from an overactive left hemisphere after reading McGilchrist’s book. Returning to the attributes I pulled from McGilchrist’s book:

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

The whole point of conspiracies is they offer simple answers. The idea that there’s a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running things, and that Trump is the only person who can stop them, is a pretty simple tale of good and evil. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this world, and whatever else may be said of QAnon, it’s a worldview that’s far simpler than the real one. Further it allows people to justify their support for Trump. He wasn’t the best out of two bad options, he’s the only thing standing between us and Satanic pedophiles. And voting for him was the right thing to do.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

Trump has made numerous mistakes as president. With QAnon it’s easy to avoid responsibility for those mistakes because they were all in service of a much more important goal. It’s everyone else that needs to be held responsible for tolerating the worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

Certainly among some groups being a QAnon supporter is being a conformist, but obviously being indifferent to discrepancies is the attribute that really applies here because there are lots of discrepancies.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

This may be one of the best descriptions of what QAnon looks like that I’ve come across, it’s a narrow focused beam of attention which has all the time in the world to think about Epstein and the people who associated with him and very little time for anything that doesn’t fit the theory.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

Replace reductionism with QAnon and the statement remains just as true.

But beyond all of this, and most important for my purposes, QAnon is a search for justice. To the extent that Epstein and his many crimes serve as the kernel of QAnon, you could say that justice obviously wasn’t served. Epstein was a very, very bad dude. And while I’m not certain he didn’t kill himself (how could you be) I don’t think we can discount it either. But they have taken this kernel and allowed their left-brained thirst for justice to grow so large that it encompasses incidents and individuals who almost certainly were guilty of no more than being naive or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe even nothing whatsoever. But I would still argue that justice is a huge part of it. It’s a simple theory where they end up in the position of both being the only ones who are right, and also the heroes. And in addition to bringing to justice all the pedophiles they also get to reverse the grave injustices which have been done to Trump, who really has been the target of an enormous amount of hate. How much of that hate is deserved or whether hate is ever appropriate I leave for the listener to decide.

Now, lest you think that this is only a phenomenon of extremists on the right, I would argue that if anything the list is more widely applicable to what’s currently happening on the left. At the risk of making this post ridiculously long (too late?) Let’s go through the list again and apply it to the current protests. 

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

“White Fragility” and “Systemic Racism” are all pretty simple and straightforward answers to what is actually a devilishly complex problem. To this you might add assertions like, “Race and Gender don’t exist.” A statement that simplifies things almost to the point of ridiculousness. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

Obviously as I go through this list, the observations being made are my observations. But when I see the protesters chanting and yelling, the overwhelming impression I come away with is their absolute certainty in the justice of their cause, and their unassailable moral correctness.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

George Floyd had a large amount of fentanyl in his system, but to even suggest that he might have been the tiniest bit responsible for what happened to him is essentially inconceivable. (Which is why, to be clear, I am also not suggesting that.) And in a broader context any discussion of responsibility that doesn’t involve racism by white people is also inconceivable. 

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

The degree and speed to which people pledged their support to Black Lives Matter was frankly astonishing. It would be difficult to find something post 9/11 which had greater public support. Nor is there much tolerance for discrepancies, for example the inconvenient discrepancy in the narrative illustrated by the Ferguson Effect. Something I keep bringing up.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

As many people have remarked on, it was amazing how fast attention shifted from COVID to BLM. And how long that beam has been focused on a single killing, when killings of one sort or another happen nearly every hour of every day in the US.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I believe I covered this one in my post, Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM) and also several of the posts that followed it. 

After applying this list to both sides, I feel like McGilchrist’s theory has a lot of explanatory power. That people are looking at the data and evidence, but in a monomaniacal fashion which throws away the actual world which is messy, nuanced and complicated and replaces it with a simpler world of good guys and bad guys, of righteous acts and heinous atrocities. That, in other words people have dispensed with mercy, and are interested only in justice. They have beheld the world and passed absolute judgement upon it.

IV.

