Category: <span>Science</span>

Justice, Mercy, Data, Evidence, BLM and QAnon

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

Or download the MP3


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.