We covered a lot of territory in those first three parts so I’m going to try to bring it all together, but let’s take a different path. This time around let’s start with people doing things we disagree with and consider stupid. Let’s assume that we’re even correct, that these things are stupid, that we’re not suffering from our own biases, our own overactive left-hemisphere. How do we get these people to stop doing these stupid things? One method, which has been drilled into us since we started school is to prove that these things are stupid. How do we prove that these things are stupid? With evidence and data!

But we immediately run into several problems with this approach.

  1. There are mountains of data out there, and not only is that mountain growing it’s growing faster than it ever has.
  2. Even if the majority of the data supports one position there is always going to be data that supports the opposite position. Plus point 1 makes it even more difficult to survey enough data to determine what constitutes a majority.
  3. The only choice left is to focus in on a selection of data or to prioritize certain pieces of evidence over other pieces of evidence.
  4. But as I showed in my last post, not only can a narrow focused reading of the data back up nearly any position, but it becomes a positive feedback loop of validation and the push for more focus. This is particularly dangerous if McGilchrist is right about the prevalence of overactive left hemispheres.
  5. Even if McGilchrist isn’t right, we still have to grapple with things like confirmation bias, selection effect, echo chambers and the memefication of discourse.

As I went through that list I kind of ended up lumping together both sides of things. As in the side where you dispense wisdom and the side where you receive (or gather) wisdom. But both suffer from the same problems. Whatever knowledge you’ve received through this method is bound to be fragmentary and biased, but in spite of this it also ends up laden with certainty, both because of its perceived scientific basis, but also because, as we’ve seen, that’s how the left hemisphere operates. And then when you turn to the project of dispensing that info, of explaining what a just world looks like, you run into the same problems, and that’s even if the person you’re dispensing it to is a blank slate. It’s actually far more likely that they have followed this same procedure and ended up with their own completely different vision of a just world, also imbued with the certainty that comes from focused but fragmentary evidence.

This idea that people don’t respond to facts and evidence is well covered territory (though hopefully I’ve approached it from a very different angle) and is so often the case, Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex’s contribution to the discussion is particularly brilliant. He argued that rhetoric and other similar tools are available to both sides and indeed any side of a debate, and thus the side you’re on accrues no inherent advantage by using these tools. But if the tool you’re using is the truth, then it does give you an advantage over those without it, even if that truth is hard to communicate, and percolates outward only very slowly. I have no strong disagreements with this view and indeed I’ve forwarded that post to many people, but I think it needs to be amended to include everything I’ve mentioned above.

More specifically I would argue that there’s a way of getting at something which feels a lot like the (blog) Truth, through a method that looks a lot like Science! A way that comes naturally to us, probably because we’re dealing with an overactive left-hemisphere, but that this is exactly the path that helped to get us into this mess. And that the most natural takeaway of a post like Alexander’s is to put people on this same path. I would amend it to guide people towards a path that is more subtle, and less certain, but that ultimately leads to deeper truths. If McGilchrist is correct it’s because this would be a more right-brained approach, but even if he’s not, I think it’s clear that we’ve been way too focused on data and evidence, and not enough on a broader picture of the interrelated nature of the world. Or to put it even more simply, that Alexander’s rationalism is best applied in service of mercy not justice. (For awhile that last bit was going to be the title of this post.)

This post is already 50% longer than one of my normal posts, and those were already too long. So I’d better wrap it up. Though I had a lot more thoughts on this subject. Some of which will hopefully appear when I review The Master and His Emissary, some of which may be developed in future posts. (This post should be considered a very rough draft of these ideas, a first pass on a collection of topics that’s pretty complex.) And some of which I’m going to quickly spit out here at the end.

  • I’m not sure how well it worked to frame all of this as a conflict between mercy and justice, but if this idea is to have any impact, it has to eventually take a form that’s easy to understand. Mercy and justice was my stab at that.
  • To put this in context with some of my other recent posts. One of the most important developments of classical liberalism is the creation of mediation and the rule of law, which acts as the third party I mentioned at the very beginning the party required to balance the demands of justice and mercy which are otherwise incompatible.
  • One problem with a more right brained approach is that if the right brain is The Master in charge of the entire empire, that empire is vastly greater today than it was for our hunter-gatherer/agrarian/medieval-village-dwelling ancestors. And it might be that it’s too big and too complex to allow for a return to a “right-brain” mode.
  • I think there’s an interesting connection between this topic and the discussion of theodicy that I mentioned in my review of A Secular Age. Theodicy deals with the evil in all of us, and mercy and justice are ways of coming to terms with our own evil. I mentioned that lately an alternative has come to the fore whereby if someone takes on the mantle of victimhood they can claim absolute innocence while placing 100% of the guilt on their oppressor. This is both, justice taken to its extreme, as I’ve discussed, and also a pretty left-brained view of things as well.

If you’ve made it this far I appreciate it. This ended up rougher and more scattered than I had hoped, that said I think I’m on to something here, and I’d love to know if you agree, and love to know even more if you disagree, and particularly what part you disagree with. If you take away nothing else I hope that in some respect I demonstrated, however strangely, the importance of mercy. Something that seems like a quaint and outdated concept, but perhaps that just means that it’s needed now more than ever.


There was a time when people were paid by the word. This is one of those posts where I wish that was the deal I had. Instead I get paid by my patrons, if that’s you, thanks! If it’s not, perhaps consider it? These long posts are even harder than they look.


Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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A few posts ago I talked about memetic evolution. As a result of this post one of my readers, Mark, and I had an in depth discussion about what mechanism, exactly, I was trying to describe and whether there really is such a thing as memetic evolution. Mark is a scientist specializing in oncology research (he also has a blog, which you should check out) and he pointed out that evolution is exceptionally complicated and that many people use the term to describe lots of things that aren’t actually evolution by natural selection. Particularly when they’re trying to use it by way of analogy which I was. As part of our discussion a lot of things were clarified for me, and I think I’ve tightened up the analogy and hopefully gotten rid of most of the issues Mark pointed out. This post is about sharing the additional insights which came out of that discussion.

I.

Mark was, of course, correct, there are in fact lots of pitfalls involved in the discussion of evolution and selection, and even if you manage to avoid making any big mistakes there are still numerous specifics that can trip you up as well. For example, most people don’t realize that there are two competing theories regarding the rate at which evolution occurs. And the difference between these two theories turns out to be very important. Not only in general but also for the point I want to make.

The first theory, and the one initially put forward by Darwin, is phyletic gradualism. Under this theory the creation of new species happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly as small changes accumulate over tens of thousands of years. Because of how gradual this process is, you might not end up with a clear line where you can say that one species has changed into another, and, insofar as a layman thinks about evolution with any rigor, they probably envision it working something like this.

The second theory, which was proposed only in 1972, by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, is called punctuated equilibrium. This theory holds that species appear fairly suddenly in response to some rare and geologically rapid event (the punctuation) and that once a species appears that it ends up being relatively stable (the equilibrium). To reiterate, I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that this theory has the most support among scientists, particularly when you’re talking about the big evolutionary events, like speciation. To be clear both kinds of evolution, gradual and punctuated, appear to be taking place, but the latter is more impactful, and more important, particularly when the survival of a given species is really in question.

Having, hopefully, grounded our understanding and discussion of evolution on a somewhat firmer footing, we are still left with the question of how much of that understanding and discussion maps cleanly to the topic of cultural evolution, and beyond that to the more speculative topic of memetic evolution. For instance, insofar as cultural evolution is adaptive, is this adaptation gradual? Or does it operate more along the lines of the punctuated equilibrium model? I’m not entirely sure what would count as hard data when considering these questions, but at the level of anecdote, I’m inclined to believe that the situation is similar to genetic evolution, both forms occur, but that the cultural selection which occurs gradually ends up being less impactful than cultural selection which happens at times of rapid change and extreme crisis.

As I said this is mostly at the level of anecdote, but consider the example of Germany. It’s hard to argue that Germany didn’t have a long martial tradition, starting with their first appearance in the records of the Roman Empire and continuing down through the centuries to the two World Wars. Would you say they still have that culture today? I think most people would agree that they don’t, and that it all changed during the extreme crisis at the end of World War II. Sure there have been many gradual changes to German culture over the years, but the fact that there’s also numerous long-standing stereotypes about Germans would seem to indicate that a relatively stable equilibrium existed as well. From where I sit, this example has all the elements you’d expect if cultural evolution also happened according to the punctuated equilibrium model.  

Another example would be the creation of the United States of America. Evolution through natural selection concerns itself with the creation of new species. The parallel in cultural evolution would be the creation of a new culture or nation, and this is an example of exactly that. And, once again, it happened over the course of a few years where things were rapidly changing under crisis conditions. Additionally what resulted was not some incremental change in English culture (though there are obvious connections) but an entirely new culture forged in the fires of the Revolutionary War and the many debates over governments and rights

The more I consider the question the more I am convinced that there are numerous examples of punctuated equilibrium with respect to cultural evolution. I suspect all of the examples of nations in crisis given by Jared Diamond in his recent book Upheaval (see my review), would end up being examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of cultural evolution as well. And of course these are successful “mutations”, if cultural evolution is anything like biological evolution most mutations are going to end in failure. Is that perhaps the best way of describing communism and fascism?

Obviously not all cultural changes are so large, as I said, I’m sure that things also change gradually, but we would appear to have less to fear from those changes. Sure the vast majority will fail just like all “mutations”, but that failure should be much easier to recover from. Much less disastrous than the analogous “speciation” of adopting something like communism.

II.

If you’ve followed me this far and you accept (even if only for the sake of argument) that punctuated equilibrium applies not only to biological evolution, but to cultural evolution as well, then we’re finally ready to revisit memetic evolution, though right off the bat I’m going to dump the word “evolution”. One of Mark’s bigger contributions in the discussion we ended up having was to point out that once we’ve reached this point that things have been stretched so far that using the term evolution conceals more than it reveals, particularly if we’re more interested in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. So we need a new term, but before we get to that what exactly are we talking about? And, in what sense are we talking about something separate and interesting?  

When considering the punctuated equilibrium model most of the attention ends up on the punctuation part, but what’s happening during the equilibrium part? Here I’m going to quote liberally from Mark:

[The punctuated equilibrium model] posits [that] major selection events might be somewhat uncommon.  As such, we would expect to see accumulations of multiple different mutations, all present in a species’ gene pool simultaneously.  The longer the period of time free of selection, the greater the potential for diverse new mutations within the species. Since anything directly lethal is going to weed itself out fairly quickly, this enriches for potentially-beneficial mutations.  With all these mutations lying around, it’s possible for individuals to even have two or more traits that might not be adaptive on their own but that function very well together. This period of stability can be thought of as ‘good’ in that is allows for much greater variability to enter the population.

Along comes the selection event – the filter, removing anything that can’t pass through a particular challenge – and most of that diversity disappears.  However, since the population experienced a long period of growth and mutation without being subject to a filter, it’s possible that the adaptation that made it through the filter is more complex – is a bigger change – than the kind of single-mutation adaptation you would see from a series of rapid filters.  Populations that instead pass through serial filtering events will only be able to select based on single-mutation traits.

….We expect to have multiple possible pro-adaptive traits at any given time, waiting to pass through the next, unexpected, filter and join future generations.  Thus, memetic evolution is simply a sub-process of cultural evolution. It would be as meaningless to speak of it in isolation as it would be to talk about accumulating mutations prior to selection events (filters) when speaking of biological evolution.

…Memetic ‘evolution’ is simply another name for cultural evolution prior to selecting events. 

Some of this is obviously speculative, but on the whole Mark’s comments were fantastic, and really helped me to understand something that had previously eluded me, and I agree with everything he said, with one exception… I don’t think it’s “meaningless to speak of it in isolation”. I think “it” is very important to talk about. What is “it”? What is this thing that’s worth discussing, but which is not evolution? I’m going to call it “memetic accumulation”. 

III.

For most of history the rate of accumulation for genetic mutations has probably been fairly static. I assume that during periods of greater radiation (if any) that it might have increased, or perhaps the greater the variety of life the greater the space for mutations to occur and perhaps there are other factors as well, but I don’t see any evidence that there were periods where it was significantly faster or slower. There is the Cambrian Explosion, but remember we’re talking about the rate of accumulation, not the rate of evolution or of speciation, and while it was an “explosion” for many things, I don’t think it was an explosion in the accumulation of mutations. In other words I think the rate of mutation accumulation with natural evolution has been pretty constant. 

Even when humans entered the scene and started the selective breeding of domesticated animals, this didn’t change the mutation rate, even for the animals in question. (CRISPR, however may be another matter.) We just introduced a lot more filters and selection events. So, if mutations are relatively constant in natural evolution, what about cultural evolution? Has that rate also been constant? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this, more than anything else, is why it’s worth discussing. I suppose, given the fact that humans can introduce new ideas, new potential memes into the space of culture whenever they feel like it, that there are a great many things which could affect the speed at which memetic accumulation occurs. But certainly technology and progress has to have a large impact on that speed, and almost exclusively in the direction of speeding it up. In fact, “something which speeds up the rate of memetic accumulation” is not a half bad definition of progress. But beyond that, might technology and progress have any other effect than generating ideas quickly?

With the advent of global communication and social media, we are moving ever more rapidly in the direction of creating a single ecosystem for ideas, and I don’t think we’ve fully come to terms with what that means or how it will play out. Certainly ideas propagate faster, and I would also say we end up with a handful of “apex ideas” similar to the idea of an apex predator. Which is to say that we’re in a space where a memetically fit idea is able to very quickly outcompete all the other ideas among people susceptible to that idea. (Notice the increase in the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.) Leading to a stratification at the level of ideas rather than at the level of a community or nation. Basically, social media and global communication have allowed invasive species/ideas to go everywhere.

On top of all this there’s one final thing which needs to be pointed out, humans are more removed from issues of actual survival than ever before. Toss all of this together and we have rapid memetic generation, but which results in a relatively barren collection of a few dominant memes/ideologies, none of which are likely to have anything to do with actual survival. Now I’m aware that this is something of an oversimplification, culture is still complex and varied, and people still worry about survival, but we have nevertheless lost an awful lot of both those qualities.

Finally, if I’ve convinced you that memetic accumulation is speeding up, then even if you disagree with me about everything else, you might at least want to examine what the potential consequences of that are with respect to cultural evolution.

IV.

Having examined what the modern state of memetic accumulation is within the equilibrium part of the model, what does all of this mean for the eventual “punctuation”? How does our rapid, barren and superficial method of memetic accumulation play out when we actually run into a selection event? Into rapidly changing crisis conditions? Well that’s hard to say, though none of those elements would appear to be positive.

Just by itself, the rapid part isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps if culture is moving rapidly, then, by the time the eventual crisis rolls around, we will be in some location uniquely well suited for surviving that crisis, a location we would not have reached had we not been moving so quickly. And certainly if there were a bunch of cultures all speeding off towards their own unique locations we might have some expectation that at least one of these locations would be exactly the spot they should be in, but this is where the lack of variety comes into play, we’re not all choosing different locations where we can survive the potential crisis, we seem to all be journeying as quickly as we can towards a small handful of locations, and the rapid bit means if it’s not the right place we will have gone an awfully long distance in the wrong direction. Furthermore, what do these locations look like? If we were really concerned about survival, they would hopefully be strongholds, but if we don’t factor in survival I would think they’re more likely to end up looking like expensive penthouses. Dwellings which look really nice and are great for entertaining, but also the last location you’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse starts. There’s obviously still a lot of variety in these dwellings, but can anyone honestly tell me we’re not building a lot more penthouses than strongholds these days?

There also seems to be significant effort being spent on getting people to abandon locations which proved to be strongholds in the past. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, there are essentially three ways to choose a “location” we can choose them randomly, which is essentially what natural evolution is doing. We can choose one based on whether it sounds good or not, but in this sense, as I already pointed out, we’re probably not choosing a stronghold so much as a nice place to live. Or we can choose one based on what’s worked in the past. Any option where we choose is going to be better than random (one would hope) but it’s not clear to me that “sounds good” is definitely better than “worked in the past” (in fact, I strongly suspect it’s worse) and in any event it’s probably best to have cultures in both types of locations.

To be clear, we don’t know which location will best withstand the eventual crisis, because we don’t know what that crisis will look like, but you could certainly see how changing the way in which memetic accumulation happens could change the likelihood of being in the right location. And I hope we can agree on this, even if you don’t agree with me on exactly how memetic accumulation has changed

But beyond all this, there’s probably more bad news, particularly if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention, that in addition to changing to speed of memetic accumulation, that progress and technology has also changed the nature of potential crises as well. That we have made them less frequent, but in the process we’ve also made them larger. As a real world example, lots of people feel that there is no safe location (both figuratively and literally) if the crisis ends up being full scale nuclear war or runaway climate change (I disagree, but I’ve already covered that in past posts). Both crises that have only been made possible recently.

I will freely admit that I’ve followed a long chain of assumptions to get to this point, but strip all that away and I would contend that the two initial ideas, 1) that cultural evolution also follows a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, and 2) that technology and progress can change the rate at which cultural mutations/memes accumulate, are both pretty solid. And both of those together should be enough to introduce serious uncertainty into any claims that conditions are following some long-term, unstoppable, positive trend.

A couple of final things to think about, which I leave as an exercise for the reader:

Are we at a point of “punctuation” right now? If so how’s it looking?

Could memetic accumulation get so out of whack that it actually causes the crisis?


With this post I’ve gone a long way down a pretty obscure road. It you like that sort of thing consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing you should also consider donating, but I think it will make less of a difference.


On The Limitations of Science

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There are lots of people out there condemning the debauchery of our modern world, and generally with more eloquence than I can muster. Additionally there are prophets, both ancient and modern who have already offered up rousing sermons and trenchant observations (one of which I took as the theme of this blog) and I would urge you to study the writings of those prophets before reading anything I write. So, if there’s better stuff out there why do I bother to blog? I believe there is a gap in the commentary. A hole in the discourse that I can fill. It doesn’t need to be filled. What I write is not critical to anyone’s salvation. I am not uncovering any lost principles of Christ’s gospel, nor am I speaking in a more timely manner than what you hear at the semiannual General Conferences. If that’s so, what niche do I fill? What unique insights do I provide?

If you read my very first post, then you’ll remember that I already touched on this. This blog will specifically focus on comparing the LDS Religion to the Religion of Progress and examining how the Religion of Progress has failed. The sacrament of the Religion of Progress is science. And it is appropriate that it be so. I myself am a believer in science. But like all sacraments, the sacrament of science can be partaken of unworthily. It can be misunderstood, and distorted. Just as partaking of the actual sacrament every week doesn’t immediately absolve you of all your sins if you’re not also actively exercising faith, repenting of those sins and seeking forgiveness; partaking in the sacrament of science doesn’t immediately make what you do and what you believe scientific, no matter how much you proclaim your love for it. Science has serious limitations, even if one is doing everything right, which most of the time they’re not. And many of the failures of the Religion of Progress comes when it ignores those limitations (or in the case of the last post, trades science for emotion.) Consequently, this post is all about examining those limitations.

Let’s start by examining the limits of science even if everything is done correctly. To begin with it’s really hard to do it correctly, and 90% of the time what passes for quality science are efforts which leave out a lot of the rigor necessary for truly conclusive results. This was not always the case at the beginning of the scientific revolution there was a lot low hanging fruit. Scientific results of surpassing clarity and rigor that could be obtained with only moderate effort (the gentleman scientist working nearly alone was a fixture of the time.) All that low-hanging fruit is gone, but people still expect science to come up with similarly ironclad results even though the window during which that was possible is long past. Also most of the really solid science involves physics, and the farther you get away from that, the less amenable things are to experimentation in general because there are too many variables.

Thus you’re left in a situation where if you want to do solid, incontrovertible science your best bet is to do more physics, and that’s going to cost billions of dollars, or you can use pieces of the scientific method and take a stab at the questions which remain after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. I say pieces of the scientific method because, for example, there are all manner of subjects which can’t be subjected to an experiment with a control. This is a limitation in many fields, but one of the best examples is economics, particularly macroeconomics. You can’t create a copy of the world and have one world where the global economy stays on the gold standard and the control, a world where everyone moves to floating currency. You will still have economist who will tell you that one is better than the other, but this is based off bits of data they’ve gathered from a very messy environment. Not any kind of conclusive, replicable experiment.

Related the problem of creating a control group is the difficulty of isolating the variable you hope to study. Even if we were somehow able to create two versions of Earth, and create a control, how do we know that all the differences between 2016 gold-standard Earth and 2016 floating-currency Earth are due to the different currency systems and not other random fluctuations? Obviously this is already a fairly ridiculous example, but it illustrates the impossible hurdles necessary to even approach true experimentation on something like the economy.

Now you should not assume from this that I’m anti-science, far from it. I have a deep respect for science. And I think that, if anything, the world needs more science not less, but as part of that, we need, particularly if we’re piling up more science, to recognize the limitations of science, especially as it’s actually put into practice. Science isn’t conducted by perfectly objective robots, it’s conducted by scientists who have careers to think of, biases which blind them and limitations of time and money to contend with. All of which takes us to the next way that science can go wrong.

When I say the next way, there are literally hundreds of ways that scientific efforts can go wrong, but rather than try to focus on all of them we’re just going to look at something that has been in the news a lot lately, the replication crisis.

What’s interesting about the replication crisis is that it happened even in cases where it truly appeared that people were doing everything correctly. Trained scientists were conducting ground-breaking experiments, designed according to the best thinking in their field, the results were passed through a process of peer-review and then the results were published in a respected journal. Obviously this is not to say that there weren’t papers published where everything was not being done correctly, even some examples of outright fraud, but even if we exclude those there were still a lot of results which got published which later turned out to be impossible to reproduce. The biggest contributor to this appears to have been publication bias, or what is sometimes called the file-drawer effect because people only submit positive, exciting results and the rest get put in the file-drawer with all of the other experiments that didn’t show anything. This is a problem not only with the people doing the experiments but with the publications themselves, which are far more likely to publish positive results (or to be technical, statistically significant results) than a paper which didn’t have any results (or a null result). And as you’ve probably heard, for most scientists it’s publish or perish. Another factor which almost certainly contributed to the crisis..

You may think that a positive result is a positive result regardless of whether there were 100 other, negative results which got put in the file cabinet. The problem is that it’s not. If you take 100 coins and flip each of them 7 times you’ve got better than even odds that one of them will come up 7 heads in a row. You might then decide that that coin is unfair, and publish a paper, “On the Unfairness of the 1947 Nickel”, but in reality you just started with a big sample size. Doing 100 experiments works very similarly. (For a really in depth discussion including p-values and lots of statistics go here.) The problem of course becomes that people reading or citing your paper don’t know that you have 99 failed experiments which never saw the light of day they only know about the one successful experiment that actually got published.

Thus far I haven’t mentioned how often a study fails to be replicated, and you may think that it’s no big deal. A few here and there, but nothing to worry about. Well as it turns out in general less than half of studies can be reproduced and sometimes less than 15%! This would mean that six out of every seven studies put forth conclusions which later turned out to be untrue.

Once again it’s important to recognize that there is a continuum of scientific results. There’s not a 50% chance that the theory of gravity is wrong, or that protons don’t exist. But when it comes to the softer sciences (and they’re labeled that way for a reason) there is a better than even chance that their conclusions will turn out to be untrue.

Of course when the average person talks about scientific discoveries, ignoring for the moment whether the results can be reproduced, they’re generally not talking about what the scientist actually found. To a first approximation no one reads the actual scientific paper, and probably only 1 in 10,000 people even read the abstract. If you hear about a scientific result you’re hearing about it through the media, which further undermines the utility of science by distorting results in an effort to make them appear more interesting. In short when people think of science they think of gravity, but what they’re actually getting is a Buzzfeed article written based on a press release from a conversation with a scientist who shelves most of his work, is desperate for tenure, describing a conclusion that is more than likely irreproducible. That’s like five layers of spin on top of a result that’s most likely false!

If the kind of “science” I’m talking about were framed as an amusing hobby and an article about bacon prolonging life was treated in the same fashion as a movie review then it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for many people science has taken the place of religion. And more than just religion, it has taken the place of deep thinking about the fundamental questions of life in general. People have replaced virtue with a sort of sloppy rationality which cloaks itself in science and is therefore considered progressive, but is really just the idea of doing whatever makes you feel good cloaked in a bunch of pseudo scientific babble. And decisions are being made which can cost people their lives.

As an example of this, I just finished the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones. It’s an in depth look at the opiate epidemic in America, and a stunning indictment of what passes for science these days. You’ve probably heard about the opiate epidemic, if not follow the link. The effects of the epidemic are so bad that as to be baffling and a whole host of factors combined to make the problem so terrible, but the misuse of science was one of the bigger factors, possibly the biggest. It’s not possible to go into a complete description of what happened (I highly recommend the book) but in essence using a combination of poor science and a morality devoid of any underpinning in religion or tradition, doctors decided that people could essentially have unlimited opiates, the best known of which is oxycontin. Exactly what I mean by doing whatever makes you feel good cloaked in pseudo scientific babble.

The first part, the misuse of science, hinged on placing far too much weight on a one paragraph letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 which claimed that opiates only ended up causing addiction in 1% of people. Getting past the fact that the author never intended it to be used in the way it was, to base decades of pain management on one paragraph is staggeringly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible, when the pharmaceutical companies got around to trying to confirm the result they found the it didn’t hold up (to no one’s surprise) and they ended up burying and twisting the results they did get. The number of people that died of accidental overdoses directly or indirectly from this misuse of science is easily six figures, possibly seven, particularly since people are still dying. Of course in addition to the misuse of science there was the over reliance on science. I assume that on some level the pharmaceutical companies knew that they were not being scientific, but countless doctors, who were either naive or blinded by the gifts provided by the pharmaceutical company chose to at least to pretend that they were doing what they were doing because science backed them up.

I mentioned that one of the other factors was a morality devoid of any underpinning in religion or tradition. I’m not going to say that any religion specifically forbids overprescription of opiates, but most of them have some broad caution about drugs in general. And even if you want to set religion aside there is a strong traditional distaste for opium. And here is where the limits of science are most stark.

Frequently, people use science to declare any belief or practice or tradition or religion which is insufficiently scientific (which of course includes all religions, most traditions, and a majority of practices and beliefs over a few decades old) as nothing more than baseless superstitions. And while it was not labeled as such this is precisely what happened with opiates. All religions I’m aware of recognize that a certain amount of suffering is part of existence, but in 1980, doctors more or less decided it wasn’t. Sure they couched in the language of science with lots of caveats, but this is precisely the problem. The science turned out to be wrong and the caveats turned out to be insufficient barriers to abuse and somewhere north of 100,000 people died.

As I have repeatedly said, I’m not anti-science, but science without tradition, without morality, and without religion is prone to huge abuses. This blog will attempt to unite religion and science, but in doing so, religion is always going to hold primacy over science. And it’s not even necessarily because religion is backed by divine infallibility. Forget about that. Set that aside. While, I certainly believe that that’s the case, in these circumstances it doesn’t matter. The problem with science is that it hasn’t been around very long, and it assumes a sterile, rational world which bears no resemblance to the world we actually live in. Setting aside whether God exists, religion and tradition has been tested in the crucible of history. And have provided insights, particularly in the realm of morality that people ignore at their peril. Which will be the subject of my next blog post.